Wednesday, 10 October 2012

08:15 – Beginning 1 January, the Catholic church loses its tax exemption in Italy. It’s about time for something similar to happen here in the US, not just to the Catholic church, but to all churches and non-profits. There’s no good reason why churches and non-profits shouldn’t be paying property taxes and other taxes just like the rest of us. The problem, of course, is our First Amendment. Here’s the relevant portion:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

That’s all it says. The first clause refers to “established” (official, state-supported) religions. The Founders meant that Congress could not force states to give up their state-supported religions, if they had one, nor could Congress establish a state-supported religion at the federal level. The second clause meant that Congress must allow people to worship (or not worship) as they chose. That’s it.

Now, strict separationists might argue that the power to tax is the power to destroy, and they have a point. But the reality is that making churches subject to the same property and other taxes that we all pay, at the same levels that we all pay, in no way violates the Constitution. I could even argue that the tax-exempt status of churches forces me to subsidize them through my property taxes, which is a clear violation of the Constitution. Why should I have to pay higher property taxes to provide them with government services that they should be paying for themselves? Why should churches get a free ride?

09:57 – Interesting article on CNN: Are we throwing away ‘expired’ medications too soon?

The short answer is yes. Much too soon. Pharma companies would argue that they have no way of controlling storage conditions and that it’s better to be safe than sorry. Of course, what they’re really doing is covering their collective asses. The reality is that most drugs stored at room temperature out of direct sunlight are probably still perfectly good after at least five to ten times the shelf life on the label. Storing them in the refrigerator or freezer increases the shelf life of most drugs dramatically.

The rule of thumb in chemistry is that a 10C change in temperature doubles or halves the reaction rate. In comparison to typical room temperature of 20C, most home freezers operate at about -30C. Call it five doublings, or a factor of 32. So, a bottle of, say, amoxicillin tablets that has a one-year expiration date should in fact be good for at least 32 years if stored in the freezer. When you consider that that amoxicillin stored at room temperature would probably maintain the vast majority of its potency for more like five to ten years, that means storing it in the freezer extends its shelf life to something on the order of 150 to 300 years.

In the interests of avoiding the monetary and other costs of discarding perfectly good drugs, it seems reasonable to me that manufacturers should extend their published shelf-lives to something more reasonable. Obviously, there’s an issue here: the only certain way to determine actual shelf lives is to wait and see. You can do accelerated aging tests at elevated temperatures, but those are not perfect substitutes for waiting one year per year at normal storage temperatures. You can also do tightly-controlled drug assays at reduced temperatures. For example, store numerous very accurately-weighed specimens at -30C and then assay a statistically-significant sample of those specimens every six months for five years. That should give a reasonably reliable trend line, although again it’s not a perfect substitute for wait-and-see.

But one way or another, we should do something about this problem. Many drugs are in short supply, some of them critically so. It’s sickening to think of how much of many of those drugs has been discarded due simply to an arbitrary use-by date on the labels. Nor am I happy about the amount of antibiotics that end up in our waste water and environment. If you want bacteria to develop resistance to an antibiotic, there’s no better way than to have that antibiotic present pervasively at low levels in the environment.

Now, obviously, there are exceptions. Some drugs can’t be frozen at all, and the slopes of the reaction rate line will differ from drug to drug. But for the vast majority of drugs, refrigerating or freezing them in storage is a good solution. I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to use amoxicillin that had been frozen for 20 years or more. In fact, I’ve done it. I have a bunch of it as well as other antibiotics in the downstairs freezer. The expiration dates on most of them are in 2013, which means they’ll really expire in about 2113. But pharmacies don’t have to go to that extreme. They should install freezers for drug storage. The drug companies can continue to label their drugs with one-year expiration dates, but the regulations that govern pharmacies should explicitly permit them to store drugs frozen for at least five to ten times the nominal expiration data, unless the drug manufacturer explicitly lists a particular drug as not being suitable for freezing to extend its shelf life. And the drugs companies should have to show credible evidence that this is the case.

16:54 – Among other things, I’m making up a lot of stains for the biology kits. My vote for the stainiest of these is crystal violet. The kits include Hucker’s Crystal Violet, which is essentially a 1% (0.01) aqueous solution of crystal violet with 0.8% m/v of ammonium oxalate. That solution is nearly opaque in a one-liter soda bottle. I’d guess that it would impart a noticeable violet cast to water at a concentration of 0.0000001 or less. Fortunately, the stuff really is water soluble, and it pretty much washes off my skin with just soap and water. It’d probably even wash out of clothing.

