Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Pond Scum Can Fuel Your Car

When I think about diesel fuel, I picture some beaten up 1970s vehicle or a big rig belching out black smoke. Diesel is now more expensive than unleaded in many areas, and you can't find it as readily. But my impression is about to change, thanks to biodiesel.

I love hearing about biodiesel. This marvelous fuel replacement is the future of car fuels, since it is non-toxic, biodegradable, emits almost no emissions, and costs about the same as petroleum gas, but I love it for another reason – French fries. If you drive behind a car running on recycled cooking oil, it smells like French fries or popcorn (here I'm lumping together biodiesel and straight vegetable oils (SVOs), like reclaimed cooking oil – SVOs require modifying your diesel engine). Cool, eh? "Fill 'er up." "Would you like fries with that, sir?" It's cool, too, because it’s a big ol' thumb in the eye of the petroleum industry that's gouging us every day.

Biodiesel (not from recycled cooking oil) is made from processed corn or soybeans. Willie Nelson now has his own company that sells biodiesel, called BioWillie, which, according to a documentary I saw (and memory serves me right) is made mainly from soybean and focuses on local growers. The problem is that soybean and corn are also used for other products, such as food, which sets up an unfortunate competition that can drive up prices. No one wants that, of course.

Well now someone has found a way to make fuel from pond scum:

Well, not pond scum, exactly, but algae. The University of Utah is pursuing research into it now and plans to release a cost-competitive formulation for cars by 2009. Algae is easy and robust to grow and can be grown in just about any non-frigid climate. Most importantly: it's cheap. Corn can be processed to create about 18 gallons of biodiesel per acre. Soybean can make about 48 gallons per acre. Various nuts, avocado, and oil palm can make many hundreds of gallons, but would be prohibitively expensive. Algae, however, can make (drum roll please) 10,000 gallons per acre!

But U. of U. isn't the only one moving on this. Here's an excerpt from Wikipedia's page on Algaculture:

In November 8, 2006, Green Star Products has announced that it has signed an agreement with De Beers Fuel Limited of South Africa to build 90 biodiesel reactors with algae as raw material. Each of the biodiesel reactors will be capable of producing 10 million gallons of biodiesel each year for a total production capacity of 900,000,000 gallons per year when operating at full capacity, which is 4 times greater than the entire U.S. output in 2006.

Wow. Yes, De Beers, made famous for diamond mining. If the oil companies are going to turn a blind eye to the future of fuels, then why wouldn't some other massive conglomerate jump on the potential?

So, look to the future and buy that diesel-engine car. And when you drive by wetlands and see an algae-clogged marsh, or when you scrape algae off the sides of your home aquarium, think to yourself "That's the future of fuels, by golly!"

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Flashy Fish And My Testosterone Level

I'm not the sort of good-lookin' man that girls notice and start drooling. I'm more like the sort of guy that drooling girls notice. How I managed to get the attention of my lovely wife without looking like George Clooney is still a mystery to me. So I've always been a little envious of those tall men with ripped abs, 2% body fat, and the sort of face that you find on communist political propaganda posters. No, not the posters featuring Stalin or Mao, the other ones, where optimistic and courageous men and women are looking off into the future and striking vogue poses (such as THIS ONE).

So it is with a great deal of excitement I bring to your attention a recent paper in _American Naturalist_ that suggests the offspring of "beautiful" males are more prone to disease:

HERE is the PubMed paper abstract, for you scientist types.

Of course, the Swedish researcher was studying fishes, not humans. Cichlids, to be exact, but bear with me. She found that males that were larger, had flashier fins, and possessed brighter colorations had higher testosterone levels, and their offspring (including females) had correspondingly higher testosterone levels. Females tend to choose those males to mate with (sound familiar?). But higher levels of testosterone also correspond to a higher susceptibility to pathogens. So the author makes the hypothesis that, as the offspring develop higher levels of testosterones, their overall "fitness" decreases, swinging the favor back to the less-showy males. Yes! But she also points out that the short-term gain of large size may help with egg production and other factors.

So, I'm going to take a giant leap here and say this is proof that less flashy guys like me are at least as mate-worthy as those communist poster-type men. How about it, gals? Go out there and find yourself a nerdy fella to mate with, confident in the proposition that they are just as good if not better for the fitness of your potential offspring as George Clooney.

Sorry, ladies, I'm taken. No, don't cry. I'm sure there are plenty other fish in the sea….

Monday, January 29, 2007

You Gotta Love Tuberous Spices

If you read this blog much, you can readily detect my obsession with exotic foods. If you know me in person, the evidence is plain to see.

One of my favorite foods is Indian food. No, not fry bread, as in Native American Indians, I'm talking the sort from India. It's so freakin' spicy it's like a party in my mouth. So many of the dishes feature spices you simply can't find in your neighborhood diner (yes, old-fashioned diners still exist here and there). My favorite Indian dishes are vindaloos. Vindaloo is a type of curry, with lamb or chicken and a yummy, spicy marinade sauce.

It turns out that my usually horrible eating habits may not be so horrible, in this case. According to an article in February's _Scientific American_, turmeric, a spice used in curries, has a number of potentially beneficial health effects:

You've got to love a spice made from ground-up roots. Turmeric (which is yellow-brown colored) is what is used to colorize yellow mustard and chicken broth, but its main use is as a spice in curries. Sometimes it is used as a cheap replacement for saffron. For thousands of years ancient Indian (Vedic) medicine has used it as an anti-inflammatory agent. For the last couple decades, though, modern medicine has increasingly studied it, focusing mainly on a constituent of turmeric called curcumin. It may help fight rheumatoid arthritis as an anti-inflammatory, battle Alzheimer's plaques, block hormones tied to colon cancer, reduce the size and number of colorectal polyps, and improve cognitive ability. Cool. One of my favorite foods may help my horrible, horrible memory, fight off a family history of arthritis, and prevent butt cancer.

