Thursday, June 28, 2007

Biofuel Isn't Golden Yet

If you’re like me, you get a curious little quiver of excitement when you think about biofuels. Stick it to the oil companies, damn it! Those greedy, all-time record profit conglomerates that suck crude out of the ground in oh-so-unstable parts of the world, helping BushCo wage greedy little wars so they can pump up the costs and make us pay a significant portion of our take-home-pay at the filling station. Yes, the souls of the oil executives run as dark as their product.

Ah, but now we have biofuels. Just take that grease from evil obesity-causing fast food chains and refine it to burn in your VW bus and go happily along down the road smelling like French fries. What could be better? No crude oil went into that engine, thank you!

But there isn’t enough used canola cooking oil to fuel every car, nor do most people care to convert their garage into a refining station. Thus enters the biofuels market.

Now biofuels outlets are popping up all over the place. BioWillie, for instance.

And thus we enter into a glorious future where new and altruistic start-ups fuel our cars with biofuel, crude oil looses its grip on the car fuel market, the world gets less greenhouse gases, there is less and less smog to breathe into our asthma-riddled bodies, and we all live in a happy, hippie, utopia as golden as the canola we feed to our cars.

But wait. It’s never that simple.

Originally, biofuels came from corn. However, even though corn farmers have grown more maize in the U.S. than ever before, they are facing a deficit in the amount that goes to human and livestock food. Too much is going to biofuel, and growing every day, putting our dinner plates at risk for too little deep fried goodies. What are we to do? (HERE is an article discussing the tradeoff).

Okay, so if we can’t get biofuel from corn, we can look for other alternatives. No problem. Corn only yields 18 gallons per acre of refined biodiesel. It’s at the bottom of the list of alternatives, even though it is currently the easiest to grow.

The most promising source for biofuel oils is algae. I’ve blogged on this before. Early research suggests you can get an amazing 10,000 gallons of biofuel per acre of algae, presumably grown in massive vats in the deserts of the world. Unfortunately, research on this lucrative area has only just begun, so we must turn to other options in the meanwhile.

Well, how about trees? Wood pulp contains oils which are now able to be processed out, according to THIS article. But this, too, is a very early technology, far from release. And we wouldn’t want to cut down even more forests, would we? Being good flaming liberals, like me, you would rather forests go to spotted owls.

Well, there are many other alternative crops with large oil content, such as rice, soybean, olives, avocado, or opium poppy. But these face the same old problems of interfering with food sources, being unable to be grown in large enough quantities, or, in the case of poppy, are simply illegal.

That leaves oil palm. At 625 gallons of refined biofuel per acre, it’s near the top of the list of potential biofuel sources. These lovely palm trees produce fruit very rich in oil. So much, in fact, that it is the second-most produced cooking oil in the world, behind soybean oil. Grow ‘em up in orchards and harvest the fruit, and you’re in the biofuel business. Malaysia, for instance, is a leading nation in converting its cars to biofuel, growing orchards of oil palm, and creating biofuel refineries.

Ah, but here’s that evil little catch: where do you grow them? Why, you have to cut down wide swaths of old growth hardwood forests, or grow over precious crop or grazing land, or fill in delicate marshy ecosystems.

And here’s one I’ll bet you didn’t expect: drug lords. Yes, according to a recent article from, drug lords in Columbia are KILLING peasants and forcing them off their land to take possession and build oil palm orchards:

It seems growing “legitimate” crops is more lucrative than cocaine, since the Columbian army and the United States (the third most funded military effort behind Iraq and Afghanistan) have attempted to eradicate illegal coca farming and cocaine production. Well, that hasn’t actually worked, since coca production is up 27% since 1999, but never mind. Columbia produces 1.2 million liters of palm oil biofuel a day. It’s not just the rebels and drug lords stealing land, but now even the paramilitary groups formed to fight them have taken land, as well. The Columbian government can’t keep up with the thousands of complaints they get each month.
When you go to the pump to fill up your Volvo with biofuel, there is simply no good way to tell where that fuel comes from.

And let us not forget that ANY source of fuel will eventually lead to greed and price increases.

So what is a good liberal to do, short of selling the car for scrap and biking everywhere? I guess we have to choose the least of the evils: continuing to support greedy global oil conglomerates and their smog- and greenhouse-producing war-causing goo, taking corn- or soy-based food out of the mouths of starving people, gobbling up precious natural lands and supporting drug lords and paramilitary groups with oil palm groves, or simply hoofing it until algae biofuel is made?

You be the judge. For now, I guess I’ll keep supporting big oil.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going home to eat some deep fried meat bits dripping with canola oil, and I’m not going to refine it to fuel my car, either. So there.

Images modified from HERE, HERE and HERE.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

iPhone Hysteria

I admit, I’ve become caught up in the iPhone hysteria.

What? You don’t know what an iPhone is? Shame on you for not staying on top of the tech world! Haven’t you seen the amazing commercials? Heard the hype? Why, it’s the most scrumptious piece of technology since the personal computer.

The iPhone is only the most delectable, orgasmic techno toy that geeks like me could possibly ever dream about! It’s a beauty of engineering, slim, sleek, with a flat face about the size of a playing card and no buttons. The flat screen is a touchscreen capable of registering finger swipes and presses, so all the buttons are digital. It goes on sale in two days (June 29), available only from Apple Computer and AT&T outlets.

This marvelous beauty is a cell phone, digital camera, iPod, mobile internet player, streaming video and movie player, digital photo album, and PDA all wrapped up in one. Throw away all those other devices!

