Blubber

Fat is a much-maligned substance in the twenty-first century world we find ourselves in; exhortations for it to be burnt or exhumed from one’s diet abound from all sides, and indeed entire industries are now founded on dealing with the unwanted stuff in one form or another. However, fat is not, in fact, some demonic hate figure designed specifically to kill all that is good and beautiful about our world, and since it is at least relatively interesting I thought it might be worth investigating a few bits and pieces surrounding it over the course of a post.

All fats are based upon a molecule called glycerol, or propan-1,2,3-triol to give it its technical IUPAC name. Glycerol is a very interesting substance used for a wide range of purposes both in the body and commercially; it can be broken down to form sugar, can be used as a laxative, is an effective antifreeze, a useful solvent, a sweetener, is a key ingredient in the production of dynamite and, of course, can be used to store energy in fatty form. Glycerol is, technically speaking, an alcohol, but unlike most everyday alcohols (such as the ethanol upon which many of our favourite drinks are based) each glycerol molecule contains not one but three alcohol functional groups. In a fat, these alcohol groups act like sticking points, allowing three different long-chain carboxylic acid molecules known as ‘fatty acids’ to attach to each glycerol molecule. For this reason, fats are also known as ‘triglycerides’, and precisely which fat is formed from this structure depends on the structure of these fatty acids.

Fatty acids consisting of shorter chains of carbon atoms have less atoms with which to interact with their surroundings,  and thus the intermolecular forces between the fatty acid chains and other molecules are weaker for shorter-chain acids. This has a number of effects on the properties of the final product, but one of the most obvious concerns its melting point; shorter-chain fatty acids generally result in a product that is liquid at room temperature, and such products are designated as ‘oils’ rather than fats. Thus, not all triglycerides are, technically speaking, fats, and even triglycerides are part of a larger chemical family of fat-like substances known as ‘lipids’ (organic chemistry can be confusing). As a general rule, plants tend to produce oils and animals produce fats (presumably for reasons of storage), which is why you get stuff like duck fat and olive oil rather than the reverse.

The structure of the fatty acids is also important in an important dietary consideration surrounding fats; whether they are saturated or unsaturated. In chemistry, carbon atoms are bonded to one another by covalent bonds, consisting of a shared pair of electrons (each atom providing one electron of the pair) that keeps the two atoms bonded together. Most of the time, only one pair of electrons forms the bond (known as a single bond), but sometimes the relevant carbon atoms have a surfeit of electrons and will create another shared pair, forming a double covalent bond. The nature of double bonds means that the carbon atoms involved can accept more hydrogen atoms (or other electrophiles such as bromine; bromine water is a good test for double bonds) whereas a molecule made up entirely of singly-bonded atoms couldn’t accept any more and would be said to be saturated with hydrogen. Thus, molecules (including fats and fatty acids) with only single bonds are described as saturated, whilst those with double bonds are known as unsaturated*. A mixture of the food industry and chemical fraternity has developed a whole host of more specific descriptive terms that give you more detail as to the chemical structure of your fats (stuff like monounsaturated and such), and has also subdivided unsaturated fats into two more categories, cis- and trans-fats (the names refer to the molecules’ arrangement in space about the double bond, not their gender orientation).

With all these different labels, it’s no wonder people have so much trouble remembering, much less identifying, which fats they are ‘supposed to avoid’. Saturated and trans-unsaturated fats (which occur rarely in nature due to enzyme structure and are usually manufactured artificially) are apparently bad, mono-unsaturated (cis-) fats are good, and poly-unsaturated (cis-) fats good in moderation.

