Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Remy's Cousins Can Talk!

Caring for a red-ear slider turtle recently motivated me to look into conservation efforts around the world. I was happy to discover a Live Science post by aquatic wildlife ecologist Camila Ferrera, explaining the importance of turtle conservation and her ongoing work in South America. She and colleagues even observed vocal communication between Amazon River turtles!

"We realized the turtles were using the sounds to coordinate social behaviors, such as vocalizations by female turtles calling to newly hatched offspring....We are developing a growing body of evidence that, for these turtles, sound is essential for exchanging information."
Read her full story here:

Monday, May 4, 2015

Meandering Rivers of Thought

To celebrate my 100th blog post (a goal which I hoped to achieve last year, finally reached!), I thought it appropriate to share an analogy that came to mind this evening.

It involves eroding river banks and reason. I am delighted to draw a parallel between physical and philosophical phenomena.

Looking across the Mon River at Pittsburgh's Technology Drive

To give you some back story: In my journal I was reflecting on the wisdom or value in questioning my beliefs: questioning my questions? A friend with whom I had the privilege of exchanging some of them this spring asked how my skepticism was doing a couple weeks ago. I replied that it was surviving and that I am aiming for a healthy balance.

Interestingly, that whole discussion came right on the heels of a quiet lament before I left home one day, a wish that conversations with coworkers could go beyond the superficial. And within the day a coworker asked me a question that began a long exchange about the nature of reality and human response to it, about competition, God, freedom and desire. The question came after he observed that I was the "calmest person here: why?"

That led into some questions about prayer, prophecy and free will, then introducing him to my husband, and a dinner invitation. Before we knew it, we were exchanging a gamut of ideas spanning quantum physics, theology and the decision whether or not to have children. Each time I would think, "he is going to be tired of or annoyed by our thoughts now," but it seems we have found a kindred spirit who enjoys pondering the deep things of life in a way that is respectful to others, which makes me think of the quote:

Truth springs from argument amongst friends
- unknown, or possibly David Hume

It felt good to pursue truth by asking questions. But there came a point when all we could do was ask, "Why?" and I remembered Louis C.K.'s "Why?" comedy segment (do not follow the link if you are averse to excess swearing or adult content), laughing at his telling of a conversation with his ever-questioning child. After hearing "Why" in response to every explanation he offers, the exasperated dad finally exclaims, "Because things that are not can't be!" To me, it highlights the absurdity of human reasoning, or perhaps just its limits. Maybe we are not much different from our childlike selves.

I think it is OK to admit that there are some things we just do not know. In communities where faith is encouraged, this can be difficult, because we want to keep reassuring each other with answers. In my blogging and my discussion with friends, I sometimes wonder if I am foolish to be so eager to share my own thoughts:

Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions.
- Proverbs 18:2

I think it depends on my attitude. Am I open to reason, or have I decided that I am already right before I hear what another has to say?

What does this have to do with meandering rivers?

The image popped into my head after I expressed the desire to not meander through life without a goal or method for reasoning through questions. I suddenly remembered- perhaps from my stream biology course in graduate school- that mature rivers have the largest meandering paths. Over time they carry and deposit sediment and cut away at opposing landscapes, becoming wider and slower. Their source is the same, and their final destination- the mouth, or ocean- remains. The course of the mature, meandering river is steady, the result of both time and many inputs, which could represent reason, questioning and the time that it takes to acquire and express Truth.

In contrast, the youthful river is full of rushing water: it cuts deep but does not have wide influence. Sputtering and splashing over rocks, this babbling brook image reminds me of the careless young mind: always changing opinions and flowing whichever way will please the crowd at the moment. Even partially formed, our minds lack consistency of movement. Young minds are not yet tested and refined, nor do we think we need it: maybe we are just molecules after all, flowing with the winds and eroding the sands and shores of our time.

As I write this, other words rise to the surface of thought:

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.

Psalm 46:4-5

I wonder, what is this river? Surely it is bigger than me or ancient Israel. MacLaren offers some insight:

Thus, says our psalm, not with noise, not with tumult, not with conspicuous and destructive energy, but in silent, secret underground communication, God’s grace, God’s love, His peace, His power, His almighty and gentle Self flow into men’s souls. Quietness and confidence on our sides correspond to the quietness and serenity with which He glides into the heart.

How beautiful, how peaceful, how strengthening is this Presence, in the middle of us all!

The truth is, I am uncomfortable with skepticism as a core philosophy because it provides little practical purpose or direction. Even while it helps erode away false confidence or errant beliefs (like a mature river), what is there for those who desire a vision of life, lived in good relationship with God (the Source) and others?
On the other hand, I am turned off by fundamentalism (especially the Christian kind) when it fails to be gentle and open to reason, the very things the New Testament teaches:

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.
James 3:17

Like the young stream, eager minds flow fast through narrow and rigid shores, unguided by tested wisdom, while the mature mind shows its strength with its wide and open arms. In the end, might we agree on one thing? Or am I immature to think this way?

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
-1 Corinthians 13:8-13

Memorial in Allegheny Cemetery

Thursday, April 23, 2015

True or False: Advertizing In The Wellness Industry (Part two - Natural)

In part one of this series, we examined the "Detox" claim. Now we move on to another popular advertizing term: Natural.

What is "natural" food?

Is it anything that comes from nature? Technically, my socks are natural. They are made with cotton, which comes from a plant. But I do not want to eat them. Likewise, we don't eat many things found in nature: rocks, trees, or natural gas... so what makes "natural food" something desirable or even safe?

Why do so many food labels read, "all natural," as if it is something special? Can our bodies digest anything that is not considered "natural," and what is the difference between natural and organic?

