Thursday, December 6, 2012

How to make Friends: Ask for Favors

A few years ago, my husband and I found ourselves trapped in a bad blizzard. We drove over some ice causing our car to careen into a ditch. Worse yet, we learned that there was a ban on towing due to the storm. After a police officer dropped us off at a gas station, our options were simple: call friends and see if someone would pick us up. We were only about 30 miles from home, in a hideous blizzard, around midnight on a Sunday. No problem. We winded up reaching a co-worker of mine, and around 1:30 am on Monday morning she came and got us.
CC BY 2.5 by Ben Britten

What I find interesting about this is that after my co-worker and her boyfriend came to our aid, our friendship became stronger. What had been stop-and-go conversations before became more relaxed and enjoyable talks. We went out to eat together and went over to their place for movie nights, something that hadn't happened before the blizzard. In short, we became closer.
It occurred to my husband and me, that what we were experiencing was a bit of social engineering. We had attended a security conference about a year before the accident. The speaker who presented the talk on social engineering (a topic that can broadly be defined as getting others to do what you want) brought up that if you ask someone a favor, he/she is more likely to become your friend. (Generally speaking smaller favors would probably be better, like asking someone for a ride home or lending you $5. Asking for too big a favor like cleaning your kitchen with someone you barely know probably wouldn't go over so well). The speaker argued that politicians use this technique all the time. Saying that if people feel invested in you, they are more likely to want you to succeed. Now, the other side of that is you should try to return the favor. No one wants a one-way relationship where he or she is the only one giving.
At first I dismissed this idea because I couldn't think of a good example in my life. But now I think the speaker may have been right. As Gretchen Rubin points out in her blog, The Happiness Project, people feel good when you offer them a way to be supportive. Asking for a favor shows that you are comfortable being indebted to them and displays intimacy.
My former co-worker and I still talk occasionally, even though we are thousands of miles away, a fact which is amazing for me, since I am awful at keeping in contact with old friends. I know I personally hate feeling indebted to others, as I think a lot of people do, but I think it might be something I need to get over. It seems silly and unnecessary, since a lot of the time I know I want to help others, but don't always know how, and it seems that other people may have similar feelings. It's an interesting paradox, one I hope you find useful.

What are some of your examples of asking a friend or acquaintance for a favor and becoming closer because of it? Do you have any examples that oppose this idea? Let me know in the comments.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Understanding Immortality in Greek Mythology

Perhaps I'm making a big deal out of nothing, but this question has been bugging me for a few days now, so I thought I'd pose my quandary to others to get their thoughts.
I'm writing a novel using Greek Mythology. I was writing a line about what makes someone immortal, when I realized I don't know. Throughout Greek Mythology there seems to be no clear answers. For example, some mortals could be made immortal by great feats, such as Heracles, who was man but became a god. (In some texts he is set on fire, and all that is mortal in him burns away, leaving only the godly parts). 
CC BY 2.5 Paul Stevenson
Here is Ganymede and Zeus in the form of the eagle. Many consider Ganymede to be a parallel to the soul, rising to the heavens
Another example would be Ganymede, who Zeus found so beautiful he swooped down from the heavens in the form of an eagle, gave him ambrosia so he would live forever, and made him the cup bearer to the gods. Clearly, it's possible for a mortal to be made immortal. But what about another option? Is it possible to be from an immortal and be mortal? The answer is decidedly yes. For example, Linus --a son of Apollo-- was killed by Heracles, as was The Nemean Lion, a child of Zeus. Orion, son of Zeus was killed and placed in the heavens. Medusa is the most annoying to me, though. Medusa had two immortal parents (Phorcys and Cleto) and two immortal sisters, but yet, most texts consider her mortal. In some Greek Myths (understand most Greek Myths have variations) Perseus beheads Medusa, using his shield to see her so as to avoiding looking into her eyes. Normally decapitation would kill just about anything. However, one of the things that nags at me is that Medusa's head, which was said to be affixed to Athena's shield, still turned people into stone. What? How on Earth would that work? If she's dead, her eyes should no longer be magical? She's dead! All the magic should just drain away, right? I think there is a good argument to be made that Medusa isn't mortal, she's merely in two pieces. If someone were to, say, put her back together (that is, if she existed in the first place) she could come back to life. Not that anyone would want that.
CC BY 2.5 robin.elaine
Perseus beheading Medusa

As I dug deeper into Greek Mythology, and who could and could not die, I asked a friend what he thought. He postulated that gods, goddesses, demi-gods, etc... were immortal until someone found a way to kill them. For example, vampires, although not in Greek Mythology, are often considered immortal, yet they can be killed with a stake through the heart. While I understand the rational, somehow this seems silly to me. It's like saying we're immortal until we die. I guess I don't view vampires as immoral just more Death-resistant than humans.
I understand that this is just idle speculation, and in the end none of this matters. Accept to me, who is trying to build a world in my novel that makes some sense.
Tell me what you think. Do you think that an immortal being could be killed? Or, like me, do you think that if someone is truly immortal they could never die?

