Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for August 30th, 2010

Trusting BP

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I don’t hear much from the commenter who once suggested (seriously) that we could simply trust companies to do the right thing. James McKinley, Jr., reports in the NY Times:

TEXAS CITY, Tex. — While the world was focused on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a BP refinery here released huge amounts of toxic chemicals into the air that went unnoticed by residents until many saw their children come down with respiratory problems.

For 40 days after a piece of equipment critical to the refinery’s operation broke down, a total of 538,000 pounds of toxic chemicals, including the carcinogen benzene, poured out of the refinery.

Rather than taking the costly step of shutting down the refinery to make repairs, the engineers at the plant diverted gases to a smokestack and tried to burn them off, but hundreds of thousands of pounds still escaped into the air, according to state environmental officials.

Neither the state nor the oil company informed neighbors or local officials about the pollutants until two weeks after the release ended, and angry residents of Texas City have signed up in droves to join a $10 billion class-action lawsuit against BP. The state attorney general, Greg Abbott, has also sued the company, seeking fines of about $600,000.

BP maintains three air monitors along the fence around the plant and two in the surrounding community, and they did not show a rise in pollution during April and May, the company said. “BP does not believe there is any basis to pay claims in connection with this event,” said Michael Marr, a spokesman for the company.

But scores of Texas City residents said they experienced respiratory problems this spring, and environmentalists said the release of toxic gases ranked as one of the largest in the state’s history.

Neil Carman of the Lone Star Sierra Club said the release was probably even larger than BP had acknowledged, because the company estimated that more than 98 percent of the pollution was burned off by a flare, an overly optimistic figure in the eyes of many environmental scientists.

He also said there were too few air monitors to accurately assess what had happened. “There are huge gaps in the monitoring network,” Mr. Carman said.

Dionne Ramirez, 29, who lives about a mile from the refinery, said she had little doubt that elevated pollution harmed her family. Not only have both she and her husband had coughs, but all three of their young sons have suffered from severe chest congestion, sore throats and endless coughing since April. Her 4-year-old had to be hospitalized for two nights because he could not stop coughing, she said.

When the news of the pollution was made public on June 4, Ms. Ramirez was irate. “I didn’t know why they were getting sick or what was going on,” she said. “They are healthy little kids.”

Her experience was echoed by other families living in the shadow of the jumbled smokestacks, pipelines, cylindrical tanks and giant globes of the refinery. Nearly every household on one block of First Avenue, just a half-mile from the BP complex, had someone fall ill during May, residents there said.

“We all became real sick — throwing up, diarrhea, couldn’t keep anything down — and we just thought it was something that was going around,” said Khristina Kelley, who lives with her husband and four children on the street. “But then everybody around here got it.”

Ms. Kelley said the release of chemicals was less troubling to her than the company’s silence. “I’m worried that one day I’ll take my kids to the doctor and something that could have been prevented wasn’t prevented because we didn’t know to the last moment,” she said.

Officials in Texas City said they were not informed of the scale of the release until it was over. BP said it met the requirements of state law by informing state officials of the release in writing on April 7, then filing a final report on June 4, after the equipment was fixed.

That final report said the release of chemicals had gone on for 959 hours, until May 16. Among other pollutants, the plant had released 17,000 pounds of benzene; 37,000 pounds of nitrogen oxides, which can cause respiratory problems; and 186,000 pounds of carbon monoxide. Another 262,000 pounds of various volatile organic compounds also escaped.

“The state’s investigation shows that BP’s failure to properly maintain its equipment caused the malfunction and could have been prevented,” the attorney general’s office said in a statement.

Mr. Marr, the BP spokesman, declined to comment on those accusations…

Continue reading. I suppose Joe Barton will now apologize to BP for the complaints from the people affected.

Written by Leisureguy

30 August 2010 at 2:20 pm

First glimpse of re-plated razors

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I don’t have the razors themselves yet, but here’s a photo of 5 of them, all new plated in rhodium:

Click photo to enlarge. From left: Fat Boy, Super Speed, English Gillette Aristocrat #22 (formerly plated in silver), President, Fat Boy.