19:14 – I was just walking Colin when I saw/heard something I don’t see/hear every day. A full-blown race car driving down our street. At first, I thought it was the replica I mentioned here. But it wasn’t. That one was bright yellow and mostly enclosed. The one I saw tonight was a much more open frame vehicle. I don’t pay much attention to car racing but it reminded me of an Indy car.

It certainly wasn’t the car I saw parked on our street a year or so ago. That one was a replica Can-Am car with a 2-liter 4-cylinder Honda engine. The one tonight had a serious engine. I heard it coming a block away, even though it was cruising very slowly. The headlights were bright, so I couldn’t see the car itself until it came flush with me. I thought it was a Corvette until it passed me slowly. The frame was pretty open, although there were headlights and taillights mounted. I couldn’t see if there was a license plate or not, but from the lights I assume it was street legal. The exhaust tone, even at near-idle was very deep and loud, and it wasn’t because the guy had a bad muffler.

Granted, we’re in the middle of NASCAR/Winston Cup territory, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see a NASCAR racecar on a flatbed in the neighborhood. But I can’t figure out why I keep seeing different types of race cars on our street. I’m expecting to see a Stanley Steamer any day now. It did, after all, hold the speed record for steamers until a couple years ago.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

08:52 – For about 20 years, I’ve been ordering bulk pipe tobacco from Craig Tarler at Cornell & Diehl. I order five pounds at a time, which lasts me a few months. I store the gallon ziplock bags in the freezer. So, the other day I finished off a bag and pulled a new bag out of the freezer. It felt light, so I tossed it on the shipping balance, which indicated only 14.4 ounces. The empty bag with label weighed 0.5 ounces, so that meant there was only 13.9 ounces of tobacco in the bag, more than 2 ounces short. The remaining bags weighed 15.1, 14.8, and 15.3 ounces.

I’ve been dealing with Craig for 20 years, since soon after he opened his business in 1990, so it never even crossed my mind that the shortage was intentional. I figured his balance must be miscalibrated, so I called yesterday and asked to speak with Craig. He wasn’t available, so I told the guy who’d answered the phone about the problem. He apologized profusely and said they’d ship replacement tobacco. I thought no more about it.

Then, this morning, I fished an email out of my trash folder. It was a forwarded message saying that Craig had died recently. Wow. I’d never met Craig, and spoke to him on the phone only every few months, but it still feels like I’ve lost a friend. Craig was never in a hurry when I spoke to him. We’d finish our business in the first couple minutes, and then talk for 10 or 15 minutes more about stuff in general. Craig was the last blending tobacconist left in the United States. He had thousands of individual customers like me, who ordered their pipe tobacco directly from C&D. He also supplied most of the independent tobacconists in the US, both with his standard blends and with custom blends made only for them. He produced many fine tobaccos, and was a wonderful person. He’ll be missed.

16:31 – Like many scientists, I’ve tried to take some time today to look over the results released yesterday by the ENCODE group. I’m seldom overwhelmed and intimidated by a new science paper, but this group of 30 related papers is difficult to take in, to say the least. Someone said this was the greatest breakthrough in genomics in 20 years, which I don’t think exaggerates the importance of this work.

Briefly, this massive project relates to so-called “junk DNA”, which I’ve always preferred to think of as “dark DNA”. It always seemed presumptuous to me to assume that because we don’t know what some parts of the genome do they must do nothing at all. Some evidence that that is not the case has been around for 20 years, and every year there’s more added. Until now, things related to dark DNA were murky, to say the least. This consortium of scientists has at least opened the door to starting to understand what dark DNA does. Until now, we’ve known that small parts of dark DNA–it was never really very clear which small parts–had a bearing on many things that are not well understood. Still, the assumption remained that the vast majority of dark DNA was just flotsam in the genome. As of now, we have strong evidence that the majority of “junk DNA” is anything but. It appears that at least 80% of what most people formerly called junk DNA is in fact biologically functional and important. Which begs the question, if 80% is important, why not assume that all or nearly all is equally important.

This really is a breakthrough, with potential implications for everything from cancer to Alzheimers to many other diseases that have genetic components. The work hasn’t really yet begun, but at least these scientists have shown us good places to start looking. Now, if we only had enough scientists working on all of the potential paths.

Friday, 20 April 2012

08:17 – We’re now shipping biology kits.

