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09/19/2007

Fried Chicken and Alex

I closed last week’s column with a brief mention of the death of
Alex, the African grey parrot that had been taught and studied by
Irene Pepperberg and her colleagues for some 30 years. Alex
deserves more than just a passing mention. In last Sunday’s New
York Times there was an article about Alex. The article, by
George Johnson, cites a couple of incidents supporting the view
that Alex possessed a sense of awareness that some maintain is
characteristic of only us humans. Regular readers of these
columns will know that I love to write about animal behaviors
that show we’re not the only intelligent beings on this planet. I
particularly enjoy pointing out instances where the derogatory
term “birdbrain” doesn’t apply to certain birds.

Alex’s ability to count (up to 6), to distinguish colors, objects
and their sizes were remarkable but what most impressed me
most were reports of his showing frustration when subjected to
prolonged experimentation and his demonstrating what might be
considered a wry sense of humor. In the counting game, Alex
apparently grasped the concept of zero, a concept not that easily
understood by young humans. For example, Alex, was presented
with the old carnival shell game. An object, a nut in Alex’s case,
is placed under one of three shells and the shells are then moved
round. Alex was obviously quite upset when he picked what
should have been the shell containing the nut and there was none.
He sensed there was nothing there. Zero.

In another experiment, Alex was presented with groups of two,
three and six objects. Within each group all the objects were the
same color. In response to the question, “What color two?” Alex
would normally give the correct color for the group containing
two objects. One day, however, Alex was not really in the mood
for such shenanigans and when asked, “What color three?” he
replied “Five”. There was no group of five objects. Repeating
the question evolved the same response from Alex. Finally, the
researcher gave in and said, “OK. What color five?” “None”,
Alex replied, using the word he had learned years before in a
different situation. Not only did Alex seem to know the concept
of nothing, or zero, but I can also imagine him feeling quite
smug about toying with the questioner.

Another of my favorite birds is the chicken, not for its intellect
but for its tastiness. Here at home, I’m again in the care-giving
mode, my wife having returned from rehab after surgery last
Saturday. While in rehab, she received an amusing card from
our good friends in Dallas. On the front of the card was a
colorful, mouth-watering picture of fried chicken arranged
around a cup of dipping sauce on a platter. The caption above
the picture read “They gave their lives so that we might
celebrate.” Open the card and you’re greeted by a loud and
surprisingly high quality musical rendering of what my wife tells
me is the “Chicken Dance”. On the empty platter are the words
“Let us dance to their memory.”

If I have a choice of my last meal on Earth, I will choose my
wife’s fried chicken as the entr e. For the last few decades,
following the conventional wisdom regarding fats, I’ve been
reluctantly discarding the skin on my favorites, the leg and the
thigh. But wait – the September issue of the Harvard Health
Letter’s lead article is titled “Time to fatten up our diets” with
the subtext “Saturated and trans fat? No. But replacing
carbohydrates with unsaturated fat could lead to a longer,
healthier life.”

We’ve talked before about Walter Willett, chair of the Harvard
School of Public Health’s nutrition department and a leader in
the fight against trans fats. He was also instrumental in the
drastic recent overhaul of the government’s food pyramid. Well,
Willett says when it comes to chicken, go ahead and leave the
skin on! “A little bit of chicken fat isn’t such a bad thing” and
“besides, cooking chicken with the skin on makes it taste a lot
better.” You better believe it – the next time I have fried chicken
the skin stays on!

The Harvard article contains a very interesting table showing the
percentages of saturated fat, trans fat, monounsaturated fat and
polyunsaturated fat in various oils and fats. Chicken fat is 27%
saturated, 41% monounsaturated and 31% polyunsaturated fat. It
contains 0% trans fat. Compare that with beef fat, with 39%
saturated, 8% trans, 49% monounsaturated and just 3%
polyunsaturated fats. In other words, chicken fat is over 70%
“good” fat while beef fat is split roughly half and half between
“good” and “bad” fats.

I’m certainly not a nutritionist; so don’t follow my switch to
eating the chicken skin without doing some research of your own
on the subject. There was an excellent article in last Sunday’s
New York Times magazine section by Gary Taubes. Taubes,
who also wrote the book “Bad Science” debunking cold fusion,
looks into the matter of “bad science” in the field of medicine
and nutrition. I also heard Taubes being interviewed by Brian
Lehrer this week on WNYC, New York’s Public Radio station.
Taubes also has written a book on the subject that will no doubt
stir up considerable controversy. He specifically details the
problems involved in interpreting epidemiological data from
studies such as the Nurses Health Study, a long running project
in which my wife is one of the thousands of participants.

