Friday, December 27, 2013

Bigheads


The other day, I sat down to enjoy a giant grapefruit my coworker plucked from his accommodating tree. That’s the advantage of living in Florida: free fruit. As I admired the grapefruit's beauty and heft, it struck me that it was the approximate size of a newborn’s skull. I filed the information away, sliced into the fruit's meaty center, and feasted on its contents.

But it got me thinking about head size. Homo sapiens are a big-headed bunch. How we acquired such gargantuan gourds is a long and convoluted evolutionary tale, so I’ll stick to the highlights.

Natural selection is all about “advantage.” If a mutation bobs to the surface of the gene pool and happens to confer an advantage – whether it’s the ability to run a bit faster to elude a predator or a knack for exploiting a new food source – chances are he or she will leave more offspring and pass on that advantage. Through time and successful breeding, the advantage may become a staple, otherwise known as an adaptation. And the better adapted one is to his environment, the better his chances of survival.

So how did our heads get so big? 

Since our skulls, which serve as protective shell and handy carrying case, form atop the underlying tissues, we can blame our bigger brains.

Having a bigger brain is definitely an advantage. The more neurons you possess, the more complex the organ. But it’s not just overall size that matters. The brain of a walrus is about the same size as ours, but you won’t catch a pinniped performing calculus anytime soon. 

It’s the size of the brain in relation to body mass that really counts – what scientists refer to as the encephalization quotient (EQ). To give you an idea of EQs, take our hooved friend, the horse. Horses are pretty smart. They usually follow directions and can be trained to perform a number of nifty tricks. The typical equine has an EQ of around 0.8. Two of our other clever domesticates, dogs and cats, have EQs of 1.1 and 1.0, respectively. Humans, on the other hand, have EQs of around 7!
We are the true brainiacs. 

We’re still trying to tease out exactly when this advanced wiring emerged among our ancestors. By comparing skulls of our various kin, we can track brain changes over time. The neocortex, the outer region of the brain responsible for conscious thought, expanded by the time archaic humans emerged on the scene (around five hundred thousand years ago) and the temporal lobes, the regions on either side, are twenty percent bigger in modern humans compared to our predecessors. That’s important, since these lobes help us organize memories, aid in learning, and allow us to store information – all vital skills associated with the development of culture.

Our modern brains contain over a billion neurons and it’s this complex wiring that enables us to perform many intellectual feats that elude other animals. Reasoning, problem solving, forethought, and language are just a few of the impressive abilities made possible by our large brains (although some animals possess some of these skills to a limited extent). And it was the fine-tuning of these abilities that enabled Homo sapiens to invent things like complex societies and technology. You’d be hard-pressed to design a computer if you possessed the neurological complexity of a squirrel.


But our big brains come with a hefty price tag. For starters, they are metabolically demanding. About a third of the energy you produce each day goes to fueling that giant melon and without a constant influx of sugar and oxygen, it quickly dies. That’s why immediate CPR is so critical in sudden cardiac arrest. Ventilating the patient and performing chest compressions not only provide oxygen, but circulate it throughout the body to starving tissues. And the brain is at the top of the list, for without the brain, the rest of the body isn’t much use.

Another problem with a big brain is squeezing it through the birth canal. For this we can blame our mode of transport. Bipedalism (walking on two legs) places certain architectural demands on the pelvis. Our legs must be aligned below our trunks for efficient walking and running. If not, we’d walk like a crocodile, which can sprint for short distances, but will never win a marathon.

But a woman’s pelvis can only flex so far before things go wrong. That’s what can make childbirth such a dangerous endeavor. Hemorrhage is a common cause of maternal death, which is understandable when you consider the size of the newborn’s head in relation to the dimensions of the birth canal. Natural selection compensated by limiting pregnancy in humans to nine months. This way, the baby emerges before its head becomes too big to pass. The drawback: a defenseless newborn with an undeveloped brain, who is completely dependent on others for survival. Let’s face it… baby humans are basically helpless little blobs that can’t even lift their cumbersome noggins. Pitiful.

