Wednesday, 2 April 2014

07:55 – Barbara is taking the day off work today to make a day trip up to Virginia with her friend Bonnie Richardson. As usual, I tried to convince her to take Colin along. As usual, she deemed that suggestion unworthy of a reply.

I did a phone interview yesterday with Lauren Wolf of Chemical & Engineering News about the S.P.A.R.K. Competition, mostly about the disappearance of real chemistry sets since the 60’s and what S.P.A.R.K. might do to improve the situation. She asked if I knew of any scientists who got their start with a chemistry set, and I told her that she’d be hard-pressed to find any scientist of my generation who hadn’t gotten started in science with a chemistry set. Lauren’s Ph.D. is in physical/bioanalytical chemistry, so I asked her if she’d had a chemistry set as a kid. She hadn’t, but she said she had spent some time in her grandmother’s basement mixing detergents and other chemicals she found there. Of course she hadn’t had a chemistry set. Lauren is young enough to be my daughter, and by the time she should have gotten her first chemistry set, such things no longer existed. More’s the pity.


10:11 – Kit sales still “feel” slow subjectively, but I just checked the figures. In Q1 of this year, our revenues were about 10 times those of 2012Q1 and 1.8 times those of 2013Q1. If that trajectory holds, we’re going to sell a lot of kits this year.

I’ve boosted our batch sizes accordingly. Originally, we made up and bottled chemicals for batches of 15 forensic kits and 30 each biology and chemistry kits. As of now, we’re making up and bottling chemicals for batches of 60 forensic kits and 120 each biology and chemistry kits. The larger runs use our time more efficiently. Which reminds me that I need to get the last half dozen or so solutions made up that we need for another batch of biology kits. And I need to get started on the taxes.

Monday, 23 April 2012

07:38 – Back to heads-down work on the forensics book.


10:02 – Wow. The government’s bogus inflation numbers continue to surprise me. I originally wrote the text for this forensics book back in late 2008 and early 2009. I was just updating one of the lab sessions on soil analysis. It uses the Project Star Spectrometer, which was widely available for $25 or so back in 2009. (I know; I bought one and I still have the receipt.) Three years later, it’s still widely available, but now it sells for $37 to $45. That’s 50% to 80% inflation in only three years, or an annual inflation rate of roughly 14% to 22%.


13:25 – Derek Lowe has an interesting post up about self-medication: Making Their Own ALS Drug. As Bob Dylan wrote in his best track and probably the best rock-and-roll track ever, “When you got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose”. And these ALS patients definitely got nuthin’.

What was particularly interesting to me is that Derek, a pharmaceutical chemist, states publicly something that few scientists would admit to: that if he were diagnosed with such a disease, he’d go the Hail Mary route and happily start taking this stuff. And, although few scientists would admit something like this publicly, it’s something that nearly all would do privately. In short, some evidence, no matter how scanty, is sufficient to take desperate action rather than doing nothing. When you know what the certain outcome is, even a one in a million shot is better than nothing. And many of these proto-drugs have sufficient evidence suggesting possibly beneficial effects that taking them on spec is considerably better than a one-in-a-million shot.

When the Cancer Cell article about dichloroacetic acid came out, I immediately downloaded and read the full paper. My reaction then was, “this might not work in humans, but then again it very well might.” So, that very day, I ordered 250 mL of reagent-grade dichloroacetic acid from Fisher Scientific and put it on the shelf. I forwarded a link to the paper to Paul Jones, and in a follow-up conversation I mentioned with some hesitation that I’d ordered the DCA. Frankly, I was afraid he’d think I was ridiculous for giving in to woo, but his reaction was the same as mine: it might not work, but then again what’s to lose?

Paul and Mary are both organic chemists. Barbara is not a chemist, but she trusts the three of us. If the worst happened to any of us and traditional treatments held out no possibility of a cure, I think it’s very likely that we’d have a little get-together around the lab bench. We’d make up a big batch of sodium or potassium dichloroacetate and purify the shit out of it by repeated recrystallization, preparatory column chromatography, or whatever. So, yeah, I can understand why these ALS patients are willing to swallow a sodium chlorite solution and cross their fingers. When you got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose. And the damned FDA and the rest of the government should just look the other way.

