Sunshine Superman

“If I had to give you a single secret ingredient that could apply to the prevention — and treatment, in many cases — of heart disease, common cancers, stroke, infectious diseases from influenza to tuberculosis, type 1 and 2 diabetes, dementia, depression, insomnia, muscle weakness, joint pain, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, and hypertension, it would be this: vitamin D.”

During the whirlwind that has been my life of late, I managed to make my way through Dr. Michael Holick’s terrific book The Vitamin D Solution from which the above quote comes.  Before I get started on my review, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve got to tell you that of all the books I’ve reviewed on this blog since its inception, this is the first and only one that I’ve been sent gratis by the publisher.  It was strange how it came about.  I learned of this book long before it was published and had pre-ordered it through Amazon.  A few weeks or so after my pre-order, I received an email from the publisher’s PR agent for this book asking if I would like a pre-publication copy for possible review.  I sure would, said I, and promptly canceled my Amazon order.

I’ve been a fan of Dr. Holick’s for years now, reading every paper he publishes, which is a considerable job given his prolific output.  I’ve corresponded with him a time or two on a few issues and he has always been very generous with his advice.  I consider him THE authority on vitamin D.  So, I was eager to dig into his book.

I wasn’t disappointed.

I figured that somewhere along the way, Dr. Holick had gotten intrigued with vitamin D, had pursued his interest and had become sort of a guru.  But in reading his book, I learned that he is much more than that.  He began studying vitamin D as a graduate student and ended up being the person who actually discovered 1,25 (OH)D, the major circulating form of vitamin D in humans.  This was back in the early 1970s, and he’s been studying vitamin D without letup since.  His book is the most up-to-date source of all the science available about this amazing nutrient.

Dr. Holick sums up the importance of vitamin D to human well being in this single sentence from early in the book:

The sun is as vital to your health and well-being as food, shelter, water and oxygen.

Which seems reasonable since every morsel of energy we consume originates with the sun.  No sun, no plants.  No plants, no animals.  No plants and animals, no us.  As Sir Karl Popper noted, we eat the sun. We evolved in the sunlight, so it makes sense that the sun offers other benefits as well food.

Dr. Holick begins his book with a fascinating comparison of a ten-year-old girl growing up somewhere along the equator to a ten-year-old girl growing up in the United States or Europe.  The former will probably never learn how to use a computer, never go to a mall, never learn to drive a car and will probably end up spending most of her life outside tilling the soil as did her parents and grandparents.  She will probably experience periods in her life of poverty and poor nutrition.  By contrast, her US or European counterpart will always have plenty to eat, will learn to shop, order pizza, operate a computer, Game Boy, Wii, and God only knows what other kinds of electronics.  She will have her doting parents slather sunscreen on her to protect her skin from birth until she’s old enough to do it herself.  She will come of age in a different world, filled with the latest in medical technology.

And she will pay for it with her health.

Her equatorial counterpart will be only half as likely to get cancer in her lifetime.  She will have an 80 percent reduction in risk of developing type I diabetes before the age of 30.  And she will live longer.  If she can avoid trauma or an untreated severe medical condition, the girl growing up in the more primitive but sunny circumstances will have an overall 7 percent greater longevity than her US/European counterpart.  She will have stronger bones, lower blood pressure, fewer cavities in her teeth, a greatly reduced risk for heart disease, type II diabetes, obesity, arthritis and most of the other diseases that will plague her more Westernized sisters.

Why the difference?  According to Dr. Holick, the equatorial girl has vastly more exposure to natural sunlight over her lifetime than does the other.

But, you might ask, why don’t the children in the US and Europe play outside more in the sunshine and reap its many benefits?  A couple of reasons.  Most of the US and Europe are too far north to get enough sun exposure to generate the production of adequate vitamin D during a large part of the year.  And, second, most parents are so fearful of sunburn that they slather their kids with sunscreen if and when they let these children play outside during the part of the year they can make adequate vitamin D.  Since a sunscreen with an SPF of only 8 reduces the synthesis of vitamin D by 95 percent, think of how little vitamin D children with sunscreens of SPF 30 or 45 are making.  Zero.

Why?

Heliophobes.

Readers of this blog know that I refer to people who have an unreasoning fear of fat as lipophobes, fat fearers.  Well, since Helios was the Greek god of the sun, I’ll call those who have an unreasoning fear of the sun heliophobes.

Why do people become heliophobes?  Same reason they become lipophobes: they refuse to think.

Just as lipophobes see a heart attack in every morsel of fat, heliophobes see skin cancer in every ray of sunshine.

To give them their due, the heliophobes have at least a smidgen of data to bolster their point of view.  Unlike the lipophobes, who have no reliable data demonstrating that saturated fat causes heart disease, the heliophobes can point convincingly at the data showing sun exposure causes problems for the skin.

Unquestionably, excess sun exposure causes premature aging of the skin and a couple of types of skin cancer.  Of this there is no doubt.  But, lack of adequate vitamin D appears to be related to an entire host of serious problems including melanoma, the most dangerous and deadly form of skin cancer.  The most common type of skin cancer from overexposure is basal cell carcinoma, which is just about the least malignant of all cancers, and if treated (by removal) results in virtually no mortality.  The same can’t be said for prostate, breast and colon cancers, all cancers thought to be sun (or, more correctly, lack of sun) related.  These cancers are much more prevalent the farther north one goes and almost non-existent at the equator.

The trade off, in my opinion, is well worth it.  Especially when it’s possible to have the best of both worlds and avoid both the premature aging, minor skin cancers AND the breast, prostate and colon cancers (not to mention multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis, and the host of other disorders laid at the doorstep of too little vitamin D) by sensible sun exposure.

Dr. Holick tells you how.  He provides charts and tables telling you how much sun exposure you require for adequate vitamin D synthesis depending upon where you live in the world.  And he describes how you can make up any difference by taking vitamin D supplements.

Why not just take the supplements and forget about the sun?

Vitamin D made in the skin lasts at least twice as long in the blood as vitamin D ingested from the diet.  When you are exposed to sunlight, you make not only vitamin D but also at least five and up to ten additional photoproducts that you would never get from dietary sources or from a supplement.

Old Mother Nature is pretty parsimonious with her creations, and I suspect she wouldn’t have five to ten photoproducts circulating around if they didn’t do something good for us.  Just because we aren’t advanced enough yet to figure out what it is they do, doesn’t mean they don’t do something.  Thus Dr. Holick’s recommendation to hit the sun if at all possible instead of the supplement bottle.

Plus, there are some downsides to indiscriminately throwing back the supplements without monitoring your 25 (OH)D levels.  See here and here, for example.

One of the few criticisms I have of this exceptional book is that Dr. Holick goes way overboard in his obvious worry about the opinion of the heliophobes.  Throughout, he repeatedly warns against overexposure as if getting a little too much sun from a day at the beach could lead to one’s body becoming wrinkled and having skin cancers the size of buboes popping out all over within a week.  But we can’t be too hard on the poor Doc because the water in which he swims professionally has a high SPF indeed.  His colleagues are primarily dermatologists and Dr. Holick works hard not to gain their total opprobrium.  As cardiologist wage their misguided war against fat, dermatologist wage theirs against the sun.  And just as many cardiologists haven’t figured out that fat can be a good thing, dermatologists apparently haven’t learned of the good sunshine can do.  Or if they have learned it, they’ve chosen to ignore it to their patients’ detriment.

The dermatologists are a pretty vocal group and are constantly issuing press releases about the dangers of sun exposure.  So sun phobic are dermatologists that in their minds, the perfect place to vacation would be inside a cave.  I’m not really exaggerating – they are heliophobes of the deepest dye.  And they don’t tolerate dissent.  Ask Dr. Holick.

In 2004 I was forced to give up my position as a professor of dermatology at Boston University Medical Center, a position I had held for nearly ten years.  My stalwart support of sensible sun exposure just didn’t jibe with the views of the chair of the department.

