MSG (Safe to Eat)

Reports that MSG is dangerous stem from one anecdotal letter and years of racism.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a compound made up of sodium and glutamate (an amino acid) found naturally in our bodies and in a variety of foods (tomatoes, cheeses, anchovies, mushrooms, etc). Usually when it’s mentioned people are referring to the synthesized food additive version which is added to meals to bring out their umami flavors. It’s been a commercially produced food additive since 1909 but, despite being used by tens of millions of people, 42% of Americans today think it’s dangerous. The cause of this fear goes back to one article.

Chinese Restaurant Syndrome

The April 4, 1968 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine contained a letter titled Chinese-Restaurant Syndrome by Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok on his observations of eating American Chinese food. Kwok said that about 15 to 20 minutes after eating at a Chinese restaurant he developed a headache, weakness, heart palpitations, and numbness. He proposed several possible causes but singled out MSG as the answer. This single letter was the beginning of decades of mistrust in MSG.

The ideas of MSG side-effects and “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” have largely been fueled by racism. Suspicion or fear of East Asian cultures, the exoticism of the “Orient”, and/or a general lack of knowledge has led some people to be suspicious of Asian cuisine. In 1969 New York City imposed regulations on MSG use in Chinese restaurants but not on MSG in general. While the supposed adverse reactions to MSG should cause caution for any food item containing MSG, Chinese food in particular got singled out and maligned. Lots of processed western foods contain MSG, lots of plants naturally contain significant levels of MSG, and yet Doritos and shiitake mushrooms didn’t seem to get singled out quite like Chinese food did.

Asian restaurants were singled out and maligned for their use of MSG, but Western processed foods were not.

Safe to Eat

There is no connection between MSG and the symptoms Kwok described. The US Food & Drug Administration states that MSG is safe to eat and that there is no evidence to support claims of headaches and nausea from eating normal amounts of MSG. In double-blind studies using subjects who claimed to have sensitivity to MSG some subjects were blindly given MSG and, unaware they were eating MSG, had no ill effects. These tests were unable to reproduce any of the side-effects claimed about MSG.

MSG, like any food additive, is safe in moderation. Excess anything can make you sick. Because of the association of Chinese food with MSG some Asian restaurants in the US have reduced their usage of MSG just to satisfy public opinion, to the detriment of the food and the customers’ taste buds.

Lunar Calendars

Calendars based on the cycles of the moon have a shorter year than solar calendars. How that time discrepancy is dealt with depends on the culture.

Ancient cultures typically had two options for creating calendars: solar or lunar. Solar calendars track time based on the movement of the sun in the sky. It takes 365.24 days for the Earth to travel around the sun and make up a year. Lunar calendars however are based on the phases of the moon which restart every 29.5 days adding up to only 354.37 solar days. This leaves an 11 day discrepancy between lunar and solar calendars.

Intercalation of “Lunar” Calendars

To account for this 11 day difference some cultures engage in a practice known as “intercalation” which is the adding of extra days/weeks/months to synchronize your calendar with a solar year of 365.24 days. Many lunar calendars are, in reality, lunisolar calendars as they intercalate extra time to keep their lunar year somewhat aligned to our solar year.

A variety of cultures use lunisolar calendars, especially in East Asia. For example the traditional Chinese calendar is based on lunar cycles but adds a 13th month ever few years. This is why Chinese New Year doesn’t have a fixed date (on our calendar). Intercalation is used to keep the lunar New Year from straying too far which keeps it sometime between late January to late February.

The alternative to adding time is to do nothing about the 11 day discrepancy which has the cumulative effect of pushing holidays further and further around the calendar. This hands off approach can put spring holidays in the fall, winter months in the summer, etc. The Islamic calendar (the Hijri calendar) operates this way, which explains why Muslim religious holidays move around our solar based calendar so much. It takes 33 years for a holiday on a lunar calendar to come back around to its original position.

