Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Black milk of morning we drink you....

    It's been a long time since I posted a poem. Here's one in German that I particularly like. It's by Paul Celan, and was written around 1945. Of course, the theme is morbid, befitting the epoch. The poem is, however, music.  Here's a translation into English.


    Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
    wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
    wir trinken und trinken
    wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
    Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
    der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
    er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er pfeift seine Rüden herbei
    er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde
    er befiehlt uns spielt auf nun zum Tanz

    Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
    wir trinken dich morgens und mittags wir trinken dich abends
    wir trinken und trinken
    Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
    der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
    Dein aschenes Haar Sulamith wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
    Er ruft stecht tiefer ins Erdreich ihr einen ihr andern singet und spielt
    er greift nach dem Eisen im Gurt er schwingts seine Augen sind blau
    stecht tiefer die Spaten ihr einen ihr andern spielt weiter zum Tanz auf

    Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
    wir trinken dich mittags und morgens wir trinken dich abends
    wir trinken und trinken
    ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
    dein aschenes Haar Sulamith er spielt mit den Schlangen
    Er ruft spielt süßer den Tod der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
    er ruft streicht dunkler die Geigen dann steigt ihr als Rauch in die Luft
    dann habt ihr ein Grab in den Wolken da liegt man nicht eng

    Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
    wir trinken dich mittags der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
    wir trinken dich abends und morgens wir trinken und trinken
    der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland sein Auge ist blau
    er trifft dich mit bleierner Kugel er trifft dich genau
    ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
    er hetzt seine Rüden auf uns er schenkt uns ein Grab in der Luft
    er spielt mit den Schlangen und träumet der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland

    dein goldenes Haar Margarete
    dein aschenes Haar Sulamith

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Leave me Reeling

I cycled quite a way on a rainy day in 1979 to the Leeds Irish Centre. There were only maybe 50 or so people at the concert; I sat in the second row. The woman in front of me had an annoying habit of slapping her knees loudly during the music.

The band in front of me was in some disarray. They kept breaking down in the middle of tunes and appeared somewhat annoyed with each other. They had only been together for three years and they disbanded forever a few weeks later.

But they were the band that  changed the face of  Celtic music.  Three unparalleled virtuosos  tangled with each other for that brief period: Matt Molly's flute, Paddy Keenan on the Uilleann pipes and Kevin Burke, the fiddler; shepherded by a precise rhythm section. The result was jigs and reels had never before been played with such brilliant driving energy.  The Bothy Band. Check them out.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Quotas on Asian Students?

I have always argued against any sort of differential treatment based on skin color. An example of this is race-based affirmative action in college admissions, increasing admission rates of minority racial groups, which was explicitly allowed in a 2003 Supreme Court decision. College selection should based solely on how well  a prospective student is likely to succeed. Given this criterion, there is indeed an argument in favor of some preference for low-income students, based on the precept that their circumstances have made it more challenging for them to achieve a given level at high school, and therefore they are  more likely to succeed on the level playing field of college. Of course, discrimination based on income does favor low-income racial groups, but this is not an explicitly race-based policy.  

Given the above position I am curious to learn that the three most selective Ivy League colleges may well be discriminating against Asian candidates. Apparently, although Asian-Americans made up over 27% of the applicant pool  from 2008 to 2012, they comprised only 17-20% of the students admitted. Of course, it is conceivable that the Asian-American applicants were less qualified on average, collectively sending in hopeful below-par Hail Mary applications just in case. But if not then these schools are rejecting bright, qualified hard-working future leaders solely on the basis of race. Why? Because they 'work too hard'? Because they're 'no fun'? Because their parents don't have enough money or connections? No, in the interests of 'diversity', ostensibly, so that the universities can plant their pretty little gardens mirroring the make-up of society.   

