Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Chinese giant salamander

National Geographic photo.
I may not have much of an imagination, but I can imagine this crawling out of a swamp 160 million years ago. It is considered a living fossil, gets up to 5 feet long, and of course it is critically endangered. It happens to be a delicacy. Why am I not surprised?

Click the box below to see one in motion.
National Geographic has a 2003 story about finding the fossils of its ancestors.

I've been fascinated with "living fossils" ever since I was a kid (many many moons ago) and read about the 1938 discovery of the Coelacanth. I still act like a kid if I see one. I have squealed with delight and run over to gaze with reverent awe at pickled coelacanth specimens in Natural History Museums in both San Francisco and London.

More fascinating amphibian photos on the National Geographic website can be found here.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Cold "remedies" part II. Vitamin C

The other day my stepson asked me if we could get some vitamin C. I asked him if he thought he had scurvy. He said no, just a scratchy throat. I said we never buy it because IT DOESN'T WORK! He said that he had been taking it recently whenever he feels as though he's coming down with a cold, and then he hasn't gotten one so it must work. I told him "Well I have felt as though I was coming down with a cold numerous times over the last couple of months, DIDN'T take Vitamin C, and also DIDN'T come down with a cold (all true, by the way), so I can say with just as much validity that NOT taking Vitamin C caused me to not come down with a cold. He just looked skeptical.

Studies have proven that vitamin C does not prevent colds, but it may reduce the severity and duration, although if it does it is only by a tiny amount (e.g. 5.8 days without vitamin C and 5.5 with). Both severity and duration are subjective. It is easy to tell whether you have a cold, but when do you call it over? When you start to feel better? When your cough stops? When your nose stops running? What if you start to get better at night, and don't realize it until morning?

In 1983, Charles W. Marshall Ph.D., a biochemist, wrote a chapter for his book Vitamins and Minerals: Help or Harm? called Vitamin C: Do High Doses Prevent Colds? which he updated in 1992. A condensed version was published on Quackwatch.com in 2002. In it, he indicated several difficulties with studies of this type. The most interesting to me was the 1977 twin study where one twin got vitamin C and the other got a placebo. After the study, four of the 44 mothers admitted to tasting the capsules to try and determine which twin had what. How many other mothers did that but didn't admit it? Kind of messes up the double blindedness of the study.

In the experiments where test subject's noses or throats were inoculated with a cold virus (just want to interject--eeeeew), ALL the participants came down with colds, whether or not they were taking vitamin C.

In case you think that these data might be a little old, there have been more recent studies that came to the same conclusions.

Again, as Dr. Dean Edell says, people tend to think that the last thing they did caused what happened (or did not happen) next. However, sometimes you feel as though you're coming down with something and you're not.

Vitamin C works just as well as sticking a banana in your ear to keep the elephants away. No elephants here? Must be working! Or if you're Ernie and Bert it keeps the alligators away:

The ONLY thing vitamin C is really good for is treating vitamin C deficiency, aka scurvy. Washing your hands is still the best cold preventative out there, and if you do get sick, get plenty of rest and drink fluids. And don't waste your money on homeopathic crap like Airborne. At least Vitamin C is cheap.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Bill and I were listening to Paul McCartney and Wings Band on the Run in the car on the way home, and he said that he had read an article in the newspaper about Ringo Starr being scheduled to be on the Regis and "whoever the flavor of the week is." He was going to play a 4 minute song and they insisted that he had to cut it to 2.5 minutes. Ringo said he couldn't do that and when they insisted again, he just walked off the set. Bill's take was, "Well I should hope so! He's a fracking Beatle for goodness sake! Who does this Regis Philbin think he is?" Well, he didn't say fracking, but you get the drift. I totally agree.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Zebra vs. Quagga elucidation

Well, the highly invasive zebra mussels have finally made it to California. It was only a matter of time as Quagga mussels were found here back in February. The economic impacts of this will far outweigh the dreaded Mediterranean fruit fly (Ceratitis capitata). For one thing, Medflys only attack fruit crops. Zebra and quagga mussels attack water and eco-systems. Medflys are eradicable. Zebra and quagga mussels aren't.