As far as fighting cancer though (including colon cancer, myeloid leukemia, and breast cancer), researchers have found some negative effects, too, where it has stopped the mechanisms that prevent cancer. So my colon can't leap for joy just yet.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Don't Give Viagra To Iguanas

Oh my god! If you're a male reptile, look away.

Mozart, a male iguana at a zoo in Antwerp, was having your usual romp in the hay with his female counterparts a week ago, but when he finished he was still erect. In fact, he's been erect ever since. Now, a week later, his poor little iguana schlong is red and swollen.

The link includes a video! Does this count as internet porn for reptiles?

I wonder what the other iguanas are thinking. Are Mozart's iguana girlfriends thinking, "Hey, studly, as long as you're up, let's make the best of things." Or are they thinking, "Yo, Mozart, watch what you drag through the lizard chow!"

Veterinarians have been consulted, and the prognosis isn't good. They're giving his little Johnson the chop, Lorena Bobbitt-style. Ouch! Do iguana penises grow back like lizard tails? The vets say he won't notice it's gone, but I beg to differ.

Luckily for Mozart, iguanas have two penises!

Friday, January 26, 2007

Caffeinated Donuts

I'm a total caffeine freak. Unfortunately, I don't like the taste of coffee. Too bitter for my sweet little pallet. I drink tea, but I'm usually too lazy to go about making it and letting it cool, and because of my "sweet little pallet" I wind up loading it up with sugar – supersaturating it, in fact, because it's very hot. So what do I do? Cola. A cold Pepsi first thing in the morning. Another around lunch. And I'm not above getting one for supper, either. Yes, it's pitiful, but I can't help myself. You think that's bad, you should have seen my cola habits as a teenager! Chocolate, too, has a good caffeine value for my buck.

But I always feel a bit self-conscious, especially when I'm carrying around a can of Pepsi at 8 AM. No, there's no rule against drinking cola first thing in the morning, but it's like drinking booze in the morning – it's just considered a little weird. If only I could consume something more "breakfast-y" and get my recommended daily dose of caffeine, like others do with coffee.

Well now a scientist has solved my dilemma – caffeinated pastry!

Dr. Robert Bohannon, a molecular scientist living in Durham, NC, has developed what he calls Buzz Donuts™ and Buzzed Bagels™, pastries that contain the caffeine equivalent of one or two cups of coffee. Using the skills of flavoring experts, he was able to overcome the bitterness of the caffeine. Now he's marketing his perfected pastries to companies like Krispy Kreme and Starbucks. (His disappointingly bland webpage:

Hey, Doc, powder me up some of your deep-fried rings of caffeinated dough, please! I'll take a dozen!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Happiness Is A Shiver Away

Yesterday I heard that a fellow lab rat at my evil global biotech company is leaving for another job. I'll call her "Lisa." She's been here as long as I have, and is extremely valuable to the company, but I hear she feels fed up with the lack of promotion. I can't imagine it (and by "can't" I mean "absolutely can"). She's moving to Boston. I may be going out on a limb, but I'm going to make the call that she is unhappy.

Well, "Lisa", cheer up! Didn't you know you live in one of the happiest nations in the world?

According to a study of "happiness levels" in almost 180 nations around the world, using a variety of databases (including, oddly, the CIA!), the United States comes in at a relatively happy 23:

For write-up and some rankings:

This link has a map:

According to the authors of the study, the best indicators of happiness for a nation are good health, wealth, and education. War and famine, for instance, bring the ratings down, of course. But I'm seeing another trend entirely. Consider the top ten most happy countries:

1. Denmark 2. Switzerland 3. Austria 4. Iceland 5. The Bahamas 6. Finland 7. Sweden 8. Bhutan 9. Brunei 10. Canada

Of the top ten, EIGHT of them are cold countries! (I'm counting Austria because of its mountains and frigid winters, and Bhutan is mostly in the Himalayas. Bhutan, oddly, is also the only country that officially measures its Gross National Happiness). This can't be coincidence. If you think about it, what do you do when it's cold outside? You stay in by a cozy fire, eat good food, curl up with your significant other – then curl up a little closer. Next thing you know…. You get the picture. That'll warm your Surbrød!

Now, there are plenty of cold countries that didn't score highly, but I still think it's a factor. The notable warm exceptions in that list are The Bahamas and Brunei, both of which are tropical paradises, but who couldn't be happy in a tropical paradise, I ask?

I would also like to add that my evil global biotech company doesn't have a site in any of those countries. Also not a coincidence, I imagine.

So, "Lisa", maybe moving to Boston isn't the answer. Maybe Denmark would be a better choice. Break out that Viking helmet and learn to eat pickled herring, baby!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

My Managers May Be Neanderthals

I've always suspected that certain managers at my evil global biotech company are part-Neanderthal.

Okay, I'm stereotyping. That's a bad thing. I'm working on the cliché assumption that Neanderthals were sort of brutish and lacked good reasoning skills. Picture, if you will, a club-wielding, exceedingly hairy man with a prominent brow ridge, short and slightly bent over, and dressed in bedraggled animal skins, who chooses a mate based on who can be dragged away easiest by their hair. I wouldn't want to be racist (or, I guess, the best term is *species-ist*) about Neanderthals. For all anyone knows, they were tender, loving, hippie types. Just about the only thing known about their culture, as far as I can tell, is that they lived in tight-knit social groups and resisted changing their technology. That's apparently why they died out – they didn't adapt to changes in the European climate and didn't cross social groups.

Now imagine if those Neanderthal types were leading a company. Resistant to new ideas from outside their tight-knit group. Not thinking things through in a long-term, rational manner. Dying out because they didn't adapt quickly enough. Yeah, I stick to my original suspicion.

A recent news story suggests that there may, indeed, be real-life Neanderthals working alongside me:

The finding of a skull in a cave in Romania suggests that Cro-Magnon _Homo sapiens_ (early modern humans) may have interbred with Neanderthals (_Homo erectus_), creating a hybrid of the two. HERE is the nitty-gritty research paper. The skull exhibits aspects found on the skulls of both species and dates back 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, to a time when the two species were found together in the same geographic area.

