Archive for the ‘good food’ Category


File under win-win: research in Kenya shows that by raising tilapia, locals can reduce the population of a malaria-carrying mosquito (by a whopping 94%), then harvest the fish for the dinner table.

Spurred by the growing incidence of pesticide resistance among mosquitoes, the researchers began looking for nonchemical ways to kill the mosquitoes’ buzz. Mosquitoes spend their larval lives wiggling around in pools of water, gobbling microorganisms and hiding out in the foliage. Tilapia seem to go after them using something of a tiered approach: larger fish nibble on aquatic plants, depriving larvae of hiding places; and the tilapia fry go right after the larvae themselves. Apparently, people postulated a century ago that hungry fish should be useful malaria-fighters, but no one had checked it out numerically.

It’s interesting that many Kenyans already farm tilapia (which are native to the Nile), leading one to wonder why existing tiliapia farms haven’t knocked down the malaria problem yet. (The town the researchers studied records 2,200 malaria cases per year; globally, more than 350 million people get malaria each year, and 1 million die.)

Chalk it up to business misfortunes: when a farming operation goes under, the abandoned fishponds collect water and breed hordes of mosquitoes. The prospect of restocking those ponds and at the same time clearing them of mosquitoes suggests a worthwhile place to invest development funds.

Image: a cool stamp collection

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actualsize.jpgHere at Scribble Central let me assure you that we are far too busy collecting obscure but fascinating bits of ocean science to pay much attention to page stats. Nevertheless it’s distressingly difficult to ignore one post’s reigning popularity.

That would be Cute Baby Pictures #1. It’s just resoundingly, devastatingly, congenitally popular. Just last week alone the post (first published a full year ago) got looked at upwards of 200 times.

There’s just a staggering number of people who search the Internet on the chance that whatever the cuteness of their current favorite baby pictures, something even more doggedly cute has just been posted.

It’s a bit difficult for a writer to discover that his most resonant work so far is a picture of a silver-dollar-sized turtle and some funny socks. But far be it from me to deny the public what it wants any longer. I’m releasing baby watermelons onto the World Wide Web.

Above, revel in the adorableness of this little one, barely bigger than a stripedy-blue reef fish. And truth be told, that’s a pretty small fish.

australia.jpgBut oh, how they grow – and in just a few short months (we’re thinking October, maybe) this little guy’s going to be a corker. His big sister over here at the left is already nearly the size of Australia.

No watermelons were harmed (yet) in the making of this post. Watermelons were grown organically on land formerly described in the Scribble Climate Experiment. They live in constant natural peril from organic gophers.

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I’m sorry to report that yesterday’s post about disease-causing organisms in ocean water is only half the story: there’s also disease-causing chemicals out there, too.

Now I realize that in the back of pretty much everyone’s minds, there’s the knowledge that ocean water contains nasty chemicals. So I won’t take a lot of your time here – I’ll just remind you of a few names to keep track of.

Lead and mercury aside, most can be neatly tied up in one or a few generic terms: organochlorines, polyhalogenated aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls. Big names like DDT, dioxin, and PCBs fit into one or more of those categories. But as with microbes, it’s pretty difficult to keep the subcategories straight: what’s the difference between PCDD, PCDF, PBDE, PCN, or the murky-sounding DBP, or “chlorination disinfection byproducts”? HFINo***

But again, we can count ourselves lucky to have people who do know the difference – and who are getting pretty good at measuring it. A couple of recent studies did the math all the way through to estimating roughly how much of these chemicals a typical seafood-enjoyer ingests.

For instance, a typical Catalonian hombre might eat 1.53 nanograms of polychlorinated naphthalenes (PCN) in a day – more if he eats a lot of salmon or sole and less if he prefers shrimp or cuttlefish. A Belgian study analyzed “market baskets,” comparing the chemical contamination of many typical foods. Fish topped the list of most contaminated, with PBDE levels nearly twice as high as the second place (dairy and eggs). Fast food was a distant third, with steak and chicken breast registering even safer. The authors noted one exceptional salmon filet that raised the bar, coming in with a PBDE concentration five times the seafood average and nearly an order of magnitude above second place.