California is a state whose economy is highly dependent on the extensive water system. Snowmelt is captured in giant reservoirs and distributed via rivers and giant aqueducts throughout the state. These mussels will clog the distribution plants and pumps and cause millions of dollars in damages, as they already have done in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River drainage. Here is a photo of a boat prop taken by David Britton of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
And a Budweiser can.

I don't even want to think about what they will do to the ecosystem. Zebra mussels are notorious for filtering out all the plankton (food for other species), as well as attaching to and potentially suffocating any aquatic creature with a hard surface. They have caused severe declines in native Unionid mussel populations, many of which are already on the brink. This is why: (UPDATE--No, this is NOT a shoe, as someone who shall remain nameless, but happens to be married to me thought. It is a larger native Unionid mussel covered in zebra mussels. Can you tell what species, Kia?)I found this photo on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website regarding the zebra mussel caused devastation to the native Unionid mussel species in Lake St. Claire.

The giant reservoirs have already caused declines in most of the anadromous fish species, and many are threatened with extinction, including Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tschawytscha), steelhead (O. mykiss), green sturgeon (Aciperser medirostris), and very likely river lamprey (Lampetra ayresii) by among other things blocking them from their historic breeding grounds. The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta ecology is collapsing due to intensive modification over the last 150 years, other invasive species including two other bivalve species (Corbula amurensis and Corbicula fluminea), pollution, and heavy water diversion. All the Delta pelagic fish species have recently suffered a precipitous step-decline - introduced species as well as native. Zebra mussels have the potential to finish off species like the Delta smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus) that are just barely holding on as it is.

When the quagga mussels were first discovered, I happened to be the only Environmental Scientist working with a group of engineers. I put together an e-mail for them, because I feel that enginerds need this occasionally (I know Kia has already seen it):

Your Biology lesson for the day


Equus sp.

Zebra mussel:

Dreissena polymorpha


Equus burchelli quagga - a sub-species of Burchell’s Zebra hunted to extinction in the late 1800’s. The last Quagga died in the Amsterdam Zoo in 1883.

Quagga mussel:

Dreissena bugensis
- a NON-extinct close relative of the zebra mussel

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Cold "remedies"

I had an argument with someone at work the other day. She and I were both just getting over colds. She was telling me how much this Airborne stuff works. I told her that there is absolutely no scientific evidence that it did diddly-squat. She told me that she didn't care. She thinks it works and that’s all that matters. I pointed out that both she AND her husband have colds at the moment, so...how exactly did it work? She said, "Oh, we must have taken it too late." Riiiiiight. Maybe you have colds because IT DOESN’T WORK!

Another coworker takes it because his wife makes him. His wife's logic (or lack thereof) is that she is a teacher and Airborne was created by a teacher so it must work. Riiiiiight. If these so-called cold remedies actually did something (significantly shorten or prevent the common cold, for instance) wouldn't doctors be singing their praises, and doling them out like candy? They would be handed out along with your flu shot. They would be given out in hospital emergency rooms.

ABC News did a story on Airborne in February of 2006.

According to the story, Airborne conducted its own clinical study that showed it was effective in preventing colds. ABC News learned that there were no scientists, no doctors, and no actual clinic involved in the study, and yet Airborne insists the results are valid.

The company removed all references to the study from its website and packaging, but not because of the bad publicity. "We found that it confused consumers," Elise Donahue, Airborne's CEO said. "Consumers are really not scientifically minded enough to be able to understand a clinical study." How nice of her. Translation: She thinks consumers are pretty stupid, but she’s looking out for us. The reality was that her one “study” that "showed it works" was done by a couple of local yokels, at least one of whom apparently lied about having a college degree. I think that consumers can easily understand FRAUD.

As Dr. Dean Edell always says, people believe that the last thing they did or took was was what made them better, but they were most likely just getting better anyway. The body will do that. If you want to reduce your chances of getting a cold, washing your hands frequently is far more effective, and not nearly as expensive.

