Friday, December 28, 2007

Mad Scientist

Ah, the scientist is a quiet creature, given to working long hours in a sterile lab. Humming equipment and bubbling concoctions are his only company as he contemplates his experiments and reviews reams of data. He adjusts his taped-up glasses then shuffles to his office for a momentary caffeine break before returning to his diligent work. He is a humble being whose greatest excitement comes with those rare eureka moments when experimental results come together.

NOT. Is that really what you think we're like?

Well, okay, maybe a little. Fine, maybe a lot. But most scientists I know are cynical beasts who work when they have to, long into the night amidst noisy machines, piles of hastily organized papers, and scribbled lab books, but enjoy a good beer as much as the next fellow and can be prone to all the weaknesses, passions, and emotions as the next guy. And you've got to watch out for those "quiet types," don't ya know!

Take for example one biochemist gone bad. Larissa Schuster ran a chemical company with her husband, Timothy. Their marriage went south back in 2003, so logically the only option she had was to KILL HIM WITH ACID!!

Yes, that's right. For the low, low price of $2000 she hired a lab technician, James Fagone, to help her taser her husband and knock him out with chloroform. Then they dumped him into a barrel and, while Timothy was still alive and breathing, poured hydrochloric acid over him, dissolving him alive! Yikes!

But they screwed it up. Not only did they fail to dissolve all of the body, but Schuster rented a storage unit in her own name and put the half-dissolved body (legs still sticking out of the barrel) into the storage unit where it rotted and attracted attention. Thus she and the lab assistant were caught.

Too many late nights in the lab breathing fumes! Tsk, tsk. Typical chemist – thinks she can solve (or dissolve) her problems with chemical reactions. Better living through chemistry!

But the real moral of the story is this: there are a lot of really, really desperate lab assistants out there! Can you imagine how that conversation went?

Schuster: "Hey, Fagone, you wanna make some extra money on the side?"

Lab Tech: "Hmm. I don't know. I'm underpaid, like all lab rats, but your tone makes me think twice."

Schuster: "I'll pay you $2000, and you'll get to dissolve stuff with acid."

Lab Tech: "Cool. I'm in."

First degree murder may not be worth playing with acids and solvents, but I'll bet their fellow prisoners will be giving them plenty of breathing room as they serve out their life sentences!

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some lab work to attend to…. and there's acid around.... Mwa ha ha ha ha!

Image of John Carradine from Invisible Invaders taken from HERE.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Nuclear Reactor In Your Garage

Are you tired of living on "The Grid"? Do those pesky electric bills get you down? Is solar energy just too "'80's"? Well now Toshiba has the answer to your energy woes! Introducing the Micro Nuclear Reactor:

Yes, that's right! At only 20 feet by 6 feet, this 200kW nuclear fission reactor can fit in your own garage. Now that's handy! Handling dangerous nuclear material is as easy as flipping a switch. Nifty. And it can power an entire city block or apartment complex. Why, you'll be the envy of your entire neighborhood. How's that for empowerment? What's more, you won't even have to be on the electrical grid. Sell it back to the city. Snap!

But wait, there's more! Using reservoirs of radioactive lithium-6 instead of those snarky uranium rods and cooling towers we're used to seeing, the entire process in the Micro Reactor is self-contained and can produce energy for 40 years. When it's finished, just ring up Toshiba on the iPhone and they'll come and pick it up. Why, that's disposable energy to you and me! Who cares where they take it after that! At half the cost of standard electricity, you'll be singing all the way to the bank.

Power your own little island or impenetrable fortress like a James Bond villain if you like. We'll help! You'll be seeing this radioactive dream in Japan in 2008 and in Europe and America in 2009. But don't wait! Order yours now!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Holidays, Damn It!

What's all this nonsense I hear from political candidates and radio talk show hosts upset about how "Christ is being taken out of Christmas"? One radio DJ lamented that he hated to hear "Happy Holidays" said to him at the check-out line. "Say Merry Christmas, Damn it!" he said on air, and loudly proclaimed that he says so to those people. And then there is presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, neo-conservative extraordinaire, and his pal Mitt Romney, who refuse (like the current president) to recognize that there is a separation between Church and State, endorsing "Christian values" as a political agenda and, to paraphrase Mr. Romney, people who aren't of a prominent faith would not be included in his presidential cabinet (as if Mormons are so prominent - little more than Muslims, to whom he was really referring). These same pundits are getting torqued all out of shape because certain town squares have decorations of all faiths instead of just Christian on the town Christmas tree.

Well excuse me for being an atheist.

I have close friends who celebrated Hanukkah, and other close friends who celebrate Kwanzaa and the Winter Solstice, instead of Christmas. Saying "Merry Christmas" doesn't get them bent out of shape, but it isn't exactly a meaningful compliment to them, is it? "Happy Holidays", general as it is, at least gives some measure of pleasant holiday feeling.

Now, I celebrate Christmas. Not because I apply any belief at all to the idea of virgin birth, God, or miracles, but because it gives me a good excuse to celebrate the meaning of love, friends, and family, and to express that true blessing with gifts and, of course, massive quantities of glorious food.

Nobody's taking "Christ out of Christmas" for the Christians. The neo-cons just want to maintain control. But our government is at least giving some measure of our constitutional right to be protected from others' religious intolerance by either keeping religious symbols out of the public square or being all-inclusive, and those (like myself) who work in public relations sorts of positions are being tolerant and inclusive by using a more generic yet still festive greeting. In my job, I work with people from cultures and religions from all over the world. If I say "Merry Christmas" to all of them, I'd bet at least a third of them would shrug and say thanks even though it had no real meaning to them, and some of them would be outright offended.

To you, my merry blog reader, I extend my warmest holiday feelings. However you celebrate the season, please go out and party hardy, open your gifts, and keep your family in your thoughts and arms at all times.

But if you wish to challenge yourself, and those you should happen to meet in public, I'd like to extend also this special assignment: Greet everyone you meet or respond to them with "Happy Solstice" and see what the result is. Sure, you'll get some odd looks and the occasional evil eye, but most people will probably give a wary thanks and shrug it off. Maybe a few of them will stop to think about how very personal the holidays are to each different religion, and thus how very special their own celebration is. Maybe, just maybe, there will be one or two who embrace diversity. At the very least, the "fake" feeling you get by doing this assignment will highlight how much the season means to you and how personal it is to you and your loved ones.

Happy Holidays!

P.S., if you are wondering what the heck this image is about (which was on my favorite holiday card sent to me this year), visit information about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and His Holy Noodly Appendage HERE or HERE.

Image taken from HERE.

How Many Trees Die Because You're Divorced?

Ah, life is grand. I'm livin' the nuclear family dream. I've got my 2.1 children and 2.1 cars. I've got my average house with its average (slave debtor's) mortgage. I'm working a stable career with a heartless company. I've spent too much for Christmas. And, despite being short, round, forgetful, and hairy like a beast, I haven't been awful enough for my lovely wife to leave me yet. We've been married for over 12 years. Yeah, over 12 years! Can you believe it? And neither of us have been married (or divorced) before.

In this day and age when, in the United States, we have an average divorce rate of about 50%, most ending within the first 15 years, young folks tend to be a bit jaded on the whole marriage thing (statistics information). Many of their parents were Baby Boomers, the "Me Generation", who suffer the highest divorce rate of all demographics. Maybe it's a good thing Americans are marrying later, on average.

Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night, "Journeys end in lovers meeting," but as Pauline Thomason said, "Love is blind – marriage is the eye-opener."

When the honeymoon is over, the love handles start coming on, and the enthusiastic and oh-so-Leave-It-To-Beaver "Honey, I'm home!" hug is replaced with a quiet shutting of the door, a couple aspirins, and a "Hey, what are you getting out of the freezer for supper?" Sadly, some folks open their eyes and discover that the snoring lump sleeping next to them on the Posturepedic isn't quite what they bargained for, or worse. All too often they give them the boot, the Big D, the marital sayonara. DIVORCE.

