Friday, August 29, 2008

Denver DNC

In case you have somehow managed to avoid T.V., internet, radio, or the water cooler in the last couple of days, the Democratic National Convention was held in Denver this week. The full media blitz descended upon our fair city, and we were invaded by delegations of people from all over the country. At the beginning of this week I wanted to do a post that went into the history of the convention and poke fun at both parties, especially the seriously effed up views and policies of the republicans and the magnanimous attitudes of the democrats. However, as I watched the convention progress I started to see something. All I expected to see was a laundry list of democratic big-hitting senators, members of congress, military generals, governors, community leaders, actors, musicians, authors, etc. espousing the democratic American dream and crying foul against the tenets of the republican view while waving plastic flags and engaging in the back patting, glad handing, baby holding B.S. that I hate about politics today. That is actually what I did see, but there was something else that I noticed over the course of the week that culminated in an awesome speech from Barack Obama. Something that gave me a glimmer of hope for the fall election. I noticed that the democratic party has become a united force. They have rolled up their sleeves and are ready for a fight, and they have a candidate that I believe in. I certainly hope that they are equal to the task, and I hope that the American people see that a change is necessary.

I hope I don’t have to convince anyone that things can’t continue the way that they have been going in the Rove years. I think I can sum up the last eight years in one word: aaaahhhhrrrrrrrrgggggghhh! It’s certainly easy enough to rip on GW (and it’s great fun), but the past administration has certainly been a dismal failure for this country and the world. There has been a long, long list of squandered opportunities and resources.

I will give you one obvious example without burning the Rove, Bush, Cheney machine in effigy. Look at the response to the events of September 11, 2001. We all know what the knee-jerk reaction was: “Great! Let’s bomb some brown people!” I felt the same way. People lined up by the millions to volunteer and offer to help in any way that they could. They donated funds and services. The nation was galvanized against a clear enemy. The response to that outpouring of civic duty and American pride was to engage in a show of force against a country that wasn’t even involved in the incident. We invaded Iraq and took so many of the people that volunteered, turned them into soldiers, and displaced them from their families and our economy. We’re still mired in that conflict today, spending over 10 billion dollars a month and driving our country further into debt. O.K, now imagine what could have happened if we had elected a leader with just a little bit of intelligence. Imagine if, instead of picking up the gauntlet that was thrown at our feet by the group that crashed those planes into the WTC, that we just kicked the gauntlet aside. Imagine if instead of a show of military force, we decided to react with a show of intelligence and ingenuity. Imagine a leader that had the nuts to say to a galvanized nation that instead of running off to war we will instead put all of our resources towards the goal of energy independence from the Middle East in ten years. Similar to the challenge that issued by JFK to reach the moon in the 60’s this could have been the start of a new era. All of the volunteers that became soldiers should have become scientists and engineers. All of the resources that went to the war should have gone towards research and scholarships. We should have built a National Center for Energy Independence on the site of ground zero. The force of our nation could have been applied to actually solve the problem and better the world rather than propagate a military invasion that has turned out to be a near total waste of resources. How far would we have been now, seven years later? I guarantee that we could have come up with a mass produced electric vehicle, gas to liquids plants, desalination facilities, clean coal, and renewable energy technologies with 10 billion dollars a month over ten years. Now, I’m not suggesting that a democratic president (Al Gore at the time) would have had the huevos to do that, but I don’t think that having a third term of Bush ideals is going to get us anywhere.

O.K., one more quick shot. Under the Clinton administration in the 90’s the nation underwent an unprecedented economic and social boom. We had the best economy the U.S. has seen in modern history. Wages went up, and unemployment dropped. More people owned homes than ever before in American history, and poverty was down. The stock market was up, and crime rates were the lowest in 40 years. Progress toward peace was being made in strife-torn areas like Ireland, the Balkans, and the Middle East which knew bitter conflict dating back decades, even centuries. Prosperity and respect. The Bush administration and the republican congress have negated every one of those positives, taken a huge national surplus and turned it into an insurmountable national debt. You don’t have to perform any partial differential equations to figure out that these are not good things.