Airborne contains among other things, Vitamin C, Echinacea, and zinc.
Next up: Vitamin C

Saturday, January 19, 2008


Our trip wasn't all fun-you-can-have-with-fondue. We actually did get in some skiing/boarding. It snowed steadily the first day, and intermittently the second, but that didn't stop us. We're not fair weather skiers. I finally remembered the camera on the third day, which actually happened to be partly sunny. We even saw some of the famous Colorado Rocky Mountains a couple of times. Sort of.

Proof that we were actually there. Can you tell it was COLD?Note how close together my skis are! When I'm not moving.

This is the view of my son that I had most of the time:
And then he would disappear in the distance. I would ski down and find him waiting for me. Can you tell it was COLD?
For lunch we stopped at The Last Lift Bar. His t-shirt says "Intelligunt Desine." Wonder what kind person got him that for Christmas? Is that a small furry animal attacking his chin? Yikes!

On our way down the mountain in the afternoon there was a photographer taking action shots:
Hmm. Maybe I should stop mugging for the camera and concentrate on my stance. That could be a photo of my son, or it could be a photo of any number of boarders on the mountain dressed exactly alike. Did I mention it was COLD?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Der Fondue Chessel

Well, my son and I made it back from our Colorado ski trip unscathed. We flew into Denver, rented a car, drove through the Rocky Mountains in the wind and snow for two hours, and arrived with just enough time to check into our condo and catch a gondola to another gondola to the top of the mountain for our dinner reservation at Der Fondue Chessel. Night gondola rides in the dead of winter are not as fun as you might think.

It was about 7 degrees Fahrenheit, and my son had only been wearing a heavy sweatshirt. Before we left the condo I asked him if he wanted to put on something warmer. So he put on a hat. Uh, huh. Luckily they gave us blankets for the gondola ride or I would have had to deal with a human popsicle.

While we ate, we were serenaded by Those Austrian Guys. I could tell they were really Austrian. The spoke just like our Governator, wore lederhosen, and sang Edelweiss.

There were only about 15 people in the restaurant, and at one point Those Guys got most of us up and doing The Chicken Dance (an Austrian tradition of which I was previously unaware (I thought it was Spanish)). Unfortunately, I accidentally left the camera on the table where my son could reach it.

I got him back, though.

We were were near Buffalo Bill's gravesite, so as a tribute we had buffalo for the raclette course. Along with shrimp, scallops and venison sausage. I refused to get him the lobster. Lobster on top of a mountain in Colorado. Lobster that would have had to have ridden on a plane from Maine, a truck from Denver, and TWO gondolas to get there. I didn't even ask the price.
Yes, that is chocolate fondue. Mmmmmmm.

Monday, January 7, 2008

My kind of god

My son and I are flying off to Denver, Colorado at the end of the week to do three days of serious skiing/snowboarding. Woo Hoo! My knees are beginning to hurt just thinking about it. The only out-of-the-Lake Tahoe-area skiing we've done was one day on a large ball of solid ice in southern Indiana. Southern Indiana? That is very close to Kentucky-ya'll know-one o' them southern states. What were we thinking?

We are going to Keystone, but I just found out that only a couple of mountains over, Breckenridge will just be finishing up the Ullr Festival. Darn! We're going to miss it. I've always had a soft spot for the Norse Gods. How can you not like them? Most (ok, four) of the days of the week are named after them. People have written operas about them (ok, one person, four operas--bad example if you don't like opera). And Ullr IS, of course, the Norse God of Snow! In the article, I like the way they had to specify that Ullr is a mythical god. Unlike any other gods that man has dreamt up.

Ullr Snow God Statue
Of course the Asgard were real. Haven't they ever watched Stargate SG-1?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Quiz-What kind of atheist am I?

What kind of atheist are you?
created with QuizFarm.com

Surprise! I'm 100% Scientific atheist. However, apparently I'm somewhat over halfway angry. Don't worry Mum, I'm only 33% militant--the 33% apathetic should cancel that out.

You scored as Scientific Atheist

These guys rule. I'm not one of them myself, although I play one online. They know the rules of debate, the Laws of Thermodynamics, and can explain evolution in fifty words or less. More concerned with how things ARE than how they should be, these are the people who will bring us into the future.

Scientific Atheist


Angry Atheist




Militant Atheist


Apathetic Atheist


Spiritual Atheist