All posts by eliswanson

Side adventures in brewing – delicious graf

Almost got the first healthcare post ready, but in the meantime I’ve been doing a little brewing, and I thought I’d share some of the results. I’ll continue to try to use book review and brewing posts as filler between more serious posts that take me more time to develop.

I recently bottled a batch of graf, a fictional apple beer or cider-beer blend from the mind of Stephen King, specifically from the Dark Tower series, which is a fun set of books that I started reading as a little kid, but King only recently finished. I really liked this idea, because I like fruit flavors, and love ciders and wines as long as they are dry, but I don’t like the thinness I perceive (because I usually stick to beer).

I brewed this with some store-bought cider (sans preservatives of any kind!), apples, malted grain, my house yeast, and Hersbrucker hops. There are a lot of recipes out there for graf (alot of brewers call it ‘graff’ but I kind of like the spelling from the book so I’m gonna use that. I started with Brandon O.’s recipe, but made a bunch of modifications.

Fermented graf - note the apples chunks floating on top still.
Fermented graf – note the apples chunks floating on top still.

My recipe:

Grain – 3 pounds pale US 2-row, 2 pounds malted wheat, 8 oz. Caramunich, 3 gallons cider

Hops – 1 oz. Hersbrucker (2.8% AA) with 30 min. left in the boil

Yeast – I used my house strain, which started as a Redstar Belle Saison with some US-05. Didn’t make a starter, but had a whole pint jar full of cake from a previous batch.

Mashed high for some body, and boiled the wort for 30 minutes. Did not boil the cider.

Poured the cider in the carboy, chilled and poured the wort. Chopped up some farm apples and tossed ’em in. Shook and then pitched. I always use a little Fermcap S to control foaming, which works amazingly.

Fermented at about 68F without temp control.

Sanitizing big EZ-cap bottles
Sanitizing big EZ-cap bottles

After about 3 weeks, sat down to bottle – I like to use a mix of bottles. The 1L EZ-cap bottles are great because they really simplify bottling and capping, and make the day significantly shorter. However, unless you are always going to parties it’s a little rough only being able to have 1 L of beer. I also use some 22 oz. bottles…

Some small bottles for competitions.
Some small bottles for competitions.

… and some 12 oz. bottles, but I mainly save these for submission to brewing competitions.

Graf in bottling bucket, where I add sugar and a little casking yeast.
Graf in bottling bucket, where I add sugar and a little casking yeast.

Fermented product had some CO2 built up, and tasted pretty darn good. Very little hop character, mostly cider, with a little maltiness. A nice farmhouse character from my house strain. Exactly what I was going for. Before bottling, I rack to a bucket, add about 4 oz. of priming sugar and a shake of some rehydrated casking yeast. I only add the yeast because I had one or two batches that never carbonated well, so now I use it prophylactically.

Stealing some yeast to keep my house strain going.
Stealing some yeast to keep my house strain going.

I tossed a little of the cake into a jar as I usually do to pitch again for a later batch. Lately I make a lot of ‘farmhouse’ style beers, where I’m just looking for new and interesting flavors, and not necessarily reproducibility from batch to batch. The batch before this was a saison version of Short’s soft parade, a delicious high grav fruit and rye beer from Michigan.

Some finished product
Some finished product – Dirty Dog Billy Bumbler. My homebrewery is Dirty dog, named in honor of my dog, and billy bumblers are from the books.

And here’s some finished product with O2 caps on, which isn’t something I feel very strongly about, but a cheap precautionary measure I use with bottles I save for competitions.

Starting a new posting series on rising healthcare costs

Starting this week, I’m going to begin posting on a new question I’ve been researching – why does healthcare cost so much?

This is a pretty important question. Healthcare costs are up to 16% of the U.S. GDP, and are projected to hit 21% by about 2020. Insurance premiums are going up for most people next year, with no end in sight. The baby boomer generation is approaching retirement, and both the quality and quantity of healthcare necessary increases rapidly with age.

It’s pretty easy to find ideas on the internet. It’s Obamacare! Blame the rich doctors! It’s Big Pharma!

The reality is that there IS a cause. But what is it? There certainly are a ton of ideas out there, but most of them are politically-motivated, poorly-researched (some people think Facebook counts as research), and honestly many are just dumb. I’ll say it.

Stay tuned for next week. We will start by breaking down a couple common misconceptions and introducing some important ideas.