Sunday, October 28, 2012


CC BY 2.5 tinou bao

Recently, I've been contemplating the idea of failure, in part because I've written a first draft of a novel, and I'm now taking it to critique groups to get other people's thoughts. My ultimate goal is to be published, but I know that not everyone who writes a novel gets published, and not all of it is because the novel isn't worthwhile. Sometimes the agent just doesn't see a market for what the author wrote. But, I digress.
I started out with the thought that I was going to write a blog post about reasons to fail. And, in general, there are some good reasons. For example, we learn from failure. James Dyson points out that he failed 5,126 times before he got his vacuum right, but each time he got closer to his goal. In her article on “Why We Should Fail Whenever Possible,” Mary Jaksch points out that failure can recommit us to our goal. Sometimes if we fail, it makes the idea of succeeding that much more important.
History is filled with stories of famous people's failures. For example, Albert Einstein didn't learn to speak until he was almost 4, and his teacher said he wouldn't amount to much. Oprah Winfrey was demoted from her job as a news anchor because of the way she looked. The Beatles were rejected by Decca Recordings because they didn't like their sound, and they said, “they have no future in show business.” Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper for not being creative enough. Talk about open mouth insert foot. Clearly, failing isn't the same as being a failure.
However, not everyone who works hard becomes rich and famous. I wanted to talk about the myth that if you just work hard enough you will be wealthy, or at least well off. I was reading an article called “The Invention of Failure: An Interview with Scott A. Sandage.” Mr. Sandage wrote a book about failure called, “Born Losers: A History of Failure in America.” Sandage points out that we can all think of people who don't work hard, but who are wealthy, Paris Hilton comes to mind. We can also think of people who work very hard but are barely able to make ends meet. Sandage says that there has been a change in the meaning of the word failure throughout the Industrial Revolution. The phrase, “I feel like a failure,” would never appear in American writing before 1860. However, due to several factors, including the creation of credit rating, we began to associate lack of wealth with moral failings. Phrases such as “A number 1,” “good for nothing,” “second rate” and “of no account” all came from credit rating terminology, but later turned into idioms describing a person's identity. Before the Civil War, one wouldn't say, “I am a failure,” instead one would say, “I made a failure,” meaning he went bankrupt. This phrase, “I made a failure,” has very different implications compared to those of the contemporary phrase, “I am a failure.” Making a failure meant that someone overreached and was too ambitious. As opposed to today, when failure is often defined as someone who doesn't do enough and who lacks ambition.
So what does that mean for our culture now? Well, in part, it means that we've created a culture in which success and failure are measured in dollar bills. I was watching the Colbert Report from October 11th, and he had on guest Chrystia Freeland who studied the ultra-rich, or “Plutocrats.” In the interview with Colbert she talks about how we all recognize that we live in a winner-take-all society. She gives the example of people trying to get their kids into the very best pre-school they possibly can because they want them to eventually get good jobs and thus be successful. There's a large argument in the field of education that we teach our children to be afraid of failure, and thus being afraid to try new things. We want the best for our families and ourselves, which is why we are constantly striving to surpass the others around us.
Yet, we have to recognize that not all can be in the top 1% of wealth, it's statistically impossible. We all want to be successful, which by definition usually means wealthy. Even though we know that past the point of middle-class, increased wealth doesn't increase our happiness. To me, this sounds similar to my struggle with sugary foods. I may at one moment want a milk chocolate bar with almonds and Himalayan salt, but I know that in the long run it doesn't get me what I want. I may want to be rich, but in the end it doesn't mean I'll be happy. It doesn't even mean I'm a good person. It just means I have money.
My point isn't: give up, you'll never be wealthy or that you shouldn't keep striving to become better. No far from it. I'm still going to try to get published and become a well-known author. Einstein, Walt Disney, The Beatles wouldn't have been great if they didn't keep trying. My point is more that we should have a wider definition of success. I have a friend who sees success in the journey, and I really want to cultivate a perspective like hers. She's a writer as well, and she says that she is successful just because she wrote a book and sent it to an agent. The book got rejected by that agent, but that doesn't make her a failure. I want that perspective. I want not to see success solely in terms of dollar bills but in the journey I take in my life.
I guess my point is of both perseverance and acceptance. We keep going, keep growing, to become more than what we are. (If you read my post last week, you also might recognize that this is one way to increase our overall happiness). But if we fall short, if you don't become a famous rapper, basketball star, or writer, you shouldn't see yourself as a failure. I think we should take success out of terms of business, and put it in terms of community. Are you successful at being a father/mother? Friend? Spouse? Focusing on success in terms of community seems to be a good start to stopping the winner-take-all mentality that we have encouraged in our culture. Focusing on helping others also seems like a good way to increase happiness, and become a successful person, not just a successful businessman/businesswoman.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Evolutionary Psychology Tips on How to be Happier