It really is time for a change, and the democrats are at least wagging that dog. The republicans aren’t even pretending that things are going to be different (if you set aside the purely political nomination of a fresh-faced female governor from Alaska). If you don’t think that the dems are going to effect any change in Washington then look at it this way. A mere ten presidential elections ago Barack Obama, their candidate, wouldn’t have even been allowed into the building at the convention. The fact that their candidate is black is by definition change. And, as Obama said in his acceptance speech: “Change doesn’t come from Washington. Changes comes to Washington.” What’s more is that for the first time since I have been old enough to vote, there is actually a presidential candidate that I believe. I hope that the fire that was lit under the democrats at the DNC here in Denver will last until they reach Washington in November, because I’m beginning to lose what little faith I had in the public’s ability to think rationally and make educated decisions. Maybe I’m just getting old and grouchy, or maybe I actually care this time around. It's probably both, I think.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Soy Peligrosas

After my first article on toxins a friend of mine asked if I would write some articles about food and food products in order to clear up the murky waters of food politics today. I initially balked at the idea, because there is so much material, and I run the risk of sounding alarmist if all I do is bag on industrialized food. However, as I get older I’m finding out that many people just aren’t exposed to some of the facts that I have come across in my travels and research. So in the interest of public education (or just hearing myself talk) I thought that I’d give it a try. Alright then, let’s talk turkey…or Tofurkey to be exact. You know, that yummy white clump of tasteless fake food that hippies and trendy urbanites tend to eat straight out of the bucket (also known as tofu). Now before you fly off of the handle, let’s not pretend for one minute that any working-class farm boy has ever even tried tofu. You will never hear: “Heck, Maw! This is the best Tofurkey pot pie you ever made! Bettern’ Zeke’s Not-Dog casserole last week, ah reckin’. And, Paw, make my soy latte’ a decaf this mornin’. I almost sullied myself ‘fore I got to the back forty yesterday!” See what I’m saying? OK, so let’s just take a look at how soy has become the new miracle food and weather or not it is actually good for us.

Some individuals consume soy-based foods consciously in the form of soy milk, tofu, protein bars, soy cheese, soy nuts and literally hundreds of other products as an alternative to meat and dairy
products. Others consume soy-based additives and byproducts unknowingly. If you are not aware that you are consuming a large amount of soy byproducts, all you have to do is wander down any aisle in the grocery store, pick up a random box, and read the label. Somewhere around 60 percent of all of the processed food on the shelves contain soy in one form or another. This begs the question: if it’s in everything, how bad can it be? In fact, soy is one of the top allergens now partially because of its ubiquitous use in food. Labels are starting to have warnings that the product contains soy right next to the FDA label that says soy is good for you. COME ON!