My response is to say to the University of Tennessee is "Bring 'em here"! Let's get those thousands of highly qualified future leaders to UT. That'll get us up towards the Top 25, help motivate the locals  and teach the Ivy League a lesson. The use of race in college admissions should end. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Our Corduroy Physiography

We live among 800 miles of corduroy trousers, according to Google Earth. It really is striking; a  ridge and valley physiography that stretches  from Alabama to Pennsylvania, and we, in Oak Ridge, are in the middle of it. The ridges are very long, with few gaps in them. How did they form? Some kind of remnant of tectonically thrusted then folded strata. I'm not sure there's anywhere else in the world quite so  corrugated. Is there?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Big Pharma and Science

We've been talking recently with "Big Pharma", and this has made me reflect on the state-corporate nexus in high-tech R&D.

Much of the background work needed for targeted drug development is done in academia; the identification of disease-related biological phenomena, the testing of hypotheses concerning modification of these, target identification and validation, and early-stage pre-clinical development. As a compound transitions from 'hit' to 'lead' and is more and more validated, it gains commercial value, and at any time companies can jump in to bring the product to market through further preclinical optimization and clinical trials. Somewhere there's a transition between typical academic work and industry,  and that's where things are interesting. For example, both pharma and academia engage in high-throughput hit discovery and lead generation.

 Early-stage discovery in academia tends to be sustained. For example, an NIH project  in which we participate has  5 years of funding to come up with new drugs against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. If researchers in Big Pharma try to do  the same thing they must be ready to get a "No Go" command from above at any time, as the company responds to rapid market shifts and competitors' results.

I think a merger between the two approaches is a good idea. Academic researchers often complain at the lack of direct relevance of their research, whereas industrial scientists bemoan the buffeting they get from market whims. Why can't the same researchers do a bit of both: some projects that are insulted from the industrial Sword of Damocles and others that respond to  immediate commercial pressure? That would be ideal. Blue sky creativity combined with high-pressure competition. Maybe it is the future.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

How to Fix College Football

Yesterday the Tennessee Volunteers football team got thumped again, 34-20, by the 4th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, a defeat that was widely predicted and by a margin close to what was expected. Previously they were also roundly beaten 34-10 by then 3rd ranked Oklahoma and 34-3 by 3rd ranked Ole Miss.

In contrast, they thrashed the minnows of Chattanooga, Arkansas State and Utah State earlier on.
So, out of 9 Vols games so far this season, 7 have been match-ups between clearly unequal teams.

Its a wonder anyone bothers to turn up at Neyland Stadium. It's not as if there's much excitement there any more.

They should not be playing teams ranked 50 places above them. It's boring for the fans, and demoralizing  for the young kids on the losing team.

Here's how to fix it:

At the beginning of the season there is a preliminary ranking of schools. Only the first month should be firmly scheduled, with games against teams within 15 places either side in the rankings, preferably geographically close. That means that, in the current rankings, the Vols would be playing colleges such as UNC, Western Kentucky, MTSU, Florida, Georgia Tech, Mississippi State and Texas Tech.
These would all be exciting games because we WOULDN'T KNOW IN ADVANCE WHO IS GOING TO WIN!

Now, in college football teams can sometimes turn out to be much better or worse than expected, as the roster turnover each year is high. So every week, as the rankings are adjusted, so would be the schedule for games a month away and longer. Thus the schedule would adapt to the strength of the team. We'd keep all games scheduled within 4 weeks as they are, though, so as to not disrupt travel plans. But a team that is 6-0 after the first month and half could well be facing Top Ten teams in the third month.

Of course, this would be the virtual demise of the conference system; no more SEC, ACC etc.
And some of our treasured match-ups, such as Alabama, LSU etc, wouldn't take place every year.
But what's the point of them when the game is a foregone conclusion?
Adaptive Scheduling - the Future of College Football!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Superman Disorder?

When I was 13 years old I was diagnosed with Gilbert's Syndrome, a genetic disorder affecting the promoter of a gene for the enzyme glucuronyltransferase, which conjugates bilirubin. 5-10% of the population have GS, and it is benign, leading only to elevated levels of unconjugated bilirubin in blood tests and occasional slight jaundice, which friends of mine have sometimes remarked on.

