Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Hows and Whys of Minecraft and the Other Sandbox Games

Improbable Machine, Not yet complete.
So people who are somehow monitoring my RAM usage have probably noticed I log about 100% time on minecraft that my computer is up. That's mostly because Gliesse, my main computer which I use for all of my gaming as well as all of my writing and banking and just about everything else I compute for anymore is also the computer that hosts the Gliesse minecraft server. By the way the Gliesse server is a public server which you can get credentialed for by contacting me and is running the Attack of the B-Team modpack, version 1.0.10.

So the question arises then which is: why do I care so much about minecraft however many years after it came out that I not only log probably about eight hours a week of actually sitting down and playing the damn thing but also keep a tower running around the clock just so that I can have a server to play on and the answer is: those are two questions.

So the first thing I can say about minecraft is that it's part of an evolving culture of sandbox games and as a kid-at-heart I very much like to play in the sandbox. I like minecraft for the same reason that I (poorly) curated a massive collection of different lego sets - I like to make things.

So by now you're thinking that you know, it's been three or four years, surely you've done everything you can do in the game, right? Well no, not really. Sandbox games aren't objective based (although minecraft can have objectives depending on the game mode and map type) unless your way of thinking is objective based. Even if I sit down with a list of objectives like I recently did and say "Okay, I am going to build a castle with these features and include this functionality and so on", I can always make new objectives.

Further, I have what is called the hackish nature, which has various definitions but can commonly be said is the desire to do the most with the available. While I'm never first-on-market with a device in minecraft (mostly because I play casually), I will often come up with an idea semi-independently that adds functionality to the game which doesn't natively exist.

For example, if you are playing in the survival gamemode but you like to build things you want to collect resources in as efficient a manner as possible. If you like to build things out of wood the conventional wisdom is that you must chop down trees and the only way to chop down trees natively in the game is to grab an axe and manually chop them down, a process only marginally less tedious than mining a branch mine. However, it is actually possible to build a machine if you know what you're doing that will push the trees in front of explosives and those explosives will break up the logs and then the machine will collect the log parts and reserve them as wood for your later use all while planting and growing the subsequent generation of trees. I am still working on the overall design but I know that others have done it and so I want to do it because I hate mining for trees!

And that's why I love sandbox games like minecraft and kerbal and others, because minecraft's redstone is a form of formal logic and kerbal teaches orbital mechanics and I can pretend to be and do and go wherever the hell I want and sometimes that's just more fun than writing.

14,000 Pageviews

So while I was working on avoiding the dazzlingly boring reality of the fact that I work for a living, and simultaneously avoiding the reality that at some point in the next week or so I am going to have to come to terms with the idea that the antisocial are unreliable and the borderline sociopathic are irresponsible and I will, at some point, have to clean up after others, I logged into blogger.

Now, this is not an unusual keystroke for me to make and it is, in fact, a keystroke, or at least a series - alt-shift ntb has the fantastic property of opening a new chrome browser tab to the blogger dashboard if your computer has the same general configuration as mine. I come to blogger something like 20 or thirty times a day, mostly just to close it immediately, but also because I have a few different blogs on my reading list like A Woman's Place and Crescent's Edge and a few others which have mostly lapsed, and these are places where I occasionally direct my brain when I'm not watching youtube or otherwise wasting time on the internet.

However when I logged into blogger this morning for the first time ever in order to check my reading list and browse for comments since I don't have email notification turned on, I noticed that An Auditor and a Gentleman is at precisely 14,000 views. Before I go on coming up with complex justifications for thanking people I want to geek out and have some fun with statistics. Firstly - it has been 1,041 days since the first post so if you are counting that's an average of about 13 hits/day... actually, it's closer to 14 but I don't like rounding up.

So the first post on Auditor and a Gentleman was the thesis statement that explains the subtitle and is, these days, largely ignored which was called The Idea, and The Method. Perhaps unsurprisingly this was one of the least-viewed articles ever, at least in terms of direct views, and it shouldn't come as a galloping shock to anyone that it's so ignored here I didn't even remember writing it. It's difficult to define the least-viewed post of all time because there are so many that nobody directly viewed at all - I have a bad habit of forgetting to use the page-break tags and therefore most people seem to just read directly from the homepage, so there's that.

