December 2009 Archives

Killing Me Softly....With Fructose?

Nearly a full year after the initial publication of the findings, UK newspaper, The Times Online, published a story covering a bit of research done at the University of California - Davis which was published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2008, entitled Endocrine and metabolic effects of consuming beverages sweetened with fructose, glucose, sucrose, or high-fructose corn syrup. In the study, principal investigator Kimber L Stanhope performed a study where they fed two groups of people very similar diets, one group using glucose as their primary sweetener, the other using fructose.

And their findings, are really telling. The short version, is that there appears to be a very distinct difference in the metabolic processes that break down fructose compared to glucose. But the short version, isn’t very interesting. If you’re like me, and work on a College Campus which grants you access to a multitude of journals, or you can go to a nearby college to peruse their library, the article is written in fairly simple language, and is only a few pages long, so I do encourage you to read it if you can.

The research supports the hypothesis that consumption of fructose is a factor in the development of diabetes (specifically Diabetes mellitus), which can most simply be described as a selection of conditions where a person’s insulin systems are broken in some way, either by not producing enough insulin, or responding abnormally to the presence of insulin. The studies show that the body produces less insulin and leptin, two hormones which are used as signals to the brain regarding energy balance. Essentially, with this system in place, our brains have trouble knowing how much energy we have derived from our food, leading us to eat more (to gain energy), and move less (to conserve what energy we have).

These figures were based on essentially a pair of one-day observations of the subjects, so some people are inclined to deny the findings out of hand, but while the logistics of doing a meaningful long-term study with all the variables controlled are basically impossible, it’s still a telling result, and this lab, and others, appear to be moving forward with similiar research on other primates. On rhesus monkeys, they found, over the course of a year, that the monkey’s fed on fructose as opposed to glucose tended to put on nearly 30% more weight, and (over the short term, at least) exhibited significantly less energy expenditure. The were lethargic. Now, after the 12 month mark, the glucose monkeys were almost as lethargic as the fructose ones, but these rhesus monkeys were getting over 40% of their daily calories in the form of sugar, and the dramatic reduction the 6 month and 12 month calculation in activity for the glucose monkeys (which took them from a ~.5% drop to a ~7.5% drop (where the fructose monkeys were at 6 months), does warrant further inquiry, that I’ve no doubt is being worked on. In the same period, the fructose monkeys went from ~7.5% drop in activity to a ~9% drop, significant, but not nearly as dramatic. It is most probably that gaining 40% of your diet from any sugar is going to be highly damaging, but at the very least, glucose seems to be less damaging in the short term, making it a better candidate for using in moderation.

More frightening was the findings regarding lipid metabolism. While both fructose and glucose encourage the production of fat, over a 10 week study, where each group recieved 25% of their energy requirements from sweetened beverages, the fructose group saw a dramatic increase in their levels of plasma triacylglcerol, a key component in most animal and vegetable fats. Further, the fatty deposits are consistent with medical evidence of the precursors of Atherosclerosis, or the buildup of fatty plaque on the inside of arteries, commonly believed to be a precursor to heart disease.

Incidentally, even though we talk about ‘high-fructose corn syrup’ (HFCS), HFCS is not actually pure fructose. The most common form is only about 55% fructose, the rest being made up of glucose. Up until the 1970s, the primary sweeteners used were about 50%-50% mixes of fructose and glucose, so while the evidence put forward by this research suggests we’d be better served by reducing the fructose level instead of the glucose level, as a sweetener goes, HFCS isn’t the most chemically evil sweetener in the world.

The problem with HFCS, is that it’s insidious. It’s everywhere. Currently, the estimated mean consumption of added sweeteners by Americans is 15.8%. That number is based on a study published in 2000, which was based on data from the mid-1990s. Now, this number is well below the suggested maximum intake from added sugars of 25%, but the trend being seen among younger people is getting dangerously close to that (in my opinion frighteningly high) level anyway. More recent surveys of just beverage intake suggested that college students were getting ~25% of their daily caloric requirements from sugary beverages every day, and 13 year-olds were seeing at least 15%. And that is just from soft drinks, fruit drinks, and juices with added sugar. I’m frankly scared of what the figures would indicate when you start including the fact that even the most basically processed food you’ll find at the grocery store or chain restaurant almost certainly has added sugar as well.

