How the perception of obesity has changed

This is Chauncy Morlan, and around 100 years ago his obesity was so shocking that people would pay money to see him as he toured the country as a circus “fat man”. I find the unremarkableness of his size to be a telling sign of how we’ve pushed the limits of obesity in the past 100 years.

I don’t think one needs to say more. The guy is overweight, but sadly you see people like him regularly on TV or in the flesh these days.

Here’s the link to the picture.

No brainer

I wouldn’t have thought you need to have a degree from the LSE to realise that the most effective way to reduce global CO2 emissions is to reduce the population. However that is what they have just stated in a new report (Fewer Emitters, Lower Emissions, Less Cost):

It’s always been obvious that total emissions depend on the number of emitters as well as their individual emissions – the carbon tonnage can’t shoot down as we want, while the population keeps shooting up.

This is the first time I can recall seeing someone “in authority” state what is blindingly obvious. According to the report, 40% of all pregnancies are unintended and every $7 spent on family planning over the next four decades would reduce global CO2 emissions by more than a ton, where a minimum of $32 would have to be spent on low-carbon technologies to achieve the same result.

Now let’s see the western governments finally take some sensible action on global warming for a change and ramp up aid programs for contraception and family planning in the countries with rapid population growth.

How to keep young

I must admit I hate exercise. Apart from cycling, perhaps. We have cycled from Munich to the Czech border and back in two weeks a few years ago. But where we live now is at the top of a 12 km long uphill climb of about 500 meters and when we first moved here, we soon realized that a bike ride that ends with a long haul up a steep hill just isn’t fun, so we don’t actually go for many rides these days either.

However, this article in today’s Independent makes me think I should follow my sister’s example (she joined a sports club and works out pretty well every day, with a personal trainer). Here a sample from the article:

“Challenging exercise is the closest thing to an anti-ageing pill for everyone, not just for athletes and health nuts,” say the celebrity trainers Tim Bean and Anne Lang, authors of Turn Back Your Age Clock (Hamlyn, £12.99), to be published this month.

The emphasis here is on “challenging” – a stroll in the park won’t do. You have to work your muscles to the limit, exercising harder and faster to make your body perspire and your heart race, within an aerobic training zone that’s between 60 and 80 per cent of your maximum heart rate (your age subtracted from 220)…

Aggh… sounds quite unpleasant. But unfortunately most things that are good for you are.

They suggest four ways to exercise – jogging, power walking, skipping and bicycling. The first two are definitely out as long as the temperature here remains at -10°C and lower. This morning we had between -11° and -13° depending on which thermometer you chose to believe. But skipping might be a way to get started and at a comfortable temperature, indoors.

Risky – eating bread in Naples

The Guardian reports that the mafia has started selling cheap bread in Naples, attracting lots of customers, but the local authorities warn that the bread could cause cancer and that it is not so easy to identify. Originally, it was sold from car boots, but now they are also supplying shops, making it difficult to know if you are buying contaminated bread or not:

…Open 24 hours a day, the street sellers are drawing shoppers with cheap, crusty bread fresh from wood-burning ovens, the way Neapolitans like it. But police say Naples’ new breed of bakers are slowly poisoning their customers by burning old varnished wood, nut shells covered in pesticides and even planks pulled from exhumed coffins. ‘Whoever buys this bread is eating dioxins and carcinogenic substances and putting their health at serious risk,’ said Francesco Borrelli, assessor for agriculture for the province of Naples.

Borrelli’s investigation into the underground bakeries prompted raids by Carabinieri police who found dough being mixed by illegal immigrant labour in filthy, humid and mould-streaked cellars, some perilously close to burning piles of toxic waste dumped in fields around Naples by the Camorra, which was linked earlier this year to suspected tainting of local mozzarella…

A smoker’s “victory” in Germany?

I don’t like sitting in a smoky restaurant or pub and intensely dislike having smoking in my house. So you might think I’d be upset at the “smoker’s victory” being reported by the local and international press. The constitutional court has ruled that the law in some German states, prohibiting smoking in one-room establishments, is illegal. This is seen as a victory for smokers. Wrong. The court has posed restrictions on when smoking will be allowed in the bars in the interim period, and has given the government less than two years to get their act together and publish a workable law.

The problem with the existing law is that small bars and restaurants are disadvantaged compared to larger establishments which can set aside a separate “smoker’s room” so long as they also have a non-smoking part too. So the little guys have been loosing business to the bigger places.

The court has explicitly said that a complete ban on smoking is fine – it protects people’s health and is in line with EU law.

I’m optimistic that after the next national election in 2009, a blanket ban will be passed – it’s the only way the government can conform with EU law and the court ruling. It’ll be have to be some of the fastest legislation ever passed here, however – the court has set a deadline for the end of 2009 and the election is likely to be held in September 2009. The government is unlikely to push new legislation through before the election because we have one of the highest proportions of smokers in Germany (34%) of any country in the EU (and because anti-smoking campaigns are associated historically with the Nazi movement), and there is a strong smoking-lobby in Germany.

