Turn it Off Everyday - Inspired by the 4th Annual Earth Hour, 2010

Turn off the lights and join nearly 1 billion others in saving energy to raise awareness about energy consumption - during the fourth annual Earth Hour, March 27, 2010 at 8:30 pm - your time zone, wherever you are.
It's hard to imagine that something as easy as turning off your lights could have a real impact in combating climate change, but that’s the idea behind Earth Hour, a global event sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) designed to highlight the importance of energy conservation in the fight against global warming.

More than 1 billion participants on March 27 will help stage what has become a visually stunning event: People around the world, including whole cities and national monuments, will come together to make a bold statement about their concern for climate change by doing something quite simple—turning off their lights for one hour.

Participation is easy. By turning off the lights for an hour, starting at 8:30 p.m., on March 27, know that you are participating in a global movement that for that brief period of time, signals your commitment to combating climate change, even if it's just in your own home. If you missed Earth Hour, it's not too difficult to consciously integrate the concept into your daily life. Why not reduce the temperature in your house and put on a sweater instead? Make sure you turn off lights in rooms you're not using, and DEFINITELY unplug those unused appliances. Turning them off is not enough, especially for "transformers" - anything that has a large, black box on it, sometimes with a light. Those transformers suck about as much electricity when the appliances (computers, cell phones, etc.) they charge aren't in use as when they are. The amount of passive energy drain (or "standby loss") from unused plugged-in appliances and chargers is
astounding. For example, approximately 23% of the total electricity used by a TV is from standby loss.

A study conducted by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found that leaking electricity from normal household appliances estimated for normal use across homes in the United States could light 25,984,000 homes. In addition, to really hit the point home, passive energy loss from appliances in all homes across America is responsible for more than 6 million metric tons of U.S. carbon emissions. For more specific numbers on energy loss per appliance, see this chart.

From the WWF website: "Last year’s participants made some bold statements in support of the movement. In Peru, the population woke on the morning of March 28, 2009 to see the national El Comercio newspaper with an entirely black front page, and it wasn't because the ink had run. Instead, it was a way for the nation’s most prominent daily newspaper to issue a call to action on climate change for Earth Hour." (Although the amount of ink wasted to run entirely black front pages was not, apparently, considered).

For some dramatic pictures of Earth Hour, 2010:

Seattle Space Needle (an iPhone photo from my living room window):

See more pictures of Earth Hour 2010 via The Huffington Post.

To learn more about how to participate, get more information on the environmental impact of energy conservation, or to find out how you can support the WWF’s eco efforts, visit EarthHour.org

Using The Vernal Equinox As A Time of Balance

Today, March 20, is the first day of the solar new year, otherwise known as the vernal equinox, the first day of spring and one of two days each year when the hours of daylight and nighttime are equally long. The word "equinox" actually derives from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night). As the earth's angle of inclination towards the sun changes throughout the year, lengthening or shortening the days according to hemisphere and season, there are two times a year when day and night are of nearly equal length: the spring and autumn equinoxes. These celestial times have been recognized for thousands of years among all cultures and have given rise to a significant body of seasonal folklore and ritualistic traditions. Across all cultures and spanning centuries, spring is celebrated as a time of renewal as lengthening sun-warmed days take the place of the short, dark and cold days of winter.

Though there are many superstitious beliefs around the equinox, one of the most prominent is that you can stand a raw egg on its end on this day, and this day alone. Apparently this phenomenon has been attributed to the "special gravitational forces" that arise due to the sun's equidistant position between the poles of the earth at the time of the equinox. 

It's not true. You can stand a raw egg on its end anytime. 

However, the principle that a feat of precarious balance can most easily be achieved on this day got me to thinking about the principle of balance and the notion of integrating more balance into our daily lives. What better time to start than on the vernal equinox, in spring, when the planet is most astronomically "in balance"?  

Hasn't the quest for "balance" become a constant refrain in our hectic 21st century, techno-driven, globalized world? The numbers on a clock mean very little now, with the ability to communicate 24 hours a day with people in time zones on the other side of the earth. Yet, people are forever striving for "work-life balance" even as they work more hours, blur lines between work and home, and utilize mobile and wireless technologies to stay "connected anytime, anywhere." As a result, people become mentally, physically, and emotionally drained and exhausted, throwing themselves even more out of whack as a result. 