Though their cultures inhabited the same regions, there isn't much evidence that Cro-Magnon and Neanderthals actually mixed culturally or even with warfare, but who knows? Maybe some desperate Cro-Magnon gal drank a little too much fermented ox milk (or whatever the heck they drank), saw a Neanderthal guy from across the field, and thought, "You know, I always wanted to get shagged by Fred Flintstone. Yaba daba doo!"

This isn't a new idea. Back in 1999, the skeleton of a 4-year old boy was found in Portugal, his bones dating back about 24,500 years. HERE is a link to that story. His bone structure suggested he had some Neanderthal ancestry. The interesting thing with that finding is that Neanderthals were thought to have died out by then, so the boy wasn't a "love child" of fermented ox milk, but rather the offspring of generations of hybrids. If so, there's a good chance that the lineage continued onward, perhaps into you and me!

So are some of my managers actually part-Neanderthal, acting on their primitive impulses? Well, let's just say the Cro-Magnon in me isn't interested in mixing.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Maybe I LIKE My "Faulty" DNA

Have you ever seen the sci-fi movie, "Gattaca"? It's one of my favorites (as it is for many scientists, according to one poll I read). If you haven't seen the movie, it's about a time in the not so distant future where every baby is genetically screened before birth to determine their genetic content. Sort of like "eugenics", the doctors of that fictional future select out the "bad" genes that can lead to diseases and replace them with "good" genes that insure a child that is healthy. Furthermore, they can tailor the child's talents based on his or her genetic profile. The interview process for certain jobs involves little more than a genetic screen, and criminals are expected to have certain genetic codes as well. The protagonist in the movie hides the fact that he was born without genetic manipulation and uses a "genetically superior" identity to get a job as an astronaut, all the time afraid he could be found out. I highly recommend the movie.

One of my favorite scenes in Gattaca is where the protagonist and his girlfriend go to a piano concert, and the pianist is able to play elaborate pieces because he has six fingers on each hand – an illustration of "designer babies" genetically manipulated (or deformed), in this case to excel at a certain talent.

Well, thanks in part to us lab rats, for better or worse, the world of Gattaca is quickly becoming a reality. For many years now fertility clinics have had the ability, for about $15,000, to screen embryos for defective genetic codes which could result in serious conditions that could result in failed implantation or lead to serious health problems for the baby, a process called preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD. Understandable, I think. After spending your life savings to try for a baby using in vitro fertilization, you'd want to make sure the try was successful and that the resulting baby was healthy. But the ethical implications are obvious: it's a new form of eugenics. How far could it go? Right now we can detect genetic codes that predict high chances of heart disease, cancer, and a large number of physical and mental conditions. Are we to marginalize members of our society who have those conditions by saying they aren't valuable? For that matter, shall we just skip to the punch and create a "master race"? I'm short, fat, and have a heart condition. In the coming world of designer babies, would I still exist? Maybe. Maybe I would have looked like Brad Pitt and been able to run marathons. I'm pretty sure I could live with being a babe magnet, but would I really be "me"?

Now, in a serious test of science ethics, the opposite is happening. Instead of creating what many people would see as "the perfect child", some people WANT to select for physical deformities:

Consider if you and your spouse had dwarfism, were blind, or were both deaf. Would you want your child to have the same condition? Would you want to INSURE that they had the condition? According to that article, a poll of fertility clinics suggested that as many as 3% of clinics were using PGD to select embryos with conditions for parents that others would have screened out, though they didn't say what those conditions were or if the embryos had even developed and been born. Some critics call this "deliberate crippling of children." Is it fair to the child to be "handicapped" like their parents? What if the parents don't see it as a handicap, or even see the condition as superior to average people?

Is genetic manipulation of an embryo any different than surgically altering the child after birth? Stunting her growth to make her a dwarf, removing her cochleae to make her deaf, or cutting her optic nerves to make her blind? I wouldn't think society would tolerate these things, but I've been proven wrong. Consider the case of Ashley.

I wonder what people would do if I had a designer baby tailor-made to be just like me? Designing-in a heart condition, high chance of obesity, short stature, a hairy back, and a predilection for liking pizza and cola for breakfast? Sure, he wouldn't be Brad Pitt, but maybe he would be a great lab rat like his dear old dad.

So, what is your feeling on this? Should children be born "as-is", with all the potential health risks and defects? Should those defects be genetically erased so they could live with fewer health issues and fit in with society? Should we be able to insure the child is "like their parents", whatever genetic conditions that may require? And where do we draw the line on these things?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Science Workshops and Conferences, Part II (eating out)

You won't find me saying many great things about my evil global biotech company on this blog, but this post is an exception.

Attending conferences and workshops is often difficult because I have to deal with being away from my family, travelling, long hours, and catching up with piles of work when I get back. But one of the great joys of attending conferences and workshops is the food.

As you may recal from previous posts, my eating habits aren't exactly Weight Watcher's. My lunch a couple days ago, for instance, was composed of an airport hot dog with mayo and mustard, washed down with a Pepsi. Under normal conditions, I'm often too busy even to eat lunch, and supper is often eaten in stages as I and my wife feed our kids.

But when I travel on the company's dime, I eat like a friggin' king. Before you gasp in horror at my apparent lack of corporate responsibility, please note there is a travel policy which limits how much can be spent on meals. For a city as large and expensive as the one I'm in right now, that limit is $60 per day per person. Since eating out is my only option, costs can really add up. In large cities, a plate of good food can cost $20. Still, $60 goes a long way.

I'm not a breakfast person, and lunch is usually just a sandwich, so that leaves a gourmet budget for supper. We're talking appetizers, fancy drinks, large dishes of exotic food, and a decadent dessert. "Would you like a refill on that drink, sir?" You betcha, Pierre, and don't forget the little umbrella! And since I tend to eat with likeminded colleagues, the table becomes a gourmet smourgesbourg of monumental proportions.