Right now, getting a biology kit packed for shipping takes longer than doing the same for a chemistry kit. That’s because I know exactly what should be in a chemistry kit, so I can just eyeball it to verify that everything that belongs in the box is in the box. I’m not as familiar with the biology kits yet, so I have to check off each item against a printed list. We’ve made up the first batch of 30 biology kits and checked the contents as we added them to the boxes, so I don’t expect to find anything missing when I tape up a box for shipping, but I’m a firm believer in the measure-twice-cut-once school of thinking.

09:20 – Here’s one of those papers that may be revolutionary [PDF] or may turn out to be just another brick in the wall. Researchers administered Buckminsterfullerene to rats, and were surprised to find that their lifespans were extended by some 90%. As far as I know, this hasn’t hit the mainstream media yet, but when it does I expect a flood of people trying to get their hands on a supply of buckyballs, assuming that instead of living to 90 years old they can live to 171. Don’t rush out to buy any buckyballs quite yet, though. The effect may turn out to be similar in humans, but it’s quite possible there will be no effect or even negative effects.

H/T: Derek Lowe

16:33 – It really, really is time for the United States to withdraw entirely from the United Nations, and to expel the UN from US soil. Really.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

08:58 –Today is the last day of Barbara’s four-day weekend. She’s picking up her sister and parents and heading for some big outlet mall somewhere.

Sunday we ran out of the Scotch Blue masking tape we use to seal chemical bottles. Barbara also needed a new gas grill, so yesterday we headed over to Home Depot to pick those up. While we were there, I browsed the plumbing section in search of Root Kill (99+% copper sulfate pentahydrate) and Crystal Drain Opener (essentially 100% sodium hydroxide). I bought three 2-pound (0.91 kilo) bottles of the copper(II) sulfate, but the drain opener was new and “improved”. Instead of nice white 100% sodium hydroxide crystals, it was an unspecified percentage of sodium hydroxide with other components that weren’t named. I unscrewed the lid on a bottle to look at it and it was a lavender powder. Yuck.

I also needed 97 g of calcium acetate monohydrate to make up the fertilizer concentrate part C for the biology kits. I thought I had that in stock, but I didn’t. So I just made some up by reacting calcium hydroxide with acetic acid. I guess it’s kind of wasteful to use ACS reagent grade acetic acid and calcium hydroxide to make up a fertilizer, but needs must. The result was interesting. I expected a clear, colorless solution of calcium acetate, with the excess calcium hydroxide present as a fine particulate. What I got was a yellowish-brown cloudy solution. Oh, well. I filtered it. It is, after all, fertilizer, so its appearance isn’t really important. What I ended up with was a clear pale yellow solution.

12:25 –Jerry Coyne’s blog is one of my daily reads. He is unabashedly atheist and politically liberal. He is also intellectually honest beyond question. Here’s his latest: Are there human races?

My answer is the same as it’s always been: of course there are. There are clear differences in phenotypes, as well as the underlying differences in genotypes. Denying that human races exist is like denying that dog breeds exist. But many scientists, including biologists, do deny the existence of human races, basing that belief on political considerations rather than scientific ones. The idea that races might exist and that very real differences among them might exist is simply anathema to the politically-liberal mind.

Interestingly, no one seriously questions that very real differences exist between the sexes. Men are, on average, larger, stronger, faster, and more aggressive than women. Women are, on average, hardier than men. That’s why, for example, between 105 and 108 baby boys are born for every 100 baby girls. There is also little doubt that men and women think differently. And, even after eliminating social and cultural factors, there’s little doubt that the intelligence of women tends to cluster closer to the mean. That is, a very intelligent person is considerably more likely to be male than female, and an extraordinarily intelligent person is overwhelmingly more likely to be male. Conversely, males are also over-represented at the extremes of stupidity. Or, to put it another way, the standard deviation in IQ among women is significantly smaller than it is among men. Despite those differences, the mean IQ of statistical populations of men and women is identical to within one percent.

Perhaps the hesitance to acknowledge differences among the races is supported by the fact that no one agrees on just what constitutes a human race or how many of them there are. Some authors have argued in favor of only three or four races, while others argue in favor of dozens. There can never be a true number, because the number is determined by how one chooses to define a race. How large must the differences be? Since humans are on a continuum, supporting the idea of a relatively large number of human races minimizes the differences among them. But one thing really is pretty certain: the differences between the sexes make the differences among the races pale into insignificance. Human males of whatever race have more in common with each other than they do with a woman who is part of their nominal racial group.