Here is Apple’s webpage for their new iPhone:

I beg you to visit. If you haven’t already seen them, you’ll be blown away by the videos of the iPhone in use.

Ah, but what’s the catch? There’s always a catch, don’t ya know.

The catch is you have to be a frickin’ millionaire to afford the damned thing. The cost of the iPhone is expected to be between $500 and $650(US dollars) depending on memory size, though there may be some initial discounts. AT&T is the exclusive carrier for all internet and phone service, with a $36 activation fee. No other carriers are allowed. They offer three different choices for monthly fees, which differ according to number of minutes and text messages. The cheapest is $60 a month. So, all told, you’re looking at a one-time cost of at least $536 plus at least $720 a year in monthly fees. Ouch. But this is an all-inclusive fee that includes mobile internet, phone, text messages, and (I think) iTunes subscription, so if you don’t already have these things, maybe it’s a little more acceptable.

Report on monthly charges:

Is it worth it? Hmm, lets see. I can either wipe out half a month’s take-home pay for the most anticipated gadget my lustful geeky heart could ever dream of, or I could pay for four months of groceries for my family. Hard choice.

Do I really need a cell phone? I admit there are times I would like one. Do I need mobile internet? No, I’ve got a computer at home and another at work I can use, but on occasion it would be nice. Do I need an iPod? I don’t really listen to music a lot, but maybe if I had this I would. Do I need a video player? No, I have a TV for that, and I barely have time to watch it. Do I need a portable digital photo album. No, my home computer does just fine, but, again, it would be nice to show off my kids’ photos when I’m with friends. Do I need a digital camera? Yeah, I admit, it would be nice from time to time.

So do I really need it? I put it on par with a very good vacuum cleaner. Yes, I said vacuum cleaner. I like to use vacuums as examples – go figure. With vacuums you can make do with some crappy hand-me-down that’s noisy and doesn’t pick up dirt well so you have to go over each strip of carpet several times to clean it, but it gets clean in the end, or you can pay several hundred dollars extra and get some quiet model with lots of accessories and parts that don’t wear out that gets your carpet clean the first time. Is it a luxury you could do without? Sure, but aren’t you glad you made the investment? And you wind up getting a lot of use out of it.

Of course, the iPhone is just the first of a revolution of new combinatorial technology. It won’t be long before every device is like the iPhone. Those of us who are above, oh, 18 years old still see a distinction between computer, stereo, TV, and phone as separate devices. If you ask anyone younger than that about those distinctions, they’ll roll their eyes and text “WTF? That’s like so last century!” to their friends and make fun of you behind your back.

And when they make fun of you, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll use their new iPhone to do it.

So will I buy one? Are you kidding? My wife would kill me for such an egregious waste of money! I'll at least sit back and watch the techno-feeding-frenzy and wait for the bugs to be worked out.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Case Of The Mysteriously Disappearing Lake

Once upon a time (back in March), there was a beautiful, elfin lake high in the southern Andes of Chile, in the Bernardo O'Higgins National Park. It was a pleasant little lake, with a glacier feeding into it and little icebergs floating along. At only two square hectares, or just under 5 acres, it was small compared to many lakes. Just a wee thing. It drained out into a thin river.

But apparently the lake was pretty far off the beaten path, because two months later, in May, someone finally went back to it and found it was MISSING.

Yes, missing. The entire lake. Gone. Drained away. In place of this 100-foot deep lake was a 100-foot deep crater. The gleeful little icebergs had settled down onto the rocky floor of the lake, bereft of water. Geologists are at a loss to explain what happened:

Quote the article: “’The lake had simply disappeared,’ Juan Jose Romero, head of Chile's National Forest Service in the southernmost region of Magallanes, said Wednesday. ‘No one knows what happened.’” A team of geologists has been dispatched to investigate.

There were no earthquakes to produce rifts for the lake to drain into. There were no alien water-snatchers (I'm guessing). We can’t blame global warming for this one. So what could be the explanation?

One word: incontinence.

Let’s face it, we all have problems. Poor lake, all alone up there, no one to turn to. How embarrassing! It’s been holding its water for, say, about 5 million years. When you gotta go, you gotta go, and that thin little river wasn’t enough of a release. I know how it is. No, I don’t have an incontinence problem, but I’ve been trying to potty train my toddlers for months. Sometimes a diaper is the only way.

There’s no shame in it, little lake.

Friday, June 22, 2007

How To Remove Your Gallbladder

I have a lot of respect for the lowly gallbladder. It’s the unsung hero of digestion. The stomach is such a prima donna, always making such a fuss and getting all the glory. The small intestine, all long and windy, takes up all the room and takes all the credit for final digestion. The large intestine is bloated and slow. And what can I say about the rectum? But the gall bladder is so often overlooked. Why, without this lovely, bulbous, Kermit-the-Frog-green organ, your fatty food simply wouldn’t be digested properly, and the acidity of your intestines would be thrown off. It’s not easy being green. The gallbladder collects and processes bile from your liver, then that bile, mainly bilirubin, goes in and does its job to further digest your food and, let’s not forget, colorize what remains. Sadly, this wonderful little organ has to be removed in some patients when it stops working properly.

If you had to have your gall bladder removed, how do you think they would do it? Most likely they would make a small incision in your belly just to the right of the center of your abdomen. Using laparoscopy (i.e. the use of an endoscope to see inside the body cavity) and remotely-viewed surgical scissors, the surgeons would snip off the gall bladder, remove it through that hole in your belly, and sew you up. You’d be out of the hospital in a day, and would heal over the course of a few weeks. HERE is a YouTube video of a laparoscopic cholecystectomy (gall bladder removal) surgery.