In closing, every physical attribute is a tradeoff. Bigger brains may make childbirth more problematic and gobble up much of our energy, but they enable us to do some amazing things. As I bang out this blog on my computer, I’m surrounded by the evidence of human ingenuity – all made possible by a big brain. The clothes I wear, the car I drive, the house I reside in, not to mention my electricity, phone, and medicines - none of these things would be possible without those demanding organs that sit atop our shoulders.

So hurray for the bigheads!



Here's a great read on the brain.


Friday, December 20, 2013

A Mother's Touch

With Christmas just around the corner, ‘tis the season for family gatherings. This provides either a blissful rush of joy or a pang of fear and dread, depending on your family dynamics. The holidays bring us together, whether we like it or not.
Family traditions are big around the holidays. I always flash back to the customs my mother instilled: tasteful decorations, plenty of homemade treats, and a mandatory live tree. The year we tried out a fake, I cried and cried.

Mothers have a tough job. There’s nothing more demanding than a newborn and that’s just the start of decades' worth of nurturing. I was lucky. My mother provided a loving childhood for me and my siblings and her life lessons still reverberate when I think back to all she taught me.
So stop and reflect for a moment on all that mothers do. For one thing, they signed on to giving birth to you and, let’s face it, pregnancy ain’t no picnic.

From the moment of conception, the woman’s body begins to change. Even before the pee strip turns blue, hormones inside her body are gearing up for the ordeal. Rising levels of estrogen and progesterone usher in the traditional “morning sickness.” The breasts swell (no complaints from the menfolk), urination increases, and fatigue latches on for a nine-month ride. Blood vessels dilate, leaving her hypotensive and dizzy; food is absorbed more slowly, causing heartburn and constipation; and her emotions climb aboard the pregnancy rollercoaster. Yes, it’s a joyful experience… and this is only the first trimester.
It’s hard for me to fathom my mother going through this four times, especially since I’m too gutless to even give it a one-time shot. But she came through like a champ and even managed to guide four kids to adulthood.

I’ve already discussed my haphazard childhood in April’s Disfigured. My injury calamities put my parents through the wringer, but mom was pretty savvy when it came to managing our maladies. She was stern when it came to illness (German roots). Whenever we tried to dodge school, she would nail us with her standard response: “YOU CAN MAKE IT!” It became a joke around our house. I could have lost a limb in a lawnmower mishap and she would have scooted me right out the door with my book bag, lunchbox, and a trauma dressing.
She was a master at tending wounds, and with four kids, she practically ran her own M.A.S.H. unit. Our bathroom was fully stocked with Band-aids, Neosporin, and baby aspirin and she administered each with the practiced precision of a drill sergeant. I remember her driving me to the hospital when I broke my arm, applying cold compresses when I knocked out my front teeth, and tenderly nursing me through chicken pox, measles, and a steady onslaught of ear infections (although according to my grandmother, she pushed my bassinet into the kitchen and shut the door after a particularly long night of my wailing).

She was also a patient instructor when it came to the mysteries of sex. I remember her gently explaining my baby brother’s bizarre genitalia (although because of her I still refer to testicles as “plump-plumps”). She explained the nourishment of the fetus when I pointed to his gross little umbilical stump, and she guided me and my sisters through the perils of menstruation with hands-on lessons in feminine protection.
So as you gather for the holidays, take a moment to appreciate your mother. Put aside any petty disagreements over clothing styles, makeup, or your choice of a spouse. Practice patience when she dictates how long the turkey should roast or points out the lumps in your gravy. And keep in mind how priorities and perspectives shift as we age.

My mother died of cancer on Christmas Day when I was twenty-three. Since then, the joy of the holiday is always laced with the pale taint of grief, the faint echo of loss. But I focus on the wonderful traditions she instilled, the warmth and happiness she so generously spread, and the valuable lessons she taught through her ever-patient instruction.
These things live on.

Happy Holidays.