Soy was originally used as a fallow crop in China due to its nitrogen fixing properties. It was known as green manure, and wasn’t consumed by humans until a couple of thousand years ago when a new type of fermentation process was developed. Why wasn’t it consumed by humans until then? Soybeans were considered poisonous due to the laundry list of adverse symptoms that followed their consumption. They shouldn’t be eaten unless they are industrially processed or fermented. Strike one for the old soy team. The new fermentation process made a soybean paste known as miso and a liquid that could be extracted which is commonly referred to as soy sauce. At around the time when A.D. turned to B.C. a crazy Chinese alchemist discovered that he could precipitate something from an intensely heated soybean puree when he loaded it up with magnesium chloride. How bored was this guy? This precipitate became known as tofu, and it still wasn’t regularly consumed except by monks in monasteries. Why monks, you ask? Turns out that soy has phytoestrogens that mimic the human female sex hormone estrogen. The monks ate it to lower their libido. Strike two! Interestingly enough, some Asian women would serve it to their husbands when they suspected them of fooling around. According to a recent Swiss article 100 grams of soy protein contains the estrogen equivalent of one birth control pill. Swung and a miss! Strike three, soy fans. Soy use and consumption pretty much stayed right there until around World War II when the industrial boom and the war forced the mandate that no resources be wasted. So, people began to look for ways to utilize the soy crop that was mostly unused. Scientists were asked to develop cheap meat substitutes and to find clever new ways to hide soy in familiar food products, which later turned into formulating soy-based pharmaceuticals, and developing a resource that could replace petroleum-based plastics and fuels. It's a billion dollar industry.
Speaking of industry, ever wonder how some of these soy foods are made nowadays? Well, first, defatted soybean meal is mixed with a caustic alkaline solution to remove the fiber. Then it is washed in an acid solution to precipitate out the protein. Acid washing in aluminum tanks leaches high levels of aluminum into the final product, and aluminum has been tagged as a contributor to Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, at least one study suggests a relationship between soy consumption and increased dementia in Alzheimer’s patients. The protein curds are then dipped into another alkaline solution and spray-dried at extremely high temperatures. The isolate is then spun into protein fibers using technology borrowed from the textile industry. Next, this is forced though an extruder under conditions of such extreme heat and pressure that the structure of the remaining protein changes. This is essentially the same way injection-molded plastic parts are made. Finally, we’re left with our favorite textured vegetable protein food product. Sounds deeelish! All of this processing removes the yucky beaniness, but it increases the levels of entrained carcinogens such as nitrosamines. Oh, by the way, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology stated in 1979 that the only safe use for soy protein isolates was for sealing cardboard boxes. So, eat up, Hippie.
Soy products contain a litany of potentially harmful compounds such as: protease inhibitors which interfere with protein digestion; phytates which block mineral absorption; lectins and saponins which can caused leaky gut and other gastrointestinal and immune problems; oxalates which may cause problems for people prone to kidney stones; oligosaccharides which give beans their farty goodness and extreme Dutch-oven creation properties; isoflavones and phytoestrogen which are human estrogen mimics; hemagglutanin which is a blood clot promoter; GW Bushanine which makes you lose the ability to speak in public and maintain rational thought, and many others. O.K, I made up the Bushanine. There are literally thousands of scientific research articles related to soy and soy products. As you can guess, many (but not all) of the ones that push soy are funded by soy product manufacturers and distributors.
All soybean producers pay a mandatory assessment of 0.5% to 1% of the net market price of soybeans to the mothership. That’s around $80 million dollars a year that goes to strengthen the position of soybeans in the marketplace and maintain and expand domestic and foreign markets. Partly because of this powerful lobby the FDA recommends 25 grams of soy per day as part of a balanced diet and exercise regime. This is about three times what Asians eat on a daily basis, and, as I mentioned earlier, the bulk of the Asian consumption is through fermented products. The fermentation process knocks out much of the above listed bad stuff, and they usually eat their soy with some other form of protein. 25 grams is about 2 Tbsp of uber-processed soy nonsense. In modern societies, it doesn’t take too long to surpass that mark. If you eat your cereal with soy milk, follow it down with a low-fat soy mochachino, you’re already pushing the boundaries, and that’s before you slug down a Fakin’ Bacon and soy cheese sandwich for lunch and a half pound chunk of grilled tofu for dinner washed down with some SoyDream ice cream. It’s been shown that around two glasses of soy milk per day over the course of one month contain enough phytoestrogen to change the timing of a woman’s menstrual cycle.