Since this time the scientific literature has exploded with articles about the benefits of vitamin D and the widespread epidemic of vitamin D deficiency.  (I just ran a PubMed search for vitamin D and found 48,552 citations.) I wonder if this silly woman who fired him and was so pompous and cocksure now feels any sense of remorse?  Especially since she still labors in obscurity while Dr. Holick is an academic rock star.

Another point I would take issue with is Dr. Holick’s statement in the book that there is no difference between vitamin D2 and vitamin D3.  He says he’s performed studies looking at these two versions of vitamin D and found both of them to maintain vitamin D levels in the appropriate range.   Since he’s done the studies and seen the data, I don’t have any reason to disagree with him on his findings.  But, there have been a number of anecdotal reports showing that people with problems due to vitamin D deficiency seem to have better symptomatic improvement if they take vitamin D3 (the real vitamin D) than if they take equivalent doses of vitamin D2.

Since these are anecdotal reports, we can’t put absolute faith in them, but I would still recommend vitamin D3 over vitamin D2.  In these situations where one supplement is supposed to perform better than another, usually the one that allegedly performs better, costs more.  So you end up in a risk reward situation: Do I want to pay more to get a better effect or do I want to pay less and hope for adequate results?  In the vit D3 versus vit D2, we don’t have this circumstance.  Both are dirt cheap, and, if anything, vitamin D3 is less expensive.  So if they both create the same blood levels, but one engenders more anecdotally positive reports, why not go with it.  My advice is to buy vitamin D3 and avoid the D2.

One more criticism I have of the book (might as well get ‘em out early) is Dr. Holick’s aligning with the mainstream in criticizing saturated fat.  I’m sure he hasn’t looked at the literature on saturated fat, because if he had, he wouldn’t have written what he did.  But I can’t really hold that totally against him since he is, after all, a mainstream guy (in all but his defense of sunshine), and, as such, would be expected to be marinated in the mainstream biases.

Unfortunately, for a century now, the American diet has been getting higher in fat–especially in the extra-unhealthy saturated fats.  This may partly explain why skin cancer rates have gone up, as well as diabetes and heart disease.  The average American diet is about 16 percent saturated fat, whereas most qualified dieticians [sic] will tell you it should be no more than one third of that.  To make matters worse, there has been a trend toward fad weight-loss programs advocating high fat content (the Atkins diet is probably the best known of these).

Leaving aside whether these diets actually work in the long term to help people keep weight off, diets high in saturated fat may cause a variety of life-threatening health problems and probably contribute to skin cancer, not to mention all other types of cancer.  But you don’t necessarily have to go on a traditional ‘diet’ to achieve the results you’re looking for.  You just need to start moving toward foods lower in saturated fat and try to limit or evict those foods that contain excessive amounts of fat–which is typically found in processed products (which also usually contain lots of salt and sugar) and marbled meats.  There are several excellent eating plans out there that advocate eating this way.

It’s beyond the scope of this book to offer specifics on the perfect diet, but I’ll say that a healthy eating regimen calls for plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, high-quality proteins (“high-quality” meaning they are low in saturated fat but can be high in healthy monounsaturated fats, as is the case with wild salmon), and whole grains.

Jesus wept.

Fortunately, aside from a few small mentions here and there, this is about the extent of his saturated fat bashing.

For a while now, I have been worried about the long-term effects that will come about from the heliophobes and their constant sunshine bashing. (In fact, MD and I wrote a whole chapter about it in The Protein Power LifePlan back in 2000.)  But after reading The Vitamin D Solution, I’m greatly concerned.  Conscientious parents have no idea of the future damage they may be causing by never letting their children play outside without slathering them with sunscreen.  Today’s children have weaker bones are are much more prone to fracture than children of a few decades ago.  As Dr. Holick reports

Even more alarming is a new epidemic in which bone formation in children appears normal but is actually much softer than is should be.  Girls today break their arms 56 percent more often than did their peers forty years ago.  Boys break their arms 32 percent more often.

I’m sure the girls and boys of forty years ago were much more rough and tumble than the ones of today, yet the kids of today suffer more fractures.

While writing this post I got an email notifying me of a recent study showing that melanoma, a virulently malignant form of skin cancer is occurring with frighteningly high frequency in today’s teens.  These are the adolescents at the leading edge of the great heoliophobe movement, the very ones whose parents, in an effort to protect them, coated these kids liberally with sunscreen every time they walked out of doors.  Did their well-meaning parents set them up for this terrible disease?  Are the chickens coming home to roost?  It’s difficult to say for sure, but, in my opinion, it’s more than likely.  Here’s what happened.

When I was a kid, I played outside all the time.  So did all my friends.  We were outside, especially during the summer, from the time we got up until it was dark.  Since we played outside most all the time, as summer approached and the suns rays became more direct, we had already developed the base of tan from being outside all during the spring when it was difficult to get sunburned.  Our tans protected us from the effects of the sun, blocking both UVA and UVB light.

UVB rays are those that burn the skin and the ones that drive the synthesis of vitamin D.  UVA rays are those that mobilize the melanin (the pigment in the skin) and bring it to the surface.  When enough melanin comes to the surface, our skin gets darker, i.e., we develop a tan.  The tan then protects us from the harmful effects of the sun, allowing us to stay out all day without getting a sunburn and without getting too much UVA, which is important since excess UVA exposure is thought to be the cause of melanoma.

Although many sunscreens available today claim to block both UVB and UVA, when today’s teens were young children, virtually all of the sunscreens on the market then blocked UVB only.  Which is probably the root cause of the increase in melanoma in adolescents today.  Here’s what happens.

People who don’t use sunscreens and who have good sense get out of the sun when they begin to burn.  Avoiding the sun limits the exposure to both UVB, the burning rays, and UVA, the melanoma-stimulating rays.  When people slather on sunscreen that blocks UVB only, they can then stay out in the sun for a long time without burning.  The price they pay for this is that they end up with an extremely large dose of UVA, which doesn’t cause pain but sows the seeds for later melanoma development, a fate that has in the past befallen many a vacationer to the sunny areas of the world.

Many people labor away in offices for 50 weeks of the year then escape for a couple of weeks of fun in the sun.  Since they have limited time, they don’t want to spend it with graduated sun exposure while they develop a tan.  They pile on the sunscreen in copious amounts, hit the beach and stay out all day, stopping only long enough to put on more sunscreen.  During this process, they accumulate the effects of huge exposure to UVA and often pay the price years later by developing melanoma.  Those hardy folk who work outdoors all year long and have constant sun exposure almost never develop melanoma.  Why?  Because they develop a tan that blocks the UVA.  Plus, thanks to their constant sun exposure, they receive the benefit of plenty of vitamin D synthesis, which has been shown to be protective against melanoma.  The poor schmucks on vacation who broil in the sun while basting themselves with sunscreen get way too much UVA and don’t get any vitamin D because sunscreen blocks virtually all of the vitamin D synthesizing rays.  They are the victims of a true double whammy.

And that is what I suspect is driving the increase in melanoma in teens today: their poor misguided parents attempting to do the right thing.  Very sad, indeed.

Along with the increase in melanoma, the huge epidemic of fibromyalgia we are seeing today is in great measure a consequence of vitamin D deficiency.  Without enough vitamin D, bone doesn’t harden as it should.  It grows, but is softer and mushier and less supportive than it should be.  The body continues to make more bone to try to remedy the problem and the bones actually enlarge.  This enlargement presses against the periosteum, the fibrous sheath that surrounds the bone and through which the nerves run.  As the pulpy bony growth presses against the periosteum, it stimulates the nerves in the periosteum and causes the deep bone pain common to sufferers of fibromyalgia.  Doctors who are up to date on their vitamin D knowledge will press the breastbone to try to elicit pain.  And if they do, their patient is probably suffering from a vitamin D deficiency.  If that’s what the blood test shows, then the fibromyalgia can be treated with a course of sunshine and/or vitamin D supplementation.