CC BY 2.5 bdking

I've had a very stressful week this week, thus, I'm posting on Saturday, as opposed to Tuesday or Wednesday. I work at a hotline for domestic violence and sexual assault, which is both rewarding and stressful. (It's rewarding knowing I'm helping others; it's stressful constantly having to tell people that there aren't that many resources out there to help them get out of their situation, and the resources that are out there are stretched thin.) Add to that the fact that I'm absolutely failing at my diet, my husband and I are talking about moving and buying a house for the first time, and that the holidays are coming up. Mix it all up, add a dash of sleep-deprivation, and voila! A perfect recipe for a crying girl. 
This week, instead of doing a post about physical health, I thought I'd do a post about psychological health. Because I'm me -- weird, quirky, and downright strange -- I didn't want to do the normal tips on self-care. (I think we've all heard them: take a break, exercise, go for a walk, get a massage, etc...They're good tips, and something to keep in mind, but I've also heard them hundreds of times.) I wanted to give tips that are a little strange, but effective. So what did I do? I went to my college notes on evolutionary psychology. Odd, I know, but what would you have done?
What I found were my evolutionary psychology professor's tips on how to be happier. They basically break down into two categories: progress and expectations.
The basic argument for progress is that our brains are wired to reward progress and punish failure. This is believed to come from the environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA). The thought is that if you were a caveman (or cavewoman) and you relaxed in a time of abundance you would be screwed when the next famine came. Instead, our reptilian brains give us a short-term dopamine reward when we succeed, like getting a raise, but after a while that reward diminishes, and we go back to trying to get the next reward. This would be useful in the EEA because instead of just relaxing in a time of abundance, you would be working, trying to get yourself ready for the next famine. Not surprisingly, some games use this to keep you addicted to playing. (Think about leveling up in an online game, and how good it makes you feel.)
On the flip side is the fact that our brain punishes us when we fail. We all know the feeling of failure. It sucks. I felt that way this week with my diet and not getting my post out on time. However, the good news is that it is not in our evolutionary interest to be debilitatingly depressed. Thus, our brain eventually turns off the shame, and we go back to the same level of happiness where we were before the failure. A famous example of this is Christopher Reeves. Reeves was asked to rate his happiness before and after his horse accident, the one that left him paralyzed and unable to play Superman. Surprisingly, Reeves rated his happiness as pretty much the same both before the accident and after. The truth is that after some big event (a horrible accident, or even winning the lottery) our happiness level changes, but eventually we level back out again. My evolutionary psychology teacher argued that most people who commit suicide after a horrible event do so within the first week of the event, because they can't imagine ever being happy again.
The second category is about expectation. There is a simple equation that explains this:
Outcome - Expectation = Happiness
I think this is very easy to understand. If you have high expectations for something, and they are not met, you tend to be disappointed. If you have low expectations for something and it turns out to be great, you feel awesome.
Here are six tips from evolutionary psychology on how to be happier:
  1. Buy friends and family members small gifts that are not tied to holidays or birthday. The gift receiver will be happier because it surpasses expectations. Yes, giving gifts unexpectedly makes other people happy, which in turn makes you happy. That is, if they don't feel suspicious that you are trying to butter them up for something. 
  2. You should change activities in your exercise program when your performance starts to plateau. You will be happier when you are showing progress at an activity. We tend to get a lot of gain in the first few weeks, but then we hit a plateau. Change your activity so you can see bigger results. For example, once you hit a plateau in biking, change to running. There is also the benefit that physical activity releases endorphins and that in itself makes you feel better.
  3. On your to-do list, divide jobs into explicit small chunks that will allow you to experience progress. The task pack up the house, is kind of daunting, and will be on your to-do list for a long long time before it's done. Instead, put something like “pack up guest bathroom today”. The knowledge that you have gotten one thing off your to-do list will give you a mental feeling of progress, which will make you feel good.
  4. Under promise, over deliver. Tell your boss a project will take two weeks, and get it done in one. Tell your friend you are running 20 minutes late, and get there in 12. 
  5. Lying around accomplishing nothing is unlikely to make you happy. Happiness comes from accomplishing goals. Researchers gave participants beepers, and every time their beeper went off participants had to write down what they were doing and how happy they were. Surprisingly, people were most happy when they were at work, especially if they were actively and productively engaged in a project and experiencing flow (if you don't know what flow is, look here for the definition).
  6. A career with advancement opportunities will make you happier than a better-paying job with no chance of promotion. Once again, people like progress. If you get a job that pays you well, but you can't go anywhere with it, you're likely not to feel as happy about it down the line as someone who gets a job that doesn't pay as well, but that has growth potential in the job.
Anyway, let me know what you think about the evolutionary tips on happiness. Do you think they are useful? Obvious? Do you think they could help you?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Shrimp Filled Avocado Boats

Mmmmm. Delicious avocado boats.

I love these avocado boats! They are rich and creamy, and taste absolutely decadent. This recipe is great if you are craving sugar, because healthy fats can help reduce sugar cravings (look here and here).
I came up with the idea by modifying a recipe I had at a sushi bar. The sushi bar had an avocado boat with shrimp, crab, and wasabi mayonnaise. I was going to try to replicate it, when my mind switched to other things I had in my refrigerator, such as cilantro and chipotles in adobo sauce. Instead of replicating the recipe, I decided to make a more “Mexican” version. And the result? It was sooooo good. Anyway, try it and let me know what you think.