But in the last couple months, a couple surgical teams have taken a very, VERY different approach at gall bladder removal. They believe that going through the body’s natural orifices, one can reduce pain, remove visible scarring, and produce a quicker recovery time. They call the procedure NOTES (natural orifice translumenal endoscopic surgery). Makes sense to me.

But the big question is, WHICH orifice is appropriate?

There are only so many choices.

Two methods come to mind as likely guesses: go through the mouth to the stomach or upper portion of the small intestine, or come up through the anus. I guess the only question you’d have to ask yourself is, “Which of my holes to I respect more?”

A team at Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital and Medical Center in Portland, Oregon, USA, chose the stomach (HERE is an article on it). Going through the patient’s mouth, they cut a hole in the stomach, reached through to do the snipping, pulled the gall bladder back through the hole in the stomach and back up through the mouth, then stitched up the incision. The surgery was a success, but I can only imagine the taste in that poor woman’s mouth afterward.

Patient (upon waking): “Doc, it tastes like I just barfed up my guts.”

Doc: “Yep. Would you like some mouthwash?”

Another team at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center chose a substantially different orifice. No, they didn’t go through the ass. Well, not quite. They went through the patient’s VAGINA! (HERE is an article on it).

I would have liked to have seen the woman's face when the doctor suggested the procedure to her. That couldn't have gone well. The lead surgeon (Marc Bessler) reported his results at the annual meeting of the Society of American Gastrointestinal Endoscopic Surgeons (SAGES) in Las Vegas on Sunday, April 22. The surgery was a success.

Patient (upon waking): “Did everything go all right, Doctor?”

Doc: “Congratulations! You’ve given birth to your gall bladder!”

Patient: “I think I’ll name it Billy Rubin.”

Ah! Now that’s medical progress for ya.

Image taken from HERE.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Fish Missiles

Watch out, anglers! If you’re fishing in northern Florida, the fish may get their revenge. The endangered armor plated sturgeons there have been jumping out of the water at boats, wounding and nearly killing a number of boaters:

These sturgeon fish can get as large as 8 feet long and 200 pounds in weight, and have hardly changed in 225 million years. They are covered in thick, armor-like scales. People on the waterways there have been innocently boating along, thinking pleasant thoughts of murdering hapless little fishies baited with steely hooks cunningly hidden by worms or lures, when suddenly – BOOM! – a gigantic, prehistoric fish leaps out of the water and slams into them, enacting karmic revenge for the slaughter and degutting of its fellow Pisces. According to the article, victims of these fish missiles have suffered a fractured spine, a collapsed lung, ruptured spleen, slit throat, broken ribs, broken jaw, wounds that have required plastic surgery, knocked unconscious, and/or put into a coma!

Geez. Fish & Wildlife doesn’t know why they jump like this, but it is mainly from June to August (“leaping season”). Perhaps, they say, it is simply a way of avoiding the boat, or a form of fish-to-fish communication, or “flushing the gills.” It’s not exactly a typical fish thing. I mean, you never hear anyone say, “What out for that flying trout!” and fishing nets are usually meant to be used in the water.

Personally, I’d like to give the fish some credit for its viciousness. To that end, I’ve concocted a top-ten list for the motivations of these flying sturgeons:


10. Kill the humans!

9. Gymnastics, fish-style.

8. A sudden craving for man-flesh.

7. I always wanted a boat ride.

6. Cannonball!

5. Who needs wings? Weeeeee!

4. Just trying to get a look around.

3. So you like to eat fish, eh? How’s this for sushi!

2. One small jump for sturgeon, one giant leap for fish-kind.

1. Your worms or your life!

Well, if I ever find myself boating in northern Florida in the summertime, I’ll be sure to wear my chainmail vest and riot helmet, just in case.

My thanks to Scott Adams’ blog entry for a heads-up on this story.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Help Wanted: Human Sardines

Imagine yourself surrounded by five of your coworkers in a small house in the mountains. Go on, pick out five of your coworkers, I’ll wait. For the sake of ease, pick the five you like the most. If you aren’t the sort of person who works at a job with lots of people, you can pick out five good acquaintances.

Here’s a hypothetical situation: You meet these people for a dinner party at a mountain chalet. You are socializing, but all of you have also brought your work with you to do later.

Now imagine that an avalanche buries you all in the house such that there is no way out. You are in no mortal danger, and you have all the food, drink, recreation material, and facilities that you need to live for years. Your boss calls and says you all have to keep working normal hours, but it would be more than a year before they can dig you out. Good luck.

Do you think you could do it? Could you get along with all of them in such close, cramped quarters, and get your work done – for more than a year?? Do you really feel so close to your fellow workers that you’d all get along peachy? Or do you think cabin fever would start creeping in?

I don’t know if I could do it. Maybe I wouldn’t mind being around a couple of my coworkers that long, but I’d be more worried about them tolerating me! There’s a very good reason why I’m not writing this blog from a Navy submarine right now.

Now imagine that you aren’t in a closed-in mountain chalet, but in a spaceship headed for Mars, or on Mars itself. Are you shrugging it off right now, or are you thinking like I am that by the fifth month you’d be prying open the airlock and seeing for yourself how many milliseconds it would take for your eyeballs to freeze in the vacuum of space?

