Sunday, November 27, 2005

Remember the Greats

Mr Miyagi (real name, Pat Morita) passed away on Friday. Karate Kid's Mr Miyagi was the perfect role for Pat. He made Miyagi in to an icon. This film caught my generation in the sweet spot of our childhood years, firmly imprinting Miyagi in our hearts and minds as the embodiment of all things wise. (How many thousands have tried to catch a fly using chop-sticks? How many thousands have tried the crane kick?)


George Best. Every time I see footage of him on field, he reminds me of Pele or Maradona at his peak. He was right up there with the very best of the best. We are talking about a category occupied by no more than a handful of individuals. True natural talents, these men owned the beautiful game. It was magic. Say as much as you want about the Rooney's of this world, but they are simply not of this calibre.

Bruce Lee. This is a little strange. A bronze statue of Bruce Lee was unveiled in the Bosnian city of Mostar yesterday, chosen as a symbol of the fight against the ethnic divisions. A great quote:

"We will always be Muslims, Serbs or Croats," said Veselin Gatalo of the youth group Urban Movement Mostar.

"But one thing we all have in common is Bruce Lee."

Quality.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Exercise and the Perfect Incentive

The Fitness First gyms in London give free copies of the Financial Times to all their customers. At a pound a throw, this just about covers the cost of the petrol for a return trip.

Perfect.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Constant Gardener Film Review

Oh my days. To paraphrase Chandler "could this film be any more boring?"

We watched this last week and were severely upset. The only plus point is that it is very realistically filmed but other than that it was way too long and way too boring. Recommend changing its name to "The Constant Boredom".



In fact, I would have rather watched 2 hours of Constant Gardening, literally. Yes, that's right. I'd rather watch two hours of Alan Titchmarsh on the big screen. That's how bad the film is.

To end on a positive, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang delivered the goods and then some. Quality.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Are You Overdosing on Carbs?

Ever had pasta or jacket potato for lunch and suffered from a post-lunch energy dip? Myself, I used to 'carb crash' all the time. Within half an hour of eating lunch I'd be slumped over my desk at work, struggling to stay awake. In ‘The New High Protein Diet’, Dr Charles Clark explains what happens to our bodies when we eat to many carbohydrates in one sitting. Here’s a summary:

- After a heavy carbohydrate intake your blood-sugar level is raised as the carbs are converted to energy. This happens very quickly with refined carbohydrates like sugar or white flour products.

- Your body detects the change in your blood-sugar level and increases production of insulin (hormone) to restore the balance.

- This leads to the excess carbs/sugars being withdrawn from your blood and stored as fat in your body. This sugar withdrawal can make you feel tired and drowsy.

So, even though you are not eating a fatty food per se, the end result is that your fat stores may rise as your body tries to fix the imbalance in your blood. This is why carbs as seen as a sworn enemy by many dieticians.

Refined carbohydrates are worst kind, because they have very little nutritional value and are the worst insulin boosting culprits. They get converted to sugar extremely quickly (hence the energy rush) and the body has to take immediate corrective action (hence the dip). Refined carbohydrates include sugar, starch, white flour, cakes, bread, pasta, rice, pizza and potatoes.

Instead try to eat less refined or unrefined carbohydrates - wholemeal flour, brown rice etc. Your body breaks these down much more slowly, and so provides you with a much more consistent energy supply throughout the day. Also, as your insulin isn’t given a dramatic boost you are not adding to your fat stores. The author says for weight maintenance to try to keep to approx 60-80 grams of carbs a day. Above this level, fat depositing starts. But as we said, it’s also about eating the right kind of carbs.

It’s good to know what’s happening so we understand the logic behind taking corrective action.

Right, I'm off to make a white-bread, chip sandwhich!

Monday, November 21, 2005

Tea - Now For the Science Bit !

Here are some findings on my research in to the effects of tea and caffeine.

On the plus side:

- Caffeine speeds up the thought process. It can be useful for brain-storming activities and idea generation. Personally, I find caffeine to be a great stimulant for idea generation. However, for me at least, the drug seems to hinder focussed thinking.

- It is used to fight fatigue and is the drug of choice for the working masses. I used to take caffeine tablets when going on long drives or if I was burning the midnight oil.