What you will need to make these shrimp avocado boats
Chipotle Mayonnaise
  • 2 whole eggs
  • the juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 chipotles in adobo sauce
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 cup pure coconut oil, melted

  • 8 oz cooked shrimp, deveined, peeled, and chopped (I just buy a bag of frozen peeled shrimp, and put some in boiling water until the shrimp are pink, but not chewy)
  • 1/3 cup cilantro, chopped
  • 3 radishes, diced
  • ½ lime juice
  • 2 Tablespoons of chipotle mayonnaise
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 large firm avocado
Ingredients needed for the filling.
  1. In a blender, blend together the eggs, lemon juice, chipotles, salt, and pepper until smooth.
  2. With the blender running, slowly drizzle in the coconut oil.
  3. Voila! Chipotle mayonnaise.
  4. In a bowl blend together the chopped shrimp, cilantro, radishes, lime juice, chipotle mayonnaise, salt, and pepper.
  5. Cut the avocado in half, removing the pit.
  6. Cut off the rounded bottom of the avocado, so it will sit easily on the plate.
  7. Fill the two avocados with the shrimp mixture.
  8. Squeeze left over lime juice over the top, if you like.
  9. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Bad Reaction to Research: Why Moderation is Important

CC BY 2.5 anacleaver_2000

When I was getting my Bachelors degree in psychology, I had to take a class called “Biopsychology”. The class was very interesting, focusing mostly on how the structures of the brain influence behavior. One of the gems wedged in the book was a chapter on eating and hunger, called “Why Do Many People Over Eat?” Now, I'm kind of a geek, and I'm very curious about health, eating, and diets. When I saw this chapter, I was really excited about going over it in class. I wanted to know why people would overeat, so that I could apply this knowledge to my own life, and, hopefully, lose weight.
The author of Biopsychology, John J.P. Pinel, makes it very clear that our bodies are designed for storing as much energy as they can, not for giving us the ideal amount of energy as we need it, writing, “you may believe your body is short of energy just before a meal, it is not” (1). Pinel points to the environment that our ancestors had to survive in. He argues that if our bodies were designed for using all energy immediately, our ancient predecessors would have starved during long winters or famines.
Now, I will talk about several studies, but stay with me, there's a method to my madness, or at least, there is this time. Other times...I make no promises.
To illustrate his case that hunger is more than a regulation of energy Pinel writes about R.H., a patient with severe anterograde amnesia. Researchers offered R.H. his favorite meal: veal parmigiana and apple juice. Fifteen minutes after R.H. had finished eating (and had forgotten his previous meal), researchers offered him another meal of veal parmigiana and apple juice. Again, R.H. ate it. They offered it a third time with the same result, and a fourth, at which point, he refused saying “his stomach felt a little tight.” Then, only minutes after R.H. had refused, he announced he was going for a walk and some veal parmigiana (2). The message here is clear, hunger is not motivated by a need for energy, but rather other reasons. In the book, Pinel makes the case the our hunger can be motivated by such things as our schedule, simply having food in front of us (would you say “no” to your favorite plate of food pipping hot and inches away from your face, even if you weren't hungry?) or by habit.
In another study on sham eating, Weingarten H. P., & Kulikovsky cut the esophagi of rats, connecting it with an external tube, so that anything the rats ate would not reach their stomachs. The researchers (whom you might be thinking are mad scientists at this point) had two groups: rats that had previously eaten a specific brand of rat chow (group A) and rats that had never eaten that brand of rat chow (group B). Group A was found to eat similar amounts of rat food as they had previously, even though none of the food was reaching their stomach. Group B, on the other hand, was found to eat more rat chow than group A. When researchers reconnected the rats esophagi to their stomachs, they found that group B ate similar amounts of food to when none of their food was reaching their stomach (3). This suggests that we eat based on experience, not based on how much food we need at that point in time.
After reading about these and other studies done on hunger, the message to me was clear: if you are overweight, it is because you eat too much, and in general, people eat much more than they need.
Now, I have always struggled with my weight, and like most women, I am very sensitive about it. Reading this chapter was like someone bashing me over the head with a large mallet while screaming, “stop eating so damn much!” That is to say, it was very unpleasant. Thus I decided that I would reduce my eating to so-many number of calories in a given meal, and I would not eat anything unnecessary (i.e. snacks, desserts, etc...) and I would lose weight. I would ignore my hunger pangs, after all, “the strong, unpleasant feelings of hunger that you may experience at meal times are not cries from your body for food; they are the sensation of your body's preparations for the expected homeostasis-disturbing meal” (1). Translation: eating a meal is rough on your body.
So I did it. I ignored my hunger pangs, ate relatively little, and was absolutely and completely miserable.
For two whole weeks I was grumpy, irritable, and had a headache that would not go away.
Let me repeat that.
It. Would. Not. Go. Away.
Two weeks.
I was miserable. I couldn't sleep at night because I was so hungry. I wanted more food in a way that mentally talking myself out of it couldn't curb. Yet, the research resounded in my head. I was overweight because I ate too much. I did not need more energy. My body had energy to use in the form of fat. I would not die from this diet, I just wished I would.
One day, I was talking to my sister on the phone. I was going on and on about all the research I had recently read, and how I was trying to incorporate it into my life, and how I felt sick and awful. On and on I went, until finally my sister stopped me. “Katerina, eat when you're hungry, stop when you're not.” Simple. Easy. Non-headache inducing. And like that, I was free from my research malaise.
CC BY 2.5 Marcin Wichary
Now, let me be clear. I am not recommending eating large quantities of food every day all day, or that we should not listen to what research has to say. My point is moderation. Research may suggest that we eat too much, or that by reducing the amount of food we eat, the longer our life will be, but really, who wants to live constantly hungry and obsessing over food?

