The Thoughts of a Frumpy Professor

............................................ ............................................ A blog devoted to the ramblings of a small town, middle aged college professor as he experiences life and all its strange variances.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Really, Really Busy!

Only a brief essay today as I have a huge array of deadlines I am trying to meet at this time. However, I need a few minutes of reprieve after lecturing in a very animated and bombastic fashion for the last two hours. So, here I am, in my back, back office... the little space hidden away behind my lab and my official lab office.... this is the one place where I get *almost* no one disturbing me (only my secretary sometimes checks if she is desperate... and she has been sworn to secrecy about telling others about my space).

My "back, back" office differs drastically from my regular, very access friendly office and also from my "back" research office..... both my "regular" and my "back" offices are where I am bombarded by people all the time. My regular office is where I meet the majority of my students in my classes. My "back" office is at the far end of my research lab... and there I am usually working and interacting with my research students. But, in a door that many people do not notice, and and even fewer know where it leads, is my "back, back" office. It is a little cubby-hole of a place but is often my inner sanctum away from the incessant yammering, away from the throngs of people always needing something from me. It is a place where I can think in an extended, sequential, fashion or just relax for a bit. In this austere place is one small window, a well-scarred small desk, a four drawer file cabinet and an old (but well loved), rickety old wooden desk chair.

I am leaning back right now in my chair, my feet up on the desk top. My laptop is sitting on my lap (just as its name intends, I suppose) while I type to you. I have been drinking a massive, and delightfully cold diet soda, and just moments ago, I filled and fired up my pipe.

The calmness of this room soothes me, the soda quenches my dry mouth, and my beloved pipe gently massages my neurons into contemplation. (Side note: I am still wondering a bit about why I have been so utterly enamored with daydreaming about pipes and pipe smoking the last couple of days. I am daydreaming about pipes all the time. I really am not sure why. While I, of course, enjoy my pipes and pipe tobacco daily, I do not *often* feel such a compelling sense to think about them as I have the last two days. The mood is interesting in-and-of itself.) I will probably stay here another 15 minutes, continuing to relax, before I head back to one of the two other offices to get back to work. But, I need this quiet time for a bit.


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

I'll Say It Once, & I'll...

I have said this before, but to me it is amusing so I will say it again in a slightly different way. I am sitting here daydreaming while I am proctoring an exam for my upper division endocrinology students. And the daydreams are much as they always are for me. First I will tell you what they are NOT and why and then tell you what my daydreams ARE:

1. I am NOT daydreaming about having sex. When I first began to proctor exams (and hence daydream during them) as a graduate student long, long ago, I would often daydream about sex, but VERY quickly learned that was not a useful or COMFORTABLE avenue for my thoughts during those times. If I had to stand or sit or move during the exam, it would be quite discomforting. So, very early in graduate school I quickly learned to think about something else.

2. I am not thinking about work (I define WORK as the b*llsh*t meetings and related crap I do here at the U.) (it is too dull and too damn annoying).

3. I am not thinking about research (just not in the mood).

4. I am not thinking about teaching or developing teaching (not feeling the creative juices flowing at the moment and I do not have the access to stuff I would need in my office at the moment).

5. I am not thinking at the moment about my wife and other members of the family (lately, when I am away from them, I get too melancholy if I think about them).

6. I am not thinking about drinking (just not in the mood).

What I am daydreaming about:

7. Smoking my pipe. Quiet moments like this make the thoughts of indulging in a pipe so beautiful and pleasant to me. I dream of the process of filling and lighting my pipe, and the sweet flavor of the leaf. Then I imagine the creamy feeling as I inhale a plume of the rich smoke and feel its gentle effect on my mind. It all feels so joyful, even just THINKING about it here.

8. Being on a warm, desert island, relaxing in the sun. It is such a departure from the weather in my neck of the woods it feels so comforting.

9. Sleeping. At times like these, being curled up in bed with quilts and blankets atop of me seems so serene and beautiful.

Oops, here comes a student with a question. Logging off.


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

B*llsh*t In The Extreme

Not exactly sure why I selected the above title. It really has nothing to do with the image of TR. I just feel I have not met my required quota of cuss words yet for today.

