Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Food Carving Magic

The season of joy, sharing, and goodwill toward me is upon us and you know what that means - start cleaning your house now for all the parties you are going to have. It also means you are probably going to be cooking (and eating, and eating while you cook) a lot. This year, rather than serving the same old veggie plate that always serve, try "sprucing" it up by incorporating some food carving into the mix. This week our LIFE class was joined by Jackie Barnhart who taught us how to turn our veggies into flowers and other fun shapes.

To do any type of food carving, you will probably need a small knife; one that you can hold in your hand easily and control well. For some effects you can use a fork or a plastic carving tool.

We started with radishes. To make a rose, score a star of david shape into one side of the radish cutting down not quite halfway. Soak the radish in ice water to make it bloom. It takes about an hour for the radish to open. If you cut several lines across the radish, all in one direction, it makes a shape similar to a chrysanthemum. Or you can carefully use you knife point to cut out little circles and make ladybugs. (See photo below.)

Cucumber, zucchini, yellow squash: you can score down the length of the vegetable with a fork to make a frilled appearance, once the vegetable is sliced. (See photo.) Or you can cut deep notches down the length of the vegetable to make your slices look like flowers.

When carving, be sure to take color into account. Green, red and yellow bell peppers make a colorful addition to any party tray. Cut the tops off, gently scoop out the seeds and stringy insides and fill the pepper with cream cheese, sour cream or any other dip. Celery stalk heads (the fluffy leafy part) make great standing decorations.

For more information, check out these websites. (see the right side of the screen for more videos of food carving ideas)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Changcheng: The Great Wall of China

Ni hao, LIFEers! (That is "hello" in Mandarin.) This week our intrepid class traveled back in time (metaphorically speaking) to ancient China with the help of Professor Bobby O'Brien to learn all about the facts and fiction of The Great Wall of China.

Let's learn the fiction first; all those wonderful little things we learned about the Great Wall that give the wall its mystique, but have no basis in reality. Myth 1: you can see the Great Wall from space. People probably thought that because the wall was so long, you could see it from space. But think about it, we have highways that are wider and just as long, and you can’t see them from space. The fact is you can’t see any man-made object on earth from space. Myth 2: the wall is ancient, built before the time of Christ. The truth is the majority of the wall is less than 500 years old, built by the Ming Dynasty. Myth 3: The Great Wall has always been called “The Great Wall”. Like most walls, the Great Wall is a defensive structure, and the ancient Chinese had no more romantic notions about the wall then any Americans have about our border fences. Myth 4: there are people buried in or beneath the wall. This rumor probably started because Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, constructed part of the wall, and he was infamous for executing enemies, both foreign and domestic, and conscripting thousands of laborers to build the wall. However, bodies have only been found next to the wall, probably the remains of workers who died on the job. Myth 5: the Great Wall is one long continuous wall. The wall is actually composed of many sections, built by many different people over a thousand years. (See the bottom of the blog for a map of the wall.) Lastly, Gary Larson in one of his Far Side cartoons put forth another theory: he depicted two ancient Chinese warriors standing upon the newly completed Great Wall; one of them boastfully states "NOW we'll see if that dog can get in here!"

So that is the fiction, now how about the facts? Let’s go through the how, why and who. First how. The first builders made the wall out of the materials on hand; dirt, vegetation, stones, and compressed the pile down into a mound or levy-like structure. This was called “hangu” or a ramming technique. Later builders practiced dry-stone-walling, where trained builders carefully placed rocks so they gripped each other and did not need mortar to stay in place. The final building method used kiln-fired bricks. The bricks were made at the construction site and were as strong as modern day reinforced concrete. But even more amazing than the bricks was the mortar; made from a mixture of lime, clay and rice-flour. Today, in the parts of the wall made via this method, the bricks are eroding away but the mortar still remains.