Spring, specifically the vernal equinox, is the perfect time to reassess the balance (or imbalances) in your life and take stock of areas in your life that you need to replenish and renew, and reduce those that are depleting and draining.  If the unfolding events in most days seem to direct (and maybe overtake) you, it can be nearly impossible to even think about how to refocus and redirect your energy. Here are five simple ideas to help get you started on rebalancing... These are things I have integrated into my life that I have found help me regain a sense of balance and equanimity.

1) Spend a few seconds focusing on your breath. Note I didn't say "minutes" - just spend the "seconds" it takes to count just 10 breaths. I find that before I do anything else in the morning, focusing on my breath helps me focus my mind before I have to get up and face the day. Often, this simple act helps me to plan for, and subsequently approach the course of my day with a feeling of control and enthusiasm. Whenever you focus on your breathing, you're in the present moment. And what is balance if not being fully present in the moment? Focus on your breath anytime throughout the day, particularly in moments you feel stressed, anxious, tense, bored, or overwhelmed.

2) Plan and cook one meal a week. Think carefully about what you would like to eat, how it will taste, nourish your body, and energize you. Plan it out and take the time to prepare it from scratch. It doesn't matter if it's a simple salad, a pot of pasta, or a five-course meal. Just plan it out and "cook with love." I used to never cook. Now I cook meals from scratch four, sometimes five nights a week. I feel so much more connected to flavors, innovation and creativity, and my body. Not to mention, I have become a pretty awesome cook, if I do say so myself.

3) Spend some time outside each day. I know I can become fully "tunneled" into the virtual world of my computer screen, and find entire hours have completely slipped away. Whenever this happens, I usually find that along with the disappearing time, my neck and back have stiffened and cramped, my head is swimming, and my vision has blurred. These are all signs that it's time to physically get outside into the real world and inhale some fresh air. Connecting with nature has been shown to have a direct impact on people's moods and productivity. And not just when it's sunny, which for me, is a hard pill to swallow. But I try to get out, even when it's raining, or worse.

4) Get some exercise. Exercise is a natural mood-lifter, depression-antidote, fitness-enhancer, etc. We have all heard the benefits, yet many people still feel as though they don't have the time to fit a half-hour of exercise into their day. It's easy if you can integrate this with #3 above! Get outside a couple of times a day: go for a walk to grab your lunch, walk or bike to and from work if possible, walk your dog, plant a garden (hey, it's spring after all!), hike a trail - all of these are very viable forms of exercise that will also have you soaking up some Vitamin D from the sun and absorbing the benefits of fresh air and green space around you! 

5) Express gratitude. Psychology research has shown that one's level of happiness is very stable over the long-term, regardless of external events. That means that whether a person won the lottery or suffered a paralyzing accident, that person will return to their usual baseline level of happiness in approximately three to six months. It's not what happens to you in your life that makes you a happy (or miserable) person; it's your internal frame of mind. If you're a pessimist, reading this probably didn't do anything to raise your hopes of happiness.

However, one thing that can increase overall levels of happiness permanently is through consciously expressing thanks (yes, even for die-hard pessimists). A leader in the relatively new field of positive psychology, Dr. Robert Emmons, discusses the "psychology of gratitude" in his new book, Thanks, as well as his more academic text, The Psychology of Gratitude (Series in Affective Science). Emmons conducted an experiment in which he asked people to either 1) record things that they were grateful for, 2) record neutral events with neither a positive nor negative attribution, or 3) write down events that annoyed, angered, or upset them. The three groups did this once a week for ten weeks, and those who were in the "gratitude group" were 25% happier at the end of the study than when they started the study, and happier than those who recorded either neutral events or, the group that fared the worst, those who wrote down things they were annoyed or upset by. "People in the gratitude condition were more optimistic about the future, they felt better about their lives, and they even did almost 1.5 more hours of exercise a week." Research has shown that the content of the event a person is grateful for is much less important than simply feeling grateful.  

Of course, taking time out each day to -- breathe, walk outside, prepare and eat food, and say thank you -- may be too overwhelming to consider packing into an already full schedule. 