The problem with the liberal position denying the existence of races is that it results in shoehorning different people into the same mold. Once one recognizes that differences do exist, one can adjust one’s expectations accordingly. From the fact that blacks are over-represented in the NBA, it does not follow that the NBA is a racist anti-white organization. Nor does it follow from the fact that whites and particularly Asians are over-represented and blacks under-represented in high school AP classes and university STEM programs that these organizations discriminate against blacks. It’s long past time that we abandoned the inherently-racist position that equal opportunity implies equal outcomes. Some people are simply better at some things than other people are. It’s time to recognize that fact.

Saturday, 31 December 2011

08:25 – From xkcd.

09:15 – Although I joined only a month or two ago, I’ve been reading the Well-Trained Minds forums for years to keep up with the homeschooling community. The woman who wrote the WTM book and runs the forums is an evangelical Christian, as are many of the forum members. But nationwide, only roughly a third of homeschoolers do so for religious reasons, with the remainder doing so for other reasons. (Some of those 2/3 are religious, but do not homeschool primarily for religious reasons.)

So I was surprised yesterday to come across this poll and thread: Do you use religious or secular science curriculum? I expected a large majority of responders to favor religious science curricula, or at best be evenly divided. Instead, the responders overwhelmingly favor secular science curricula, apparently including many who use religious curricula for other subjects. In other words, even many religious home schoolers largely recognize that “religious science” curricula aren’t science at all, and aren’t worth using. Even some of those who are using the religious curricula aren’t using them because they include religious content, but because they can’t find suitable secular curricula. And even many of those who are religious homeschoolers and are using religious curricula because they’re religious still recognize that those curricula are lying to their kids. That’s encouraging.

Fundie homeschoolers face a real conundrum in choosing science curricula. If they teach real science, they’re teaching their kids to be skeptical and to demand evidence to support claims, and many of those kids (60% according to one recent study done by a religious think-tank) will abandon their parents’ religion by the time they’re 15 years old. And learning real science is one of the leading reasons that happens. Conversely, if the parents use religious curricula from Bob Jones, Apologia, A Beka, or one of the other religious curriculum providers, they know they’ll be teaching their kids “science” that bears little resemblance to real science as defined by society at large and particularly by the secular universities that many want their kids to attend. Some religious homeschoolers simply give up and ignore science, which obviously isn’t an acceptable solution. The radical religionists teach their kids that the earth is 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs were on Noah’s ark, thereby destroying their kids future prospects. The smarter ones recognize that science is true and try to teach real science with perhaps some side discussion of how to fit their religious beliefs into the framework of science. And the smartest ones just teach real science and let the chips fall where they may.

Friday, 9 September 2011

08:42 – Well, the copy finally finished at 10:00 p.m. last night, after 13 hours of writing 300,000+ files totaling about 1,300 GB. I’ll probably do the same thing again to a second new 2 TB Barracuda drive and then pull both of the old 1.5 TB drives. Of course, that leaves me with a system drive that’s older than either of those drives. Barracuda drives are extremely reliable, but these guys are well past retirement age in dog years.

Jerry Coyne just posted an interesting article about science versus religion, Adam and Eve: theologians squirm and sputter. The whole of Christianity is based on the Adam and Eve myth and original sin. Without that, Christianity has no basis whatsoever. And yet science tells us, indisputably, that Adam and Eve never existed. It is amusing to watch accommodationists try to reconcile religious myth with the cold, hard light of science.

We’ll be using a lot of dropper bottles for the biology kits, so I ordered a couple hundred dozen from one of my wholesalers in 15 mL and 30 mL capacities. These bottles are Chinese-made, and they’re fine except for one thing. They arrive with the dropper tips and caps installed, which means that Barbara and I have to disassemble them all before filling and labeling them, and then turn around and reinstall the dropper tips and caps. Doing that for a few bottles is no big deal. Doing it for thousands involves some work.

We’ll also need 30 mL wide-mouth bottles, which none of my current wholesalers offer. So I contacted a bottle supplier about the wide-mouth bottles and decided as long as I was at it to see what they had to offer in the way of dropper bottles. Their bottles are US-made, which is good, and they come in bulk with the dropper tips and caps in separate plastic bags. The problem is, bottles, even Chinese bottles, aren’t cheap, and the US-made ones cost 30% to 40% more than the Chinese-made ones. Still, I was willing to consider paying more for the US-made bottles. Until the samples arrived.

The problem is the dropper tips. The Chinese bottles have dropper tips whose bodies are long plugs that friction-fit the mouth of the bottle. Seating a dropper tip is a simple matter of pressing the tip into the mouth of the bottle until it seats. The dropper tips on the US bottles have much shorter bodies, and snap into place. The problem is that it requires close attention to make sure the tip has actually seated and snapped into place. This would slow down processing significantly, so I decided to stick with the Chinese bottles.