Tonight was a meditteranean feast worthy of Alexander the Great. Yesterday: all I could eat of high-quality sushi. Domo arigato, evil biotech company!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Science Workshops and Conferences, Part I (presentations and language)

Today, and for the next couple days, I am attending a scientific workshop in another state. For those of you who aren't lab rats, this is an event where a couple hundred scientists get together in a cramped, sweaty room and watch other scientists describe their very important and earth-shattering breakthroughs. At least, that's the idea. In reality, the attendee in the audience winds up half-sleeping through half of the presentations as he waits for the couple presentations that actually relate to his own research, much of which may already be found in the presentor's published papers. But there is always some nugget or two that make it worthwhile.

Over the years I've heard debates about what language is most important in the world for commerce or films or whatever. For science, the universal language is English, hands down. Sure, you'll find journals written in Russian or German or Chinese, but the vast majority of science is written in English. Since science is an international affair, many of the speakers at workshops and conferences are bound to speak English as a second language (or third or fourth), so sometimes the accent is so strong you only understand about 60% of what was said, even if you're familiar with the science. If you work in science, being around folks from all over the world on a daily basis is normal. Most days at work I interact with coworkers from Russia, England, Ukraine, Taiwan, Mexico, and China. I really get a kick when I overhear conversations, in English, between people from different languages. The other day I passed by three coworkers (from China, Russia, and India), all speaking English with heavy accents from their native languages. It's hard for me to understand them sometimes. How the heck do they understand each other?

More later. Time to get back to the very groundbreaking science presentations....

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Go Eat Like An Ape

I have to admit I don't eat my suggested portion sizes of fruits and vegetables each day. Well, maybe some days, but I don't think they count if they've been battered, deep fried, and slathered with gravy, then washed down with Pepsi. Do Jolly Roger candies count as "fruit"? At the very least I should eat the sort of well-rounded diet I force my young children to eat.

I could do better for myself. I remember when a coworker of mine went on a very successful diet a couple years ago. He lost a zillion pounds and has kept it off. Just watching him it seemed to me that his diet consisted of constantly eating bananas and apples. The sugar ants loved his office (which is now mine. And, yes, they still poke around in there, no doubt salivating over fond memories of fruit). Apparently my coworker also supplemented with large quantities of vegetables. I remember thinking he ate like a friggin' ape.

Well, some folks in England put that very concept to a test:

A dietician and BBC producers set up a tent next to the ape exhibit at an English zoo, then found 9 suckers – I mean "test subjects" – to sit in the tent for 11 days eating a balanced diet of nothing but raw fruit and vegetables with occasional nuts and honey, similar to the apes, plus a tad bit of cooked fish (to simulate the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of our ancestors), then sat back and watched what the effects would be, physically and mentally. The producers expected the test subjects to be bothered (making for good film), but in fact, after the caffeine withdrawal wore off, they were quite content and had more food than they could eat.

One bloke had hardly eaten fruit or vegetables his entire life. Boy was he surprised, but he learned to like it and has since changed his eating habits, like most of the test subjects. In fact, on average, the contestants significantly lowered their cholesterol and blood pressure, had more energy, and even lost weight.

The only drawback, according to the producer: "There was a lot of farting going on."

So the next time someone says you eat like a friggin' ape, just smile and say "Thank you. I do try to eat healthily." Then give them a good fart.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Thank You, Dr. King

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. May we one day live in a land of unity and equality! We are getting there, slowly.

This day has been of great significance to me since I first studied Dr. King's achievements, as a freshman in college. He is one of my heroes. Each year at this time I pull out his famous speeches and read them. Here is a link to his "I have a dream" speech, with video:

It is a time for me, as a White man, to reflect on the importance of slavery in the building of America and the horrible toll it took on the Black population. That toll is still echoing today. I am ashamed to say that my family, generations back, owned a plantation in the South and capitalized on that slavery.

I am also the father of two African-American children.

I and my family are living King's dream of working toward a nation united in brotherhood, celebrating our cultural and racial origins while ending discrimination in all its forms. As King said in that speech: "I have a dream that one day . . . the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood." King's dream is not the reason we are an integrated family, but now we literally sit down at the same table together, every night.

It is MY dream that my children will grow to be as proud of their African-American heritage as I am and yet feel comfortable in a White-dominated culture. Our family is also integrated with other African-American and Latino members, so instilling that pride in our children should be easier than it might be for other families. Let us hope it is contagious, throughout our society and the world.

Thank you, Dr. King.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Goodness, Gracious, Great Balls of Fire!

When I was a boy I would spend a couple weeks each summer with my paternal grandmother, who lived in another state. By "another state", I mean she lived in another state of the union (Louisiana), but she also lived in another "state of being." She had some very strange perceptions of reality which were sometimes funny, in an insane way (she believed she once had a bug fly in one ear, buzz around in her head for a few days, then fly out the other ear) and sometimes not so funny (though she was in her late 70's and horribly anorexic, she was deathly afraid of being raped if she went out in public).

One of her fears was that she would be electrocuted by lightning storms. Most people would reasonably fear being outdoors in a lightning storm and getting struck by lightning. She feared talking on the phone during lightning (also reasonable, perhaps), but also taking baths, being near a window, or standing too close to her metal bedframe. Why those last three? Two words: ball lightning. That is, exceedingly rare, brilliantly-lit balls of energy with a life of several seconds, usually about the size of grapefruit, which are formed during intense lightning storms. They hover and fly through the air and have even been seen to bounce along the ground. Any time there was a lightning storm my grandmother would relate the same story to me about how, when she was young, a boy in a neighboring town had been killed when ball lightning came through his window and struck a metal bedframe that he was touching, killing him instantly. I never learned if the story was true, but even though I already figured my grandmother wasn't "all there" I figured I'd give her the benefit of the doubt and stayed near the center of her little house during storms.