The extent to which these fats are ‘good’ and ‘healthy’ does not refer to the effect they will have on your waistline; all fats you eat are first broken down by your digestive process, and the resulting calories produced are then either used to power your body or turned into other sorts of fat that take up belly space. This process is the same for all types of energy-containing food and I shall come onto a few details about it in a paragraph or two. No, the relative health risk of these different fat types refers instead to the production of another type of lipid; cholesterol, which has such a complex, confusing structure and synthesis that I’m not even going to try to describe it. Cholesterol is a substance produced intentionally by the body and is very useful; it is used in the production of all sorts of hormones and vitamins, is a key ingredient of bile and is used in helping cells rebuild themselves. It is transported through the body by two different substances known as LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and HDL (take a wild guess) that carry it via the bloodstream; and this is where problems arise. The precise mechanism behind it is not known, but an increased consumption of trans-fats and other ‘bad’ triglycerides leads to an increase in the amount of cholesterol and LDL in the bloodstream. If this stuff is allowed to build up, cholesterol can start to ‘stick’ to the sides of one’s blood vessels, slowly reducing the effective size of the blood vessel until it is almost completely shut. This greatly reduces the flow of blood through these vessels, and this can have particularly dramatic consequences if the large, important blood vessels close to or supplying the heart are affected, leading to coronary heart disease and a greatly increased risk of heart attacks. HDL, for some reason, doesn’t apparently contribute to this affect, leading HDL to be (misleadingly, since it’s not actually cholesterol) dubbed ‘good cholesterol’ and LDL as ‘bad cholesterol’.

Clearly, then, having too much of these ‘bad fats’ can have some pretty serious consequences, but public realisation of this has lead all fat to be considered as a disgusting thing to be shunned. Frankly, this is just plain old not true, and it is far easier to live a healthy life with a bit of meat** on the bones than to go down the super-skinny angle. Fat is a vital body tissue, required for insulation, vitamin transport, to store energy, to prevent the disease and provides many essential nutrients; omega-3, the ‘essential oil’ (meaning it is not produced by the body) found in fish that is thought  to play a role in brain development and other bodily functions, is nothing more than an unusual fatty acid.

If you want further evidence as to the importance fat plays in one’s body, I refer you to a condition known as lipodystrophy, in which one’s body cannot produce or store fat properly. In some cases this is localised and relatively harmless, but in incredibly rare cases it manifests itself as a hereditary condition that causes abnormal bone and muscle growth, facial disfigurement and requires an incredibly strict diet (in direct contravention of the massive appetite the condition gives you) in order to control one’s levels of cholesterol and carbohydrate intake. In many cases, sufferers of this horrible condition will not live past twenty, if they even get that far.

*Vegetable oils tend to be more frequently unsaturated than fats, as this is another factor that reduces their melting point and makes them liquid. A key process involved in producing margarine involves taking these vegetable oils and adding hydrogen to these double bonds, a process known as hydrogenation, in order to raise their melting point and make the margarine solid and spreadable. Chemistry!

**Although, as anyone who likes their bacon skinny will tell you, fat is most certainly not meat. In fact, it’s not even alive.

Pineapples (TM)

If the last few decades of consumerism have taught us anything, it is just how much faith people are able of setting store in a brand. In everything from motorbikes to washing powder, we do not simply test and judge effectiveness of competing products objectively (although, especially when considering expensive items such as cars, this is sometimes impractical); we must compare them to what we think of the brand and the label, what reputation this product has and what it is particularly good at, which we think most suits our social standing and how others will judge our use of it. And good thing too, from many companies’ perspective, otherwise the amount of business they do would be slashed. There are many companies whose success can be almost entirely put down to the effect of their branding and the impact their marketing has had on the psyche of western culture, but perhaps the most spectacular example concerns Apple.

In some ways, to typecast Apple as a brand-built company is a harsh one; their products are doubtless good ones, and they have shown a staggering gift for bringing existed ideas together into forms that, if not quite new, are always the first to be a practical, genuine market presence. It is also true that Apple products are often better than their competitors in very specific fields; in computing, for example, OS X is better at dealing with media than other operating systems, whilst Windows has traditionally been far stronger when it comes to word processing, gaming and absolutely everything else (although Windows 8 looks very likely to change all of that- I am not looking forward to it). However, it is almost universally agreed (among non-Apple whores anyway) that once the rest of the market gets hold of it Apple’s version of a product is almost never the definitive best, from a purely analytical perspective (the iPod is a possible exception, solely due to the existence of iTunes redefining the music industry before everyone else and remaining competitive to this day) and that every Apple product is ridiculously overpriced for what it is. Seriously, who genuinely thinks that top-end Macs are a good investment?