1. Pinel, J. (2009). Biopsychology. (7th ed.). New York: Custom Publishing.
2. Rozin, P., Dow, S., Moscovitxh, M., & Majaram, S. (1998). What causes humans to being and end a meal? A role for memory for what has been eaten, as evidence by a study of multiple meal eating in amnesic patients. Psychological Science, 9, 392-392.
3. Weingarten H. P., & Kulikovsky, O.T. (1989). Taste-to postingestive consequence conditioning: Is the rise in sham feeding with repeated experience a learning phenomenon? Physiology & Behavior, 45, 471-476

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Kombucha: It tastes nasty so that means it's good for you, right?

 I had thought that after reading several research articles on Kombucha, I could make a conclusion as to whether or not it was beneficial to my health. But the truth is, the only conclusion I've come to after reading so much about the drink is that more research is needed to say if Kombucha is a true health drink or just an overpriced tea.
Glasses of Kombucha
CC BY 2.5 ~Twon~
Kombucha is a tea, usually black, that has sugar and the Kombucha “mushroom” added [2-5]. The “mushroom,” which ferments the tea, is really a colony of yeast and bacteria [2].
The health claims for Kombucha are numerous, including cancer prevention, aiding in digestion, getting rid of headaches and toxin eradication [2, 5]. However, a lot of these claims seem to stem from research done in the early 20th century in Russia, with methodology unknown [4].
One of the oldest claims to fame for Kombucha is that the helpful bacteria in the drink (probiotics) can help aid in digestion. Unfortunately, this claim lacks sufficient evidence [4].
There is some interesting research on the effects of Kombucha and glucose absorption on mice with diabetes [1]. However, that was only one study. My former statistics teacher would argue that since their p-values were p < 0.05, the researchers would have a 50/50 chance of getting a similar result if they repeated the study. Thus, as she was fond of saying, “treat the results as interesting, but not conclusive.”
Kombucha "Mushroom"
CC BY 2.5 ~Twon~
There is also some evidence that Kombucha may have the ability to detoxify the body because it contains glucuronic acid [5]. Although, some people debate if there is glucuronic acid in Kombucha or if it is just 2-keto-gluconic acid [5]. Patients suffering from cancer lack L-lactic acid in their connective tissue and can have a high blood pH. Kombucha may be able to re-balance the lactic acid concentration [5]. The catch being that The American Cancer Society does not recommend people with suppressed immune systems drink Kombucha [4].
On the other hand, if you have normal blood pH, drinking something that acidifies your blood would not be good. In 1995, the CDC did a case study in Iowa on two women who were hospitalized because of acidosis, or high acidic levels in the bloodstream. Both women drank Kombucha, their starters “mushrooms” coming from the same parent. The CDC was unable to conclusively link their illnesses to Kombucha use [3]. Negative side effects from drinking Kombucha have been reported, such as stomach ache, allergic reaction (especially for people who are sensitive to acids), and yeast infections [2, 5, 6]
Kombucha with "Mushroom"
CC BY 2.5 ~Twon~
The only finding that does seem to be clear is that Kombucha can be very dangerous if brewed and stored improperly. If Kombucha is made or stored in ceramic or lead crystal containers, the lead in the container can leach into the drink, causing issues with heavy metal poisoning [2-4].
Now, after all of this, Kombucha has been ingested since the Tsin Dynasty (220 BC) [5], and people have seemed not to kill themselves off en masse by consuming it, or at least no report of such that I could find. As Crawford says, “when consumed in moderation, Kombucha is probably safe to drink” [4]. Please keep in mind though, that a daily dose is considered to be 4 ounces [3]. I think after all my research, I side with Dr. Bauer; there seems to be little to no evidence on Kombucha's health benefits, and some pretty nasty side effects. I personally will not be buying Kombucha any time soon, mostly because the possible negative side effects scare me.

**Note: I am not a doctor. This is not meant to be medical advice.

1. Aloulou, A., Hamden, K., Elloumi, D., Ali, M. B., Hargafi, K., Jaouadi, B., Ayadi, F., & Elfeki, A. (2012). Hypoglycemic and antilipidemic properties of kombucha tea in alloxan-induced diabetic rats. BMC complementary and ALternative Medicine12(63), doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-12-63
2. Bauer, B. (2011, June 25). What is kombucha tea? does it have any health benefits?. Retrieved from
3.CDC. (1995, December 08). Unexplained severe illness possibly associated with consumption of kombucha tea --iowa, 1995. Retrieved from
4. Crawford, N. (2011, July 03). Is kombucha safe to drink?. Retrieved from
5. Dufresne, C., & Farnsworth, E. (2000). Tea, kombucha, and health: a review. Food Research International,33, 409-421.
6. Gharib, O. A. (2009). Effects of kombucha on oxidative stress induced nephrotoxicity in rats. Chinese Medicine4(23), doi: 10.1186/1749-8546-4-23
7. Kallel, L., Desseaux, V., Moktar, H., Stocker, P., & Ajandouz, E. H. (2112). Insights into the fermentation biochemistry of kombucha teas and potential impacts of kombucha drinking on starch digestion. Food Research International49, 226-232.
8. Morshedi, A., & Dashti-Rahmatabadi, M. H. (2010). Chronic consumption of kombucha and black tea prevents weight loss in diabetic rats. Iranian Journal of Diabetes and Obesity2(2),