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading The Vitamin D Solution on a plane, and the guy sitting across the aisle from me was reading Predictably Irrational, which I had read and enjoyed a while back.  I kept looking to see where he was in his book, and he kept glancing at mine.  After we had landed and were taxiing in, he asked me if I had ever known anyone who had responded medically to vitamin D.  He then told me that he had been experiencing severe, debilitating pains in the bones in his chest, back and legs.  He went to his doctor, who checked his vitamin D levels, found them way low, and started my new friend on a course of vitamin D supplements, which, in due course, had gotten rid of his problem.  He was a pretty tan guy, so I asked him about his sun exposure and wondered why he would be vitamin D deficient.  He then told me he was a kidney transplant patient, which explained everything.  As you will learn when you read Dr. Holick’s book, the kidney converts the inactive form of vitamin D circulating in the blood to the active form.  This gentleman’s transplanted kidney obviously wasn’t doing it for him.  Vitamin D supplements did the trick, however, and his pains had vanished.

The subject matter I’ve covered in this post barely scratches the surface of what’s there in Dr. Holick’s new book.  I heartily recommend it to all.

Before I sign off here, though, I want to relate a funny story.  Funny to me at least.  It involves a character who was a running dog of mine back when I was in medical school.  Any of you who read The Protein Power LifePlan already met this guy in another humorous adventure of his I related in the section on iron overload.  He’s the guy who dated the pig lady.

This guy was, in Billy Bob Thornton’s memorable words to Woody Harrelson in the movie Indecent Proposal, a “real poon hound.”  This guy would relentlessly go after anything with a skirt.  And, as often happens with those types, he came down with a bad case of herpes.  As soon as he got his diagnosis he went into a depression for about a week and then began reading everything he could read on herpes.  He discovered that herpes was typically a local infection but that in some patients (mainly immunocompromised ones) herpes could go systemic, which means it could spread through the bloodstream and and create a hellish infection everywhere, often with fatal consequences.  His affliction was never far from his mind, which led to the tale that follows.

In those days Zovirax hadn’t been developed, so the only remedies for this loathsome disorder were OTC products that didn’t really work.  At that time the main OTC med was Stoxil, which my friend purchased by the car-load lot and coated himself (or at least his infected parts) with at the least sign of an outbreak.

One day he came down with some kind of upper respiratory infection and called me to get something for it.  He was prone to these infections, which responded well to minocycline, a tetracycline-derivative drug.  I called him in a course of the drug and forgot about it.

Unbeknownst to me, my friend was planning a day at the lake with his latest inamorata.   Complexion-wise, he was lily white and usually avoided the sun.  A day at the lake was not his typical recreation, so I can be excused from not telling him not to go out in the sun; it would have never occurred to me that he might do so. The sun can be a problem because tetracycline drugs have a propensity to give people who take them a photosensitivity reaction when they get too much exposure.  These photosensitivity reactions cause the skin to swell and become discolored and blistered.

My friend took his meds as prescribed, had a great day at the lake, came home with the girl and hit the sack.  After he had been asleep for a few hours, he woke up needing to relieve himself.  On his walk to the toilet, he passed the bathroom mirror and glanced at the mirror wherein he saw the Elephant Man staring back at him.  His face red, blistered and swollen, eyes just slits.  He had obviously had a bad photosensitivity reaction (obviously that is to those who knew about such things) after his day in the sun while on minocycline.  But he didn’t know this.  He flew into a blind panic because the first thing that sprang to his mind was that his herpes was swarming on him: that he had developed systemic herpes.  He immediately grabbed the Stoxil and practically bathed in it.  Then he put in an emergency call to his dermatologist, whom, I’m sure, found it strange since dermatologists rarely — if ever — get emergency calls.

When he told me about it later in the day, I burst out laughing and have laughed about it any time I thought of it up to this moment.  In fact, I’m having trouble typing these words because I’m still laughing so hard remembering.  Who says doctors are humorless?  My friend even laughed about it later, though admittedly not to the same degree I did.  What I found so funny was not his condition but the fact that he was so obsessed with his herpes that the first thought that jumped to his mind was that his disfigurement was his herpes going wild.  Maybe you just had to be there.

Don’t let my semi-off-topic detour make you forget about picking up a copy of Dr. Holick’s book.  Despite my few minor criticisms, it is an excellent book that provides a wealth of useful information.  Just the Q&A is worth the price of the book because in that section Dr. Holick answers all the questions anyone might think of about vitamin D, including the one I’ve been asked numerous times: If you shower after sunbathing, does it wash away the vitamin D.  The answer is No.  Then he explains why.

There is something for everyone in this book, from studies showing sun bathing works as well (if not better) than medications for lowering blood pressure to discussions of vitamin D and its effects on obesity and leptin secretion.  It doesn’t matter if you’re depressed, have multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, osteoporosis or even PMS, you can learn how vitamin D will help you out. Grab a copy and start reading.

Since the last time I posted (which, admittedly, was a while ago), I’ve flown about 8 billion miles, so I’ve had plenty of time to read while in the air.  Here is a list of the books  on my nightstand right now.

Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization by Spencer Wells.  I’m about a forth of the way through this book describing the problems we hunting/gathering humans have had in adapting to agriculture.  So far, so good.  A couple of medical missteps already, but nothing major.  But I haven’t gotten to the real meat of the part on disease, so I’ll reserve my judgment until then.

The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home by Dan Ariely.  This is the follow up book to Predictably Irrational, which I posted about earlier.  While the first book explained how predictably irrational we humans really are, this second one teaches us how to benefit from it.

Manthropology by Peter McAllister.  A fun book written by an Australian anthropologist discussing what wimps modern men (and women) are compared to their Paleo ancestors.  According to McAllister, today’s elite athletes would have trouble competing with our ancient predecessors in any events requiring speed or strength.  Unfortunately this book won’t be available in a US edition until Oct 2010.  If you want it before then, you can get it on Amazon, but you’ll have to pay through the nose for it like I did. I couldn’t resist the title.

The First Cut, Cut to the Quick, and The Deepest Cut all by Dianne Emley.  The careful reader can probably detect a theme in these books, which are are police procedural mystery novels set in Pasadena, CA.  The protagonist, Nan Vining, is a single mom and has recovered from a near death experience after having been stabbed in the throat while on duty.  These have been my escapist books over the past couple of weeks.  I’m running out of mysteries to read because it seems that I have read everything written by US and UK (and even Australian) authors.  Help!  Any and all suggestions will be appreciated.

36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction by Rebecca Goldstein.  A literary novel if there ever were one.  Probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoyed it immensely.  It has so many moving parts that it’s hard to describe.  Read the Amazon review if you’re interested.

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridly .  I was curious to see how Matt Ridly, an excellent science writer, would approach a more soft science than usual.  His thesis is that collective human intelligence will save us from the fates all the Erhlich’s and Malthusians fear await us.

Decoding Reality: The Universe as Quantum Information by Vlatko Vedral. Another book that is no doubt not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m a physics/quantum mechanics geek so I enjoy this kind of book.  It explores the idea that information is the basic element making up the universe.

Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans by Brian Fagan.  Dr. Fagan is an Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a fellow member of the Santa Barbara Yacht Club. This book, his latest, explores the time that Cro-Magnon man and Neanderthals co-existed in Europe and how the superior intellect of the former allowed them to survive the Ice Age.  Until I read this book, it hadn’t occurred to me that the Cro-Magnons, who were identical to us genetically, roamed Europe for about 30,000 years, a length of time vastly longer than all of recorded history.  And yet it seems we know less about them than we do most of the other primitive beings.

2009 Bestseller list

It’s time for the 2009 bestseller list.  These are books purchased last year through this website from readers either going through the Amazon portals on the page (more about which later) or clicking on Amazon links appearing in many of the posts when books are mentioned. As always, these are all the books purchased that are not books MD and I wrote or co-wrote.