Monday, 22 August 2011

10:11 – The Euro continues to stagger toward its inevitable collapse. Finland, Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Holland have now essentially pulled out of the second Greek bailout, calling into question whether Greece will ever see those funds. Other EU nations, which are still on the hook for their share of the bailout, are rightly questioning why their taxpayers should be subsidizing Greece while those of other EU nations are not. Ultimately, it may be up to Germany to carry the full load, and it’s by no means certain that German taxpayers will agree to do so.

There are increasingly shrill demands for Eurobonds, a proposed solution that will not and cannot work, as the Germans have made abundantly clear. Even if the Germans could somehow magically be convinced to go along with Eurobonds, those bonds would be self-defeating. In essence, Germany would be agreeing to take on the cumulative debt of the spendthrift EU nations, adding that debt to their own balance sheet. If that happened, Germany would lose its own AAA rating overnight, making the cost of its own borrowing skyrocket and causing bondholders to dump German debt and flee to perceived safer havens like the UK and the US bond markets. In effect, by agreeing to Eurobonds, Germany would be cutting its own throat.

There are only two possible solutions to the Euro crisis. First, Germany and the other fiscally responsible nations in the northern tier could withdraw from the Euro, leaving the Euro to collapse, along with the poor southern nations that would still be using it. Second, the EU could adopt complete fiscal integration, with all member nations completing giving up their sovereignty to the EU federal government. That’s not going to happen, and even if it did it would take so long to implement that the Euro would be just a distant memory by the time it was implemented.

We have such a transfer union here in the United States on at least two levels, with richer states subsidizing poorer states, and richer areas of a particular state subsidizing poorer areas of that state. We tolerate that because it’s been that way for so long that few people even think about it. But if the United States were a collection of truly independent states, much as the EU is now, the chances of those 50 states agreeing to form a federal union, with the fiscal integration and ongoing transfers from rich to poor that that implies, would be nearly zero. For that matter, there’d be nearly zero chance that the taxpayers of North Carolina would agree to implement the present system, where those of us in the rich urban areas pay a grossly excessive portion of state taxes, which are then transferred to poor rural areas. That’s the choice that EU taxpayers are faced with, and they’re simply not going to agree to it.

There is actually a third solution, but depending on it would prove truly catastrophic. The ECB can simply print more Euros, and use them to buy back worthless Greek, Irish, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian debt with inflated (devalued) Euros. The ECB actually started doing this a couple of weeks ago, with the stated intention of propping up Spanish and Italian debt. The more responsible ECB authorities, fully aware of the implications of such an action, argued strenuously against doing it, but they were overruled. However, there’s a big difference between using inflated Euros to buy $30 billion of bonds a week for two or three weeks and spending $50 billion a week in inflated Euros for months or years on end. Even those ECB authorities who supported these bond buys on a short-term basis are very unlikely to agree to continue doing so indefinitely. Even they must realize that doing that must inevitable destroy the Euro, and in a period measured in months rather than years.


11:17 – Several days ago, I mentioned a very encouraging paper on broad-spectrum antivirals, which may eventually lead to a real breakthrough in viral therapies. Derek Lowe, a pharmaceutical chemist, has an interesting take on this paper. If you have any interest in antivirals, Derek’s column is well worth reading (as is the original paper).

A day in the life

Here’s a wonderful post from Abbie Smith, AKA ERV. You probably need to be a working scientist to appreciate it fully, but Abbie gives a great description of her working day as a grad student down in the pits of bench science, where everything is easy but even the easy things are difficult.

Incidentally, don’t let Abbie’s LOLcat prose turn you off. It’s just how she writes blog entries, with various affectations such as refusing to use apostrophes in contractions. I’m not sure why she does that. When we exchange email, she writes fluent and literate English prose. Perhaps it’s because Abbie likes to be underestimated by creationists and other anti-science folks. When they do that, which they do regularly, they are making a serious mistake. Abbie has a first-rate brain and the heart of a pit bull.

Death of SciBlogs

Yesterday, PZ Myers announced the death of SciBlogs. No surprise there. SciBlogs has always been fragile. It nearly collapsed a year ago, with the “PepsiGate scandal”, when many of its most popular bloggers left to go elsewhere. Fortunately for SciBlogs, PZ Myers decided to keep his Pharyngula blog on SciBlogs. If he’d left then, SciBlogs would have collapsed quickly, since PZ’s blog by itself accounted for the majority of SciBlog’s traffic.