In eastern U.S. fish markets, you can find more than 20 times as much PCB and PBDE in wild bluefish as you can in farmed salmon (and wild salmon had only half as much of these chemicals as farmed salmon).

That may sound like yet another plug for wild salmon, but then again, consider the wildness of your salmon’s homeland. Does it cavort in essentially urban waters like Portland’s Columbia River or the Nisqually estuary south of Seattle? Because if it does, it’s likely to pick up PCBs, DDTs and PAHs from runoff.

Young chinook salmon heading out to sea from the Duwamish Estuary, the Columbia River and Yaquina Bay had PCB levels in NOAA fisheries’ red zone – above 2,400 nanograms per gram of fat. (I imagine it has been argued that as these salmon grow up in relatively pure open ocean waters, those levels will come back down. But still.)

It’s also curious that coho salmon sampled from the same locations as the chinooks were consistently less contaminated – by factors of 2-5. Sounds like a mystery for the ecologists to solve.

There’s still the question of how much and how steady of a diet of these compounds one needs before cancer sets in. Part of the trouble lies in toxicity differences among the many compounds (called congeners) that are contained within the categories I listed at the top of this increasingly glum post. Unfortunately, for almost every one of those thousands of congeners, we just don’t know specific toxicity levels.

Well, if it’s any comfort to you, all those omega-III fatty acids are still really good for you.

Image: Alaska’s Wildlife. Thanks to SeaWeb for the tips.

***HFINo = HellifIknow

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Central Oregon’s Painted Hills, in the John Day Fossil Beds national monument.

The road trip is over. We wound 2,500 miles onto the odometer, took 414 photos, visited 15 friends, crossed the continental divide 9 times, and gawped at 13 volcanoes, 7 sandhill cranes, 4 snakes (50 percent rattlesnake), 3 eagles, 2 harlequin ducks and 1 sopping wet beaver.

We rolled back into town Sunday afternoon to find a 4 foot south swell marching against the cliffs on the west side. Tragically I was in no shape to surf. A freak accident involving a carnivorous Oregon hearthstone had left my pinky toe the color of a western sunset and feeling roughly the size of the U.S.S. Macon. I would post a picture but some of you have probably eaten recently.

We consoled ourselves at Los Pericos, a new Santa Cruz taqueria that has developed some sort of proprietary technology for cooking carnitas. They stew the meat in pepper and bay leaves, then shred it and press it against a hot griddle till the frayed edges are brown and crisp as breakfast potatoes. Serve it with nachos made from thick corn tortillas fried that day, add a tamarindo Jarritos, and it’s Welcome to Santa Cruz!

Taquerias are a cutthroat market in Santa Cruz, and Los Pericos occupies an ill-fated location that has seen at least five establishments close their doors in the last four years. But the periquenos really want their restaurant to make it. They’ve posted signs with large letters offering vegetarian options and student discounts. Menudo, served on weekends, draws the true-believers.

Once you’re inside, the scruffy proprietors make special trips to bring you disposable plastic forks and napkins. If at any moment they find you chipless, they hurry over, gesturing at the makeshift salsa cooler with a grand sweep of the arm. Then they go back to the grill to assemble your mountain of carnitas. I hear the rest of their menu is good, too, and I plan to explore it someday. But not just yet.

In my hazy post-carnitas aftermath, I discovered that President Bush has flip-flopped on climate change – I suppose we should be grateful for small (and hopelessly tardy) mercies. The New York Times realized that water quality at SoCal surf spots is sometimes yucky. And someone posted an unbelievable amateur wildlife clip from Kruger National Park in South Africa. All I can say is it’s only 8 minutes and it involves some lionesses, some water buffalo, plus a cameo or two. Watch the whole thing and don’t fast forward or you’ll miss the shockers (thanks, Andy).

Finally, Jenn, here’s a Mt. St. Helens shot for you. I’m not sure our pilot knew there was such a thing as a flyover advisory. There’ll be more trip pictures up on Flickr just as soon as I remember my password.


A warm thanks to everyone who provided us with beds, beers, fun times, happy pets, good music, and large hunks of roasted animal during the road trip.