My beautiful mother and her girls... I'm the goofy one in the underwear.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Googling the Body

I’ve always been curious about the body; my body, the bodies of my friends and families, even strangers’ bodies. Whether I’m at the gym, presenting a lecture, or simply in a crowded place, I can always amuse myself by checking out the bodies around me. We all do it. “People watching” is a most enjoyable pastime.
Although we are all one species, the range of dimensions and proportions of the human body are truly astounding. We’ve already discussed how size and shape relate to sports (October’s Size Matters), but this week I want to share a little-known fact about my blog.

I’ve been writing the blog now for almost nine months and ironically, much like a pregnancy, it has been a period of intense development – for me as a writer and for you as readers. I’ve watched my audience grow in leaps and bounds, reaching almost every continent on earth (will someone please share the blog with their buds in Antarctica!!).
What you may not know is that I monitor my readership through statistics provided via Blogger. I can track the number of page views, where in the world these hits occur, and – most interestingly – the Google searches that lead you to my page. 

Don’t panic! I can see the search terms but not who’s searching!!

So I thought it would be fun to share with you some of the bizarre things you folks are searching for out on this vast frontier that is the Internet. Join me as we Google the body.
Being a science geek, the task of analyzing subject categories and crunching numbers left me all atingle. I was able to separate the search terms into five general categories:

1.       Teeth
2.      Bones
3.      Blog Title/Website
4.      Sex (of course!)
5.      Oddities (and there are some strange ones in the mix…)

 People have a lot of questions about teeth and bones, which isn’t surprising. With over fifty teeth (baby plus permanent) and over two hundred bones in the average body, it makes for a lot of complexity and thus, many questions. “Childs mouth teeth xray” and “8 years old child teeth x-ray” are perhaps parents concerned with their child’s oral health or a researcher in need of a graphic (since I try to keep your attention via cool pics). There are also those interested in culture, like “8 teeth grillz,” although when I Googled this term, I came up with a YouTube video about ridding your dog of bad breath… Still don’t understand that one.

The bone questions come in a wide variety. “Bones of the face,” “appendicular skeleton,” “axial bones,” and “cranial sutures” were obviously searchers on an anatomical info quest. “Bones of the head quiz” was perhaps someone searching for a bit of nerdy fun.

Many find the blog via post titles or my name. "Anatomy of a fire truck” and “anatomy of hangover” are perfect examples. These are probably folks who have attended one of my lectures or heard about the blog via word of mouth.
So keep those coming!
It’s no shocker that many of you are cruising the Web in search of sex; therefore, it’s no surprise that my most popular post was September’s A Natural History of the Penis (you boys are obsessed!). But many who find my blog are trying to puzzle out the complexities of sex, and these complexities come in a range of issues.  
There are the curious, such as “females private parts” and the ever-present “penis length.” There are those who have had mishaps, like “anal scarring” or (my all-time favorite) “women’s private parts that stink.” And then there are those that move me. The searches that stem from a concern or insecurity, such as “teen penis growth.” Searches like this speak of our fears and worries; our feelings of inadequacy that flare especially during puberty (don’t worry, little buddy… it’ll get bigger!).

And finally, there are the truly strange searches that somehow land on my doorstep (although this says something about my blog’s content). For some reason there are a lot of questions about Chinese foot binding, which have found me via May’s Beauty of Feet. It seems I’ve also cornered the market on leeches. “Leech anatomy,” “leeches,” and “2013 leech saliva” are just a few examples of those who stumbled onto the blog via May’s Ode to the Leech. And then there are the searches I don’t even understand. Someone will have to explain to me what the hell “feet transfusion cartoon” means…

The Internet is a powerful tool – not only for providing information, but for bringing folks together. It thrills me to see this little blog being read by someone in Yemen, or the Sudan, or Thailand. To know that someone in Afghanistan, France, Malaysia, or Ukraine might be learning, or at least chuckling, because of something I wrote is incredibly rewarding. 

So keep reading and keep sharing, and I’ll try each week to bring a little bit of info your way.
Thanks to you all and I'll catch you next Friday!

Reminder: Read my book!!


Friday, December 6, 2013

Breasts for Hire


 I was cruising home from the gym the other morning, listening to the radio when the dramatic hyperbole of the local news station broke in.