Speaking of processing bottles, I looked into automated methods and concluded that our current manual method is actually better unless and until we reach the point where we need to produce hundreds of kits per month. Working together, Barbara and I can fill, insert dropper tips, cap, and label the bottles at a rate of about 150 bottles per hour. (I fill and insert the dropper tips; Barbara caps and labels.) The only part of that that can be automated at anything approaching a reasonable price is the filling operation, but that still requires individual attention to each bottle as it’s filled, and actually saves almost no time.

10:36 – Barbara saw an article in the paper this morning about using copper sulfate to kill the mildew that’s appeared on some of her shrubs. I buy copper(II) sulfate by the kilogram, so she asked if I could make her up some right here in the sink. Of course, I agreed. The problem is, what concentration?

Apparently, the concentration needed varies. One site mentioned ranges from 2 to 6 pounds per 100 gallons, which translates to something like 909 to 2727 grams per 379 liters, or about 2.4 to 7.2 grams per liter. Or, as I think of it, about 0.01 to 0.03 molar. Since I keep liters of 1.0 M copper(II) sulfate solution in inventory–the stuff takes forever to dissolve–I’ll just compromise on 0.02 M and dilute one part of the stock solution to 49 parts water.

I did wonder whether the high solubility of copper(II) sulfate would be a problem. If Barbara sprays on 0.02 M copper(II) sulfate, it’ll stick around only until the next good rain dissolves it and rinses it off the plants. That’s apparently why people use Bordeaux or Burgundy mixtures, which are solutions of copper(II) sulfate mixed with either calcium hydroxide (lime) or sodium carbonate (washing soda or soda ash) to form insoluble precipitates of either copper hydroxide or copper carbonate. Apparently these are more persistent because they don’t dissolve in rainwater, but I do wonder whether they’d clog up Barbara’s sprayer. What the insoluble copper salts really are is time-release treatments, because even “insoluble” compounds are very slightly soluble in water. So, apparently copper(II) ions kill fungi even in nanomolar or even picomolar concentrations. I think we’ll start with just 0.02 M copper(II) sulfate solution and see if that makes the fungi gag, clutch their tiny little chests, and drop off the plants.

Friday, 12 August 2011

08:56 – Colin turns 6 months old today. He’s a huge puppy, already as large as most adult male Border Collies. Duncan was a big boy, at 75 pounds (34 kilos) and about 4″ (10 cm) taller than other male BCs, but I think Colin will be bigger still.

The US Postal Service is losing $8 billion a year and is now in what amounts to Chapter 11 bankruptcy, or would be if it weren’t a pseudo-government agency. It’s due to make a $5.5 billion payment to its retirement fund next month which it doesn’t have the money to make. The USPS has announced plans to cut 220,000 jobs, or 30% of its workforce, between now and 2015. About 100,000 of those will be by attrition, but the remaining 120,000 will be actual people losing their jobs. It also plans to close thousands of post offices.

That’s actually much too little, much too late, and doing the wrong thing anyway. Service levels will be badly impacted by those cuts, which will in turn further reduce mail volume as mailers shift even more quickly to alternatives. What the USPS needs to do is:

1. Eliminate rural free delivery, which is extremely costly. Establish population-density metrics to determine whether any particular home or business is eligible for free delivery or must pick up its mail at the nearest post office.

2. Negotiate “last mile” delivery agreements with UPS and FedEx, whereby UPS and FedEx deliver packages to USPS distribution centers, and the USPS makes the local deliveries to the recipients. Eventually, eliminate most local deliveries by USPS personnel and negotiate contracts with local businesses for last mile deliveries. That is, the USPS should be making one delivery per neighborhood to a local contractor who actually delivers the mail and packages to homes.

3. Crush the postal unions and reduce pay and benefits to no more than a third of what they are now, for both current employees and retirees. Right now, post office employees are paid at least two to three times more than they’d earn for doing the same job in private industry. Retirement and medical benefits are ridiculously high. All of that needs to stop if the USPS is to have any chance of surviving.

Despite the protests of the Big Three credit-rating agencies and the French government, the market believes that France doesn’t deserve a AAA rating. And they’re absolutely correct. If the USA is only AA+, France should be at least two or three levels below that. Forget S&P and Moody’s and Fitch. If you want a real credit rating, all you need to do is look at what the free market says the credit ratings really are. That’s what the basis points on credit default swaps provide, and it’s instructive to look at CDS prices for the various countries.

