something new every day


While I have greatly enjoyed this blog, my schedule (for the next few weeks at least) is going to be very busy and unpredictable. I’m taking a break. Hopefully, I’ll be back soon.

10:00 pm, by thegiraffery


10/5/11 (HIV and Birth Control Shot)


A birth control shot, popular in eastern and southern Africa, has been shown to double the risk of picking up HIV. The shot is convenient and effective, given once every three months and used by 12 million African women. It may, however, come with a sinister side effect. The shot also increases the risk that men will pick up HIV from their female partners if they are infected. The findings, if they hold up to scrutiny, spell trouble for public health officials in Africa, who must contend with both high HIV and pregnancy rates.


10/4/11 (Birkin)

This word does not mean some sort of Islamic clothing. Nor does it mean an awkward toupee. Those were among two of my guesses when I was trying to figure out what this odd word might define. None of my guesses were even close.

According to Wikipedia:


The Birkin bag is a handmade purse by Hermès and named after actress and singer Jane Birkin. The bag is a symbol of wealth due to its high price and elusiveness to the public.[1]

Its prices range from $9,000 to $150,000. Costs escalate according to the type of materials. The bags are distributed to Hermès boutiques on unpredictable schedules and in limited quantities, creating scarcity and, intended or unintended, exclusivity.



10/3/11 (Grapefruit and Medicine)

Dear Alice,

I heard somewhere that drinking grapefruit juice with vitamins and/or prescription medicine is harmful. Is this true?

Dear Reader,

Hard to believe that a healthy drink like grapefruit juice would be a potential problem, right? Unfortunately grapefruit juice interacts adversely with certain, but not most, medications. Researchers believe that compounds in grapefruit juice suppress an intestinal enzyme that processes medications by means of the cytochrome p450 system, one of our bodies’ detoxification processes. These compounds are not available, or are present in much lower amounts, in other citrus juices, such as orange juice.

So, what does this mean? When taken with grapefruit juice, the levels of these drugs become elevated up to as high as nine times their prescribed dosages in the bloodstream, increasing their potency and potential for harmful and even life-threatening side effects. Certain drugs prescribed for heart disease, blood pressure, and cholesterol, as well as some hormones, antihistamines, antibiotics, HIV medications, psychoactive drugs, and immunosuppressants, among other medication classes, cannot be taken for several hours before and several hours after drinking grapefruit juice, if at all. In addition to drinking commercially processed grapefruit juice, even eating grapefruit or drinking freshly-squeezed grapefruit juice may also interact with certain medications. Interestingly, intravenously administered medications appear to be unaffected by grapefruit juice.

As with any medications, it is important to talk with your health care provider and/or pharmacist about your prescription, over-the-counter, and herbal medications, their side effects, their contraindications (including whether or not grapefruit juice is safe to consume when using these drugs). If you are really into grapefruit, you may also need to discuss your history of consuming grapefruit and to see if the type or dosage of your medicine(s) needs to be adjusted accordingly. For those who would rather not avoid grapefruit juice, non-interacting drugs may be generally available as options.

- Source

9:57 pm, by thegiraffery
tagged: Medicine, Grapefruit, Science, Biology,


10/2/11 (Atlanta Traffic)

Atlanta has some of the worst traffic of any city. Even if you’re just trying to drive by on the expressway, and even though the expressways are eight lanes across in either direction in some places, you can still end up stuck for hours. Well, if you have to got through Atlanta, I found out today that early Sunday morning is the time to do it. Most people are sleeping or in church, so the roads are all clear.

8:32 pm, by thegiraffery
tagged: Atlanta, traffic, Driving, Real Life,


10/1/11 (Alpha-Gal)

Apparently a tick bite can get you more than lyme disease. Most lyme-disease-carrying ticks are deer ticks, but then there’s the lone star tick. These ticks are named for their one spot, and are found primarily in the southeastern and south-central U.S., but have been moving outwards. The CDC has reported that they do not carry lyme disease, but according to the University of Virginia’s head of the Division of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills, a bite from these ticks can sometimes provoke an allergy to a type of alpha-gal.

Alpha-Gal is a sugar found in all mammals, so what would an allergy to it mean? Those who suffer from it typically experience food allergy symptoms ranging from hives to anaphylactic shock several hours after consuming red meat (meaning beef, pork, lamb, or game, but not poultry or fish). Interestingly enough, alpha-gal is also in some cancer treatments, and the blood test developed to screen for this allergy was designed to confirm eligibility for the cancer treatment.


9/30/11 (Balding Eagles)

Bald eagle chicks grow to be larger than their parents in less than a year, but they don’t look like Mom and Dad. They look almost like Golden Eagles, covered from head to toe in a brown and white pattern that helps them blend in with the trees. It isn’t until they are about five years old that they get the white ‘bald’ head for which they are named. 


9/29/11 (Good/Well)

Here’s a question that’s puzzled me for years. Which is correct: “I feel good” or “I feel well?” I know James Brown’s opinion on the subject, but what about the English teachers of the world? Turns out, both are correct.

Adjectives like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are appropriate when talking about a state of being. (For instance, “I am happy.”) Adverbs, on the other hand, are used to describe an action. (“I speak quickly.”) What, then, comes of ‘feel?’ Is it a state of being or not? 

Feel is a bit of a tricky word and can be both. If you are using ‘feel’ to describe your emotional state, then it’s like a state of being and you should use an adjective like James Brown. I feel good! If you are using ‘feel’ to describe your health, then it’s like an action verb; use ‘well.’ 

If this is still confusing, consider what your opposite choice would be. ‘Good’ goes with ‘bad’ and ‘well’ goes with ‘ill.’

If the whole thing still confuses you, just opt for the third choice: “I feel fine.”