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pencilchew.jpgMaybe the occasional Scribble Reader has wondered just who in the heck this Scribbler is. But let me tell you, that ain’t nothin’ compared to how much I wonder who the heck you guys are.

But that’s the beauty of Web 2.0, ain’t it? No more agonizing over the wording of your letter to the editor of Omni Magazine in the hopes of seeing your name in print. Just hit the Comments button and fire away.

So here’s your chance to do some scribbling of your own and fill me in on one or more of the following 15 pressing questions:

1. How did you get here? (no need to get cosmic on this one)

2. Have you visited this site before?

3. Are you just here for the baby turtles? (you would not believe how many people search the Internet each day for baby turtles)

4. What kind of posts do you like the best? (a) ocean science (b) climate change (c) birding (d) surfing (e) other?

5. Are the posts (a) about right or (b) too damn long?

6. Would you like more coverage of (a) climate change (b) islands being devastated by rats (c) weird deep-sea creatures (d) earthquake-type stuff (e) celebrity feuds and/or adoptions (f) sex (g) atmospheric physics (h) other (please specify)?

7. How educated are you: (a) made it out of high school; curious about the world (b) still interested in most things (B.S.) (c) able to detect the infantile flaws in some stories; peripherally interested in all the rest (M.S.) (c) basically humoring me (Ph.D.)?

8. Do you wish the words I use were (a) longer (b) shorter (c) funnier (d) snarkier (e) less stupid (f) rhyming?

9. Do you occasionally wonder what possesses me to spend an hour or so writing about such obscure topics?

10. More pictures? (Of what?)

11. Are you not leaving comments because (a) the posts arrive fully formed and inviolable (b) you never make it to the end of a post (c) it’s interesting, just not that interesting (d) try writing about something that matters (e) you have a lingering feeling that even though only a tiny fraction of the world’s population will ever look at a comments page, you might come off sounding stupid and someone, somewhere, might snicker at you from the lonely confines of their poorly lit hovel

12. If scientists were to turn their collective intellectual power toward designing one and only one robot animal, what animal should that be?

13. I am an heir/heiress and I would like to contribute ___ million dollars to further the Scribbler agenda

14. Do I know you? How?

15. Setting aside the surfing and the birding for a moment, if there was one thing in the world you’d like me to write about, what would it be?

I’m really not kidding about this. Answer as much or as little as you see fit. Post a comment – or – if you don’t feel like going totally public – send aphriza at gmail dot com an e-mail. Thanks for reading.

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***Warning to science-y readers: this is a science-free post***

**Except for the large slide rule and the paleoceanographer**

*And the parakeets*

Last week, the Scribbler E.U. Tour took England by storm. To save you busy people some time, my 20,000 word write-up has been condensed using the well known words-pictures relationship. These were the highlights:

white_tower.jpg spamalot.jpg Seeing the Tower of London and Spamalot the same day.

parakeets.jpg parakeets_detail.jpg Wild rose-ringed parakeets in Hyde Park drinking from puddles in the sycamores. Here’s a view through the Scribbler’s binoculars.

jackdaw.jpg Sort of a cross between a crow and a chimney-sweep, jackdaws are delightful and spiffy.

chalk.jpg The deep low tides that arrive on a full moon are always a spectacle. Even more so when the reef is made of the same bright chalk as the cliffs.

fishnchips.jpg Fish-n-chips as they were meant to be: wrapped in paper, drenched in vinegar, and eaten on a pier. Note this expert’s consistently flawless fried-food-munching technique: (compare with Twinkie).

channel.jpg feetinchannel.jpg Sticking my feet in the English Channel for the first time in 27 years. Wasn’t much warmer than last time.

slides.jpg An art gallery (the Tate Modern) with five-story slides you can ride.

nathistory.jpg nathistory_pterano.jpg nathistory_jackal.jpg The incredible architecture at the Natural History Museum. All three pictures were taken from the same spot; the detail views are from “digiscoping” – pointing the ScribbleCam through the ScribbleBinos. The jackal (right) is sitting at far upper right in the first photo.

