Week of 13 June 2011
Update: Sunday, 19 June 2011 13:46 -0400
I should have known to trust myself. I was right; the local post office
staff was wrong. Not that I blame them. Shipping regulations are
incredibly complex. But, to make a very long story short, I can legally
mail the chemistry kits via Priority Mail under the section 334
Small Quantity provisions. Here are the relevant sections (the highlighting is mine):
A small quantity
is the maximum amount of a specific hazardous material that is not
subject to any DOT requirements (e.g., packaging, marking, labeling)
other than those in 49 CFR 173.4. Not every hazardous material is eligible to be shipped as a small quantity. Additionally, for Postal Service purposes, Class 7 materials are not permitted to be sent as a small quantity.
The DOT small quantity provision, like the DOT ORM–D
category, is unique to the United States. Its use is prohibited with
international shipments of hazardous materials and cannot be used in
Hazardous materials in Class 3, Division 4.1, Division 4.2 (Packing Groups II and
III only), Division 4.3 (Packing Groups II and III only), Division 5.1,
Division 5.2, Division 6.1 (Packing Groups II and III only), Class 8,
and Class 9 are eligible to be sent in the domestic mail under the small
quantity provision only when each primary receptacle is limited to the
following quantity, as applicable:
- 30 ml (1 oz) or less for liquids other than Division 6.1 (Packing Group I) materials.
- 30 g (1 oz) or less for solids other than Division 6.1 (Packing Group I) materials.
- 1 g (0.04 oz) or less for Division 6.1 (Packing Group I) materials.
Hazardous materials eligible to be shipped under the small quantity provision permitted in 49 CFR and 334.2 must be prepared following Packaging Instruction 10A in Appendix C.
Each mailpiece that qualifies to be sent under the small quantity
provision must be clearly marked on the address side with the following
words: “This package conforms to 49 CFR 173.4.”
Some types of hazardous materials, as permitted in 334
and 49 CFR 173.4, may be prepared for mailing using the “small
quantity” provision. The small quantity provision, like the ORM–D
materials category, is unique within the United States, and its use is
prohibited in international mail.
chemistry kits meet every requirement under 334, which means I can ship
them in a flat-rate Priority Mail box. I can also ship them via USPS
Surface, which I'll do for orders to nearby addresses. Basically, USPS
Priority Mail gets me 1 to 3 day delivery to all 50 states, including
Alaska and Hawaii. For orders to North Carolina and bordering states,
USPS Surface gets me 1 to 2 day delivery, so I'll use it for kits
shipped to those locations. Assuming, of course, that the weight of the
kits (Surface has no flat-rate option) allows them to be mailed
for less postage than PM.
The first batch of kits goes out today.
When I hauled the packages to the post office yesterday, a very nice
lady helped me. As she was processing the first one, she ran through
what was obviously a canned spiel, asking me if the package contained
hazardous chemicals, biohazards, and a bunch of other non-mailable item
classes. I said, "Yes, the packages do contain hazardous
chemicals, but they're mailable via Priority Mail under the Section 334
Small Quantity Provision of 49 CFR 173.4" and pointed to the "This
package conforms to 49 CFR 173.4" label. She said, "Okay, if you say
so..." She then accepted all of the packages without further ado.
We've been talking about
medical costs over on the forums. There was an article in this
morning's paper that illustrates one aspect of the problem,
prescription drug costs.
A woman on Medicare took a prescription
for an anti-cancer drug to have it filled at the pharmacy. She was
stunned when she found out that the 25% co-pay she was responsible for
paying was $2,400 for a 30-day supply of the drug. In other words, the
true cost of that drug is $9,600 per month. Her out-of-pocket
share is $2,400, and the government pays the remaining $7,200 per month.
I don't know exactly what her condition is or which drug she was
prescribed, but I do know enough about anti-cancer drugs to strongly
suspect that the cost/benefit ratio of this drug was huge. In other
words, the cost is gigantic and the benefit is tiny, if indeed there is
any measurable benefit at all. In most cases, expensive new anti-cancer
drugs provide little or no additional survival time--sometimes
literally only days, and that measured statistically on the basis of
overall outcomes in a large trial--and no improvement in quality of
life. As the article pointed out, inexpensive older drugs are often
just as good or better than the expensive new drug.
I have to
wonder what the physician was thinking. He knew this woman was on
Medicare, and he certainly might reasonably expect that she was on a
fixed income. Why would he prescribe a medication that he knew she
couldn't afford, particularly since the probability of it actually
helping her in any real sense is vanishingly small? I also have to
wonder what Medicare is thinking. Why would they even have this drug on
their approved list? They're bankrupt already, and they certainly can't
afford to pay $7,200/month for a drug that provides no real benefit.
