What’s In It?

Every morning, I get up bright and early, stumble downstairs, and brew myself a fresh pot of coffee.  I then liberally coat the bottom of a coffee cup with powdery Coffeemate, so when I pour the coffee it automatically mixes with the Coffeemate and produces a hot, steaming concoction of caramel-colored goodness.  It tastes pretty good, too.

img_6278Coffee with Coffeemate in the morning is a matter of standard routine.  But today I thought — what’s in this powdery stuff, exactly?

The answer is written on the side of the container.  There’s corn syrup solids, hydrogenated vegetable oil (which, according to the label, might include “coconut and/or palm kernel and/or soybean,” just to keep you guessing), sodium caseinate (which the label helpfully discloses is a “milk derivative”), dipotassium phosphate (but fortunately, the label points out, “less than 2%” of that stuff), mono- and diglycerides, sodium aluminosilicate, artificial flavor, and “annatto color.”

Hmmmm . . . “sodium aluminosilicate”?  I suppose I at least should be happy that there is a “milk derivative,” and “corn syrup” and “vegetable oil” in there among the chemical compounds that Walter White probably lectured on in his high school chemistry class.

Is there value in these kinds of product labels?  I think so, especially if you’ve got allergies to certain foodstuffs and want to find out whether a particular product might provoke a reaction.  But labels that list a bunch of chemical compounds — a group which includes virtually every label these days — aren’t especially illuminating.  I’m not going to research “dipotassium phosphate.”  Instead, people tend to make judgments based on products they know.  Mom had Coffeemate, in both its liquid and powdery forms, around the house in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and I doubt that the formula has changed much over the years, so it seems like a safe option to me.

And that dipotassium phosphate and sodium aluminosilicate really hits the spot!


The Suicide Cascade

The recent deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade have focused attention on a growing health problem in the United States:  suicide.  If it seems like suicide has become more commonplace in recent years, that’s because that is exactly what has happened.

anthony-bourdain-dead-6Coincidentally, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report last week that sketched out some statistics on suicide in America — which are deeply disturbing.  The CDC report states that suicide has been steadily increasing for more than a decade and is now the tenth leading cause of death in the United States.  The CDC looked at data from individual states from 1999 to 2016 and found that suicide rates have increased in virtually every state.  In half of the states, the rate has increased by a mind-boggling 30 percent.

The CDC report found that, in 2016, almost 45,000 Americans died by suicide, with especially sharp increases in suicide rates in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, North and South Dakota, Kansas, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Vermont, New Hampshire and South Carolina.  The statistics also show that women are beginning to close the historical suicide “gender gap,” in which men have been far more likely to take their own lives; suicide rates among American women also have surged.

What causes a person to commit suicide?  Why would someone as interesting and witty and evidently successful as Anthony Bourdain, for example, decide to take their own life?  The CDC report found that more than half of the people who committed suicide did not have a diagnosed mental health condition.  Another recent study, on suicide trends in 27 states, also determined that suicide is more than a mental health issue, with many of the people acting as a result of relationship problems or loss of a loved one, substance misuse, physical health problems, or other personal or financial strains.

And suicide also seems to have a nefarious cascade effect, in which each suicide makes the next one more likely.  It’s apparently due to a variation of the “broken windows” effect, in which learning of someone’s suicide gives struggling people who otherwise might not think of it the idea that suicide is a viable option.  The effect has produced well-known instances of “suicide clusters” in towns or schools, in America and elsewhere — which may mean that we should hold our breath and hope that highly publicized suicides, like those of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, don’t trigger an even greater epidemic of self-inflicted harm.

We all need to keep our eyes open, pay attention to our friends and colleagues who are struggling, and try to help them understand that their lives are worth living, even in times of great difficulty.

Linking Glasses And Brainpower

Scientists have taken a careful look at one of the most important issues of our time and have found that there is, in fact, a link between innate brainpower and wearing glasses.  The findings warm the hearts the bespectacled among us — including, no doubt, many of the very scientists who conducted the study in the first place.

copilot-style-201506-1434641377474_lebron-james-01In research conducted by the University of Edinburgh, more than 40,000 people took a variety of tests that provided a general cognitive ability score, and also allowed their genetic data to be examined.  Researchers then probed the genetic data — including looking at more than 100 genomic regions that are associated with enhanced cognition — and found a correlation between intelligence and poor eyesight, with the smarter participants being, on average, 30 percent more likely to need reading glasses than those who scored poorly on the cognition tests.