Next up; why. Why did they build this huge wall? The wall was built for defensive purposes, to keep out various peoples over time; the nomadic Mongols, the Turks, the Shin-Nu, and possibly one really bad dog. The ancient Chinese considered the nomadic groups to the north to be barbarians; they were less cultured, couldn't write, had no technology, no agriculture, nothing that makes up the basics of civilization. For centuries the two groups would either trade or raid. The Chinese had tools, food, and art. The barbarians had excellent horses. Whenever trading ceased (either through policy or lack of interest) the raiding began and wall construction renewed.

Lastly: who. Who built the Great Wall of China? The wall began with the Zhou Dynasty (pronounced “Joe”, 1025-265 BCE). China consisted of several small states constantly warring with each other and the nomadic peoples, and the first sections of wall were meant to keep invaders out. Next, the Qin Dynasty (pronounced “Chin”, 221-206 BCE) expanded the wall. The first emperor united the warring states, and it was during this time the wall was called “Changcheng” or “the long wall”. The Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE) greatly expanded the empire, built many roads and expanded the wall to its most westward point. They also built forts along the wall to serve as trading posts along the silk road. Several other dynasties built sections of the wall, but major building didn't resume until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The Ming had tried and failed to conquer the Mongols, so they built a test wall in the Ordos desert. When the wall repelled an invasion, wall building was considered a necessary part of a successful defence, and the Great Wall began its era of greatest expansion. The Qing were the last dynasty, and faced a time of civil unrest. One of their generals sided with revolutionaries and opened the gates of Beijing to the invaders. With the enemies now permanently inside the kingdom, wall building ceased and the Great Wall fell into disrepair.

So how did the Great Wall become great? 17th century Jesuits visiting from Europe visited the wall and wrote home about it, coining the term “the Great Wall”. Voltaire and a host of others also wrote about the wall, expounding upon its impressiveness and probably contributing to many of the myths still around today. But it wasn't until the last century, and the growth of tourism, that the wall was internationally embraced. Even Mao said “you are not a real man unless you've got to the Great Wall”. After Maoist China, the government began to restore the Great Wall, embracing it as a symbol of China’s history and might.

For more information on the Great Wall, please check out these books.

See here for a map of the Great Wall of China, and all its many segments:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Finding Health Information

Greetings LIFEers! Today's class had something that all of us at some point will need to know: how to find information regarding health and treatment options. When seeking out information on health, there are many places you can go: to professionals for advice, like doctors, nurses, PAs or pharmacists; or you can use print resources like books, health columns in newspapers, magazines or newsletters. But today we focused on a third source of information: the internet, and Cheryl Rowan from the National Network of Libraries of Medicine joined us to teach us how to navigate those murky waters.

Lets say you are searching for treatment options for dementia. If you go to Google and type in "dementia" you will get over 16 million websites that cover that topic. Obviously you are not going to spend hours and hours going through each of those sites. If you look at just the sites that pop up on the first page, you see Wikipedia, which calls itself an encyclopedia but should never be used as a source for something as serious as health as it can be edited by you and me, which means you can change the definition of a cat to be a small breed of dinosaur and claim Marie Antoinette was president of the moon. So don't use Wikipedia.

There are four ways to evaluate if a website you are on is a good source for you.
1) Provider - who is in charge of the site? This information should be at the top or bottom of the main web page along with contact information. If you can't find out who supports the website and how to reach them, then the site is less trustworthy. Also, lets say you are looking up dementia and the site you go to is hosted by a drug or big pharmaceutical company, you should be cautious. The drug manufacturer may try to influence you to use their drug for treatment when you may have better options. So avoid those sites when you can. A general rule of thumb is to avoid .com and .net sites as they are run by companies and thus have a biased point of view. Look for .gov and .edu sites as these are government and educational sites respectively which are more research based.
2) Quality of Information - is the information expert reviewed and current? Our knowledge of medicine is growing fast, so information has an expiration date on it just like milk. Try not to use sources that haven't been published or reviewed in the last 2 years. And avoid unbelievable claims. If the drug they sell can make you live longer, feel better, loose weight and grow hair, it is probably too good to be true. Move on.
3) Funding - where does the money come? Many sites support themselves by letting companies advertise on their website. And ads can be deceiving. They can be designed to look like reputable websites when they are actually trying to sell you a product. WebMD is physician sponsored but supports itself with advertising, so you may see ads for treatment of dementia that aren't in your best interest.
4) Privacy - does the site ask for a log-in or personal information to access their site? Be careful, because sites can also get funding by sharing their customer lists, so by providing your personal information you are opening the doors for spam. The site should tell you how your personal information will be used. If you are okay with this, then proceed. But know there are many reputable sites out there that don't require this.

