Saturday, February 28, 2009


[Bloggers warning: read on ONLY if you enjoy biology and medicine, and are not one of those who recoils at the discussion of bodily fluids.]

Last night was the first in a week during which I did not wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning gasping for breath. Each time, I had to go through what seemed like an entire box of tissue to clear all the sticky fluid out of my nose and throat. Finally, I was able to breathe again, and while trying to get back to sleep, had ample time to contemplate the origin of these copious fluids. How is it possible that for the past week, 24 hours per day, my cranium could manufacture so much disgusting fluid?

It's a good thing we have the internet, and I have some time on my hands because I'm sick.

Let's start at the very beginning, the Science of Phlegm, shall we?

Phlegm is sticky fluid secreted by the mucous membranes of humans and other animals. Its definition is limited to the mucus produced by the respiratory system, excluding that from the nasal passages, and particularly that which is expelled by coughing (sputum). Its composition varies, depending on climate, genetics, and state of the immune system, but basically is a water-based gel consisting of glycoproteins, immunoglobulins, lipids, etc. Phlegm may be of several different colors. (Wikipedia)

In vertebrates, mucus is a slippery secretion produced by, and covering, mucous membranes. It is a viscous colloid containing antiseptic enzymes (such as lysozyme) and immunoglobulins that serves to protect epithelial cells in the respiratory, gastrointestinal, urogenital, visual, and auditory systems in mammals; the epidermis in amphibians; and the gills in fish. Snails, slugs, hagfish, and certain invertebrates also produce external mucus, which in addition to serving a protective function, can facilitate movement and play a role in communication. Mucus also contains mucins, produced by goblet cells in the mucous membranes and submucosal glands, and inorganic salts suspended in water. The average human body produces about a litre of mucus per day. (Wikipedia)

I also found a great article on phlegm by Flash Gordon, M.D. (really). The good DocFlash cautions us not to use to many drugs that are intended to "dry us up" because the result is that phlegm in the small airways of the lung dries up and creates blockages - which our body then involuntarily tries to cough open. This promotes more coughing, and can also result in bronchitis.

But that's not all there is to know about phlegm. It turns out that phlegm has a rich and varied history, including many important cultural values. Think, for example, what the world would be like without the works of Ian Phlegming, author of James Bond. There were many important Dutch and Phlegmish paintings in the 16th and 17th centuries. Why, there is even an association of breeders of phlegmish giant rabbits. And who would know that phlegm can support vast resources of fish, which must be more easily caught due to the viscosity of their habitat, resulting in overfishing in the Nose (and the Tail) of the Grand Banks, and the Phlegmish Cap, another fish-rich region east of the Nose.

Where would Europe be without Phlanders? Would it be the same without a Phlegmish community? (The sound of all that hacking and coughing must be maddening!) There is even a society to study the genealogy of phlegmish people.

At this point, I need to pay homage to a man who has helped put sticky nasal fluids on the map and into the common lexicon of America, Kinky Friedman the Jewish cowboy. With one song he wrote and has sung everywhere, he has elevated the runny nose to a high stature:

"Old man Lucas
had a lot of mucus,
hangin' right out of his nose...."

And finally, because I am who I am, I need to point you to the lowly hagfish - not really a true fish, not really a vertebrate, but a fascinating animal that lives in the deep oceans of the world. The hagfish is a champion of mucus, and you have to watch this science video to see it.

I hope you learned something today.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


It never ceases to amaze me that Americans are, at least according to the news media, so afraid of "socialism" that our elected officials are afraid to use the word "nationalize." News flash - the system of free market capitalism has gone bust and the entire world is crashing and burning! But we're so afraid of being socialists -even though I doubt that 1 out of any 10 people really know what that means - that we continue to pump public money down various capitalist rat holes. I've written it before on this blog, and I'll say it again - if private companies make very bad business decisions and can't survive - let them die. This is, after all, the free market way. (btw - even Thomas Friedman now agrees with me - see his column today in the NY Times).

Example - why are we bailing out General Motors? This is a company that has made bad decisions for decades, and has spent big bucks fighting every attempt to regulate them (for consumer and environmental safety), and they are now faced with bankruptcy. The best thing we can do is let them fail, clean out the management, and see if they can recreate an automobile business that is in tune with the 21st century.

And what about the big banks, like Bank of America and Citigroup? The management at these companies has violated every bit of the public trust, all in the name of unbridled greed. And yet, we, the taxpayers, are pumping billions of dollars into these firms, with no guarantee that anything will change. It's past time to nationalize these institutions. Critics of nationalization are saying that the government doesn't have the experience or skill to run these failed banks - um, can it get any worse than it did under the capable and skilled leadership of the present management?

But there is a larger underlying agenda here - the future of capitalism itself. Now don't go bolting the doors and getting out the shotguns - I'm not talking about commies taking over. I am talking about instituting some very basic and drastic changes in our economic system, a rationalization of the economy that takes the personal and institutional greed factor out of the equation. What will this new system look like? I don't know, but there are a lot of smart people out there who certainly have viable ideas.