And because the study involved actual cognition test data, the results shouldn’t be influenced by the “glasses effect” — namely, the general societal perception that those who wear glasses must be smarter because glasses are thought to make you look smarter.  Indeed, the lead researcher said the study “has identified many genetic differences that contribute to the heritability of thinking skills.”  So in addition to passing along the dreaded nearsighted genes, we glasses-wearers may also be passing along better thinking capabilities, too.

It all makes me want to square my shoulders, adjust my glasses, and — for today at least — proudly bear the name “four eyes.”

Pear Scare

I admit that when spring-time comes — if it ever comes, that is — I’m a sucker for flowering trees.  In this part of the country, that most likely means pear trees, bursting with delicate white flowers.  In many suburban neighborhoods, landscapers have long been planting Bradford pear trees as ornamental touches, almost as a matter of course.

But is planting so many pear trees a good idea?

29906170001_5341939690001_5155595095001-vsThis guy is one of an increasing number of people who argue that it isn’t a good idea, and we’ve got to stop.  He notes that while pear trees are very tempting when you’re trying to turn what used to be a farm field into something that looks more like an attractive neighborhood — because they grow incredibly quickly, and flower besides — they aren’t a viable long-term solutions for any yard.  Bradford pears have one of the weakest branch structures of any tree, with a trunk that splits into a V, besides.  The trees grow like Topsy, to be sure, but ultimately a strong storm will come along and the trees will break apart.  That’s exactly what happened to the pear trees in our old house in New Albany.  We were just lucky that the limbs crashed into the yard, rather than knocking down part of the house.

But apparently there’s more to it than just having to cut down a split tree and figure out what to do with the stump.  Bradford pears were supposed to be sterile, but they actually aren’t.  They’ve cross-pollinated with other varieties of pear trees, apparently causing a proliferation of pears in some neighborhoods — and, in so doing, they are crowding out other, native trees that might not have those fine blossoms, but are sturdier are more suited to the environment.  Even worse, some of the pears being produced as a result of the cross-pollination are thorny monstrosities that are almost impossible to get rid of. That’s why Ohio has put Bradford pears on the list of invasive species that can’t be sold in the Buckeye State.

So if you’re going to do some landscaping, consider whether you really want to plant that Bradford pear, or for that matter any ornamental pear tree.  It turns out that those white flowers come at too high a price.

Ancient Tats

I’ve written before about the increasing number of tattoos you see these days — with reports estimating that about one-third of Americans are sporting ink — and what a cultural change it represents from the United States of my youth. (Arrows and infinity signs are popular these days, by the way.)

It turns out, though, that the current craze for “body art” has a very ancient lineage — and its known history has just gotten even older.

telemmglpict000155855176_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqmkujzfylr8qfmlqp7nvuva3q8tt5y4yc6db7uimlx80Researchers recently determined that two Egyptian mummies in the British Museum have tattoos.  The mummies are 5,000 years old and date back to pre-dynastic Egypt, which pushes the date of the earliest known use of figurative body art, rather than geometric patterns, back by an additional 1,000 years.  One of the mummies is a woman who has a series of four “s” shapes — perhaps coiled snakes? — inked on her shoulder, which may have been symbols of status, bravery, and magical knowledge.  The other mummy is a man who has depictions of a wild bull and a sheep on his upper arm.  The bull figure was supposed to denote power and virility, but it apparently didn’t help the male mummy, who died of a stab wound to the back when he was between 18 and 21 years old.

The markings were made using a technique that would be considered incredibly crude by modern standards.  The British Museum thinks the tattoos were produced using soot as the coloring agent and needles of copper or bone to insert the soot under the skin.

There’s no way to know, of course, whether figurative tattoos have an even more ancient history, because we don’t have preserved bodies going back 10,000 years.  The discoveries of cave paintings made by the earliest human ancestors, however, suggests to me that the creation of figurative art is instinctive and has played a key role in human development.  It just makes sense that the cave painters would also have experimented with decorating an actual body or two.  I’d bet that if you invented a time machine and went back to check out the humans of 10,000 or 15,000 years ago, you’d see your fair share of ink.