What seems weird, though, is that in the last few years there has been a raft of statistical epidemiological studies suggesting that us GS guys have a huge, invisible health shield! Those of us with the disorder appear to be  protected, sometimes strongly,  against cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and kidney disease, and have lower BMIs, reduced cholesterol, more elastic arteries, reduced inflammation status and all sorts of other yummy stuff. There was even an article published last year showing success in the bottom line: in a study of 25,000 people over 350,000 person-years the overall mortality  of us Gilbert's Grenadiers was only half that of normal people.

Why would this be? The suggestion (albeit disputed) is that protection arises at least in part because unconjugated bilirubin is a powerful antioxidant, and therefore protects against oxidative stress. That would then be a bit like having had your ration of five fruits and vegetables before you even get up in the morning.

I'm not buying it, of course. There has to be a catch somewhere, doesn't there? Hyperbilirubinemia in infants can lead to irreversible kernicterus, or brain damage. Also, drug toxicity would appear to be worse in some cases for us guys. So I'm waiting for the negative metabolic effects of GS to be elucidated using systems medicine approaches. But until that time, I'm formally in the superman club!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Copy Cats

So the continental passion for plagiarism finger-pointing would now appear to have finally reached the USA.

The recent  wave of appropriations appears to have started in Germany, with a number of high-profile politicians resigning after having been  inculpated for lifting sections of their doctoral theses. The first of these was  Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the German Defence Minister (aka Baron Cut-and-Paste) in the Xeroxgate affair of 2011, and since there have several more, including the Education Minister Annette Schavan in 2013. There's even a website, Vroniplag, where theses can be virtuously scoured.

Now the plague of plagiarism seems to be overrunning US politicians and journalists as well.  While I remember Joe Biden purloining from Neil Kinnock in 1987,  there has been nothing like the density of recent episodes, including, to name but a few,  Fareed Zakaria, Rand Paul,  John Walsh and, in the last couple of days alone Mary Burke, the Gubernatorial candidate for Wisconsin and Gordon Ball, the challenger of Senator Lamar Alexander here in Tennessee. Each time the perpetrator is accused of vile cheating and resignation is demanded.

So what are we to make of all this? Well, for us scientists the rules are relatively simple: thou shalt not find out about someone else's original idea then claim thou hadst it first. And that's what makes the cases of the German politicians relatively cut and dried; they cheated, claiming originality of ideas,  in order to get their precious doctoral titles.

But in the recent US cases things seem to me to be  not always so clear. Certainly, when a politician states something in a powerful and original way, as did Kinnock in 1987 [Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to go to university? .... Is it because my ancestors were thick? ..... No, it's because they didn't have a platform to stand on]  then attribution is called for. But copying bland, unoriginal  prose into one's newspaper article or campaign website, while showing laziness or incapacity for original thought, does not imply the same level of theft. Stating that "a strong military is the basis of peace" should not require explicitly crediting the Darius the Great with having had the idea, should it?

Claiming original  ideas (or  novel, enlightening reformulations of old ones)  from others  is serious plagiarism.  The rest of the bleating is becoming rather trivial.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


"That the two Kingdoms of England and Scotland shall upon the First day of May which shall be in the year One Thousand Seven Hundred and Seven and for ever after be united into one Kingdom by the name of Great Britain And that the Ensigns Armorial of the said United Kingdom be such as Her Majesty shall appoint and the Crosses of St. George and St. Andrew be conjoyned in such manner as Her Majesty shall think fit and used in all Flags Banners Standards and Ensigns both at Sea and Land."

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Age of Aerobatics

In the 1990s I lived with my family in Chateaufort-en-Yvelines, near Paris.

Three things you didn't know about Chateaufort:

- On 19 August 1913 Adolphe Pegoud  parachuted out of a plane from the Chateaufort airstrip. While descending, as he said, 'comfortably', he noticed his empty plane performing weird arabesques in the sky before crashing. This gave him the idea to fly a plane upside down, which he then did,  thus inventing aerobatics.