Our economy is based on all of us consumers continually buying as much useless junk as we can get our hands on to prop up the factories in China and the big box stores scattered around our landscape - and to which we have to drive in out gas-guzzling and polluting automobiles. It's not a rational or a sustainable system, as we now see very plainly.

I'm open to some new and radical ideas - how about you? (assignment: google "alternative economic systems" and browse round for a bit....)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Yesterday was the end of week 3 of the Obama presidency. Why does it seem like he's been there so much longer? Why do I have trouble remembering the previous White House occupant?

I've been patiently watching and waiting before commenting on the job performance of our new President. I've thought it unfair and disingenuous to criticize Obama during his first few weeks of service; after all, it's a huge job and he's the new-hire, and I doubt that he got that much help from Baby Bush.

But to tell the truth, I've had some trepidations. I knew going in that Obama isn't my ideal, a flaming progressive lefty, but a more middle road moderate Democrat. I do like his style, his coolness under pressure, his ability to talk to the public and make sense, his world views, and I certainly appreciate his willingness to say "I made a mistake." Very refreshing.

Early on, however, some of his appointments raised some little red flags for me. "Hey, wait a minute, these are insiders, Clintonites, old boys...what the...what happened to "change"?" An example is his financial team, with guys like Geithner, Rubin, and Summers; these are people who were involved in, and at least partially responsible for the economic meltdown we are now experiencing. The party line is that Obama is in charge, and these appointees will do what their boss wants, even if it means that they will need to "change." OK, we'll see.

A great disappointment to me was on Monday when Justice Department lawyers perpetuated the Bush tactic of claiming state secrets in an effort to get a case dismissed in the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, where a three judge panel is considering a case brought by five victims of Bush Administration "extraordinary rendition" - kidnapping and torture. This is seen by many, including me, as a betrayal of trust - an Obama campaign issue was criticism of this very tactic by the Bush Justice Department.

I'm still in a wait and see mode. I'm still very hopeful. I truly celebrated the actions taken by Obama on his first few days in office by which he reversed a number of Bush decisions, set the departure from Iraq in motion, announced the closing of the prison camp at Guantanamo, etc. Hooray! But I'm getting more doubtful by the day regarding the economic recovery strategy. Sec. Geithner's bailout announcement yesterday was a resounding "thud." And don't get me started about the Democrats wienieism on pushing through a stimulus package against a pack of cowardly, mean and bitter old-fart Republicans. Shameful.

So I'll hold my tongue some more - after all, this is only the beginning of week 4 (can you believe it?). In the meantime, I'm thinking more and more that the "change" we all seem to want will only happen if we push for it. So I'm going to make more phone calls, and maybe carve out more time to get more involved in making change a reality.

Sunday, February 08, 2009


Making dinner for myself tonight (Sherry is at a meeting) was more time consuming than it should have been. I spent time on the internet searching several sites, including the FDA web site and the Trader Joe's site, trying to decide whether or not to open the recently purchased jar of Trader Joe's Organic Crunch Peanut Butter. (I'm a pretty good cook, but when alone, I have a few tried and true meals - tonight was tomato soup, and peanut butter and strawberry preserves on rice cakes.)

Why do I have to think twice about eating peanut butter? I've been eating this stuff for most of my life. I have a very special relationship with peanut butter: in grade school I researched and wrote a major paper on the life of George Washington Carver, who invented over 300 uses for peanuts! I always think about Mr. Carver when I eat peanut butter. He was an African-American born near the end of the Civil War who become a well known agricultural chemist and educator, and who had to break down a number of racial barriers to get there. In some way, I think Mr. Carver was one of the inspirations that led me to become a naturalist and scientist.

But now my dear jar of peanut butter is suspect; I have to approach it with trepidation and, to be honest, a certain degree of daredevilism. We tsk-tsk the Chinese for putting melamine in milk, resulting in the deaths of many children. And yet here we are, in America, amazed that a big corporate entity appears to have purposefully put tainted peanut products on the market out of sheer greed. Is nothing sacred? Not even peanuts?

Note: if you read my next blog post, you will know that I survived my dinner tonight!

Monday, February 02, 2009


Attention cell phone device manufacturers, you are ignoring a large and growing demographic of users - retiring baby boomers. What is needed is a smart phone that does not have every imaginable application, bell and whistle known to geekdom. What is needed is a device that is: a phone, a camera, a qwerty keyboard text messaging device (with a very accessible keyboard for aging eyes), an internet browser, and a simple calendar and address book. I can't find such a device - all I find is phones on steroids (I actually have one of the latter, but I know people who want a much simpler device in their purse or pocket).

And, by the way, you mobile phone service providers, how about a simplified plan to go with the simplified device?

There's money to be made if you look beyond the kid generation.