            “YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT WE FOUND WHEN WE INVESTIGATED THE CONTENTS OF BREAST MILK BEING SOLD ON THE INTERNET!” they exclaimed in mock outrage. 

What made me gasp was not their groundbreaking reporting or the fact that there were contaminants in online breast milk. What shocked me was that there are loonies out there actually purchasing bodily fluids on the internet and feeding them to their newborns! WHAT THE HELL?!!

So I did some investigating of my own and it turns out breast milk is a hot item for sale on the web for parents who cannot provide their own. Granted, I don’t have kids so I’ve never had to deal with the trials and tribulations of breast feeding and, between you and me, any child of mine would starve, since I’m built like a prepubescent tween. But I was stunned that there are people out there who would purchase breast milk from a stranger and pass it on to their young. Isn’t natural selection supposed to weed out such insanity?
Not that the use of another’s milk is anything new. Milk surrogates have been around for thousands of years. So let’s spend a moment reflecting on this cultural practice, but let’s begin with a quick overview of the female anatomy. We've already covered the nether regions (October's Below the Equator) so let's head north. Welcome to “Breasts 101.”

Humans are mammals, meaning we are hairy, warm-blooded milk producers who nurse our young. Breasts are the means by which humans nurse, although their role in reproduction has been vastly overshadowed by their use in entertainment. Each breast is a complex structure of fat and connective tissue, lobes and lobules, ducts and nodes. All of this is arranged (somewhat) concentrically around a nipple, formally known as the areola.
 

Women produce milk in specialized cells called alveoli and the milk is carried via ducts to the nipples, where it is then consumed by the hungry newborn. What I didn’t know is that all women have about the same number of alveoli, regardless of breast size, so perhaps my kids wouldn’t starve after all…
But what happens when a woman can’t produce milk? Or, worst case scenario, the mother dies in childbirth? Enter the wet nurse.

The practice of wet-nursing goes back over four thousand years. Back then, if a woman failed to lactate, there were several remedies she could try before resorting to a surrogate: having her back rubbed with an oily concoction of fish bones, eating certain types of fragrant breads, or rubbing her malfunctioning breasts with poppy plants. If all else failed, a wet-nurse was brought in.

Wet nurses were typically members of the working class, if not outright slaves. Selection of the nurse would sometimes depend on the quality of her milk, which was gauged by the “fingernail test.” A drop of her milk was placed on the fingernail and if the milk slid off, it was considered too watery. If it clung to the nail when turned upside down, it was considered too thick. The ideal nurse produced milk that was “just right!”

In ancient Greece, wet nurses were not only utilized out of necessity, they were the preferred choice of higher status individuals. This trend carried on into the Renaissance, where aristocratic women were too busy playing cards and attending the theatre to worry about nursing. Besides, it was believed breastfeeding would ruin the figure and in fashion-conscious France, style always trumped suckling.


But as the practice spread, so did its opponents. Many believed the use of a wet nurse would harm the child by passing on physical or psychological defects from the nurse, especially if the nurse was a redhead! Redheads were believed to be ill tempered – a trait that tainted their milk. Others believed breast milk contained magical qualities meant to be shared between mother and child; thus it was a mother’s “saintly duty” to nurse her child.
Today, women have more options. Gals who cannot, or choose not, to breastfeed commonly use formula, and there are a plethora to choose from. Although formula lacks many of the benefits of breastfeeding, especially when it comes to immune response – it is still a practical option.

But should a parent insist on breast milk for their child, there are ways to obtain it without resorting to Craig’s List. The Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) provides outlets for safe, pasteurized donor milk, as well as donation portals for women who have milk to spare.

So play it safe and use good judgment in your hunt for milk. After all, you wouldn’t accept a blood transfusion from some dude on the web.
Trust me... your baby will thank you.


Here's a great read on the history of wet nursing. Why am I suddenly hungry?...

 




In remembrance...




                               1918 - 2013




Friday, November 29, 2013

Gobble, Gobble.


