August 2012

Many decades in the future, when human nutrition is finally a reputable science, our current tendency to think of foods in categories like “good for you” or “bad for you,” will seem quaint. We will probably find not only that all foods have both helpful properties and less helpful properties, but that those properties are enhanced, dampened, or reversed depending on many, many factors like quantity, preparation, combination, microbiome ecology, genetics, epigenetics, other physiological factors, environmental factors, psychological factors, and who knows what else. I don’t say this to insult people who spend their time thinking about nutrition and diet, but to point out a useful fact. When science tackles any very complex topic, the knowledge it turns up, even if it was basically correct, always seems quaint 100 years later. That goes double for folk wisdom and other less-rigorous forms of collecting knowledge.

That is the caveat to the following explanation of how I am currently thinking about chocolate:

To the extent that such a category exists, it is looking like chocolate may be “good for you.” I won’t go into how or why, as there are a zillion articles about that, all waiting to be proven wrong or quaint, but there is a strong chance that eating chocolate is largely helpful.

The problem is that chocolate tastes terrible by itself, so it is almost always sold in combination with sugar, a food that is very, very likely “bad for you.” Sugar has the power to make chocolate and many other foods taste great, but also the power to screw you up in a bunch of ways; the Satan of food, if you will.

What is your minimal sugar requirement to make chocolate tolerable? How about pleasurable? It’s easy and fun to figure out. (Although while I was figuring it out in a grocery with my friends, Abbi and Matt, a woman said, “You are ruining chocolate for me. Make a choice and get out.” Clearly this is not fun for everyone.) It just takes a grocery with a decent chocolate selection, a little math, and some chocolate money.

Chocolate selection at the Kiva, Eugene. Site of ruining chocolate for one woman.

Here are the “nutrition facts” for a 41-gram bar of Hershey’s Special Dark dark chocolate:

The math here is easy, since the “serving size” is the whole bar. Just over half of this chocolate bar is pure sugar. Imagine the bar below with the ingredients separated, the chocolate on the right, the sugar on the left:

Hershey Special Dark dark chocolate bar, sugar mixed in.

The six squares on the left would be pure sugar. That’s a lot of sugar.

The lowest-sugar bar at the Kiva was Lindt Excellence 90% Cocoa Supreme Dark bar, at 7.5% sugar. That’s like almost one of one of the squares above. I found it taste tolerable–enjoyable, even, but more in the way wine can be enjoyable than in the way I normally expect chocolate to be enjoyable. Interesting rather than incredibly delicious. I also found that I did not eat it nearly as compulsively as I do sweeter chocolate.

The runners-up were E. Guittard’s Nocturne “pure extra dark chocolate” 91% cacao, at 8.8% sugar and Theo’s Venezuela 91% Cacao, at 9.5% sugar; each had the equivalent of a little more than a square of sugar out of the bar above, about 10 and 20% more sugar than the Lindt. These bars were easier to eat–less burned and bitter tasting, but still definitely in the enjoyable-like-wine category, a little smoother and maybe fruity or aromatic.

The rest of even heavy-duty dark chocolate bars were at 20% or more sugar. That’s at least almost three squares in the bar above. Green & Black’s Dark 85%, for example, is exactly 20% sugar. I haven’t tried it recently, but after eating these 3-10% bars, I expect it to taste quite sweet, with more than twice as much sugar as the runners-up and almost seven times as much as the Lindt Excellence.

Sometimes the nutritional facts numbers do not add up. I noticed that with the Green & Black 85% bar. It’s got 8 grams of sugar per 40 gram “serving” in a 100 gram bar. That’s 20 grams of sugar per 100 gram bar, thus the 20% sugar I calculated. How is it, then, that the bar is also 85% cocoa? Chocolate companies, please explain your math.

Because it is so dry in Joshua Tree, water is great for cooling off. According to my calculus-free, 200-level physics education, this works because a tiny bit of the heat energy stored in our bodies is used up every time a water molecule evaporates. It’s almost like the water molecule uses our body’s heat to achieve escape velocity, to become a gas. A lot of water evaporating creates a significant cooling. This is how sweating cools us, if we’re lucky enough to be in a dry area.

