Thursday, April 28, 2011

Religion and Food

With Passover slipping behind me, I am prompted to ask a question.

Question: do all religions have food-denial rituals?  Let’s speculate Yes and speculate why.

Religions endeavor to define and enforce their own brands of a moral code.  Perhaps a common element shared by religions is the idea that pursuing pleasure for its own sake—not in the service of a deity or a higher principle—is “evil”.  Pleasure-seeking is selfish at best, and hedonistic or depraved at worst.  And the lure of pleasure is something to be feared and guarded against.

To prevent pleasure from exerting undue influence in our lives, it must be carefully meted out.

The most frequently accessed pleasure is food.  In a rich society one finds oneself constantly tempted by an endless variety of gustatory creations.  Consequently, the religious being has a natural anxiety associated with food.  If I have everything I desire, will I be forced into seeking ever more flamboyant “fixes”?  Will pleasure start to lose meaning?  Isn’t gratifying every food desire deleterious to my health?  Shouldn’t I feel guilty about enjoying myself so much?  Won’t food cost me my youthful figure (not to mention my actual youth)?  And, above all, does food have ultimate control, pulling me in many directions as some sort of puppet?

The answer to these dilemmas is to demonstrate our mastery over food.  This is a natural response, with or without religion.  However, religion has capitalized on this response and has incorporated it into its moral code.  Wherever you find a religious restriction on food, there you will also find devoted followers.  Religious practice—in general, and for food in particular—reassures us that we are doing the right thing.  Food traditions allow us to believe that we are not mindless grazers, but are spiritually driven, self-determined human beings.

This is serious business!  You may not laugh!  (Right, Rabbi?)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Are Biosolids Safe?

At a recent industry-sponsored biosolids conference Deborah Koons Garcia castigated the EPA-approved practice of turning sewage sludge into fertilizer.

The waste-treatment community would like us to accept this practice.  Critics charge that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has turned a blind eye to the industry’s desire to pass off toxic material as a safe fertilizer.  Could this be?  Let’s find out.

According to an EPA web page
  • ·         The risk assessment for the Federal Part 503 rule that governs the land application of biosolids took nearly ten years to complete and had extensive rigorous review and comment.
  • ·         Only biosolids that meet the most stringent standards spelled out in the Federal and state rules can be approved for use as a fertilizer. Now, through a Voluntary Environmental Management System, being developed for biosolids (EMS) by the National Biosolids Partnership (NBP), community-friendly practices will also be followed.
  • ·         Although cities decide how best to manage their biosolids, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is obligated and continues to provide the public with educational information, based on the best science, about the safe recycling and disposal of biosolids.
In other words, the EPA has chosen not to regulate the production of biosolids from sewage waste.  Rather, this agency has positioned itself only to provide information to the public.

But does this really confirm critics’ charges that the EPA is capitulating to businesses that might be more concerned with profit than with human health?  Why don’t we compare the science behind the policy to make up our minds.

In a 2003 press release
the EPA announced its decision not to regulate the dioxin content of land-applied sewage sludge.  In other words, the EPA claims that its analysis of the data on sewage-born dioxins allows it to conclude that the dioxins in the sludge pose a negligible risk of increasing human cancer rates.

This, however, is not the last word on the toxicity of sewage sludge.  A Wikipedia article on sludge
contains references to studies that suggest that at least some sludge is anything but benign.  According to the article, one study published in 2002
documents numerous instances of pathology among 48 people living near a site where sludge residues were applied.  For instance, about one quarter of this population suffered from Staphylococcus aureus infections, with two deaths noted.  (Curiously, the lead author of this published study was an employee of the EPA.  Did anyone say, “Suppressed results?)

Another study cited in the Wikipedia article
presents evidence for concern.  According to the authors of this study residents near another site where sewage biosolids were applied reported a variety symptoms or maladies at statistically significant levels.  These included abdominal bloating, jaundice, skins ulcers, bronchitis and giardiasis.

