Thursday, September 26, 2013

And When They're 45?

I'm currently at a workshop in Lausanne, Switzerland and one of the lecturers is Dorothee Kern from Brandeis University. She was point guard in the East German National Basketball team in the 1980s and has kept playing, leading the German National Over-45s to winning the world championships this year. I asked her about the USA team. Given that they're so good at college, how did they do? Dorothee answered that they didn't even have a team.

This is sad, but jives with my experience of adults doing sports in the USA. They are active at school, jamming the soccer fields with kids playing soccer under the adoring eyes of parents, but by the age of 20 everything has stopped. Inactivity, indolence, unhealthy obesity.

The next Master's World Basketball championships is in Orlando, sponsored by ESPN. Maybe the USA won;t have a team there, either?

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Accidental Nuclear Holocaust over North Carolina?

A newly declassified report from Sandia National Laboratory confirms that in 1961  B-52 broke apart over North Carolina dropping two 4 megaton bombs. One fell to the ground unarmed. But the second assumed it was being deliberately released over an enemy target - and went through all its six arming mechanisms save one. OK - that's certainly scary. But how scary exactly? The journalist currently publicizing this states  "only the failure of a single low-voltage switch prevented disaster".  In contrast, the declassified report states that a short would have been required i.e. the sixth switch appeared to function as it should have.  How close were we actually? In nearly 70 years we haven't had a single nuclear weapon accidentally detonated, but we need to be careful that it never happens in the future.  

Friday, September 20, 2013

My future job

Mr. Neil Doncaster,
Chief Executive,
Norwich City Football Club,
Carrow Road
Norwich NR2 3EW

Dear Neil,

After the debacles against Hull and Spurs, whereby in both games the lads managed to reduce themselves within 5 minutes to lurching after the shadows of the opposition like blinded zombies, it’s clear that Carrow Road needs some big changes.

So I am hereby applying for the obviously-soon-to-be-vacant position of manager of Norwich City FC.

You’ll probably want to know what experience I have in running a football club? The answer is: none whatsoever!

So what? I’ll run the show using a three-point principle broadly inspired by the athletics department of my current employer.

Firstly, I’ll get rid of the best players. This will engender an unprecedented level of solidarity in the remainder, leading to their being psychologically solidly impenetrable.
Anyway it’ll be quite easy to do because my predecessor Hughton has already voided the club of all but a couple of the good players – there’s only Hoolahan and the lad Redmond left. They’ll have to go!

Secondly, in a revolutionary step, I’ll remove the goalkeeper from the team! Knowing that our goal is gaping and unprotected will give our outfield players tremendous incentive to never let the opposition have the ball.

Thirdly, I’ll stop all training sessions. This will make the players so keen to play so that, come Saturday afternoon they’ll all run around like demented threshing machines, reducing even our dear friends from Ipswich to a bunch of whimpering blue babies.

It’s time the Canaries opened up a can of Norfolk Whoop Ass on the Premier League.

On the Ball City!

Let’s get to work!

Yours,  Jeremy C. Smith. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Solution to Syria

Amidst the confused public debate as to what to do about chemical weapons and what is happening in Syria, there seems to be no clear consensus as to how best to deter their use.  But the fact is that there was a solution to this problem that, with a bit of thought and development, could have been implemented by now. And it does not involve arming Al Quaeda,  potentially ineffective or counterproductive military strikes or, indeed,  any military strikes at all, and it would not have needed any international agreement.

The solution, which is still the way to go, is to render  chemical weapons ineffective.

Enzymes exist that can act as "bioscavangers", chemically transforming nerve gases such as sarin and VX into harmless molecules by breaking them apart, before they have had a chance to act on the nervous system. But these enzymes need to be improved, developed and translated into field use.

Troy Wymore, Jerry Parks, Larry Avens  and myself  have received a small amount of grant money over the last year or so from NNSA and DOE to work on this using calculations of reaction mechanisms and enzyme engineering. Together with Paul Langan and colleagues we wish to combine these calculations with neutron crystallography to rationally improve these enzymes. We have submitted a paper detailing our first findings, which were quite surprising and exciting and could lead the research in a somewhat different direction. Soon, if, and only if, nerve gas bioscavenging research is properly funded over a long enough period, there will be a primary prophylaxis that military and civilians will be able to use in the form of an injection, patch or pill that will neutralize sarin and other nerve gases before they get a chance to work. This would render any chemical weapons strike useless, which is about as good a deterrent as one could imagine.

However, we, and others in the field,  have had a hard time getting sustained funding for this. It's not that the idea of sarin bioscavanging enzymes is particularly controversial - just that, as usual, the will has not been there to divert money from other, less effective programs to fund development of this technology. $150M over 5 years would probably solve the problem. Financially this makes so much sense, compared to the cost and uncertainty of missile strikes.

And, had this research been funded sufficiently earlier, all those children could have been saved.