The number one winner going away was Lierre Kieth’s brilliant The Vegetarian Myth.  If you haven’t read it, grab a copy ASAP.  For those of you who don’t know, Lierre was recently the victim of an assault at a San Francisco reading.  Masked thugs came out from behind the stage and smashed her in the head and face with pies laced with cayenne pepper.  After the assault took place, while Lierre was trying to get the burning pepper out of her eyes, the audience (of mainly vegetarians) cheered.  It was truly disgusting.  Richard Nikoley and Tom Naughton reported on the assault here and here.  Jimmy Moore has a  interview with Lierre about the attack here. Tom Naughton proposes a rationale for such behavior here.

It appears that militant vegans have secured  Lierre’s name and other versions of her name on Twitter and are mounting a vicious smear  campaign against her.  Purchase her book to fight back.  Success is her best revenge.

Here are the books in descending order.

#1 The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Kieth.  My review here.

#2 Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.  My review here.

#3 Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes.  My review here.

#4 Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind by Donald Johanson. My review here.

#5 Control Theory by William Glasser My review here.

#6 The Brain Trust by Larry McCleary, M.D. My review here.

#7 500 Low-Carb Recipes: 500 Recipes from Snacks to Dessert, That the Whole Family Will Love by Dana Carpender

#8 Natural Hormone Balance for Women by Uzzi Reiss.  A mention here.

#9 How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman.  MD’s review here along with her entire list of essential cookbooks.

#10 Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High by Kerry Patterson et al.  My review here.

#10 Primal Body-Primal Mind by Nora Gedgaudas

#10 The Great Cholesterol Con by Malcolm Kendrick.  My review here.

#10 The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt My review here.

The last four books on the list sold exactly the same number of copies, so they all tied for 10th on the list.  I listed them alphabetically.

Although not a book, sales of the DVD of Tom Naughton’s brilliant film Fat Head would have put it at #2 on the list.  If you haven’t seen this film, order it today.  Here’s my review.

I want to thank all of you who have ordered not just books but all kinds of things through this site.  And I want to encourage you to continue.  The small commission I make on each order helps underwrite the maintenance on this site, which is much higher than I would have thought it would be.  Plus, I’m still paying off the recent redesign.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, any time you order a book or a DVD or a CD or anything (groceries, supplements, tee-shirts, whatever) through Amazon.com, I get a small commission on your order.  But I get this only if you go through one of the Amazon portals on this blog or MD’s blog or anywhere on the website.  What is an Amazon portal?  If you click the picture of The Six-Week Cure for the Middle-Aged Middle at the upper right of this post, you will be taken to the Six-Week Cure page on Amazon.  If you’re looking for something else, just type it in the search window, click the ‘Go’ button to the right, and you will be taken to wherever you want to go, and anything you purchase once you get there will earn me a tiny commission.

This whine for help with Amazon is my own version of those awful PBS fundraising telethons.  The difference is that here it doesn’t cost you anything; you simply have to purchase whatever you were going to purchase through Amazon anyway by going through one of the portals on this blog.  And your free programming will continue.

As some of you may have noticed, I finally removed the tacky Google ads that were at the bottom of each post.  I didn’t even realize they were there until I was having lunch with Mark Sisson one day, and he asked me what my relationship with Atkins Nutritionals was.  I told him I had no relationship with them.  He told me he figured I did because a fairly prominent banner ad for Atkins Nutritionals appeared at the bottom of each of my posts.  I checked myself, and, sure enough, there were the ads.  I looked into it and found out that I was making about $45 per month for these ads (not all were Atkins, but most were) so I ditched them altogether.  Had I been making $1500 per month on these ads, I may have had second thoughts, but as it was, I had no problem giving them the ax.

So, at this point, no ads are cluttering the pages of my blog or MD’s blog.  Other, of course, than those for our own books, which are the previously mentioned Amazon portals.  Order early and order often.

Merry Christmas from Dallas

A quick post just to let everyone know that I’m still among the living and that I haven’t given up posting for good.

MD and I have taken off a few days and are in Dallas with kids and grandkids celebrating Christmas.  It snowed like crazy all yesterday afternoon, and, according to the newspapers, Dallas has had its first white Christmas since 1926.  And we were here to witness it.  At left is a photo looking out the back door.  Granted, it’s not a New England eight inch snow or a Colorado two foot snow, but it’s a pretty substantial snow for Dallas.  Maybe it’s a harbinger of good things to come, although the last white Christmas preceded the year in which the Great Depression started.

I’ve been absent from posting because MD and I have been incredibly busy with Sous Vide Supreme stuff.  I just thought we were busy during the developmental stage.  The post-developmental era has consumed enormous amounts of our time.  Especially since our invention had such a nice write up in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago.  We’ve been inundated with requests for interviews from multiple media sources and for write ups for this and that.  And all that is not to mention a week’s worth of filming in Seattle.  We’re making a true infomercial on the Sous Vide Supreme with emphasis on the ‘info’ part.  So many people are unaware of what the sous vide process is, so we’re going to tell them.

We’ve teamed up with chef Richard Blais, whom many of you may know from Top Chef, Iron Chef America and other TV cooking shows.  He couldn’t be any nicer nor any easier to work with – a really great guy who can cook like you wouldn’t believe.  He will appear with MD on the infomercial that will start running early next year.  Below is a photo of the two of them camping it up on the set.

The infomercial filming went without a hitch, and the food that Richard Blais prepared in the SVS was incomparable.  On the eve of the filming my brother sent me a YouTube of an infomercial that had a few problems.  I forwarded it on to the rest of the team, and fortunately the Sous Vide Supreme functioned a little better than the popcorn popper in the video below.

We’ve also teamed up with the retailer Sur La Table.  They will be carrying the Sous Vide Supreme in their stores and in their catalog right after the start of the year.  MD and Richard will be doing demos in several of the stores, so if you want to see the SVS in the flesh, so to speak, head on over to a Sur La Table near you and take a look.

This entire sous vide experience has been different than anything we’ve ever done.  It’s really nice to see articles and reviews that are all positive instead of the hatchet jobs we’re used to getting while promoting low-carb.  No one accuses us of being purveyors of dangerous fad diets, of encouraging people to eat more artery-clogging saturated fat, of being doctors of death (which we’ve been called on live radio) or of simply trying to make a quick buck at the expense of the health of those gullible enough to follow our recommendations.  The new experience has been rewarding and a lot of fun but incredibly time consuming.  Thus my absence from my blogging duties.

But I’ve been absent in electrons only.  I’ve been flying all over the place carrying a satchel of scientific papers that I’ve been reviewing and preparing to blog about.  So I’m fully loaded with ammo and ready to write after I’ve taken a fews days of a breather.

I haven’t been totally offline, however.  I’ve been keeping up with the blogs I  read regularly and haven’t been able to resist commenting when something gets under my skin.

Food writer Michael Ruhlman did a great review of the Sous Vide Supreme, and in the comments section someone took me (and the SVS team) to task for profiteering.   As you might imagine, this kind of thing really gets my hackles up, especially since we are still way, way in the red on this project.  I kept myself in check (the good Mike won out as MD would say) and wrote a couple of mild  but informative comments.  You can read them here.

My friend Amy Alkon, the Advice Goddess, whose blog I read religiously, wrote a funny post on bacon featuring the kind of ill-disciplined child who gives the South a bad name.  Amy, who is an inveterate low-carber, wrote the post from the perspective of how much she likes bacon.  Of course some commenter couldn’t resist slamming low-carb diets in general and Gary Taubes in particular, so I couldn’t resist resorting to form (the bad Mike sort of won out on this one).  If you’re interested, you can read that exchange here (two comments). The guy turned out to be pretty nice and even sent me a friendly email via Amy.

Speaking of Gary Taubes… he tipped me off on an interesting paper on HDL that I’ll post on soon and I’ve uncovered a few others on the fallacy of the lipid hypothesis.  It looks like the mainstream is ratcheting up its jihad against low-carb again with a few spurious papers badly in need of a public dismantling.  I’ll soon be tanned, rested and ready to shred.  And to go after the statinators, the great medical menaces of our time.  Plus I’ll throw in a nice post on how long it might take the low-carb diet to become the diet recognized by all as the correct diet for most everyone.