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Radioactive Bowl

Radioactive Bowl in Lead Sheets. Doesn't look scary does it?

Being married to a computer/science geek offers me many learning opportunities. For example, since being married to my husband, I've seen people shrink quarters with lots of electricity and some copper wire, I know some bits and pieces about Linux and why it is better than Microsoft, I also know many different ways to put out a fire.
Recently, a friend of my husband's, we'll call him Gary, was shopping at an antiques store. After some time spent rummaging around the store, looking through loads of useless and uninteresting items, he spotted something that made his geek brain jump for joy, releasing large quantities of dopamine, seratonin, and any other happiness neurotransmitters that just happened to be lying around. (Or so I imagine, I wasn't there).
What was the object, you may ask.
An old radio? An antique cell phone the size of a brick? A dilapidated computer?
No, none of these things.
What he found was a red bowl created by the Fiesta company.
Now, before this experience, I would have never guessed that a computer/science geek would have any interest in old ceramics, but I would be, and was, wrong.
You see, in the 1940s Fiesta glazed their dining ware with Uranium oxide, specifically the colors red and ivory. Not only is uranium oxide highly radioactive, it also causes heavy metal poisoning. On dish wear. Which you eat off of. (In a side story, the US government eventually took Fiesta's stores of Uranium oxide, not because it was toxic and they were putting it on dishes, but so that the government could build the atomic bomb).
So, with this knowledge and the desire to impress his friends, Gary bought the red bowl.
A few days passed, and Gary decided to show off his new purchase to a group of friends. The friends, all being geeks themselves, viewed the bowl with a mixture of awe and trepidation. (Again, I wasn't there, so this is just how I imagine it going).
Quickly, a Geiger counter was pulled from one of the numerous shelves. It beeped in alarm, warning the gaggle of geeks that this bowl has high levels of radiation. Higher than say, normal background radiation, which we all experience on a day-to-day basis.
Another gadget was pulled from the shelves. This one to indicate the amount of alpha particles the bowl emits. Normally, around low level or background radioactive items, this gadget would not beep at all, or if it did, not very often. Around the bowl, however, it beeped about twenty-five times a second. This is exciting for many reasons, one because it means that there is a lot of radiation on the surface of the bowl and that anyone near the dish is being exposed to high levels of radiation. Secondly, Uranium decays into a large number of fun elements, Radon being one of them (see decay chain of Uranium 238 here Did I say exciting? Read disturbing.
Alpha particles being detected with a Ludlum 1" Alpha Scintillator 

“I'm not comfortable with that in my house.” One of the wise geeks proclaims.
My husband, being young and apparently unafraid of radiation says, “Can I take it to work and analyze it?”
The wise geek whose house they were at tried to convince my husband that he would not be able see much, even with more advanced meters and detectors.
My husband was unmoved.
Gary tried to hand my husband the bowl, at which point he jumped back, his hands up so as not to come into contact with the dish.
“I'm not touching that. Put it in a plastic bag.” My husband's logic to this statement, as he told me later, is that alpha particles can not go through paper, and therefore are unlikely to go through plastic.
It is at this point in the story where I must stop and contemplate my wedding vows. I have to wonder if normal run of the mill wedding vows are sufficient for men and women marrying computer/science geeks. Should there be addendum? Something like, I promise to love, honor, and obey. May be void if you build sex robot to replace me, blow up the kids, or bring home highly radioactive material (see bananas ( for definition on “high radioactivity”). Anyway, I digress.
Because it's fusion.
My husband takes the bowl to work, with much the same result, only this time his manager insists that someone immediately wrap the bowl in lead sheets. According to my husband, the manager offers himself up, because he's older and has less to lose than say, my husband, the one who has been touting the dish around all day.
The night after my husband took the bowl to work, we are driving to dinner.
“Oh,” he casually mentions, “did I tell you about the radioactive bowl?”
“Radioactive bull?”
“No,” he scoffs, as if I'm the one being ridiculous, “radioactive bowl.”
“Oh. No you didn't.”
He then fills me in on the previous day's events.
One question, and really only one question matters after he tells me about his friend's cool find. “Where's the bowl now?”
“At home in the garage.”
“You mean where I park my car?”
“It's okay. It wrapped in lead sheets! Perfectly safe!”
My husband, it seems, has missed the point.
“Uhh, sweetheart, next time you decide to bring home something with higher than background radiation, at least give me a heads up. Okay?”