The Times article is much too detailed for me to cover it here.
Just a quick example of one area he discusses in some detail –
Hormone Replacement Therapy, HRT. Women of
postmenopausal age are quite familiar with the early
recommendations that HRT would help them cope with such
things at hot flashes and would also protect against heart attacks.
Later, of course, it was found that HRT seemed to promote heart
attacks on prolonged use. Taubes discusses how such conflicting
results can be obtained by not considering all the possible factors
that can affect the results in studies of groups of individuals.

On the radio program, for example, there was a question
concerning the well-known view that the Japanese have fewer
heart attacks and lower rates of certain types of cancer due to
their lower consumption of fats and their diet rich in fish. The
question raised was whether anyone had considered that their
better health regarding heart attacks might be due to the Japanese
eating less sugar? Not having seen the book, whose title I didn’t
catch, but having read the Times article, I would recommend
either as being thought provoking inquiries into how easily
dubious conclusions can be drawn from what seem to be sound
scientific studies.

Finally, back to the chicken. The September 17 Newsweek had
an article by Babak Dehghanpishen and John Barry titled
“Brainiac Brigade”. The article concerns the very impressive
group of military experts assembled in Baghdad by General
Petraeus to try work on a strategy to handle the mess in Iraq. In
March, the 20-member team got together in Baghdad, working
14-hour days. According to the article, a strange ritual was
performed every day at 9:00 PM. A recording of the “Chicken
Dance” was turned on and individuals would pick up things from
their desks such as stuffed SpongeBobs, rubber chickens and
rubber hand grenades and throw them into the air! Promptly at
9:10 PM the ritual stopped and it was back to work.

I’m wondering if one of them didn’t receive the same card my
wife received and decided that they needed a respite from their
very serious deliberations. I know I hadn’t had such a good
laugh in weeks as when I opened the card and I hope that the
“Chicken Dance” does the same for those folks in Iraq.

Allen F. Bortrum



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-09/19/2007-      
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Dr. Bortrum

09/19/2007

Fried Chicken and Alex

I closed last week’s column with a brief mention of the death of
Alex, the African grey parrot that had been taught and studied by
Irene Pepperberg and her colleagues for some 30 years. Alex
deserves more than just a passing mention. In last Sunday’s New
York Times there was an article about Alex. The article, by
George Johnson, cites a couple of incidents supporting the view
that Alex possessed a sense of awareness that some maintain is
characteristic of only us humans. Regular readers of these
columns will know that I love to write about animal behaviors
that show we’re not the only intelligent beings on this planet. I
particularly enjoy pointing out instances where the derogatory
term “birdbrain” doesn’t apply to certain birds.

Alex’s ability to count (up to 6), to distinguish colors, objects
and their sizes were remarkable but what most impressed me
most were reports of his showing frustration when subjected to
prolonged experimentation and his demonstrating what might be
considered a wry sense of humor. In the counting game, Alex
apparently grasped the concept of zero, a concept not that easily
understood by young humans. For example, Alex, was presented
with the old carnival shell game. An object, a nut in Alex’s case,
is placed under one of three shells and the shells are then moved
round. Alex was obviously quite upset when he picked what
should have been the shell containing the nut and there was none.
He sensed there was nothing there. Zero.

In another experiment, Alex was presented with groups of two,
three and six objects. Within each group all the objects were the
same color. In response to the question, “What color two?” Alex
would normally give the correct color for the group containing
two objects. One day, however, Alex was not really in the mood
for such shenanigans and when asked, “What color three?” he
replied “Five”. There was no group of five objects. Repeating
the question evolved the same response from Alex. Finally, the
researcher gave in and said, “OK. What color five?” “None”,
Alex replied, using the word he had learned years before in a
different situation. Not only did Alex seem to know the concept
of nothing, or zero, but I can also imagine him feeling quite
smug about toying with the questioner.