Leap Day

It’s not just lunisolar calendars that intercalate time. Our calendar year is 365 days but it takes the Earth 365.24 days to travel around the sun. We add time to our Gregorian calendar to account for the extra 0.24 day period of time. We do this by adding a Leap Day every 4 years to even things out.

Added info: The oldest known calendars are a group of carvings from around 32,000 BCE created by the Aurignacian people. These carvings are in antlers, bones, and cave walls found in France which have crescents, dots, and lines diagraming the cycle of the moon. These early lunar calendars document that, for tens of thousands of years, humans have tracked the passage of time by looking to the skies.

Our Empty Asteroid Belt

The asteroid belt is mostly empty space.

Between Mars and Jupiter lies the asteroid belt (aka. the “main asteroid belt”, as there are other areas with asteroids in our Solar System). Within this belt there are millions to billions of asteroids made up of rock and metals. Some are tiny particles but the largest is Ceres which is 580 miles in diameter. Large or small they’re hurdling through space at speeds up to 40,000 mph, so if one flew into a space craft it could be disastrous. Fortunately this isn’t really a problem.

Far Out

Unlike asteroid belts in sci-fi movies, our main asteroid belt is not an obstacle course. Most of the asteroid belt is empty space. The four largest asteroids alone make up more than half the total mass of the entire belt and if you combined all of the asteroids together it would still be smaller than our moon. The average distance between asteroids is around 600,000 miles. According to Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, “… if you want to come close enough to an asteroid to make detailed studies of it, you have to aim for one.” The odds of a spacecraft hitting one is less than 1 in a billion. It’s easier to fly through the asteroid belt than it is to actually hit an asteroid.

Quicksand

A plot device that isn’t as dangerous as movies & TV led us to believe.

Quicksand was once a very common plot device in TV shows & movies. From Lawrence of Arabia to The Incredible Hulk, Gilligan’s Island, Batman, and even in space in Lost in Space, quicksand was all over pop culture in the 1960s. Nearly 3% (or 1 in every 35) movies made in the 1960s featured quicksand. Characters step on what looks to be solid ground but, surprise, it’s quicksand. They begin sinking like they’re going down some sort of Earth elevator with the looming possibility of being totally submerged unless a handy vine or person can save them … this is not how quicksand really works. Real quicksand is not as sudden, dramatic, or dangerous as fictional quicksand.

Quicksand has been a serious, and sometimes humorous, plot device for a long time but was especially popular in the 1960s.

Non-Newtonian Fluid

Quicksand is a mixture of water and sand/silt where the sand particles are suspended in water and spaced further apart than typical sand. It’s a non-Newtonian fluid so if you apply pressure you momentarily change the viscosity. Higher viscosity substances move more like mud, lower viscosity substances move more like water. In quicksand’s case stepping on it with your foot applies pressure and changes the viscosity to become momentarily less viscous. The sand particles get pushed out of the way making it more watery, which allows your foot to sink. This is quickly followed by the sand settling into place around your foot which is how you get stuck. The more you move, the more you agitate the mixture, the deeper you go.

The Good News

You can not totally sink into quicksand like some sort of bottomless pit. One reason is that quicksand is rarely more than a few feet deep. Further, the human body is less dense than the density of quicksand which means that, regardless of the quicksand depth, it’s not possible to sink further than your waste. That said there are dangers.

Since quicksand can form beside larger bodies of water there is the possibility of drowning due to flash flooding, tidal changes, etc. Other dangers include hypothermia, sunburn, predators, and/or the pain of having part of your body under pressure for a prolonged period of time. Most of the time though quicksand is fairly harmless as long as you stay calm to get out of it.

To get out of quicksand the first thing you should do is to not go any further in – stop moving around. If you can’t use your other foot to just step back out, and you really feel stuck, it’s time to sit/lay down extending away from the quicksand. Making yourself wider reduces the focalized pressure into the quicksand which helps free your foot. Then slowly work your leg back and forth, lowering the viscosity & making the quicksand more watery, and patiently pull your leg out.