Thanksgiving Day has passed and if you live in the U.S. or Canada, you’re probably still recovering from turkey overload. Yesterday we commemorated that mythical feast between the Pilgrims and Native Americans, where they all sat down to share in this land’s bounty. (“Would you like some smallpox with your gravy?”)
Actually, Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday. Fall is a wonderful time of year and turkey day is tucked nicely between Halloween and Christmas, resulting in a blissful holiday trifecta. I’ve already compared the human circulatory system to a fire engine (April’s Anatomy of a Fire Truck), but to commemorate Thanksgiving, I thought we’d have some more fun with comparative anatomy and see how much we share in common with our feathered friends. Let’s begin with a glimpse at our genealogies.

Birds evolved from small carnivorous dinosaurs around 170 million years ago. This ancient ancestry accounts for the many different bird species that exist today; around ten thousand at last count. Humans, on the other hand, split from our last common ancestor (LCA, if you want to sound savvy) a mere six million years ago, give or take a million. Birds beat us on scene by a long shot.
Feathers evolved, not for flight, but probably for insulation or display. Only later were they commandeered as part of the airborne assemblage. Turkeys sport an impressive array - over thirty-five hundred. We, on the other hand, lack these colorful adornments and can only grow hair, although there are some among us who could give Sasquatch a run for his money.

Turkeys, like us, are vertebrates. Thus, we share many of the same bones, although theirs have been modified for flight. Most birds have hollow bones compared to ours, which are thicker and heavier. Hollow bones make for a lighter skeleton, which is essential if you intend to get off the ground. Penguins are the exception, but their chunky little bodies have evolved for swimming, resulting in a very non-birdlike anatomy.
Like us, turkeys rely on vision over smell. In fact, turkeys can detect movement from a hundred yards out. And contrary to popular opinion, they are fairly intelligent (unlike many humans). They are keenly aware of their surroundings and can be quite friendly. Even early Europeans commented on the cordiality of the turkeys they encountered when they arrived in the New World. The birds would strut right up and cluck “howdy” just before they were clunked on the head and thrown on the fire.

Turkeys were first domesticated by the Aztecs of Central Mexico who not only bred them but also worshiped them. The ancients relied on their meat, eggs, and feathers, but also believed turkeys were the physical manifestation of one of their gods, Tescatlipoca, and held celebrations in their honor. Once the Spanish clobbered the Aztecs, they loaded their ships with turkeys and sailed back to Spain. The birds were then domesticated throughout Europe. Ironically, the Pilgrims toted the birds back to the New World aboard the Mayflower. These are some well-travelled birds.
Ben Franklin was enamored of the turkey. He referred to it as a “bird of courage” and tried to convince his fellow Founding Fathers to adopt it as the symbol for the new U.S. of A. But his contemporaries didn’t share his enthusiasm and instead, nominated the eagle. Wise choice. It’d be hard to kick ass around the world if your national symbol was a gobbler.

And speaking of prowess… Turkeys and humans also share many similarities in their courtship rituals. Their males, like ours, puff themselves up so they appear bigger and stronger. They prance around, grunting and vibrating their bodies in order to entice the hens. And this can go on for some time until the female finally grows bored and submits (sometimes it’s simply easier). The males will also mate with multiple females, if given the opportunity. Turkeys, like men, rarely turn down a chance of tail.
So enjoy those turkey leftovers. As you munch your turkey sandwich or slurp your turkey soup, take a moment to appreciate this magnificent bird. But before you chuck the carcass, think of the long history that brought this bird to your table and how each of our bodies tells its own evolutionary tale.
Bon app├ętit!


Friday, November 22, 2013

Humans... tasty, tasty.


It’s good to be a human. After a few million years of evolution, we’ve finally made it. We’ve conquered land, sea, and space. We’ve invented medicines, phones, and computers. And we’ve inhabited every square inch of the planet (although you can still get a deal on real estate at either pole). Humans are pretty awesome.
Humans are also masterful hunters. If it weren’t for hunting, we probably wouldn’t be here. Scientists are just starting to appreciate the role meat eating, and subsequently, cooking, played in making humans the intelligent (for the most part) and progressive species they are today.