The European Space Agency (ESA) is about to test this scenario (no, not the eyeball-freezing part – the long-term habitation part):

They put out a call for paid European volunteers in excellent mental and physical health to serve as guinea pigs. These intrepid volunteers will be paid 120 euros a day (= $158US) to live for up to 17 months in a closed habitat the size of about “nine truck containers.” Others will live 105 days in preliminary trials under similar situations. They’ll be doing work-like activities and testing, and will have to face simulated emergency situations, but mainly they’ll have to face long periods of inactivity and potential boredom. There will be six people in each habitat. Their only contact with the outside world will be by radio, with a simulated 40-minute delay, and whatever they are allowed to bring in with them. What will happen, researchers wonder?

According to the article:
“Assuming that Mars and Earth are favourably aligned, with their closest distance of 56 million kilometres (35 million miles), it would take 250 days to get there, 30 days spent on site to conduct experiments and 240 days for the return”

Yay! Astronauts have done this on space stations. You can too, right? You get used to the locker room smell pretty quickly, and packaged rations can seem pretty yummy if you brainwash yourself enough, I imagine. Why, it would be a blast. Just bring along your Pictionary set and you’ve got it made!

If this sounds appealing to you, here’s the link to the application webpage:

Personally, I think I’d rather swallow live leeches. But that’s just me. You go ahead.

Image taken from HERE.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Father's Day, And Carrying My Children Through The Forest

Happy Father's Day to all you papas, grandpapas, and papas frites out there. We spent Father's Day picnicking at a nearby state park, then hiking a new trail (for us) up in the mountains with the family, enjoying the spirit of discovery I saw in the eyes of my kids as they explored the subtle joys of throwing rocks into a lake, splashing in the mud, and hugging trees along the trail. Though they are only toddlers, my son and daughter are real troopers. Still, by the end of it, I was carrying both of them when they ran out of steam. I didn't mind, though. That's what dads are for, after all.

Of course, I had started down the trail with the intention of making them walk all the way. Inevitably, it was my daughter who first broke me of that idea. How did she do it? Yep, you guessed it. She stood in front of me, arms wide, and looking at me with those adorable please-please-please eyes. How could I possibly say no to someone so cute? Oh, man, the things she's likely to get away with over the years!

I'm not alone in being influenced by my daughter. A study was recently released by researchers in economics and psychiatry from Yale that showed male congressmen who have daughters are more likely to support women's rights and health issues:

But is it really surprising? Don't we naturally relate most to issues we have the closest connections to? According to the article: "Kyle Pruett, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale University's Child Study Center, said daughters make fathers 'think differently about how they're going to make the world a better place.'"

Yep. I consider myself an advocate for women's rights, anyhow, but I have no doubt she, and my son, will change the way I see the world, and in a big way. I think it's a reasonable argument that, though we play a pivotal role in molding the way our children see the world as they grow up, in the end it is our children who change us more.

Friday, June 15, 2007

My New Old Stereo System

Back in 1998 I surprised my wife with a new stereo system. Not having much money at the time, it was really just one of those giant boom boxes with the detachable speakers. But it had a triple CD player, radio, two tape decks, and we could plug our VCR into it. It also had lots of flashing lights – a definite plus, in my opinion. Sadly, it did not have a record player like the previous (very outdated) stereo system, so we had to put all our LPs into storage.

Yes, I said “LP”, as in “long play” vinyl records. For those of you too young to know, a vinyl record is a foot-wide disk made of black plastic with a tiny groove that winds around and around it, circling slowly inward to a center hole. A turntable turns it around and around, and a special stylus moves along the groove, bumping along and producing sound, analogous to lasers reading the grooves in CDs. I describe LPs to you because recently a friend of mine gave a box of vinyl records to a thrift store, and the young attendant at the cash register had no idea what they were. They are outdated and oh-so-retro, sorta like 8-track tapes. Don’t know what that is either? Go ask your momma.

But in the last couple years our big boom box has died a slow, agonizing death. First the CDs started to skip. Then one of the tape decks began eating tapes. Then the other tape deck got stuck shut. I had to break it to retrieve my Guns-N-Roses tape, ironically called “Appetite for Destruction.” The cat peed on a speaker. Finally, the CD player stopped playing CDs altogether. The system was reduced to doing nothing more than playing the radio and giving voice to our VCR and DVD players. Oh, and it still had those nifty flashing lights.

So we started considering buying a new stereo system. We wanted to update to an MP3-capable system, but we also wanted to keep playing our CDs and tapes. We also wanted to hook in our VCR and DVD players. Plus the radio. We quickly learned that the cost of a good, modular stereo system is still beyond what we cared to pay, but what choice did we have? Buy another crappy boom box?

And then something happened. My in-laws came to visit us, driving from another state with their Panasonic stereo system to give to us, FREE. It is a modular system with gigantic speakers and a very nice, glass-fronted stereo case. I love it.

But here’s the kicker…. You ready? It’ll shock the hell out of you….

It was made in the mid-80’s.

Everything on it still worked just as well as it did back then – double tape player, radio, hook-ups for our DVD and VCR players, speakers so loud I will never turn the volume past “3”, and an amplifier/receiver with lots of knobs and sliders. It was made just after CD’s first came out, but no CD player. That’s okay, we don’t mind using our DVD player for that purpose. If we want an MP3 player, we can buy a separate system with its own speakers.

Did I mention the system is free?

And, yes, it has a record player!