Chocolate causes you to lose weight. Or does it?

So, this person who made a bunch of open access journals look like the fools they are a while back (turns out most don’t actually do peer review – whoops!) just posted about a more recent sting, this time on the science media.

Basically, they carried out a study that showed chocolate helps you lose weight, and reported it as such.

It was then spread far and wide for obvious reasons.

Mainly because chocolate is delicious and most of us want to keep eating it without gaining the weight it seems to drag along with it.

Turns out it was a crappy study, on purpose.

The authors say they purposely engaged in a practice called p-hacking, which is pretty common in science unfortunately. Basically, the researchers measured a whole bunch of other variables too, so by random chance you might expect some of them to LOOK like chocolate affects them.

I read as their main point that science media sensationalizes everything scientists find without really asking how much support there is for the conclusion they are spreading around the world.

The only problem is I keep coming back to their study. They DID find that chocolate helps you lose weight. Their ‘extra’ variables were things like blood protein, sodium, etc., which in my opinion are things that I wouldn’t expect chocolate to affect anyways.

Hmm. So, clearly, science media sensationalize everything without regard to the quality of the research.

But I keep coming back to the important question – can chocolate help me lose weight? (Or rather, can I keep eating lots of chocolate but do something about my ever-growing midsection?)

I’m going to conclude that the authors set up a bunch of ‘straw man’ hypotheses they didn’t really believe in to prove a point, and that they in fact were NOT engaging in p-hacking. Maybe I’m being nitpicky, but I don’t see chocolate affecting sodium as that good of a hypothesis.

BUT on the other hand the main points they made were really good! I keep going around in circles on this…

Whatever. I don’t think I’ll be able to solve this tonight.

I’m gonna go eat some chocolate.

What ACTUALLY causes autism? Here are 7 possibilities.

Fresh from listening to some of my Facebook friends argue about vaccines, a question occurred to me. What DOES cause autism? Not the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine (see for example, Jain et al. 2015. Also, the weight of a huge amount of scientific evidence vs. one tiny, discredited study. I will fight you). But SOMETHING causes autism, so what is it? Much of the following is a summary of “Environmental factors in autism” by Andreas Grabrucker (2013).

So, t1024x1024 Wallpaper rain man, tom cruise, dustin hoffmano start, what actually IS autism?

Autism is a developmental brain disorder, generally classified on a spectrum (autism spectrum disorder or ASD), meaning it can vary in severity and symptoms among people. Interestingly, although most people with autism can’t count toothpicks really fast like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, his character was actually based on a real person. Among the most common symptoms of ASD are impaired social behavior and repetitive behaviors.

Some autism advocates believe terms like ‘disorder’ and ‘impairment’ are loaded, and don’t like them. I use them here for consistency with medical and research terminology, but it is a good thing to be aware of.


Autism has a genetic component, meaning it can run in families (Abrahams and Geschwind 2010). However, autism risk is strongly affected by the developmental environment as well. Here are the environmental factors most strongly linked to autism. Note that although some of these are likely causal, others may just co-occur with autism often.

Risk factors during pregnancy

1. Prenatal virus, allergy, or auto-immune disease – thought to alter immune function in the placenta or fetus

2. Zinc deficiency – very common in autistic children, may represent a physiological mechanism, may relate to infections

3. Abnormal melatonin synthesis – melatonin is an important hormone, abnormalities may relate to light pollution or zinc

4. Maternal diabetes – linked to a two-fold increase in autism risk, mechanism here is unclear

5. Stress and trauma during pregnancy and birth – may be related to immune function, can cause similar behaviors in other animals

6. Some chemicals that negatively affect humans (‘toxins’) – for example, pesticides, valproic acid, and thalidomide


7. Advanced age in either parent – may be due to increased mutation risk or increased risk of pregnancy complications

Postnatal risk factors

There are not currently well-supported risk factors for autism that occur after birth. This may change, as some are being investigated, but none are strongly supported at this point.

In conclusion, risk factors for autism may be most important during pregnancy, and certainly seem to be linked to immune function, stress, certain toxic chemicals, and pregnancy complications. What we are still missing is a unifying physiological hypothesis tying these together in a meaningful way that incorporates the genetic risk.


1. Jain, A., Marshall, J., Buikema, A, Bancroft, T., Kelly, J.P., Newschaffer, C.J. (2015). Autism occurrence by MMR vaccine status among US children with older siblings with and without autism. Journal of the American Medical Association. 313 (15): 1534-1540.