So now you've told us what to avoid, but are there sites we should go to first, you ask. Yes, I say! MedlinePlus, NIH, NIH Senior Health, AHRQ, National Institutes on Aging and Ask Me 3 are all sites that meet the four criteria above.

MedlinePlus - - is run by the national library of medicine, so it is a trusted government site. There are no ads. Also, purple buttons at the bottom of the page will convert the website into over 40 languages, although you will lose some content, depending on the language. At the top of the page, a purple button that says "Spanish" will convert the page you are on into Spanish; a handy source for an English speaker helping out a Spanish speaker seeking health info. Health topics are listed A-Z. They have drug and supplement information and surgery videos and interactive tutorials.

NIH Senior Health - - is senior friendly and focused on senior health issues. Again, this is run by the government so there are no ads. All the content is physician approved. At the top of the homepage are buttons that enlarge the type, change the contrast and even have a voice read each page to you.

Agency for Healthcare Research Quality - - covers key topics for consumers and patients. It also has a guide for comparing medical treatments and free email updates.

National Institute on Aging -

Alzheimer's Association -

AskMe3 - - gives you help determining what questions to ask your doctor or health care provider. Bases health on 3 questions: What is my main problem? What do I need to do? Why is it important for me to do this?

For more information on health research, please contact

Cheryl Rowan
Houston Academy of Medicine - Texas Medical Center Library
1133 John Freeman Blvd.
Houston, TX 77030
phone: 713-799-7880

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Book Talk: Speak Truth to Power

This week our LIFE class was joined by Mignette Patrick Dorsey who talked about her book "Speak Truth to Power", the story of her father, Charles Patrick, a civil rights pioneer. When we think of civil rights heroes, we think first of Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks, but there were many people who pushed for civil rights in ways large and small before the national movement in the 1960s.

Charles Patrick's role as civil rights pioneer began with a traffic incident in 1954 in Alabama. While waiting to back into a parking space, a white woman pulled in to the space instead. When he confronted her about it, the lady became agitated and stated that her husband was a police officer and implied that she could park wherever she wanted. The woman reported the incident to her husband and some time later, Mr. Patrick was assaulted by the police. In those days, it was common for a black man standing in front of a judge to say "I failed your honor", a plea similar to "no contest" regardless of innocence as the law (and unlawful) were quick to lynch. But Charles Patrick had had enough. As a veteran of the Korean War, Mr. Patrick didn't want to hide the truth. He took the beating case to trial. He won the civil trial; the offending officers were suspended. The case was then appealed directly to the personnel board, and this time the offending officers were fired.

But Mr, Patrick's story goes beyond his decision to speak his truth to the powers that be at the time. It is the story of a community that was tired of the status-quo and was ready for change. Many citizens; black and white, Christian and non-Christian, spoke out against his mistreatment and wrote letters to the city government letting them know the voters would not support any elected official who opposed Mr. Patrick. Although we tend to think of civil rights as a series of a few highly publicized events which catapulted the movement into the mainstream, it was really the culmination of many smaller unreported stories of people just like Charles Patrick that caused a groundswell of action to push our nation into a new era.

To learn more about Mr. Patrick's place in our nation's history, please check out the website below.