- Chateaufort has a little hill, which, though nothing like l'Alpe d'Huez, is still celebrated, as the last hill on the Tour de France.  We watched the Tour there in 1994. Arriving an hour before the riders were due, we waited three hours for their arrival, during which two storms passed over. After an inexorable parade of cars, they flew by, bunched, in a confusing flash.  I looked for the yellow jersey - there were five of them. In 1989 they erected a bronze stele at the top of the hill for Jacques Anquetil, the first cyclist to win the Tour five times. It was quickly stolen, presumably for the metal, and replaced with a less valuable version.

- Chateaufort has a restaurant called La Belle Epoque, which was one of the snootiest in the region when we lived there. When my ex-advisor, Martin Karplus at Harvard, asked where I lived, I replied that it was very small and he wouldn't have heard of it. He persisted, and when I told him he said "Wait a minute! Doesn't that have a nice restaurant?"

Friday, September 5, 2014

Why Elect judges?

One thing I never really understood about the USA is this need to elect judges. In Europe, where I come from, judges are by and large appointed according to how good they are for the job, rather than for political reasons. In other words, what counts is how well any prospective judge knows the law.  The politicians make the laws, and the judges simply decide whether these laws are being followed, don't they? Having elected judges certainly makes them accountable to the public, but how is there public to know who is a good or bad judge? Moreover,  candidate judges  have to bend to popular undercurrents and special interests.  A weird procedure. Hey, why not elect doctors and professors as well?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Wull Oi Dort Know 'Bout Tha' Rum Ole "Accent Reduction" Do

Oi see ORNL huz cancelled 'as "Suthern Accent Reduct'n" clarse.
Wull, Oi come frum Nawfolk in the UK, 'an um 'av'n fun 'ere tryun ter wroite  loike how Oi use ter speak over thar.

If yew can't picter ut 'ere's a video link ter 'ow 'ar Nawfolk Dumplin accent go.
Ass a sawng whut sold more 'an the Beatles or the Rolling Stones down our way..

Ar go'a say Oi wu'nt a gart no-where if Oi'd a kept that accent, so I s'pose I sor'a did a bit a accent reduc'n moiself - dort know zakly when, tho. Prob'ly at Leeds Uni, coz they sure as hell couldn't understand a good ole Nawfolk Dumplin dialect even there. So I s'pose the Suthen Accent Reduct'n thang at ORNL moite a bin a good thang - did summon loike 'ut moiself, yew see.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Special Pill Just for You

One of the many significant acts of my former advisor, Martin Karplus, was to help set up, in 1989, Vertex Pharmaceuticals -  one of the first companies to use a design strategy based on "rational", structure-based approaches.  Now, Kalydeco, designed by Vertex, is a glimpse into the future of personalized medicine. It is the first cystic fibrosis drug to treat the underlying cause of the disease, and works for those ~4% of patients with a certain mutation of an ion channel, which is potentiated by the drug. 4% amounts to about 2,000 patients, for whom this a wonder drug.  However, Vertex has slapped a $300,000+  yearly price tag on this drug, making it one of the most expensive in existence, and this has led to an understandable outcry from various sources, including some scientists involved in the development of the drug itself. In retort, Vertex point out that they have spent $6.5 billion on R&D that needs to be recouped and that it has only two drugs on the market.

Given that personalized medicine is aimed at ever smaller numbers of patients,  many fear that this approach will lead to ever more expensive drugs. But the one facet few seem to be talking about in this context is the origin of that  $6.5 billion number above. Most of that outlay will have been researching failures. Many of us are now trying to develop fast and efficient ways of finding drug candidates that are more likely than before to have high efficacy and safety.  This will get more personalized medicines to market quicker, with less R&D outlay. It stands to reason that if Vertex had discovered Kalydeco earlier, when its total R&D outlay had been only, say, $1 billion, then the price tag would have been lower.

It's not written in stone that personalized medicines will have to break the bank.

The Cost of Doing Business

Baudoin Prot: CEO BNP Paribas. Financier of the Year 2006, Recipient of the 'Social and Corporate Responsibility' Award of the Foreign Policy Association,  2007.