2. Grabrucker, A.M. (2013) Environmental factors in autism. Frontiers in Psychiatry 3 (118).

3. Abrahams, B.S., Geschwind, D.H. (2010) Connecting genes to brain in the autism spectrum disorders. Arch. Neurol. 67, 395-299.

Marijuana improves effectiveness of radiation in treating some forms of cancer

Short post today about a paper that came out at the end of 2014 on how some of the compounds in marijuana might play a role in cancer treatment.

This is marijuana.

Medicinal marijuana is thought to help seizures and pain, but is generally used more to treat symptoms than to treat diseases directly.

Nevertheless, there is growing evidence that marijuana may actually be helpful in the treatment of some diseases directly.

Scott et al. (2014) showed that two compounds found in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), can increase the sensitivity of cancer cells to radiation therapy in the context of mice with glioma, a very aggressive cancer that has very poor long-term survival rates in humans. THC was best administered as a botanical drug substance, while CBD was best administered in a pure form.

These are mice.

There is a big hole in our knowledge of marijuana use in medical treatment. That will probably not change soon unless its current classification as a Schedule I drug is changed. Schedule I means that it’s extremely difficult for scientists to even do research on a substance. The current lack of support by the FDA is cited as due to a lack of high quality research on the topic, yet the classification means that it’s unlikely there will be much high quality research anytime soon. Kind of a silly catch-22, especially when highly-addictive narcotic-type drugs like hydromorphone, oxycodone, fentanyl are Schedule II and prescribed by doctors constantly.

For the record, I don’t have a strong opinion either way about legalization for recreational use, but I think that the government preventing scientific research on a potentially effective treatment is unfortunate.


Scott, KA, Dalgleish, AG, Liu, WM (2014) The combination of cannabidiol and d9 – tetrahydrocannabinol enhances the anticancer effects of radiation in an orthotopic murine glioma model. Mol. Cancer Ther. 13 (12): 2955-2967

Apparently, sloths are quite gross

Sloths are really interesting animals. They live in the Neotropics (parts of Central and South America), hang in trees, eat leaves, and move really slow. They generally only come down to the ground to go to the bathroom, which seems like a lot of work when they could just let it fall from the tree, but to each their own I suppose.

I just found a paper about sloths that I couldn’t help but share. If poo really grosses you out, or you are currently eating, you probably want to stop here.

Consider this a trigger warning. If you are triggered by poo.

The gist of this paper is that some researchers found sloths going into their toilet (which is basically a hole in the ground) in order to feed. The researchers weren’t sure if the sloths were getting nutrients from urine, feces, or insect larvae, but they were scooping up material in the latrine and eating it, so either way, it is both interesting and disgusting.

There is a surprising amount of nutrients in urine and feces and many animals will feed on them, but sloths are supposed to be mostly vegetarians. The researchers observed a number of sloths doing it, so it was not just one isolated individual.

Interestingly, sloths will sometimes eat meat given to them in captivity, so clearly sloths have the ability to eat more than leaves, but whatever they are eating in the latrines, I would say it probably isn’t usually an important part of sloth diets in the wild.

I will leave you with this quote from the paper: “When the animals emerged from the latrine, they were usually completely moistened.”

Take that as you will, and let us never speak of this again.

Two-toed sloth staring at you.


Heymann, E.W., Amasifuen, C.F., Tello, N.S., Tirado Herrera, E.R., Stojan-Dolar, M. (2011) Disgusting appetite: Two-toed sloths feeding in human latrines. Mammalian Biology – Zeitschrift fur Saugetierkunde 76 (1) 84-86

The awesome fossa. Fossome.

My post today is going to sound like an essay written by a little kid, because it’s about one of my favorite animals, the fossa. First off, it’s pronounced ‘foo-sah’, because the name comes from Malagasy (the properish term for things from Madagascar), not from Latin. The other common use of the word fossa is in anatomy (meaning a ditch or trench), and is pronounced ‘fahsa’, because it IS Latin.

The fossa is the largest member of the family Eupleridae, which makes up the Malagasy carnivores. In this context, when I use the word carnivore, I really mean ‘member of the mammalian order Carnivora, not ‘animal that eats meat’. You could also say ‘Carnivoran’ for this, but that’s just annoying. Euplerids are related to mongooses, civets, and hyenas, all of which are in their own families, and more closely related to cats than dogs (but they are NOT cats).