- Tea contains antioxidants that may reduce the risk of heart attack.

- Tea provides an additional natural source of fluoride.

- More obscure benefits: An article in the Hindustan Times refers to a study that claims tea may increase insulin and help prevent diabetes, and to another study that finds that tea has properties that could help in fighting cataracts. Tea may even help in warding off Alzheimer’s Disease.

On the downside:

- Too much caffeine can create a feeling of restlessness and irritability. This is the pick-me-up factor going too far. Many people struggle to sleep if they have had a tea or coffee late in the day. Excessive caffeine has also been associated with abnormal heart beat patterns.

- Too much tea and coffee stains your teeth a yellowy brown. Not nice.

- While its good for brain-storming activites, caffeine may make it hard to focus your thinking. As a student I found it great for idea-generation when I was planning essays but it became a hinderance when I was actually trying to focus on the laborious task of the actual writing of the essay. I eventually switched to guarana tablets to help my studying. These seemed to produce a more consistent energy elevation without that caffeine rush feeling.

- Its addictive. I have first hand experience of this. I never used to get enough sleep and would have to be 'on the ball' as soon as I got in to work. I quickly became trapped in a vicious circle of caffeine dependency. I needed caffeine to keep me going at work, but it was still in my system in the evening and I couldn't sleep properly. Then I'd feel shattered the next day and need more tea and coffee to keep me going. At its worst, the muscles in my arms were twitching involuntarily and I was drinking 7-10 cups of tea or coffee a day. Muscle tremors are a recognised side effect of excessive caffeine intake.

- Caffeine filters through your body extremely quickly, going through the blood-brain barrier as if it isn’t there. The good thing is it’s a case of easy come, easy go. Scientists reckon the half-life of caffeine is so short that about 90% of the drug leaves your body after about 12 hours.

- Our bodies lose a lot of water through the day and we need to keep our levels topped up. However, tea and coffee can have a diuretic effect, drawing water out of the body. This is the common wisdom but it is disputed. I found several web-sites that question this. Not surprisingly Twinings and the Tea Council point to research claiming that tea is not a diuretic unless you consumer 5-6 cups in one sitting, and therefore that it should be readily used for fluid replacement. Personally, I find myself feeling slightly parched after even two cups of tea but I think that might just a dry mouth aftertaste from the brand of tea I drink. Overall, it seems tea and coffee are better than nothing (ie they add more fluid to the body than they draw out) if taken in moderation, but I would prefer to replace these drinks with hot water, which is perfect for fluid replacement.

- To give you an idea of how toxic caffeine is even the plants that produce it end up poisoning themselves! Over time, the caffeine builds up in the soil around the plant, and the plant itself gets poisoned.

Overall, it is clear that tea and coffee have some amazing properties, but can also be pretty dangerous if taken in excess. Because people have different sensitivities to caffeine it doesn't make sense to make a general prescription. However, if anyone is concerned they may be consuming too much I would recommend a week long fast, or just switch to decaf. Either way, prepare for a groggy first few days (and maybe a bitch of a headache).

Additional information :

Caffeine Content of Foods And Beverages (Mg of caffeine)

COFFEE (6 oz)

Drip 130-180
Percolated 75-150
Espresso (1.5 to 2 oz) 100
Instant 50-130
Decaffeinated 2-6

TEA (6 0z)


1 minute brew 10-40
3 m 20-55
5 m 25-100
instant 15-35

Coca-Cola 46

An excellent book on the subject: “The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug” – Weinberg & Bealer

The Tea Fasting is Over


I write this nursing a hot mug of tea. Have I given in to temptation? No, no, fear not, my week long caffeine fast is complete. It got easier and easier as the days passed. And now I am celebrating with a cup of tea?

Allow me to explain. After my exercise in self-restraint, the scientist in me thought it appropriate to do a little research in to the properties of tea and caffeine. I'll summarise my findings in the next article. Basically, while I was thinking about giving up tea and coffee entirely, I discovered that drinking a daily cuppa can have some pretty cool health benefits, so I'm going to allow myself one mug a day from here on. If I want a second serving it has to be decaf - that's my rule. From a health perspective, my good friend 'moderation' wins the day.

