Book Review: Survival of the Sickest, by Sharon Moalem,2007

Harper/Collins Publishers. 267 pp.

Review by Wm Olkowski, PhD

This is a hard book to categorize since it intertwines genetics, medicine, microbiology and parasitology, evolution of our microbial symbionts, and pathogens and epigenetics. This most informative volume covers some common human diseases showing how our earlier survival was dependent upon genetic changes now expressed as diseases such as: hemochromatosis, diabetes, high cholesterol, favism, autoimmune diseases, and aging. For example, people with a predisposition to high blood sugar are now classified as diabetics. But at one time this predisposition to high blood sugar helped pregnant mothers keep their developing fetus alive during famines. The fetus is most sensitive to glucose during brain development; a shortage would mean miscarriage or birth defects. Along the way through the book you get an update on your genetic education while learning the latest about diseases like bubonic plague, diabetes, heart disease, malaria, as well as probiotics and common symbionts and various genetic problems. The chapters are like bite-sized lectures. But there is much more. For instance, check out the water birthing primates and jumping genes.

Our Santa Barbara Garden (ca. 2011)

by Wm Olkowski, PhD

paintings and photographs by Wm Olkowski

We virtually planted helter skelter in the bare backyard when we moved into the Santa Barbara house after Helga’s stroke (11/7/09).  At first we used to just look into the garden to see what kind of bird life we could attract.  Then, when I had time to plant things, I started Chinese chives (“Jo tsi”) to add some greens to each breakfast.

As time passed I got a few minutes or longer each morning and evening when I took Helga outside for her “fence rail walk.”  So, in these times, I, and our friend, Jean Yant, and one of our caretakers, Roger Thornhill, would plant what I bought at the local nursery.  Jean made a number of purchases at her local nursery up in Lompoc.

A New Garden in Santa Barbara

Since we were RV snowbirds for about 10 years (fr. ca. 1998 to 2009), on our short stays at home we just bought mulch and then hired people to spread it out to keep any weeds from taking over.  Even though Dave Martin had a very full garden before he died we did not keep it up, preferring to visit exotic places and do my painting.  Things changed again after H’s stroke.

At first there were the trees that Helga’s father had planted.  He had a fig tree that died just about the time when he died in 1998.  When we visited I used to stuff myself with figs, at first since I was still amazed about what would grow so easily in California.  After a few days of overdoing it I slowed down from a sort of alimentary canal looseness of stool.  And they had a lot of  sugar!  The leaves are beautiful but one must meter eating at a slow rate.  It was a beautiful tree and I loved sketching its leaves.

The other temptation was the persimmon.  Helga’s father, Dave Martin, told me he took almost 700 large fruits from the tree one year.  I have an acrylic of his workshop with the workbench covered with persimmons like he used to have it.  He would go out each day and pick more before the birds got to the fruit.  Some birds would just take a jab, probably to taste it to see if it was ripe.  This would virtually destroy the fruit so the idea was to beat the birds to it.  After picking the almost ripe fruit, itself an art form, he would put them on the bench and feel each one to see if it was ready to eat.

Again I used to go wild over these fruits and even went on other properties to load up the car with boxes to take back to Berkeley.  Now I think there’s too much sugar in the fruit and give most away and keep some for later in the year by freezing.  Thawing the fruit later means I can meter it in without stuffing myself.  So I can have a fruit once a week or once a month later in the year.

There are two orange trees, one comes on earlier and is sweeter, the other bears fruit after the first matures and is picked.  It was sour but now seems good.  So we can have oranges for 4-6 months.  For a while I stopped eating oranges for fear of too much sugar.  We were trying to keep our glucose intake below 10 grams per day.  This worked for a few years and moved us away from type II diabetes, which was our doctor’s appraisal of our condition.

Flowers and Vegetables

I’ll let the pictures which follow describe the smaller vegetation with only the following: I used to shun flowers as I thought they were unnecessary and I was trying to change America’s agricultural systems.  Urban agriculture was my battle cry (see Plowboy interview on my blog).  Now after spending many months indoors, only going out to shop 1-2 times per week for an hour or so, I changed.  I started to buy flowers and liked to see them when we started exercising outside.  It was uplifting to see the colors, and the local nursery had inexpensive flats with 4-6 seedlings.  And those, along with some key vegetables (boc choy, Chinese chives, onions, strawberries, blueberries and squashes, are our foods now.  At the farm we had many more vegetables and herbs for sale, but I did not eat that many.  I favor meats, as does Helga.

I mention these factors because I think people who have the space should grow some vegetables and fruit, not only flowers, hedges, ground covers, and lawns.  But I have changed and so have our garden objectives.  Beauty is nice to have around and color certainly helps stimulate the beauty sense.


A BIRC Archive

by Bill Olkowski

When Helga and I left BIRC and the Acton St. house back in 1999, I decided to save as many of our documents as possible.  Our principle supporter, Helga’s father, died and left Helga’s mother in Santa Barbara, CA., with Alzheimer’s disease.  She died two years later while we phased out of BIRC, sold the house and farm, and moved to SB.