Now, if you want the most viewed page of all time that is my post on Tie-Dye, or Synsipilium Cichlids. In fact, by and large my most popular pages are all either my tea reviews (which have stopped given my recent decline in availability of good, fresh teas and the slow transition to coffee) and my fish care sheets, which have more or less stopped because writing them makes me want to take up aquaculture again and I simply don't have the space or money. It's a little bit like sending me to a restaurant and telling me not to eat anything.

In fact, all of the top ten posts are either tea or fish related except for two: Faith is the True Shibboleth, and A New Kind of Spam.

Now, onto the thanks: thank you all of you who check in every day or have subscribed by either adding me to your own readerlists or to your RSS feeds or however you're keeping track.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Last of the Nutrition - Vitamins, Minerals, Antioxidants, and Living Critters!

So until now and apart from the brief mention of ethanol and caffine, I've been pretty good about not mentioning drugs. However, since someone did ask about it, I might or might not do a secondary series on the topic. As it happens though, drugs aren't nutrients. They affect the operation of the human biochemical machine but they don't really count.

Having said that, we have a lot to talk about this time around, because the "other" category of nutrition is actually pretty complex. As you might imagine the body uses a ton of different elements in its construction and you can't just take in pure forms of the elements (generally) in order to achieve growth and function.

The first thing we have to talk about is vitamins. There are, if I remember correctly, 13 vitamins. These aren't 13 individual chemicals but actually 13 categories into which chemicals called vitamers are sorted depending on biological activity. 4 of the vitamins are soluble in fat which is one of the reasons why a fat-free diet won't work and the other 9 are soluble in water which is why we have to consume so much of it.

As something of an aside, you are basically hydrated if your urine is very pale or clear. The usual rules of thumb for how many glasses of water a day to drink vary as widely as how many calories a day to consume and so I will refrain from posting any guidelines apart from that metric.

Now, your 13 vitamins are A, B1, B2, B3, B6, B7, B9, B12, C, D, E and K. For each vitamin there is a maximum and minimum daily intake guideline, an associated underdose and overdose syndrome, and different food sources. As a general rule unless you are otherwise unhealthy or for some reason cannot physically eat enough food to obtain each of the vitamins or for some strange reason do not have access or are allergic to whole categories of foods you should not need to supplement your vitamin intake. As a matter of fact, Vitamin D can by synthesized by your body under UVB exposure.

The different vitamins all have different effects on the body and prioritizing them, say, to achieve a particular effect over what you would achieve by consuming merely the daily requirement may be one vector by which you can tune your diet to tune your body. For example, I tend to supplement vitamin E in winter and take more foods with vitamin E in the rest of the seasons because it plays a role in regulating mood, and there is a seasonal component to my otherwise regular up-down cycle of biploarity.

In addition to some vitamins being soluble in fat and some being soluble in water, all of the vitamins are affected by cooking and different vitamins respond to different cooking methods in different ways. A fantastic table of these effects is found on wikipedia, but there's a few general rules of thumb: losses are greater for boiling than steaming and with the exception of B2 vitamins are more available to the body in the raw food than after cooking.

Having said that, this isn't an argument that all diets should be raw food diets any more than my personal preference in tuna preparation is that all tuna dishes should be nigirizushi.

Rocking On

After your vitamins come your minerals, which can be divided into two categories based basically upon bodily need, your macrominerals and your trace elements. For the vast majority of these elements, your body really wants the ions. Fortunately, ionization happens readily in aqueous solution and your body is 70% water for the ions to be dissolved into so we've got that part covered. Excess minerals are among the excreted substances in urine which a humorous person could suppose would allow you to call your urinary tract an ion cannon but I personally think we're above bathroom humour here.

Your macrominerals are: calcium (important for bone health), Chlorine (more specifically, chloride ions), Magnesium (which is particular important as Magnesium is a key component of ATP which is the chemical that transfers energy around your body); Phosphorous (in ATP, DNA, and Bones); Potassium (regulating electrolyte balance), Sodium (which your body needs because it is used in muscle control which is kind of important for things like having a heart-rate and, you know, doing things); and Sulfur, which is a component of pretty much all of the amino acids both essential and otherwise.

Now, you can overconsume the macro-minerals and sodium over-consumption is particularly problematic which is why it's one of those nasty words and why you're seeing so many processed foods bragging about low sodium content. If you're otherwise healthy, however, there's no good reason to remove it from your diet completely, but you may want to stay below about 2.5 grams per day which is quite a bit more than you need but still below the range where it causes hypertension.