The first thing we did was go digging around in our storage area and pulling out our old vinyl records. My father-in-law, who was kind enough to hook up the system for me, played an old Donna Summer LP. Oh, yeah, Donna, let me have the “Last Dance” with you again! I Love To Love You Baby. My wife played a record by Wham! (How little she knew back when she was a girl that George Michael had no interest in people of her gender! I mean, just look at the guy back then, dancing around in flaming pink shorts that hugged him enough you could tell if he was circumcised!), and I played a bunch of Mozart records passed to me by my dad. I can’t wait to go to thrift stores and local music stores to check out the perfectly good old vinyl records people have tossed because they no longer have turntables and wanted more up-to-date technology. The older the album, the less likely you’ll find MP3’s, CD’s, or even tapes of them. Sure, there is some scratchiness to them, but I find I don't usually mind it, and it adds character.

So now, each night, I listen to my new old stereo system with a great deal of pleasure. In this day of iPods and complete stereo systems small enough to fit in a duffle bag, where the technology seems to become outdated almost as soon as it is invented, I can’t help feel a touch of pride and nostalgia that a system so old still plays so well.

But there is one serious drawback to the new old system: no remote control. Oh well, I should get my flabby ass up out of my recliner once in a while, anyhow.

Image taken from HERE.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Fish That Will Eat You Alive And Make You Healthier At The Same Time

When I was a boy, my family and I would sometimes spend hot summer days at a local lake. One spot in particular, called “Spillway” because of the spillway dam nearby, had an artificial sandy beach where I enjoyed swimming and splashing around. My favorite thing to do there was to find a relatively quiet and shallow area in the water and sit very still. Why? Because little fish, small perch and sunfish mainly, would be curious and would gather around me. After a little while, they would grow bold enough to come up and nibble at my toes and any exposed moles or birthmarks. Very cool. Last summer I and my family went back there for a visit. I was happy to introduce my fish-loving wife and toddler son to them.

But an odd thing would occur to me as they nibbled at me. Though I found the sensation funny, I couldn’t help but think that the fish’s main motivation was not to be friendly, but to “taste” me and see if I was edible.

A couple days ago my lovely wife was reading our June 2007 copy of Scientific American and came across an intriguing article on page 31, entitled “Fish That Go Skin-Deep.” It reported about a little resort in the hills of central Turkey, in a town called Kangal, where people would pay to dip their diseased limbs and bodies into hot springs – to be eaten alive by wild fish!

Back in 1917, a shepherd dipped his wounded leg into the hot water. These little fish, which are a little under 4 inches, or 9.7 cm, long, nibbled off the dead flesh from the wound. “Miraculously” his wound healed nicely. The fish are of the species Garra rufa, and became known as “doctor fish.” By the 1950s, a local family enclosed the hot pool and a population of the fish in it, then started charging people for the right to let the fish eat their wounds. Normally the fish would move back and forth between the hot water (34 degrees C, or 93 degrees F) and an adjoining cool stream, eating algae and insects. But almost nothing grows in the hot spring, so the fish are very eager to eat human flesh as a food source. They only pick off the dead skin, though, and it isn’t painful:

These “doctor fish” nibble off the dead skin while exuding an enzyme called dithranol (anthralin) which prevents fast developments of cells from the skin, therefore preventing psoriasis (source). Besides psoriasis, the fish have been helpful in treating neurodermititis and eczema. Some 3000 people a year visit the resort, and the fish have been collected and transferred to other spas in China, Japan, and elsewhere to be used for the same purpose. HERE is a link to one in Denmark.

Of course, being eaten alive for the sake of one’s health isn’t a terribly new thing. Consider medical leeches, for instance, which were used for all sorts of purposes in the Middle Ages of Europe, removing “bad humours,” but are used in modern times for relieving pooled blood, numbing pain, reducing swelling, and keeping blood flowing to surface areas though anti-clotting enzyme secretion. Increasingly, medical institutions are using medical maggots, too, (yes, maggots!) which are grown in sterile conditions then allowed to squirm around, painlessly, on open wounds (such as burns) digesting away and eating the diseased skin while leaving healthy tissue untouched. The wound heals significantly quicker. HERE is an interesting article about the modern use of both medical leeches and medical maggots. Both critters have been approved by the FDA for this use.

So the next time you get dry, flaky skin and decide to rub lotion on it or scrub it off, you should feel a touch of guilt. There are some hungry fish in Turkey who would love to eat you alive.

Oh, and by the way, fellas, if you should ever visit the Spillway beach, I wouldn’t recommend swimming in the nude. Certain dangly parts look too much like worms to curious little fishies.

HERE and HERE are YouTube videos of the Kangal resort, with folks being eaten alive by the little fishies.

HERE is another YouTube video of the Doctor Fish in action, at a Croatian clinic made for the "fish treatment." Just don your Speedo and lower yourself into a tub/aquarium!

Picture taken from HERE.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Ancient Romans Had Crabs, But They Never Knew It

In 1997, a couple of zoologists were visiting the remains of Trajan's Forum in middle of Rome. They turned over a rock, and there, looking up at them, was an unassuming freshwater crab. They soon realized they had discovered a new species, Potamon fluviatile, the only freshwater crab species known to inhabit a large city:

"So what?" you ask. Stupid crabs. All googly-eyed and leg-y. They'll pinch ya. Throw that puppy in a pot, boil it alive, and serve it up with some melted butter!