Until then, I’m going to lay low and try to catch up on my non-scientific reading.  Speaking of which, I got a great book as a Christmas present from my grandkids today.  It is Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson and is about US Air Flight 5149 that went into the Hudson River last January.  Although the book extols the skill and courage of Capt Sullenberger and crew, its main emphasis is on the aircraft they flew: the Airbus 320.

Twenty five years before Flight 1549 took its plunge, a highly intelligent, charismatic French fighter pilot and test pilot named Bernard Ziegler talked the management at Airbus to let him design a plane that almost flew itself.  Ziegler recognized that pilots exhibited a bell-shaped curve in their level of skill and expertise and that some of the less skilled had ended up killing themselves along with all their passengers after getting into situations that more skilled pilots may have gotten out of safely.  He wanted to design a plane with layers of built-in redundancies that would allow all pilots, but especially those less skilled, to worry about the major goal of any pilot who is in trouble – getting safely on the ground – without  being distracted by all the little details of flying.  In other words – and in very simplistic words – if pilots could simply make the decision to land, the plane could almost fly itself.  When pilots get in tricky situations it is sometimes difficult to get out of them without stressing the plane to the point of structural damage.  As the pilots are trying to avoid disaster they have to worry not only about their main problem – a loss of power, say – but have to baby the plane to keep it from breaking up.  Ziegler fixed all that with the Airbus by designing it to perform maximally under control of multiple computers while the pilots tend to the main problem at hand.  Since the computers control these functions of the plane by electricity it’s called flying by the wire.

When Sully and crew brought the plane down safely in the Hudson, they were flying by wire.  And as the author William Langewiesche puts it

They had no choice.  Like it or not, Ziegler reached out across the years and cradled them all the way to the water. His assistance may have been unnecessary, given the special qualities of these particular two [the pilots of Flight 1549], but there is no question the practical effects were profound.  At the moment of the bird strike, when the engines lost thrust, a conventional airplane would have tried immediately to nose down.  It would have wanted to go into a sharp descent, and would have required whoever was flying to haul back on the controls with some strength and to retrim the airplane for a slower, more moderate glide, while disciplining the wings to stay level until the decision could be made to turn around.  None of this is inherently difficult, but it imposes insidious demands on the crew in an emergency, when they are already busy with more important concerns.  It is an accepted reality that the repetitive and menial jobs, associated with baseline control subtly impinge on a pilot’s capacities, and that during periods of truly high workloads, even simple thoughts are difficult to have.

Imagine trying to disarm a bomb while also having to deal with menial chores and talk on the phone at the same time.

This fascinating book doesn’t detract from the skill and heroism of the crew of Flight 1549, but explains in detail why they were able to make it look so easy.

I loved this book.  I opened it in the morning and had it finished before lunch (lunch was sous vide turkey, if you must know).  If you have any interest in aviation, Fly by Wire is a must read.  Despite the fact that the author dissects in detail a number of commercial aviation disasters in the recent past, the book actually makes one feel safer flying, especially in an Airbus 320.

This post is already longer than I had intended it to be, so I wish you all a Merry Christmas.  I’ll be back soon.

Merry Christmas from Dallas

I’ll leave you with a couple more photos.  Below on the left is my Southern grandson testing the snow barefooted.  On the right is MD slicing the sous vide turkey we had for lunch.

Saturday catching up post

As anyone who regularly reads this blog can tell, I’ve been a bit hit and miss in posting lately.  The bride and I have been swamped with work on the Sous Vide Supreme project.  MD has been working with chefs to develop recipes along with creating a bunch herself; she has been editing a book on sous vide for the home cook written by yet another sous vide expert; she’s been posting on the Sous Vide Supreme blog (eggs the sous vide way); and, as you can see at the left, she’s been talking sous vide to anyone who will listen.  All this while she prepares for performing the Messiah in about two weeks.  I’ve been heavily involved in the business end of things, which is a never-ending task.  Plus, I’m the taster-in-chief.  Neither of us dreamed that this would turn into such a time-gobbling project after the development of the machine.  But it has.  It seems that we are spending twice as much time now working in some capacity on  Sous Vide Supreme than we ever did before – even when we were at our busiest.  I’m going to have to work harder on my time management if I expect to keep up with all the other projects – including this blog – that I have going.

Twitter

The sous vide time commitments have put a real hickey on my reading.  I’ve probably read less over the past four months than in any four month period of my life.  Instead of five or six books per week, I’m down to about two or three max.  I hate it.  I’m trying to keep up with my daily medical/scientific journal trawl, but that has even slacked off a bit.  When I do find something of interest, instead of blogging on it as I used to, I stick it up on my Twitter page.  I probably post 10-15 times per day on Twitter, so if you want to keep up on a moment-by-moment basis, follow me on Twitter.  If you have a problem thinking of yourself as a Twitter person, give it a try.  I dipped my toes in the Twitter waters with great hesitation, and now I love it.  I’ve found it extremely valuable because I find all kinds of new stuff daily.  You’ve got to be careful who you follow, however, or you can waste a ton of time.  If you get started, start following people who provide you with information you can use.  I avoid following people who do nothing but tell me what they ate for breakfast that day or what movie they’re going to see that night.  Sign up an give it a go. You don’t have to write anything (or tweet, as it’s called) if you don’t want to.  You can simply lurk and be the beneficiary of a ton of good info.   The Twitter people take you by the hand and get you squared away.  It takes all of about two minutes – if even that.  Literally.

Comments

I have fallen way, way behind on dealing with comments.  As I wrote a while back, I had to stop answering individual comments, and I’ve pretty much stuck to my guns on that.  Problem is, I had about three hundred comments stacked up before I started doing that.

When comments come in and I post them, they go up in by date.  So back when I was spending half my day dealing with them, I would often come across a comment that required some thought and a detailed answer.  If I didn’t have time to deal with it right then, I put it off until later.  Often when later came, I had 20 or 30 more that came in after the one requiring the time.  I didn’t want to answer those and put them up ahead of the one I hadn’t answered, so I simply didn’t deal with any of them.  Now I’ve got about 340 of them stacked up and it gives me heartburn whenever I even get on my blog administration screen.  The sad thing is that some of these comments go back months and months.

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out what to do with them, and I’ve finally come to a decision.  I’m simply going to post them as they are.  I’m going to post about 30 of them per day until they’re all up.  Why not all at once?  Because I know many of you are set up to get comments emailed to you when I post them.  I don’t want to clot email accounts with 340 emailed comments all at once, especially since some of these comments are lengthy.  So, I dole them out over the next 10 days or so while keeping up with the new comments as they come in. I won’t start this process for a few days to get those of you who don’t want even 30 of them a day coming in to unsubscribe.

Since many of these hoarded comments contain very good questions, they are a trove of subjects for future blog posts.  As I post them, I’m going to reread them and clip those that would make for good posts into Evernote or my new favorite plaything DEVONthink that I’m just starting to feel my way along with. (See this great Steven Johnson (whom I follow on Twitter) article about the virtues of DEVONthink.)  After I’ve got these blogworthy comments in a format in which I can find them instantly, I’ll start working through them and posting.

Bloggers and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)

I don’t know how closely blog readers attended to the recent announcement by the FTC that they were going to start riding herd on bloggers, but the bloggers went ballistic.

Among its other duties, the FTC patrols the universe of advertising in this country looking for anyone or any company engaging in, as they term it, deceptive practices.  In other words, the FTC is on the prowl seeking out advertisers who make false claims in order to stop them and punish them.  Which all sounds good in the abstract, but in reality is a whole other story.