I’m looking forward to seeing what the results of more study on the rhesus monkeys are, since it appeared that the glucose monkeys lethargy were converging with that of the fructose monkeys (and giving the sharp uptick of the curve, had the potential to surpass it). At the end of the day, the study tells us little about the current dietary world. Yes, fructose is worse metabolically than glucose, but, chemically speaking, table sugar is not much different than HFCS anyway (I’d love to see a similar study comparing table sugar to HFCS-55, though I suspect the findings would show minimal difference). Ultimately, long term exposure to Glucose was starting to show effects similar to fructose as well. From a health perspective, the answer isn’t to switch sugars, it’s to reduce them. By how much? Well, without accurate data on sugar consumption, it would be pretty damn hard to gauge, but cutting out those sugar-added beverages would be a good start.

Credit: I first had my attention to this story raised by the Sustainable Food Blog at Change.org.

Working with Resource Files on Visual Studio

I had an unusual problem recently that took way too long for me to solve. I was trying to add resource files to a Silverlight project for the purposes of future proofing our application to be localizable, and to make maintaining strings like Tooltips easier. However, even while following the official documentation from Microsoft, I couldn’t get the damn thing to work.

Specifically, when I tried to add the Resource file to my Silverlight project (using these instructions), I couldn’t have it generate code. It wouldn’t generate any code, but what’s worse, it didn’t provide an error (or even a warning or message) when it failed.

The problem appears to be that the instructions say to right click on the project and add the Resource file using the normal “Add new…” function of Visual Studio. However, at least on Silverlight projects, these files are not placed under the “Resources” folder like they’re supposed to be. You need to create the Resources folder, and right click on THAT folder when you add the Resource file.

I ended up basically finding this by accident when looking through examples and I finally noticed that these other people all had their resx files in Resource folders, so if you’re having trouble with code-generation of resx files in Visual Studio 2008, just make sure they were in the right location, because you’re not likely to get anything to help you from Visual Studio.

Moonlight Patent Coventant Extended

The Moonlight Team, with Mono 2.6 finally bringing the verifier to completion, was able to release Moonlight 2.0 to the masses. Moonlight’s been pretty stable for a while, so it’s really nice to see that development has finally reached the completion state, and should now be able to continue at a more rigorous pace (the team had been waiting to release Moonlight until the verifier was complete), since Silverlight 4 is right around the corner, and it’s difficult to wait when new releases of Silverlight fix so many shortcomings of the previous version.

What I found most interesting about the release was the changes to Microsoft’s Patent Covenant with Novell. Namely, that the Patent Covenant covers all versions of Moonlight (though not Mono, sadly), regardless of where you get it from. Before, only the version distributed by Novell was covered. With luck, this will alleviate a lot of people’s concerns about using Moonlight. The Patent Covenant doesn’t change the fact that, if you want to use Microsoft’s Media Pack (Audio-Video streaming codecs), you have to use Novell’s distributed version, but that’s probably okay, since it allows people to use Moonlight in a completely open source way.

Since Moonlight’s source is largely shared with Mono, the patent covenant does cover with parts of Mono, but unfortunately not all of it. Now, I, like Miguel, am not that concerned with it. Microsoft has a lot of patents, yes, but their history with the patent system has been generally to hold them in reserve, pulling them out to resolve patent disputes. Unfortunately, this strategy means that they’d have a lot of difficulty applying a blanket patent license to anyone, because then in the event they need that weapon to defend themselves, they won’t have it anymore. This idea makes them nervous, and understandably so.

In truth, this just shows the problems with the patent system as it relates to software. We have no reason, at this time, to think Microsoft will make a patent claim against Mono, but the fact that they, in theory, could, scares a lot of people. Hopefully this is a step toward protection for the rest of Mono, but in the meantime, if this is enough to make people feel safe about Moonlight, it’s a huge step forward.

Pet Control

My wife and I recently adopted a pair of cats, a mother and a daughter. Both are still young, with the kitten being just past 6 months, and the mother only being perhaps a year older than that. The mother, Juniper, had the distinct misfortune of being lost at a young-ish age, as when she was found by the family we adopted her from, she was pregnant and living in a bush (hence the name).

Juniper was lucky. Catherine and I had decided we wanted a pet, but our condo’s bylaws had restrictions on dogs, so while neither of us had ever owned cats before, we decided that we’d probably be fine with having cats. Plus, our lives at this time aren’t really conducive to dog ownership. We spent a while watching Craigslist, and I know that when we called inquiring about the mother, the woman who was caring for the cats was thrilled. It’s easy to adopt out kittens (though adopting them out to good homes, as was presumably the case with Juniper originally, can be tricky), but adult cats, even young ones…most people aren’t interested.