Ball lightning has been witnessed and even documented, but it isn't fully understood. Recently some researchers in Brazil managed to recreate it in the lab, as reported in a soon-to-be-released article. If you want the nitty-gritty science details, HERE is another hypothesis for ball lightning.

But what I find more interesting is those amateur science enthusiasts who enjoy playing with high voltage and trying to create ball lightning in their home, shop, or even their microwave oven (and they have step-by-step instructions on the web, though I wouldn't combine the effort with cooking your frozen burritos). I've been known to experiment with high voltage in my own shop (leaving a burn mark or two). Maybe I'll try it some time!

Click HERE for one of those enthusiasts' pages, well worth reading about, which includes some pretty cool video of creating ball lightning and watching it bounce along the ground, leaving burn marks. HERE is another site with similar links.

So my crazy grandma wasn't completely out of her gourd. Maybe I shouldn't be as alarmed that the older I get, the more I seem to be like her. Heaven help me (and my wife), though, if I manage to live to my 70's!

Is that a bug in my ear?

Friday, January 12, 2007

Life in the Rat Maze

Today is a simple blog post, since I have almost no time.

Here's a link to a cartoon that pretty much sums up my day:

Non Sequitur:

You decide which character best describes me: the scientists, or the lab rats.

'Nuf said.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Inclement Weather? Get To Work!

Today it is snowy and icy here, in Oregon. All the schools, and most of the community colleges and universities, are closed for business. But I went to work anyhow, even though I have to commute from a little way's out of town. I had to go, since my evil global biotech company is open for business and I have no vacation time left after the Christmas holiday.

My company doesn't believe in such a thing as "inclement weather." They have a "weather hotline" phone number that employees can call to find out if the company is closed for business due to bad roads or whatever, but in eight years of working here, I've never known them to use it. I don't even call it anymore.

A new employee named Dan (who is also a regular reader of this blog – Hi, Dan!) was talking to me and another lab rat about this a month ago. Being new and perhaps a touch naïve about the company, he asked when the company had used the hotline in the past. I and the other employee immediately burst out laughing. In my time here, there have been incidents of seriously icy and snowy road emergencies, major floods, massive power failures, a major gas leak a stone's throw down the road, tornado-strength winds, and even a minor earthquake, and the company has never closed or sent its employees home early.

A couple years ago there was so much ice and snow that the roads department declared a state of emergency and broadcast a warning to the public to stay off the roads unless it was a life or death situation. My company was still open, though. I have an SUV and was able to make it to work in four-wheel drive. I think a horse-drawn sleigh would have been a better choice. Cars were stranded all along the way. Many folks simply had to take what leave time they could because they couldn't get there. The parking lot out back of my building has a slight incline. The asphalt was so icy that the cars parked there were sliding down the incline and bumping into each other. The management caught a lot of flak from the employees for that day. Management's excuse was that the top two people in the company, whose job it was to make the call to close, were traveling abroad and the folks delegated to make the decision didn't know they were supposed to do anything. We all rolled our eyes at that one.

You know the motto usually associated with the post office, right? "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." (HERE is a link to the interesting story on that, by the way). Well, perhaps my evil global biotech company should have a similar motto:

"Neither ice, nor flood, nor earthquake, nor lava rolling in the streets, nor a nuclear explosion stays these lab rats from swift completion of their experiments – or else!"

If I just lived at work it would solve the whole dilemma, don't you think?

UPDATE (1/12/07): At the end of the day yesterday, presumedly in response to complaints from employees, management sent out an email saying that the weather hotline had been discontinued. Instead, we are to base our weather policy on what the nearby university does. However, I found out that the university hasn't closed due to weather in 20 years. In other words, no real change in policy, and Management has only "passed the buck."

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Larger Families Kill You Quicker

Just before my lovely wife and I became parents, everyone kept saying the same cliché regarding our impending parenthood: "Your life is going to change!" This statement would be said with a wink of the eye and a tone suggesting they were being witty and wise, and I heard it as much as two or three times a week in the months leading up to our son's birth. Each time I heard it I wanted to raise my hand and utter, "Duh! Of course my life will change. Don't you think I realize this?", but I would instead give a tight smile and nod as if they'd just enlightened me. I still hate that saying.

But now I think they just didn't say what they meant. I think what they REALLY meant to say was, "You think your life is hard now? Just wait! In a few months you'll be begging for sleep and thinking that squishy baby will be the death of you!" And that's exactly what happened. I underestimated the physiologic toll that caring for a baby can exact. Within a week we were walking zombies and looked like we had ridden a carnival ride a few too many hundreds of times. Thank goodness my wife and I had each other to help.

And then came our second baby, our daughter, a mere 11 months after our son was born. Surprise! As much as I loved them both, some days I wondered how I could possibly continue functioning on as little as three hours of interrupted sleep a night and overwhelmed with responsibilities and chores (diapers, bottles, spit-up) on top of a full-time job and the usual life hurtles. "They'll be the death of me!" I would mutter.

Well, a study released this month suggests I wasn't far from the truth:


Full Paper:

This study, conducted using the birth and death records of tens of thousands of Utah parents and hundreds of thousands of their children in the late 1800's, showed a significantly higher mortality rate of parents, especially mothers, with increasing numbers of children. In other words, the more kids you have, the faster you die! Boy, do I believe it. I guess everyone has their comfort limits. Maybe you would be happy with a gaggle of kids, but two is enough for me. Any more and I'm likely to keel over from fatigue (last night, for instance, my little daughter spent at least an hour screaming and crying around 2AM). The study showed children were also more likely to die with increasing numbers of siblings, especially the later kids. Surprisingly, economic status was not a factor.

The study went on to suggest that menopause may be nature's way of saying, "Whoa there, Bertha! That's enough kids. You're a human, not a rabbit." By developing menopause, the authors suggest, women are more likely to raise their offspring to adulthood.

According to the authors: "Researchers note that natural selection does not necessarily favor maximal reproduction because reproduction 'imposes fitness costs, reducing parental survival and offspring quality.'" One important critique of mine, though: These data were collected from people who lived more than a hundred years ago. How relevant is this study to modern living?