Greece ~ 1,800
Portugal ~ 900
Ireland ~ 800
Italy ~ 400
Spain ~ 400
France ~ 150
Austria ~ 140
Germany ~ 90
UK ~ 85
US ~ 55

A basis point is 0.01%. These CDS prices vary constantly, but they represent the actual free-market cost to insure a bond against default. So, for example, the one-year premium to insure $1,000 of Greek bonds against default is $180, while at the other end of the risk spectrum, it costs only $5.50 to insure $1,000 of US debt for one year. That’s why it’s ridiculous for ratings agencies to assign AAA ratings to the UK, Germany, Austria, and France while assigning the US a lower rating. The free market gives the real ratings, and they’re completely out of line with what the ratings agencies are saying. I know which I trust more.

11:22 – This has been a stunning week for medical discoveries that are potentially huge breakthroughs. Earlier in the week, a PLoS paper reported incredible results with a process called DRACO, in which cells that have been infected by a virus (and only those infected cells) can be forced to undergo apoptosis, which kills the infected cells, leaving the viruses without host cells. The really significant thing about DRACO is that it is not virus-specific, like nearly all current antiviral treatments. Any cell that has been infected with any virus (presumably; DRACO was shown to be effective against 17 widely different viruses) is detected and eliminated. And here, Derek Lowe reports on a potential breakthrough that does pretty much the same thing against leukemia, and presumably eventually other cancers.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

10:12 – Here’s a torrent worth grabbing: a 32.5 GB file that contains thousands of pre-1923 articles by The Royal Society, all of them out of copyright in the US. It’s long past time that someone did something about JSTOR and similar organizations, which put up expensive paywalls around public domain information and guard it jealously. Now if only someone would do the same for old articles published by the ACS and other scientific organizations.

This archive contains 18,592 scientific publications totaling 33GiB, all from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and which should be available to everyone at no cost, but most have previously only been made available at high prices through paywall gatekeepers like JSTOR.

Limited access to the documents here is typically sold for $19 USD per article, though some of the older ones are available as cheaply as $8. Purchasing access to this collection one article at a time would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

All of these articles should be available for free on Google and other Internet sources. In fact, US scientific articles, including current ones, should be freely available, at least to US citizens, because nearly all of them were produced with US government funding. I’ve already paid for these articles through my taxes. I shouldn’t have to pay again to read them.

I’m going to have to do a bit of research on the actual chemical resistance of the polyethylene bottles I just bought. Checking various sources for the effect on polyethylene of concentrated sulfuric acid at 20 °C and 60 °C (the containers could get quite warm during shipping) tells me that the resistance may be anything from excellent to mediocre, depending on which source I believe.

I suspect this is because polyethylene is a class or classes of compounds rather than a specific compound. There are many, many types of PE, which are broadly grouped into LDPE, HDPE, and XDPE, but the exact characteristics of any particular PE may vary slightly, even from others in the same class.

It may be easier just to use glass bottles.

11:50 – On sexual dimorphism in humans…

Here is an actual, unretouched image of pairs of Barbara’s and my socks. (Mine are at the top, in case you hadn’t guessed; they were originally black, but I accidentally bleached them and liked the two-tone brown result.) No, I didn’t shrink Barbara’s socks. This is actually how they appear normally.

Now it’s true that I have occasionally been accused of having larger than usual feet. (Get your big, clumsy feet out of my …) But I think of myself as having dainty little feet. After all, I wear only a US male size 12 shoe, which isn’t bad for a guy my size.

13:34 – As a Viking-American, I found this article interesting.

If you can believe the article, past archaeologists had just assumed that Viking burials were all male because they all included grave artifacts like swords and shields. A new study reports the results of osteological examinations of a small number of Viking burials, which found that about half of the skeletons were female. Unfortunately, DNA analyses, which would have been definitive, were not done.

It makes sense to me that the Viking warriors would have taken their women along. After all, put yourself in the position of a Viking woman. Would you allow your husband to go off raping and pillaging without you?

Incidentally, don’t bother clicking the moron link at the bottom of the article, which reads “See photos of: Vikings“. I made the mistake of clicking it and it took me to page that featured–you guessed it–images of the Minnesota Vikings. Geez.

Friday, 22 July 2011

08:55 – Following the crisis summit, there’s lots of joy in the EU. The feeling among people who don’t understand much about economics is that Greece is saved, the Euro is saved, they’re all saved. Economists and market analysts know better. What the crisis summit accomplished was necessary, but by no means sufficient. All that it really accomplished was to put off the reckoning for a short time, perhaps 90 days or less.