I’m very excited about their imminent arrival. It took a while. Sebastian at Razor Emporium, which took care of the plating, told me at the outset that he would be away for July and so could not get to them until he got back, but I went ahead and shipped them off on 6 July, all for rhodium plating.

We actually began emailing about the project 17 June. I had thought of asking that one of the Fat Boys be plated with ruthenium: a black Fat Boy! But Sebastian responded:

I just called up my plating shop to see if they offer ruthenium or platinum.  They told me that they tested black colored plating like ruthenium and hematite but they don’t offer it because they found that the plating dulls very quickly.  The also don’t offer platinum because all platinum plating requires rhodium plating over top and given that they can do rhodium on nickel they decommissioned their platinum bath since there was little demand for it.

As for a black colored coating on the razor, they told me that in about 3 months they will have a new black colored clear coating.  It is a polyurethane coat so it would allow us to make black rhodium razors or black nickel.  The polyurethane should last many many years and it would protect the plating as well.

So I may still have a black razor someday. At any rate, once Sebastian returned and looked at the razors, he spotted the crack in the Merkur Slant Bar, which I knew about. I had sent it thinking that the plating might fix the crack, but 5 microns doesn’t really stretch across 0.5 mm. Instead, Sebastian suggested that he send it to a jeweler for repair (which was about half the cost of plating it), so I went that route.

It turns out that Razor Emporium does quite a bit of refinishing work on the razors before they send them to be plated. Sebastian says that their process is proprietary but that it does, for example, address little pits in the finish. So there is that time (a couple of weeks, perhaps) and then the time at the platers (another couple of weeks). But now they’re back and will be on their way here soon.

More photos to come, along with my reviews of the replating.

Written by Leisureguy

30 August 2010 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Daily life, Shaving

Black rice and blueberries

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Back from Whole Foods where I bought black rice (aka “forbidden” rice) and frozen wild blueberries, along with several small containers of different types of yogurt: sheep’s milk, goat’s milk, regular. All non-fat, some vanilla, some plain.

Plan it to cook rice, and then when I want dessert, put in a bowl some rice, blueberries, and yogurt. 🙂

UPDATE: Actual recipe:

1/3 c. cooked black (“forbidden”) rice
3/4 c. frozen wild blueberries
3/4 c. yogurt

I’ve made it twice now (lunch and dinner).

First batch I used sheep’s milk blueberry yogurt. Tasty, but I shouldn’t get the yogurts with fruit because they add sugar.

Second batch even better: goat’s milk vanilla yogurt with a little maple syrup and about 1/2 tsp cinnamon. I stirred this batch together more (to work in the cinnamon), and it was a good idea.

For the time being, I’ll end each lunch and dinner with this. Great way to get the starch and fruit and extremely tasty, not to mention high in anti=oxidants. I’ll be switching to plain old nonfat yogurt once I get through the little special yogurts I got for fun.

The reason for the sudden interest in black rice is found at the link.

Written by Leisureguy

30 August 2010 at 12:54 pm

Study finds first genetic link to common migraine

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The Eldest points out this article:

An international scientific team has identified for the first time a genetic risk factor associated with common migraines and say their research could open the way for new treatments to prevent migraine attacks.

Researchers who looked at genetic data from 50,000 people from Finland, Germany and The Netherlands found that patients with a certain DNA variant affecting regulation of a particular brain chemical have a greater risk of developing migraines.

The results suggest that a buildup of that chemical, called glutamate, may play a role in the mechanism of migraines.

"This is the first time we have been able to peer into the genomes of many thousands of people and find genetic clues to understand common migraine," said Aarno Palotie, chair of the international headache genetics consortium at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Britain, which led the study.

Migraine affects around one in six women and one in 12 men, and has been estimated to be the most expensive brain disorder to society in the European Union and the United States.

