Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The World's Largest Bubble Bath

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

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

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

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

Now THAT'S a bubble bath!

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

Thursday, August 23, 2007

An Experiment On Memory Retention

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

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

It's over a thousand pages long.

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

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

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

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

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

Do you agree? Would you volunteer for this test?

Image taken from HERE.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Now I've Gone And Done It!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images adapted from HERE and HERE.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Will It Ever End?

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

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

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

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

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

Gee. Why am I not surprised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images adapted from HERE and HERE.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Chinese Suicide And Cute Furry Monsters

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

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

Now they’re killing themselves:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image taken from HERE.

Friday, August 10, 2007

A Missing Meteorite, Aliens, And The Largest Impact Ever

Get this. A meteorite weighing over 3 tons has gone missing:

The gigantic meteorite was found on a 2004 expedition to investigate the famed Tunguska Event, a massive explosion over remote Siberia back in 1908 that was 1000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima H-bomb explosion. No one has satisfactorily explained the explosion, and theories abound: everything from a meteorite to a miniature black hole. It leveled trees for 830 square miles. The strangest thing is that the explosion happened 5 to 10 kilometers above the surface of the earth.

The gigantic meteorite was housed in the yard of the Tunguska Event Foundation in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, and went missing in June during a move to a new facility. How does a 3 ton stone get stolen? Not easily.

Oh, but the story gets much, much more interesting…..

Foundation director Yury Lavbin had led the expedition that found the meteor. On that expedition, he also claimed to have found the remains of – drumroll please – an alien spacecraft!

After revising the trajectory of the Tunguska meteor based on new data, Lavbin and his colleagues were able to trace more precisely where any meteoric debris would wind up. What they found in that location was a large, “blocklike” object made of gray, shiny metal. They managed to chip off a piece of it and conducted metallurgical analysis. From the article: “Preliminary analyses show that it is a compound of iron silicate with unknown material.” Follow-up studies continue.

Fascinating. Remember, scientists must, by practice, keep an open mind about things. Even though UFO’s seem outlandish, there is lots of evidence every year in photographs, video, credible witness testimonials, and even trace evidence which would lead me to believe there is something very real going on that cannot easily be explained. Certainly a lot more evidence than, say, a belief in God, for instance. But I'll reserve my belief until he presents his findings in some peer-reviewed publication, or actually presents his "spacecraft debris" to the doubting public.

And I think it’s a little too soon to go around saying that aliens collided with a meteor to save Earth, eh?

Addendum: THIS website provides a skeptical UFOlogist’s view of the whole UFO claim. In it he carefully lays out his rationale for doubting the claim unless better evidence is put forward. I’m inclined to agree.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Saving Bridges With Chip Flavorings

I’m not a huge fan of potato chips. For one thing, I have an MSG allergy. Eating even a tiny amount of synthetic MSG gives me a raging migraine that can last for days, and nearly all brands of potato chips include it. But of the few varieties of chips that I can eat, one of my favorite flavors is salt and vinegar. Oh yes, salty, crispy, tangy. Snap, baby! But do the chip companies actually pour vinegar over the potatoes? No, they add flavoring in the form of sodium acetate.

Now a Jordanian researcher has found a very interesting use for this puckering chemical: concrete sealant!

Concrete is very porous and breaks down when water enters all those pours, rusting out the steel innards and, during cold weather, freezing, expanding, and cracking the concrete.

Awni Al-Otoom of the Jordan University of Science and Technology coated concrete with sodium acetate. Sodium acetate, normally a crystal, swells when contacting water. Thus when he applied the water, the sodium acetate at once absorbs the water and blocks further entry of those water molecules into the concrete through that pore. Ingenious. When it dries, the crystal dries too, opening the pore and allowing water that got through to evaporate out. The study is detailed in the Aug. 1 issue of the journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research.

This is, of course, of particular timely interest given the dramatic destruction of the bridge in Minneapolis. Was concrete fatigue at fault? Probably not given it was a mostly-steel bridge, but who can say for sure at this time, since there were concrete portions?

So, in the future, you may be able to cross bridges knowing that the flavor of your chips is protecting your ass as you cross.

I wonder if, as you are crossing, you stop and lick the concrete, would it taste like your salt-and-vinegar chips?

Image taken from HERE.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Yep, Still Due To Morons

If you’ve read this blog for long, you know my fascination with a mud volcano in Indonesia called Lusi (HERE was my last post on it). Lusi erupted in May 2006 after morons from a natural gas drilling operation called Lapindo Brantas drilled a borehole without adequately protecting the hole from collapsing the surrounding strata. As a result, hot water and mud shot up through their hole to form a continuously bubbling mud volcano.

The mud from that volcano has now submerged 10 square kilometers, displaced up to 30,000 people, covered homes, highways, train rails, and factories, and resulted in the death of 13 people when a natural gas line exploded. Repeated attempts to staunch the flow have all failed, including diverting the mud to rivers and throwing down gigantic concrete balls and chains. Nature has refused all attempts.

Lapindo Brantas has attempted to claim that the volcano was not due to their own stupidity, but rather to an earthquake that happened a couple days before.