Still, Apple make high-end, high-quality products with a few things they do really, really well that are basically capable of doing everything else. They should have a small market share, perhaps among the creative or the indie, and a somewhat larger one in the MP3 player sector. They should be a status symbol for those who can afford them, a nice company with a good history but that nowadays has to face up to a lot of competitors. As it is, the Apple way of doing business has proven successful enough to make them the biggest private company in the world. Bigger than every other technology company, bigger than every hedge fund or finance company, bigger than any oil company, worth more than every single one (excluding state owned companies such as Saudi Aramco, which is estimated to be worth around 3 trillion dollars by dealing in Saudi oil exports). How has a technology company come to be worth $400 billion? How?

One undoubted feature is Apple’s uncanny knack of getting there first- the Apple II was the first real personal computer and provided the genes for Windows-powered PC’s to take the world, whilst the iPod was the first MP3 player that was genuinely enjoyable to use, the iPhone the first smartphone (after just four years, somewhere in the region of 30% of the world’s phones are now smartphones) and the iPad the first tablet computer. Being in the technology business has made this kind of innovation especially rewarding for them; every company is constantly terrified of being left behind, so whenever a new innovation comes along they will knock something together as soon as possible just to jump on the bandwagon. However, technology is a difficult business to get right, meaning that these products are usually rubbish and make the Apple version shine by comparison. This also means that if Apple comes up with the idea first, they have had a couple of years of working time to make sure they get it right, whilst everyone else’s first efforts have had only a few scance months; it takes a while for any serious competitors to develop, by which time Apple have already made a few hundred million off it and have moved on to something else; innovation matters in this business.

But the real reason for Apple’s success can be put down to the aura the company have built around themselves and their products. From their earliest infancy Apple fans have been self-dubbed as the independent, the free thinkers, the creative, those who love to be different and stand out from the crowd of grey, calculating Windows-users (which sounds disturbingly like a conspiracy theory or a dystopian vision of the future when it is articulated like that). Whilst Windows has its problems, Apple has decided on what is important and has made something perfect in this regard (their view, not mine), and being willing to pay for it is just part of the induction into the wonderful world of being an Apple customer (still their view). It’s a compelling world view, and one that thousands of people have subscribed to, simply because it is so comforting; it sells us the idea that we are special, individual, and not just one of the millions of customers responsible for Apple’s phenomenal size and success as a company. But the secret to the success of this vision is not just the view itself; it is the method and the longevity of its delivery. This is an image that has been present in their advertising campaign from its earliest infancy, and is now so ingrained that it doesn’t have to be articulated any more; it’s just present in the subtle hints, the colour scheme, the way the Apple store is structured and the very existence of Apple-dedicated shops generally. Apple have delivered the masterclass in successful branding; and that’s all the conclusion you’re going to get for today.

The story of Curveball

2012 has been the first year for almost as long as public conciousness seems able to remember that the world has not lived under the shadow of one of the most controversial and tumultuous events of the 21st century- the Iraq war. From 2003 to December 2011, the presence and deaths of western soldiers in Iraq was an ever-present and constantly touchy issue, and it will be many years before Iraq recovers from the war’s devastating effects.

Everybody knows the story of why the war was started in the first place- the US government convinced the rest of the world that Iraq’s notoriously brutal and tyrannical dictator Saddam Hussein (who had famously gassed vast swathes of Iraq’s Kurdish population prior to his invasion of Kuwait and the triggering of the First Gulf War) was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. The main reason for the US government’s fears was, according to the news of the time, the fact that Hussein had refused UN weapons inspectors to enter and search the country. Lots of people know, or at least knew, this story. But much fewer know the other story- the story of how one man was able to, almost single-handedly, turn political posturing into a full-scale war.