It really doesn’t matter to me what adults want to do with their lives. If you want to eat something that tastes gross, gives you gas and is potentially toxic then be my guest. You can eat broken glass for all I care. Just don’t come to my place when you have to drop the deuce. But the dark underbelly of this soy issue is only really uncovered when you take a look at how the industry pushes the product on infants. Soy formula is heralded as panacea for babies that have allergies to milk or are not breast-fed. Fully 25% of all bottle-fed babies in the U.S. consume soy formula on a daily basis. This means that the daily exposure of infants to phytoestrogens is 6 to 11 times higher on a body-weight basis than the dose that has been shown to have hormonal effects in adults. If we are to believe the Swiss article, the estrogen equivalent of this much soy on those infants is approximately equal to five birth control pills per day. The brain and body chemistry of infants are in total flux. These truly are the formative moments in life, and introducing that much of a pseudo-hormone has the potential to have untold influence on development or do permanent damage. The use of soy formula has been linked to everything from early onset of puberty in girls, increased aggressiveness, hyperactivity, ADD, ants-in-the-pants, decreased intelligence and a laundry list of other effects. What’s worse is that poor children are often the ones that are affected the most. State-Aid, WIC, and other programs designed to help poor, young mothers offer soy formula for low or no cost since it is donated by the soy industry in order to increase their market share. These mothers (generally young and non-white) feed the formula to their babies who may enter puberty younger and repeat the cycle. The industry also pushes their product on third-world (again, overwhelmingly non-white) countries where formula use is actually associated with an increase in infant mortality. I won’t go into the seriously fucked up corporate logic of formula manufacturers here. Maybe I’ll leave that for another post. Let’s just say for now that on the surface it’s pretty diabolical.
The reason I chose soy this week wasn’t to propagate a huge conspiracy theory or to force anyone back into their hippie communes. I was actually filling out a medical questionnaire a while back, and one of the questions on it was: “How much soy do you consume on a regular basis?” This was the only food-related question on the whole form besides the obvious inquiries about alcohol intake and allergies. In fact, many hospital and psychiatric admissions forms often ask how much soy you consume. Why do you think that is? To me this screams that the medical industry feels that soy consumption has some kind of impact on health. This is when the flags start going off in my brain. I have many vegetarian friends that don’t think anything about consuming large gobs of fake meat in the seemingly false assumption that they are getting untold benefits from this protein source in their diet. The reality is that the very food that they think is healthful may actually inhibit protein and mineral uptake and cause a host of secondary problems…all because a well-oiled marketing machine may have foisted another one over on the public. Now, do I think that I’m going to get a goiter, pancreatic cancer, and grow a set of man teats that would make William “The Refrigerator” Perry proud if I occasionally get tofu in my Budda’s Delight at the Bangcock Palace? No. But certainly this mass consumption and over exposure to soy is not good for anyone, especially children who cannot control their intake and need all of the help they can get to start off on the right foot. Right now the literature on soy points both directions which in the very least means we should be proceeding with extreme caution. Look at it this way: soy beans have been cultivated for thousands of years, but have only been introduced to the main stream food supply in the last couple of decades. Does that bother anyone else? I think our ancient farming ancestors knew something that we have chosen to ignore.
What can be done? This is something that you will probably hear from me again. Eat everything in moderation. Vary your diet. Read the labels, and try to avoid soy when you can. And don’t feed the stuff to your kids unless you literally have no other options. Probably the best advice that I’ve heard in a long time regarding soy (or food in general) is that if you can’t make it in your kitchen then you probably shouldn’t be eating it. I’ll extend that warning to anything that is made in my kitchen…