Avoiding An “Airplane Cold”

If you travel much, you’ve probably encountered the scenario where you’re seated next to somebody who is obviously sick.  They’re sneezing like crazy, constantly blowing their noses, or coughing like they’re about to eject lung tissue, or you’re sitting there, acutely conscious that you are in an airborne metal tube where the air is recirculated and every tiny droplet ejected by Typhoid Mary is ultimately coming your way.  And you wonder:  will I leave this flight with an “airplane cold”?

1-101A recent study conducted by Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology tried to scientifically analyze the chances of catching an “airplane cold.”  The researchers on the study took transcontinental flights, tested the air and surfaces in the cabin for strains of cold and flu viruses, and carefully tracked the movements of passengers and flight attendants during the flights.  Although the data compiled during the study is limited, and the researchers did not find as many coughing or sneezing people aboard as they had expected — lucky them! — they reached two key conclusions.

First, there is a clear risk of catching a cold from a sick fellow passenger, but the zone of contagion is effectively limited to the people sitting next to the sick passenger or in the adjacent rows to the front and rear.  Those unlucky folks have an 80 percent, or greater, chance of becoming infected, whereas the probability of infection for the rest of the cabin is less than three percent.  And second, if you want to improve your chances of avoiding infection — understanding that you can’t control the identity or wellness of the random stranger who might be seated in your zone of contagion — book a window seat and don’t move during the flight.  By sitting in a window seat, you’re eliminating one of the seats next to you, and by staying put you’re reducing your movement through other contagion zones in the aircraft cabin.

I’m a bit skeptical of strategies to reduce the chance of an “airplane cold,” because so much of airplane travel is pure random chance and you’ve just got to grin and bear it.  I do think the study’s conclusions about the movement patterns of passengers, however, are quite interesting.  The study found that 38 percent of passengers never left their seat, 38 percent left once, 13 percent left twice, and 11 percent left more than twice.  Really?  Eleven percent of passengers left their seats more than twice?  Don’t pea-sized bladder people know you should go to the bathroom before you board the plane?

And by the way:  why do those 11 percenters always seem to be in my row when I’ve got an aisle seat?

3 Reasons Why Clickbait Headlines Use Numbers

You can’t go on the internet without stumbling into “clickbait” — those annoying yet tantalizing articles that you aren’t looking for, but that are designed to entice you to click on a link and see, for example, how “unrecognizable” some ’80s TV star is now.

If you pay attention to clickbait (and of course you shouldn’t, but you can’t really help it, now can you?) you notice that there are definite patterns to it. The headlines for many of the clickbait pieces advertise something that is supposedly “shocking” or “jaw-dropping,” but a lot of them — say, 50 percent — also feature numbers.  As in “6 reasons why your retirement planning is doomed” or “7 signs revealing that your boss actually hates your guts.”  Today’s MSN website page, from which the above photo is taken, includes a bunch of sports-related clickbait, and numbers are prominent.

Obviously, the clickbait brigade thinks numbers are likely to lead to clicks.  Why?

The article “Why We Respond Emotionally to Numbers: 7 Ways to Use the Power of Numbers in Your Designs” — which itself has a clickbait-like title — argues that humans respond viscerally and subconsciously to numbers.  Even numbers, for example, are supposed to reflect feminine qualifies, while odd numbers are purportedly masculine.  Numbers also are associated with luck and with religion.  More basically, many games, especially those where you gamble, involve numbers.  Obviously, numbers must have a deep intuitive appeal for homo sapiens, even those who didn’t like math class.

In the case of clickbait, though, I think it is more than that.  People on the internet are typically in a hurry, and clickbait by definition is something that you’re not actually trying to find.  Numbers in the headlines signal clear limits on the amount of time you’re going to need to spend to check out that provocative clickbait.  Typically the number in the headline is below 10, encouraging you to think that even if the article is a colossal waste of time, at least you’ll figure that out quickly.  The fact that there are only 5 reasons to believe that the cast of Hogan’s Heroes was cursed might just tip the balance and cause you to move that mouse and cursor and click away.