The most important teaching from the tea-fast is appreciating how powerful our will power is if we only give ourselves a chance to apply it. Breaking bad habits my be difficult, but if we can reverse them in to good habits, which may be equally hard to break, then we can continue growing and bettering ourselves.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Hot Water

Just two more days to go to complete my week-long tea fast. It looks like the experiment is going to be a success. Its freezing outside and I would normally be nursing a hot cuppa right now, but I've kind of lost the urge. It was quite hard initially but like most things its become increasingly easy over time. I drink herbal tea sometimes but mostly its just just plain hot water. I wonder if I can condition myself to break other habits?

Happy days.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Borat Under Fire


Once again, the Kazakhstan authorities are up in arms over Borat (see article), saying he is derogatory and that he portrays the country in a bad light. At RMF we appreciate Borat for man he is and we do not see his words or actions as a reflection of life in Kazakstan, which I am sure is very nice indeed.

Borat is a world unto himself. Our hero.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

An Exercise in Discipline

Just back from a disheartening session at the gym. Having not done any exercise for almost two months, I knew it was going to be tough going. However, I didn't think I'd be out of breath after just 10 minutes on the bike at a steady pace. I could barely lift 50-75% of the weight I'd been lifting before my little hiatus.

This is what happens when we just neglect our bodies and minds. A slow decay sets in. The good thing is the decay can be very easily reversed. Indeed, I'm feeling a whole lot better, even after this short session. Now I just have to try and live the philosophy in these testing winter months.

On another note, I am going to try an exercise in discipline by giving up tea and coffee for a full week. Many people can do this quite easily, but I average 3-5 cups of tea and day and maybe 2 cups of coffee and I can't get enough of the stuff. Caffeine, caffeine, caffeine! I'm going to see if I can give it up because I want to test my own discipline. I want to challenge my weaknesses. I nearly let myself have one last coffee before my fast, but that's no way to begin the journey! So, no tea, no coffee, no coke (not even the decaf variety). This will be interesting.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Films this Weekend


After a few months of relatively dull cinema, here are some films with real promise:

The Constant Gardner - A political-thriller set in Africa, the Constant Garnder has Oscar written all over it. Ralph Fiennes is the ideal actor for this kind of role and its good to see him back on the big screen again. The most exciting thing about this film for me is the fact that it is directed by Fernando Meirelles, the guy who directed City of God. From Jonathon Ross's interview with Fiennes, we know the filming in Africa was shot on location in the real Africa and not on mocked-up sets. This suggests Meirelles is sticking to his gritty and realistic style of directing. It looks like a bit of a heavy film, so prepare yourself before you go. If you want something a little less heavy, something with fun, excitement and humour then Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (below) should be perfect.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang - A must watch. Shane Black, the writer of the Lethal Weapon series, is back. After getting paid a gazillion bucks for the Long Kiss Goodnight script, Black got pissed off with Hollywood as he became known not for the guy who wrote good scripts but instead as the guy who scored a gazzilion bucks for the LKG script. He pretty much took a very long break from the industry but is now back with a kick-ass film. I'm not going to go in to the plot line but its basically a stylish thriller/actioner/comedy about a gay private detective (Val Kilmer) and petty criminal (Robert Downey Junior). Sounds very weird eh. All I can say is go watch it. If you want more background click here for a review in the Guardian or here for a an interview with Shane Black. The guy is very articulate and doesn't mince his words. Also, I'm glad Kilmer and Downey Junior are back in a big film that recognises their talents. These guys have been through some - how do you say - interesting times, but regardless of what you think of them you can't deny their acting talent.

Jarhead - Keep an eye out on for this. I've read the book, which is a true account of a soldier in Iraq. Judging by the clips the film looks well made. Its easy for Hollywood to get this type of film very wrong - Platoon is my benchmark. Fingers crossed they pull it off. We need at least one good war movie a year.

PS - I can't believe it. I've just seen an advert for 'Carlito's Way: Rise to Power'. What? Exactly. I looked in to it, and it is a sequel, but it doesn't feature Pacino. Instead we get Sean "Puffy" Combs, Mario Van Peebles, and some other nobody's. How could they do this !