After some consideration, we decided to also take one of the kittens, Ivy, who was one of four. Caring for one cat really isn’t any more work that caring for two, and having both ensures that they can keep each other busy and entertained when we’re at work or whatever. However, while we’re glad to have both Juniper and Ivy, it was unfortunate that Juniper hadn’t been spayed when she was younger.

For some reason, it’s acceptable for many people to let their un-modified cats wander outside their homes, which has led to a major problem with cat overpopulation, as well as such a large variety of mongrel cats, that people interested in actual cat breeds have problems finding homes for kittens that are pedigreed. It’s really interesting that people who’d gladly pay $500 (or much more) for an AKC registered puppy, wouldn’t dream of spending more than, say the $75 Humane Society adoption fee for a cat with papers as well. Admittedly, there are a lot more cats out there needing homes, but dog overpopulation is a major problem for similar reasons, unmodified animals who are irresponsibly bred, either on purpose or not.

Even ignoring the pet overpopulation problem, which is huge, it’s a major quality of life issue. We’ve had the cats for about a month now, and twice Juniper has gotten stressed out enough to go into heat (the first time was right after we brought her home, the second was the first trip to the vet for vaccinations). Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever been around a female cat in heat, but it’s pretty miserable, for both of you. She is obviously hideously uncomfortable, you have to deal with a cat who’s going out of her way to get you to do…something…to her genitals. It’s really an unpleasant time for everyone.

Now that the cats are both old enough, no longer nursing, and had their initial shots, we’ve taken the steps to get them spayed. We talked to our veterinarian, and got a quote from her, but it was…expensive. Now, admittedly, it was probably a much better spay, but by utilizing the Spay-Neuter Clinic in Moscow, ID, we were able to get both cats spayed (and leave a decent donation to the clinic) for about what it was going to cost for a single cat at the veterinarian.

The hope certainly is that, between what we were charged, and the extra we gave, that we’ll be able to help this clinic offer financial assistance to those people who otherwise couldn’t afford to get their pets fixed. Even if you don’t need a spay or neuter now, if you have a bit of extra money this holiday season, consider making a donation to the clinic. It’s tax deductible, and if we have fewer dogs and cats capable of breeding, we’ll have fewer dogs and cats living in squalor, or having to be put down because there are simply too many animals for them all to have a home.

Google: Privacy is for Evildoers

Recently, Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt made the all to common claim that the only people who need to worry about privacy, are those who are doing something wrong. This is something I’ve heard all to often, and I’ve made it a point to have people who do say it to me read Cory Doctorow’s novel, Little Brother.

So, to Mr. Eric Schmidt: Fuck you. Privacy is immensely important to anyone who has anything to lose, and we all have something to lose.

Admittedly, we sacrifice privacy all the time for convenience. Every time we make a web search, our IP is stored with that search for some (usually undisclosed) amount of time. When we store our e-mail on an external server (Yahoo! Mail or GMail), we let the provider scan the e-mail for all sorts of purposes, from spam filtering to advertising.

And, by entrusting this information to third parties, we empower them to turn over our information when required, say by a subpeona or a PATRIOT Act request. Ultimately, it’s hard for me to blame Google, since their hoarding of this information is covered in their terms of service (which most people don’t read), and some of that information is necessary for them to do their jobs, and to provide the level of service that they do.

The problems with Google’s statements however, the fact that they don’t view being the stewards of our data as a responsibility (not just not to lose it, but to keep it safe). The fact that they don’t even address that users should be aware of the implications of putting all this information online.

And it’s not just Google. Facebook is another huge offender in this respect. The Huffington Post this week had a story cataloging amazing Facebook faux pas, from kids finding out about parent’s divorces by a Facebook status update, to complaining about and insulting their boss (who happened to be a Facebook friend). And yes, recently Facebook took some steps to revise their Privacy settings, but in many ways they’ve made things worse for their users, making the defaults such that user’s are likely to reveal more not less.

While the biggest threat to personal privacy is the ignorance of the users, who often don’t think about how much information they’re providing, these major service companies that try to integrate into nearly every aspect of a user’s life need a more enlightened attitude toward protecting that data. If you want to support a group working to push these sorts of issues forward, consider joining the EFF. I made my first donation this year, and I plan to make it annual.