This man’s name is Rafid Ahmed Alwan, but he was known to the world’s intelligence services simply as ‘Curveball’. Alwan is an Iraqi-born chemical engineer, who in 1999 fled to Germany, having embezzled government money. He then claimed that he had worked on an Iraqi project to design and produce mobile labs to produce biological weapons. Between late 1999 and 2001, German intelligence services interrogated him, granted him political asylum, and listened to his descriptions of the process. They were even able to create 3-D models of the facilities being designed, to a level of detail that CIA scientists were later able to identify major technical flaws in them. Despite the identification of such inconsistencies, when Curveball’s assertions that Iraq was indeed trying to produce biological WMD’s got into the hands of US intelligence, they went straight to the top. US Secretary of State Colin Powell referred to Curveball’s evidence in a 2003 speech to the UN on the subject of Iraq’s weapons situation, and his evidence, despite its flaws, pretty much sealed the deal for the USA. And where the US goes, the rest of the world tends to follow.

Since then, Curveball has, naturally, come under a lot of criticism. Accused of being an alcoholic, a ‘congenital liar’ and a ‘con artist’, he is quite possibly the world record holder for the most damaging ‘rogue source’ in intelligence history. Since he first made his claims, the amount of evidence showing how completely and utterly false they were has only stacked up- a facility he attested was a docking station was found to have an immovable brick wall in front of it, his designs were completely technically unsound, and his claims that he had finished top of his class at Baghdad University and had been drafted straight into the weapons program were replaced by the fact that he had finished bottom of his class and had, as he admitted in 2011, made the whole story up.

But, of course, by far the biggest source of hatred towards Curveball has been what his lies snowballed into- the justification of one of the western world’s least proud and most controversial events- the Second Iraq War. The cost of the war has been estimated to be in the region of two trillion dollars, and partly as a result of disruption to Iraqi oil production the price of oil has nearly quadrupled since the war began. The US and its allies have come under a hail of criticism for their poor planning of the invasion, the number of troops required and the clean up process, which was quite possibly entirely to blame for the subsequent 7 years of insurgent warfare after the actual invasion- quite apart from  some rather large questions surrounding the invasion’s legality in the first place. America has also taken a battering to its already rather weathered global public image, losing support from some of its traditional allies, and the country of Iraq has, despite having had an undoubtedly oppressive dictatorship removed, become (rather like Afghanistan) a far more corrupt, poverty-stricken, damaged and dangerous society than it was even under Hussein- it will take many years for it to recover. Not only that, but there is also evidence to suggest that the anger caused by the Western invasion has been played for its PR value by al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, actually increasing the terrorism threat. But worse than all of that has been the human cost- estimates of the death toll range from 87,000 to over a million, the majority of whom have been civilian casualties from bomb attacks (courtesy of both sides). All parties have also been accused of sanctioning torture and of various counts of murder of civilians.

But I am not here to point fingers or play the blame game- suffice it to say that the main loser in the war has been humanity. The point is that, whilst Curveball cannot be said to be the cause of the war, or even the main one, the paper trail can be traced right back to him as one of the primary trigger causes. Just one man, and just a few little lies.

Curveball has since said that he was (justifiably) shocked that his words were used as justification for the war, but, crucially, that he was proud that what he had said had toppled Hussein’s government. When asked in an interview about all the death and pain the war he had sparked had caused, he was unable to give an answer.

This, for me, was a both shocking and deeply interesting moral dilemma. Hussein was without a doubt a black mark on the face of humanity, and in the long run I doubt that Iraq will be worse off as a democracy than it was under his rule. But that will not be for many years, and right now Iraq is a shadow of a country.

Put yourself in Curveball’s position- somebody who thought his words could bring down a dictator, a hate figure, and who then could only watch as the world tore itself apart because of them. Could you live with that thought? Were your words worth their terrible price? Could your conscience ever sleep easy?