A short video on Why Does Quicksand Make You Sink?

Bonus: The “King of Quicksand” has a whole YouTube channel devoted to intentionally getting stuck, and then escaping from, quicksand. Watching any of his videos shows that you really have to work to get yourself stuck in quicksand, which is reassuring.

You can also watch a playlist full of scenes from TV shows and movies (old and new) of characters getting stuck in quicksand.

Cicadas & Prime Numbers

Part of the survival strategy of cicadas is to emerge in prime number intervals.

There are thousands of species of cicadas. As nymphs they live most of their lives underground, only to emerge when they are ready to transform into adults, sing, mate, and die. Their time above ground is about a month.

Broadly speaking cicadas can be divided into two groups:
• Annual cicadas: those with relatively short life cycles, some of which appear every year
• Periodical cicadas: those that live underground for over a decade and only come above ground in synchronized intervals

Periodical cicadas are found only in the eastern areas of North America. Instead of a few here and a few there coming above ground every year, periodical cicadas (divided up into 15 geographic broods) appear all together at designated intervals. Their synchronized appearances, every 13 years or every 17 years, is what makes them remarkable.

Prime Number Survival

Part of the survival strategy of the periodical cicadas is that they appear all together. Millions to billions of cicadas all emerging in the same short window of time ensures that, while many will be killed by predators, the majority will survive to continue the species. Simply put, there are so many cicadas appearing all at once that predators can’t eat them fast enough – a survival concept known as predator satiation.

Predator satiation is a numbers game. It only works in large numbers relative to the number of predators. For a brood of periodical cicadas this means they have to be synchronized and appear all at the same time otherwise their numbers might be too low, too many may be eaten, and they could die off.

What a brood of periodical cicadas doesn’t want is another brood appearing at the same time. For one thing they would be competing for resources. What’s worse is if a 13 year brood and a 17 year brood interbreed then the inner clocks of their offspring may become confused. The result could ruin the synchronized timing of their appearances which they need for predator satiation. Their survival depends on avoiding other broods of cicadas. Enter, prime numbers.

Taking into consideration reasonable lifespans for cicadas, composite number intervals would have broods appearing in the same year more frequently than the prime number intervals of every 13 or 17 years.

Prime numbers are numbers only divisible by themselves and 1. The periodical cicadas of North America appear in prime number intervals of either 13 or 17 years. If you create a list of years, and mark every 13 years as well as every 17 years, they rarely overlap. In fact, 13 year cicadas and 17 year cicadas only overlap every 221 years. If they appeared in composite number intervals, (4, 6, 8, 9, etc) they would overlap constantly and most likely die out. Through evolution, the periodical cicadas that used prime numbers have survived.

Abracadabra

The magic word with a magical/medical past.

The exact origin of abracadabra is unknown but what is known is, before its modern usage by stage magicians, it was used as a real magical incantation. The earliest documented instance is the 2nd century medical text Liber Medicinalis by Serenus Sammonicus. As physician to the the Roman emperor Caracalla, Sammonicus prescribed wearing an amulet with the word abracadabra written on it to cure malaria.

The 2nd century medical text Liber Medicinalis by Serenus Sammonicus showing abracadabra written in triangular form.

Abracadabra’s use in healing magic may have to do with its possible etymologies. One possibility is that it comes from the Hebrew “ebrah k’dabri” or “I will create as I speak”. Or it may have come from “Abraxas” the mystical word/god from the Gnostic belief system. One language it’s not from is Aramaic (which the internet likes to say it is). Often quoted as coming from “Abra Kadabra” meaning “May the thing be destroyed”, this false Aramaic etymology became a popular internet “factoid” because J.K. Rowling used it as the basis for her “Avada Kedavra” spell in the Harry Potter series (a spell that does not cure malaria … or anything else).