So, how have I ben? What have I been up to? Well let's see:

1. Truthfully, not a whole helluva lot. However, "not a whole helluva lot" was something that ended up being very good for me:

2. I did travel to another nearby state during the past weekend and enjoyed some very nice family time.

3. I also was able to eat an enormous amount of authentic Eastern Indian food both on Friday and on Saturday. The food was incredible and soothing.

4. My family and I went swimming in the hotel pool at which I was staying as well. As it is still well below freezing and deeply snow covered where I live, just seeing a lack of snow in this new place helped my mood a lot.... but swimming really improved my mindset.

5. Back at home on Sunday evening, I indulged in a huge bowl of ice cream featuring two different flavors I found in the freezer.... chocolate, and New York Cheesecake.

6. Also on Sunday evening, I ate at least a two gallon container of popped popcorn. It was wonderful, but actually by the time I went to bed Sunday night I had a bit of stomach ache.

* * * * *

I have been (oddly perhaps) thinking a great deal about Theodore Roosevelt the last several days. I received for Christmas a new biography about TR, and am planning to start it in the next few days. In my opinion, he has been indisputably the best damn President we have ever had in the United States of America. Although not a scientist, he behaved in a manner that was quite methodical and scientific. He was an excellent politician, an excellent explorer, and in general seemed to be a man who lived life with gusto and energy..... all traits I greatly admire and wish in myself.

* * * * *

I still have to (grudgingly I admit) give up an evening of my free time at home (hopefully soon) so I can fix the damn computer modem issues that befell me so long ago. I have all the b*llsh*t I need to accomplish the task, but I am just not yet willing to futz around with all the nonsense trial-and-error garbage these sorts of endeavors typically entail. To be frank (no... Eugene... or maybe Ralph... wait.... you can't make me go any "furter" with that joke), the part I dread and do not want to do is to have to use the idiotic customer service phone lines to have them troubleshoot why my computer system does not work with the general instructions they will provide. I seriously doubt more than one or two people across the PLANET ever have the general instructions on internet issues work right without phone assistance. And this leads me to my greatest aggravation about the whole mess... and the true, primary reason why I have avoided the b*llsh*t for so long:

I absolutely cannot bear to speak to the customer help people of any company anymore... most everyone ships their phone work out to some third world country overseas... and while very often the people on the phone can be very helpful... it is the QUALITY of the damnable INTERNET based INTERNATIONAL phone connection that drives me ever nearer to insanity. Most of the folks are wearing headsets so they can assist you, but that doesn't help a helluva lot, for I usually cannot hear them very well, and they cannot hear me very well. So, usually within the first 10 minutes of calling, I end up literally SHOUTING into the phone to be heard.... and the physical act of shouting actually physiologically CAN MAKE ME GET ANGRY. So, even if I don't want to, almost inevitably I get awfully damn uptight at these folks on the phone, which then makes me more upset (at myself), and I just spiral into a whirlwind of utter frustration. Usually, I end up having several pipes during these phone conversations to attempt to calm me, to no avail. Maybe what I need to do is have a few slugs of whiskey before and during? Hell, I don't know. Even the prospect of being slightly inebriated does not make the phone task more palatable.

* * * * *

Well, there you have it. The above are my free-flow of ideas I can spare to shed today.


Monday, March 28, 2011

Very Interesting

I saw this today on Science News:

Obesity Messes with the Brain: Memory and Concentration Diminish as Organ's Wiring Sustains Damage

By Janet Raloff

Web edition : Friday, March 25th, 2011

Obesity subtly diminishes memory and other features of thinking and reasoning even among seemingly healthy people, an international team of scientists reports. At least some of these impairments appear reversible through weight loss. Researchers also report one likely mechanism for those cognitive deficits: damage to the wiring that links the brain’s information-processing regions.

A number of studies in recent years have shown that individuals with diseases linked to obesity, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension and type 2 diabetes, don’t score as well on cognitive tests as less hefty individuals do. To test whether weight alone — and not disease — might be partially responsible, John Gunstad of Kent State University in Ohio and his colleagues recruited 150 obese individuals for a series of cognitive tests. These people weighed on average just under 300 pounds, although some were substantially heavier. Two-thirds would shortly undergo weight-loss surgery.