Too many questions for one post. The seed for my ongoing analysis happened during my first year of graduate school (2008), when my Ethics in Biotechnology professor listed genetically modified (GM) food as a possible paper topic for his class. I became curious.

The World Health Organization defines GM foods as those "derived from organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally, e.g. through the introduction of a gene from a different organism."

Even this definition for a highly-debated practice relies on the word "natural," though again it is unclear what "naturally" means.

Only processed food needs to say that it was made with "all natural" ingredients. In the produce section, this would be redundant. What if the sign read, "Natural apples! $0.99 /lb!" Would you be wary of whatever other non-natural apples were available?

We will pick the "natural" cookies over the popular name brand, even though both were made in factories, have a similar sugar content and provide few nutrients. In the health foods community, there seems to be an assumption that everything that is natural is good to eat, when in reality natural is not correlated with nutrition.

Not everything that happens "naturally" is beneficial to us: hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods destroy cities and landscapes and lives. Going beyond natural disasters- what about the animal instinct to kill, or the "natural" way that bacteria infect tissue?  Disease-causing toxins occur quite naturally. "Natural" does not automatically mean helpful or nutritious, so it is interesting that we accept its liberal use among food companies.

It is also interesting that we rely so heavily on advertizing and branding of food in general. We are so open to influence by those who want us to think that their food product will make us healthy, happy, popular, etc. when maybe there is not legitimate reason to accept these suggestions, boosted by the colorful label, the word "antioxidants," and the cool company story. But who is testing these claims? Who is making the rules?

When writing my ethics paper in 2008, I was surprised to learn that the term "natural" is not regulated. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says "FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances."

So there we have it: natural is okay when it is not artificial. Are we overconfident in this simple logic and vague sense of substance?

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Lymph Massage

Just discovered a simple head and neck massage to ease sinus symptoms, for anyone* suffering from colds and/or allergy season:

Self Lymph Drainage Massage by in Louisville, KY:

*except those experiencing the contraindications listed on her website, such as high-risk pregnancy or history of thrombosis.

This is the second method I've heard people recommend to help lymph flow. The first was rebounding, which seems more vigorous (it's basically jumping) to move lymph throughout the body. Some cancer survivors say that good lymph circulation helps the body heal itself.

Since the back of my left ear has been sore for a couple days, I asked Dr. Google what it meant and realized it's the site of a lymph node (yay! probably not cancer, as my inner hypochondriac worries). Then I found the above video on a natural health site.

Heather's technique is just a gentle stimulation for the head and neck tissue. The complete massage can be performed in less than 10 minutes.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

New Reads

I have a book habit, and I hope I never kick it!

My husband teases me for that "just one more" package arriving with books. Sometimes it's because I needed one more item for free shipping. Other times it was just the thirst for understanding a particular subject.

In a search for inspiration in my work, today I started Tim Keller's Every Good Endeavor and continued reading Conscious Capitalism, coauthored by John Mackey and Raj Sisodia. I can already sense each writer's commitment to a higher purpose and the good of society, and I look forward to reading more.

Tim Keller seeks to heal some of the rift between church and society, making sense of the myriad of faith-filled perspectives on work. I expect he will integrate these motivations, such as social justice, personal evangelism, or generosity to charity. So far I enjoyed the story in the book's introduction of J.R.R. Tolkien's struggle with time in creating his epic Lord of the Rings universe. Keller describes Tolkien's short story "Leaf by Niggle" and illustrates how we long for a more perfect world than what we can maybe realistically create in one lifetime. I am grateful to my friends Jesse and Emily for recommending this book.

The authors of Conscious Capitalism provide an interesting contrast between their holistic business approach and Corporate Social Responsibility, emphasizing how a consciously operated business creates value for all systems involved. This is something that grows from its core, not simply tacked onto the side of operations (or to defend its public image), but an ethical motivation that pervades the entire business culture. For this read, I am grateful to Whole Foods Market for having a 25% off sale on books last September.

Also on my list this year:

As You Wish by Cary Elwes
A Loving Life by Paul E. Miller
The Fight by John White
Prayer by Tim Keller

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Easy Ways to Eat More Vegetables

Looking for some inspiration to eat your vegetables? I just discovered a Whole Foods Market blog post with some great ideas! Five Ways To Eat More Veggies

This week I'm planning a lentil soup with collard greens.

What are your favorite ways to eat veggies?

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Foods To Heal the Mouth

So we've all heard what NOT to eat when it comes to oral health, but are there foods that actually help the body maintain and heal the gums and teeth?

I am planning a trip to the dentist, but figured she would not be trained to advise me in nutrition (sadly), so decided to Google and find the answer today (Then I can also ask my dentist and see if or how her answers compare). Update: while I was writing this, the dentist office called to say they don't accept my dental insurance, so I will have to find another dentist.

Turns out there is a company promoting Whole Person Dentistry. Here Dr. Hokmabadi recommends ten things we can eat or drink to prevent bacterial growth and fortify bone and gum tissue.

Some were obvious, like using water to rinse. Others were more surprising, like celery (basically a natural floss!) and cheese, which helps balance pH.

It also makes sense that foods high in vitamin A (sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, broccoli) or vitamin C (most fruit, but kiwi is highest) would be good for gum tissue, and that calcium-rich foods strengthen bones in the jaw. I didn't realize sesame seeds contained calcium, nor that chewing them combats plaque buildup.

Both the above article and another source recommend green tea and raisins for their antibacterial effects. It seems many plant foods have similar properties, like onion, horseradish, and cashews. Other fibrous foods help mainly by increasing saliva flow and so are called "dental detergents."

How wonderful that the simple act of eating can promote even the health of tissues doing the work!

I might go drink a cup of green tea now. :-)