Saturday, April 27, 2013

Cycling in Buenos Aires

Good news story on how you can turn around a city's transport habits.

Bicycles No Longer Mere Recreation in Argentine Capital, Inter Press Service, Sunday, December 30, 2012 (posted by Global Issues)

Monday, April 22, 2013

A fast way to live longer

This morning I read in The Age how a major component of our budget deficit was due to the huge cost of providing health services to an ageing population that uses record amounts of treatment.*

It seems Q&A is focusing on the health topic again tonight, from the sound of its promo.

Australians - especially those over 60 - are taking more drugs than ever before. 
But in between aired the brilliant documentary by British journalist Michael Mosley examining the theory that fasting increases your life expectancy – and dramatically improves your health in the process. He found some amazingly successful results.

None of these are new ideas but the timing and juxtaposition of these reports raises some interesting possibilities: Would a program of fasting work better than a diet of blood pressure and anti-cholesterol drugs, to say nothing of Beta Blockers and diet pills. And if fasting becomes the latest fad, will it save us some money, not just in subsidised drugs but in unnecessary surgery and cancer treatments?

The idea of eating less to live longer has been discussed since 1934 at least, when Mary Crowell and Clive McCay of Cornell University observed that laboratory rats fed a severely reduced calorie diet while maintaining micronutrient levels resulted in life spans of up to twice as long as otherwise expected.

In 1993 the Calorie Restriction Society International was established in the US. It promotes the idea of eating smarter, getting maximum nutrients from minimum calories – which echoes diets such as those promoted to keep cancer patients healthy when their appetites were low.
SO - lots of vegetables, avoid fats and sugars and processed foods, and carefully selected proteins, both in terms of type and volume.

Pretty common-sense, really.

Much of the society's inspiration was drawn from Brian M. Delaney, who wrote a biography of Roy Walford, who was a pioneering advocate of calorific restriction. Delaney was so impressed he also cut his calorie intake by 20%.

In 1989 the University of Wisconsin began work on a 20-year study on rhesus monkeys, feeding one group up to 30% less than the control group; they found those eating less lived longer. However, while these results were met with positive interest in 2009, by 2012 the relevance of these finding for humans was being questioned.

However, in India, people have been eating like this for centuries – and I'm not just talking about the poverty. I remember meeting several people who told me they fasted on a regular basis and felt much better for it; it was party a religious experience, but they were well aware of the health benefits, too.

Michael Mosley's program first aired in the UK last August (2012) and has run in the US too.

He compared a few methods of reducing calories:

  • A restrictive diet, when 'empty' calories are avoided; 
  • Fasting for 3-4 days at a time
  • Alternate-day fasting, when you only eat a light lunch (500 calories) on every other day.
  • The 5:2 diet, when you reduce your calories on two days and eat normally for the other five.
Eating less - without malnutrition - has major health benefits.
All had benefits that included reduced blood-sugar levels (so cutting the risk of diabetes); lower levels of an indicator that can increase your risk of cancer; lower cholesterol and a reduction in both body weight and body fat.

So for him it was simply a matter of choosing one that suited his lifestyle.

As one review of the program described it, it was a bit of a Goldilocks adventure to find a fast that was 'just right': a four-day fast wasn't sustainable for the long-term, and an alternate day fast cramped his social life. 

His personal favourite was the Homesis theory from Dr. Mark Mattson at Maryland's National Institute on Aging, which advocates a balance of fasting and eating normally.

Hormesis, Mosley writes in his book The Fast Diet, is "the idea that when a human … is exposed to a stress or toxin, it can toughen them up."

So, much like exercise causes small tears in muscles that eventually make them stronger, short periods of fasting can also do a body good, Mosley claims.  Evidence from his research suggests that this form of dieting can not only help with weight loss, but can also turn on "repair genes" that reduce the risk for heart disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer.

It can even help repair brain cells, as research on rats has found their brain cells rejuvenate faster when they are, well, fasting.

It can even make you feel happier.

Dr. Mark Mattson, a professor of neuroscience at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, discovered that after a 'feast or famine' eating pattern, the body and brain respond to each other in fascinating ways.

"What they found in rats is when they are deprived of food their brains start producing a protein called brain derived neuro-traffic factor," Mattson said. "What this does is it makes you feel happier and what it also appears to do is make you smarter."

As many mothers would tell children nagging for their dinner, it's OK to be hungry for a little while.

"Your body needs periods of time when you're not eating," he said. "It's during the times you're not that your body gets on with the spring cleaning. Six to eight hours of not eating isn't a bad thing every so often."

You might think that after a day or so of not eating, people would binge, but those who tried it found their appetites had dropped and they tended to just eat normally again. Although the shots of him gorging himself on burgers while researching this in the US might suggest otherwise.

When the program was made, Mosley had settled on a pattern of fasting for one day a week, and make it clear that the plan wasn't for everyone: pregnant women, diabetics, or anyone with a history of eating disorders, for example.

But for him – a 50-something with a medical background who was told at 53 he had the same risk as a 60-year-old of getting diabetes – it's working well for now, at least.

And, Mosley said, he wouldn't push something he didn't feel was safe: "I'm extremely cautious about this stuff."


Follow-up blogs:

A family tries the diet out and keeps a blog on the experience:

A 75-year old teacher of bread making (!) also writes about his trials in his blog:

The facebook page:

* Grattan Institute chief executive John Daley: "The big driver, costing $30 billion, is extra spending on health. Contrary to popular belief, the extra spending isn't being driven by ageing. It's that compared to 10 years ago today's 60-year-olds see the doctor more often, have more tests, face more operations and take more drugs." SEE: Full report in The Age.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Going underground

It's amazing how much time you can spend in a place and know nothing about it at all.