But wait! If this is you, my fellow blog reader, you may want to add one more thing to the social, emotional, economic, religious, parental, and physical strains that await (or afflict) you, your spouse, and your children around the dark corner along the divorce path. A recent study found that divorce actually hurts our environment:


Research abstract: HERE

That's right. If you are divorced, you are likely contributing to the misuse of our planet's precious few resources, thus forever increasing your already sky-high guilt factor. According to the two authors of the paper, which studied individuals from a number of countries, households of divorced individuals have more rooms per home per individual, thus requiring more heat and light, and thus more resources to power them.

To quote the paper: "In the United States in 2005, divorced households spent 46% and 56% more on electricity and water per person than married households. Divorced households in the U.S. could have saved more than 38 million rooms, 73 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, and 627 billion gallons of water in 2005 alone if their resource-use efficiency had been comparable to married households. Furthermore, U.S. households that experienced divorce used 42–61% more resources per person than before their dissolution."

Yikes. So, what does that equal in terms of pollution? How much greenhouse gases were made by all the coal that was burned? How much acid rain? How many dead trees and tumerous fish? Come on, I've got to have a figure for our angst to feed upon!

And that doesn't even take into account the growing numbers of single adults who have yet to marry, or widowed individuals who live longer and don't remarry. Just think what the neoconservatives will say about this one! All those ultrareligious Focus On The Family nutjobs and preaching presidential candidates. The authors also found that when divorced individuals remarry or return to their previous cohabitating married lifestyles, their energy consumption returns to average.

But, unfortunately, we don't all marry wisely, and people change. And there are a lot of really, really bad people out there who hide their true natures. Sometimes divorce is simply unavoidable. So what are all you divorced people to do to reduce your impact on the Earth and save your environment? Wear tie-dye and join a commune? Move back in with Mom? Go crawling back to their deadbeat or philandering spouse? Jump back into the hot, smarmy date circuit in search of a ring again?

No, of course not, dummy. Just live wiser. Living alone without the benefit of someone nagging at you doesn't mean you have to forget to turn off the lights or use less water, and now that you no longer have an extra person to throw away your money for you, do you really need that third bedroom for all those craft projects you never had time for while you were slaving away for that slug you used to be married to, a formal dining room to collect dust bunnies, or a second bathroom frequented only by your cats and the occasional tub spider? No. Live simply. Live in a smaller space. Let your hair hang down and live a little more like a hippie. Dig it?

As for me, I'm going to sit with my 2.1 children and my lovely, long-term wife tomorrow night, drink hot chocolate, and turn off all the houselights except for the Christmas tree. And as I enjoy my Leave It To Beaver life in the flickering woodstove flames of my energy-conscious lifestyle, safe in the self-riteous assumption that my marital bliss will last forever, I'll drink a toast to all you divorced-types and hope you'll be reducing your energy consumption this fine holiday season as you write out your alimony checks by holly-scented candlelight. Cheers.

Image taken from HERE.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

To The Moon, Alice (And Everyone Else)!

So what's up with everyone wanting to go to the moon again? Why did it take thirty years for nations to suddenly perk up their collective ears and decide to go back? Is it just a question of technology catching up with the will to go? Honestly, I'm confused.

On Christmas Eve you will be able to walk outside in that nippy cold air and see above you a brilliantly-lit full moon. It will be riding at its highest point between now and 2023, making it gorgeous to view (not far away in the sky you'll see Mars, at its closest point to Earth for the next nine years). When you see the cratered surface of that great rock in the sky, I urge you to put aside your concern about frostbite on your fingers and ponder the value of going back to the moon. How much is it worth to us to return? And what are the implications of our friendly and not-so-friendly allied nations returning there with us (or without us)?

Recently China orbited the moon with its Chang'e-1 lunar probe. It has returned its first image of the lunar surface, but already there are allegations that the image is a re-touched photo taken by NASA in 2005. Go figure. And as for sending men back to the moon, China may actually beat us there, aided by the European Space Agency. It'll be close.

Surely you are well aware of the United States' plans to go to the moon again, and then mars (I posted on this topic about a year ago). I considered it a diversion from more serious issues, and still do, but we can't let other countries one-up us, now can we, and give up our dominance of space? NASA's contractor, Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne Inc., is this month beginning the testing phase of the old Saturn rocket J-2 engines in preparation for final design work for the new J-2X engines that will power the ARES rockets. We've sent lunar probes in the meantime, though, including the Clementine and Lunar Prospector missions.

But are you aware of the other countries with their eyes on the moon? If you don’t follow space news, you may not have heard it all. Japan, for instance, just put its Kaguya SELENE-1 probe in orbit around the moon, and there has been talk of setting up a lunar base, perhaps by 2030. India, too, will be launching a lunar orbiter, Chandrayaan-1 (Indian government video), next year, and has just installed tracking antennae for the mission. Russia, too, has revived it's long-dormant plans to put cosmonauts on the moon.

The question remains: assuming any of these nations are serious about returning humanity to the moon, will it be another space race, or a joint international endeavor?

Personally, I don't have a lot of faith in government programs to take us to the moon. It takes too much political capital to keep up that kind of funding. I don't doubt that some nations may succeed in getting to the moon and even setting up a small base, but I doubt they could maintain it for long. It'll be another Apollo, basically – heroic, but short-lived and poorly justified.

Rather, I have more faith in private enterprise. The Ansari X-Prize showed us that, with a little financial encouragement, a private company could launch a manned spacecraft (Spacecraftone) into orbit without the assistance or overbearing bureaucracy of government entities like NASA. Now, as you may have heard, Google has joined with the X-Prize Foundation to sponsor a new competition, the Google Lunar X-Prize, for private ventures to successfully land a rover on the moon, roving at least 500 meters, and returning images. It's worth $30 million to the winner. Additional millions can be won if they rove further, take images of Apollo hardware, discover water ice, or survive the lunar night (about 14.5 Earth days). This month the first entry for the X-Prize was announced. Odyssey Moon, based in the Isle of Man, the tiny crown-dependency of England (which has structured its tax laws to attract space exploration businesses), was the first private organization to pay the $10K registration fee. Odyssey Moon has hired Canadian technology firm MDA as its prime contractor on the project.

Said Ramin Khadem, chairman of Odyssey Moon, "Explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries who set out to find new worlds were probably asked why they were doing it," Khadem said. "Look at the riches and wonders they discovered." He added, "We are out to complement, not compete with, China, Russia and the US."
I wish them luck, as well as the other entrants. I wonder, though, how far it will go. My hope is that private enterprise will find a good balance with national enterprises. As with any other program, only the proper balance (where private enterprise has the greater share of freedom) will, in my view, lead to a successful and lasting venture. Thinking back to the last great phase of mankind's exploration, one can call up examples of the Hudson Bay Company or the Dutch East India Company, where such private entities were able to profit while furthering the needs and rewards of their representative nations.

Only time will tell if any of these folks are serious, or if they're just lunatics. In any case, enjoy the full moon on Christmas Eve. There's a decent chance that when it rides that high again, brave men and women will be living there.

Update (12/26/07): Today Japan’s Kaguya lunar orbiter went into full operation:

Image taken from HERE.

Been Sick

I'm on the upshot after suffering a rather nasty stomach bug, with all the most horrendous symptoms (gut pain, fever, nausea, diarhhea, exhaustion, loss of appetite). God, I hate throwing up! I'm the sort who would rather endure stomach pain for days rather than just ralph and get it over with.

As I write this I'm eating a few spoonfuls of "Amazon Valley Chocolate" ice cream from Haagen-Daz, my first "meal" in over two days other than a small apple yesterday.

Then this morning my little daughter woke up with half her face swollen from an infected lymph gland. Now my lovely wife is coming down with the same symptoms I've had. Umpff. At least I'm on vacation. 'Tis the season.