Not only is migraine painful, it also can be disabling and is often a life-long condition. The World Health Organization ranks it 19th among all causes of "years lived with disability," and family life, social life and work capacity are negatively affected in almost all migraine sufferers.

Global sales of drugs to treat migraine were around $2.6 billion in 2009, according to analysts at Deutsche Bank. GlaxoSmithKline’s Imitrex, Merck’s’ Maxalt, AstraZeneca’s Zomig and Pfizer’s Relpax are among leading medicines currently on the market for migraine, but the exact causes of the condition remain unknown.

In a study published in the journal Nature on Sunday, Palotie’s team said the particular migraine risk DNA variant they had identified was on chromosome 8 between two genes known as PGCP and MTDH/AEG-1.

Their research showed that it appears to regulate levels of glutamate, a chemical known as a neurotransmitter which transports messages between nerve cells in the brain.

It does this by altering the activity of MTDH/AEG-1 in cells, which regulates the activity of the EAAT2 gene — a protein responsible for clearing glutamate from brain synapses.

Previous research has found links between EAAT2 and other neurological diseases, including epilepsy, schizophrenia and various mood and anxiety disorders.

"Until now, no genetic link has been identified to suggest that glutamate accumulation in the brain could play a role in common migraine," Christian Kubisch of University of Ulm in Germany, who also worked on the study, said in a statement.

"This research opens the door for new studies to look in depth at the biology of the disease and how this alteration in particular may exert its effect."

The scientists said further research would be needed into the DNA variant, and into its effect on the genes around it, to find out more about how migraines occur. Further work was also needed to search for other possible genetic links, they said.

Written by Leisureguy

30 August 2010 at 12:52 pm

Posted in Daily life, Medical

Doctor visit

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First to my PCP, who’s on vacation so I saw another doctor (whom I liked a lot). I discovered that our problems with CHOP and BCBS are not unusual. As the doctor said, "CHOMP doesn’t play well with Blue Cross," and in talking with others today I learned that CHOMP doesn’t play well with anyone.

She gave me an EKG, which did show an irregularity in my heart: an extra beat every 2-3 regular beats. This is certainly new since my last EKG (3 years ago). As I told her, the issue has become noticeable only in the last couple of weeks. So she sent me to a cardiologist.

He will give me a stress EKG on Thursday. He said to continue the Nordic Track, which might help: apparently putting the heart to work helps the irregular beat, which shows up when the heart is not under any load—and in fact I’ve noticed it in the evening, resting in my chair and sometimes in bad. So perhaps a few minutes on the Nordic in the evening might help.

He also was very suspicious of the potassium supplement the diet plan suggests: 196 mg potassium with breakfast and another 196 mg potassium with dinner. Potassium, he said, was something to be extremely careful of. (I plan to drop that from the regime: I never took it before.) He sent me for a blood draw to look at the levels of calcium and potassium in my blood.

Regarding the calcium, both doctors said that a dose of any more than about 500mg was wasted: the body can’t absorb more of it than that at a time. So the calcium will now be a single 500 mg tablet at dinner, along with 2000 IU vitamin D.

The stress EKG is Thursday morning.

Written by Leisureguy

30 August 2010 at 12:45 pm

Posted in Daily life, Medical

Long argument: part 2

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Part 1 is here.

When you look at “reality”—by which I mean the sum total of the universe and everything in it—you quickly encounter emergent phenomena. Emergence is fascinating in itself: the way in which complex systems seem to generate newer, higher-level complexities.

For example, the initial state of the universe/reality was, to our best knowledge, a tiny dot of intensity that immediately started unfolding in time, following rules we later have deduced as “natural laws”, but are really simply descriptions of what stuff (matter/energy, forces, particles) does when interacting with itself through time. And emergence started at the very beginning, creating new things that (so far as I can tell) could not, even in theory, be predicted.