As much as I love my husband, and I do love my husband, sometimes I just have to take a breath, smile, nod, and walk away. And in this instance, if I didn't walk away I might go the way of Marie Curie.

Please tell me I'm not alone in this strange world of geekdom, and other readers who are romantically involved with geeks have bizarre stories like mine. Submissions of the same may be left here (of course, don't forget to wrap them in lead sheets....).

Friday, March 30, 2012

Gluten-Free Dairy-Free Graham Cracker Recipe

Yummy Graham Crackers and Milk

I love to bake. Cookies. Cakes. Pies. Obscure desserts that no one had ever heard of except French pastry chefs. The more challenging the better. In high school, if ever there was an event where I could make a multi-layer dark chocolate truffle cake coated in ganache, I was there, cake in hand, ready to push a giant slice on anyone who would try it.
I love baking so much that for my 19th birthday I decided I, and I alone, would make a three course meal for twelve people. No small feat considering I wanted it to be challenging and gourmet. I made Parmesan bowls filled with a pear and honey salad, balsamic chicken with broccoli and rice, and a faux cheese burger with a strawberry milkshake and mango steak fries. (The bun was two homemade donuts, with white chocolate for the cheese, a brownie for the burger, and raspberry puree for the ketchup). Dinner, while delicious, was by no means prompt, and by the end of the night, I was exhausted.
As I got older I continued baking and learning new things. I've had several friends with severe allergies or dietary restrictions, not that those stopped me from trying to make them delicious desserts. Dairy free cheesecake or coconut creme brulee anyone? Sure, sometimes I completely and totally bombed, but others were a success, and I always learned from my mistakes.
However, out of all of my friends and loved ones with allergies, my little nephew takes the cake, or in his case, the dairy-free gluten-free soy-free cake. Yes, three allergies. I've found that it's fairly easy to adapt a recipe when dealing with only one allergy, but the more allergies you have the harder it becomes.
So, one day hearing that he loves graham crackers, but can't eat them due to his allergies, I decided to try my hand at making some gluten-free dairy-free graham crackers. The vegan butter we use is made with soy, but he doesn't have a reaction to it like he does with soy milk.
I started out by trying a gluten-free graham cracker recipe that I found online. Now, here is a good point to interject that there are a lot of good gluten-free recipes online. I helped do a gluten-free bridal shower a year or so ago, and all the gluten-free bread recipes I made I got off of blogs. They all turned out great, and everyone, even the people who didn't normally eat gluten-free, loved them. The graham cracker recipe, however, was not one of the good ones. It tasted like cardboard sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. Keep in mind that I followed the recipe exactly; I hadn't even tried taking out the dairy yet.
To be honest, I should have known. My fabulous baker friend who has her own gluten-free bakery in Seattle (website here) told me that many online gluten-free graham cracker recipes weren't up to par. She told me she had to experiment a lot to get her graham cracker recipe just right, and said in no uncertain terms that she would never share her recipe, because she had spent too much time perfecting it.
Thus, being someone who enjoyed a baking challenge, I decided I would make my own gluten-free graham cracker recipe. I browsed through the book “Gluten-Free Baking Classics,” by Annalise G. Roberts (details here), a wonderful book on gluten-free baking.
I thought about the texture and taste of a graham cracker. It is, despite its name, a cookie with the texture of a pie crust, so I started there. I mixed two of Mrs. Robert's recipes, the pie crust and the shortbread cookie.
It was alright.
My husband complained that it wasn't nearly sweet enough and the texture wasn't flaky at all.
On my second adaptation, I added honey and molasses on my baker friend's recommendation. They were a hit! Everyone in my family liked them, and my nephew couldn't stop asking for them.
However, I still wasn't done perfecting my recipe. I made it a third time, this time making the crackers a little bit thicker, they are a little on the cakey side for graham crackers, but everyone agreed that thicker was better.
So, if you are like my nephew, and in need of a gluten-free, dairy-free graham cracker recipe, here is one for your pleasure. Let me know what you think.

  • 18 tablespoons of vegan butter (you can use regular butter if you're not allergic to dairy)
  • 1 ½ cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • ¾ cup honey
  • ¼ cup molasses
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups brown rice flour, minus 1 tablespoon
  • ½ cup and 2 tablespoons potato starch, this is not the same as potato flour
  • ¼ cup and 1 tablespoon tapioca flour
  • 6 tablespoons sweet sourgum flour
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 ½ teaspoons xanthum gum
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • cinnamon sugar for the top of the crackers

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit
  1. In a bowl, mix sugar, eggs, vanilla extract, honey, and molasses together. Set aside.
  2. In another bowl, mix brown rice flour, tapioca flour, potato starch, sweet sourgum flour, cinnamon, baking powder, xanthum gum, and salt together. 

  3. With a fork, potato masher, or food processor mix the butter into the flour mixture, 6 tablespoons at a time, until all the butter is incorporated. 

  4. Add the egg mixture into the flour mixture and stir until well combined.

  5. Cover the dough and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  6. With a rubber spatula, spread the batter over two greased cookie sheets so that the dough is about a ¼ of an inch thick. It will be sticky and hard to get completely smooth, I know. Don't worry about it. It will be delicious all the same, even if it isn't perfectly level on top.