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Meet Theo

There are some times in life when you meet someone or become aware of a person in some forum when you realize that true genius exists. These individuals walk a thin line between madness and innovation. They do not believe that boundaries to thought or limits to concepts exist so they perform feats of genius that normal humans cannot comprehend. These chance meetings are few and far between. In fact, I can only think of a handful of people that I have been exposed to in my life that I believe fall into this category. Theo Jansen certainly is one of them.

Theo was born in the Netherlands in 1948, and in the late sixties / early seventies he studied physics for seven years until he gave it up to become an artist. In 1990 he had the brilliant idea to create a new form of life from the proliferation of plastic conduit that the government requires for all electrical installations in the Netherlands. That’s right. I said “a new form of life.” The basic building blocks of Theo’s new form of life aren’t what we’d expect from biological organisms (DNA, proteins, cells, etc.). Rather, the basic components are pieces of plastic conduit, sheet, bottles and twine. Check out this video, and be sure to watch it in its entirety. There are many other videos on YouTube.

Now, I understand that we may be pushing the definition of what we classically consider life, but these Strandbeests of his walk on the very ragged edge of that definition. They move. They evolve. They are autonomous. They make decisions and perform directed action based on those decisions. They reproduce. And most importantly, they are a beautifully complicated, yet very simple at the same time. Just some tubing, bailing wire and the love of a mad genius. Granted, the evolution and reproduction of these creatures must come about through a secondary agent (Theo), but most flowering plants can’t pollinate themselves either. They need bees, bats and birds to reproduce, and there are many examples of organisms with much more complicated life cycles. I didn’t really intend to get into a discussion (with myself) about the definition of what life is here, but these elegant creations force the issue.

I first came across Theo at a SolidWorks conference a year or so ago. He was speaking about how he uses software to improve the evolution of his creations. The title “kinetic artist” just doesn’t seem to fit. It seems almost insulting based on what he is doing. I think what separates him from so many other engineers and artists is that he treats these Strandbeests as though they we his children. He honestly seems to care about them. He truly is insane, but insanity is sometimes what is needed to erase the imaginary lines that we have drawn in the sand and change our perspectives on life in general. As Jansen says, "The walls between art and engineering exist only in our minds." As does every other wall. Thanks, Theo.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Gimme a "B"

There’s been a bit of a scare going around the consumer sector lately related to chemicals leeching into water from Nalgenes, baby bottles, and the like. Many times when these types of scares show up they are the result of press release of an initial study that shows a chemical has harmful properties. Consumers then jump the gun and retailers respond in a knee-jerk fashion to pull certain items from the shelves. The particular chemical name in this case that is on the tip of everyone’s tongue lately is BPA (pun intended). So I started a short investigation into some of the properties and effects of the compound in the hopes of finding out what’s really going on here. So, what is BPA? Where does it come from? And is it actually bad for you? Let’s take a look.

BPA is short for bisphenol A. The Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) number for bisphenol A is 80-05-7. Synonyms for bisphenol A include: 2-(4,4'-Dihydroxydiphenyl)propane; 2,2-Bis(4-hydroxyphenyl)propane; 2,2-Bis(hydroxyphenyl)propane; 2,2-Bis(p-hydroxyphenyl)propane; 2,2-Bis-4'-hydroxyfenylpropan; 2,2-Di(4-hydroxyphenyl)propane; 2,2-Di(4-phenylol)propane; 4,4'-(1-Methylethylidene)bisphenol; 4,4'-Bisphenol A; 4,4'-Dihydroxydiphenyl-2,2-propane; 4,4'-Dihydroxydiphenyldimethylmethane; 4,4'-Dihydroxydiphenylpropane; 4,4'-Isopropylidene diphenol; 4,4'-Isopropylidenebisphenol; 4,4'-Isopropylidene diphenol; Biphenol A; Bis(4-hydroxyphenyl) dimethyl methane; Bis(4-hydroxyphenyl)dimethylmethane; Bis(4-hydroxyphenyl)propane; Bisferol A; Bisphenol. Bisphenol A; DIAN; Diano; Dimethyl bis(p-hydroxyphenyl)methane; Dimethylbis(p-hydroxyphenyl)methane; Dimethylmethylene-p,p'-diphenol; Diphenylolpropane; Ipognox 88; Isopropylidenebis(4-hydroxybenzene); Parabis A, Phenol; (1-methylethylidene)bis-, Phenol; 4,4'-(1-methylethylidene)bis-; Phenol, 4,4'-dimethylmethylenedi-; Phenol, 4,4'-isopropylidenedi-; Pluracol 245, Propane; 2,2-bis(p-hydroxyphenyl)-; Rikabanol; Ucar bisphenol A; Ucar bisphenol HP; beta,beta'-Bis(p-hydroxyphenyl)propane; beta-Di-p-hydroxyphenylpropane; p,p'-Bisphenol A; p,p'-Dihydroxydiphenyldimethylmethane; p,p'-Dihydroxydiphenylpropane; p,p'-Isopropylidenebisphenol; and p,p'-Isopropylidenediphenol. Bit of a mouthful, eh? There will be a quiz later. I didn’t just list those synonyms to be confusing. Sometimes chemical manufacturers will change the names of chemicals on their packaging that are becoming well known to consumers in order to hide their harmful effects or in order to give the appearance that they are actually changing formulations in response to consumer backlash. Can’t hide from me, Jaggoffs.