9/28/11 (Pineapple and Sourdough)

Making sourdough bread usually requires buying a starter of some kind, but it is possible to begin without one. Yeast spores and lactic-acid bacteria used to make sourdough so tangy are in the air already, it’s just a matter of giving the right ones the environment to thrive. One chemist, Debra Wink, discovered that pineapple juice, of all things, does just the trick. 

You can find her essay on it here. You can also find easy instructions and a video from Breadtopia here.


9/27/11 (On Tenterhooks)

Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘on tenterhooks’ meaning to be anxious or nervous, knotted up in suspense? It comes from an old way of cleaning wool. It used to be that when wool had been made into cloth, there was still some oil and dirt in it, so it was cleaned in a fulling mill and then had to dry. Only if the wool wasn’t stretched as it dried it would shrink. So, it was placed on a series of hooks — tenterhooks. The phrase implies that the speaker is stretched taught with nerves like the wool on the hooks. 

4:16 am, by thegiraffery
tagged: Wool, Tenterhooks, Vocabulary, Phrases,


9/26/11 (Toxoplasmosis Gondii)


My favorite example of animal parasitism

I’ve already written about two amazing parasite stories today, but I’ve saved the best for last. Toxoplasmosis gondii is a parasitic protozoan that can live inside any warm-blooded animal. However, in order to reproduce, they need to be digested by cats. They can then be passed onto other mammalian hosts, including humans, through cat feces.

What, you might ask, happens to a protzoan that finds itself in a non-feline host - say, inside of a rat? This is the amazing part. The parasite secretes the neurotransmitter dopamine inside of the rat, causing it to lose its fear of cats. Not only that, the infected rats become sexually attracted to cats. As you might expect, this is a particularly effective strategy for parasites that want to find their way back to cats.

I’m done editorializing. Mind blown.


9/25/11 (The Great Potato)

Ever wonder why Ireland became so dependent on the potato? It isn’t native to Europe at all. It’s a new-world plant, cultivated mostly in the Andes. When they were brought to England, they were very much frowned upon in favor of wheat. In Ireland, though, there wasn’t very much arable land, and what there was had been claimed by the English nobles. The people were starving. 

Unlike wheat, a potato is incredibly easy to grow. They only need ‘lazy beds’ — trenches filled with the potato sproutings, then covered again, leaving convenient drainage ditches afterwards — rather than plowed fields. They also did much better in the uneven, rocky soil of Ireland than wheat. Anybody could grow them, pretty much anywhere.

It also turned out that potatoes and milk provide a complete diet. Potatoes have carbohydrates as well as protein. They also have vitamins B and C; the potato effectively ended Scurvy in Europe. Aside from a few small amounts of other things, the missing ingredients were fat and vitamin A, easily gotten from a bit of milk. Suddenly, Irish peasants could feed themselves indefinitely.


9/24/11 (NewLeaf and Bt)

The Monsanto Corporation has developed a genetically modified potato called the NewLeaf™ that is registered with the EPA as a pesticide. That’s right, the potato is a pesticide. It is genetically modified to include a gene from a bacteria already occurring in the soil, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Bt has long been used by organic farmers, and is safe for humans. Any Potato Beetle, the bane of any potato farmer’s existence, which takes a bite of a NewLeaf™ is immediately poisoned.

One of the many questions that this new technology raises is what would happen if, as tends to happen with evolution, a Bt-resistant potato beetle came to be. To prevent this, any farmer licensed (these potatoes come with something eerily similar to an End User License Agreement) to grow NewLeaf™ potatoes must also leave a few non-Bt potatoes in the same field to give the potato beetles some refuge. The idea is that when the first Bt-resistent potato beetle comes to be, it will be likely to breed with a beetle that hasn’t developed the gene, thereby diluting the resistance. 


9/23/11 (Broken Tulips)

In the 17th Century, Holland experienced a frenzy unrivaled until, perhaps, the internet bubble of the 1990’s. I’m referring to Tulip Mania. The country was ridden with a huge economic bubble regarding tulips and, even more so, their futures. The most prized tulips were those which, unlike the common tulips we see today, weren’t of a solid color, but flared with a flame-like streak of a second color. These tulips, called ‘broken tulips’, were rare, and they produced fewer and smaller bulbs, which made them even more of a commodity.

The most highly prized tulip of all time was one of these, a long since extinct variety called the Semper Augustus. Just before the market crashed, one Semper Augustus bulb was listed at a price of 10,000 guilders — enough to buy a mansion on the most fashionable canal in Amsterdam or feed and clothe a Dutch family for half a lifetime.

What wasn’t known at the time was that the coloration of tulips actually comes from the genetic layering of a base of either white or yellow topped with another color. Broken tulips, it turned out, were caused by a mosaic virus which partially blocked the overlying color. This virus also weakened the flower, causing the smaller and reduced amount of bulbs. Since this discovery, tulip-growers are careful to eliminate any infected — and therefore broken — tulips. The reign of the Semper Augustus is over.


9/22/11 (Chirality)

There are some molecules that are almost identical, only they are mirror-images of each other. These molecules are called chiral, from the Greek word for ‘hand,’ as hands also come in identical mirror-image pairs. Some of the molecules are even distinguished with the prefixes R- and S-. The R is short for Rectus, Latin for right. The L is from the Latin word Sinister, meaning left. So, in a sense, there are ‘right-handed’ and ‘left-handed’ molecules.

These Right/Left differences can be surprising. Carvone is found in two common herbs, but one form gives its taste to Spearmint, the other to Caraway Seeds. In the 1950’s, Thalidomide was prescribed to many mothers. What they didn’t know was that while the right-handed isomer of Thalidomide was a harmless treatment for morning sickness, the left-handed isomer caused horrible birth defects.