Indeed, Edward Fredkin’s “digital philosophy” posits that the universe/reality is a cellular automaton whose purpose, such as it is, seems to be to work out what happens when the singular event unfolds in space-time. The idea is that some processes are sufficiently complex that by far the fastest way to determine the outcome is simply to let the process run: it’s figuring out the result as fast as theoretically possible.

So what has emerged. First were the forces, which seem to have split, perhaps, from a single force at the beginning. (Gravity is always the outlier—the hypothesis is much stronger for the other forces: electromagnetic, strong, and weak.) Then matter appears—but only hydrogen and helium, no great shakes.

But emergence continues: stars and galaxies form, and from those emerge the other elements and we get chemistry and chemical compounds.

Things roll along like this for quite a while. Every part of the universe seemed to obey one overriding law: follow the path of least effort. This principle seems to hold in all of nature: water flows only downhill, light travels in straight lines and when reflected follows the shortest possible distance. (In quantum electrodynamics, Feynman shows that although many paths exist, they coalesce around the minimal time path. Highly recommended: QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter.)

As we later learned, light actually follows the fastest path through space, and if space is curved (by the effects of gravity) light’s path curves as well—but it is still following the overall rule of finding the minimal-effort path.

All of inanimate nature obeys this rule of least effort: physical movement, chemical interactions, and so on.

The next major emergent phenomenon seems to have been life as we know it. So far as we can tell, life originated in deep-sea vents that created tiny chambers for chemical interactions to work through various sequences. As in the case of the pebbles in Part 1 of the argument, everything that was going on affected everything else, so parts of this reaction would mix in with that, and so on—all following the principle of least effort.

New Scientist has an excellent article on how this probably worked, unfortunately locked behind a subscription wall, but fortunately New Scientist is well worth subscribing to. The article contains a link to these 10 steps to the first cells:

We may never be able to prove beyond any doubt how life first evolved. But of the many explanations proposed, one stands out – the idea that life evolved in hydrothermal vents deep under the sea. Not in the superhot black smokers, but more placid affairs known as alkaline hydrothermal vents.

This theory can explain life’s strangest feature, and there is growing evidence to support it.

Earlier this year, for instance, lab experiments confirmed that conditions in some of the numerous pores within the vents can lead to high concentrations of large molecules. This makes the vents an ideal setting for the “RNA world” widely thought to have preceded the first cells.

If life did evolve in alkaline hydrothermal vents, it might have happened something like this:

1. Water percolated down into newly formed rock under the seafloor, where it reacted with minerals such as olivine, producing a warm alkaline fluid rich in hydrogen, sulphides and other chemicals – a process called serpentinisation.

This hot fluid welled up at alkaline hydrothermal vents like those at the Lost City, a vent system discovered near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in 2000.

2. Unlike today’s seas, the early ocean was acidic and rich in dissolved iron. When upwelling hydrothermal fluids reacted with this primordial seawater, they produced carbonate rocks riddled with tiny pores and a “foam” of iron-sulphur bubbles.

3. Inside the iron-sulphur bubbles, hydrogen reacted with carbon dioxide, forming simple organic molecules such as methane, formate and acetate. Some of these reactions were catalysed by the iron-sulphur minerals. Similar iron-sulphur catalysts are still found at the heart of many proteins today.

4. The electrochemical gradient between the alkaline vent fluid and the acidic seawater leads to the spontaneous formation of acetyl phosphate and pyrophospate, which act just like adenosine triphosphate or ATP, the chemical that powers living cells.

These molecules drove the formation of amino acids – the building blocks of proteins – and nucleotides, the building blocks for RNA and DNA.

5. Thermal currents and diffusion within the vent pores concentrated larger molecules like nucleotides, driving the formation of RNA and DNA – and providing an ideal setting for their evolution into the world of DNA and proteins. Evolution got under way, with sets of molecules capable of producing more of themselves starting to dominate.

6. Fatty molecules coated the iron-sulphur froth and spontaneously formed cell-like bubbles. Some of these bubbles would have enclosed self-replicating sets of molecules – the first organic cells. The earliest protocells may have been elusive entities, though, often dissolving and reforming as they circulated within the vents.

