Monthly Archives: March 2014

Review: Missing Microbes

Helicobacter pylori from WiliMedia Commons

Helicobacter pylori from WiliMedia Commons

Every now and then when I finish a book I have to sit back and take a long breath and reflect. Martin J. Blaser’s Missing microbes : how the overuse of antibiotics is fueling our modern plagues is one of those books. I requested it from’s Early Reviewer program as soon as I saw it offered. For the last few years I have been studying the last 200+ years in medical history. Germ theory has existed for only a little more than half of that time. I was interested in what Dr. Blaser considered missing microbes. I had also heard a story on NPR a few months ago that stuck in my head because of its ingenuity and grossness. Some people with severe digestive disorders have been treated with a , uh, well they have the gut bacteria from a healthy donor transported into their gut. It works, their symptoms clear up.

Blaser points out that all life started out microbial and slowly formed colonies that specialized into multicellular life, into more and more complex forms of life and that all that time the multicellular life co-existed with single cell life forms. Some of them are dangerous. If Vibrio cholerae takes up residence in your gut it produces a chemical that mimics one your body naturally uses to signal the intestinal walls to move water out of the body. Cholera caused such severe diarrhea, moving water out of the body into the gut, that it could kill a health person in less than a day. Luckily most of the microbes in and on our bodies are harmless or even helpful. At least one digests food we are unable to use into forms that we can use. How many microbes are there that provide us with benefits that we don’t know about?

The star of the book is Helicobacter pylori, a spiral shaped bacteria first discovered in the early days of germ theory and quickly forgotten about. It was found in everyone’s stomach and it was impossible to grow in the lab with the existing technology. Many years later it was rediscovered in the stomachs of some people and it was blamed for very bad things ranging from ulcers to stomach cancer. How did it go from being in everyone’s stomach in the late 19th century to only some stomachs in the mid to late 20th century? Wide spectrum antibiotics.

The book makes a very good case for the theory that our overuse of antibiotics, over prescribing and using in animal feed, is not only creating Multi Drug Resistant, MRD, bugs but it is killing off potentially helpful bacteria that has co-existed with human beings for ages. After demonstrating a correlation between acid reflux disease, which can progress into nasty throat cancer, and the lack of H. pylori Blaser asks if the modern rise in allergies, asthma, autism, obesity,* and type 1 diabetes are the result of a missing beneficial bacteria.
In my opinion in a hundred years this book will be considered a major turning point in medical science. I don’t know how the medical establishment will look at it today. There is so much money wrapped up in the status quo that any change, even for the better, will be resisted. I have never been a fan of hand sanitizer and after reading this I will question my doctor about the necessity of any antibiotics he offers me. You need to read this book.

* low dose antibiotics have been given to farm animals for over 50 years to speed their growth, antibiotics are undoubtedly one factor in the obesity problem.

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An open letter to all the politicains sending me emails

Dear (insert politicians name here),

Thank you for the opportunity to win a chance to meet you. But, um, please remember you are not a rock star or a Hollywood star. I send you money to get you elected so you can work for my interests, not because I have any desire to meet you or hang out with you. Do your job by representing my interests and I will continue to support you with the money I can spare and with my vote. Please remember that I live near Main Street not Wall Street. I don’t mind if you help them as long as you are not harming me at the same time.

So, again, I am not interested in meeting you. If you simply represent my interests we are good and I will be happy to vote for you and support you with what resources I can.

Just to remind you, in case you have forgotten what my interests are, or never paid attention, I will give you a quick rundown.

1. Have jobs available that allow me to support my family without having to resort to charity or government programs. Remember those 1950s television families where one parent was able to stay home with the kids? Aim for that.

2. I want my family and friends free to walk down the street, go shopping, go to a movie, knock on a door without being shot.

3. If they are shot I want their assailant prosecuted, not allowed to walk free thanks to some magic get out of jail free phrase like “I felt threatened”

4. I don’t want to have to worry about loosing my job and my home because some greedy banker found a new way to loot the economy. Providing for national security means protecting us from internal threats as well as external ones.

5. I don’t want to loose my home because of medical bills. Sure the ACA will hurt a lot of bankruptcy lawyers, I don’t care. Improve it but don’t try to kill it.

6. Members of my extended family have, do, and will serve in the military. If you send them into harms way make damn sure it is worth their lives and the lives of the people they will need to kill.

7. Don’t waste my money but don’t let the nation fall apart from neglect. If there is a large enough need for a road or a bridge to justify the expense then build it and maintain it. Always use sealed bids, always require a performance bond. The same applies to the military. If the need is real buy it and maintain it but we don’t need to have a military bigger than the entire rest of the world. If we don’t have anyone standing with us we are doing something terribly wrong.

8. Put the blindfold back on justice. Laws should not have different consequences based on the color of someones skin or the size of their bank accounts.

9. I have no problem with means testing benefits as long as taxes are also means tested. No one should have to miss a meal to pay their taxes.

10. Just because “it is good for GM” (or any other corporation) does not mean it is good for America. Be skeptical of every back slapping good old boy (or girl) that tries to give you advice, ask what is in it for them. Vote for what is best for the lives of your constituents.

