Nanoparticles, Hamdogs, and Freaking Out

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May 13, 2022 by libroshombre

            Our family’s Kentucky Derby brunch turned out to be fertile ground for intellectual speculation, ranging from sandwiches to parasocial relationships to toxic ultrafines.  The two minutes of the big race were certainly exciting, but we spent most of the rest of the time chatting while watching our daughter with pasta skills hand-mix dough and demonstrate her shiny pasta machine.  Conversation was sparked by another daughter having forwarded an article about butterbrots, German butter sandwiches, drawn from Wikipedia’s intriguingly titled List of Notable Sandwiches.  James Beard, the famous baker, wrote that “Too few people understand a really good sandwich,” which seems awfully snooty since tastes vary so world-wide.  

            Australians like their hamdogs (“Hot dog wrapped in a beef patty, deep-fried, then covered with chili, a few french fries, and a fried egg”), while the Japanese spin on hotdogs is the Yakisoba-pan (“Hot dog bun stuffed with fried noodles, frequently topped with pickles, with mayonnaise”).  The neighboring Chinese appreciate a good donkey burger (“Chopped or shredded savory donkey meat in a bun”), Indians eat grilled cottage cheese (“paneer, green chutney, with some butter and extra cheese”), and here in America there’s a Fool’s Gold Loaf (“a single warmed, hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with one jar of creamy peanut butter, one jar of grape jelly, and a pound of bacon. In 1976, Elvis Presley and some of his friends flew to Colorado to consume them”).

            The pasta daughter made her dough using “superfine Italian flour” that reminded me of a disturbing article I shared: “The Toxic Killers in Our Air Too Small to See.”  In it Tim Smedley wrote “Current pollution meters don’t count the very smallest pollutants – nanoparticles. Recent research suggests these tiny toxic substances could be a major cause of illness and death … we’re told that “PM2.5” – solid pollution particles measuring 2.5 micrometres or less – can pass through our lungs and into our blood stream. But, in fact, the vast majority of them can’t … PM2.5 may be too small to see, being roughly 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair. But it’s a relative heavyweight. PM2.5 stomps in at 2,500 nanometres (nm), while nanoparticles are 100nm or below. PM2.5 and PM10 (10,000nm) are killers in their own right, typically causing lung and respiratory conditions. Yet nanoparticles can reach, and wreak havoc in, any organ in the body. And because government authorities monitor PM2.5 by mass (million of nanoparticles may not even register a measurement by microgram) – their reports underrepresent the true risks.”

            Smedley cited studies showing that standing near road traffic “had very little impact on people’s exposure to PM 2.5.  But it had a massive impact on ultrafines … However, the highest averages were recorded inside the cars and buses … The difference between walking by the kerbside of the road, and by the building side, on the same pavement – just a few short steps – was an average of 82,000 particles versus 69,000. The same readings registered no change in PM2.  The scariest part about ultrafine nanoparticles is “because the smaller particles you have, you have a greater surface area. A greater surface area means more [potential] toxicity, as they are in touch with a greater surface area inside your body.”  Smedley compared the surface areas of soccer balls (surface area of 91.5 square inches) and golfballs (5.2) and found that 156 golfballs (811 square inches) will fit inside a soccer ball.  “On a nano-scale, that difference is amplified. A cloud of a billion 10nm particles has the same mass as just one PM10 particle, but a combined surface area a million times larger.”

            A happier topic was reflecting on the Daily News Miner article about Kentucky Derby horse trainer Kenny McPeek who, as a University of Kentucky freshman, posted a 0.6 GPA (“They wouldn’t give me credit for beer and girls,” he said).  Then he discovered the agricultural department’s secluded library that was thoroughly stocked with back issues of every horse racing journal.  He raised his GPA to 3.5 and pored over those old magazines studying bloodlines, training techniques, etc.  His two horses came in 8th and 9th so some more library time may be called for. I think it was the topic of parimutuel betting that led my son turn the conversation to  parasocial relationships.  The concept was new to me but has been around since the 1950s. 

            In “What Is a Parasocial Relationship?,” a article, Cynthia Vinney said it’s “a one-sided relationship that a media user engages in with a media persona.  While the research on parasocial relationships typically focuses on friendship-like bonds between a media user and a favored media persona, media users may also form negative parasocial relationships and even romantic parasocial relationships with different media figures … For example, if you feel like you’re one of the gang while watching the characters from “Friends” spend time together at the Central Perk, you’re experiencing a parasocial interaction.” This is because “humans are evolutionarily wired to make social connections. Media is a fairly recent development in human history and hasn’t yet had an outsized impact on our evolution … the social characteristics we’ve evolved to ensure we form interpersonal relationships have been extended to media use … humans tend to pay special attention to other humans’ faces and voices. For centuries, the only faces and voices we regularly encountered were those of the people in our daily lives. That changed starting in the early 20th century with the advent of radio and movies, and by the time television became widely available, the number of faces and voices one could become familiar with through media had grown exponentially.  However, our brains never evolved to distinguish between people who we see and hear through media and those we see and hear in our real lives. Therefore, we process and respond to these encounters in the same way, leading to parasocial phenomena in all its forms.”  She added, “Parasocial relationships are completely normal and can even have a positive impact on a person’s well-being. However, parasocial relationships are at best a supplement or an addition to someone’s social relationships and social needs.”

            It’s comforting to know that Vinney’s article was reviewed by medical professionals prior to publication and is more reliable than most internet reports. Reading “How to Stop Freaking Out,” Arthur Brooks’s Atlantic recent article also helped.  COVID restrictions (“the Divorce Lawyers’ Full Employment Act of 2020)” and a general rise in overall meanness (an average of 100-150 air rage incidents annually rose to 5,704 in 2021) has many folks experiencing “an automatic physical and mental response to an unexpected negative reaction by another, usually close person, an encounter we can perceive as a threat. Our brain triggers ineffective and disorganized responses as we prepare to do battle or run away. The experience likely involves the amygdala, the part of the brain that automatically produces basic emotional responses to outside signals, including danger.”  It’s also known as “emotional flooding,” an “amygdala hijack,” and, to us boomers, “freaking out.”

            Whatever its name, it severely impairs decision-making, but Brooks suggest three ways of calming down: “Count to 30 (and imagine the consequences),” “Observe your feelings” (quietly think about the feelings you’re having), and “Write it down … if you write about what you are feeling, you immediately feel better. Journaling is in fact one of the best ways to achieve metacognition, which in turn creates emotional knowledge and regulation, which provide a sense of control. Recent research shows this very clearly.”  Emotional flooding’s part of being human, and, as Joseph Campbell noted, “For people who are really alive, to have life awakened is more important than to get a sandwich.”  

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