Update (12/22/07): Other than a little lingering appetite loss and minor stomach pain, my wife and I are back to the usual state of disfunction, and my daughter's swollen jawline is returning to its normal beauty.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Get Mooned To Get Healthy

"By the light of the silvery moon,
I want to spoon, to my honey I'll croon love's tune.
Honeymoon, keep a-shining in June,
Your silvery beams, will bring love dreams,
We'll be cuddling soon,
By the silvery moon."

"By the Light of the Silvery Moon" by Ray Noble with Snookie Lanson
(hear the music

In honor of Tantalus Prime, from his spacey comment to my last post, I will bring you not one, but two posts on Earth's nearest celestial neighbor, the Moon. Lucky, lucky you, Tantalus. This is the first of those.

Yes, the Moon, that wonderful, lifeless, rocky sphere up in the sky that shines down like a magnanimous eye, spawning lunatics and poets alike. Some even believe that the moon possesses a special supernatural power that can be tapped to heal us.

Consider, for instance, my own mother. In a previous post I reported how she had once cast a sort of spell to help remove a wart on my finger. Whether it was the magic or not, I do not know, but the wart soon disappeared after being there for over a year. How fitting, then, that my Mom found this interesting little story:

A couple in Arizona have built a 5-story tall parabolic mirror which they use to collect and focus the moon's light, with the intention to heal those who bask in that light:



That's right. For a mere $10 each, over a thousand people so far from all over the world have paid to stand up to 15 minutes in their underwear in the focused light of the moon, soaking up its "healing rays". According to the article, people with conditions as serious as cancer and asthma have gotten shone upon by the couple's "interstellar light collector" and claim that their symptoms have lessened. The Chapins (who built the device) shelled out $2 million (yes, million) of their own money to build this monolithic mirror.

Said the inventor, "If it could affect plants and animals ... I thought, 'what could the amplification of that light do?"'

Well, Mr. Chapin, here's what it can do, from my skeptical scientist's viewpoint: it reflects light. Nothing more, nothing less. But, hey, if it makes people feel good, more power to them.

Said one "moonlighter": "You feel almost like you are in heaven," said Aranka Toniatti, a cancer patient who has driven from Colorado twice to stand in the moonlight. "It's a gorgeous feeling."

I have to admit, if I lived near the big moonlight contraption, I'd be tempted to shell out ten bucks just to say I stood in focused moonlight. It's a novelty, after all. And I have enough of an open mind (as do all good scientists) to give it at least a moonbeam's width of serious consideration. But that's a pretty thin width, and I think I'd have to be on moonshine to believe it.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

One Year Of The Angry Lab Rat

Yay! Today marks the one-year anniversary for The Angry Lab Rat blog.

It's been a fun year. I never imagined I would so greatly enjoy serving up a mulligan stew of bizarre science, odd inventions, nutty nature, medicine on the edge, and my own ramblings about doing science while working in an evil global biotech conglomerate, and having you enjoy this dreck in return. Science has presented no shortage of interesting stories to bring you, if you don't mind seeing it through the warped, Monty Python-esque binoculars of a somewhat near-sighted and grumpy lab rodent. 168 posts worth! The site has been hit almost 26,000 times (mostly Google searches by, I'm certain, scantily-clad women who have a fetish for short, hairy men) from an amazing 122 countries. Wow. People will read anything!

Which stories have been hit the most? According to my blog tracker, among the most popular have been Be Stung By Jellyfish – For Fun!, Fish That Will Eat You Alive And Make You Healthier At The Same Time, China Is Trying To Kill Us, How To Remove Your Gall Bladder, and, one of my favorites, The Beer Launcher.

But bullocks to the hit counters! It's Reader's Choice time. Tell me, my loyal readers, what subject (such as those listed to the lower right of your screen) would you most wish me to write about in my next post?

Image taken from HERE and made into a poster HERE.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Space Bacteria Will Slime You Harder

It sounded like a B-rated science fiction movie plot: Microbes Return From Space Three Times Deadlier Than On Earth.

Back in September, results were announced (and scientifically published) from an experiment where infectious Salmonella bacteria, sent on the shuttle and cultured in space for only 24 hours, then returned to earth, were three times more deadly to lab rats than their non-astrobacterial counterparts:

ABCNews audio article:

Yes, my antibacterial-soap-washing friends, don't handle uncooked chicken in space. Those buggers are trouble!

My latest issue of Scientific American has a great article on page 34 ("Deadly Orbits") about this case. The researchers, based at the University of Arizona, closely examined the bacteria and found that the space bacteria had much higher levels of an RNA-regulating protein, called Hfq. Hfq caused many key genes to activate, which made the bacteria more infectious.

But what turned on the Hfq? Micro-gravity? Gamma rays? Little green men? Galactus?

No, sorry, something much less impressive: "low-fluid-sheer". When Salmonella grow in an environment where there is little fluid sheer, or turbulence, such as in a glob of fluid floating in the weightless environment of space, a slowly-turning flask on Earth, or "sheltered corners of the digestive track", they form what is called a biofilm, a colony of bacteria that work together to protect themselves from antibiotics, soap, and the body's immune system, often creating the sort of slime that forms on your meat or, for other bacteria, on your shower doors, baby pacifiers, your teeth (plaque), or nasty bacterial infections. Thus formation of a biofilm makes them more deadly and harder to eliminate.

And what are the implications? Will the Salmonella quickly spread from space to your cutting board and become The Blob, oozing through your home and neighborhood to kill you and all your other non-vegetarian friends? No, but long-term astronauts may need to be more careful, and perhaps the medical community will be better able to treat bacteria that infect our gut.

I can see Hollywood going crazy with this: The shuttle returns to Earth, and a single bacterium from a space-borne biofilm, mutated in space, takes a ride on the shoe of an intrepid astronaut, then into some corner of a Cape Canaveral locker-room where it grows and divides until it spreads across the world, infecting and killing any living thing it comes in contact with, until the astronaut hero teams up with a sexy know-it-all blonde scientist and an awkward science geek to find a quick fix that kills all the bacteria for good.

You'd watch that, wouldn't you? No? What if I cast Bruce Willis as the astronaut? I think it would make a great "bio" film.

Image from HERE, altered for my amusement.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Pop-Up Extortion

Several years ago I had a teenage relative come stay with us for a week or so. Forgetting how very horny the average teenage boy is (am I really that old??), I neglected to turn on the parental controls for internet access that came with my internet program. Oops.

Part-way through his visit, I discovered some very interesting pictures on the computer. When I approached him about this, he at first denied he had downloaded them from porn sites, but eventually confessed. He promised not to continue doing that, as long as I didn't report it to his mom, but before I could figure out the parental controls, he did it again. He was barred from further unauthorized computer use, and yes, his mom heard about it.

Once he left, I figured that was the end of it. Oh, no. That was just the beginning. Next came the phone bill. It turns out he had visited porn sites that charged for every download. More than $200, in total! You'd better believe we made his mom pay the bill.

But even that wasn't the end. The real nightmare came when we realized viruses and Trojan horses had been downloaded to our computer with the images. We discovered the problem when we found our computer dialing onto the internet on its own, without us even opening the dial-up window! Turns out it had done so many, many times, because the next phone bill came with even more charges. Lucky for us, my lovely wife was able to talk the phone company into dropping the charges and blocking those phone numbers from our phone system. We invested in some heavy-duty firewall and antivirus programs, and the nightmare finally came to an end.

It left me wondering how many others have these problems and are too embarrassed to raise a fuss about it, unwilling to admit that they've been shaking hands with Mr. Johnson to the pervy sort of stuff on those sites.

Well, with pornography still the number one business on the internet, and given the sleazy nature of that business, it shouldn't surprise anyone that a new form of online extortion is being used by those sites.