Work towards my priorities and I will vote for you and support you as I can. Don’t worry about upsetting any special interest. We the people are the only ones that get to decide if you keep your job. Don’t worry about losing a big donor, do what is right for us. After all there will always be other special interests willing to throw money at you.

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Review: Summer for the Gods

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, 1925When I started reading “Summer for the gods: the Scopes trial and America’s continuing debate over science and religion” I thought that I knew something about the Scopes trial. As the author points out, most Americans feel that way. Edward J Larson, the author, is a professor at Pepperdine University. He has both a PhD in history and a law degree which should make him very qualified to write this book. For me the most important part of of the book was the “before” and “after” sections, the actual events of the trial turn out to be less surprising, and less important, than why it happened and what the results were.

The events prior to the trial was most surprising to me. Religious fundamentalists writing for social justice? That surprised me even considering that the society they wanted justice for was lily white and strictly Christian. Evolution was, by the 1920s, a settled issue with most churches. The modern leaning churches accepting science and the pentecostal churches, those that came into being during the First Great Awakening when Europeans and Africans worshiped together as bondsmen to the wealthy English planters, rejecting science as an evil influence that would destroy morality. Outlawing the teaching of evolution was a dead idea until William Jennings Bryan began to advocate for it. As an experienced politician he was quickly successful in attracting conservative fundamentalists to the cause.

The trial was instigated by the American Civil Liberties Union in an attempt to protect teachers freedom of speech and freedom from government sponsored religious influence in the classroom. Unfortunately they soon lost control of the trial when Bryan and Clarence Darrow, two of the era’s biggest headline makers, were recruited to argue the case. The prosecution and the ACLU wanted to focus on the law itself, Bryan and Darrow both wanted religion introduced into their arguments. As we all know Bryan and Darrow prevailed.
Scopes was convicted, giving the ACLU a chance to appeal to the state supreme court. This was partially botched by a local attorney who had latched on to the trial as a chance redeem his reputation. Since the appeal was on a very limited point the ACLU expected to lose in Tennessee State Supreme Court and was planning strategy for an appeal to the US Supreme Court when Tennessee pulled the rug out from under them by overturning the conviction on a point they had not been asked to look at. With no conviction there was nothing to appeal effectively ending the legal battle.

After the trial both sides felt they had won. The anti-evolution forces managed to get laws passed in more states, southern and western states but failed in the north and midwest. The ACLU was unable to recruit any teachers to serve as another test case. But when the anti-evolution forces stopped trying to pass laws outside their areas it appeared to many that the fundamentalists had accepted defeat. As we know from current events they only turned inward to regroup. Bryan’s legacy suffered from his association with the trial. To his liberal friends it appeared that he had suffered from bad judgement in his later years and deserted them. To the anti-evolutionists he went from a hero leading their cause to a traitor for his testimony that perhaps Genesis described eras not 24 hour days.

Larson is a good writer, he is intelligent enough to dispense with polysyllabic words meant to impress rather than inform and he did the work to explain the era that colored the trial and how the trial colored the era that followed. His book provides a window to help us understand current events.

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Coursera’s Creative Problem Solving

Creativitymooc2On February 26th the Coursera class “Creative Problem Solving” opened. The lectures were sparse the first week, I assumed it was so we could quickly become involved in the weekly “Do Something Different” exercises. The first assignment looked interesting, eat something different or in a different way.

Now I have always been an adventurous eater. At one time I thought it would be a good idea to keep track of all the species I have tasted. I would search out odd vegetables to grow in my garden. Whenever my wife and I are out of town we look for ethnic restaurants to try. Currently I am on a Korean kick, bibimbap and kimchi are some of my favorites. I considered fasting, how different could eating get than fasting? But again, I tried it in my thirties and lasted just over three days. Besides, we are not supposed to do anything dangerous and I am much older, I would want to talk to my doctor before trying that again. Finally I went back to a paper I wrote a few years ago in a class on medical history. In it I argued that the reason workers on Caribbean slave plantations died faster than they reproduced was due to malnutrition. I learned that their typical meal consisted of boiled plantains. At the time I wondered what that was like, how did it taste, how quick would someone get tired of it? I decided to give it a try as my first DSD project.

That turned out to be fun but the second project was wear something different and the third was talk to someone different. I was a teenager in the 1970s, I have worn leisure suits, silk shirts with balloon sleeves and my wife claims I get dressed by flipping a coin, I have worked retail for almost 25 years. I might find something new to wear, but how on earth am I going to find someone new to talk to?

The lectures stayed short and, well shallow? The main topic was divergent and convergent thinking and “creativity” exercises. It took me a while to figure out my problem with the class. I am old. Not one foot in the grave old but not just out of high school, the age I now think the class is designed for.

I could be wrong but it seems that pushing young adults out of the good, obedient, worker drone mindset that American high schools are so good at producing, is the main goal of the class. I like the creativity drills, even though they are extremely simple, and some of the remaining projects might be interesting so I plan on sticking with the class but I can’t recommend it.

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