BPA is a chemical produced in large quantities for use primarily in the production of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. It exists at room temperature as a white solid and has a mild hospital odor. Polycarbonate plastics have many applications including use in certain food and drink packaging (water and infant bottles), compact discs, impact-resistant safety equipment, and medical devices. Polycarbonate is typically clear and hard and marked with the recycle symbol “7” or may contain the letters "PC" near the recycle symbol. Polycarbonate can also be blended with other materials to create molded parts for use in cell phone housings, a plethora of household items, and parts for cars. Epoxy resins are used as lacquers to coat metal products such as food cans, bottle tops, and water supply pipes. Some polymers used in dental sealants contain bisphenol A-derived materials. In 2004, the estimated production of BPA in the U.S. was approximately 2.3 billion pounds, most of which was used in polycarbonate plastics and resins. BPA has received considerable attention in recent years due to widespread human exposures and concern for reproductive and developmental effects reported in laboratory animal studies. It is most commonly described as being weakly estrogenic. This means that it’s a non-biological estrogen mimic and can possibly act as or interfere with processes that involve the hormone estrogen. However, an emerging body of molecular and cellular studies indicate that there is potential for a number of additional biological activities. These range from interactions with cellular components that have unknown biological function to others that help mediate the actions of non-estrogenic hormones, such as androgens and thyroid hormones.

BPA’s harmful effects were uncovered by a laboratory mishap. In 1998, a geneticist noticed that chromosomal errors in the mouse cells she was studying had shot from the 1 or 2 percent that was expected up to 40 percent. She traced the effect to polycarbonate cages and water bottles that had been washed with a harsh detergent. When her team replaced all the caging materials with non-polycarbonate plastics, the cell division returned to normal. This discovery has lead to a profusion of animal studies on the compound. My initial search turned up over 400 articles related to the topic.

So, how exactly do we get exposed to the chemical? If you don’t work at a plastic plant, paper recycling facility, or epoxy resin facility over 90 percent of BPA exposure comes from ingestion...We eat it. BPA can be released from polycarbonate containers when they contain hot or acidic liquids, alcohols, are damaged or old, or are cleaned with harsh or abrasive detergents. It can leech out of cans into canned foods for the same reasons. Infants get a multiple whammy if they are breast-fed. They are exposed through their polycarbonate bottles (that are usually heated in boiling water, contain hot milk or formula and are cleaned after every use), they are exposed through breast milk (from the mother’s consumption of BPA), and they have some environmental exposure from being on the floor and putting plastic toys (and everything else) in their mouths. Kids are just gross. Due to the reasons just mentioned, children have the highest exposure to body mass ratio, and as such they have the highest potential for harmful effects.

I waded through a bunch of rat-based studies for high-dose exposures that showed harmful effects on everything from baldness to obesity to early onset of puberty to reproductive toxicity. The main problem is that exposures on these levels are way out of proportion with non-occupational human exposures. A person would have to eat 1,300 pounds of canned and bottled food per day in order to reach the exposure levels in most of these studies. There are few long-term, low-exposure, human-based studies that have been done. It is true that in most cases the high-dose studies are an indicator that low dosages will have deleterious effects as well, but the backup research is not there for BPA. Oh, by the way, in literally 100 percent of the studies that I looked at that were funded by chemical manufacturers or distributors no harmful effects from BPA were found, but most government-funded studies that I saw found obvious harmful effects. It’s classic tobacco company logic. If you fight legislation, lie or play down science you can get 10 or 15 years more profit out of your product before the legislation starts. Big surprise…