As reported today on (HERE), one porn site (which will remain unnamed) is now offering a free, three-day membership to anyone that wants it. After pressing an approval button and not reading the fine print, the customer does indeed get three free days to "tit"-ilate their senses by viewing women's bits and pieces, but when the three days is up, streams of pop-up windows invade their computer, regardless of whether they are online or offline. The pop-ups won't stay minimized, and remain on top of any other windows. The website then tells the customer – get this! – that they can remove those annoying pop-ups if they pay $80 for a 90-day membership. If they pay, they then can remove the pop-ups with a special file. If they don't pay . . . well, I guess they'd better start liking pop-up windows. I hope their sticky little three-day thrill was worth it.

Oh, how cleverly legal and evil of that porn site! I imagine other sites are already catching on. The victims agreed to this deal when the approved. One can argue that they got what they deserved. But I guess I still feel a tiny bit of pity for them and their lusty libidos. After all, men are horny little devils who can barely control themselves (I should know, being a man). Men are such pigs!

But even if they manage to control their slippery little urges, who knows? Maybe they had a teenage relative come visit and they forgot to engage those parental controls on the computer.

It's been known to happen.

Image taken from HERE.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Goodbye, Nimbus

Back in 1996, my wife and I had been married only a year when we moved to the state we currently live in. We immediately went to the animal shelter and adopted a kitty cat, a loving, young, dark gray cat that looked like a little rain cloud. We named him Nimbus.

Two nights ago, after 11 years, our little rain cloud passed away, dying quietly at home.

Within a year of first bringing him home, Nimbus developed a case of irritable bowel syndrome. The vet prescribed him steroid pills, without which he would not be able to keep food down. I gave him a pill every night for 10 years. The steroids kept him alive, but they slowly poisoned him, too, until, a month or so ago, he had kidney failure and stopped making new blood cells. Dialysis wasn’t a reasonable option, so we knew the end was coming. I’m just happy he went without pain, at home, and didn’t have to be taken to the vet to be euthanized. He spared us that.

When we brought him home as a kitten, he was so thankful that he went back and forth between our laps, purring and being loved. He could jump incredibly high while chasing ribbons and strings, doing flips and jumping from a sitting position so high his paws would touch the top of a door. Then one day he landed wrong, hurting his leg. He hardly jumped again after that.

Nimbus was a big cat, comparatively, but very much a lap kitty, and would bug me for attention any time I was sitting, particularly if I wanted to read. And he was very soft. He would sleep by my head every night, whether I wanted him to or not. I’ll miss that.

Though we got three other housecats after Nimbus, Nimbus was like our first baby, through six years of infertility treatments, then the adoption of our two children.

He’s being cremated, and I imagine we’ll bury his ashes in the flower bed, near the bird feeder.

Goodbye, my Nimbus. We love you.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Name That Critter

When intrepid scientists discover a new species, how the heck do they name it? Everything's gotta have a name. After all, science can't describe a species and the implications of its existence by always referring to it as "that onion fly that Dr. Pocketprotector found in Walla Walla" or "that little brown bug".

Most species you'll hear about have a common name (such as the Great White Shark), but because common names differ by region or language, or multiple critters can be called by the same name, all known and identified species have a scientific name which belongs to no other species (such as Carcharodon carcharias). As with nearly everything in science, scientific names have a particular structure to them. Using what is called binomial nomenclature and latinized spelling and (usually) Greek origin, the name has two parts: the first is called the "genus" (which is capitalized), and the second is called the "specific name" or "specific epithet", and is uncapitalized. Both are italicized. The science of identifying and naming life is called Taxonomy.

The genus is usually reserved for known groupings of creatures, but sometimes something is found that is novel enough for a new genus, too. With the specific name, though, anything goes. Scientists usually name the little bugger after some descriptor. For the Great White Shark, the scientific name is derived from the Greek words for "sharp (or jagged) tooth", but names have been made based on words from local languages, people names, or even puns.

For instance, there are at least three species named after Gary Larson, cartoonist for the Far Side, including a beetle, a butterfly, and (my favorite) an owl louse (Strigiphilus garylarsoni). Another is named after an alcohol (the blue agave plant, named Agave tequilana, is what tequila is made from). The chigger, Trombicula fujigmo, is named after the WWII slang for "fuck you, Jack, I got my orders". If you've ever been "bugged" by this irritating pest, you'll know the name fits. HERE is a neat page of other funny or original scientific names. The taxonomist who makes the discovery of the species gets the right to choose the name, but in modern times does not name it after himself. It is accepted practice to name them after someone else. I have personally known taxonomists who named new species of diatoms after each other, for instance. "Hey, Roger, if you name Species X after me, I'll name Species Y after you."

A new trend, though, is auctioning off the right to name a new species. In this day of ever-reduced funding for academics, universities are getting creative for fundraising. Just the other day, a new species of butterfly was named for the winning bid of $40,000:

HERE and HERE are the announcements from when the contest started.

The Florida Museum of History discovered a rather large and ornate butterfly (see picture) mislabeled in a collection of other Mexican butterflies. After determining that it was previously unidentified, they announced the contest. On November 22, the winner was announced. The winner, from which the butterfly was named, was the late Margery Minerva Blythe Kitzmiller of Malvern, Ohio, on behalf of her grandchildren. The common name will be the Minerva owl butterfly. The scientific name will be Opsiphanes blythekitzmillerae. Doesn't exactly roll of the tongue, in my opinion, but naming a butterfly after her is a fitting tribute to someone who "wrote poetry, played piano, and sang." Since most butterflies of this size and appearance have likely already been named, and this is the first new species in this particular butterfly family to be named in a century, this is an honor not likely to be repeated anytime soon. Proceeds from the auction will go to research on Mexican butterflies.

But this isn't the first time a little beasty's official name has gone on the auction block. A Bolivian monkey was named for $650,000 in 2005 (by the World Conservation Society), after The Golden, an online casino company that won the rights. HERE is a link to the Golden Palace monkey's homepage. I urge you to visit. It's a real "hoot"! And 10 previously unknown fish were named for a total of $2 million just this September, including a shark for $500,000 (article HERE).

What is science coming to? The stuck-up, overeducated scientist in me is appalled, but the snarky lab rat in me is smirking. Before long, academic institutions all over the nation may be opening up Departments of Taxonomy as more of a source of income than for the sake of scientific curiosity.

I wonder if there are any unknown rodents out there that are yet to be identified. Do you think they would name one after me? The common name could be, of course, the Angry Lab Rat, and the scientific name could be Rattus iratuslabus. Kinda rolls off the tongue, if I may say so.

Image taken from HERE.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Turkey Day Drowsiness, But Don't Blame The Gobbler

Oh, yes! Pass me a wing and pile on the taters, baby! It's Turkey Day!

I have a soft spot for Thanksgiving. After all, believe it or not, I had relatives on the Mayflower, on my paternal grandmother's side of the family. Yes, those fairly clueless Plymouth pilgrims who were my family managed to make it in the new world thanks to Native American friends like Squanto and the Wampanoag Tribe, and were so thankful after their first harvest in 1621 that they fed and entertained the natives for three days, after which the Wampanoags went hunting and returned with 5 deer as a return gift (STORY). I doubt the native peoples would have been so giving had they realized the cultural devastation that would eventually be wrought upon them. I wonder what the Wampanoag word for "sucker" was?

But, hey, who am I kidding? I mainly enjoy having time off (I get today and Friday off, plus the weekend, plus a vacation day on Monday – 5 days!). Time to eat heavy, kick up my feet in front of the tube, let the children run free and crazy, and maybe find time in the ensuing days to do some projects around the house and yard. And you'd better believe there will be naps in there somewhere.

You've probably heard the reason why you're so sleepy after eating all that turkey, right? The story goes that turkey meat contains an abnormally large amount of the amino acid tryptophan, which induces sleepiness by producing the "sleepy" brain chemical serotonin. So, if you eat lots of turkey, you'll be drowsy. For some reason this myth comes out only around Thanksgiving time.