7. The evolution of an enzyme called pyrophosphatase, which catalyses the production of pyrophosphate, allowed the protocells to extract more energy from the gradient between the alkaline vent fluid and the acidic ocean. This ancient enzyme is still found in many bacteria and archaea, the first two branches on the tree of life.

8. Some protocells started using ATP as well as acetyl phosphate and pyrophosphate. The production of ATP using energy from the electrochemical gradient is perfected with the evolution of the enzyme ATP synthase, found within all life today.

9. Protocells further from the main vent axis, where the natural electrochemical gradient is weaker, started to generate their own gradient by pumping protons across their membranes, using the energy released when carbon dioxide reacts with hydrogen.

This reaction yields only a small amount of energy, not enough to make ATP. By repeating the reaction and storing the energy in the form of an electrochemical gradient, however, protocells “saved up” enough energy for ATP production.

10. Once protocells could generate their own electrochemical gradient, they were no longer tied to the vents. Cells left the vents on two separate occasions, with one exodus giving rise to bacteria and the other to archaea.

Notice that all the reactions and developments following the path of least effort: the protons, electrons, and the like in the atoms, the atoms in the elements, the elements in the compounds, and the chemical reactions among them: every single entity, at every level from quark to cell, does what minimizes effort at each step, following the most efficient path.

With this emergence, we get living cells, and as soon as those arise evolution kicks in by logical necessity: resources used by the cells are limited, and cells pass on their characteristics. Cells that make best use of the resources available tend to generate more copies of themselves, and the new process begins: life.

Life at this point is a lot more complex than a rock, but like the rock, life consists of a myriad of particles, each of which simply follows the path of least resistance through space-time, given the context in which it exists.

Things get rather complex. Take a look at this video:

The yellow molecule is messenger RNA (mRNA); it leaves the nucleus; at the ribosome, ribosomal RNA (rRNA) binds to mRNA; transfer RNA or tRNA (in green) can read the three letter code on mRNA or codon; each codon codes for one animo acid (red molecule attached to tRNA); the sequence of codons on the mRNA determines the sequence of amino acids in the protein, which in turn determines the structure and function of the protein.

The video is fascinating: watching the little machine read its instructions and churn out a string of a particular protein. But it’s totally mechanical, in the sense that it is merely matter and forces following the principle of least effort at every level of scale. Of course, what you see in the video is the result of perhaps millions of years of evolution: small simple systems struggling for survival and passing along their characteristics.

Written by Leisureguy

30 August 2010 at 8:52 am

Health notes

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15.5 minutes on the Nordic Track this morning, the extra .5 because (a) no Nordic yesterday and (b) I had to stop for a glass of water en route.

My weight-loss plan had me taking around 1200 mg of calcium bid, and only the evening dose was accompanied by vitamin D. After reading the article I posted yesterday, I immediately discontinued the morning dose and cut the evening dose to 600 mg, continuing the vitamin D.

So for three months I’ve ingested quite a bit of calcium daily. Because of that, my fat, and some general heart worries (exacerbated by PZ Myers’s heart problem last week: he had a stent inserted), I decided that I would be a lot more comfortable if I got a heart workup, so I’m calling the doc this morning for an appointment. In the meantime, I’ll continue with weight loss and the Nordic Track, taking it moderate.

Written by Leisureguy

30 August 2010 at 7:49 am

Posted in Daily life, Fitness

Terrific shave

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Sometimes the planets align and a shave turns out exceptionally well. This morning was one of those. A superb lather from the Valobra shave stick (recommended!) and the Simpson Persian Jar 2 Super. Then the Merkur Slant, with a used Swedish Gillette blade, did three extremely smooth and fault-free passes, followed by a small splash of Alt Innsbruck. Terrific.

Written by Leisureguy

30 August 2010 at 7:44 am

Posted in Shaving

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