But in the last year things have not improved for SciBloggers. Apparently, they get next to no support, their suggestions and complaints are met with dead silence, and their paychecks arrive late or never. The root of the problem is that Seed Media, the owners of SciBlogs, have never been any good at selling ads on SciBlogs. I run AdBlock Plus, so I’ve never seen an ad on SciBlogs, but I’m told that the only ads they run are a motley collection of garbage ads for stuff like psychics, dating services, and politicians. Not a good fit for their subject matter, to say the least.

Fortunately, as SciBlogs implodes, it appears that some of their best bloggers have found new homes with the much more prestigious Scientific American blogs and possibly the National Geo blogs. The details about who’s going where aren’t yet clear.

I emailed my favorite SciBlogger, Abbie Smith, yesterday to offer her an emergency landing site if she temporarily found herself blog-homeless. She replied with thanks, but said (as I expected) that her blog was being picked up by another science blogging service.

Meanwhile, it appears that PZ and Ed Brayton have decided to combine forces and self-publish their blogs. Apparently, the restrictions imposed by SciAm blogs were too onerous for them. SciAm was willing to let the SciBlogs refugees blog about whatever topics they wanted–including atheism, evolution, and other topics that generate a lot of heat–but would not allow f-bombs and other strong language. That’s a reasonable restriction, given that SciAm blogs targets schools, but I understand why PZ and Ed decided to opt out of SciAm blogs.

Abbie would have been welcome to go along with them, but she decided that SciAm or National Geo would be a better fit for her. Of course, Abbie writes mostly about science, which can’t be said for many of the current SciBloggers.

Rinderpest is no more

The New York Times reports that, for only the second time in history, humans have eradicated a disease in the wild. The first one, of course, was smallpox, which now exists only in a few government laboratories. This one is rinderpest, a plague that affected cattle and related animals, sometimes with 95% or higher mortality rates.

Like smallpox, I’m sure government labs have kept rinderpest specimens, both as a potential bioweapon and as a counter to its use as a bioweapon. And, of course, “extinct” is a matter of opinion. Many species thought to be extinct have since been rediscovered in the wild, and scientists have sometimes been surprised by how good some viruses are at finding new vectors. Let’s hope there’s no reservoir of this virus remaining in the wild.

Figures lie and liars figure

Most of us frequently read mainstream media “science news” articles that make startling assertions about this or that. And, with very few exceptions, the assertions made in those articles are not supported by data included in the article, nor even by a link to the original paper.

For example, I read an article the other day that claimed that sitting for 6 hours or more per day greatly increased the likelihood that one would die young. Furthermore, said the article, exercising regularly did not offset the harmful effect of sitting for 6 hours or more per day. Presumably, one could run 10 miles before work and 10 miles after work, but that six hours of sitting in the middle renders all of that exercise worthless.

And the figures were pretty startling. Men who sat for 6 hours per day or more experienced 20% higher mortality over the course of the study than men who were less chair-bound. For women, it was even worse, with 40% increased mortality.

The obvious lesson here is that everyone who wants to live to a ripe old age should flee screaming from their chairs. Offices should scrap their desks wholesale and replace them with standing desks. Everyone should get rid of the sofas and easy chairs in their dens and watch TV standing up. Restaurants should get rid of their tables and booths and replace them with bars where one stands to dine. Sporting stadiums should rip out those rows of benches and chairs and require sports fans to stand while they watch a game. Schools and universities should remodel their classrooms to require students to stand during lectures.

I haven’t even looked at the original paper, but I still call bullshit. In the first place, this study, like all such studies, depends on self-reported behavior, which is notoriously unreliable. In the second place, although I might believe that it’s harmful to sit for 6 hours straight every day, week after week, year after year, not many people actually do that. Even the most chairborne office worker takes bathroom breaks, lunch breaks, smoke breaks, and so on.

I’m probably pretty typical in that respect. Even when I’m writing heads-down, I seldom sit still for more than an hour, and usually much less. I get up to use the bathroom. I get up to walk into the kitchen for more Coke or a snack. I take the dog for a short walk. (Right now, with a four-month-old puppy, that happens literally 20 times a day or more.) I get up when the mail arrives or the UPS guy delivers a package. Do I sit 6 hours during the course of a day? Sure, every day. I sit at my desk during the day, and on the sofa in the evenings. But I think the last time I sat for 6 hours straight was … never.