But the researchers didn't eat the crabs. They studied them, genetically. What they discovered is not just that Rome had crabs, but that those crabs had been there a very, very long time. So long, in fact, they pre-dated the forum, which was built in 112 AD, and even predated Rome itself (founded in 753 BC), all the way back about 3,000 years ago, to the time of the ancient Etruscans. The little buggers had been living in ancient Etruscan canals that ran under the forum and joined up with the ancient Roman sewage system.

What's more, the crabs are genetically unrelated to other Italian crabs. In fact, they are most closely related to Greek freshwater crabs, probably introduced all those millennia ago by Greek traders or colonists (BEFORE the time of Alexander the Great, Aristotle, Plato, or Socrates). Except that, without natural predators, the Roman crabs (which are about 12 cm, or 4.8 inches, wide) had evolved to be over twice the size of their Greek counterparts (which were only 5 cm, or about 2 inches, wide). There are now an estimated 1000 crabs down there.

So as the Etruscan culture fell and was replaced by the land of Romulus and Remus (no, I'm not talking about Star Trek Romulons, you geek!), through the rise of the Roman Republic, the rule of the Roman Empire, the fall of Rome to Germanic Barbarians, the rule of the Byzantines, the rise and fall of the Papal States, the Kingdom of Italy, through Italian Fascism and Mussolini, World War II, and the post-war reconstruction, no one knew that the crabs were down there, clicking away in the dark, feeding on algae and snails, as well as scraps of food and detritus that washed down from the city above. Yum!

I imagine that, occasionally, one of the little hard-shelled critters skittered up to the surface to take a look around and see what century it was, then retreated back down to crab paradise to report on the latest stupid human tricks:

Crab #1: "Hey, you wouldn't believe what those humans are up to these days. Some dude named Julius just got stabbed to death by a mob of his own homies."

Crab #2: "Cool. Did you bring back any scraps? I'm hungry."

Maybe, over those thousands of years, some Roman once in a while turned over a rock and found one of these little crustaceans staring up at them. The Roman probably thought, "Hey, free crab! Hail Caesar!" and boiled it alive for dinner. Mmmmm, with melted butter.....

Saturday, June 9, 2007

It's The Dead Of Night And I'm At Work

As I write this it is the dead of night, 12:54AM Friday night (or, really, Saturday morning) . . . and I am at my desk at work.

I just finished crunching a load of data so more work can be done this weekend. Such is life in an evil global biotech company.

I know what you’re thinking. And you’re right. I’m a f*ckin’ slave to my job.

So why am I sitting here at work surrounded by pages of data, rubbing raw, bleary eyes and hating life when I should be at home, snug in a warm, soft bed next to my lovely wife and falling into a coma-like sleep? Two words: irrational management.

I’ve been working like a frickin’ maniac for months now on a product which is basically a line extension of an existing product family. By the time the product came to me from our chemists, the Big Talking Heads who run the programs around here figured they could just hand it off to me and my team and we’d simply prove that the rosy image of their product was correct – that their product was the king of products, able to outshine all our others, cure cancer, stop aging, and fight off packs of ravenous dogs while emitting the lovely aroma of baked bread. They figured we could do all of our analyses in a single month and be done with it.

But no one asked me – the one actually doing the work.

In the 8 years I’ve been here I’ve been responsible, at one level or another, for development of 34 products. NONE of them took only a single month, including a number of much simpler products.

I and my team are now at the very end of the product’s R&D stage – three and a half months later. But, being irrational and wanting everything to be done now-now-now, the Big Talking Heads have put pressure on my boss. My boss responded, as he always does, by saying yes to all their demands and moved up the finish date.

Again, he didn’t ask my opinion.

Now I and a colleague have to pull double-duty (including tonight and this weekend) to try to squeeze in most of the rest of the testing. Some testing simply won’t be done in time, which puts us in the awkward position of having to choose which crucial data to leave out. My boss will look good for having gotten the job done earlier, but guess who’s going to have to answer for any holes in the data. And the product quality will suffer. If we’d only had a couple more weeks, as I had planned well ahead of time, all of the R&D work would be completed.


Image taken from HERE.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

No More Power Cords Or Batteries?

I hate wires. Hooking up stereo systems is a bother for me, but I eventually get it right. I recently wired my ceiling fan wrong and had to take it apart again to fix it – not an easy thing given that my ceiling is high (as they tend to be) and I am short. Ever tried to twist together three wires while supporting the weight of a ceiling fan and balancing on a ladder? I cursed like a sailor. Even after I finished, the damned ceiling fan still mysteriously turns on or off on its own, lights included. Some mornings I come into my family room to find the light on and the fan going full speed. I choose to live with it. I prefer to think it’s haunted rather than blame my poor electrical skills.

I include power cords in my hatred. Power cords often aren’t long enough, which offends my sense of freedom. Or if they are long enough, they get in the way, get tangled, or serve as forbidden entertainment for my toddlers. And often you have to have plug adaptors or surge protectors. My house is pretty old, and half of the sockets won’t take the three-pronged (grounded) appliance plugs, which leaves me aggravated when I can’t use the appliance I want. Our bedroom dehumidifier is on a long extension cord that runs out of our bedroom and around the corner to reach a three-prong outlet. It’s a tripping hazard. I hate it. And I can’t afford to have an electrician come and re-wire the house. Given my experience with the ceiling fan, I can say with some confidence that I shouldn’t do it myself. I prefer my house non-flaming.