Scores on the tests were assessed against those of people in the Brain Resource International Database, a large multicenter project with data on very healthy people. Obese individuals in the new study initially performed on the low end of the normal range for healthy individuals from the database on average, Gunstad says, although nearly one-quarter of the obese participants’ scores on memory and learning actually fell within what researchers consider the impaired range.

Tested again 12 weeks after bariatric surgery — when most had shed some 50 pounds — the lighter but still heavy patients scored substantially better. Most now performed “within the average or greater-than-average range for all cognitive tests,” the researchers report online in Surgery for Obesity and Related Diseases.

Study participants who didn’t have surgery — or lose weight — performed worse on the second test. “That was a bit surprising,” Gunstad says.

Neurologist Stefan Knecht of the University of Münster in Germany, who is not involved in the new research, says he is not surprised that the untreated participants experienced rapid, continuing drops in cognitive performance. Among the morbidly obese, he says, “You can actually watch them getting worse from one three-month period to the next if you have sufficiently sensitive measures, which [Gunstad’s group] did.”

The second new study by Gunstad’s group used a form of magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, to probe the wiring that connects nerve cells to move information throughout the brain. The bundled fibers are sheathed in a protective layer of white insulation, giving rise to the tissue’s name: white matter.

In obese individuals — but not normal-weight or overweight people — this sheathing shows signs of damage. “It’s not as though a cable has been cut,” Gunstad says. “It’s just that its integrity is diminished,” jeopardizing the strength or clarity of signals that must traverse these cognitive highways. His group’s findings appear in the March 2011 Obesity.

This white matter study “is interesting, and the methodology looks sensible,” says brain-imaging expert Mark Bastin of the University of Edinburgh Western General Hospital, who is also studying white matter integrity. But he argues it must be viewed as preliminary owing to “the very small numbers of subjects” — just 17 obese individuals among the 103 people studied.

Using the same MRI technique last year, Knecht’s team linked C-reactive protein — a blood marker of systemic inflammation — with white matter integrity in a group of 447 older adults. Both type 2 diabetes and obesity can chronically elevate CRP levels in the blood.

As CRP levels in blood increased, Knecht and his colleagues found, so did the likelihood that white matter’s insulation would be impaired. This suggests “that low-grade inflammation, which is strongly correlated with obesity, could be an important mediator,” Knecht says.

In that study, the researchers reported in the March 30, 2010 Neurology, higher levels of CRP also correlated with “with worse performance in executive function, including tests of psychomotor speed and attention.”.

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This has very interesting and thought provoking consequences. I wonder if my decline in weight has assisted my thinking?


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sadly, As I Said Sunday

It is tragically unfortunate that my suggestions on what would transpire at the nuclear plants in Japan have apparently followed that course. I wish I would have been wrong, but even though I am a biologist and not a physicist, I have read numerous books on nuclear power over the years, which allowed me to see the horror that was likely to transpire. Here is a new update that I have found informative from the NY Daily News:

Japan Nuclear Crisis: Meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi Plant May Now Be Inevitability

By Richard Sisk and Helen Kennedy
NY Daily News

Americans were told to flee a wide area around Japan's failing nuclear plant on Wednesday as federal officials warned it might be too late to avoid meltdown.

So much radiation may have leaked at the Fukushima Daiichi plant that workers may not be able to get close enough to fix it, said Gregory Jaczko, head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

"We believe that radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures," Jaczko said.

He said all water had apparently boiled away from the cooling pool at Reactor No. 4, where 1,097 tons of spent fuel rods are stored.

"I hope my information is wrong. It's a terrible tragedy for Japan," Jaczko said.

When exposed to air, fuel rods first emit hydrogen gas - apparently the cause of an explosion late Monday that blew a 26-foot-wide hole in the side of the reactor building.

The rods then continue to overheat, releasing more radioactive gases that would vent through the new hole directly to the outside air.

Eventually, the rods could get hot enough to melt, releasing lethal quantities of additional radioactivity.

"The actual radiation releases could approach that category of Chernobyl," warned former NRC Commissioner Victor Gilinsky, referring to the worst nuclear accident in history.

Tokyo Electric said it was trying to hook up a new power line to the plant to restart cooling pumps, submerge the rods and ratchet down the crisis.