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Food and Self Control

Following discoveries in the field of epigenetics (see article below), it is clear we now have a strong incentive to look after our health. The possibility of a strong link between how we look after ourselves and the impact on future generations suggests we should be viewing ourselves as guardians of our genes, as protectors of our future offspring.

Unfortunately, it appears society is headed in the opposite direction. This week's Business Week reports on how the fast food industry is booming. After a brief fling with health foods, people have once again decided they like their food deep-fried, and preferably with cheese. Apparantly sales of KFC chicken, burgers, and dougnuts have all recorded massive year-on-year growth. In today's society of convenience, people continue to slide toward obesity.

When I read the following description the burger I nearly barfed:

'Last year, Hardee's and Carl's Jr., units of CKE Restaurants, created quite a stir with the Monster Thickburger, which has two 1/3-pound slabs of Angus beef, four strips of bacon, three slices of cheese, and mayonnaise on a buttered sesame-seed bun -- totaling 1,420 calories and 107 grams of fat. Hardee's proudly proclaimed the sandwich "a monument to decadence." '

A quality burger is a beautiful thing but screwing up our bodies by excessive consumption of all the wrong types of food is not good. For the first time in a long time, this generations children may have live spans that are lower than that of their parents. We need to take action. It doesn't involve moving mountains, but we need to move away from the mindset that chases instant results. We just need to exercise a little self-control and do a little more exercise. Day by day the small changes add up.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Epigenetics - Shaping Our Genetic Destiny

A recently aired episode of Horizon ("Ghost in the Machine, BBC 2) discussed the topic of ‘epigenetics’. The programme and my subsequent investigations on the internet have created a regime-shift in my outlook on life.

Started in 1990 and officially completed on April 14 2003, the Human Genome Project (HGP) was a landmark in scientific discovery. Man’s genetic code – some 3 billion letters of DNA - had finally been mapped out in totality. The event was portrayed in the media as a potential scientific holy grail. But what has become of the project since? Where are all the breakthroughs in fighting genetic diseases? Epigenetics can help to explain why mapping our DNA sequence should be thought of more as the beginning of the story of understanding our genes, rather than the end. It also adds a whole new twist on the nature versus nurture debate.

At a very basic level, epigenetics is concerned with biochemical switches that can turn genes ‘off’ or ‘on’. Imagine a set of switches sitting on top of our DNA. While our DNA sequence remains the same over time, the genome is altered as different genes along the sequence are switched off or on. This helps to understand why the Human Genome Project - which tells us the sequence of our DNA - is but a a partial answer to our genetic mystery. “So what?” you ask. This is where the fun begins. It turns out these epigenetic switches can be activated by environmental factors and that we can pass our altered genes on to our children, and to their children.

Here are a few examples:

* In Sweden, years of meticulous record keeping revealed an interesting finding. When there were severe food shortages, it was not only the current generation of people that took the hit. Surprisingly, the records indicated that the grand-children of the generation exposed to the famine had a reduced life expectancy. Somehow, the famine seemed to have an inter-generational impact.

* In Holland, just after World War II, Germany imposed a food embargo that also created a massive food shortage and led to the death of approx 30,000 people. Detailed record keeping this time revealed smaller than average grand-children.

* Pregnant women exposed to the September 11 disaster were tested for stress. As expected exhibited elevated stress levels. When the baby’s were born, tests on the baby’s saliva revealed also elevated stress agents. An environmental impact had transmitted across a generation.

* It was found that Jewish children in New York suffered an abnormal level of stress relative to the wider population. At first it was thought that this was the result of constant telling of Holocaust stories by their parents. Another hypothesis was that epigenetics played a role. This was only confirmed by the findings above (the 911 women), supporting the idea that it wasn’t so much the stories of the Holocaust as much as it was the event of the Holocaust itself that triggered changes in the parents genes, and that epigentically altered genes were subsequently passed on to future generations.

Together, these and other findings lend weight to the notion that we are not just a product of our genes but that our genes are also a product of us, of our environment and of the lives we lead. After sitting on the fringes for many years, epigenetics is becoming increasingly accepted as valid by the mainstream science community. One scientist makes the powerul metaphor of thinking of our DNA as our hardware and of epigenetics as the software.