O.K., Dan. Let’s get down to the brass tacks, here. Does this chemical have harmful effects or not? Do I need to worry about getting fat, going bald, growing man tits, and going through menopause? Well, probably, but it most likely has nothing to do with the amount of green beans you eat from a can. Is BPA harmful or not, seriously? The short answer is possibly. The EU states that there is at present no need for further information and/or testing or for risk reduction measures beyond those which are being applied already. This applies in relation to repeated dose systemic effects and reproductive toxicity. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is a little more specific. Regarding developmental and reproductive toxicity they say that there is insufficient evidence for a conclusion. Low dose developmental toxicity (in rats) shows limited evidence for adverse effects. Developmental toxicity for infants, children, and fetuses showed some concern for adverse effects, and there is negligible concern for reproductive toxicity in adult men and women and malformations in newborns. All of this basically means that there is a need for more research to be done in order to nail down the long-term, low-dose effects. Kind of leaves us in the lurch, doesn’t it? This is often the case once you start really digging into something like this. There really isn’t the data to say that the substance is going to make your three year old son need to shave his back or that it’s OK to eat a pound of this white, hospital-smelling powder every day without side effects.

So, now what? Well, I believe that it’s a good idea to avoid as many man-made chemicals as you can, especially if the alternatives are inexpensive regardless of weather or not the science catches up with the possible deleterious effects of a specific chemical. To minimize BPA exposure there are a couple of simple things that can be done. If you already own polycarbonate bottles (like the ubiquitous Nalgenes that the hippies around here carry wherever they go) labeled #7 on the bottom, wash them by hand with mild dishwashing soap, not in the dishwasher, to avoid degrading the plastic and increasing leeching of BPA. Don’t fill them up with hot coffee, tomato juice, or booze. Remember that even plastic does not last forever. Look for cracks or cloudiness on your drinking bottles, and if they look like they’ve been in a rock-tumbler for a couple of weeks then it’s time to replace them with something else. If you have an infant use glass baby bottles or plastic bag inserts which are made of polyethylene, or switch to polypropylene bottles that are labeled #5 and have a milky appearance rather than being clear. Choose soups, juice and other food packaged in cardboard brick cartons instead of cans. And, of course, you can always try to eat fresh foods in season instead of the canned foods that you keep in your fallout shelter, but that's just crazy talk, I know.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Byte My Hard Drive

My name is Dan, and I am a music addict. My musical tastes range from blues to reds…That was a nerdy visual spectra pun…Probably too early for that kind of garbage…Come to think of it, there’s never a good time for a visual spectra pun…I’m sorry…You should be getting my formal apology in the mail. Anyway, let’s just say that my music collection is vast. I most likely have whatever you’re thinking of right now. Well, maybe not that. We’re talking about music here, Jesus. For reasons of national security I will not fully disclose the extent of my music library in this forum. Recently I’ve been backing up my older CDs to the computer, and because of that I’m always in the market for more storage space. Hard drives are getting larger and larger and less expensive every day. I ran across this press release the other day, and it got me to thinking. What exactly is 1.5 terabytes or information? What can I store on a drive with that much storage space? The amount of information that can be stored on a hard drive is almost made trivial by its size. Something that can fit in my hand can’t be too impressive after all (that’s what she said…heh, heh…ahem…). Or can it? Let’s walk our way up to a terabyte in order to get some perspective on the amount of information that we are talking about, shall we?