Abracadabra became a popular protective magical word to cure a variety of ills. One application was to write abracadabra out 11 times but each time removing the new last letter, forming a triangle pointing down. This could be written on parchment and worn around the neck, or carved into a pendant of some kind, but the idea was the same – you used the word to summon protective spirits. As you worked your way down, abracadabra would disappear and hopefully so would your illness.

In a metal pendant or written on parchment, abracadabra in triangular form was said to have protective / healing powers.

From Real Magic to Stage “Magic”

Over the millennia, as our scientific knowledge grew, we learned more about medicine and our belief in magic diminished. In general we no longer rely on magic to cure/protect us from the unknown. Our scientific understanding of the world leaves little room for magic; in a similar way to how we no longer have sea monsters on our maps. Magic went from being a highly-regarded area of study, to fun entertaining tricks illusions with rabbits in hats, decks of cards, sleight of hand, magic wands, etc. Similarly, abracadabra went from being a real magic word to being a performative word for stage magicians.

Added info: In A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe mentions that some citizens of London, so desperate for relief from the plague in 1665, took to writing abracadabra in the triangle design on the doors of their homes. The Victorians took to the triangular abracadabra pendant as Western esotericism became popular. Today you can still find abracadabra pendants, should you want a little extra magical protection from the viruses of today.

Inoculation Hair Styles & Early Adopters

Early adopters of Parisian fashion helped make smallpox inoculations popular.

Inoculation is when you purposefully give someone an “antigenic substance” (a substance that triggers an immune response) to generate antibodies and help develop immunity to a particular disease. Around 1500 CE the Chinese developed a practice of inhaling a powder made from ground up smallpox crusts. By ingesting a less harmful version of the disease their immune systems could learn to fight the real thing. The Ethiopians and the Turks had a similar but different practice. They would make a small incision in the arm and place a piece of smallpox pustule inside, with the same goal of triggering an immune response and hopefully developing immunity.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu of England saw the Turkish method while her husband was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. She brought the technique to Western Europe and had her daughter inoculated in 1721. Despite evidence of success, westerners were skeptical of smallpox inoculations. When the Turkish procedure was done incorrectly the patient could get full-blown smallpox which has a fatality rate around 30% (or higher in children). Inoculations were an especially difficult sell in France, until smallpox killed King Louis XV and 10 of his courtiers in 1774.

Elaborate gravity defying pouf hair styles were all the rage in 18th century France.

Inoculation Hairdo

After the death of Louis XV, a nineteen year old Louis XVI was suddenly very motivated to get inoculated (additionally encouraged by his wife, Marie Antoinette, who had previously been inoculated back home in Austria). Soon others in the French royal court chose to follow suit. The royal court getting inoculated helped make the procedure more acceptable but what really helped was Mary Antoinette’s hair.

To celebrate the king’s inoculation Antoinette had a special gravity-defying pouf hair style constructed, the pouf à l’inoculation. The inoculation pouf featured a rising sun representing the king, an olive tree representing peace, and the rod of asclepius representing medicine. Soon other women wanted the same trendy hair style as the queen, and as the pouf à l’inoculation became popular around Paris so too did smallpox inoculations. An inoculation is a fairly invisible procedure but a spectacular hair style was a walking billboard celebrating that you had been successfully inoculated.

Early Adopters

In his 1962 book Diffusion of Innovations, Dr. Everett Rogers theorizes how and why innovative ideas/products are adopted (or rejected). After the initial stage where innovators introduce a new product, the early adopters evaluate if it’s worthwhile. Sometimes called “lighthouse customers”, early adopters serve as messengers & guides, communicating the values of a new product to others. While members of each stage of the innovation adoption lifecycle require their own marketing strategy, a key to the early majority adopting a new product is the approval of the early adopters. Once early adopters give the thumbs up, the early majority accept the new product and success is all but inevitable.

The work of Dr. Everett Rogers theorized how new ideas & products are adopted (or rejected) by society. Without the approval of Early Adopters the majority will never accept it.