How Not to Redact a Document in the Digital Age

The Freedom of Information Act has proven to be an very useful tool for government transparency over the last four decades. Traditionally, this information has always been revealed on paper, with the sections deemed “sensitive” redacted from the document with permanent market.

However, today is a new day, and now most documents are kept in a fancy non-editable format like PDF anyway, so when the TSA recently decided to publish their Screening Management Standard Operating Procedure online (outside of a FOIA request, go government transparency), they decide to redact it by doing what was familiar: drawing over the sensitive data using black boxes.

Of course, in a OCR’d PDF, that doesn’t actually block any data. You can still highlight and paste the data, since it’s still in the text, even though you can’t see it. Great job, TSA.

The original document’s been pulled, but the good folks over at Cryptome have the document, with the black boxes replaced by red ones so you can still see all the data, which I’m perfectly okay with. This information really has no business being classified as sensitive, but that’s my opinion, I guess.

So, when you’re going to be redacting information from a document, especially one you’re willingly offering. You might want to make sure you’ve actually kept the information you want to keep secret, secret.

Initial Impressions of the Nook

I’ve been pretty interested in the Nook since Barnes and Noble announced it. An Android-based e-ink eBook reader? Hell yeah, I’m interested. So, when our local College bookstore, who’s owned by BN, put up their Nook display, and had some sample units, I took the opportunity to get my hands on one.

I only played with the device for about five minutes, and the display units didn’t have any books in their library, so my impressions of the device might not have been fully indicative of the device. Incidentally, my exposure to the Kindle is a similar time frame, so I’m not terribly biased, at least on based on usage.

The device is solid, and well built. It felt like the kind of device that I could toss in my bag and haul anywhere without any problems. The touchscreen had a nice finish, that wasn’t too glossy in the sharp artificial light of the store, but also felt like it would be durable to the kind of treatment I know this device would be apt to get in my briefcase (trapped with other devices and cords, subject to pressure and general moving about. Plus, the back of the device is removable, for customization, installation of the MicroSD card, or replacement of the battery (potentially nice).

The interface on the touchscreen did take me a few minutes to wrap my head around. I was often scrambling trying to figure out what I needed to tap to move forward, and it wasn’t always clear when something I’d do on the touchscreen would result in feedback on the e-ink display. This was most noticeable when I went to the devices on-board memory looking for files to read. Suddenly, the file list was on the upper screen, but I was given no feedback to know to look there to proceed. Selecting a file from that list, required hitting a small white dot on the right side of the touchscreen, which offered no visual indication that it was the select button.

Ultimately, I did figure it out, and it didn’t take that long, but I don’t consider myself a normal user when it comes to decoding UIs. This interface is going to frustrate a lot of people while they get used to it, but I suppose after a half hour or so of playing with the device, it’s not bad.

There was one glaring fault I had with my time with the device. Annotations didn’t seem to work really well. First, unlike the Kindle, the device’s keyboard is touch screen, so you lose the tactile feedback of real keys, but more than that, typing felt really sluggish and the key layout felt off. On a real keyboard keys are offset just a bit, and the on-screen keyboard not having that made typing just feel a little off.

Worse though, was that once I highlighted some text and put an annotation to go with it, I couldn’t actually seem to access it. I tried to follow the prompts, but though the display seemed to indicate that an annotation existed, I couldn’t read it. This was likely user error, but it was still annoying. Long and the short of it, that I don’t see my wife using this to annotate journal articles anytime soon, though certainly, I’ll have her try to in store.

This device is, at the very least, on par with the Kindle, since I’ve heard major complaints about the Kindle’s annotation feature as well. But I do really like that it appears to use ePub as it’s document format (though I’m not sure what kind of DRM is on the books by default), and it looks like more books are available through BN than through Amazon, especially with the availability of Google Books through their service. My only problem with BNs service (and I think Amazon is this way too), is that once I’ve bought a book, I can’t re-download it from BN if I lose it for whatever reason. This is, potentially, a deal breaker for me. Not necessarily for the Nook, but certainly for the the BN eBook store, especially if they use any DRM.

But I’ll be writing more on that in the future. The kid at the kiosk had some fascinating things (untrue, the lot of them) to tell me about taxes and licensing. In the meantime, I’d definitely suggest getting your hands on a Nook, if you’re the least bit curious about eBook readers. It’s a great little device, and it definitely still has me intrigued.