Another of my favorite birds is the chicken, not for its intellect
but for its tastiness. Here at home, I’m again in the care-giving
mode, my wife having returned from rehab after surgery last
Saturday. While in rehab, she received an amusing card from
our good friends in Dallas. On the front of the card was a
colorful, mouth-watering picture of fried chicken arranged
around a cup of dipping sauce on a platter. The caption above
the picture read “They gave their lives so that we might
celebrate.” Open the card and you’re greeted by a loud and
surprisingly high quality musical rendering of what my wife tells
me is the “Chicken Dance”. On the empty platter are the words
“Let us dance to their memory.”

If I have a choice of my last meal on Earth, I will choose my
wife’s fried chicken as the entr e. For the last few decades,
following the conventional wisdom regarding fats, I’ve been
reluctantly discarding the skin on my favorites, the leg and the
thigh. But wait – the September issue of the Harvard Health
Letter’s lead article is titled “Time to fatten up our diets” with
the subtext “Saturated and trans fat? No. But replacing
carbohydrates with unsaturated fat could lead to a longer,
healthier life.”

We’ve talked before about Walter Willett, chair of the Harvard
School of Public Health’s nutrition department and a leader in
the fight against trans fats. He was also instrumental in the
drastic recent overhaul of the government’s food pyramid. Well,
Willett says when it comes to chicken, go ahead and leave the
skin on! “A little bit of chicken fat isn’t such a bad thing” and
“besides, cooking chicken with the skin on makes it taste a lot
better.” You better believe it – the next time I have fried chicken
the skin stays on!

The Harvard article contains a very interesting table showing the
percentages of saturated fat, trans fat, monounsaturated fat and
polyunsaturated fat in various oils and fats. Chicken fat is 27%
saturated, 41% monounsaturated and 31% polyunsaturated fat. It
contains 0% trans fat. Compare that with beef fat, with 39%
saturated, 8% trans, 49% monounsaturated and just 3%
polyunsaturated fats. In other words, chicken fat is over 70%
“good” fat while beef fat is split roughly half and half between
“good” and “bad” fats.

I’m certainly not a nutritionist; so don’t follow my switch to
eating the chicken skin without doing some research of your own
on the subject. There was an excellent article in last Sunday’s
New York Times magazine section by Gary Taubes. Taubes,
who also wrote the book “Bad Science” debunking cold fusion,
looks into the matter of “bad science” in the field of medicine
and nutrition. I also heard Taubes being interviewed by Brian
Lehrer this week on WNYC, New York’s Public Radio station.
Taubes also has written a book on the subject that will no doubt
stir up considerable controversy. He specifically details the
problems involved in interpreting epidemiological data from
studies such as the Nurses Health Study, a long running project
in which my wife is one of the thousands of participants.

The Times article is much too detailed for me to cover it here.
Just a quick example of one area he discusses in some detail –
Hormone Replacement Therapy, HRT. Women of
postmenopausal age are quite familiar with the early
recommendations that HRT would help them cope with such
things at hot flashes and would also protect against heart attacks.
Later, of course, it was found that HRT seemed to promote heart
attacks on prolonged use. Taubes discusses how such conflicting
results can be obtained by not considering all the possible factors
that can affect the results in studies of groups of individuals.

On the radio program, for example, there was a question
concerning the well-known view that the Japanese have fewer
heart attacks and lower rates of certain types of cancer due to
their lower consumption of fats and their diet rich in fish. The
question raised was whether anyone had considered that their
better health regarding heart attacks might be due to the Japanese
eating less sugar? Not having seen the book, whose title I didn’t
catch, but having read the Times article, I would recommend
either as being thought provoking inquiries into how easily
dubious conclusions can be drawn from what seem to be sound
scientific studies.

Finally, back to the chicken. The September 17 Newsweek had
an article by Babak Dehghanpishen and John Barry titled
“Brainiac Brigade”. The article concerns the very impressive
group of military experts assembled in Baghdad by General
Petraeus to try work on a strategy to handle the mess in Iraq. In
March, the 20-member team got together in Baghdad, working
14-hour days. According to the article, a strange ritual was
performed every day at 9:00 PM. A recording of the “Chicken
Dance” was turned on and individuals would pick up things from
their desks such as stuffed SpongeBobs, rubber chickens and
rubber hand grenades and throw them into the air! Promptly at
9:10 PM the ritual stopped and it was back to work.

I’m wondering if one of them didn’t receive the same card my
wife received and decided that they needed a respite from their
very serious deliberations. I know I hadn’t had such a good
laugh in weeks as when I opened the card and I hope that the
“Chicken Dance” does the same for those folks in Iraq.

Allen F. Bortrum