This is not to say that human excrement should not be converted into fertilizer.  A number of sources suggest that human wastes can successfully boost agricultural productivity.  For example, one article summarizes a grass roots pilot project for bacterial decomposition of human waste.
According to Nancy Klehm, the brainchild behind the project, feces can be converted into high quality fertilizer—if it is collected directly from the human beings producing it.  On the other hand, trying to convert sewage sludge into something safe has the inherent disadvantage that sewage collects and concentrates many additional toxic by-products.  These include toxic metals, pharmaceutical compounds, insecticides, industrial wastes and pollution runoff from urban roads.

Finally, I’d like to ponder this question.  You mean the EPA is not the impartial entity I believed it to be?  If I can’t trust the EPA, who can I trust?  WHO, indeed!

The World Health Organization recognized that human wasted could be an essential component of agricultural nutrients in many areas of the planet.  Therefore, this organization published the results of its studies as a guideline document for people to practice safe production of “humanure”.  Here is that document:
By the way, that is only the Executive Summary.  If you want the full document, use this link:

So there it is.  From bio-mess to biomass.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Ragged Edge


It started with my Plymouth's erratic behavior. It was stalling out all the time, but the number of times it stalled and when it stalled seemed different each time I drove it. I noticed that the car's pattern of stalling was quasi-predictable, more or less tied to the engine's operating temperature. It suddenly occurred to me that there were 3 zones of operation--cold, warm and hot--separated by a chaotic transition boundary. These boundaries marked the event of the engine stalling.

I visualize these "stall boundaries" as ragged edges. You can't tell your position with respect to a boundary until you hit it. And since it's a chaotic function, the boundary's shape changes upon each instance of starting the car and running the engine.

The two diagrams here illustrate the wildly unpredictable nature of the situation.  The black line is the car’s usual progression in its temperature.  Sometimes the car would stall very few times.  Other times it would stall many times.  The difference I attribute to the chaotic transition boundaries—the ragged edges.

Now, the chaotic ragged edge idea permitted me to visualize and explain the types of stalling I was getting. There was suddenly a "perceptible" pattern of behavior that could be defined as a set of rules. As time went on, I could tell that I was--with certainty--approaching, crossing and receding from first one, and then another of the stall boundaries. However, the ragged edge made it impossible to know precisely when the crossing would occur.

This strikes me as an exciting idea. First, the ragged edge concept is easy to visualize. Second, it delineates system states that are both highly predictable (in that that they will occur) and maddeningly erratic. This distinction is made by recognizing that there are points in a zone that are either far from or close to ragged edge transition boundaries. Third, it provides a model of knowledge that distinguishes experts from novices. Experts are notable for having accumulated reliable rules for detecting or anticipating ragged edge boundary phenomena.

Although the model is simple, I believe it can be employed in many situations where one desires to explain erratic or "turbulent" system behavior. Here are a few ideas:

  • Schizophrenia: transitions between lucid thinking vs. disconnected ideation
  • Investing: transitions between aggregate buying or selling behavior
  • Management: transitions between successful planning vs. crisis-driven periods
  • Cognition: changes in attention from very focused to scattered or distracted
I think the model works if it allows situations to be represented using the following simple structure:

  1. Any number of distinct operating states (zones)
  2. Boundary events that mark the transition between adjacent (and distinct) zones
  3. A single "driver variable" that correlates to a path through the (zoned) state-space
Element 3 is perhaps the most interesting component, and the one that most limits the model's applicability. How many situations, after all, resolve to a change in only a single variable?

Nevertheless, ragged edge thinking can reveal that situations that appear to be completely disorderly do, in fact, have an underlying structure. In other words, some systems might be fundamentally simple--consisting of only a small number of zones--but appear to be complex because ragged edge transitions mask this underlying simplicity and give these systems the appearance of being completely unmanageable.