We tend to envision ourselves at the top of the food chain. We can haul in game fish as fast as we can bait our hooks, blast our way through a herd of elk, and slay even the largest of carnivores, thanks to modern weaponry. But that doesn’t mean our fellow critters don’t occasionally get revenge. Let’s check out some of the ways humans end up on the menu.
I live along the beautiful east coast of Florida, and guess what! Our little peninsula led the way last year in shark attacks in the United States. (Suck it, Hawaii!)  Of course, sharks aren’t the only happy man-eaters that inhabit the Sunshine State. We boast over a million alligators, which, on occasion, have been known to munch on a human. Surprisingly, the last fatality was way back in 2007 when a car thief in Miami jumped into a pond to elude the cops and was greeted by a belligerent gator. Like they say, crime doesn’t pay…

There were a plethora of bear attacks in the U.S. this past year. A couple of hikers in Yellowstone National Park were foolish enough to approach a passel of grizzly cubs before momma bear gave chase and subsequently bit one of the hikers on the ass. Kinda’ serves him right. If you’re foolish enough to flirt with a grizzly, you deserve to lose a bit of tail. Experts say if you’re confronted by an angry bear, curl up in a defensive ball. Seems in that position you’re just asking for an ass bite.
The mountain lion (aka, cougar, puma, panther) is another carnivore that seems to fancy a human from time to time. Many attacks take place along the west coast, where lions patrol paths frequented by hikers and bikers. According to the Mountain Lion Foundation, these agile cats can leap fifteen feet into trees, jump twelve-foot foot fences, and reach speeds of 50 mph. What to do if attacked? Instead of rolling in a ball and getting bit on the ass, as you would in an encounter with a grizzly, they actually advise confronting the feisty feline! Maintain eye contact, flap your arms to appear bigger, and make noise. Worst case scenario, chuck your granola bar in its direction. It turns out many people have avoided becoming lunch simply by mimicking a crazed chicken and fighting back.

Some animal attacks are brought on by humans themselves. These folks fall into the category of “exotic pet owner” or, as I prefer to think of them, trauma patients. These “pets” include tigers, wolves, leopards, and apes. Why people think they can domesticate a wild animal and magically suppress its natural tendency for meat (any form of meat) is beyond me. 

Here’s a fundamental principle of domestication: never domesticate anything that can eat you. There’s a reason ancient herdsmen chose cattle, pigs, and sheep. Your chances of being mauled by a goat are pretty slim.
There is one domesticate that regularly attacks humans: the dog. In 2012, there were thirty-eight fatal attacks in the U.S. The majority of these were from pit bulls;sixty-one percent%, in fact. Ironically, pit bulls account for only five percent of the U.S. dog population. According to dogsbite.org, pit bulls killed 151 Americans between 2005 and 2012; about one fatality every nineteen days. But we can’t fault the dogs. Pit bulls are commonly bred for aggressiveness and this, combined with their powerful jaws, makes for a lethal combination. And here’s an interesting tidbit: dogs typically out-kill sharks by twenty-six percent, which means you’re safer snorkeling among a school of great whites than you are walking outside to check your mail.

So remember: even though you relish your role as master of the universe, there are still plenty of bigger and badder creatures out there that can take you down. After all, we possess the same juicy cuts of meat as our friends on the hoof and, in the eyes of a carnivore, we’re all fair game. Be safe out there.


If you haven't already, please check out my new novel and feel free to share it (poorman's marketing)!


Friday, November 15, 2013

Anatomy of a Hangover

Howdy from the hills of North Carolina, where I’ve escaped for a week of isolation among the lush beauty of the Smoky Mountains. Dense clouds are skirting their peaks and a grey sky is spitting snow, so I’ve settled before the fire to warm my cold-intolerant blood.
I’ve been coming here for years. The topography provides dramatic contrast to the flatness of Florida and it’s nice to witness the change of seasons. The week is usually spent indulging in two of my favorites: gin and bacon (if only they made bacon-flavored gin… or gin-flavored bacon!).