After that come the trace elements which are all essential, mostly because your body can't produce elements from lighter elements - as cool as your body is, it doesn't really work with nuclear chemistry that often. We need cobalt, copper, chromium, iodine, iron, manganese, molybendum, selenium, zinc, and maybe vanadium (we haven't decided that one yet).

Now, of those I would suggest that they are all important but particularly iodine (which most people only obtain through iodized table salt now that we aren't so big on the organ meats) as it prevents glandular dysfunctions, iron as it moves oxygen around the body, chromium which allows your body to process sugars, and manganese which lets your body actually do things with the oxygen its moving around are the most important, but again, you need all of them. Trace minerals are the ones most often low on the diet so I strongly recommend investigating your consumption and then supplementing the ones you're lacking if necessary.

That's All, Right?

Well, no, not really. There are some other dietary components that aren't as established in the zeitgeist but nonetheless are becoming increasingly important in our understanding of human nutrition.

Antioxidants which either prevent the formation of free radicals during metabolism or absorb them all up (thereby preventing cell damage) are becoming increasingly popular in recent years. I've spoken about them before here in my tea reviews and while I don't pay the most attention to them I've learned that they have been clinically demonstrated to have some good health effects, though clinical trials have shown them to be minor and that over-supplementation can be harmful. Your body can actually produce quite a few of these compounds on its own with enough the the precursors Glutathione and Vitamin C. There are thousands of different antioxidant compounds of dietary relevance and tracking your consumption is largely impossible based just on that complexity, but it should be noted that variety in foods that are rich in antioxidants like colourful fruits and vegetables is better than an antioxidant pill.

One subgroup of about 4,000 antioxidants are the phytochemicals (like the polyphenols) which are, like antioxidants in general, sufficiently complicated that no one phytochemical can be said to be preferred by the body over any other. In point of fact there's some evidence to suggest that useful phytochemical intake comes only from diet and that supplementation is essential a waste of money with zero clinical benefit. Antioxidants and Phytochemicals are the bleeding edge of nutritional science and we really don't know much about it but this is where the developments will be coming from.

The last thing I want to talk about is the stuff that is living inside of you. Believe it or not not everything we eat is dead and nor should it be. Your GI tract in particular is practically a nation of different species of organisms from Lactobaccilicus to E coli, all of which are necessary for a happy, healthy you. The exact species and proportions are being studied and do vary according to age, but there are circumstances in which getting more - by eating live-culture foods like yogurt or by supplementation - is advisable, such as after courses of antibiotics. Dietary Fiber also plays a role in the health of your gut flora which then goes on to regulate certain other aspects of your life such as how much of your time you waste playing angry birds on your phone in the john.

For the record, I hate angry birds.

Gut Flora, as it's called, performs a number of functions for you. Complex carbohydrates are broken down into more managable forms by fermentation, which reduces the amount of food you have to eat to reach a caloric break-even point and also produces that other uncomfrotable waste produce - flatulence.

There's some evidence that some of the species of Gut Flora, which use your GI Tract's mucus lining as their growth substrate, actively protect that lining and even prevent certain forms of injury to that lining from forming, which would otherwise be very painful.

Furthermore, because your body has a colony of bacteria already inside of it that's eating up all the things bacteria like to eat up, the gut flora have a competative advantage over pathogenic bacteria that would otherwise make you sick. This is not unlike the way that a well-planted fish tank is less susceptible to algae blooms, in fact, it works on the very same mechanism. In fact, maintaining a healthy internal ecosystem can be so useful that it can even prevent or help to control irritable bowel syndrome.

So while, yes, some strains and species of bacteria are harmful to you, so are some varieties of virtually everything else. If anything over the last few weeks we've learned that there are no good foods or bad foods, only better foods and worse foods. Even the worse foods aren't really verboten. Your body doesn't actually acknowledge the human compartmentalization of time and even circadian patterns of sleep and eating are mutable as we're going to see in a few posts when I talk about polyphasic sleep. While large swings in nutrition are ill-advisable as anyone whose gone from one type of diet to another can probably tell you, diversions from your diet on occasion won't actually hurt you as badly as some people believe, and on a psychological level would probably do you some good.