But when do you stop having children? Like I said, we all have our comfort limits, but I think most of us would agree that having more than, say, 6 children, is considered extreme these days. So I've made a top-ten list to help you know if you need to stop reproducing, in the name of extending your life:


10. Family road trips require a bus

9. Your family formed its own baseball team

8. You have children younger than your oldest grandchild

7. You no longer notice when babies cry

6. Your house is often mistaken for a dormitory

5. Airlines offer your family special charter flights

4. Your breasts are as perky as pancakes

3. Root canals are a chance to "relax"

2. Your family eats in shifts


1. Your uterus doubles as a laundry basket

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

NASA Boiled Aliens Alive

Yes, NASA may have killed space aliens. No, they didn't run over E.T. with a shuttle (although I'd pay to see that). Instead, as reported on a number of public news websites yesterday, we are talking about microbes on Mars:

Back in 1976 and '77, the Viking Mars probes landed and studied samples of soil looking for earth-like microbes. Unfortunately, NASA didn't know as much about the environment on Mars as they do now, or Earth for that matter, or about microbes that can survive in such conditions. They were looking for the sort of microbes you find in the soil just outside your front door (i.e. bacteria that live at standard pH and like water at a comfortable 72° F). To look for them, Viking basically sprayed room-temperature water into the soil to rehydrate "normal" bacteria and then test. But it turns out that any living bacteria living there would have evolved to survive the -68°F temperatures, likely by incorporating hydrogen peroxide into them, which boils at room temperature. Thus, if there were any bacteria alive, they would have boiled and been dead before they would be analyzed.

If you think bacteria couldn't possibly live in conditions like that on Mars, you'd be wrong. Called Archaebacteria or Archaea, these "extremophiles" have been found in superheated deep-sea vents and frozen-over Antarctic lakes, in nuclear waste, in high salt concentrations, in the absence of oxygen, and in super-acidic rivers. Here's a link to more info. I've even heard of an acid-loving bacterium that was found exclusively in a latrine outside an English castle where people had urinated for centuries. If they can live in these environments, why not on Mars?

Of course, how do you detect something too small to see and radically different from earthlings (like having hydrogen peroxide in it)? And if detecting them is so difficult, how about determining if they have any degree of intelligence? For all we know the relatives of those tiny bacteria we killed in '77 are plotting their revenge against us for boiling them alive. I think the next time we squirt water onto Martians we'd better play some soothing music and have bubblebath ready. We could call it the "Viking Spa Treatment." That way, just in case they are sentient and we still boiled them alive, we could claim we were trying to relax their little bacterial bodies from the worries of living on a barren, frigid rock of a planet.

So watch out, E.T.! We're coming for you with our super-soakers!

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Giving Laptops To The Young Makes Me Feel Old

If you're my age or older, you can remember a childhood without a personal computer of any kind whatsoever. I know, it's difficult to remember through the fog of your developing Alzheimer's, but give it an effort. You actually had to use a pencil and blank piece of ruled paper to write your reports, or at least a typewriter (do you remember when you made a mistake you had to go back and either type over the letters with eraser ribbon or X them out? –shiver-), since a "word processor" was just a fancy typewriter, not a type of computer program. Good luck finding typewriters these days! If you needed to look up some sort of odd information, there was no internet, you had to go to a library and hope their encyclopedia was up-to-date, or check out and read a book which was also likely out of date. And you had to rely on a phone to contact your friends when you weren't near each other, instead of texting or MySpace. Ah, how primitive!

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Yeah, but it can't hurt kids these days to learn how to use a library and actually write with decent penmanship!" This just means you're turning into your grandparents. Don't tell your kids about those days or they're likely to realize how old you really are then text their friends about you while you think they're doing their homework.

I was actually on the cuff of the computing revolution; at age 12 I got a TRS-80 personal computer with a whopping 16K of useable memory. Wow! If I wanted to do anything with it, I had to program it myself with about a zillion lines of BASIC (- another shiver -).

Well, many children in developing countries are no better off, computing-wise, than we were 30 years ago or more. Now an organization called One Laptop Per Child has decided to do something about that. They basically redesigned the computer and the way it is used, with a goal toward helping elementary school children in developing countries learn computing and be able to use that ability in creative and constructive ways:

Their website:
An article on them from LINK
An article from Popular Mechanics: LINK

Instead of a battery, their laptop has some sort of hand-crank mechanism. It has a redesigned screen that can operate in color or black-and-white (for use outdoors). It has a swivel screen, a built-in camera, and nifty neon-green accents. And they've done all this for a cost of only about $100 per computer. Countries will purchase them and distribute them to schools. It is completely free for the children.

By July, One Laptop expects to distribute millions of these machines to children in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Nigeria, Libya, Pakistan, Thailand and the Palestinian territory.

The kicker is that it has a whole new operating system. Instead of Windows, it operates on low-cost and low-memory open source programming similar to Linux. On start-up, the child sees a stick figure (them) linked to each of the open programs. There are also icons linking them to all the other students near them with a computer (through a wireless network). The idea is that it is supposed to be intuitive – just click on what you want to do – and that they can interact with their classmates in unique ways to build upon each other's work. One commentor (from Geekcorps) says about the operating system, "It doesn't feel like Linux. It doesn't feel like Windows. It doesn't feel like Apple. I'm just impressed they built a new (user interface) that is different and hopefully better than anything we have today." But then he added, "Granted, I'm not a child. I don't know if it's going to be intuitive to children."

One Laptop's got a good thing going. The world is shrinking, and teaching kids to do what us old fogies couldn't at their age can only give them a hand up in this increasingly technical world of ours.

But, being an Angry Lab Rat, I of course have to find something to grouse about, so here it is: the operating system is unique and vastly different from existing systems. While that represents a nifty, and perhaps improved, programming and engineering achievement, I have to question rather it is the right choice. Put it this way: hundreds of thousands of school kids will learn computing on a system which is not likely to be present in their workspaces as adults. Like it or not, Microsoft has the market, worldwide, though Linux is growing. Are these kids really being prepared?