Is our food supply collapsing?

The New Yorker asks if the world’s food system is collapsing, and looks at how modern agriculture has defied the predictions of Thomas Malthus in his book “Essay on the Principle of Population” written in 1798.

The picture is not pretty:

American consumers demand huge amounts of cheese and meat. One consequence is the giant “poop lagoons” of Northern California. In traditional forms of mixed agriculture, animal manure is not a waste product but a valuable fertilizer. By contrast, the mainstream food economy is now dominated by monocultures in which crops and animals are kept apart. This system of farming has little use for poop, despite churning it out in ever-increasing volumes. The San Joaquin Valley has air quality as poor as Los Angeles, the result of twenty-seven million tons of manure produced every year by California’s cows. “And cows are relatively benign crappers,” Roberts points out; hogs — mass-produced to meet the demand for bacon on everything — are more prolific. On June 21, 1995, Roberts tells us, a hog lagoon burst into a river in North Carolina, destroying aquatic life for seventeen miles…

…much of the apparent abundance of choice available to the affluent Western consumer is an illusion. You may spend hours in the supermarket, keenly scrutinizing the labels, but, when it comes down to it, most of what you eat is derived from the high-yield, low-maintenance crops that the food industry prefers to grow, and sells to you in myriad foodish forms.

The article is appeal to push back on the industrial food producers who provide us with flabby mass-produced chicken (the average American eats 87 pounds of chicken a year – twice the figure for the 1980’s) and convenience meals packed with soya extract, and eat food which comes from lower down the food chain – more vegetables, rather than meat; more sardines and herring, rather than salmon; less produce from the large mono-culture food factories. We’d be healthier, and there would be less people in the third world starving.

Reconstructing extinct viruses

Researchers today are capable of building their own viruses:

Thanks to steady advances in computing power and DNA technology, a talented undergraduate with a decent laptop and access to any university biology lab can assemble a virus with ease. Five years ago, as if to prove that point, researchers from the State University of New York at Stony Brook built a polio virus, using widely available information and DNA they bought through the mail. To test their polio recipe, they injected the virus into mice. The animals first became paralyzed and then died… …Then, two years ago, after researchers had sequenced the genetic code of the 1918 flu virus, federal scientists reconstructed it, too.

In fact, it is possible to reconstruct viruses which have been extinct for millions of years (perhaps Jurassic Park wasn’t so far fetched?). This is exactly what is now happening, in a bid to find an effective AIDS vaccine. Pan troglodytes endogenous retrovirus (PtERV) – a virus related to H.I.V. has been extinct for millions of years, but researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center have resurrected it as part of a program to try and find out why humans 4 million years ago were apparently completely resistant to PtERV although chimps and gorillas were susceptible to the virus. On the other hand, today humans are susceptible to H.I.V., but the apes aren’t affected by it, although they carry the infection. There’s an 8 page article in the current New Yorker about virus research, which describes the research. – interesting reading, but it does make you wonder whether we aren’t increasingly likely to make ourselves extinct when the inevitable mistake is made in a research lab.

A “super cold” bug emerges in the USA

Looking back on this summer, I’d say that at least one person in the office has been suffering from a heavy cold at any moment in time. At least they don’t seem to have caught the mutation which has been discovered in the USA:

A mutated version of an adenovirus, a common family of viruses that normally causes simple colds, has caused severe respiratory illness in patients of all ages, including healthy young adults, U.S. health officials announced Thursday. The new and virulent strain of adenovirus serotype 14 (Ad14) killed 10 people in parts of the United States earlier this year and put dozens into hospitals, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported…

How we lost a chance to eradicate malaria

Did we throw away the best weapon against malaria in the mid-1960’s? The New Scientist has an article on how, having nearly eradicated malaria betweeb 1958 and 1963, funds for the eradication were stopped one year earlier than would have been necessary to finish the job. Malaria today kills nearly as many people each year as Aids – around 2 million. The problem was that small amounts of DDT were used to spray house walls to repel and kill mosquitos. In 1962 Silent Spring was published by Rachel Carson, arguing that DDT should be banned because of the danger to wildlife if it was sprayed in large quantities on fields. As a result, the use of DDT was banned worldwide and malaria has come back in nearly all those areas where it had been eradicated. In 2006 the WHO made a U-turn and approved the use DDT again; incidence of malaria has started falling in those countries which have resumed spraying inside homes:

It seems millions of lives have been lost because health experts threw away their best weapon. Are environmentalists to blame? There is no doubt that DDT was misused as an agricultural pesticide and seriously damaged wildlife. In that sense Carson was right. But regulators did not recognise that spraying indoors was different. And an environmental outcry against DDT helped to ensure that the early fears about its effect on human health became entrenched dogma long after they had been proved unfounded.