So when it is hot, which is every day in the summer, we get wet a lot. Inside, we have spray bottles handy so we can spray each other whenever someone starts complaining about the heat.

Above the stove is the handiest place for the spray bottle.

Outside, we often hose each other off. A good drenching keeps us cool even on the hottest days, until we are dry. Granted, that might only be for 15-20 minutes on a really hot day, but comfort is worth taking breaks that often.

If we’ve stored up some heat from a bike ride or forgetting to hose off, we also have a stock tank in the yard for dunking ourselves:

Reanna, cooling off.

The water stays cool even on the hottest days, also because of evaporation, so it is always refreshing to take a dunk. I built the little platform so when we drain the tank, we can water our plants.

12-inch dirt-filled stock-tank platform with screen lid and hose outlet. This photo was taken before I put plank decking on each side of the platform so we don’t get our feet dirty getting in and out.

We also got a “swamp cooler” from our friends Mike and Sarah. It wasn’t big enough to cool their house, but it’s good for our trailer. Reanna sewed a sleeve to funnel the air into our back window, so we didn’t have to cut a big hole in the wall.

Swamp cooler, on home-made platform

Reanna’s sleeve, held to swamper with a drawstring

Sleeve, inside window, held open by a wire frame

It makes a huge difference. A swamp cooler is simple and effective: A pump pulls hot, dry air from outside through wet sponges, creating cool, moist air inside. The physics involved is similar to sweat-cooling, except the heat energy used to turn the water into a gas is drawn from the air itself.

It requires simple enough plumbing that I could handle it myself:

A splitter where our (lead free) hose feeds the trailer, fitted with a compression joint to attach copper tubing. You can kind of see the copper-tube cutter (red) at the bottom of the frame.

Another compression joint, feeding the float valve that lets water in when the level gets low.

Swamper, inside: The float valve (blue) lets water in. The water pump (green) pulls it up and pours it down the three sponges in the left, right and back (removed) walls. The fan (drum at top) pulls the air in through the sponges and pushes it into the trailer. Simple!

The most fun way to use water to cool off, of course, is swimming. My mom got Reanna and me a month’s pass to the pool at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center (AKA Mentalphysics) as a wedding present, and we used that quite a bit. It was awesome. Thanks, Mom!

Reanna at the JT Retreat Center. Note luxuriously empty pool.

Reanna & Rob at the Joshua Tree Inn’s Hacienda Pines pool.

Matt at JT Inn pool.

Backstroke race at the Yucca Valley High School pool, also open to the public in the summer.

Kids in Ken & Katie’s blowup pool.

Joshua Tree is in the Mojave Desert and hot in the summer. The average high is 100 degrees. That’s not Sonora Desert hot, but it’s still hot. My subjective thermometer of summer temperatures is something like this:

70s: Nice. Rare.

80s: Warm. Still nice.

90s: Hot. The sun is hot.

100s: Baking Wall of Heat. The sun is hot, but the air is also hot.

One option for dealing with this is not dealing with it: Stay inside with the swamp cooler on. If I spend most of the day in the office, my moments spent outside feel refreshing, a warm-up.

Another is dressing for it. If you can avoid the sun, say in a hammock under a tree, I advise being as naked as you can get away with. Bare skin is pretty good at keeping cool via sweat evaporation, at least in the dry of the desert. If you can’t avoid the sun, it’s more complicated. Here’s my yard-work costume:

1) Straw hat with a wide brim, loose enough for ventilation, but not loose enough to blow off in a breeze. I think the sun is good for us, but getting sunburned is not. I get sun on my skin every day but avoid burning. The hat helps with that.

2) Polarized sunglasses. I also think unfiltered sunlight is good for our eyes, and I get a fair amount every day, but hours in this kind of intense light makes me feel like I’ve sunburned my retinas.