And here's another thing (and now I'm really being negative): $100 goes a long way in some of those countries. Will little Mahmoud in Palestine, upon receiving his sleek neon-green computer, look at it and wonder why they spent money on that instead of rebuilding his war-torn house and feeding his family for a month?

But don't get me wrong, I think One Laptop is a worthy enterprise, and it's certainly a better start than what I had at elementary age (nothing!).

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to dig out my typewriter from storage and turn it into something useful, like a flower pot.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Forever Young

If you have young children at home, don't you occasionally find yourself wishing they could stay that way forever? I do. I have two toddlers, and it's one of my greatest pleasures to come home after a hard day at the lab bench, grab them up into my arms, and cuddle. Oh, how I'm trying to emblazon those moments into my brain so that I'll be able to recall them when my kids are teenagers and angry at me because I haven't bought them that cell phone / PDA / MP3 player brain implant they want so badly (I'm extrapolating a dozen years into the future – who knows?).

Now imagine if, by some bizarro twist in bioethics, you were certain it was in your child's best interest for her to remain small forever and you were able to convince doctors to do something to make it happen. Yes, purposely stunt her growth for the rest of her life.

Well, a couple in Chicago did it to their 9-year old girl:

Little Ashley, age 9, is severely mentally and physically handicapped, unable even to roll over much less walk or talk, but she responds to others, including smiling. Her parents decided that their "pillow angel" (as they call her) will be more manageable if she remains 4-foot-5 for the rest of her life, thus easier to involve in family activities, be moved around, prevent bedsores, and cuddle. To achieve this, they talked some doctors in Seattle into putting her through an intensive hormone therapy. If things go as planned, she'll never go through puberty and will never grow taller. It's already working.

Why, she's a regular Peter Pan. "All you need is trust and a little bit of pixie dust!"

But they didn't stop there. They also removed her uterus to save her from potential pregnancy due to rape and from the discomfort of menstruation. They surgically removed her breast tissue to save her from the discomfort of large breasts and the possibility of breast cancer. And they removed her appendix, just in case she might have appendicitis and not be able to express it. Here is her parents' blog site explaining their side of the story.

Are you horrified yet? I am. I wrote a post not long ago about mad scientists. I'd have to put those doctors on that list. Sure, little Ashley will be easier to care for and incorporate into the parents' busy lives, and that might have some benefit to the girl, but what if some miracle treatment is discovered in the next few years to help Ashley develop more advanced mental or physical ability? Stem cell therapy, for instance. What then? Will their little Peter Pan curse them for trapping her adult mind in a 9-year-old's physique? Will she resent them for sterilizing her, eugenics-style? And what sort of diabolical precedent does this set for other handicapped children?

Or do you sympathize with the parents and their belief that their "pillow angel" is better cared for if she remains in a childlike form?

I think I'll take a little extra time today to cuddle with my kids when I get home.

"Come with me, where dreams are born, and time is never planned. Just think of happy things, and your heart will fly on wings, forever, in Never Never Land."

UPDATE (1/11/07): Perhaps the greatest critique of this blog post, and other blogs, on this subject by supporters of Ashley's parents boils down to "You aren't in their situation, so how could you possibly understand? Thus you should support the parents." Well, it seems plenty of disabled people, their parents, and feminists who HAVE been in that situation support my view that "the Ashley Treatment" is inhumane and that the doctors who did the surgeries should be strung up for ethics violations. See this article:

UPDATE (5/8/07): The "Ashley Treatment" was illegal according to Washington law. See my recent post:

Thursday, January 4, 2007

I'm Not Grizzly Adams No More

I miss being in the forest, hiking, camping, backpacking. They are a part of me, but my crazy life hardly allows for time out in the forest any more. I have too much work, two toddlers in diapers, a busy personal life, and absolutely no energy. Grumble, grumble.

Many of my recent friends have no idea what I used to be like. To most of them I'm an overweight lab rat. On the outside, my skin would probably glow with the fluorescent dyes I use at my lab bench, but if you pulled me apart I'm pretty sure you'd find that a significant portion of my guts are made up of pine needles, moss, and oak leaves. My love of biology started as a little kid, wandering around the woods where I grew up, poking at bugs in streams and rummaging through the undergrowth. It was this early curiosity that fed my lifelong love of nature and its workings. I'm guessing most scientists could figure their love of science started through the curiosity of their childhood.

By the time I was in college, I could live for a week in the woods with practically nothing besides a bedroll and a pocket knife. Really. I proved it by working a couple summers in the wilderness areas of Idaho, backpacking the Rockies, studying endangered plants, and doing stream surveys miles from the nearest trail. The experience nearly killed me (literally), but those memories are close to my heart.

Do you remember the TV show, Grizzly Adams? I could relate to that guy back then. Alone in the wilderness, at one with the animals (like his grizzly bear companion, Ben), living independently and loving nature. Except I didn't care for the cheesy plotlines – how is it so many non-woodsman people in desperate need of help would just *happen* to run into Adams way out in the middle of the wilderness, I'd like to know? And what was up with the sidekick, "Mad Jack", and the sidekick's sidekick, a mule called "Number 7"? Didn't they seem superfluous and "unfunny" to you?

But somehow I moved away from ecology to follow my interest in lab work. I still get the same thrill I had as a child when I peer through a microscope at cells or come upon some new, innovative method. I think part of the reason I don't do ecological work is that nearly all the jobs (that don't involve timber) are jobs which are seasonal, temporary, and pay diddly-squat.

Now I live in western Oregon. Old growth forests and mountains are tantalizingly within sight on clear days, less than an hour's drive away. But I haven't been camping in years, and even day-hikes on flat, easy trails are a rarity. It's understandable, I guess. My adorably kids aren't old enough for serious outings (both are in diapers), and I would feel selfish going out there without the family included for more than a few hours. I'd strapped the kids into those backpack carriers, but I'm too out of shape to lug them around for long, and they're getting too big for those, anyhow (but still too small to hike far). So I pretty much have to wait until the kids are older. Love of the woods never dies, and I hope to instill that love into the hearts of my kids.