Medicare is going to cover prescription drug costs, it seems to me that
it should cover only generic drugs that have demonstrated
real benefits. And it should use its huge purchasing power to negotiate
the lowest possible cost for those drugs and allow participating
pharmacies to buy those generics in bulk from the winning bidders. The
actual cost of the drugs for prescriptions filled for people under
Medicare should be no higher than those paid by, for example, the UN
when it purchases drugs in bulk for third-world countries, which is
typically a buck or less for a course of treatment or a month's
supply. Of course, the pharmacy has to cover its operating costs as
well, but a filled prescription for a 30-day supply of most drugs
should cost Medicare no more than $5 or so.
Come to that, most
standard health insurance plans should do the same. The simple truth is
that most of the low-hanging fruit in pharmaceuticals has already been
plucked. Most new drugs never come to market, because they don't make
the bar for efficacy or safety. With very few exceptions, those that do
make it to market typically provide at best very minor improvements
over existing generic drugs. Often, they're actually inferior to
existing drugs by any reasonable yardstick. Any advantage the new drug
provides is usually trivial, such as requiring only one dose per day
instead of two. Paying 10, 100, or even 1,000 times as much for at best
trivial improvements makes no sense whatsoever.
are exceptions, but not many. A (very) few new drugs actually are
actually substantially better than older drugs, but price/performance
is still a major consideration, or should be. The FDA has nothing to
say about drug pricing, which is as it should be, but they do need
to revise their rules on efficacy. Right now, the standard is very low:
does the new drug work? Even if there a dozen generics on the market,
all of which are actually superior in every way to the new drug, the
FDA will approve that new drug if it is safe and efficacious. I suggest
that the FDA approve a new drug only if it is superior to existing
drugs in some significant way. In other words, it must be safer and/or
better at addressing the condition in question than existing drugs, or
it doesn't get approved. I think most people would agree that that's a
reasonable working rule.
Of course, that pretty much puts Big
Pharma out of business, which may be no bad thing. Big Pharma is as
broken as the rest of our medical care system, if not more so. It
spends billions on research and clinical trials every year, and yet the
pipeline is pretty much empty and has been for a decade or more. Big
Pharma is in a panic right now because so many of its patented drugs
that generate billions a year are about to go off-patent or have
recently done so and they have nothing even on the horizon to replace
them with. Perhaps it's time to admit that this isn't working and try
- Jerry Coyne has posted an article worth reading, Steve Gould Gets it in the neck. Although I never met Stephen Jay Gould, I've read several of his books, including (of course) The Mismeasure of Man.
He was widely considered one of the best popularizers of science; I
considered him one of the worst, and number myself--along with Richard
Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and E. O. Wilson--among his harshest critics. I
never trusted the guy. His science always seemed to take a distant
backseat to his liberal political agenda.
And now, as it turns out, my suspicions have been confirmed. A recent paper published by PLoS destroys Gould's harsh criticisms
of the 19th-century scientist Samuel George Morton, concluding
essentially that it was Morton's paper that was scientific, unbiased,
and relatively error-free, while Gould's response to that paper was
unscientific, biased, and replete with errors. In fact, although the
authors of the PLoS paper don't say so explicitly, they're essentially
charging Gould with scientific misconduct, including intentionally
misrepresenting the data, if not making it up from whole cloth. (He
apparently didn't even examine the skulls in question, let alone make
his own measurements.) Gould also attributes racist motivations to
Morton, when there is apparently no evidence in Morton's paper (I
haven't read it) that he was doing anything other than pursuing pure
I confess that I'm happy to see Gould being raked over
the coals, if only for the damage done to science by his
accommodationist concept of non-overlapping magisteria (NOLM). Oh,
well. Gould is a nasty old fraud, but at least he's a dead nasty old
Last night, Barbara and I started watching the HBO series Big Love,
which is about a polygamist family in Utah. She completely opposes one
man having multiple wives. I asked her why, since she's a strong
supporter of gay marriage, she opposes the right of these people to
marry in whatever fashion they wish. She admitted that, to be
consistent, she should also support polygamy, but said she just thinks
it's unnatural for a marriage to be more than two people.
libertarian anarchist, I, of course, support people's right to marry
however they see fit: one man with one woman, two men, two women,
polygamy, polyandry, group marriages, whatever. It's none of my
business and none of the government's business how other consenting
adults choose to lead their lives.