3) My best white dress shirt. My wife Reanna was appalled at this sacrifice, but this is how I justify it: a) I do way more yard-work than I do dressing up, so it gets more use. b) It fits really well, so it’s comfortable, doesn’t restrict my motion, and doesn’t get tangled in the saw or drill or plant-to-be-pruned. c) It’s bright white, so reflects the sun really well. d) It has long sleeves, so I don’t have to wear sunscreen on my arms, but I can roll them up when appropriate. e) It has a collar which I can turn up to protect my neck. When the sun is low, my hat doesn’t do the trick for my neck. Again, less sunscreen. f) It buttons up, so I can button or unbutton, as needed, for venting. Most often I have only the second-to-top button fastened for maximum venting plus protecting the skin of my upper chest, which received more than its share of sun damage in my youth. g) Once it has some paint and a few tears, neither of us will feel remotely precious about it.

4) White work gloves. Sometimes gloves are not appropriate to the work I’m doing, but when they are, I wear white cloth gloves with rubberized palms and fingers. They save sunscreen and save my delicate musician hands from injury.

4) Shorts to the knee. Protects my thighs from sun while allowing leg-venting. This does leave my calves vulnerable to sun. In the middle of the day they get somewhat shaded by my body. At other times I can often find a shadow to fall on them. If not, sunscreen or sunburn. I find the trade-off worthwhile.

5) White socks. This is the part I’m most conflicted about. I generally eschew socks when I can get away with it, but in this kind of heat my feet can sweat and get stinky and uncomfortable. Plus, socks help make having sand in your shoes less uncomfortable. And they protect your ankles from sunburn.

6) Light, vented shoes. I wear Nike Free 3s, the most comfortable shoe yet created. They do not protect feet from dropped tools or lumber but, cross my fingers, so far it’s worth it.

Here are a couple photos of the costume, taken by Reanna, missing only socks and gloves:

I’ve listened to 247 podcasts of Planet Money over the last several years–about 80 hours. This show is the best way I’ve found way to learn about economics in fun, thought-provoking, 20-minute bursts.

I just finished a show called “The No-Brainer Economic Platform,” about six economic reforms that apparently almost all economists agree on, regardless of ideology. The major point of the show was that even though there is agreement, political candidates will not consider running on them. And if they did, they would stand no chance of winning.

One of the major points (though probably unintended) of my 80-hour economics education has been that economists are much closer to political pundits than scientists. The “facts” vary widely depending on their political stance. That’s why this show was so exciting: There actually are six things that economists agree on across the political spectrum!

1) Eliminate the home mortgage interest deduction. It is extremely regressive and distorts the housing market in bad ways. They make it sound here like almost all economists are in favor of eliminating all tax loopholes and deductions, though the point is less clear. Read on, though, and you’ll see that loopholes and deductions would become mostly obsolete under this platform.

2) Eliminate the deduction for employer-provided health insurance. It’s one of the main reasons for high healthcare costs in the US.

3) Eliminate taxes on corporations. If you want to tax rich people, do it directly. The idea is that tax rates serve as incentives/disincentives. Don’t tax things we like. We like American businesses making money.

4) Eliminate the individual income tax and payroll tax. We also like individuals making money and we like businesses creating jobs. Make up for the loss by taxing consumption, I think especially on luxury items–make it progressive in some way.

5) Tax things we don’t like. Use taxes as disincentives for things like cigarettes and pollution.

6) Legalize drugs, or at least marijuana. The war on drugs is basically a massive waste of money that makes drug cartels rich. Without it, we’d have another kind of consumption that we don’t like to tax.

Again, the major point of this show was that these ideas are political non-starters, but I wonder if that is true. Each plank on its own would have entrenched detractors, but as a system of reforms it’s more appealing. Pay more for your mortgage and gasoline, but pay no income tax. You would have to show people a model of it working.

Here’s a challenge for any math-oriented readers: Give us some examples. How much would we need to charge for cigarettes, pot, gambling, fossil fuels, yachts, and mansions to make up for the loss of all income taxes?