As I pointed out in an earlier blog, it’s a valuable exercise to read Kevin Trudeau’s first book to see how the FTC operates.  The nutritional and health information he presents is total garbage, but his description of the practices of the FTC is right on the money. (I’ve got to admit that some of the nutritional and health information presented in Trudeau’s first book (the only one I’ve read) is accurate, but I write that off to the law of averages.  He presents so much information that odds are some of it just happens to be true.  So, if you read the book and come across something that is nutritionally accurate, don’t write me about it.  I know a few things are there, but not enough to justify reading the book other than the first part, which is an excellent treatise on the FTC.)

The FTC has the power to absolutely ruin anyone and/or any company it chooses to go after.  If you read the first part of Trudeau’s book, you’ll see how.

So, the FTC opined that they planned on monitoring bloggers to see if they disclosed the fact that they were paid to do reviews on products.  Apparently, many bloggers make money by doing paid reviews on products without disclosing such, and the FTC doesn’t like it.

I’ve never reviewed products for pay, but I have read enough about it to know how it works.  Companies provide bloggers products, then pay these bloggers for reviews of the products.  I guess the fact that bloggers are given the products and possibly paid for the reviews as well might induce them to write positive reviews of products that they thought sucked.  And I assume that’s what the FTC is concerned about.

The FTC’s actions certainly got the blogosphere in an uproar.  So much so, in fact, that the FTC started to crawdad, which I never thought would happen.  Just goes to show that if you turn the spotlight of public awareness on even the most aggressive and powerful of all government agencies, you can get results.

Not that I fear the FTC on this (at least not at this point), I’ll go ahead and disclose where I get dinero from this blog.  Virtually all of the money that comes to me through the blog comes from readers buying products through Amazon.com.  When they buy a book I recommend or go through one of the book thumbnails of Protein Power or the 6-Week Cure up at the top right or any of our other books I have up on the site, I get a little bit of lucre for it.  And I get a little more if they buy anything else after entering Amazon through one of the portals in this blog.  In a good month, it’s enough to cover my hosting and web guy expenses; in a bad month (as this one is turning out to be), it’s about enough to cover the hosting of the site and maybe an hour or so of the web guy time.

Google ads

I get a little income from Google ads, but I’m trying to get them off the site.  I’ve had several web guys working on the site over the years, and I guess code for these Google ads is stuck all over the place.  I get rid of them in once place, it seems they pop up somewhere else.  When I had Google ads everywhere, I made about $150 per month, which, in my opinion, isn’t enough to justify tacky-ing up the site with a zillion ads.  Plus, I don’t have time to go through and spend time trying to figure out which ads to block.  Many people, I’ve learned, don’t realize that these ads aren’t part of the site, and they wonder why, when I’ve just spent 2000 words bashing statins, an ad for a statin pops up.

A while back I was having lunch with Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple when he asked me what kind of a deal I had going with Atkins Nutritionals.  I told him I didn’t have any kind of deal going with them whatsoever.  I asked him why he asked.  He told me that he gets my blog posts by email, and that at the bottom of each one is a banner ad from Atkins.  I was embarrassed to say that I didn’t even know you could get the posts by email and that I didn’t have a clue why the Atkins ads were there.  I went home and pulled up the blog (I usually never look at the actual blog – only the admin page), and sure enough, there was a way I could get the posts by email.  I signed up to get my own posts, wrote one, and sure enough, here it came with an Atkins ad at the bottom of it.  I thought I had it all taken care of, but I just looked moments ago and there is still a banner ad at the bottom of the emailed post.  I’ve added it once more to the list of things to have my guy deal with when I get with him on Monday.

Book recommendation

While on the subject of Amazon.com, books and book recommendations, I might as well recommend one.
I finished a terrific book not long ago called A Colossal Failure of Common Sense: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Lehman Brothers. As the title implies, this is a treatise about the fall of the House of Lehman, one of the country’s oldest investment banks, and is written by one of the vice presidents who names names and points the finger.

Not only is this book chock full of great information about how Lehman Bros, Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs and others operate, it is extremely well written.  The ‘author’ realized he didn’t have the skills to tell his own story in a readable manner, so he hired a writer.  But he didn’t just go out and hire one of the non-fiction write-for-hire folks that are swarming around out there, he hired Patrick Robinson, a best-selling thriller writer.  As a consequence, the book is absolutely gripping. Not only do you learn a ton about how the financial crisis developed, you learn it in a gripping, racing-through-the-pages fashion.  You’ve heard people say about certain books that they read like a novel.  Well, this one does.  I had real trouble putting it down.

After reading this book, you will know exactly why we’re in the boat we’re in now and will be stupified at the mismanagement at the top.  As I read through and learned about the perfidy of Moody’s, Standard & Poors, and the other financial rating outfits that gave the most worthless financial instruments triple A ratings, I was stunned that these companies hadn’t been prosecuted.  Without their complicity, the whole house of cards couldn’t have been erected because no one would have purchased the products.  I was interested to read in today’s Financial Times that at least  Ohio is going after them.  I suspect Ohio won’t be the last.  According to the author, these companies made billions while failing to do their due diligence before passing out AAA ratings like they were candy at Halloween.

Not long after I read the book, I came upon a piece by Calvin Trillin in the editorial section of the New York Times that summed up the situation nicely.  The problem was the enormity of the amounts of money waiting to be made drew smart people to Wall Street.  A funny but insightful short essay.

After you read the book and Trillin’s piece, take a look at this video I posted about a year ago.  It will make it all that much more funny.  And sad.

The 6-Week Cure blog

All I can say is that it’s about up.  And apologies for not having it up sooner.  I hope we’ll have it operational this week and populated with a few posts.

Another vegetarian myth

I wrote in a bookish post (or maybe in answer to a comment on a bookish post – I can’t remember) a while back that I had read most of the mystery novels out there and was looking for a new series to sink my teeth into.  Someone suggested the DI Charlie Priest mysteries by Stuart Pawson.  I got one and liked it, so I’ve been motoring through those as time allows.

The last one I read was Deadly Friends about a murdered doctor, a serial rapist and a host of other minor villains. At a point about midway through, DI Priest and one of his underlings are walking around scoping out a pharmacy prior to entering to get info about the dead doctor.  All these books – at least the four or five I’ve read so far – are written in the first person, so everything is from Priest’s perspective.  Here’s what he says:

We completed our circuit of the block.  Passing the back of the butcher’s I tried not to inhale and wished I had the willpower to go vegetarian.  Trouble is, I like my steaks.

AAARRRGGGHHHH!  Even in mystery novels I’m being reminded of how deep the vegetarian mantra has wormed its way into our collective brains.  How many times have we all heard variations on this theme?  One of the ideas the vegetarian movement has managed to get firmly implanted in the minds of many is that vegetarianism is a more healthful way to eat.  I’ve heard numerous people wistfully say they really would like to be able to follow a vegetarian diet because it’s so much more healthful, but they just like meat too much to do it.

The truth is, as we all know, that vegetarian diets are decidedly less healthful than diets containing animal protein. But the great unwashed masses don’t seem to have figured this out.

But I’ve got to hand it to the vegetarian brigade: they’ve managed to successfully propagandize most of the population.  And they’ve done so without any real science behind them.  The most they can point to is a sheaf of observational studies that don’t prove squat.

The low-carb/Paleo movement, on the other hand, is producing more data almost daily that a lower-carb, higher-fat, higher-protein diet is infinitely better for a majority of the population.  But, we don’t get the message out as well as the other side does, I suppose.  I went to a Borders Books the other day and found an entire collection of free booklets written for children telling of the horrors of factory farming and encouraging them to go vegetarian.

We are starting to make some inroads into this nonsense, however, with the help of some former vegetarians who have seen the error of their ways.  If you haven’t read Lierre Kieth’s book yet, add it to your Christmas list.

I’m girding my loins for all the hostile comments I’m sure to get from angry vegetarians.  These comments will be from vegans telling me how healthy they are and how many miles they can run and how they could kick my butt in any endeavor I might wish to engage them in.  And they’ll reference the idiotic China Study and a host of other meaningless observational junk.  But wait.  I don’t have to gird my loins.  I’m not dealing with these comments any more.  I’m just posting them as they come in.  Give it your best shot.