Military helicopters began dumping water on Reactor No. 3 to cool the rods at the core, officials said. Authorities are also considering having the national police use water cannons to spray the reactor.

Levels of radiation had quadrupled in Tokyo, 150 miles away, sparking panic in the city and alarm internationally.

The State Department told Americans within 50 miles of the plant to flee. The Japanese government's evacuation zone is only 12 miles.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said the more stringent American alert was based on "our independent analysis of the deteriorating situation."

Several other countries followed Washington's lead and told their citizens to leave Japan, while the Swiss and French sent planes to ferry their nationals home.

"We're not far enough away," fretted Cory Koby, 41, a Canadian high school teacher in Sendai, the quake-hit city 40 miles from the plant.

"We stayed indoors all day today," said Koby, whose home withstood the earthquake and tsunami, but was now seeing ominous radiation measuring trucks go by.

Officials insisted that radiation levels were dangerous only in and around the plant itself.

Chief government spokesman Yukio Edano said radiation 12 miles from the plant was clocked at 0.33 millisieverts per hour - the rough equivalent of three chest X-rays an hour.

"If someone were to stay in this area 24 hours a day for a whole year, they might suffer health problems. But if you stay for several hours - or days - in this level of radiation, you will not suffer health problems," he said.

But few were listening.

Tokyo's airports were full of foreigners leaving the country, and train stations were packed with Japanese families fleeing to Osaka and other points south.

The European Union urged member countries to check Japanese food imports for radiation.

At Fukushima, heroic teams of engineers continued to risk their lives inside the plant, trying to stave off a meltdown.

At one point late Tuesday, radiation levels spiked so high that all workers had to be evacuated briefly.

The terrible destruction from Friday's quake and tidal wave was hampering efforts to help evacuees and get materials to the plant.

Ships are left aground among destroyed houses in Kesennuma. (AP photo/Kyodo News)

At least 10,000 people were killed in the natural disaster, half a million were left homeless and roads to the area near the plant are blocked with debris.

Snow fell Wednesday, just adding to the misery of survivors still digging in the rubble for loved ones.

Underscoring the gravity of the situation, Japanese Emperor Akihito made the first-ever live imperial TV address to urge his people not to lose hope.

"I am deeply concerned about the nuclear situation because it is unpredictable," said the widely revered 77-year-old emperor. "I hope things will not get worse."

TV stations interrupted coverage of the disaster to carry Akihito's historic address live. His father, Hirohito, was the first emperor to speak on the radio in 1945 when he announced Japan's surrender after another nuclear crisis - the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

* * * * *

So very, horribly sad. I am at a loss for words.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Now, the remaining 50 workers at the nuclear plants in Japan have suspended operations. We are in a big load of trouble. The reality is that these 50 workers were left behind most likely as sacrificial lambs so to speak... prepared to give their lives to try to stop the meltdowns, but now even they are leaving. There is no one manning the broken site. This is a situation that will make Chernobyl seem unfortunately tame in comparison.

I decided to gather some formal information about what constitutes a nuclear meltdowh. Read the following description of the effects of a nuclear meltdown and see if it sounds familiar:

The effects of a nuclear meltdown depend on the safety features designed into a reactor. A modern reactor is designed both to make a meltdown unlikely, and to contain one should it occur.

In a modern reactor, a nuclear meltdown, whether partial or total, should be contained inside the reactor's containment structure. Thus (assuming that no other major disasters occur) while the meltdown will severely damage the reactor itself, possibly contaminating the whole structure with highly radioactive material, a meltdown alone should not lead to significant radiation release or danger to the public.[16]

In practice, however, a nuclear meltdown is often part of a larger chain of disasters (although there have been so few meltdowns in the history of nuclear power that there is not a large pool of statistical information from which to draw a credible conclusion as to what "often" happens in such circumstances). For example, in the Chernobyl accident, by the time the core melted, there had already been a large steam explosion and graphite fire and major release of radioactive contamination (as with almost all Soviet reactors, there was no containment structure at Chernobyl). Also, before a possible meltdown occurs, pressure can already be rising in the reactor, and to prevent a meltdown by restoring the cooling of the core, operators are allowed to reduce the pressure in the reactor by releasing (radioactive) steam into the environment. This enables them to inject additional cooling water into the reactor again.
* * * * *

So, what do we have now? The INES for Japan is now currently at a "6" when only a matter of days ago, people were dismissing it as MABEY a "4" but more likley a "3". I am still firmly of the belief that the actions being taken and the desperation of these measures means we actually have or will have a "7" recorded for this event in the historical record... presuming we have one. This is an unimaginable disaster and tragedy.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

It Continues

The horror of the nuclear meltdown in Japan continues and very horridly shall continue for a long time. The above image is of protesters in Manila who want their own nuclear power plant shut down.