From a biological and social
perspective, polygamy actually makes a lot of sense. Men
are fertile from puberty to the end of their lives, with only a
slight decrease in fertility as they age. Women, on the other hand,
have a relatively short window of fertility. For the first few years
after puberty, they can become pregnant, but are much less likely to do
so than when they've reached age 18 or 19. And that period of peak
fertility lasts little more than a decade, with women's fertility
starting a rapid decline after age 30 or 35 at most. So, assuming the
male biological imperative of having as many children as possible, it
makes sense for the man to take a new young wife as each of his
existing wives ages out of her most fertile period.
As I said to
Barbara, many men do this serially, divorcing older wives and marrying
younger ones. Which is preferable? Dumping the old wives as they are no
longer capable of bearing children, or keeping them in the family and
just adding new ones? I vote for the latter. That said, although I have
no data, I strongly suspect that men who have multiple wives probably
die younger than monogamists. Having one wife can be stressful at
times; having three or four must be a killer, literally. The poor
husband in the series is forty-something, has three wives ranging in
age from his own age down to 24 or so, and pops Viagra like breath
mints just to keep up.
Barbara and I also differ in how we
perceive the wives. She thinks they're just brood mares, whose only
purpose is to pop out babies. I think they're equal partners in the
marriage; it's just that this particular marriage is a partnership of
four rather than two. In effect, the three wives are sister-wives, and
who has the right to say that this isn't a good arrangement for them?
I will admit there is a downside. In a polygamous society, there must
by definition be a lot of men without partners. Some of them will end
up with other males as partners, but only a relatively small percentage
of men are gay. That leaves a lot of frustrated young men, and
frustrated young men cause trouble. So perhaps we need a rough rule of
thumb, enforced only by social pressure; one wife is ideal, two is
acceptable if you can support them both, but any more than two is
simply greedy. Of course, in practice that means a young man should at
around age 20 marry his first wife at around age 14, and then at around
age 35 to 45 should marry his second wife, also at around age 14. Which
actually has been the historical norm.
Ah, I forgot to mention that Jas is disappearing sooner than expected.
She's off with some friends to Myrtle Beach for a week. When she
returns, she'll be home until early July, when she heads off for a
five-week summer session at UNC. When Kim told Barbara and me about
this last night, I thought she was talking about some kind of long
orientation, but this is actual classes. Jas will get seven credit
hours for those five weeks. She returns home August 10th, and then has
two weeks at home before she leaves again to start the autumn semester.
had a talk with Jas the other day about her major. She really, really
wants to be in business for herself, and for quite a while she was
determined to major in business. I told Jas that in this economic
climate the vast majority of graduating business majors find
themselves working the counter at McDonalds, if not unemployed.
Furthermore, majoring in business isn't going to teach Jas how to run
her own business. What they teach in college about business has almost
no relation to starting and running one's own business in the real
I encouraged Jas to major in engineering or a hard
science, even if she has no intention of pursuing it as a career. I
told her that engineering or a hard science would teach her how to
think, which most kids come out of college not knowing how to do. The
problem is, I don't know if Jas is smart enough to major in engineering
or a hard science. I know she gets good grades and she works incredibly
hard, and for most endeavors that's sufficient. But not for engineering
or hard science.
I suggested the other evening that Jas at
least give it a try. I told her that if she sits down in her first,
say, engineering class, there may be a couple hundred students in
there, half of whom will be gone by the end of the first semester. If
she's one of them, fine. There's no shame in that. But if she can cut
it, I think she'll be much better off challenging herself with a
rigorous, demanding course load. She can always take some elective
courses in stuff like business law and intro accounting to help
prepare for running her own business. Whatever Jas ends up doing with
her life, she'll be a lot better off as a graduating senior with a
degree in engineering or a hard science than she would be with a degree
in a non-rigorous subject.
Jas, of course, listened politely to
what I had to say, but she didn't give any indication of what she was
thinking. Probably because she's not sure what she'll end up doing.
Greece is in the news again. Greeks are rioting to protest government
austerity measures that amount to bandaids. The irony is that if all of
those austerity measures are implemented, they'll at most stave off
default for a few more months. Greece is going to default. Everyone
knows that, and everyone is pretending that it might still be avoided.
Greece is already paying 18.4% on bonds, but 18.4% isn't sufficient to
tempt investors who know that those bonds are essentially worthless.
Smart money long ago fled to the US dollar, and the supply of dumb
money is fast drying up.
At this point, everyone is fully aware
that giving any money to Greece is throwing good money after bad. And
yet the EU continues to do so, because when Greece collapses, the
collapse of Portugal, Spain, and Ireland must soon follow. Italy,
Belgium, and France won't be far behind. Essentially, the Euro is
toast, and everyone knows that. Germany is already drained, and cannot
continue to impoverish its own citizens to subsidize the rest of the
EU. When Germany opts out, the whole row of dominoes topples, and much
of Europe will find itself for all intents and purposes joining the
Third World. This is going to get ugly, fast.