I lived for years in London and often used the Underground every day, but it wasn't until reading the book London Under by Peter Ackroyd that I realised it is the oldest underground rail system in the world. Makes sense really, but I never thought of it.
Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde used the tube to travel from Sloane Square to his job on Woman's World at the bottom of Ludgate Hill – which is a stone's throw from where I was based in London.

Its instigator, Charles Pearson, came up with the idea in the 1830s because of congestion. (There had been other major subterranean explorations, including tunnels under the Thames that were barely used and became a hang out for ne'er do wells, so it wasn't a totally original idea.)

His first plan was to link King's Cross with Farringdon Street. Jokes were published in satirical magazine Punch as a result, but more serious objections included the risk it would be used by Fenians and other terrorists; which it was, of course. But not just on July 7, 2005 – the first was in 1881.

Still, Pearson persisted and the first shafts were dug at Euston Square and Paddington in January 1860. Because a 'cut and cover' process was used, whole streets were closed to traffic. Later tunnels were bored beneath the earth, but they still generally followed the road plan so as not to compromise the foundations of old buildings.

Following the path of the buried River Fleet – by then a running sewer – presented a few problems, with heavy rains causing a whole section to collapse. But that was nothing compared to the destruction caused by the project itself; about 1,000 homes were destroyed along the Fleet valley, displacing some 12,000 people, none of whom received any compensation.

Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone and his wife were among those invited to inspect progress in spring 1862 and on January 9, 1863, the railway was formally unveiled.
Charles Pearson

Pearson died a few weeks before the event.

Ventilation was a major problem in the early days and on its first day of being open to the public, two were hospitalised lack of oxygen. Later guards and porters petitioned the company, asking they be allowed to grow beards as a protection against sulphurous deposits.

Still it was a major success, carrying about 30,000 passengers a day, so trains were lengthened and intervals decreased.

First class carriages had mirrors and carpets.

The first fatality was in 1864, when a woman, who'd been drinking, rushed down the steps to catch a train and fell on the line.

Soon London was consumed with underground fever; 53 projects were put forward. The different names of lines relate to the company that built each line – i.e. Great Western, Great Northern, Great Eastern railway companies; another revelation!

Ackroyd's research on the subject (and throughout the whole book) is meticulous; he managed to track down a report by Henry Mayhew in 1865 after he travelled on the Tube interviewing passengers. He spoke to one labourer who used to walk 6 miles a day to work; now he could travel in comfort. He lived in Notting Hill 'almost in open country' and thereby saved himself two shillings a week (10p) in rent.

Guards used to stand at the ends of carriages to announce station names and call out warnings, such as: "Beware of card sharks on this train!" and "It is forbidden to ride on the roof!"

The trains on the Stockwell Line of 1890 were the first to be powered by electricity – and the first without different class carriages. When the Central Line was opened in 1900 it was known as the "Twopenny Tube" because of the flat price of tickets. Other persisted with luxurious extras, and in 1910 a sixpenny ticket got you on the first class Pullman cars of the Metropolitan Railway, with morocco armchairs, mahogany wall, electric lamps on side tables and green silk blinds covering windows. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served.

In 1911 the first escalator was introduced at Earls Court station. A man with a wooden leg was employed to ride up and down the escalator to show nervous passengers it was safe. Apparently the promotional literature boasted: "A boon that the mere man will appreciate is the fact that he will not be prohibited from smoking, as in the lift, for the stairlift is made entirely of fireproof material." Hmmmm - tell that to the families of the 27 people who died in the escalator fire in King's Cross in 1987.

Using a rotary excavator to dig tunnels was faster but created its own problems, such as high atmospheric pressure, so that workmen actually suffered 'the bends', more normally associated with deep-sea divers. With lines up to 221 feet below the surface, heat has become an issue over the years, too. Ventilators are used but even so the average temperature of the deep-level tubes is now 30 degrees Celsius. To protect the Tube from the constant threat of flooding, many hundreds of pumps discharge 6,600 thousand gallons of water each day.

But the lines continued, and even now the Tube only closes between 1am and 5am.

When the Inner Circle was completed, it took 70 minutes to journey around the circuit by steam train; 100 years later the trains are only 20 minutes faster.

The official name The Underground' was chosen by the companies involved in 1908 (other options were Tube and Electric) and the bull's eye logo was first used.

The Victoria Line came later – in the 1960s – and in the course of its construction fossils buried 50 million years before were discovered. It was followed by the Jubilee Line; in 1999 excavation for its southern extension uncovered pieces of Neolithic pottery and Roman tiles, a 12th Century quay, a 13th Century gatehouse and a 14th Century wool market. Under Southwark High St it found an older street, dating from AD 60, lined with houses of clay or timber; ruts were found in the street, made by carts and chariot wheels.

When the line went out to stratford it unearthed an Iron Age settlement and a Cistercian monastery of the 12th century. "It's chaotic down," the architect of the Jubilee Line extension said. "You can't believe what's going on."

In 2007 the system carried 1 billion passengers, all following the crazy Tube map, which was created by Underground employee Henry Beck in 1931, probably inspired by his work devising circuit in the signalling department.

So much history and fascinating trivia – and that's without even touching the above-ground stations.....

London Under, Peter Ackroyd. Published by VintageBooks/Random House in 2012.