Although it's true that our little gobbling friends do possess a lot of tryptophan, the tryptophan is not easily transported from your bulging, overfed gut to your brain, and even if it makes it to your noggin, you would need to "ingest quite a number of turkeys" to get enough tryptophan to cause drowsiness, according to Dr. Carol Ash of Somerset Medical Center's Sleep for Life Center in Hillsborough, N.J.:

More likely, the article says, your post-gluttony sleepiness is the result of overeating, alcohol consumption, and not getting enough sleep in the days before, not to mention sitting on your ass watching people called Jets and Cowboys running up and down a field with an oblong leather ball.

My lovely wife, though, suggested an additional cause for Thanksgiving sleepiness. "Don't forget the poor women who do the cooking have to get up before dawn to start the turkey, prepare all that other food, and finish cleaning the house for all those guests."

But if you still wish to believe those hapless birds are the cause of your snoozing, be my guest. Call it the dinosaurs' revenge (after all, modern birds like the turkey are direct descendants of two-legged dinos like T. rex and velociraptors, as evidenced by the shared "wishbone", or furcula -- STORY).

I'll take a dino wing, please, with my 2000- to 3000-calorie meal. And you'd better warm up the pie. I want it to melt the whipped cream when I eat it.

And if anyone asks, I'm still blaming the gobbler for the naps.

Image taken from HERE.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Science Cartoons!

I couldn’t pass this up. Below is a link to a webpage with galleries of science-themed cartoons created by the famed Sidney Harris. Enjoy!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Ever Get That Lost Feeling?

You know that feeling you get when you know you're lost? I'm not talking about the I-wonder-if-that-was-the-turn sort of lost. I'm talking about the sort of lost where you intended to visit a friend in the suburbs but instead find yourself in the bad part of downtown, and the locals are following you. The sort of lost where fear starts creeping in and you wonder if you'll make it out alive.

I had that happen once. I was backpacking in the Rockies of Idaho, doing work for the Forest Service in a wilderness area there, and found myself suffering Acute Mountain Sickness, though we didn't know what it was at the time. Apparently I'm especially sensitive, as the altitude was only about 8000 feet or so. It started with a buildup of fluid in my lungs, then headache, then fatigue, after having been at that altitude for a day or so, and (luckily) we were headed back down the mountains. My crew and I were on a rather long and hurried hike out of the forest to meet a deadline, so most of them had gone on ahead, leaving my miserably stressed and uncompromising crew leader with me, pushing me to go faster. But my condition deteriorated. I was becoming dizzy and disoriented, and hiking very slowly, sometimes needing help. Frustrated by my slowness, and despite the fact that we had seen black bear cubs disturbingly close to our position (and their mom was surely around), she decided to leave me behind to hike at my own speed. Bothered by her, I decided I'd rather agree than continue dealing with her. Big mistake.

Soon I found that I had left the trail, and backtracking, could not find it again. I had shortness of breath, a feeling of lethargy, and difficulty keeping my footing on loose rock with about 50 pounds of gear on my back. Evening was coming, and all around me were big, snow-covered mountains and valleys of thick forest. At one point I threw myself against a boulder and wondered through blurring eyes whether I'd be able to go on. I did, of course, and eventually found the trail again. Alarmed by my absence, one of my crew members came back to look for me and helped me the last several miles. Once we were at a lower altitude, my symptoms quickly dissipated.

Yesterday it was reported that an 18-foot, 12-ton Minke whale had been found beached 1000 miles up the Amazon River in Brazil:

As I write this, intrepid volunteers are trying to keep the whale alive and moist by tossing water on its back and trying to roll it back into the water.

Minke whales live in the ocean, of course, so what the hell is it doing way up in the middle of a jungle? Talk about lost! I wonder what was going through its mind as it swam upstream, its fellow whales long since left behind. Did the fresh water go to its head, the way altitude did to me? Did it beach itself in despair, analogous to how I had thrown myself against that boulder? Or was it just clueless, thinking something like, "Hmm. Did Bob tell me to turn right or left at the coral outcropping? Funny, I don't remember him mentioning anything about piranha. And I'm starving. Bob had better have some krill left for me."

Who knows? But if the big baleen sea mammal makes it back to the ocean alive, won't he feel stupid! I can only imagine the exchange between him and his whale pals:

Bob: "Hey, Minke, where the hell were you? You were supposed to bring the plankton!"

Minke: "Oh, you know, I was passing by Rio de Janiero and decided to stop in and take a closer look at all those thong-wearing human women."

Bob (leaning his blowhole closer for a sniff): "Is that river water I smell on you?"

Update (11/20/07): I'm happy to report our lost little whale in the Amazon is alive and doing well, thanks to the hard work of volunteers (updated news article HERE). Folks have pulled him off the shore and into a penned area in the shallows. Soon, Mr. Minke won't even have to swim back to the ocean – he'll have a ride on a boat, because there are "too many tributaries that could confuse him." Lucky for Mr. Minke, the world's largest river has people with the largest heart, or at least they've got a love for large-ish sea mammals. It's okay, Mr. Minke. Don't blubber. We know you appreciate them….

First image taken from HERE.

Second image taken from HERE and courtesy of AP.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Move Over, Sol, There's A New Kid In The Solar System

The sun is no longer the largest celestial body in our solar system.

That's right, something's bigger than the sun. Is it Saturn? Not even close. Jupiter? Keep dreamin'. The skyrocketing deficit of the United States? Almost.

No, it's a comet.

But not just any comet. This one is an exploding comet, named 17P/Holmes. The comet's nucleus is a mere 2.2 miles in diameter, but explosive outbursting has created a dust cloud coma an amazing 900,000 miles in diameter. It's elementary, Watson. The sun's diameter is only 870,000. As of November 9, as detected by astronomers from the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, comet Holmes became the largest celestial object in our general vicinity, and the comet dust cloud is expanding. (see the bright blue-colored dust cloud compared to the sun in the picture. In the lower right inset is the planet Saturn, for comparison). In October, Holmes had an explosive outburst that created an unprecedented half-million-fold increase in brightness.

Oh, sure, 17P/Holmes will only be around for another five, six years, tops, then the dust cloud will dissipate as the comet moves away from the sun and the sun will return to being the king of the solar system. Numero uno. The burning king of fusion. And what is this comet upstart, anyhow? A big cloud of dust? A flashy upstart? Old Sol laughs in its general direction. Why, if it weren't for the sun's heat, the comet's cloud wouldn't even be there, and 17P/Holmes would be just another tiny snowball hurtling through space.

Enjoy your size while it lasts, Holmes! One day you'll be tiny again, and you will be banished to the depths of space for another 100 years!

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Privy Prop

Go ahead, call me sexist, but one tiny thing that bothers me is the belief that men are indecent for not lowering the frickin' toilet seat when they're done pissing so that the women of the household won't "fall in" or have to lower it for themselves.

Gasp! How could I not be a gentleman?? I'm flushed with embarrassment.

Hey, shake it off, gals. This is supposed to be an enlightened time when the feminist movement has declared men and women to be equal. Oh, sure, women still have to fight the good fight, what with discrepancies in pay and promotions and such, but can't you at least give up the stupid toilet thing? This practice is circling the drain, like opening doors for women or pulling out a chair for them at restaurants.

You know what? How about we reverse the expectations on this one and have men start insisting that women raise the seat after they've gone "wee"?

I don't know about you, but I cringe every time I have to grab the seat and raise it. What kind of poo kooties are lurking there on the porcelain where my thumb and fingers touch it? Ew! Oh, sure, I wash my hands every time when I've finished. Still – yuck! Let's let women do some of that nasty touching for a change.

So I've had my heart set on one day getting one of those fancy toilets you hear about now and then with automated seat-raising and lowering buttons (along with stupid stuff like built-in radios and such). But those are out of my price range. I've heard about little handles you can glue onto the seat, but in my paranoid little mind I still imagine poo-contaminated flush-air wafting over it with each flush, and those aren't exactly available at the local department store.

Now, through the imaginative mind of a 9-year old boy named Jake Wulf, we have a solution: the "Privy Prop."