I just hope the US
does nothing rather than dumping any of our own resources down that
rathole. We need to withdraw from Europe entirely, including from NATO,
and let the Europeans fix their own mess. We have a big enough mess of
our own to deal with.
Apparently, the situation in Greece is even worse than the mainstream
media has been reporting. The S&P credit rating for Greece is
now lower than that of Ecuador, which has actually defaulted twice
in the last dozen years, most recently about five years ago. The flag
can't get much redder than that.
The IMF, although it promised
yesterday to deliver the next portion of the bailout so that Greece
could meet its obligations through the summer, has concluded that
Greece cannot be saved. At this point, they're knowingly throwing good
money after bad, on the slim hope that by extending the time until
Greece defaults by a year or two, they may be able to decouple Spain,
Italy, and the other weakest members of the EU from the Greek
catastrophe. Slim hope, fat chance. Tossing Greece to the wolves may
delay the European crash by a few months, but nothing more.
this plays out, expect the Euro, which currently buys about $1.41, to
fall below dollar parity later this year, and then continue to spiral
downward. The pressure on European banks and governments will be
incredible, with interest rates spiking as money flees the Euro for the
dollar. The effect here in the US won't be good, as the stronger dollar
makes it harder for US firms to sell to Europe and US firms find
themselves competing in our local markets with cheaper European
imports. But the effect in Europe will be disastrous. The days of bread
and circuses are rapidly drawing to a close.
We may very well be
seeing the first stages of a revolution in Greece. The mainstream media
mostly calls what's going on in Greece "protests", but make no mistake.
These are full-blown, large-scale riots, with the rioters throwing
Molotov cocktails, reminiscent of the similar riots a few years ago in
France. These people are deadly serious, and they're not going to get
what they're demanding. That bodes ill, not just for Greece, but for
Portugal, Spain, Ireland, and the rest of the EU as the economic
situation continues to get worse.
A look at the Wikipedia S&P ratings map shows just how bad things are:
Countries shown in green are in the best shape economically, which is
to say horrible shape. Those in turquoise, such as Spain, China, and
Japan, are teetering on the edge. Those in light blue, such as Italy,
Poland, and Chile, are already past salvage. Those in dark blue,
such as India, Russia, Brazil, and Mexico are utterly hopeless. Those
in magenta, such as Egypt, Turkey, and much of southeast Asia, are in
Cheyne-Stokes breathing. Those in red are zombies, and those in gray
are vampires that have already been staked.
And we all have our respective governments to thank for this mess.
- Barbara and I drove over to the state fairgrounds in Raleigh yesterday to attend Maker Faire North Carolina.
Although the event is sanctioned by O'Reilly/MAKE, it's organized and
managed by a group of local volunteers. We arrived just after the event
opened at 10:00 a.m., and our timing was perfect. We walked up to the
ticket office and bought tickets without having to stand in line.
Literally one minute later, the line for tickets extended across the
floor, out the door, and around the building.
I was surprised by
the number of exhibitors, which was much higher than I expected. The
image below shows part of the show floor shortly after opening. At that
point, Barbara and I both estimated there were already several hundred
attendees on the floor. I suspect the final attendance numbers will
exceed the hopes of the organizers.
were many interesting exhibits, but the real reason we attended was
that our long-time editor, Brian Jepson, was attending, and Barbara had
never met him face-to-face. That's Brian on the left. In case you
can't read my t-shirt, which was a gift from Paul Jones and Mary
Chervenak, it says, "Chemistry / We Do Stuff In Lab That Would Be A
Felony In Your Garage". A dozen or more people stopped me to tell me
they liked the shirt.
I'm seriously considering doing Netflix a big favor: cutting my current
$20/month 3-discs-at-a-time plan to their $10/month 1-at-a-time plan.
I'll be paying them half as much, but for one third as many discs, and
shipping discs back and forth is what really costs them money. And they
actually may end up making a (small) profit on me, which is better than
losing money on me every month as they've been doing for years.
can watch as many discs as they send us on the current plan, but that
doesn't leave a lot of time to watch streaming stuff, of which there's
a lot in our queue. Cutting back the number of discs and watching more
streaming will make Netflix happy, and frankly most of what is in our
disc queue right now is stuff that I'd be willing to watch, but
wouldn't go out of my way to get. At the same time, there's a lot of
stuff in our instant queue that I really would like to watch.
only Netflix could get everything in their instant catalog that's in
their disc catalog, I'd happily pay them $20/month for a
0-discs-at-a-time plan and just watch streaming.
1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010,