I’ve been a gin drinker since my early years on the fire department. In fact, it was a fellow firefighter who introduced me to that magical libation. Gin is not intended for the novice. It creates a blissful burn as it goes down, akin to swallowing an ecstasy-laced razorblade, and the effects are intense and immediate. Fortunately, following a long apprenticeship, I am now a proficient consumer. I know just when to cut myself off before the inevitable penalty sets in: the hangover.
We’ve all been there. The hammering head, the nausea, the shaking, the thirst… And although you can take meds to minimize the symptoms, you simply have to wait it out. It’s a slow form of punishment that sets its own pace.

So let’s examine just how alcohol ushers in this suite of symptoms and the next time you reach for that fourth or fifth cocktail, you might just take heed.
Although alcohol is technically a depressant, the initial effect is a blissful lightheadedness. Alcohol’s effects are based on several factors – what you’re drinking, your body size, how much you’ve had to eat, and how fast you’re drinking. A few quick shots on an empty stomach can produce intoxication in no time, especially for individuals unused to heavy consumption (aka, "lightweights").

As you drink, the alcohol enters your stomach where it is absorbed by the bloodstream and circulated throughout the body. Because drinking lowers your inhibitions, you tend to disregard the warning signs and keep on drinking. It’s a vicious cycle and before you know it, you’re smashed.
Enter Mr. Hangover.
Alcohol wreaks havoc on your body. Even when you manage to make it home and into bed, the fun has just begun, for here come the spins. Those miserable bed spins are caused by the alcohol affecting the fluid of your inner ear. The disruption sends signals to the brain, telling it the body is moving, when in reality, you’re simply hanging on for dear life, trying not to hurl. Word of warning: the spins are even worse if you add weed to the mix.  

As you’re busy spinning, the alcohol is toying with other bodily components. Urine output increases, which can lead to dehydration (dizziness, thirst, and lightheadedness). Your stomach lining becomes irritated, which contributes to nausea and vomiting. Blood vessels expand, causing your head to throb. And blood sugar can drop, which brings on the shakes.
On a broader scale, alcohol can trigger an inflammatory response, which your body combats via the immune system. The agents released by your immune system can cause a decrease in appetite, loss of memory, and an inability to concentrate. Alcohol also affects quality of sleep, which can intensify each of these symptoms, leaving you cranky and fatigued.

With all these ill effects, why do we continue to drink?? 

Because it’s so damn fun. Humans have been consuming alcohol for therapeutic, ceremonial, and recreational purposes for thousands of years. Evidence for alcohol dates back over nine thousand years in China’s Henan Province, where folks enjoyed a “wine-and-beer-like beverage” made from fermented grapes, rice, honey, and hawthorn fruit. Using residue analysis from pottery fragments, modern concoctors were able to recreate this brew, which went on to win a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2009. 
Science is awesome!
And the Chinese weren’t the only ones raising a glass (or vessel, I should say, since glass wasn’t invented until the Bronze Age). Ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Turks, and Mayans were also imbibing. And wherever there has been drinking, there has been overdrinking.

So the next time you overindulge, picture our ancient brethren in the same situation, for as long as there’s been alcohol, hangovers have lurked just around the corner.


Drink wisely and stay safe! Next week I’ll be writing from the great city of Chicago, where hundreds of fellow nerds and I will be gathering for the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting.
I’ll be sure to pack my flask…
Here's a great read on the history of drinking.




Friday, November 8, 2013

Size Matters


Think about your favorite sports. What do you like about them? Is it the speed, the precision, the intensity, the beauty? Is it a sport you enjoy playing or simply a sport you like to watch? Do you watch it for the sheer brutality (boxing) or the skimpy uniforms (women’s beach volleyball)? There are numerous reasons for liking the sports we like.
My favorite sport to watch is hockey. Although I’ve never played hockey, have never even put on skates, and am positive I would end up with a serious head injury if I tried either one, I am truly mesmerized by the game (although I abhor the fighting). Any sport in which big burly men race around bashing into each other and chasing a puck, while performing the entire feat on skates, ranks as phenomenal in my book.