  7. Cover the top of the cookie with cinnamon sugar.
  8. Bake for 20-30 minutes
  9. Let cool completely, before cutting into squares.
  10. Enjoy. 
Note: on the Graham crackers shown, I made them a little too thick. If you do this, don't fret, they are great for making cheesecake crust, but a little bit more difficult for making s'mores.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

How to Scare and Annoy Your Partner

I am, in many ways, a paranoid person.
It's not that I don't trust people; I do. I intrinsically want to trust most people I meet. However, I have my reasons for being skeptical and paranoid. I have a husband who is a computer geek, and thus we frequent many computer/security conferences. I have been a volunteer at several domestic violence shelters all over the country, and have heard countless stories about stalking, abuse, and the like.
Thus, when my husband told me that our locks on our apartment looked different, my heart fell to the pit of my stomach.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
My eyes squinted and my gaze darted from one side to the other. “Really?”
I let this information sink into my brain, while he explained what exactly looked different and how. My husband is, by many accounts, a statistical anomaly—really, he is. His guesses on multiple choice questions are statistically more accurate than chance. Not only that, but he is also very observant. Not Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Homes observant, but he could tell you every continuity error in the show as you watch it, complain each time a wall moves when the slightest weight is put on it, and detail every car that he saw in the show. Therefore, when my husband says that the locks on our apartment look different, I tend to believe him.
CC-BY-2.0 Fat Les (bellaphon) from London, UK (Flickr) 
“Okay.” I say, still processing this new information.
“It was probably the management company, and they just forgot to inform us.”
“Well, it could be that someone broke into our place and damaged the lock so they replaced it.”
“Seems like a lot of work not to mention expense if someone is breaking in.”
“Well, if they did that, it wouldn't be a typical break in. Whoever would do that wouldn't want their presence to be known to us. In addition,” he offers, “they could have decoded the lock to make a duplicate of our key so that they could enter our place any time they want.”
“Okay...why? Pin and tumbler locks are easy to pick, not to mention, it takes all of two seconds to bump open a regular lock. Why go to all that hassle of replacing a lock?”
Remember, security conferences.
My husband shrugs. “Yes, but it may look less suspicious if they had a key than if they sat there picking a lock every time they wanted in.”
Needless to say, this conversation took up the remainder of our lunch together. We discussed all the possibilities, one of them being that my husband was simply wrong, but this argument didn't get much support from him. In our list of possibilities, the most likely was that the management company had changed the locks, and simply forgotten to inform us. Therefore, it was my responsibility, upon arriving home, to check in with them. If they hadn't changed the locks, I would inquire about getting new locks put in, the cost, and how soon it could be done. 
If the management company said they didn't change the locks, then I was to check to see if a false lock was put in. A false lock, as it was explained to me, is a lock that had pins specifically cut so that any key inserted would open the door. This would be evidence that our apartment had been broken into.
Finally, I was to check to see if anything was amiss.
We finish eating lunch, and I practically ran out of the restaurant to check in with the management company, who, of course, had done nothing to our locks. I told them about my husband's suspicions, and asked how much it would cost to get a new lock put in.
The woman at the desk was polite, and she kindly told me that she needed to get back to me.
Which left me to check my house.
I have nightmares about being alone in my house with an intruder.
The thought has kept me up at night before.
I have absolutely no idea how to act. Do I get a knife from the kitchen? No. Most weapons used by the victim are turned against him/her, and I didn't exactly feel like being knifed.
Do I sneak around?
Sounds like a good way of surprising whoever is in your house and getting shot.
I have, on one occasion, called the police on the suspicion that there was someone in my house. It was the most humiliating thing. The police showed up, my underwear and other dirty clothes lying on the floor, and not an intruder in sight.
I too, looked at the lock. My husband's suspicion gained credence when I noticed how new and shiny it looked compared to all the other locks of the house. Many of our locks have some scratch here or there, but not this one. It looked polished and new.
I quietly (and calmly) searched my house. I went through all of my things, checking my jewelry, my books, my knives, my clothing, everything was in its proper place. Nothing had been moved.
I was a little bit relieved, as I tried to convince myself that my husband is just being hyper-paranoid.
Two tense hours pass for me in the apartment, as I analyze every sound that I heard, every creak, every car passing by. I was more than just a little relieved when I needed to leave for class.
I came home from class to find my husband with a screwdriver and flashlight.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Checking for bugs,” he whispers in my ear after a kiss.
We are crazy. We're crazy people. We have gone over the deep end. I know it. We, while interesting and unique, are not that interesting! We are on no government watch list, that I know of, we have not recently threatened any political leader, or joined any radical groups. This is insane!
Still, I told myself, better safe than sorry.
My husband continues his search, and ends the evening by talking with his friend who is a physical security expert.
I go to bed, half of my mind made up that we are mad, the other half, thinking every move I make is being watched.
It was difficult to fall asleep, to say the least.
I wake up the next morning to a text from my husband.
“I was wrong. Lock looks different in low light. We're good.”
I roll over, putting my face in my pillow, and remind myself that a little bit of chaos keeps life interesting.
At least this way I will have a good story.