sliderule.jpg At the Science Museum, a 21st-century paleoceanographer confronts a slide rule.

ginandbeer.jpg Pints for two pounds fifty are a steal, but the exchange rate is a bit shocking.

abseil.jpg Thrill-seeking: a gear-free abseil on a braided hemp rope down a sheer mud precipice. Admittedly, it was 10 feet high and I was following a fearless 12-year-old in pink wellies (Lydia Visick).

joesbird.jpg My first-cousin-once-removed, Joe Visick (age 7), sketches marvelous birds using something of an Edward Gorey approach.

downs.jpg birlinggap.jpg Beautiful English spring weather makes Bremen (rhymes with “rainin'”) hard to come back to. (First picture, right to left: 21st-century paleoceanographer Mea Cook; writer-photographer-cousin David Visick; musician-of-note Marko Packard)

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mackerel.jpg It’s rare for the Scribbler to scribble about the same thing two evenings in a row (endocrine -disrupting chemicals in the water) …but I’ve just stumbled over a paper reporting, get this, the “estrogen-like activity of seafood.”

Researchers in the Mediterranean caught 13 types of seafood including shrimp, cuttlefish, squid, and mackerel – all part of what they call “the Italian diet.” (Hey, their names are Garritano, Pinto, Calderisi, etc., so they should know.)

When they tested their samples’ fat tissues, they found that 38 percent had estrogen-blocking contaminants in them. In the most active sample, the tested tissue was 43 percent as active as real estrogen used in controls.

Which compounds were the ones mimicking the estrogen? That’s hard to say, with around 87,000 compounds on the EPA’s list of possibilities. The team sampled for seven common types of contaminants (all PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls) and found two really interesting results.

First, 59 percent of the samples showed at least one of the seven contaminant types. But more worryingly, there was no correlation between the degree of estrogen-mimicking and the amount of the seven contaminants found in the fish.

That means that the most powerful estrogen mimics were some other kind of chemical – something not routinely tested for. And here I thought ignorance was bliss. Maybe that was the estrogen talking.

(Photo: glaucus.org.uk)

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I eased into the annual American Geophysical Union meeting today at a poster session devoted to the dazzling secrets you can learn from isotopes. (Which was pretty much where I left off last year.) Right off the bat, I fell in with the drug crowd from Utah.

Picture the scene of a pot bust: a garage filled with product and a couple of flannel-shirted (and severely bummed) perps making up stories about where it came from. A new analysis may one day bypass that tedious step and let police ask the marijuana directly.

Jason West, from the University of Utah, is tracing seized marijuana back to where it grew by studying the isotopic signature recorded inside the plant’s tissues. His work so far is good enough to tell whether a stash came from Humboldt County or was ferried in from Mexico. But he’s aiming for a county-by-county level, or better.

The analysis works because hydrogen and its heavier brother, deuterium, occur in differing amounts in rainwater across the country. Plants suck up this water and use it to make molecules like sugars and proteins (not to mention tetrahydrocannabinol), preserving the ratio of deuterium to hydrogen in the process. By measuring that ratio in seized pot (a very small sample that has been very carefully loaned out by law enforcement, West stresses) and comparing the result to a map of rainfall values across California, you can narrow down where the pot grew.

Of course there’s some scatter in the data, in part because some cellular machinery uses deuterium preferentially over hydrogen. But even these complications can be unraveled. For instance, West found, plants making more THC had lower deuterium ratios. Once he measured that relationship, some fairly standard statistics let him factor out its effect to further narrow down the growing location. By employing another isotopic marker – a good choice would be strontium, West said – authorities could be even more precise. (Once I found out about West’s research, I learned that a lab in Alaska is doing similar work, trying to learn how much cannabis is homegrown vs. smuggled in from the south)

If all that sounds a little far-fetched, it’s been working for European wines for a decade or so. That industry has the advantage of being both legal and ferociously proud of its geographic origin, or terroir. Some European Union scientists make a career of detecting labels that fudge their place of origin. (Science News has a story on it.)

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red grouse courtesy Game Conservancy TrustA shortage of red grouse on British moors is leading to plans for cancelling the 2006 shooting season this year, for the second year in a row. At present, it’s not clear what England’s landed gentry will do for their suppers.