Maybe I'll be Grizzly Adams again someday, but I'm not going to have a stupid sidekick with a mule.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007


Do you envy people who can bend spoons with the power of their mind? Ever wanted to be a Jedi? Do you wish you were a poltergeist? Well now you, too, can control inanimate objects through telekinesis:

Introducing Mindball, the new interactive game of mind control. Sit at the special Mindball table, put on the brain-scanning headband, and show off your mental prowess against as many as three opponents by moving a ball up and down the table using only your brainwaves. By controlling your Zen-like ability to relax, your alpha- and theta-waves are measured by an EEG and transferred to the ball's kinetic motion. The more relaxed you are, the further the ball moves. Look Ma, no hands! But watch out! Your opponent can move the ball too. Who will be more relaxed? How could you possibly pass up such an exciting and interactive game?

But wait, there's more! Call in the next 10 minutes and you'll receive the Mindball Trainer. This sophisticated device is an excellent way to hone your theta waves before the big game and get an edge over your opponents.

Order now. What could be more fun? Relaxation and telekinesis are just a brainwave away!

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Clueless Conservatives and Geology

When you go to one of our nation's breathtaking National Parks with your family, you get a chance to see nature in action. No, I'm not talking about the raccoons attacking the dumpster at the public campground, or the squirrels begging for your chips. I'm talking about those amazing vistas that make you stop and think about the wonder and mystery of their creation, or the little things, like that endangered flower or mossy stream, that you could stare at for hours and never be able to comprehend the incredible complexity of it. Such awesome sights could make even me start to believe in some greater power at the root of it all (if I were slightly delirious from fever – being an atheist).

Take, for instance, our majestic Grand Canyon. We're all familiar with its fantastic, multicolored rock formations and nearly unfathomable depth. Geologists have studied this natural wonder since the late 1860's and tell us that it was formed by erosive action of the Colorado River over the past 5 to 6 million years, and that the rock formations are between 2 and 2.5 billion years old. Given that Earth has been calculated to be about 4.5 billion years old, that makes portions of this natural phenomenon half as old as our world. Since most of these geologists have studied their field and the Canyon most of their adult lives, I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Now, if you were to go into the Grand Canyon's interpretive center and try to buy a book on the Canyon's geologic formation, wouldn't you expect that book to be scientifically accurate according to the expert opinions of geologists? And if you had geological questions about the age of the Canyon, wouldn't you want the rangers to give you a straight answer? Unfortunately, neither of these assumptions are true.

Three years ago, the National Park Service approved the sale of a Creationist book entitled "Grand Canyon: A Different View" in the Canyon's book stores and museums. This book, sold alongside legitimate science texts (such as this one), argues a literalist interpretation of the Bible, that the world is less than 10,000 years old, and that the Canyon was formed by Noah's flood. Park officials, scientists, and academics were appalled and called for the government to remove the book. After all, an interpretive center is a place of scientific learning, not a library or common book store. They must be held to a higher level of accuracy. Yet three years later the book is still on the shelves.


also here:

Now the Bush administration has stepped its extremist fundamentalism up a notch, requiring that, when asked about the geologic age of the Canyon, park interpreters must say "no comment."

No comment?! About the primary scientific aspect of the Grand Canyon?! Pardon me while I bash my head into a wall until all common reason and scientific learning leaves me and I become a vegetable. Then, and only then, will this seem to make sense to me.

As I've commented before (here and here), it is appalling to me as a scientist how the neoconservatives who run this country have waged a war against science and reason. There is no room for Faith in Science, for therein lies ignorance and bias. Legitimate scientific study is a slow, meticulous, peer-reviewed process that leaves little room for error. Nothing is taken on faith, and no amount of silly pseudoscientific drivel or Biblical accounting can make up for shoddy reason and ignorance. The book in question did not go through that process.

The Bible has some wonderful allegories and wisdoms for how we should live (and a large share of violence and horror that people tend to gloss over). But the priests, monks and apostles who wrote it between 1900 and 3800 years ago could not have known the incredibly rich tapestry of knowledge Science has accumulated since then, not counting the ignorance of the Dark Ages (when, by the way, the Catholic Church controlled Europe and science was considered evil). In terms of understanding the physical world around us, today's college freshman science major is far wiser than these supposed wise men were.

I call for the National Park Service to remove that book from their shelves immediately and put it where it belongs: Sunday School.

Monday, January 1, 2007

World's Tallest Man Saves Dolphins

Happy New Year! In honor of the occasion, I'll give you a story that shows hope for a coming year where man works in harmony with nature - sorta. It just doesn't get much weirder than this.

I love stories that feature mankind helping animals survive the unintended health effects of manmade hazards, such as cutting dolphins, whales, and sharks out of fishing nets, cleaning ocean birds after oil slicks, or rehabilitating animals that have been hit by cars (as my wonderful wife has done countless times as a wildlife rehabilitator), but this story takes the cake.

The world's tallest man saved a couple dolphins by using his long arms to reach into their stomachs and pull out shards of plastic that would have killed them.

No kidding! Here's an article from the BBC, complete with a video:

Bao Xishun is a herdsman from Inner Mongolia. At 7ft 8.95in, he is the world's tallest living man (Guinness Record). His arms were long enough (and thin enough) to do what zoo officials couldn’t. When two dolphins at an aquarium in northeast China (Fushun) ate shards of plastic from their display, aquarium veterinarians were unable to use their instruments to extract them. Xishun's incredibly long arms were just right to do the job.

Perhaps it's my oddball mind talking here, but why, exactly were dolphins eating plastic parts of their display? Yum! What does the interior of a dolphin's stomach feel like? And how did Xishun's hand smell afterward? (I'm guessing rotten fish).