Friday, February 2, 2007

Essential stuff

Let me barge once again through a wide open door by declaring that we live in a world that is becoming more and more complex. Funnily enough, in making that profound statement, I'm thinking, not of computers (which I've always found delightfully logical to employ, particularly when they don't incorporate any Microsoft components), but rather of everyday devices such as phones, hi-fi equipment and even vacuum cleaners.

For example, the other day, I wandered into an appliance store with the intention of buying a packet of vacuum cleaner bags. Before leaving home, I had slid the Miele instruction booklet into my briefcase, imagining naively that it would suffice to show this document to the sales assistant in order to determine the exact model of bags I needed. Huge error! First, I hadn't noticed before that the booklet accompanying my recently-purchased vacuum cleaner was in fact a generic document (the textual equivalent of an old-fashioned bottle of medicine labeled "cough syrup"), which described the essential features that were common to all models of a similar kind produced by that manufacturer. Once in the store, I discovered that it would be practically impossible to find the appropriate dustbags unless I could provide further essential data such as the name of the model and the overall "look" of the bags. Fortunately, I had just removed the old bag, and I had a vague recollection of the discarded thing as I slipped it into my trash can. The girl in the shop was perfect in her role. She took me through a kind of test in the style of a police officer calling upon the memories of a witness to help him in the construction of a robot portrait of a criminal. Was the old bag whitish or rather grayish? Were there a lot of small perforations around the hole in the cardboard piece that clips into the input of the vacuum cleaner, or was this vital part of the bag simply a plain cardboard rectangle with a big hole in the middle? Finally, we succeeded in formulating a relatively precise description of the wanted entity, and I left the store with a packet of bags that turned out to have no resemblance whatsoever to the one I had discarded. They appear to be a new deluxe invention. But the essential thing is that they work. Incidentally, if you think I've inserted this photo for purely decorative reasons, you're wrong. The next time I have to buy dustbags, I'll simply ask the sales assistant to get connected to the Internet, and consult my blog. That way, there won't be any doubts about the right bags.

I got carried away by vacuum cleaner bags. What I really wanted to talk about in this post is the popular topic of fatty acids. Readers have probably seen recent news articles concerning US legislation aimed at reducing the consumption of so-called trans fat. This was a good pretext for carrying out a rapid learning experiment that has been in the back of my mind for ages: namely, to "master" once and for all the chemical and nutritional distinctions between the variable kinds of edible fats. All I can say, for the moment, is that it was a little like deciding to do a quick course in rocket science.

I often wonder if many ordinary people really know what they're talking about when they use casually the intricate terminology encountered in this complex domain: saturated fat, mono-unsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, omega-3, omega-6, hydrogenation, etc. As for me, I feel like an idiot when I'm faced with the technical literature on this subject. Worse than that, I already feel like an ignoramus when I try to read the data printed on foodstuff labels. Even the excellent Greek olive oil that I use abundantly in my cooking carries a detailed description of its chemical composition, in both Greek and English. Normally, when I think of olive oil, I think of Greek islands, Homeric ships, warm hills and nostalgic songs. If I now have to think too of organic chemistry, then what is the world coming to? [As friends will have understood, that's a tongue-in-cheekish rhetorical question, because the truth of the matter is that I love complexity... provided it's not of the dustbag kind.]

A trivial aspect of my fatty-acids learning experience that amused me greatly is the use of the adjective "essential". In English, in the nutritional domain, the terms "fats" and "oils" occur together constantly, almost as synonyms. We all know by now that certain fatty acids (in particular, omega-3 and omega-6) are designated as "essential", because human metabolism requires their presence in our diets. Now, alongside these essential fats, there are much-celebrated products known as essential oils, but it would be a tragic mistake if anybody were to imagine that our metabolism can be improved by adding, say, a few drops of Melaleuca oil to our morning tea or coffee. You don't have to be an expert in Russian espionage tactics to know that the outcome could be fatal. The word "poison" appears on the back of the bottle, but you have to turn it around and hold it up to the light to see the warning. Such oils are designated as essential, not because they're required in any ordinary sense, but because they're produced by distilling various essences.

In this morning's postal mail, I received a friendly circular from the government medical-research organization that has been feeding guinea pigs such as me, for the last year, a daily diet that could well be composed of both vitamins and omega-3, but which could just as well be neither. Unfolding the three pages of the letter, with tables of statistics and delightful colored charts, I said to myself with joy that I was surely about to receive some solid information about this complex subject. All I needed to do was to plow through the scientific data sent to me by Inserm [Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale] in the same way that I've been using Wikipedia to brush up my knowledge on fatty acids. What profound information did I acquire? I'll simply give you a couple of samples. Apparently, three-quarters of the 2000 men being tested used to be smokers. Big deal! But wait until you hear the following sensational scoop. Inserm asked their guinea pigs whether they were annoyed by the relatively large size of one of their two daily pills. Guess what: 83.1 % of the people said no. As for the others, they replied that they had indeed noticed that it was a pretty big pill [see my previous post on the ambiguity of the word "pretty"], but this didn't dissuade them from swallowing it. As I've often said, science is omnipresent in the modern world, and it's fun! But every aspect of our daily lives is indeed becoming more and more complex...

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