On Cooking, Human Evolution, Obesity, and Type II Diabetes

An interesting write-up over at The Economist on Richard Wrangham’s argument about the role of cooking in human evolution, which he reiterated at the 2009 AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago. The orthodox view among the anthropology community seems to be that human brain size increased due to a shift in diet from vegetables to meat. Wrangham’s view is that it is the cooking of food rather than its origin which has influenced human brain size:

Cooking alters food in three important ways. It breaks starch molecules into more digestible fragments. It denatures protein molecules, so that their amino-acid chains unfold and digestive enzymes can attack them more easily. And heat physically softens food. That makes it easier to digest, so even though the stuff is no more calorific, the body uses fewer calories dealing with it.

On the face of it, it seems plausible. Cooked foods make more nutrients available, and would presumably require less chewing, reducing the size of the jaw and making more of the skull’s internal space available for the brain.

This is a more application-oriented twist:

Indeed, Dr Wrangham suspects the main cause of the modern epidemic of obesity is not overeating (which the evidence suggests—in America, at least—is a myth) but the rise of processed foods. These are softer, because that is what people prefer.

On a very unscientific level, I had suspected once that upma made with fine semolina was digested more quickly (and consequently felt less filling) than upma made with coarse cracked wheat. It is nice to learn that there is a scientific basis for that hypothesis.

Now: assuming that food habits are harder to change than foods themselves, would it be possible to make people gain less weight by making foods artificially rough? Could one make a taste-free coarse-particled edible powder (like a “magic food”) to sprinkle on (or mix with) soft creamy foods to make them digest more slowly? I’m not being facetious — if the food is grittier and rougher and takes longer to digest, the glycogen peak after a meal should be wider and shorter, and should presumably make a person less susceptible to diseases like Type II diabetes. One way to do this would be to eat naturally grittier and healthier foods (whole wheat flour instead of refined wheat flour for instance), but if one habitually eats foods that are too soft and easily digestible, could we add an antidigestive agent to the food to slow down the sugar rush?

Amazon Product Reviews as a Literary Art Form

There seems to be an online subculture that treats product reviews on Amazon.com as a literary art form and an outlet for creative writing urges. Consider these:

For Perry’s Chemical Engineers Handbook:

A riveting book from start to finish!, October 17, 1998

Perry has outdone himself once again. The seventh edition is even more of a show-stopper than the previous editions. I read this book from cover to cover in one sitting, unable to put it down for a moment, not even to relieve myself! The molecular weights were so accurate and the heats of reaction made my spine tingle. Once I reached the section discussing distillation and tray efficiencies I [k]new I was hooked. I won’t give away the ending but it’s definitely a shocker. Bravo to Mr. Perry’s and I am counting the days to the release of your 9th edition!

For Denon AKDL1 Dedicated Link Cable (a $500 Ethernet cable to connect your music system to your IP-based speakers) (via):

A caution to people buying these: if you do not follow the “directional markings” on the cables, your music will play backwards.

Another for the same product:

After I took delivery of my $500 Denon AKDL1 Cat-5 uber-cable, Al Gore was mysteriously drawn to my home, where he pronounced that Global Warming had been suspended in my vicinity. Additionally, my cars began achieving 200 mpg and I didn’t even need gasoline. I was able to put three grams of cat litter into the tank and drive forever.

One heck of a cable.

Didn’t notice any improvement in audio quality though.

For How to Avoid Huge Ships:

I’ve been plagued by huge ships all my life. Ever since I can remember. This book tells you all you need to know about avoiding these everyday hazards. Now I can come and go with complete freedom. Even my weekly shopping is a pleasure!

For A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates (as a point of interest, 24% of people who view the page for this book buy “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance – Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!” instead):

Such a terrific reference work! But with so many terrific random digits, it’s a shame they didn’t sort them, to make it easier to find the one you’re looking for.

Speaking of random, you just know that someone is going to compile all these reviews into a book and try to sell it on Amazon or eBay:

You can do this one in every 30 times and still have 97% positive feedback.

Of Researchers, Entrepreneurs and Philanthropists

Consider this quote:

I think there are some very important problems that don’t get worked on naturally, that is, the market does not drive the scientists, the communicators, the thinkers, the governments, to do the right things. And only by paying attention to these things, and having brilliant people who care and draw other people in can we make as much progress as we need to.

That was said by Bill Gates at the 2009 TED conference.

The fascinating thing about the quote is that it could be used word-for-word to justify research, entrepreneurship, and philanthropy (not to mention public service and policy). An interesting reminder of their interrelationship.

Wet Revolution

Over the past 18 months I have been reading up in my personal time on water, its availability, requirements, usage and distribution. I believe it to be a particularly important problem for systems engineers to examine, since it needs to combine aspects of purification technology with energy analysis, human practices, policy and politics, and one which I believe mainstream media does not report on as much as it perhaps should.

I was therefore happy to read a well-written BBC article by Richard Black that describes the problem and complexity of modeling water as a resource. If you’ve been trained in chemical engineering or systems engineering, the material is probably not new to you, but it’s presented very well.