I also hate batteries. All batteries, from the little button batteries through “coppertops” and rechargeables up to laptop batteries. They’re expensive. Some are heavy. They don’t hold much energy. They don’t last long enough. They contain heavy metals, and thus are pollutants when thrown away. I hate how my old electric razor battery no longer holds a decent charge, forcing me to plug it in to get a somewhat decent shave. Thus I hate both the battery and the power cord. I hate them almost enough to want to go back to the painful, bleeding manual razor and shaving lotion.

So every time I try to envision a bright and beautiful technologically-driven future, I see a house without wires or batteries. Instead, I imagine some central power source which “magically” sends energy through the ether to all the light bulbs, cell phones, can openers, kids toys, and any other electrical device within the house. You never see power cords on Star Trek, do you? Or Star Wars? Or any other sci fi show? Spock never had to plug in his tricorder. Luke didn’t have to recharge his light saber. It’s taken for granted that the power sources are either small and extremely powerful within the devices, or the central power system runs without cords.

Now some researchers have finally started making my dream a reality:

A team of physicists from MIT are able to use their device to send energy across a gap of at least seven feet to light a 60W light bulb. You can even obstruct the direct line of sight between the coils at either end of the gap (as you can see in the photo, taken from the above link). They call it "WiTricity" (for wireless electricity). Another name for this is “evanescent wave coupling.” It’s the same technology that powers your sonic toothbrush. To make WiTricity, they used a theory of coupled magnetic resonance, which is explained in that article. Basically, it’s a magnetic wave that interacts very weakly with most objects, including humans, but because the wave emitter and the device resonate at the same magnetic frequency, they interact strongly, allowing energy transfer. The article compares this to an opera singer singing at a note at just the right frequency of a wine glass, causing the glass to shatter: her vocal cords and the glass resonate at the same frequency, causing a power transfer strong enough to vibrate the glass beyond its limits. The authors imagine the technique to be broadly applicable to nearly any small electrical device, including laptops and cell phones, powering all such devices within the confines of a room.

Their work will be reported in the June 7 issue of Science Express, the advance online publication of the journal Science. (HERE is a previous article about their work). Of course, Tesla worked on this very thing, almost a century ago, but apparently this team has made new progress.

And God only knows how the magnetic field will interact with our biology. Are migrating birds passing over your house going to suddenly fly off in random directions? Are the scientists in that picture going to suffer somehow? Heck, that guy in the back is already losing his hair. Will the people in WiTricity homes develop green skin and grow to twice their height, strength, and rage level, a la the Incredible Hulk? I hope not, but then again, it would be a much more exciting world, wouldn't it?

But migrating birds and the Incredible Hulk aside, given this marvelous bit of electrical genius and the current rate of miniaturization, your laptop will soon be as light and slim as a clipboard, your cell phone will be built into your eyeglasses or earrings, and every light in your house will be able to be taken down and carried with you, still shining.

And maybe I won’t have to trip over my damned dehumidifier cord anymore.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Demise Of Books?

A used book seller name Tom Wayne, from Kansas City, has amassed tens of thousands of books in his warehouse in the past ten years of running his book shop. In an effort to thin out his inventory, he tried to give them away to libraries and thrifts shops, but he was invariably turned away because "they were full." So, in a protest against society's waning interest in the printed word, he is burning nearly his entire inventory of an estimated 20,000 surplus books:

From the article: "This is the funeral pyre for thought in America today," Wayne told spectators outside his bookstore as he lit the first batch of books.

In the last 20 years, the number of adults who read for pleasure has dropped from 57% to 50%, likely due to increases in television and internet entertainment. Said one customer, as quoted in the article: "(Wayne has) made the point that not reading a book is as good as burning it."

Sad. Book burning to bring attention to the value of those same books. Of course, Wayne's stunt has set off a flurry of book buying at his store, at cut-rate deals, so you can't feel completely sorry for the guy and his cause. But he has a very legitimate point.

By the time my children grow up they are likely to see paper books as a novelty, and print books will be relegated to sitting, unread, on library shelves and in archives. Libraries, for that matter, will become dusty affairs where people go to read only if they can't find what they are looking for in electronic media.

But even libraries are becoming obsolete as title after title are being scanned into electronic format. Already a great effort is underway, through the Internet Archive Project ( Books whose copyrights have expired (published before 1923) are free game for scanning, and encompass many of the world's rarest and well-known books. Some 44,000 books have already been scanned, dating back as far as 1475 (STORY). The Library of Congress has a similar program for its old books.

I like curling up with a good book, feeling the texture, smelling musty binding, and hearing the subtle slide of the pages. But modern books are being published electronically, in the form of eBooks. eBooks and eBook readers are still progressing, and I'd be willing to try them out. Consider the Sony Reader, for instance (HERE). It's a slim, lightweight computer pad similar to the little readers used in Star Trek, which reads not only eBooks, but also pdf files, Word documents, internet, and has a built-in mp3 player. It has a non-glare screen, and the digital book pages have the same appearance as a real page, with an off-white background. And it holds something like 80 books, with tens of thousands of titles you can download. Of course, you have to shell out $300 (after rebate), plus between $4 and $14 per digital book. Who the hell has that kind of money? No wonder I've never actually seen someone reading one.

But is the demise of the printed word really a bad thing? After all, by being electronic, it becomes accessible to anyone with an internet connection, anywhere in the world. It is searchable, so you can more quickly find the information you need in it. Thousands of titles can be saved on your standard home computer. And you can save it in any number of formats.