I mean, of the four major human experiences - death, food, sex and other humans, only death is more ubiquitous than eating. By our very nature we are obsessed with and concerned with only eating enough not only to survive but to reproduce. And while I can and others have survived very well on diets made entirely of single-flavour elements such as the Great American Meat and Potatoes paradigm or the relatively new Soylent Smoothie synthetic diet, the happiest people I know are all the ones who eat the most differently. The human brain is, after all, thirsty for experience, and whether we crave variety in having scalloped potatos this week instead of mashed or always having some kind of cake for dessert on sunday dinner or it's bouncing from sushi to pasta to brioche to burgers to salads over the run of a weekend, variety is the cliched seasoning of life and, what's more, we've just seen that there's nutritional benefits to it as well.

Fun With Nutrition - The Carbohydrates

For those of you who are finding this tedious, you can relax: We're very nearly done.

First, though, I do want to talk about the much-maligned carbohydrates, the nutrient most fashionable to avoid before we all found out about trans fats. Like most fashions, these things go in cycles, and I'm finding more and more people who are returning to the habit of avoiding carbohydrates in their diet.

Like I talked about before, the human body requires a certain number of calories per day to be a living human body and a certain amount more to maintain weight. Fats are by far the most energy-dense foods at about 37 kilojoules per gram, which doesn't mean much to you until I convert it to dietary calories (9 kcal/gram).

Now, you might think that a high-fat, high-protein diet could avoid carbs completely and meet your dietary requirements, and you'd have the peculiar-sounding but very common quality of being both right and wrong in the same motion. The Atkins Diet worked by replacing carbs with all the fats and protein that the dieter could want. And it worked, because your calories were far below what your body wanted and so you entered the various metabolic states where your body ate itself - first your lipids, then your proteins.

This was essentially a way of starving yourself safely, which I suppose can be said of all diet-only weightloss methods, but nonetheless it was (and still is) a popular one.

However, through much of human history, and indeed today, the only way to produce enough food that everyone in a given society was getting enough calories without everyone being farmers was to rely to some extent on carbohydrates. This was why we have the phrase daily bread and the Irish Potato Famine was a big deal and why most of Asia has such a heavy culinary reliance on rice.

Carbohydrates are a class of organic compounds (like most of the nutrients, but not all) that have the particular property of being entirely composed of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, not at all unlike fossil fuels. They typically, but not always, have a formula that satisfies the condition Cm(H2O)n, which doesn't mean much to most of you but to me it tells me that if you oxidize your average carbohydrate in the presence of gaseous oxygen your waste products will be Carbon Dioxide and Water, probably vapour if you're doing pure combustion.

Carbohydrates are important in the diet because after fat and ethanol (the alcohol which is least toxic and therefore humanity's overwhelming drug of choice after caffeine) they have the greatest energy density per gram, about the same as proteins. The difference is that carbohydrates are both easier for your body to digest (and therefore preferred in dietary terms), and also easier for humans to produce (which is why we have amber waves of grain instead of palamino waves of beef).

These two factors mean that you're going to see a lot of carbohydrates in your diet. Carbohydrates are your sugars and your starches and the distinction is that the sugars have simple molecular structures while the starches are complex. Both are important and both must be moderated but as a general rule is that 55%-75% of your caloric intake comes from carbohydrates, though the WHO recommends that no more than 10% of the same intake of food energy come from sugars.

So, big bowl of pasta, good, drinking a two-litre bottle of root beer all by yourself on a thrice-weekly basis, bad.

Now, studies on carbohydrate restricted diets are far from extensive and really, to make conclusive statements the one or the other on whether or not cutting the carbs out of your diet is good or bad for you is, at this point, more opinion than science, but I can tell you that your options for foods will be broader and your task of balancing the other essential nutrients easier if you leave the carbs on the table. Having said that, the carbohydrates themselves are not essential nutrients - the few that are used to do things in the body other than catabolysis can be built from amino acids, which your body will do in like, an eyeblink, without you even needing to realize you're doing it.

By the way, while this has nothing to do with the root question of carbohydrates I will be releasing, along with the next post, a fancy-pants excel spreadsheet that first calculates your roughly-specific nutritional needs and then allows you to track them. The first edition will require some ability to research food contents but if it is sufficiently popular I may release a second edition with a database of common foods already loaded in.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Nutrition Series: In Defence of Fat

Fat is about all
Rabbits have goin' for 'em.
So, as it happens, I forgot to mention that fats were even a part of nutrition, falling into a sort of mental trap my generation has essentially been drip fed - namely, that fat is unhealthy, full-stop.