And what will they do for the rest of the day, for that matter? Grouse season, normally kicked off on the so-called Glorious Twelfth of August each year, provides a welcome diversion from the monotony of shooting clay pigeons, pheasants and partridges. Or blasting rabbits staked to the ground, waking the neighbors, getting bras off debutantes and jumping over matchbooks. (Oops, now I’m just being a twit.)

After a few good chuckles about dukes having to dip into their kipper stashes to get through the year, I got interested in the serious side of this story. Grouse hunting is indeed a sport of the privileged – think Dick Cheney types in tweed instead of cybernetic skin. Exclusive enough that the working class get their chance only by trading a day of grounds work for a day of hunting.

Grouse shooting is big business in the U.K., netting more than 17 million pounds on 350,000 bagged grouse in normal years. But 2004 saw a reduced hunt and in 2005, with numbers at their lowest in 50 years, no one hunted. The plan was that grouse numbers would skyrocket while the guns sat in their cases and gleamed, and everyone would be eating roast hen by 2006.

So why haven’t numbers come back? Much of the grouse decline has been attributed to a fascinating (or icky, you decide) worm called Trichostrongylus tenuis. It’s a gut parasite that spends much of its life eating, er, the teeming denizens of the grouse-poop ecosystem. When a strapping young T. tenuis is ready to see the world, it crawls up the dew-covered heather and enjoys the view from the farthest-out, tenderest sprigs. Where it’s promptly eaten by a red grouse. In the grouse’s gut, which is sort of like a nightclub without the fancy lights, the worm sexes mix freely and … pretty you’ve got even more tenuis larvae ensconced in the poop-covered moors.

Gameskeepers have been battling strongylosis for more than 100 years. The British Game Conservancy Trust even has a position paper on strongylosis control (thanks to them for the red grouse image by the way). Apparently, a couple of mild winters in a row coupled with cold, wet Junes have allowed the strongylosis situation to run out of hand. And the weird weather has also led to more ticks on the runabout, and late snowfalls freezing out little grouse chicks in the high elevations.

But wait a tick! By Jove, I’ve heard this sort of thing elsewhere. Strange weather patterns repeating themselves. Mild conditions prompting insect populations to increase through the winter. Not enough to convince a jury, perhaps. But call it a hunch, I’d say there’s more to this case than a few bored earls with nothing to shoot at. We’re on the trail now Watson, and warming to the case.

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hellyer_carnitas.jpgIf you’re driving between the Bay Area and Monterey on US 101, try and do it during lunchtime. That way you’ll have a chance to order a carnitas burrito and a tamarindo jarrito (soda) at El Coyote Mexican Grill, less than 5 minutes off the Hellyer Ave. exit south of San Jose. Here’s Google Earth (click for a larger version). And directions.

Could it be that this place takes its name from the slang for one of those shady men who smuggle immigrants over the Rio Grande and into the land of opportunity? Because the carnitas at this place are steeped in sun-baked Mexican tradition. The giant flour tortilla has been grilled crispy, not steamed. The beans have been cooked down to a pearly brown syrup. Pale crescents of real avocado peek out in place of the usual thin green “guacamole.”

And then there’s the carnitas themselves. Cut into moist, dice-sized chunks and roasted, not stewed, until the grain comes out and the whole cube lists to the side under its own tenderness. Finally, finished with the slightest caramelization on the grill to coax out the most delightful pig-ness of the meat. Four dollars and fifty cents. I had half of mine for lunch; the other half for dinner.

Don’t ask me how I found it. I had wandered off the highway looking for gas. I saw the restaurant crouched next to a laundromat in the thin shade of an old strip mall. Somehow, I just knew.

Interesting side note: I picked up a free Spanish-language newspaper. Thick with ads, maybe 36 pages, tabloid size, it had one page each dedicated to news from most of the countries south of the border, down at least as far as Venezuela. Ads were all over the map, from sexy (well, sorta cheesy actually) nightclubs to real estate ads. Million dollar real estate ads. The country is changing, folks. I just pray they bring their carnitas with them.

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