To see under what conditions our genome developed, read on.

The hunter-gatherer lifestyle

Just to wrap this long, meandering post up, I want to end with a link to a great article in the December 2009 National Geographic.  And to bring this post full circle, I’ve got to let you know that I found this article on Twitter.  I wouldn’t have discovered it otherwise. At least not as quickly as I did.

The long article is about the Hadza who follow a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in remote Tanzania.  The area the Hadza roam is being encroached upon by all kinds of agricultural and tourist businesses, and the author doubts these indigenous people can maintain their lifestyle for much longer.
The men hunt and the women gather.  The Hadza went on a nighttime baboon hunt and took the author along.  His account of the hunt makes for a riveting read.  Once killed, the Hadza haul the baboon back to what serves as a camp and prepare to serve it up.  I’ll leave you with the author’s description of the meal.

Ngaola skins the baboon and stakes out the pelt with sharpened twigs. The skin will be dry in a few days and will make a fine sleeping mat. A couple of men butcher the animal, and cuts of meat are distributed. Onwas, as camp elder, is handed the greatest delicacy: the head.

The Hadza cooking style is simple—the meat is placed directly on the fire. No grill, no pan. Hadza mealtime is not an occasion for politeness. Personal space is generally not recognized; no matter how packed it is around a fire, there’s always room for one more, even if you end up on someone’s lap. Once a cut of meat has finished cooking, anyone can grab a bite.

And I mean grab. When the meat is ready, knives are unsheathed and the frenzy begins. There is grasping and slicing and chewing and pulling. The idea is to tug at a hunk of meat with your teeth, then use your knife to slice away your share. Elbowing and shoving is standard behavior. Bones are smashed with rocks and the marrow sucked out. Grease is rubbed on the skin as a sort of moisturizer. No one speaks a word, but the smacking of lips and gnashing of teeth is almost comically loud.

I’m ravenous, so I dive into the scrum and snatch up some meat. Baboon steak, I have to say, isn’t terrible—a touch gamy, but it’s been a few days since I’ve eaten protein, and I can feel my body perking up with every bite. Pure fat, rather than meat, is what the Hadza crave, though most coveted are the baboon’s paw pads. I snag a bit of one and pop it in my mouth, but it’s like trying to swallow a pencil eraser. When I spit the gob of paw pad out, a young boy instantly picks it up and swallows it.

Onwas, with the baboon’s head, is comfortably above the fray. He sits cross-legged at his fire and eats the cheeks, the eyeballs, the neck meat, and the forehead skin, using the soles of his sandals as a cutting board. He gnaws the skull clean to the bone, then plunges it into the fire and calls me and the hunters over for a smoke.

Bestseller list for 2008

While looking for an old post for a reader, I came upon one of the bestseller lists I did last year, which reminded me that I hadn’t posted one of these in a while.  I had been trying to keep them up quarterly so that readers of this blog could see the books other readers were buying, but, what with all the links required, these posts are a real hassle to put up. So, since I, like most everyone else, gravitate toward pleasure and away from pain, I’ve not kept up with my quarterly timetable.

I can probably muster up the gumption to do it annually, so here is the list of the bestselling books from 2008.  These are the books that readers of this blog purchased through Amazon by clicking on the links or book icons on my blog, MD’s blog and the home page of the website.  I’ve listed only books not written by MD and/or me.

The number one bestselling book was Mistakes Were Made, which is one of the better books that I’ve read in a long, long time.  It’s now out in paperback, so if you haven’t read it, get a copy.  It explains in an easy-to-read way how the confirmation bias works and why we all need to carefully examine why we believe what we believe.  And it shows the validity of Stuart Chase’s famous quote:

For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.

I’ve read a slew of books on the confirmation bias and why we believe what we believe, but, in my opinion, Mistakes Were Made is by far and away the best of them all.

Here are all the books in descending order of sales:

#1. Mistakes Were Made by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (my full review)

#2. Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes (my review)

#3 Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson et al (my review)

#4 The Brain Trust Program by Larry McCleary, M.D. (my review)

#5 500 Low-Carb Recipes by Dana Carpender

#6 The Great Cholesterol Con by Malcolm Kendrick, M.D. (my review)

#7 200 Low-Carb Slow Cooker Recipes by Dana Carpender

#8 Dr. Bernstein’s Diabetes Solution by Richard Bernstein, M.D.

#9 How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman (MD’s review)

#10 The Low-Carb Baking and Dessert Cookbook by Ursula Solom

As always, I appreciate all of you who have supported this site by purchasing your books, CDs, DVDs, clothing, electronics and all the other stuff you’ve purchased through the Amazon portal on this site.

For those of you who don’t realize how this all works, you can click on one of the above links or one of the book icons on the front page of this blog or the home page of the website and you will be taken to that particular book’s page on Amazon.com.  Once there, you can search for anything Amazon has available, and if your purchase it, I get a little kickback for providing the entry portal.  It is one of the few truly win-win deals out there.  You get your book (or whatever) at the regular (usually heavily discounted) Amazon price, and I get a little dinero to help pay the web guys who keep the site updated and running.  In looking over last year’s records, I was able to pay about two thirds of my tech bills with my Amazon kickback (I hate that word, but I can’t think of a better one), so thanks very much to all those who helped.

I’m constantly telling my own family members, most of whom order a lot of stuff from Amazon, to go to Amazon through the portal on this blog instead of just logging in on amazon.com and buying away.  But it often falls on deaf ears, so maybe I’ll have a little better luck with readers here.  I know it’s a little extra hassle to pull up this blog and click on one of the books to get to Amazon than it is to simply click on Amazon directly, but if you do take the extra couple of seconds, you’ll make an old man very happy.

A bookish blog post

Sir William Crookes

In the fall of 1898 Sir William Crookes (right) gave his inaugural address as the incoming president of the British Academy of Sciences.   Unlike the typical such speech, this one was prophetic and alerted the British populace for the first time to a real and growing problem.  And the populace began to worry, because Sir William was the Al Gore of his day, alerting his country (and the world) to a looming danger.

Other than prophesying disaster, however, there were a few notable differences between Sir William and Al Gore.  First and foremost, Sir William was a true scientist, not a bloated former politician with no technical training.  He was the inventor of the predecessor of the tubes later used in televisions and radios and had discovered and added thallium to the periodic table.  The second major difference is that his worries were valid.  They weren’t concocted from a gibberish of people hoping to cash in on the public’s fears of an imaginary melting of the earth, but were born of a serious concern for the continued success of the human race.  Or at the very least, the continued success of the people of Great Britain.

Sir William Crookes was deeply (and rightfully) concerned that the world would soon run out of the ability to fertilize crops, and that, as a consequence, millions would die.  At that time Britain was importing guano (the droppings of sea birds) from islands off the coast of Peru and from the nitrate fields of Chile, but those sources were finite, and Sir William realized they would at some point run out.  (He predicted sometime in 1930 as doomsday.)

To those of us today who can go to our local hardware or garden store and grab all the fertilizer we can afford to pay for, this hand wringing seems a bit melodramatic, but at the time, it was of real concern to many scientists.  The world’s population was growing rapidly, and, like today, the vast majority of the world’s population depended upon grains – mainly wheat – for sustenance.  Most grains suck nitrogen from the soil to fuel their growth, and once that nitrogen is gone, it takes a long time to get back.  And until it does, most any crop grown in nitrogen-depleted soil fails to thrive, and yield per acre falls dramatically.

The fact that nitrogen is lacking in the soil seems strange since we all walk around breathing air that is about 80 percent nitrogen.  But the nitrogen in the air can’t get into the soil in a form plants can use unless it is ‘fixed.’  Which I guess isn’t so strange when you consider that we ourselves need nitrogen to grow and repair our tissues, but we can’t get it from the air we breathe either.  We have to get it from the protein in our diets.