Helga’s parents made the Acton Street house in Berkeley available to BIRC as an office without cost for many years.  Back in 1950s they bought the house as a factory for Helga’s puppet company, The Berkeley Puppeteers.  By buying the house they saved it from the wrecking ball.  Many of these old Victorians in Berkeley and Oakland were destroyed at that time, so this house was special as a survivor.  It made our lives easier and made BIRC possible.  Starting a non-profit corporation while having to pay rent makes the venture much harder when you start with zero funds. We had an advantage.

The files I saved are what I am now calling “an initial BIRC Archive”, and are located online at: along with items of personal history, some of my art and a recent blog. These “BIRC” documents trace out our history of finding a place where Helga and I could work together as a team to innovate, do applied research in Biological Control, and attempt to spread the concept of IPM with an emphasis on Biological and Least Toxic Pest Control.  The goal was always to change Pest Control in North America.  We borrowed our initial framework from Agriculture, and Dr. Robert van den Bosch, an international biological control worker and anti-pesticide crusader gave us lab space and defended us from detractors.

Since most of the funds supporting our work came from public funds (besides our own savings), from the beginning when at UC, later at CIAS/JMI (Center for the Integration of Applied Sciences/John Muir Institute) and for most of our years at BIRC,  all we produced is mostly in the public domain.  On the website they are in PDF format, which can be read and downloaded.  Further, as most documents were never read beyond a small group of clients, they deserved better than consigning them to the recycling bin.  I am glad I saved most of them now that I reread many after 30 years or so since their production.  We thought the whole experience of building this nonprofit itself was worth preserving, in addition to contract, educational and scientific documents.  These included all the proposals, reports to the funders, including federal (mostly EPA, NPS), state (mostly CA), cities (Berkeley, San Jose, Palo Alto, San Raphael, Davis, and Modesto and others all in the San Francisco Bay, Area); all correspondence, most published and unpublished articles, drafts in some cases, other files (binders, fliers, meeting minutes, budgets and various misc notes).  My estimate now is over 30 GB of data.  None of the IPM Practitioners or the Common Sense Pest Control issues are currently on-line, nor are all the booklets we produced.

We also wish to keep expanding this source with documents we no longer have, but that might be contributed by people who worked with us in the past.  Some that come to mind are the work with NASA unit in San Jose, and the large manual produced for the Presidio as part of the conversion from military to NPS.  Some portion of this whole collection was lost due to rain.  Also much more that constituted BIRC, including the library, slide and visual collections and budgets are still hoped to be scanned and included in the archive.  We have almost no pictures of the people who made the Center possible.  Further reports about new additions are planned when something of note is added.  People who have ideas about what can be added to this collection should write me c/o BIRC or email me at

Thanks to all the many people who helped us in this work.

Bill Olkowski, one of the founders of BIRC.  2/20/11


by Bill Olkowski, PhD

I found this recent article on   Note that if 21 million people are taking PPIs and they lead to magnesium deficiency and mag deficiency leads to hypertension we have a big clue about how to prevent many cases.  But who is listening?  And, most importantly who benefits from this feedback loop?  It is not the patient, or should we just say victim instead of patient.  And then there are problems with detecting magnesium deficiency so just what is really happening is still up for grabs!

(NaturalNews) Popular prescription proton pump inhibitor (PPI) drugs like AstraZeneca Plc’s Nexium and Takeda Pharmaceutical Co Ltd’s Prevacid will now contain new labels warning patients that long-term use may cause magnesium deficiency. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that the more than 21 million patients who take prescription PPIs for conditions like ulcers and acid reflux disease many need to cease use if magnesium supplementation does not correct the problem.

According to health officials, using prescription PPIs for as little as three months can lead to magnesium deficiency. Since most users take the drug for at least six months, the overall risk is high among users. At least 25 percent of patients who tried to take magnesium supplements as a remedy, however, were unsuccessful, resulting in them having to cease the medication altogether. 

PPIs are among the most widely prescribed drugs for common ailments like indigestion and heartburn.

A 2010 study published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine found that PPIs are highly over-prescribed, even though they are fraught with negative side effects like an increased risk of bone fractures and life-threatening infections (…)

. Interestingly, prior to the FDA’s recent announcement about PPIs and magnesium deficiency, the agency actually approved the drugs’ use in young children with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Even though the drugs can cause an increase in heartburn, indigestion, and reflux symptoms following the discontinuation of their use, the FDA claims the drugs are safe for children as young as one year old (…).

Other prescription PPIs implicated in causing magnesium deficiency include Takeda’s Dexilant, AstraZeneca’s Prilosec and Vim ova, Santarus Inc’s Zegerid, Pfizer Inc’s Protonix, Johnson & Johnson and Eisai Co Ltd’s Aciphex, as well as generic varieties of many of these PPIs.