The queen’s hairstyle influenced the royal courtiers, who influenced the bourgeoisie, who in turn influenced the population at large. Smallpox inoculation was an unknown, scary, and seemingly counter-intuitive procedure, but it was made fashionable (desirable even) through early adopters celebrating it. By making medicine a cool status symbol people everywhere wanted it.

Added info: While it’s fairly well known that Mary Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake”, and that “cake” in this case meant a form of bread, she was still unfairly vilified. Overall she seems to have been a decent queen (as monarchs go), but she did live a wildly extravagant lifestyle which certainly made her seem detached from the struggles of the common people.

Deaf White Cats

White cats with blue eyes are usually deaf.

Pure white cats only make up about 5% of the overall cat population. Of these white cats however, 72% are deaf. In cat genetics, the gene that gives a pure white cat its white fur is also linked to the development of its ears and eyes. This is especially important for white cats with blue eyes.

More frequently than any other eye color, 65-85% of blue eyed white cats are deaf. Blue eyes and deafness are closely related in white cats, a trait observed by Charles Darwin in his 1868 book The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. Even more interesting, in heterochromatic white cats (cats with two different eye colors) when one eye is blue the ear on that side of the head will most likely be deaf. The non-blue eye’s side of the head will have normal hearing.

This is only true of pure white cats, those with entirely white fur. Cat’s that are mostly white but have colored markings, pointed patterns, etc. don’t count as being pure white cats and there is no connection between their eye color and their hearing. Siamese cats for instance are mostly white but they aren’t pure white cats and so there is no genetic relationship between their blue eyes and their hearing.

Added info: Interesting side fact, the pigmentation in the coat of Siamese cat is heat sensitive and changes color based on the temperature. The colder parts of their bodies (their extremities: feet, ears, nose, tail) are usually darker while the warmer parts of their bodies are lighter. If you send a Siamese cat outside in the cold winter months they will get darker, and upon returning to a warm house they will get lighter.

Also, in the 1970 Disney film The Aristocats the mother cat Duchess and her kitten daughter Marie beat the odds and are both white cats, with blue eyes, but normal hearing.

In The Aristocats both Duchess and her daughter Marie beat the odds by being white cats, with blue eyes, but normal hearing.

Typhoid Mary

How one asymptomatic woman spread typhoid to dozens of people and raised a host of bioethical questions.

Mary Mallon was born in Cookstown, County Tyrone in Ireland in 1869. She emigrated to New York City when she was 15 and worked her way up through the servant ranks to the highly respectable position of cook. Over the years she ran the kitchens & cooked for various families around the city. In the summer of 1906 she was the cook for the Warren family (Charles Warren, banker to the Vanderbilts) as they vacationed in a rental house in the very upscale Oyster Bay, Long Island.

Over the course of that summer, 6 members of the household got sick with typhoid. No one else in Oyster Bay contracted the disease, a disease typically associated with the poor. Concerned for the reputation of the rental house, the owner of the home knew the source of the typhoid had to be found or it would be difficult to ever rent the home again. George Soper, a freelance civil engineer, was hired to investigate the source and he traced it back to the Warren family’s former cook, Mary Mallon.

Tenement housing in New York provided ideal conditions for the spread of diseases including typhoid.

Typhoid

Typhoid, or more formally typhoid fever, is a form of salmonella (a bacteria) that can spread through tainted water or food that has come into contact with fecal matter. You find it in places with poor hygiene and poor sanitation, which is why it is generally associated with the poor.

New York City in the early 20th century was a much dirtier place than today. The population of the city was doubling every decade. The tenement housing of Manhattan’s Lower East Side was an overcrowded jungle of people and it was common for a family of 10 to live in a 325 square foot apartment. Add to the mix the 150,000 – 200,000 horses of the city, each of which created about 25 pounds of manure a day and it all led to filthy conditions that were ideal for typhoid and other bacterial diseases.

Mary, seen in the first bed, during her first quarantine at North Brother Island.

