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Blind-Eye Prickly Pear

Blind-Eye Prickly Pear

Opuntia is a genus of cactus which produces a sweet studded fruit–the prickly pear. Like all true cacti, the Opuntia genus comes from the Americas. Opuntia plants are naturally occurring from Connecticut and Long Island west to Chicago and southern Canada! More and more species can be found growing in the American southwest down into Mexico (where the greatest diversity of Opuntia species are found). Varieties of the plants also grow naturally throughout Central America, the Caribbean, and down into South America (although “naturally” might be the wrong word—the peoples of the Americas have been instrumental in the spread of these plants for a long time).

A prickly pear (Opuntia) clonal colony in fruit

A prickly pear (Opuntia) clonal colony in fruit

Opuntia plants consist of large flat green pads which have two sorts of spine. There are long sharp hard spines capable of drawing blood & causing serious injury, but also, more insidiously, there are infinitesimal hairlike prickles called glochids. If touched, these glochids feel like fur but the microscopic ends break off and penetrate the skin where they prickle agonizingly. Argh! Just writing about them is making me itch.


Prickly pears are incredibly hardy plants which are resistant to drought, disease, and animals. They easily grow into great clonal colonies which people sometimes use as a sort of natural fence. In the sixties, Cuba planted a prickly pear wall all around the American military base at Guantanamo Bay so that fleeing dissidents would be unable to seek shelter there.

An opuntia hedge towers over travelers on camelback

An opuntia hedge towers over travelers on camelback

However it is not for its spines, its toughness, or its prodigious ability to grow that the prickly pear is principally known, but for its sweet colorful fruit. These cactus fruits are colloquially (but wrongly) known as “pears” or “figs” in English (and endless other names in many, many other languages). The fruit are filled with delicious juice, tasty flesh, and hard but edible seeds. The fruits have only modest amounts of essential nutrients (particularly fiber, vitamin C, and magnesium), but they are filled with phytochemicals–a catch-all term for molecules made by plants which may have biological/medical significance. Scientists believe prickly pear fruit may be beneficial for mitigating the negative health consequences of diabetes, high cholesterol, and obesity (and hangovers too). Additionally, certain prickly pear phytochemicals may have antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. There were lots of ambiguous words and conditional phrases in there. I don’t know what to tell you…Medical science is working on it, but they have a lot on their plate.


Whatever the health benefits, prickly pear is delicious and it grows in places where other things do not. This means the plant has been imported to Australia, Asia, Africa, the middle east, and many other places. It is easy to grow, and hard to kill, so prickly pear is (quietly) one of the great invasive species of the time. Since it has mostly established itself in forsaken deserts where nothing was growing anyway, nobody is particularly worried…for the moment. Did I mention forsaken deserts? The prickly pear is particularly at home in Israel and Palestine where it has become an integral part of both cultures. I was first shown how to cut open and eat prickly pears by a Jew who said that hardened native-born Israeli Jews who farm the desert call themselves “sabras” (the modern Hebrew term for the fruits) because they are spiny and tough on the outside but sweet and generous in their hearts.

I really like prickly pears and I have been wanting to make a bunch of prickly pear ice cream custard. I will let you know how this project goes…I have the feeling it is going to turn into a big hilarious magenta mess, so stay tuned for that!

Contraception Experts before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform

Today I am uncharacteristically writing about a current social issue in American politics–the controversy over U.S. Health and Human Services mandate on contraceptive coverage which has erupted over the course of the last fortnight.

For anybody reading this from the remote future (which will be next week, considering our 24 hour news cycle), the dispute can be summarized as follows.  The current presidential administration attempted to compel religious (particularly Catholic) schools, hospitals, and charities in the United States to provide health insurance which covers contraception for their employees.  These institutions balked at this demand, claiming that the president was trampling on their freedom of religion (Catholics authorities indeed have a well-documented history of objecting to people being able to make health choices and moral decisions for themselves).  Since it is an election year, the president seems to have backed down.

Hi! I can still intrude in American politics!

There has been a great deal written about this from different political/moral/religious perspectives and it is already the subject of much posturing and political theater. Leaving aside the obvious boon which effective contraception provides for individuals and for society (and the fact that the vast majority of American women, whatever their religion, use some form of contraception), I don’t intend to write about the dust-up per se.  If the Catholic Church wishes to force women back to a benighted era of limited reproductive freedom, well, they can make that their (abusive and wrong-headed) position [although the Church has argued that these hospitals, charities, and schools are not solely religious whenever questions of public funding and government assistance have arisen].  There are ways around it, and it doesn’t seem like a long-term winning strategy.

I am troubled instead by the implicit assumptions about health insurance and healthcare which are revealed by this controversy.

The religious (and quasi-religious) organizations claim to be angry because they are forced to pay for a service which is against their conscience.  This implies that they are paying for the service!  Whatever employers claim, health insurance is really ultimately paid for by employees.  It is part of compensation. This is one of the reasons that wages have stagnated in the United States for such a long time. Our salaries are not rising because our health care costs are going up. There is a strong incentive not to leave a job which provides health insurance because an employee can not be guaranteed to find coverage elsewhere, particularly if that employee has a pre-existing condition or works in a field with limited employment options (which is pretty much every field).  Ideally all employees adversely affected by the Church’s paternalistic overreach would quit and move to new jobs.  Raise your hand if you think that is likely or even possible.