Last night, I started to grow infuriated at the nonsense being spewed by several news sources (Reuters and Fox especially) suggesting that there was NO PROBLEM and that the damage would be minimal. This was utter b*llsh*t and anyone who knew even rudimentary science about nuclear energy would know this. Yet, to have such "information" spew out over the airwaves is a disservice to our nation and our world.

But, realizing that there will always be manipulative people who distort science and science reality to sway the science illiterate, I forced myself to shed my fury. I am glad I was able to do this.

I do not know if there is much if anything we can do at this point for Japan and its nuclear tragedy. We will unfortunately just have to mostly sit back and wait for it to run its course and then help with the cleanup and try to send as much relief aide as we can.

Yet, for the rest of the world, I think we need to SERIOUSLY work towards an end to nuclear power. I do not mean we should shut down (impossible to do, by the way) all the nuclear power plants immediately, but what we need to do is create a plan where over the course of the next decade, all nuclear power plants will be phased out and we must support massive research and development into other forms of safer, better, alternative (non petroleum based) energy sources.


Monday, March 14, 2011

INES Scale

I am worried as hell about these nuclear plants in Japan. It is set to be FAR more grave than what happened in Chernobyl. The International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) is a means for communicating in consistent terms the safety significance of nuclear and radiological events. Putting events into proper perspective facilitates common understanding among the nuclear community, the media and the public. The scale can be applied to any event associated with nuclear facilities (be they power related, industrial or medical) as well as the transport, storage and use of radioactive material and radiation sources.

I suspect we will AT BEST end up being in a LEVEL 5 emergency, but the potential for a LEVEL 7 emergency is VERY POSSIBLE.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Feeling Inept, Helpless, & Hopeless

I am sitting here in my office at the U, catching up on some research analysis with my rats, and working on an exam I need to finish for my endocrinology students, but what I am really thinking about and have been for the last two days is about the horrible, almost certain likelihood we will be experiencing a "China Syndrome" style meltdown if not today, sometime in the next few days at the nuclear facilities in Japan.

Please do not get me wrong, I am very saddened for all the people in and around the Earthquake site, and have been watching more news than has been my norm recently because of the horrible events that have transpired. Yet, the pure global impact of the potential of up to four different nuclear cores melting down to the ENTIRE WORLD is too frightening to even put into words.

The various scenarios at "BEST" end with thousands upon thousands of deaths due to radiation and cancer caused by the meltdowns, but the "WORST" scenerios based upon fairly solid science suggest that if large enough, the explosions and the radioactive debris could a) alter the level of sunlight that will reach our planet's surface for long enough to wreak havoc on survival of many different life forms (including our own) and b) scatter enough radioactive debris worldwide that virtually all lifeforms will experience greater rates of cancer and earlier death.

I have always been firmly against the adoption of nuclear power as an energy source, and the ONLY potential positive of this event may be that ALL nuclear power plants may now be worked into retirement over the next several years. The risks are too great.

Here is a recent update from the Guardian:

* * * * *

Japan's Nuclear Fears Intensify at Two Fukushima Power Stations

03/13/11 16:13:00 EST

Authorities scramble to control overheating reactors at one plant, as state of emergency declared at second nearby

Fears of a major nuclear accident in Japan have intensified as authorities scramble to bring under control several overheating reactors at one power station, and declared a state of emergency at another, where radiation levels soared above normal limits.

Workers at the Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant in the north-east of the country pumped seawater into three reactors in a last-ditch attempt to make them safe after emergency cooling systems failed to stabilise the radioactive cores.