For the sake of full disclosure I should amend my usual reminder I'm not a medical professional with another reminder that I work in the culinary field, and that my present employer demonstrates particular lack of concern for the fat components of their meals.

With that in mind though, I'm going to articulate what I can about the realities of fats in human nutrition without overall bias, and I'm going to begin by discussing the types of fat.

In chemical terms (and remembering that humans are complicated chemical factories for turning chemicals into other chemicals (primarily those needed to construct other little humans) fats are triglycerides. While the actual chemistry gets pretty complicated, you can basically group fats into three varieties: saturdated, unsaturated, and transfats.

Saturated Fats are, by definition, those fats in which the fatty acid chains making up the overall fat molecule are sufficiently charged with hyrdogen, that is to say they are saturated with respect to hydrogen content. They differentiate from Unsaturated fats in this way (monounsaturated fats have one chain lacking in hydrogen, polyunsaturated have a plural of chains). This changes the melting point of the fats as well as the energy released by their combustion (and though no fire is involved, the metabolism of substances into energy for the body is analogous to a combustion reaction). The differentiation in melting point provides some way to understand the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats at a glance - saturated fats are more likely, in general, to be solid at room temperature, while other fats tend to be oils.

Transfats are fats in which the molecular structure has been somewhat rearranged in a rather complicated-to-explain way, and since my audience isn't a group of organic chemists and I understand it only on the very surface level, I'm not going to try. What is important to remember is that the research currently supports a link between transfat consumption and coronary heart disease. Hydrogenation is one of a few chemical processes that converts cis-fats to trans-fats, and so I usually recommend avoiding hydrogenated products and therefore usually avoid consuming solid margarine - liquid margarine is a bit of a different animal.

Now, fat serves a few roles in the body. It's one of the two components of the production of cholesterol (the other being protein), and no discussion of fat would be complete without mentioning this first-cousin. Cholesterol comes in two main varieties: HDL and LDL (that is, high and low density). Cholesterol is both consumed in some foods (chiefly cheese, eggs, and meats), and synthesized in the body using fat and protein. Cholesterol regulates the permeability and consistency of animal cells, including yours, so there's a good reason to keep it in the system. It's also a precursor for a bunch of other chemicals that keep the manmachine running. Also generalizing, you prefer your body to contain more HDL than LDL. By maintaining the same chalorie intake, you can:

  • replace dietary carbohydrates with unsaturated fats to lower the LDL and overall cholesterol levels (increasing HDL);
  • replace the same with saturated fats raise all levels across the board;
  • replace the same with trans fats to raise LDL and reduce HDL.
Having LDL in excess of LDL increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Stewed Beef Heart
In addition, quite a few vitamins (A, D, E, and K) can only be digested, absorbed, and transported in conjunction with fats. Essential Fatty Acids are (obviously) components of Fats which I'll discuss in a moment. Fat insulates body organs against physical shock and is a component of every cell of your body in the phospholipid bi-layer shell that contains them. There is, in fact, an immune response for storing chemical and biological threats in fatty tissue until they can be excreted by other means. For these reason, a fat-free diet is just as dangerous as fat overconsumption.

Going back to the Fatty Acids: there are two essential fatty acids, which we call Omega-3 and Omega-6. These are considered essential in humans because we lack the proper enzymes (desaturase) to produce them ourselves. Both these acids are found in fish and shellfish, flaxseed, hemp seed, soya oil, canola ouil, and quite a few seeds. Some egg products make claims to elevated Omega-3 or Omega-6 acids as well. Your body uses these for all manner of things, and some research which I find particularly interesting has suggested that a high intake of Omega-3 can decrease clinical depression symptoms in humans. The work on the matter was published in the Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry and was conducted by Reed et al. (Use PMID 15777365).

So, how much fat is enough? I have been taught (and usually use) the measure of 32.5 grams per 1000 calories of intake and the assumption that no more than 10 of those grams should be saturated. Since this is all about optimizing nutrition for optimizing bodily performance, I reiterate my general dislike for trans fats in general and therefore advise you to avoid them.