Fossas (remember, not Latin, so this is the plural) are only 2 to 2.5 feet long and weigh maybe 20-25 pounds maximum, with tails as long as their body (so maybe 4-5 feet total), but they are some rough customers for their size. They really like to eat lemurs, another Malagasy-only animal. I’m pretty sure it’s because lemurs are delicious, but you’d have to ask a fossa, because I have yet to eat one. Watching fossas hunt is probably the coolest thing ever, unless you really like lemurs, because when hunting they are basically unrestrained arboreal lemur-murdering machines.

Personally, I like fossas better than lemurs, so their tendencies toward serial-killing of lemurs doesn’t bother me that much. A girl’s gotta eat.

I really want to eat that lemur.

Fossas also have a really crazy mating system. Females mate multiply with groups of males, generally with all the males present. Females also have transiently masculinized genitalia while juveniles (spinescent and enlarged), interestingly reminiscent of the spotted hyena, though not quite as extreme.

Another species of fossa, called the giant fossa, went extinct fairly recently, as the remains that have been found are ‘subfossils’, meaning not-yet-fossilized. The giant fossa wasn’t much bigger than our current fossa though, maybe topping out at about 45 pounds. There are many legends about fossas much bigger than this, up to seven and even ten feet long. Awesome, but probably not true. There did used to be some really big lemurs they could eat though, so maybe we’ll find some huge fossa fossils (fossals) sometime in the future.

I am cool.

Sadly, fossas are endangered, mostly due to habitat loss, as deforestation is a huge problem in Madagascar. Local people will also kill them because they are thought to attack livestock, and also as bushmeat (food), despite many taboos against eating fossas.

So, here’s to the fossa, a unique, awesome, and unfortunately endangered animal that chows down on lemurs. Personally, I’ve still got my fingers crossed that they’ll find one that’s 10 feet long.

What is insulin, and what does it actually do in our bodies?

Today I’m going to talk about another hormone, one that is really important both generally in biology, and clinically for many people: insulin.

Figure 1. Six insulin molecules bound together (called a hexamer)

Insulin is a peptide hormone, which means it’s a protein that circulates through our blood and allows different parts of our body to communicate with each other. Peptide hormones cause their effects by binding to partner proteins called receptors that sit on the outside (or across the membranes) of cells.

Insulin is produced by special cells in the pancreas called beta cells, and has many important effects effects in the body, although its most important effect is to regulate energy (sugar) intake into cells from blood.

Figure 2. Synthetic human insulin

Diabetes is probably the most well-known disease in which insulin is involved. People with type 1 diabetes lack the ability to produce insulin because their beta cells have been killed, usually by their own immune system. Type 2 diabetes is a little more complicated – generally years of overproduction of insulin lead the body to become ‘insulin resistant’. Insulin production decreases in many, and cells often respond inappropriately to insulin binding, releasing glucose instead of taking it up. Type 2 diabetes represents about 90% of diabetes cases (1).

Figure 3. Insulin signaling allowing glucose transport into the cell, where it is eventually stored as fat.

In healthy people, insulin concentrations increase in response to an increase in blood glucose. The rising insulin concentrations lead to cells taking up the glucose, stabilizing levels in the blood. Research suggests that the increased insulin concentrations increase Vmax (the maximum rate of glucose uptake), by providing additional transport sites across the cell membrane (2). After glucose is taking into cells, it is generally stored as either glycogen (in liver and muscle) to be used for easily accessible energy, or as fat for longer term storage (Figure 3).

Other animals have insulin too. Amazingly, insulin and its receptor are so similar among vertebrates that injecting insulin from chickens into humans has an even stronger effect on blood glucose than injecting human insulin. The same thing happens if you inject chicken insulin into fish, frogs, or mice (3). Both the insulin and insulin receptor genes are almost certainly homologous (evolved from the same ancestral gene) among vertebrates. Even insects and worms have insulin-like hormones that are very similar to ours, and many researchers think that these are homologous as well (for example references 4 and 5), making insulin-like peptides well over a billion years old (6).


1. Rorsman, P. (2005) Review: Insulin secretion: function and therapy of pancreatic beta-cells in diabetes. British Journal of Diabetes and Vascular Disease 5 (4) 187-191.