In one very ominous sign, Bulgaria announced that it was putting its plans to join the Eurozone on hold indefinitely. In effect, Bulgaria said that it believes its own currency is stronger than the Euro. And it may well be right. This vote of no-confidence in the Euro will not go unnoticed by investors.

And, of course, Fitch has already declared Greek debt to be in default, with Moody’s and S&P no doubt soon to follow. We’re assured by the Euro authorities that this default is “partial” and “temporary” and “selective”, but as far as investors are concerned, default is default. Nor are investors stupid. They did notice that the crisis meeting left the EU bailout fund at its current level, when it actually needed to be at least tripled in size to have any hope of propping up Spain and Italy as their debt comes due. Investors also noticed that the crisis meeting did nothing to address the critical liquidity problem among European banks. In fact, it worsened it by demanding that the banks “voluntarily” take a hit to their balance sheets on Greek debt, albeit concealing the damage by allowing the banks to continue carrying essentially worthless Greek debt instruments at face value rather than market value.

As hundreds of billions of Spanish and Italian debt matures over the next few months, it’s going to become abundantly clear that the crisis summit accomplished nothing but delaying the problem for a few weeks. Even Keynesian economist Paul Krugman gets it.

Nor is it certain that Merkel and the other leaders of the wealthier northern European countries can deliver what they promised at the summit conference. They have their own legislatures and voters to worry about. German voters almost universally perceive past and future bailouts as simple transfers of money from their own pockets to profligate southern countries, and they’ve had about enough. In Holland, this whole fiasco has accomplished something previously thought impossible: Dutch political parties, from far left to far right and everything in between, are united in their opposition to these huge transfers of their money to southern countries.

So Merkel, Sarkozy, and other leaders are walking a very fine line. Supporting what was needed to actually solve the problem would end up with them and their parties being routed at the polls. That solution, beginning with Eurobonds and ending with full fiscal and political union, is simply unacceptable to voters in Germany, Austria, Holland, and Finland. And rightly so, because the inevitable result would be a united Europe as the world’s newest third-world country.

Anyone who works with plasticware in a lab should keep the chemical resistance of various types of plastics in mind. If it weren’t for the high cost, the various Teflon plastics would be ideal. They’re resistant to almost anything, and anything they’re not resistant to is something I probably don’t want to be using anyway. Polypropylene (PP) and the polyethylenes (LDPE and HDPE) are, with some exceptions, pretty resistant to most chemicals. Polyethylene terephthalate, PET, is most familiar as softdrink bottles. It’s transparent, while PP, LDPE, and HDPE are translucent or opaque, depending on thickness and type. PET is also resistant to most dilute chemicals as well as alcohol and some other organic solvents. What it’s not resistant to, among other things, is concentrated strong acids.

So, yesterday I was down in the lab, making up 2 liters each of various chemical solutions. I was using 2-liter PET Coke bottles as mixing vessels. Among the solutions I was making up was 0.1 M iron(II) sulfate. Like most iron(II) salts, iron(II) sulfate has a nasty habit of spontaneously oxidizing to the iron(III) salt, with the spare iron ions reacting to form insoluble iron hydroxide and iron oxides. The result is a cloudy mess. The way to avoid that is to have sulfate ions present in excess, which is most easily done by adding a small amount of concentrated sulfuric acid to the iron(II) sulfate solution. So there I was, with about 1.5 L of distilled water in a clean 2-liter Coke bottle. I started to add 8 mL of 98% sulfuric acid, and realized as I started to pour what was going to happen.

Yep, as I trickled the concentrated sulfuric acid into the bottle, it ran down the inside of the bottle and instantly started depolymerizing the PET. My pretty transparent bottle turned cloudy white as the PET went from the transparent amorphous form to the opaque semi-crystalline form. I quickly dumped the contents of the bottle down the drain before the PET depolymerized completely. I don’t often have do-overs when I’m making up solutions, but this was one of them.

09:27 – Here’s a pretty amazing video of a group of people in a small boat, at considerable risk to themselves, saving a young humpback whale that had become entangled in a gill net. Even a juvenile humpback could have capsized their boat or turned it into kindling. But the humpback seemed to realize that these humans were trying to help it, and it docilely allowed them to do so. At about 6:30 in, the whale is free. She puts on an incredible display of joy, or perhaps thanks to her saviors. (H/T to Jerry Coyne)

Monday, 18 July 2011

08:34 – As expected, the Euro is getting hammered this morning. Yields on Spanish and Italian debt have jumped by about 0.2 percentage points already this morning, with worse to come. The EU authorities made a major blunder with their feel-good “stress test” results. They released the actual data, which means that investors could and did plug in their own assumptions and run them against that data. And the results aren’t pretty.