But as I've mentioned in a previous post (HERE), I worry that digital formats won't last as long as printed formats, due to changing technologies and corrupted data. Consider the Dead Sea Scrolls. Despite 1900 years of being buried in caves, they were still mostly legible (after careful piecing together and preservation). Could the same be expected of computer files? Will some archaeologist 1900 years from now pull my hard drive out of the dirt and be able to translate my digitally-stored blog posts? I don't think so. I weep at the possibility that my enlightened wisdom, which you have the glorious honor of reading, may not be shared with my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great- great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren, like the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls can now claim.

Well, I think printed books are going to stick around a while longer, but not forever. Records were supplanted by tapes, then CDs, then mp3 files. Incandescent bulbs are slowly being replaced by fluorescent bulbs. Books replaced papyrus and velum. Now it is the book's turn to fade into history.

I have to admit, due to my work load, parenting responsibilities, and various other interests (like writing this blog!), I simply don't have the time to read for pleasure anymore. But I miss it, and I long to curl up in a comfy chair and read for hours. I'm embarrassed to say it, but the last time I read a book for pleasure, all the way through, was over a year ago. My reading list keeps growing longer. Ah, some day….

When was the last time you read a book for pleasure?

Sunday, June 3, 2007

You Brought Your Laptop With You On Your Last Vacation, Didn't You?

I just came back from a three-day vacation. I had a great time relaxing with the kids, playing Scrabble with my mother-in-law, and staying at a snazzy timeshare condo that the in-laws had arranged for us. It was great getting away from the lab for a while. And yes, I have a great affection for my in-laws and out-laws.

Of course, "getting away from it all" is a misnomer. Vacations in my line of work, and possibly yours, too, don't mean that there is no work to do. It just piles up while you're away. My list of things to do didn't get any shorter while I was away, but now I have less time to do it in. And most likely more tasks have been put on my plate while I was away. I know from previous experience that at least half of Monday will be spent simply reading and responding to emails. I also had materials to read, a lab book to update, and a report to write, but I was a rebel and didn't do any of it. Still, all of this "vacation work" sorta puts a damper on the whole "relaxation" thing.

"But wait," you say, "just bring along your laptop and work when no one else needs you."

Sure, no problem, I'll just log on in-between swimming with my toddlers and grilling steaks with Dad. I'll call in to the office on my cell phone to "check in" while I drive back to the condo. Maybe I can squeeze in a few emails between watching "Flushed Away" with the kids and playing a game of Scrabble. You laugh. But I know you're out there, with your laptops, cell phones, blackberries, and PDAs. You're laughing because you do it, too. One coworker of mine is even dorky enough to bring his laptop and cell phone with him on camping trips.

According to a recent poll, one in five people who go on vacation bring their laptop along, mainly for keeping up with work:

Two in five downloaded their email while on vacation. 80% brought their cell phones. 50% checked work voicemail messages. According to the poll, these "techno-geeks" are typically highly-educated, under 40, and white – like me. Coincidently this is also the demographic I suspect is most likely to show off their Star Trek uniforms on first dates, but I digress.

What's wrong with this picture? Hello?!? Vacations are supposed to be about getting away from work, not taking it with you. I'm very, very good about not doing these things. I actually believe my workplace won't miss me for a few days, and any work I miss will eventually be caught up with.

But wait, just bring along your laptop and work when no one else needs you. Yes, I said it, and I did it. I brought along my laptop, and worked on it after everyone else went to sleep at night, but I swear it wasn't for work. Um, well, not for my day job, at least. I was busy working on some fiction writing (a side hobby of mine) and playing computer chess. So there. Besides, my room wasn't internet-ready.

Gasp. Yes, it's true. My room didn't have an internet connection. In this day and age when everything that includes a battery seems to be internet capable, and a significant portion of the population are beginning to resemble the Borg, my room was still operating without the world wide web. Geez, roll your eyes! How very pre-90's!

I should also mention that I had my wife's cell phone with us, but it, too, is not subscribed to any internet service.

Ah, but never fear! The condo lobby offered a single internet-ready computer that could be logged into – for the low, low price of $4.00 per half hour. Who the hell would pay four bucks to check their friggin' email, I ask? You'd have to be pretty hard up to shell it out. Being a cheap bastard, I chose to stay away, and thus you weren't graced with any blog entries for days. How did you ever make it without my illustrious wisdom catapulted to you via the binary mysteries of the www?

The last place I stayed, on a business trip to Berkeley, was an old "grand dame" hotel which turned out to be a dump. [I've stayed at enough of those "grand hotel" places to know they aren't nearly as wondrous as you would hope. Without free breakfast, and often without even swimming pools or hot tubs, you're basically paying for a nicer lobby, and the rooms are usually smaller and badly furnished. You're better off staying at Best Western, IMHO]. The lobby at that Berkeley hotel had four computers you could use, free of charge, up to 15 minutes a day. To do so, you had to get a code from the front desk. The problem was that 15 minutes is NOTHING. First of all, the connection was slow, so by the time I was able to log into my email server and actually start reading emails, nearly a third of my time was gone. Actually putting thought into my replies meant I was only able to read and reply to a fraction of my inbox. Begging for a second code was successful in doubling my time, but it was still a stretch. That same hotel offered free wifi in the lobby, but my ancient laptop was not wifi compatible. Luckily a coworker had a wifi-capable computer I could use to get some extra work done.

Anyhow, I have now returned to the modern world, and thus you get this blog post to complete your day. Enjoy.

Oh, and I rock at Scrabble. In one game, I had two 7-letter words. Beat that, you techno-geeks!

Image taken from HERE.