More than 200,000 people were evacuated as officials imposed a 20km exclusion zone around the power station and a 10km zone surrounding the Fukushima 2 power plant nearby. Japanese officials told the International Atomic Energy Agency they would distribute potassium iodide pills as a precaution against an increased risk of thyroid cancer from radiation.

The most urgent crisis centred on Fukushima 1, where officials were braced for an explosion similar to one that blew the roof off the building that housed reactor 1 yesterday morning, after hydrogen escaped from the reactor as engineers vented steam from the pressurised vessel.

The failure of the cooling system caused uranium fuel rods to overheat and split the cooling water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen exploded, devastating the building, but the containment vessel around the reactor was undamaged, Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, said.

Desperate engineers were forced to vent steam from two other reactors at the power station before pumping in seawater, despite the risk of triggering further explosions.

Edano said a partial meltdown of fuel rods in reactor 1 was possible and that engineers were pumping seawater into the others to prevent the same happening there. He said the fuel rods in reactor 3 might be deformed, but a meltdown was unlikely. Reactor 3 uses a mixed-oxide fuel which contains plutonium, but the plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) said this did not present unusual problems.

"The use of seawater means they have run out of options," said David Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists nuclear safety project.

Two of three diesel generators used to drive cooling pumps stopped working at the Tokai 2 nuclear power plant, 75 miles north of Tokyo in Ibaraki prefecture.

The intentional release of steam from the nuclear reactors caused levels of radiation around the Fukushima 1 power station. Levels measured at the power station boundary reached 500 microsieverts an hour, a quarter of the dose the general population receives from natural background radiation in a year.

Tepco officials said radiation around the Fukushima 1 station had risen above the safety limit, but it did not mean an "immediate threat" to human health.

The radioactive substances released from the site suggest at least part of the core in reactor 1 has broken down. Japan's nuclear and industrial safety agency confirmed that radioactive caesium-137 and iodine-131 had been detected in the vicinity of the Fukushima power station. These radioactive isotopes are produced by fission reactions inside the core and can only have contaminated the cooling water if fuel rods overheated and melted the cladding surrounding them.

A state of emergency was declared at the Onagawa nuclear plant north of Sendai after radiation rose to 400 times the usual level, but Japanese officials said the increase was due to radiation from the Fukushima plant and was not a risk to health. The reactors at Onagawa were said to be under control.

Paddy Regan, a nuclear physicist at Surrey University, said it could take several days to cool the reactors and make them safe. If any of the reactors continued to heat up, the core could go into complete meltdown. This raises the danger of a major release of radiation if the molten core breaches the containment vessel.

The sheer scale of the crisis in Japan has stretched emergency services to breaking point and prompted criticism that authorities were ill-prepared for a natural disaster that struck first with an earthquake and next with a devastating tsunami.

The nuclear power stations shut down automatically when Friday's earthquake rocked the region, but emergency generators crucial for cooling the reactors were knocked out in the following tsunami. The decision to wait until Sunday before filling two of the reactors with seawater has been criticised as a potentially serious delay.

An anti-nuclear energy group in Japan said the government and industry should have foreseen the danger. "A nuclear disaster which the promoters of nuclear power in Japan said wouldn't happen is in progress," the Citizens' Nuclear Information Centre said. "It is occurring as a result of an earthquake that they said would not happen."

* * * * *

Let us all hope (and for those who wish to, pray) for as good of an outcome as possible in this still developing, tragic situation.


Thursday, March 03, 2011

Sitting Here...

As I get older, I see a trend in me that is surprising to me. I have just started to proctor my endocrinology exam and for the next two hours, I will be sitting here while the students fuss and fidget and write and write until their hands cramp to complete their exam, hopefully by the end of the time I have allotted..... two hours. While I typically enjoy proctoring exams because I can get caught up on some work while it is quiet, or I can play if I am not overly busy... I am also finding (especially during the last few years) that my ability (actually willingness would be a better word) to sit still while the students take the exam is declining.

I am so very used to moving and jumping around and being all bombastic and dramatic in the classroom during lecture so I can make key points, so I can keep their attention, and to "entertain" them (or at least entertain myself" that sitting for these two hours is becoming surprisingly more challenging.