Nitrogen-fixation process

Nitrogen-fixation process

Bacteria that live symbiotically with the roots of certain clovers and legumes (the so-called green manure) are able to fix nitrogen from the air and covert it to the form plants can use.  Over the years farmers had figured this out and planted clovers and legumes in fields for a year or two to replace the nitrogen and make the fields fit to grow cash crops.  Or they could use manure or compost – both traditional sources of nitrogen – to replace that needed for growth, but they needed a lot because these were not particularly rich in fixed nitrogen.  Consequently, crop rotation and spreading manure/compost wasn’t a particularly efficient way of keeping a profitable farming business growing.  A more rich and readily available source of nitrogen was needed.

When enormous deposits of guano -  about 10 stories high, extremely rich in nitrogen, and taking literally centuries to accumulate – were discovered off the coast of Peru, a bustling shipping business grew up hauling the stuff from there to Britain.  As those supplies started to dwindle, explorers found fields of nitrites in Chile that began to replace the guano.  But, as Sir William observed, those sources were finite as well, and would at some point be gone.  If nothing was done or no other sources discovered by time the Chilean fields ran out, then the world would be in real trouble.

Sir William pointed out that the populations of all the great wheat-eating peoples, the Brits, the United States and Europe mainly, would outstrip their grain of choice, resulting in the deaths of thousands and perhaps even millions.  He announced in the most racist of terms (common at the time) that if a solution of this problem weren’t discovered, and discovered fairly quickly, “the great Caucasian race will cease to be foremost in the world, and will be squeezed out of existence by races to which wheaten bread is not the staff of life.”

“It is through the laboratory,” he pontificated, “that starvation may ultimately be turned into plenty.”

I don’t know what the population at large thought about Crookes’ speech, but the scientific community took it seriously.  In Germany, a Jewish scientist named Fritz Haber, after years of work, developed a desktop working model of a machine that could convert the nitrogen from the air into ammonia, which is basically the form needed for both fertilizer and gun powder.  Other scientists thought Haber’s contraption was interesting but impractical in that the temperatures and pressures required couldn’t be produced with the technology available then in any kind of industrial-sized plant.  One non-naysayer was Carl Bosch, an engineer at BASF, the giant German chemical company.  Bosch thought he could make Haber’s machine work, and after intense effort he succeeded on a giant scale. Now Haber-Bosch machines use about one percent of the earth’s resources and provide the nitrogen that sustains around 40 percent of the earth’s population.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that these machines allow us to live in a carb-dominant world, rich in wheat and corn. Had this technology never have been invented, who knows how the nutritional history of the world would have progressed.

The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager is the fascinating story of the development of the Haber-Bosch system as told through the lives of the main players.  The secrecy, the infighting, the suicides, the war-time intrigue – all provide high drama in this fascinating story.  What I found particularly interesting – not to mention germane for us today – was how Bosch, who could apparently do just about anything chemical engineering-wise, developed a method to make gasoline out of coal.  By the end of WWII, 35 percent of Germany’s gasoline and all of its gunpowder came from plants developed and built by Bosch.  Why aren’t we looking at this technology that’s already existent to help wean ourselves from foreign oil?

If a technical book is more your style, then grab a copy of Enriching the Earth by Vaclav Smil.  You will learn more about the science of ‘fixing’ nitrogen and less about the personal dramas of the main players on the stage.  I read both and found them complementary to one another.  If you read both, you will know just about everything there is to know about fertilizer and nitrogen. But if you just read one, make it The Alchemy of Air.

Below is a photograph of a Haber-Bosch plant operating in the United States today.

Fertilizer factory using the Haber-Bosch process

Fertilizer factory using the Haber-Bosch process

Let’s jump subjects and move into the world of fiction.  Mystery fiction, to be precise.  I’ve been doing a lot of traveling lately, and I catch up on my ever-growing stack of crime novels while on the airplane.  I enjoy all kinds of mystery fiction, but lately I’ve had a run of British police procedurals along with an Italian one and a few German ones thrown in the mix.

I just finished Peter Robinson’s All the Colors of Darkness, which I found so so.  I thought it a wee bit contrived, much more so than his previous books, which are good books to start with if you’re unfamiliar with the British police hierarchy.  The author was born and grew up in the UK, but has lived in Toronto for years. He writes with the knowledge that his readers won’t be up with all the British police jargon, so he goes easy on them.

Despite my ho hum feelings about this book, I did find a paragraph that caught my eye.  The paragraph describes a lazy, off-duty Saturday morning routine (which, after this setup, you know ain’t going to last long) followed by Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks, the protagonist of the series:

Banks stopped at the newsagent’s and bought The Guardian, which he thought had the best Saturday review section, then headed to the Italian café for his espresso and a chocolate croissant.  Not the healthiest of breakfasts, perhaps, but delicious.  And it wasn’t as if he had a weight problem.  Cholesterol was another matter.  His doctor had already put him on a low dose of statin, and he had decided that that took care of the problem and allowed him to eat pretty much what he wanted.  After all, he only had to be careful with what he ate if he wasn’t taking the pill, surely?

I suspect the author of this series takes a statin.  From his photos he doesn’t appear to be overweight.  I would be willing to bet that he, like his character, takes a low-dose statin (what with all the statinators around, who doesn’t these days?) and probably doesn’t watch what he eats because the statin makes him feel safe.  Bad mistake, probably, but one I’m sure more than a few who feel themselves invincible on statins make. (Who would’ve thought I could dredge an anti-statin blog out of a mystery novel?)

If you want to get started reading Peter Robinson, find a few of his earlier books.  Try Gallows View or Hanging Valley or Past Reason Hated.  Any of his books are a good introduction for the US reader into the intricacies of how the UK police works.

I read recently the second novel in Susan Hill’s mystery series, The Pure in Heart, which is a much different kind of book than the Peter Robinson books.  Susan Hill is a prolific writer of note who sticks mainly to contemporary fiction with the occasional ghost story thrown in.  The detective novel is a departure from her normal course of work, but she adds her own creative touch to the genre.  If you decide to read this book, read the one before it, The Various Haunts of Men, first or you will learn something in The Pure in Heart that will give away a big part of the plot in the previous book.  As I say, these aren’t your regular mysteries, but that’s what makes them nice.

If you want a mystery that’s a series you can get into and that is quick and fun to read, have a go at any of the novels by Andrea Camilleri about Sicilian police inspector Salvo Montalbano.  I’ve read most of these books and just finished the most recent one, August Heat.  With this series, you can start anywhere.  These novels will certainly show you the difference between the police systems in the UK and in Italy. I don’t know where I would rather be arrested, but I do know that I wouldn’t want to have been arrested in Germany in the 1930s.

If you really want to go back to pre and post WWII Germany, read the wonderful series of books by Philip Kerr about Berlin detective Bernie Gunther.  I am currently reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (I always have a long, serious book going that I dip into read a little of daily. Right now I have two: The Rise and Fall and Dawin’s On the Origin of Species.), and Kerr’s novels describe pre WWII Germany to a tee.  If you want to see what life was like for Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch and others living in Germany as Hitler came to power, you’ll do no better than to read these novels.  The first three books in the series, referred to by aficionados as the Berlin Noir trilogy are March Violets, The Pale Criminal, and A German Requiem.  You can get all three now in one large paperback, but I would save it for last.  As far as I’m concerned, the best way to read these books is from last, to second to last, then the trilogy.  In other words, in opposite order in which they were written.  Start with the last book, A Quiet Flame, move on to the next-to-last one, The One From the Other, then finish with the trilogy.  You won’t be disappointed.

As I’m sure most of you know, I read a lot.  I’ll be happy to post from time to time about some of the books I enjoy if most everyone is game.  Let me know in the comments if you like these little book reviews.  And, please, feel free to recommend any of your own favorite books.

Thanks to ALLIED 2008 151 for the photo of the fertilizer plant