Tired of being hounded by his mother to lower the toilet seat, this innovative little boy saw one of those step-lever trash cans and decided to design a similar device for toilet seats. With a little help from his dad (an equipment designer) and using a school "Invention Convention", he successfully built a working prototype. Just step on a lever and the seat raises. Step off, and it lowers. His prototype won the contest and went on to a regional competition, then was featured at the Iowa State Fair. After word got out about it, the Ellen Degeneres Show called and had him on air today.

Not bad, little Jake! One small squirt for Man-kind. Unfortunately, the family apparently has no intention to patent or mass-produce the device. We'll see.

Personally, I'd love to have one. No more poo-kooties on my delicate digits.

Oh, by the way, our family's "default" toilet position is with both the seat and the lid lowered. Sigh.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Now China Is Giving Date-Rape Drugs To Children

I'm shaking my head right now. How many Chinese products need to be recalled because of lead poisoning, dangerous swallowable magnets, or faulty construction before our industry leaders and government officials realize they are slowly turning our children into mindless lead-poisoned vegetables one drooling lick of an Elmo doll at a time? The recalls just keep on comin'.

Yes, you have likely heard the most recent deadly Chinese toys to come to our Dollar Store and Wal-Mart shelves.

First, there are the Aqua Dots (CNN article). These lovely, candy-colored beads are an arts and crafts dream and oh-so-edible-looking. Your trusting, naïve small child can arrange them in whatever colored patterns they like on a nifty grid then spray them with water, and the glue coatings on them instantly glue them together into a semi-permanent craft project to be treasured by proud parents everywhere. Why, it's so novel, it was named Toy Of The Year in Australia. The only problem is that the supposedly inert glue is actually a chemical which, when ingested, gets metabolized into the date-rape drug gamma-hydroxy butyrate, commonly called GHB. That's right, a few of these beads, when ingested, become the equivalent of a rapist's dream. But overdosing, which happened to a number of children here and in Australia, leads to vomiting and coma. Luckily, no children have yet died. Apparently the manufacturer had not intended this chemical be used; it was the bright idea of the Hong Kong manufacturer to use it and save themselves some cash. And where, exactly, could one purchase these beads, prior to the recall of all 4.2 million units of them? One outlet is, you guessed it, Wal-Mart, lover of all things Chinese, cheap, and plastic.

Oh, it doesn't stop there! Today, two more recalls were announced. Dangerously high levels of lead were found in the faces of 175,000 Curious George dolls and in some 51,000 Dollar Store children's sunglasses. Lead poisoning in Chinese children's products? It's becoming such a skipping record hardly anyone is noticing anymore. Hell, I'm actually so wary now that I'm refusing to buy Chinese-made products for my kids. Of course, Chinese products are so commonplace now it's almost impossible to avoid them.

But wait! Don't we have a Consumer Product Safety Commission to oversee that these things don't happen to our lovely little nearly-toxin-free children? Why, yes we do! The only problem (and here's another skipping record!) is that the commission that is supposed to oversee our safety is headed by someone who comes from the very industries they are supposed to regulate (ARTICLE). Acting chairperson Nancy Nord, appointed by President Bush, is a former lobbyist for Eastman-Kodak and the leader of a consumer lawyer organization. Her predecessor, Hal Stratton, was also accused of unbecoming ties to Industry. She has opposed extending more protections to whistleblowers as well as better reporting of faulty products to the public. Prominent Congressional Democrats are calling for her resignation, in part for failing to stop these waves of faulty and toxic Chinese products, and in part for scandals on her part for conflicts of interest with Industry, including 30 trips paid for in part or in full by consumer industries to such locations as China, Spain, and a golf resort at Hilton Head, S.C. The fox is running the henhouse, folks.

Oh well. At least all these toxic products make us belatedly realize the benefits of governmental checks and balances and good, old fashioned, high quality American-made products. I just fear how many more children will be poisoned before our industries finally pull out of China.

Creep at Nightclub: "Hey, Baby! What ya drinkin'?"

Attractive and Tipsy Lady: (covering her drink) "I'm watching you, Buddy. I don't trust you any more than I'd trust a Bush appointee."

Creep: (acting hurt) "What? I'm just asking! Really, you can trust me. Here, I've brought this nifty arts and crafts project we can do together…."

Update (11/9/07): (LINK) Today China announced that it had suspended export of AquaDots and had started a thorough investigation. This comes as seven other children in the United States have fallen ill. The dots were supposed to have been coated with the nontoxic compound 1,5-pentanediol but had instead been coated with 1,4-butanediol, which metabolizes to GHB when ingested. 1,4-butanediol is 4- to 5-times less expensive.

Update (11/10/07): HERE is a news video where a mom tells what happened when her toddler swallowed just a few of these AquaDots.

Image taken from HERE.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Goodbye To A Language Pioneer

I love it when the natural world thumbs its nose at Mankind's egotism. Consider, for instance, the belief that out of all the animal kingdom only humans are advanced enough to communicate beyond random grunts, territorial chirping, and mating calls. The more science studies animal communication, the more we realize how very complex their languages are. Dolphins and whales are a common example. But even there we like to believe that their language is restricted only to communicating that they're hungry, or horny, or found a good patch of krill. How could we possibly know they aren't waxing poetic about the place of dolphin-kind in the universe? Are we prepared to believe they may have complex thought? Could they even be more advanced than we are in some manner? Sacrilege!

In fact, I'm willing to believe that some animals consider us as being below them. If you don’t agree, ask any cat owner.

A week ago, the world lost the first non-human animal to prove us wrong.


Washoe was a chimpanzee who, in 1966, became the first primate to be taught American Sign Language. Previous attempts to teach chimps how to verbally communicate all ended in failure. But chimps communicate with gestures in the wild. Why not train them as if they were a deaf human baby? What would be the result? The little chimpanzee immediately began picking up our language, signing the word "toothbrush" when she saw the implement in a bathroom, for instance.

By the time she died on October 30 after a short illness, at the long-lived age of 42, Washoe had a vocabulary of 250 words and had taught sign language to each of her four children (who are 29 to 31 years of age now). She has been housed at the University of Washington's Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, where a memorial service will be held on November 12.

Here is a website for the organization that oversaw Washoe and continues to study and take care of her offspring, "Friends of Washoe":

Washoe was only the first. Likely you have heard of Koko, the signing gorilla (HERE), who, like Washoe, regularly communicates complex thoughts and emotions and has been the continuing source of fascinating studies, documentaries, and articles.

But, hey, Mankind is still God's chosen children. Right? Right??

Sometimes I wonder if the world might be better run by chimps. Sure, they fight each other now and then, but when I read the headlines on any given day I really wonder which is the higher primate. Besides, chimps have sex just to say "hi". That can't be a bad sign.

So what is Washoe's legacy? Simply put, she put us in our place. For the first time one species learned to communicate with another species using their own language. That's monumental! After a year of French in high school and another year of German in college, I still couldn't hold a conversation in either language, and that was with members of my own species.

And what were Washoe's last words? I'd love to find out, but I'm willing to guess it was something to the effect of, "Humans so dumb. Can't learn single word in Chimpanzee!"

Yep, I'm A Loser, But You Still Read Me

God damn! Where the hell have I been for over a month??

After my long hiatus, during which I have settled into a far less stressful and time-consuming job at the same evil global biotech company and divested myself from a increasingly distracting non-profit volunteerism, I am now able to turn my attention back to -- well -- YOU! And the wonderful world of science news, of course.

Yet, despite having been gone from the bloggosphere, my site actually is still getting hits. 230 yesterday, for instance! Go figure. You guys will read anything, I suppose!

Anyhow, I've been amassing lots of good stuff for you, so here goes . . . .

Friday, September 21, 2007

I've Been Interviewed

I must be famous. I've been interviewed by Here is the published interview:

When you visit, be sure to cast a vote for me. The top three blogs with the most votes receive $25, $15, and $10 respectively at the end of the month.