The biomechanics of hockey are astounding. The grace with which the players move, combined with the physical intensity of the sport, make for a strange and beautiful combination. It’s hard to tell much about these players’ builds. Their bulky uniforms disguise the bodies beneath (although I spend considerable time imagining them out of their uniforms ), but it takes a highly muscular frame to perform the lightning fast, bone crushing maneuvers that make up this wonderful game.
Biomechanics - the forces exerted on the skeleton by muscles and gravity – are a fundamental aspect of any sport and some sports demand a certain type of body. So let’s explore some sport-specific bodies and see how size and shape enable athletes to excel in their chosen games.

Let’s start small. Professional jockeys must be tiny.  Although there is no height restriction in the world of horse racing, the average jockey is less than five-and-a-half feet tall (that’s about 1.7 meters for all you non-Americans). A jockey’s height is restricted by his weight. The lighter the horse (including its cargo), the faster the horse, and every ounce counts. The average jockey weighs between 108 and 118 pounds (around fifty kilos). If you want to ride in the Kentucky Derby, you can’t exceed 126 pounds, but that includes all your equipment (no naked bareback riding allowed). Although jockeys are remarkably small, the weight restrictions are a constant battle, especially as jockeys age. This has led to a dysfunctional culture of weight loss, where these little guys starve, sweat, and puke their way to feather weight. I’d never make it as a jockey…
What about the opposite extreme? The tallest players in the NBA stand over seven feet tall.  An alligator of similar size could easily swallow a goat. Since regulation nets are ten feet off the ground, these skyscraper players, with their gangly arms, can easily dunk the ball; that is, if they’re not blocked by a totem pole from the other team. The average height of a WNBA player is around six feet, although Margot Dydek, the tallest woman to play professional basketball, was 7’2". That’s a lot o’ woman. 

There are exceptions to the rule. The shortest player in the NBA was teeny-tiny Tyrone Bogues. At just over five feet tall, “Muggsy” made up for his lack of height with lightning speed and went on to play for fourteen seasons. Miracles come in small packages…

Gymnastics is another sport that necessitates a certain frame, namely, one that’s compact, flexible, and incredibly muscular. You’ll never see a seven-foot-tall gymnast; there’s no way to tuck that much body into a ball. Can you imagine the carnage on the uneven bars? Gymnastics is a youthful sport and puberty serves as a double-edged sword. For male gymnasts, it means increases in testosterone, which enhance the athlete’s ability to perform those gravity-defying feats. For women, puberty is accompanied by an increase in body fat as the body prepares for childbearing – not good for someone whose primary job is tumbling. That’s why most females hang up the leotard once they hit their twenties. But the constant wear and tear on joints and muscles limits even the men. There’s no such thing as a middle-aged gymnast.
Granted, there are some sports that simply require technique, irrespective of the size or shape of the athlete. The exciting world of professional bowling comes to mind… Golfers are another group that falls into the “muscles optional” category (and their nerdy clothes don’t help matters). I’ve also noticed how chunky many of those baseball players are. I guess the ability to scratch and spit has no correlation to pants size.

Bodies come in all shapes and sizes and sometimes size and shape are dictated by the sport. Want to be a lineman in the NFL? You'd better tip the scales at three hundred. Heart set on becoming the world’s greatest Sumo wrestler? Better be able to consume twenty thousand calories a day. Our bodies can facilitate or impede the goals we set. 

Speaking from the standpoint of a female firefighter, the physical demands are a constant challenge, and most women in the fire service have to work twice as hard to achieve the same results as our male counterparts. But drive and determination make for powerful fuel, so set realistic goals and go for it. You’ll never know what you’re capable of until you give it a shot.


What a coincidence... this week's blog ties in with the title of my new novel. Now how did that happen??

Here's a shameless plug:
The Mass of Men explores the conflicts and bonds among a group of firefighter cadets as they move through their training. I've tried to capture the drama, humor, and intensity of an academy and what it takes to make it as a firefighter. 
Please check it out and help me spread the word.
Thanks for reading!