Forced Quarantine

Soper tracked down Mary and he documented a trail of typhoid in her wake. Over 10 years Mary worked for 8 different New York families, 6 of those families contracted typhoid and 1 person died. Despite this evidence Mary was adamant that she never had typhoid and she never felt sick. She was partially right.

It turned out that she was a “healthy carrier” of typhoid, someone who had the disease but never really felt sick. She was asymptomatic and went about her life unaware that she even had the disease, let alone that she was spreading it to other people (not unlike asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19).

Eventually she was forced against her will into quarantine by the New York City Health Department. In 1907 she was sent to North Brother Island in the East River which was being used as a quarantine center for people sick with infectious diseases. She remained there for 3 years, during which time her story of forced quarantine made it into the papers where she was dubbed “Typhoid Mary”.

In 1910 she was released from quarantine on the condition that she would never work as a cook again since she had most likely transmitted typhoid through the food she prepared. She kept to this agreement for a while, working as a laundress, but eventually she disappeared from public health officials and started work as a cook again under assumed names. The pay and working conditions of a laundress were far below that of a cook for a wealthy family. She was eventually caught, working at Sloane Hospital for Women, after an outbreak of typhoid infected 25 people there killing 2. She was sent back to North Brother Island where she lived until she died in 1938 at the age of 69 (still carrying typhoid).

Typhoid Mary

Mary Mallon’s legacy is one of bioethical questions. In the early 20th century the science of communicable diseases was in its infancy, and Mary’s suspicion of the New York Health Department was not unusual. She felt fine, so how could she be carrying/spreading a deadly disease?

Her quarantining raises ethical questions of how far the government should go to protect the general public. When weighing an individual’s civil liberties against the health of the public which is greater? Despite never being convicted of a crime she was imprisoned on North Brother Island for the safety of the public. Was it more ethical to quarantine her the first time or the second time, or at all? Knowing that other people were also asymptomatic carriers of typhoid why was she kept in isolation for nearly 30 years while others walked free? As a healthy carrier she was an unlucky innocent victim of a disease, but she also chose to go back to cooking which she knew might endanger lives. The questions raised by Typhoid Mary are still relevant today.

Added item: There is a good hour-long documentary by PBS, The Most Dangerous Woman in America, on the story of Mary Mallon. You can also find a bootleg copy of the documentary on YouTube:

Empty Winter Gas Tanks

An empty gas tank allows water condensation to accumulate and potentially damage your engine.

In Winter, Keep Gas In Your Car

When warm air and cold air come into contact with one another they create condensation. This is how storms work. An “empty” gas tank contains more air than gasoline and when that air is warmer than the colder air outside, condensation can build up inside the tank and drip down to mix with the gasoline.

When water and gasoline mix, the water sinks to the bottom. Among other possible effects, if the weather is cold enough the water can freeze in the fuel line and prevent gasoline from getting to the engine. A frozen fuel line will prevent you from starting your vehicle. This is why you’re supposed to keep your gas tank full in the winter. While not a concern in warmer climates where winters are mild, this can be a considerable problem in environments that experience especially cold winters.

Winter Blend

Something that helps combat freezing temperatures is winter blend gasoline. Between summer blend and winter blend, gasoline designed for winter is cheaper but also worse for the environment. However, winter gasoline’s higher volatility allows it to ignite more easily in colder weather. So if you have frozen water in your fuel line, or it’s too cold for the engine in general, any winter blend gas able to reach the engine should at least start your vehicle more easily. Still, if you experience especially frigid winters, you should always keep gas in your tank.

Added info: In areas of extreme cold, where the temperature can regularly go to -15° C (5° F), engines can strain to start and engine fluids can become more viscous. In these regions vehicles are frequently equipped with block heaters, which are aftermarket add-ons that are plugged into an external power source to heat up the engine before starting the car. It is not uncommon in parts of Alaska and northern Canada to see cars with electrical plugs hanging out of the their grills which are attached to block heaters.