Now a geologist (Professor Richard Davies of Durham University's Centre for Research into Earth Energy Systems) has shown conclusively that their earthquake argument is full of hot air (or hot natural gas if you like):

The report was published in the journal GSA Today.

I love it when morons in positions of authority get caught trying to worm their way out of responsibility. This study ought to be the last nail in the coffin for Lapindo, who is trying to get out of paying for the damages by claiming the volcano was “natural.”

But look on the bright side, Lapindo. Maybe you could open a mud spa resort!

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Brought Back To Consciousness

Six years ago a man was assaulted and brain-injured to the point of being put into a minimally-conscious state, unable to eat, and only able to intermittently communicate using slight movements of his eyes or thumbs. Recently, scientists put electrodes in his brain and, through the miracle of mild electrocution, have given him a partial recovery:


Scientific abstract from the journal Nature:

The 38-year old patient, whose name was not given, now has the ability to speak a few breathy words at a time when asked for a reply, and has recited the first half of the Pledge of Allegiance. He can chew now, so they took out his feeding tube and can feed him the normal way. And he can make more complex movements with his hands and arms, though his tendons and muscles have atrophied from lack of use over the years. To do this, the scientists inserted electrodes and gave electrical stimulation in short sessions. Now he is stimulated constantly.

I would love to know what his first words were, but I could hazard a guess. Here's a top-ten list of things I might want to say if I were in his shoes:

1. "What the hell are you doing to my f*ckin' head?"

2. "Scratch my back, quick! Ahhh!! That's been itching for years!

3. "Get me a bacon cheeseburger, and make it snappy! I don't know how long this will last!"

4. "I've been staring at a blank ceiling for six years. Hang some posters of pin-up models, already."

5. "We're at war in Iraq? I thought the idea was to fight Osama bin Laden?"

6. "So how does Harry Potter end?"

7. "Damn, I'm horny! Let's electrically stimulating something else.…"

8. "Would it kill you to put a TV in here? I've been SOOOO bored!"

9. "How about lowering the voltage a little? My fillings are sparking."

10. "George W. Bush is still president?? Quick, put me back under!"

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Be Stung By Jellyfish -- For Fun!

Have you ever had a desire to help science – as a human guinea pig? No? Oh, come on, you know there's an inkling in there that you'd like to subject yourself to some sort of diabolical testing for the betterment of mankind. Heck, you don't have to be a starving college student to enjoy the subtle pleasures of being exposed to strange pills, electroshock experimentation, dietary disruptions, or psychological manipulations for laughable compensations.

Consider, if you will, a recent call for volunteers to be stung by jellyfish:

Another source of the story: HERE

Norwegian researchers at the University of Oslo are looking for volunteers to help them test a sunscreen that can also repel jellyfish stings.

From the article: "The study, sponsored by AC Suncare, a Norwegian sun care company and manufacturer of the product, will test the efficacy of an anti-jellyfish sting sunscreen developed by Nidaria, an Israeli technology company." The protectant is mucus-like in consistency and is supposed to mimic the protective coating on clownfish, which live in the tentacles of stinging anemones without being harmed.

As long as you are over 18, not pregnant, asthmatic, or have skin allergies or diseases, you can sign up. Oh, and you have to be hairless on your inner arms. Seeing as how I'm as hairy as a frickin' caveman, I guess that leaves me out. Shucks. But maybe YOU could still sign up, eh?

Should you join their research, one of your arms will be coated in regular sunscreen and the other will be coated with sunscreen plus jellyfish protectant. Then – oh lucky you – both arms will be subjected to stinging jellyfish tentacles. That's 2000 stinging jellyfish needles for every square millimeter of your supple flesh that comes in contact with a tentacle. I can just see you willingly lowering your arms into a giant tank packed with pulsating jellyfish.

When I was about 13 years old, my family and I traveled to Panama Beach, Florida, on vacation. On my first dip into the ocean, I waded off the bone-white beach into the surf. Literally the second wave to hit me, some sort of jellyfish wrapped around me and then washed away. Instantly I was hit by blinding pain. Looking down at my torso, I saw red whelps developing, front and back. It was as if someone was shoving about a thousand red-hot ice picks into my quivering teenage skin. I shouted to my mother and managed to make it back to the beach. Knowing the secret of how to treat such stings, my stepfather ran to a nearby store and bought a container of meat tenderizer, then ran back. Mixing the meat tenderizer powder with water into a paste and applying it to the whelps, the pain quickly dissipated. A decade later, I learned why. The enzymes in the meat tenderizer, which are used to break down the protein matrix of meat to make it tender, also broke down the proteins that caused the stinging sensation. Now, having experienced jellyfish stings, I can say I would rather not re-experience the sensation – over and over again – even in the name of science.

And what, per se, do the intrepid volunteers of this study get in compensation for their sufferings? Good pay? A glamorous all-expenses paid trip to Oslo? A night with beautiful Norwegian women?

Not even close: Three bottles of anti-jellyfish sunscreen.

Wow! Let's not get too extravagant! Hell, it would be less embarrassing to claim you're just doing it for fun than to boast about being compensated with three lousy bottles of anti-jellyfish sunscreen which has yet to be shown to work.

And let's hope they have plenty of meat tenderizer around the lab.

Image taken from HERE.