The two major phony assumptions made for the official bank test results were that no sovereign default would occur and that a 5% core capital requirement was sufficient. In reality, of course, there will be a default. In effect, Greece has defaulted already, with Portugal and Ireland teetering on the edge and Spain and Italy not far behind. Even without a default, using a more realistic 7% capital requirement puts the majority of European banks in bankruptcy and a so-called conservative 10% capital requirement puts all of them in deep, deep trouble. With a default, they’re toast.

Meanwhile, the higher yields on Spanish and Italian debt threaten their immediate solvency. For the Italians, for example, a 1% increase in yield costs them about €8.5 billion per year, so it doesn’t take much to wipe out the effects of the recent Italian so-called austerity measures. The EU authorities continue kicking the can down the road, most recently by delaying the crisis summit from last week until Thursday of this week. I was about to say that they’re running out of time, but the truth is that they’ve already run out of time. This will play out now no matter what they do Thursday.

This is devolving into a fight between the richer northern countries, which perhaps not coincidentally are all secular, and the poorer southern countries, which are all Catholic. I think a breakup of the Eurozone is a foregone conclusion, with the richer, productive northern countries refusing to continue to subsidize the poorer, unproductive southern countries. German citizens were never happy about the Euro to begin with, and there is now strong sentiment for abandoning the Euro and returning to the Deutschmark.

Meanwhile, Greece has begun uttering threats, including floating the idea of withdrawing from the Euro. Some threat. Greece reminds me of that scene in Blazing Saddles, where Bart takes himself hostage and threatens to shoot himself in the head unless everyone backs off. It worked for Bart, but it’s not going to work for Greece.

11:10 – Here’s a fascinating graph from Calamities of Nature of GDP versus belief in evolution that makes very clear just how much an outlier the US is.

13:24 – Geez. Talk about inflation. I was ordering some chemicals from one of my suppliers, but the website was misbehaving, timing out and dumping the contents of my cart. So I emailed the purchase order to them and called to follow up. As usual, we got into a discussion about stuff unrelated to the order.

He verified that everything on my list was in stock and ready to ship, but mentioned that he was having terrible problems restocking some chemicals. One of them is silver nitrate. All of his suppliers have plenty of it, but none are willing to sell any because the price of silver just keeps going up and up. And the potassium iodide situation is nearly as bad. Back when the Japanese reactor problem occurred, you couldn’t get potassium iodide for love or money. Every bit of it was being made into KI tablets. Everyone expected sanity to return once the Japanese scare was over, but it hasn’t. Since that event, the price of potassium iodide has literally quadrupled to quintupled, and there’s no relief in sight.

None of that really surprised me, but some of the chemicals in short supply and/or experiencing major price jumps are so commonplace and cheap that I had trouble believing there is actually a shortage. For example, ammonium acetate. Ammonium acetate? Geez. You make the stuff by neutralizing glacial acetic acid with concentrated ammonia, both of which are cheap and available literally by the tanker load, and evaporate the water. There’s no possible way there should be a shortage of ammonium acetate, and yet there is.

14:15 – Oh, my. Things are suddenly even worse, with evidence that the “contagion” is now extending to France and even Germany. The price of CDSs for both nations jumped today, with France jumping from 114 to 123 basis points, and Germany from 60 to 64.

A CDS (credit default swap) is basically an insurance policy against a debtor defaulting, at which point the debt holder is paid the face value and in return signs over the (bad) debt to the CDS issuer. The premium for a CDS is specified in basis points, or one one-hundredth of 1%. Right now, Greece CDSs are at 2500+ basis points, or more than 25%. In other words, insuring €1 billion of Greek debt involves paying premium of €250 million. Does that mean that Greek debt is currently worth 75% of face value? Not at all. The CDS premium reflects the fact that CDS issuers are still expecting some sort of bailout for Greece. Absent that, the current CDS premium on Greek debt would probably be at 9000+ basis points and possibly 9900+ basis points. Essentially no one outside the EU authorities really expects Greece to survive this mess. They’re treating Greece as though it had already defaulted, and rightly so.

The scary thing right now is that CDS prices on French and German debt are increasing substantially. They’re still relatively small, at only a few percent of CDS premiums on Greek debt, but they’re increasing rapidly in percentage terms, and that indicates that investors are at least somewhat concerned about the likelihood of a French or even German default. As someone commented, if investors start looking with concern at France, it’s game over for the Euro.