2. Gottesman, I., Mandarino, L., Verdonk, C., Rizza, R., Gerich, J. (1982) Insulin increases the maximum velocity for glucose uptake without altering the Michaelis constant in man. Evidence that insulin increases glucose uptake merely by providing additional transport sites. J. Clin. Invest. 70 (6): 1310-4

3. Muggeo, M., Ginsberg, B.H., Roth, J., Neville, D.M., de Meyts, P., Kahn, C.R. (1979) The insulin receptor in vertebrates is functionally more conserved during evolution than insulin itself. Endocrinology. 104 (5)

4. Teleman, A.A. (2010) Molecular mechanisms of metabolic regulation by insulin in Drosophila. Biochem. J. 425 13-26.

5. Chistyakova, O.V. Signaling pathway of insulin and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) as a potential regulator of lifespan. Journal of Evolutionary Biochemistry and Physiology 44 (1) 1-11

6. Wang, D.Y., Kumar, S., Hedges, S.B. (1999) Divergence time estimates for the early history of animal phyla and the origin of plants, animals and fungi. Proc. Biol. Sci. 266 (1415): 163-171

A mitochondrial hormone that’s apparently a critical regulator of metabolism has been discovered

A new paper just came out in Cell Metabolism that is really cool for a couple reasons.

Lee et al. (2015) found that a hormone produced by mitochondria, parts of our cells that are important in metabolism and have their own DNA. They called the hormone MOTS-c.

Hormones, remember from earlier posts, are just signaling molecules that circulate in our cells and bodies and have important biological effects.

This discovery is especially cool for a couple reasons.

The first is that although we know that mitochondria are really important in metabolism, we don’t really know much about signaling molecules that are actually produced by our mitochondria.

The second is that the hormone appears to be really conserved among all mammals. This is often seen for hormones whose purpose is so specific, important, and widespread that its difficult for the hormone to even evolve. Insulin is another example of a hormone that is very conserved among mammals.

A final reason why this discovery is so cool is that MOTS-c seems to have really important effects on metabolism. It’s action activates AMPK. AMPK is another really important signaling molecule that we understand much more about. For now, its just important to know that AMPK regulates fat metabolism, and it looks like treatment with MOTS-c actually prevents obesity and insulin resistance in mice.

Maybe this represents a future treatment for obesity and diabetes? It’s actually quite strange to think that someday we might understand endocrinology well enough to regulate weight and even to some extent processes like aging by simply hormone injections without the current negative consequences that generally accompany these approaches.

That day is not yet here, so I’m gonna go hit the gym.

Lee, C., Zeng, J., Brew, B.G., Sallam, T., Martin-Montalvo, A., Wan, J., Kim, S., Mehta, H., Hevener, A.L., de Cabo, R., Cohen, P. (2015) The mitochondrial-derived peptide MOTS-c promotes metabolic homeostasis and reduces obesity and insulin resistance. Cell Metabolism 21, 443-454.

Does education really pay?

Although most of my friends have, or are currently working on, graduate degrees of some kind, most people don’t achieve this level of education. Shocking, I know.

Following a discussion about why I think it’s important for people without high school educations to work on their GED or pre-GED even if they don’t think they’ll be able to finish the entirety of it, I looked for research on it, the way I do.

What I found generally supports my opinion, but not completely. At least according to David Card (1999) in the Handbook of Labor Economics (1), it looks like if you have a 8th grade education, it makes sense to try for a 9th, and from there a 10th, but after that, unless you actually get a high school degree, it might not be worth it to pursue more education (Figure 1).

Hourly wage and years of education
Mean log hourly wage as relating to mean years of education (modified from 1).

Interestingly, the trend continues with college. It’s worth it to go to college, even if you don’t even get an associate’s degree.

But an associate’s degree is even better, and a bachelor’s degree is better yet.

Lastly, I guess most people who do a Master’s of Arts degree take almost as long as a PhD, and both take longer than an MD or JD (lawyer degree).

So, perhaps not shockingly, neither a Master’s degree nor a PhD are really worth the years of enslavement relative to becoming a lawyer or a medical doctor.J-D-scrubs

But we do it because we value education for it’s own sake, right? And because not all of us can look this good in scrubs.

Just kidding, I look awesome in scrubs.

References and Further Reading:

1. Card, D. (1999) The Causal Effect of Education on Earnings. Chapter 30, Handbook of Labor Economics, Volume 3, Part 1. Page 1808.