Yowsa! I'd be rich. Rich, I say!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

And The Winning Hole Is ....

Back in June I published a post on some rather . . . um, how do I put this . . . novel methods of extracting a patient's gall bladder from the body. Instead of slicing open the abdominal cavity, leading to significant pain, scarring, possible infection, and slow healing, some doctors decided it would be a better method to pull the organ out through an already-existing orifice. Yes, choosing a hole already made in your body. Less scarring that way, quicker healing, and less pain. Which orifices do you think they chose? There are only so many you can choose from! The question is, which of your holes do you respect the most?

Doctors considered removing the gall bladder from the anus. That would be one hell of a dump! But, sadly, they apparently rejected the idea.

Instead, one set of doctors removed a patient's gall bladder through the mouth (HERE). Yum!

Another set of doctors removed another patient's gall bladder through (drum roll, please) her vagina (HERE)! Yow! Congratulations, it's a bouncing baby bladder!

Yet, for some odd reason, these options just haven't caught on in the medical world. Gee, I wonder why?

Well, now a different hole has been tried, and it's catching on. More and more hospitals are pursuing it. Quick! Run over in your mind which hole you think it is – I'll wait.

Did you figure it out? I'll give you another moment.

Yes, it's the belly button. That wonderful little spot in your rotund tummy which serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever after the day you are born.

HERE is a video of news footage on the procedure.

Is yours an "inny" or an "outy"? Well, it doesn't really matter when you want to have large organs yanked from your innards to your outards.

So far, surgeons have removed not only a gall bladder through this half-inch incision, but, according to the video, an ovary, a uterus, kidneys, a spleen, and an appendix, and have performed corrective surgery on a hernia and a colon.

I don't know about you, but I'm a bit relieved. I would MUCH rather have organs come out that way than through the other holes.

So the next time you're in the shower and look down at that little hole of yours (no, not THAT hole, you nasty person! Your belly button!), give it an extra little soapy scrub. You never know, it may not have finished serving its purpose on the first day you breathed!

Yes, I'm Alive!

Oh man, have I been gone a long time or what?! My life has suddenly become a swirl of new job, a business trip, children, home chores, and a non-profit organization I'm in that's in chaos. Ugg.

But hey! You haven't lost me yet. I'm still kickin', as hairy and smelly as always! Time to get back to the blogosphere!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The World's Largest Bubble Bath

I love bubble baths. I've loved them ever since I was a little boy and my mom would put Mr. Bubble bubble bath powder in my tub. It was pink!

I'm still a kid inside, and I put the same fruity purple bubble bath gel in my baths as I put in the baths of my little children (do they still make Mr. Bubble??). Why not? And besides, my bathtub is ridiculously shallow, such that when it is filled to nearly overflowing, my big gut still sticks out of the water. Having bubbles around gives me a sort of "insulation", keeping my gut warm. Now isn't that handy? And I have the added bonus of coming out of my bath smelling like grape jelly.

But somehow I don't get the same fuzzy, silly feeling when I saw this little news clip, but I still think it's way cool. Nature has made the world's largest bubble bath:

Just north of Sydney, Australia, the ocean produced a rare phenomenon. A stretch of some 30 miles of beaches and shoreline businesses were inundated with massive amounts of sea foam produced, according to oceanographers, by natural processes of sea salt and plant decomposition.

Now THAT'S a bubble bath!

But it still doesn't seem complete to me if it doesn't have a fruity scent.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

An Experiment On Memory Retention

I'm busy preparing for my new job these days, a job I'll start in less than a week. Other than organizing and packing eight and a half year's worth of office crap and moving it from one building to another in some semblance of planned chaos, preparation requires only one thing: STUDY.

My company sells nearly 3000 products, not counting the ones sold at other sites globally, and I will have to know or be able to retrieve obscure facts about nearly every one of them at a moment's notice to help the customers. The one best way to do this is to read and be able to regurgitate the product literature, especially the tome-like company handbook that we distribute to customers.

It's over a thousand pages long.

I have one of the worst memories of anyone I know, at least for common day-to-day stuff. If I have to shop for more than three things in one trip, I'd better write a list or I'll have hell to pay from my lovely wife, who never ceases to remind me of my particular handicap, especially if I go to the store for cheese and come back with four bags of not-cheese groceries. My memory is better for work-related topics, but not exactly stellar, and though my long years of developing products has given me a strong basis of wisdom to grow from, it is still a daunting task to absorb so much product data.

I was thinking about this tonight as I pulled out my company handbook, when my wife proudly exclaimed that she had just finished the 759th (and last) page of the final book of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Then it occurred to me how one might better be able to retain large amounts of data: Fiction.

Children's books do it all the time – teach lessons by incorporating them into the text and pictures of a fiction book.

I told my fantastic idea to my wife, and she immediately scoffed at the idea. "An adult ought to be able to study information without having to have it in story form." But I wonder. I can recall exquisite details about nearly every book of fiction I have ever read. It seems most any Harry Potter fan out there can do the same. Just ask one what Lord Voldemort's real name is, the name of the spell that scares away the Dementors, or who Mrs. Norris is.

So I am devising a test, and I'm wondering what you think of it. As a writer of fiction, I imagine I could convert your average textbook chapter into a reasonable story that contains the same facts. Of course it would be much longer in order to accommodate all the data plus a tolerable plot and dialogue, but I'd be willing to read extra if I was sure it would help me retain the info. My test would have one group of volunteers read a couple textbook pages, and I would have another test group read a work of fiction which contains the same information plus some sort of reasonable plotline. Sure, it wouldn't be able to compete with J.K. Rowling, but I'd bet that incorporating the data this way would allow it to be better processed in our brains. I'd then test the volunteers on what they read just after the reading, a day after, and a week after, to determine the retention rate. I'd put my money on the fiction-readers.

Do you agree? Would you volunteer for this test?

Image taken from HERE.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Now I've Gone And Done It!

I've finally done it. It became official last Friday. I've managed to escape the oblivion of being the eternal lab tech by leaving my job for a slightly better one which has nothing to do whatsoever with developing cutting edge new science products or experimentation into the Great Unknown. I start in a week.

Oh, don't worry, you Angry Lab Rat blogophiles, you eager readers of biotech woes and ponderings in breaking science news, I am still with the same evil global biotech conglomerate, assimilators of all smaller companies that have anything at all even somewhat similar to our products. "We are the Borg. You will be assimilated." And I'll still be blogging to you on the exciting world of science news and oddities.

I didn't even have to move to change jobs. In this industry, the best way to get a promotion and raise is to move to another company. But I don't care to move. Rather, I've chosen the second-best method: I've changed departments.

Technically I won't be a "lab rat" any more, as I'll be hanging up my lab coat for a long time, possibly forever, though in some circles I'll still be considered a scientist.

I've left the comfy confines of my lab bench and corner office in the R&D department and taken up residence in a cubicle. Yes, I said cubicle. I didn't think it possible, a few years ago I would have scoffed at the idea, but I am now even more a part of Dilbertworld, awash in computer hell and dealing directly with customers as a technical assistance person. You know the ones, the people you call when your product craps out, fails to meet expectations, or completely befuddled you because you didn't bother to read the product manual. Why bother reading such a long document when you'd rather have the pleasure of listening to canned music while waiting on the phone to ask a live person? Well, now I'm that person. And, no, I don't work in India. At least, not yet. [My evil global biotech company has a facility in India (and in China, too!), but so far they've only outsourced our R&D work, oddly enough].

Yes, I'll be The Helpful Guy, like the ones you see on TV commercials for computer or phone companies, headset placed firmly on the temples, smiling and perky (and usually female), answering in a pleasant yet competent voice, "Technical Services. How may I help you today?" When you see them on TV, you get the feeling that they must be morning people, as happy-go-lucky as June Cleaver, and the sort that goes home to read product manuals while listening to fizzy 80's pop rock. If that persona is what makes you feel good about talking to me, be my guest. If you call me, feel free to imagine my appearance any way you wish. No, I'm not short, fat, and extremely hairy. Are you kidding? Think Brad Pitt, baby! Really, I couldn't possibly be exaggerating. It's a good thing all you'll experience is my voice. If you saw me in person, you'd have to jump my bones. That could make answering your technical question difficult, to say the least.