...Or perhaps not. Taking the time for these obvious necessities of life may be just the first small steps to a more realigned - and balanced - life.

Eating: Caution Ahead: Massive food recall of processed foods!

Amidst the head-spinning nonsensical food labels that normally cause us to stand, frozen in the dairy case, debating the relative safety and moral high ground of "cage-free" vs. "free-range" (hint: neither mean much), a massive food recall has quietly taken place over the past couple of weeks.

Are you aware that the FDA's recall of foods containing HVP, or hydrolyzed vegetable protein, originating last week, may become the largest food recall in history? I wasn't. I only became aware of this yesterday, when apparently the recall wave swept Pringles along too, ensuring that this would not go unnoticed.

First, why should you care?
Because hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) is in thousands of food products.

More specifically, HVP is a "flavor enhancer" for processed foods, and is found in products that run the gamut from soup to nuts, literally. HVP is in chips to dips, packaged burritos, prepared entrees including pasta and vegetarian tofu dinners, salad dressings, prepared salads, cheese, and hot dogs.

Second, what the heck is HVP?
Here's a picture of its chemical structure!

Hmm, it appears that hydrolyzed vegetable protein is really just MSG. Not exactly, though the chemical explanation around the relationship between the two is rather convoluted. For all practical purposes, HVP and MSG might as well be one and the same. HVP is made by breaking soybeans, corn, or wheat into amino acids through a chemical process. One of these amino acids is glutamic acid, which in its salt form is known as monosodium glutamate, or MSG. According to the FDA, if the glutamic acid in a food binds to a free source of sodium in that food it can form MSG - but this doesn't require labeling the product as containing MSG. That's only required if MSG is added directly. (Is HVP MSG? Not technically, but it's created like it, used like it and can result in it, and as such, can be a hidden source of MSG.)

Why the recall?
Because of contamination with salmonella. "Salmonella Tennessee," to be exact. On March 4th, the FDA announced an overarching recall of many of these products containing this HVP, which is made by Basic Food Flavors, Inc. in Nevada. The recall dates to products manufactured since September 17, 2009, which is a lot of food.

The products are too numerous to list here, but this is a continually updated list by the FDA of recalled products. I must admit to just quickly scanning the list because in general, I try to avoid processed foods, and for anything that does come in a package, I try to ensure there are less than 5 ingredients (and that I recognize - and can pronounce - all of them). However, I have read that HVP is usually not specifically named outright among ingredient lists on packages, but because it is derived from soy, corn, or wheat, HVP is usually disguised in the ingredient list as the very innocuous sounding "natural flavors" or "flavor enhancer."

To me, the most salient question arising from this most recent food recall is what are the possible health effects of ingesting this manufactured artificial ingredient? In a book entitled "Grocery Warning" written by consumer health advocate Mike Adams in 2006, HVP is listed as a potential hidden source of MSG, which is recognized as an excitotoxin. Chemical additives with excitotoxic properties can directly affect neurons (nerve cells), overexciting them to the point of cell death. Dr. Russell Blaylock, a neurosurgeon and author of "Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills," explored the link between MSG and other excitotoxin food additives including aspartame, mercury, and aluminum and their deleterious effects on human neurology. Blaylock claims that there is growing evidence that excitotoxins are a major cause of degenerative brain diseases including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Huntington's ALS, and multiple sclerosis.

Of course, there are skeptics of this viewpoint; after all, the FDA has deemed artificial food additives and other chemicals like MSG, HVP, TVP (textured vegetable protein - a major ingredient in many vegetarian prepared foods such as veggie burgers and veggie "meats"), aspartame, and other "flavor enhancers" as perfectly safe for human consumption. I find it rather ironic that these processed foods, little more than chemical constructions of artificial preservatives, fake flavors, thickeners, and texturizers,  are being recalled for the health hazard of bacterial contamination when the damage to one's health becomes much more pervasive and insidious through the consistent ingestion of these so-called "foods."

Note: If you're interested in the events that led up to the recall, read NYU professor Marion Nestle's entry about it in her "Food Politics" blog. In addition, this is the Washington Post story that broke the news about the recall.

<----------- mmmm... yummy! bon appetit!