Computers make decisions based on two pretty benign numbers: 1 and 0. Similar to a switch, 1 is “on”, and 0 is “off”. It’s obviously more complicated, but that is the general idea. This switch is called 1 bit of information. A byte is made up of 8 bits. One byte is roughly equivalent to one character of text. Not too interesting. The next step on our walk is from bytes to kilobytes. A kilobyte (KB) is 1000 bytes. Each of the posts on the blog contains about 20 KB of information, or 20 KB of B.S. depending on who you talk to. Not particularly impressive, either. So let’s step from KBs to megabytes. Each of these steps is an increase of a factor of 1000, so it follows that there are 1000 KB in a megabyte (meg). At the megabyte scale, we start talking about information in terms of everyday use. The first hard drives available were 5 to 10 megs. The pictures from your digital camera are about two megs each. Songs are about 3 or 4 megs when they are compressed. Everything Shakespeare ever wrote can be stored in a 5 meg file. A CD can hold about 750 megs of info. Our next stop along the way is at the gigabyte (gig) scale. Now we’re talking about our usual storage devices. DVDs contain about 4 gigs of data. Standard hard drives on new computers are 80-160 gigs. Media players are from 1 to 5 gig or so. One gig can store about 300 songs, so a 250 gig hard drive can hold around 80,000 songs. That’s roughly equivalent to listening to the radio 24/7 for 6 months without any repeat songs or commercials. It’s important to mention here that 1 gig is 1 billion bytes since the next step on our walk lands us in a place where things can get interesting.

One terabyte is 1000 times larger than a gig. That’s 1000 billion bytes of information, or 1 with 12 zeros after it. Just as a reference, the distance from the earth to the sun is 92,955,820.5 miles. Multiply that by 10,000, and we’re now in the ballpark of the scale of a terabyte. Here is where it starts to get weird. One terabyte is the equivalent of recording about one meg of information per second over the course of a month. This means that with a one terabyte hard drive you could conceivably record every second of your life with digital audio and video. On top of that you would still have enough space to include speech-to-text voice recognition, visual text recognition, and keystroke recording for every piece of text that you type. So everything that you say, read or type will be fully searchable and able to be indexed or bookmarked. Every book, sign, newspaper, email, and conversation will be right there for you to recall at a stroke of the keypad – essentially a complete external memory that is 100% accurate. Did she tell me that last week? When did I see that article? Was I talking in my sleep last night? But wait! There’s more! There’s still a little space left over. You can also record some sort of telemetry like heart rate or blood pressure monitoring or GPS tracking on top of it all. Did I like that movie? Does her driving scare me? What store was I in when I saw those assless chaps for $20? All stored and searchable on one terabyte for the low, low price of a thousand bucks. By the way, ten terabytes will hold the entirety of the information in the Library of Congress.

From what’s available in the present we can take a peek into the future. The next step from a terabyte is a petabyte. Servers of this size should be available in 5 or ten years, I would guess. One petabyte is enough storage to dedicate at least one meg of information to every human on the planet. That would be the equivalent (by today’s standards) of a directory of every person on the planet with enough room for a picture and a sound clip or video. Two petabytes will store the information in all of the academic research libraries in the U.S. If we stretch a bit further, we reach the exabyte - a billion billion bytes (1018). Nothing too interesting about an exabyte…oh, except that 5 exabytes of storage will hold enough information to record all of the words ever spoken by humans…fully searchable. All compressed into a storage device that can fit into the palm of my hand. It may take a couple of years to perform a search with today’s technology, but I think you get the point.

Now that we have a grasp on the numbers, let’s talk about the implications of something as seemingly benign as digital storage capacity. Apart from storing a brazillion songs, all of your ripped DVDs, porn and digital publications like journals and books there are unintended consequences of throwing around this much information as I hinted at above. Our entire lives or the lives of our children will have the capacity of being stored, searched, and indexed without consent. The trends found in that information can be used to track movements, make predictions about things like future spending and voting habits or healthcare expenses. Information about every purchase, digital mammogram, x-ray, or MRI will be (already is) available at the touch of a button and will passed around like a bag of Oreos at fat camp. Prices and availability of services can then be tailored to a specific individual (your cost is $42.37, or sorry, we can’t offer that insurance package to you). It’s not too far of a leap to suppose that small concepts like “private” conversations or “secret” information will fade away eventually, and the idea of personal privacy will be distorted beyond the point of recognition relative to what we consider private today. All directly affected by something as simple as hard drive storage space. Not too much of a leap, is it? Hey, but at least I can listen to the complete Milli Vanilli recordings in three languages whenever I want to.