So, what have I been thinking about you may ask? Not surprisingly, it seems when I am bored or fidgety, my mind drifts to pipes and pipe tobacco. I have been daydreaming about how I would like to be smoking my pipe at the moment. It is an interesting notion to think about. I regularly refrain from my pipe for many hours, and as long as I am enjoying the activity, or am busy, or mentally focused... I give my pipe nary a thought. But if I have a lull in activity, or if I am bored, it becomes a primary focus. Perhaps that is a more valuable insight for me to keep at the front of my brain if I take another stab at reducing my consumption of the beautiful pipe tobacco leaf.

I shall contemplate that as I sit here, twiddling my thumbs, as I wait for the students to finish.


Wednesday, March 02, 2011


Four years ago today, was the day my beautiful mother passed away.


Tuesday, March 01, 2011

What a "Fun Guy"

The following is from the most recent Science News. While an intriguing idea, the notion of having assassin fungi conjures up all sorts of doomsday predictions in my mind.... all good fodder for the various science fiction novels I keep meaning to write. But read on and see for yourself:

Lab-Engineered Organism Fights Malaria: Fungus Attacks Not Just Mosquitoes, But Parasites Inside Them

By Daniel Strain

In a new approach to malaria control, killer lab-built fungi poison infect mosquitos and poison the malaria parasites living inside the insects. The mosquitos die a few days later. Weiguo Fang

Malaria’s new worst enemy may be a fungus.

A fungus? Try stealth assassin. Strains of a common fungus engineered by a U.S.-British team can eliminate more than 90 percent of malaria parasites deep within the insects that carry them, the team reports February 25 in Science.

Malaria is caused by several species of single-celled organisms known as protozoans. But the disease is really an insect’s game. Mosquitoes are malaria’s taxi service, shuttling pathogens from person to person and town to town. Good malaria control, then, is about good insect control, says Andrew Read, an evolutionary biologist at Penn State University in University Park, Pa.

The flow of pesticides to malaria-prone regions like Africa and Asia, however, has put mosquitoes under big pressure to evolve resistance to insect-killing chemicals. “These things work until the mosquito becomes resistant, and then you’re in trouble,” says Read, who was not involved in this study.

The tiny fungus Metarhizium anisopliae could present a solution. This fungus naturally infects mosquitoes but, unlike pesticides, takes days to kill them. That doesn’t sound like a good thing — more time means the mosquitoes have longer to mate, which means more mosquitoes. But the more bugs mate, the less reason they have to evolve resistance, since they are already able to pass along their genes. The fungus seems to walk a fine line between promoting resistance by killing insects too early, and allowing too many chances to spread the disease by killing them too late.

Yet Raymond St. Leger and his colleagues didn’t want to just kill insects. The team added a few new genes to the fungal DNA, turning M. anisopliae into a drug-producing factory. First, the modified fungus bores a hole into the mosquito. Inside, the added genes turn on and, depending on the fungal strain used, generate a host of malaria-killing chemicals, from scorpion toxins to proteins from the human immune system. The chemicals are bad for parasites but don’t do any extra harm to mosquitoes, says St. Leger, an entomologist at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md.

“They’re catching the malaria as it swims from the insect gut to the insect salivary gland,” he says. One fungal strain cured malarial infections in about 75 percent of dosed insects, and killed more than 90 percent of the pathogens in the rest.

No one’s sure how many malaria parasites it takes to actually launch the disease, says Adriana Costero-Saint Denis, a scientist with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which funded the study. Rigorous testing will show whether St. Leger’s super-fungi work under real-world conditions. “Even though this discovery is extremely exciting, it’s still a long way from being a tool in the field,” she says.

Genetic engineering involves a suite of regulatory issues and inevitably public critics, says Tom Miller, an entomologist currently on a fellowship in Washington, D.C., with the U.S. State Department. The modified fungi are safe but not miracle cures, adds Miller, who is working with St. Leger on a separate study. He’d like to see such tools used alongside new and better medicines.

St. Leger sees a lot of potential for lab-engineered assassin fungi — which scientists can mix into house paint or weave into mosquito nets. His newest efforts focus on killing Lyme disease inside tick innards. “We’re not limited to what we already have,” he says, “or what even nature has.”

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It will be interesting to see the fallout from this endeavor.