Epigenetics also receives support from lab experiments. In one case Professor Wolf Reik triggered epigenetic switches in Agouti mice by feeding them with certain supplements. While the offspring had the same genome structure, the flicking of various switches led to the next generation of mice having different coloured coats! The DNA was the same, but the epigenetics had changed. We are not mice, but this is still an interesting finding. There are many more like it.

If our genes do indeed have memory then it is possible that we are moulded not only by the events we live through but also those events our parents lived through, as well as the events our grand parents lived through. I’ve never been one for the deterministic school of thought and like the idea that we have some control over our destiny and the destiny of our future generations.

Of course the implication of these findings is that we now have a much greater incentive to strive to succeed in opur lives, and to keep our body’s and minds in the best shape possible. We owe it to our future generations. So, next time you stuff yourself with donuts, liquor, drugs, or whatever else your poison may be, bear in mind that somewhere inside your body, these little switches may be clicking on and off !

Links
Article in Wired
BBC Horizon summary
Detailed report in the-scientist.com

Note: I haven’t looked in to it yet, but I have hypothesized for a long time that the while the prevalence of diabetes among Indian’s can be attributed to to diet, the higher risk of of diabetes in the next generation (who eat a more Western diet) can be atrributed in part to hereditary factors. I may be reaching here, but epigenetics would provide the perfect bridge.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Illnesses We Used To Call Real Life

The Weekend FT has an interesting article talking about how Joe Public is turning in to a big softy. In “Illnesses we used to call real life” (Financial Times, 5/6 Nov), Margaret McCartney discusses the unhealthy trend for diagnosing a whole bunch of symptoms of normal life as official medical conditions. We are talking about things like stress, shyness, stress, cholesterol, sleeping disorders and countless others. The list really does go on and on. Many of these didn’t even officially exist in our parent’s generation. They simply weren’t recognised as issues.

This doesn't mean I think these conditions do not warrant medical attention at the extremes. But I agree with the author who notes that people can deal with a lot of these problems themselves, without classing themselves as having a ‘condition’. McCartney says “People…have innate coping mechanisms and many do better using these than being affixed an immediate label and ‘treatment’, which has potential to do harm.”

As McCartney points out, many of these so called conditions are part of everyday life. I’m not saying we should simply learn to get by and live with these minor ailments. The risk, however, is that we ‘medicalise’ these conditions, externalise them, and end up seeking easy pill-popping solutions to solve the problem. There are so many drugs on the market to keep you awake, to help you sleep, to calm you down, to help reduce your cholesterol etc etc, that we risk losing ‘ownership’ of the condition of our body’s and minds. Next thing you know, you stop asking why you are feeling how you are feeling and seek the pill solution. I firmly believe that a lot of what we feel about ourselves is a natural feed-back response, and we shouldn’t just kill the signal with a pill. If you can’t sleep, tablets may be the answer, but perhaps your quality of life will be better if you can get to the real root of the problem - in many instances it turns out that lifestyle choices are causing these problems.

Bear in mind a normal or average life is not a life without problems. That is the perfect life, a life that only the priveliged few people will have. In the course of our existence we should expect to be beset with a host of minor problems that will reduce our quality of life, hopefully only temporarily. I say be ready to take ownership for our problems and be pro-active in finding real solutions. The culture of ‘victimisation’ helps no one.

RMF Evolution

A confluence of factors (food poisoning, a month of fasting, lethargy, increasingly cold weather and shorter days) has led to massive drop off in RMF activities and associated blog posts. Nevertheless, we will continue to embrace the RMF philosophy as it provides us with something to hold on to during these trying times. It's just that chopping down trees and doing various activities such as demolition (and its counterpart, construction) just seem less appealing when its freezing cold outside and pissing down with rain.

We haven't given up on the cause but the time has come to broaden the RMF blog remit and include topics of wider interest. The blog lives!

RMF Resuscitation Drama

"Give him 20 cc's of morphine, stat!".
"It's no good doctor, the patient is flat-lining."
"Start the defibrillator unit dammit. This blog isn't going to die on me. Not on my watch!".
"Okay, CLEAR!" The doctor passes 1000 volts through the patients body, sending the RMF blog flying out of his bed with shock.