Health costs are rising precipitously while health outcomes are getting worse.  People are understandably afraid to leave their jobs in search of better options or to start businesses of their own.  The stagnation of job mobility is hurting the American economy and society as a whole.

The reason that people should be mad is not because health insurance allows Catholic institutions coercive control over the lives of people who work for them.  People should be angry because the structure of health care in this country gives all large employers an undue hold on the people who work for them.  Americans are becoming vassals of their employers thanks to perverse incentives of a broken healthcare system.

I have no answers but here's some bland clipart.

Bacteria from the surface of a human tongue

For once, Ferrebeekeeper has a very important point which I desperately want you to walk away with. If you don’t want to wade through my carefully crafted exposition (which builds gradually to this important public health message by first contemplating the nature of Earth’s dominant living things), click here and the WHO will provide this message with brevity and decisiveness.

Today I would like to write briefly about the true masters of planet earth, the bacteria and discuss some very important aspects of our relationship with them.     Bacteria are everywhere and inside everything.  Our bodies contain more bacterial cells than cells which are our own.  They live in kangaroos, grapes, arsenic springs, molten-hot sea vents, and inside the earth’s mantle. In the depths of time, they altered the planet’s oxygen-free atmosphere into one where oxygen is plentiful and they alone among organisms (other than chemists) can fix molecular nitrogen from the atmosphere into ammonia. There are estimated to be more than five nonillion (5×1030) bacteria on Earth–which together vastly outweigh the biomass of all other living things combined.  They were here first (by billions of years) and they will probably be here last, when the sun expands into a red giant and swallows the earth like a cocktail onion.

I should probably write more and think more about bacteria.  We all should. Not only is the planet is theirs, but they are more diverse than all other organisms.  They likely exist in parts of earth we have never even reached. They may even live in a shadow biosphere which is based on biochemical reactions we have never thought of as life-like.  Who knows?

The Diversity of Life: Bacteria (prokaryotes) are in blue.

Unfortunately, like most people, when I think of bacteria, it is usually as a disease.  Even though pathogens only make up the faintest fraction of the teaming bacterial world, bacterial illnesses are terrifying.  Tetanus, typhoid fever, diphtheria, syphilis, cholera, bubonic plague, staph, pneumonia, leprosy and tuberculosis are all bacteria, as are many other wicked diseases.  For most of human history we knew these bacteria only by the results of their work and we lacked any means of dealing with them other than our immune systems and crude poisons like iodine, bleach, and alcohol.

However all of this changed in the twentieth century with the miraculous accidental discovery of penicillin, a substance produced by a certain mold which killed or inhibited bacteria.  Humankind discovered that many fungi and actinomycetes contained similar compounds, the antibiotics, which have made human life incalculably better and saved lives beyond the telling.  Of course, as with all good things, we have also abused these miracle drugs to cure minor ailments, market unnecessary household cleaners, grow fatter livestock, and treat viruses (which antibiotics don’t even cure).  Overuse of antibiotics stresses the healthy bacteria which live inside our bodies perhaps contributing to a host of autoimmune and degenerative diseases.  Even worse, bacteria reproduce with inhuman speed and, when not killed outright, quickly mutate into antibiotic resistant strains.  These antibiotic resistant bacteria are becoming widespread.  Many people in hospitals are dying.  Drug-resistant pneumonia, tuberculosis, and staph infections are beginning to spread.

A Diagram of Bacterial Resistance to Antibiotics

All of this is leading up to a pointed conclusion. Today is world health day and the WHO (world Health Organization) has launched a campaign to combat antibiotic and antimicrobial resistance.  They wish to combat drug resistance by (1) curbing overuse of antimicrobial compounds, (2) making sure that people receive the correct prescription and finish the entire course, (3) stopping the sale of substandard products, (4) curtailing agricultural and industrial use of these compounds, (5) convincing laboratories and drug companies to reengage and reinvest (antibacterial or antimicrobial drugs are not as lucrative as heart medicines, erection pills, and weight-loss medicine).  Here is the World Health Organization statement again and here is a link to a thoughtful piece about the problem in the Economist.

Most scary things you read in the news are inflated bogeymen that people have hyped up so you will click on their websites and watch their daft advertisements.  The nuclear meltdown in Japan will not hurt you unless you live in the shadow of an affected plant. You will never be bitten by a shark.    Your plane is profoundly unlikely to crash and even less likely to be blown up by terrorists.  The world is safer (for you) than ever.

But now you could die of an antibiotic resistant disease you catch in the hospital during surgery, and the odds for such an end will go up unless we all become more conscientious. Drug resistant superbugs could harm or kill your loved ones if we don’t act to fix these problems. So listen to the WHO, help out the many friendly bacteria (which help us all sorts of ways), and don’t abuse antibiotics or antimicrobial compounds.  Also, if you happen to be a powerful capitalist, some sort of executive, or a legislator, please try to work with the WHO to provide more rational incentives and rules for the sale, use, and creation of these compounds.

Thanks! Happy World Health Day and bonne santé to you all.

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