I'm reading your mind right now. I know what you're thinking. I have that super power. It's what will make me good at my new job. Some of you are wondering what parasite crawled into my noggin and affected my judgment. Or you're wondering how many solvents I've been sniffing in the lab. Or you think I've simply lost my mind.

These are valid concerns. But losing one's sanity can be relieving, in a sort of escapist way. Solvents don't bother you once they burn away your nasal membranes. And brain parasites only hurt when they bore through the skull; once they're in the brain you don't feel them any more.

Think of all the aspects I'm losing: a nice office all to myself, a couple active lab benches, the chance to play with really cool and expensive instrumentation, the snooty glamor of being able to claim I'm a "scientist", and, oh yeah, the ability to invent and develop cutting-edge technologies to help the scientists of the world make the next breakthrough discovery.

It's that last point that led me to get into biotech to begin with. Unfortunately, the way programs are currently run at my company makes innovation very very difficult for folks in my position. And in the past two years changes in the company and my role in it have actually pushed me back about, oh, four years in my career development, to the point that lab rats like myself almost never have the ability to make programs of their own innovative ideas. It makes me feel a tad bit like Harry Potter living at the Dursley's, afraid to show even a hint of my true nature for fear of being beaten back into bland submission. Add to that the extreme overload of work and the expectation that, despite having a family, you should work late hours, come in at night, and work on the weekends in order to meet expectations. No thanks. Been there. I've served my time. This will be the first job I've ever had with set hours: 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week, Monday - Friday. Pinch me, I'm dreaming.

Sure, I'll be in a cubicle and dealing with the occasional clueless or even mean customers, and I'll have to be able to pull random specific details out of my ass about any of the nearly 3000 products my company sells within a few minutes of answering the phone (or email) for whatever obscure method the customer is using, but I'm willing to take it for the chance to come home at a reasonable hour and have free weekends, for the same pay and benefits, and working with a close-knit team.

And there's another great benefit: I will become The Great Guru.

. . . at least about my company and its products. After eight and a half years of working at my company, I know a great many details about the products, many dozens of which I invented, developed, or been part of R&D teams on. But that pales in comparison to the huge expanse of additional knowledge I will gain in only a couple years of answering random questions and coming up with correct answers about any of our products, and getting PAID to learn as much as I can about them, and the wide myriad of differing techniques our customers use them for. This is precisely why people who go into my company's Technical Services department go on to business management, program management, and R&D group leadership positions within the company. They are The Great Gurus of the company, without whom my company would suffer. And you'd better believe they get paid a whole lot more than I make now. The two folks who returned to R&D after being in Tech Services for a few years are now walking encyclopedias worshipped by other R&D staff. When one recently threatened to leave the company, the company leadership (one of whom had also been in Tech Services at one point) bent over backward to keep him, giving him a sizable increase in salary and a special position invented just for him so he would stay.

That makes a cubicle seem a LOT more appealing. I wouldn't mind being worshipped a little.

Besides, the Tech Services folks get free donuts. I'm a sucker for free food.

Images adapted from HERE and HERE.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Will It Ever End?

Yes, for the second time in a week, another massive recall has been issued for Chinese-made toys. This time it is for 11 million (yes, million) toys which have been contaminated with lead-based paint or have small, swallow-able magnets:

Included in the recall are “Sarge” character products from the movie “Cars” as well as Polly brand toys.

These were made by a different Chinese manufacturer than the previously-recalled toys (as I reported in my last post, a co-owner of that company hung himself in a warehouse over the issue).

Also, an unknown number of Chinese-made vinyl baby bibs have been recalled due to high lead content:

These bibs date back to 2004, and have 16-times the amount of lead allowed in lead-based paint, which is already very toxic. Hell, you might as was well use it as a fishing sinker with that sort of lead content. The lead is there as a “stabilizer” and can only cause harm if the bib is compromised. So your baby would have to have teeth and gnaw on a new bib to get poisoned, but if the bib is old and worn, or ripped, well, let’s just say he’ll be riding on the short bus later, if he survives. These bibs are predominantly sold through Wal-Mart.

Gee. Why am I not surprised.

Heck, it seems if you buy crappy Chinese-made toys and baby products, you might as well just tell your kid to chew on some lead pipes and get it over with.

“Here you go, Sweety. I got this from under the kitchen sink. Scrape it with your teeth, now! That’s a good boy.”

So let’s say you discover one of your kid’s brightly-colored Diego toys is lead-contaminated. What do you do? It’s the love of his life. The gleam in his eye. He plays with it, shows it off, sleeps with the frickin’ thing. How could you possibly be so cruel as to remove it??? Lucky you, there’s now a quick guide: HERE.

It’s a sad state of affairs, I think, when Chinese-made toy recalls have become so prominent that CNN releases a “how-to” on how take a toy from your baby. But that’s the world we live in.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go unscrew one of my lead pipes from the kitchen ….

Update (8/17/07): Now Toys-R-Us has pulled Chinese-made vinyl baby bibs from its shelves due to the lead content (STORY).

Images adapted from HERE and HERE.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Chinese Suicide And Cute Furry Monsters

Unless you’ve been living in a cave in Afghanistan, chances are you’ve heard about the numerous and increasing examples of recalled products from Chinese manufacturers. I recently posted a list of many of these toxic, hazardous, or misleading product warnings, everything from tires, to toothpaste, to toys. It seems China is trying to kill us.

Then it seemed they were trying to kill each other, when they executed their food and drug chief over these scandals and the bribes he was taking. Another official, who was at the heart of the recent dog food melamine poisonings, has been detained and may face the same fate.

Now they’re killing themselves:

One of the most recent massive Chinese product recalls was for 967,000 Elmo, Big Bird, Diego, and Dora toys that had been painted with lead-based paint. Any children who may have stuck these toys in their mouth could have poisoned themselves, causing vomiting, anemia, learning disabilities, neurological conditions, or even death. I’ve paid close attention to this one, given that I have two small children who love those products with a cult-like devotion.

But I haven’t heard of any children actually known to be injured by these toys.

Nonetheless, Zhang Shuhong, co-owner of the Chinese company that manufactured these toys, Lee Dur Industry Company, hung himself in one of his warehouses this weekend. According to the article, it is common for disgraced officials to kill themselves in China. Hell, it’s probably better than letting the government execute you!

I can only guess what was going through his mind at the time of his death (other than a sudden desire to breathe and a wish that he’d used cheaper rope). Doubtless Zhang had lamented his role in potentially poisoning thousands of children to make better profits, though, ironically, it was his best friend, the paint manufacturer, who is probably the source of the issue. Had Zhang known the paint had lead? It remains to be seen. If he’d been in America, he would have simply professed ignorance and blamed his best friend. It’s the American way, don’t you know.

Now, being the father of young children who fawn over everything that bears the likeness of Elmo and Diego, I suspect there may be another cause to Zhang’s suicide: Elmo Overload.

Yes, overload of all things Elmo. Nothing new to parents with small children, only magnified. Can you imagine it? Going to work, day in and day out, seeing the little red monster everywhere you look, hearing that high-pitched laugh with every movement of every crate. Heck, he probably dreamed about Elmo. Only in his dreams the little beastie’s fur was probably blood-red, it’s laugh echoing across the caverns of his mind, its silly little voice chanting demonic curses. What’s the number of the day, Zhang? 666! It’s enough to drive a man to suicide.

I’m guessing Zhang isn’t the last Chinese official to face death over these scandals and recalls, either at their own hands or those of the government.

In the meantime, I recommend checking the source of your imported products. Oh, and don’t go sucking on any Diego toys, okay?

Image taken from HERE.