I like to see two sides to every story, but I have never really been particularly enamored of Western institutions aiding and abetting genocide. Recent examples of this include government support of East Timor, Guatemala, Kurdish Iraq and elsewhere, but the very latest in the news concerns the French bank BNP Paribas. According to the UN, between 2003 and 2007 the genocide in Darfur resulted in at least 200,000 deaths, principally civilians massacred by Sudanese government forces and the Janjaweed militia they supported.  The US had countering sanctions in place,  but these were flouted by  BNP Paribas for whom the lure of oil money was just too great. BNP  became the 'de facto Bank of Sudan', playing a 'pivotal role' in helping the Sudanese government sell oil in violation of the sanctions, funneling billions of dollars to the government, most of which bankrolled the military thugs. BNP covered it up for years. Eventually found guilty, the bank settled with the US for  $9bn a few days ago. BNP states it has ample funding to cover this. It's not going to perturb them too much. No individual has been charged. They will sleep soundly at night. As Forbes magazine states, banks  call this merely "the cost of doing business".

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How to Waste Taxes

Don't you love it when bureaucracy goes nuts? 

Here are  two cute examples from this week starring yours truly, both concerning travel reimbursements. 

No point in naming the organizations responsible;  one was state and the other federal;  nor in criticizing the administrators I interacted with, who were only following the rules, but; 

(1) A form was returned to me as invalid because I had claimed ONE CENT less than the amount on the receipts. 

Moral: Make sure we spend $100 of effort to correct a 1 cent mistake.

(2) A travel claim that has been bouncing around for two years (!) was finally definitively refused because, in a  attempt to save taxpayers' money on a flight, I had purchased a  round trip international ticket for $184 on a low-budget airline (Ryanair) that had only one  class. As no class was specified on the ticket this meant it couldn't be reimbursed. 

Moral: Let's make sure we discourage personal initiatives to save taxpayers' money.


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Don't Ban Suarez!

So Luis Suarez has been biting again.  A 7-match ban for a nibbling Bakkal in 2010, a 10-match ban for nipping Ivanovic in 2013, and now he does it to Chiellini in the World Cup.

And everyone is screaming to lock him up and throw away the key.
Take the English pundits.

Robbie Savage claims "He should never play international football again."
Alan Shearer says "Three bites and you're out. They should absolutely hammer him".
Danny Mills: "It has to be the longest ban in football, ever".

No, gentlemen! No! Why?

Biting is childish and, indeed disgusting. But the physical injury caused was minor - just a few toothmarks. Compare that to players head butting the referee, as did one of my team mates in Knoxville last year, deliberately trying to breaking legs, such as Roy Keane against Alf Inge Haaland in April 2001, or the sickening forearm smash of Ben Thatcher that knocked out Pedro Mendes in 2006. In 2010 an English Sunday League player was jailed for 6 months for a horrific tackle, shattering an opponent's leg in two places and ending his playing career. Those are acts of extreme violence, and players try to perpetrate them in nearly every professional match. Put yourself in the victim's shoes, Mr. Shearer: of which indiscretion would you prefer to be on the receiving end?   Suarez's regressive behavior offends us culturally. But the punishment will not be  objective, I'm afraid.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Insane Science

So I was on a team judging some insane science last week. Here's what these crazy nut cases  did.

First, they built a two-kilometer long tube in California.

Then they built the ultimate death ray in it - you know, Star Wars and all that - an X-ray laser.

Then, just for fun, they smashed things up!

Credit: Gregory M. Stewart/SLAC

First, they fired it at a piece of aluminum, reducing it to a spot of plasma hotter than the center of a star. Unhinged, but, I concede, fun.

But now here comes the totally bonkeroony bit. They put a tiny protein molecule at the end of the gun, generated a huge pulse of X-rays, and blew it to smithereens! (Guffaws, rolling about on the floor laughing, pointing fingers).  What these deluded loons thought was, that in the teeny-weeny bit of time time after the pulse hit and before the delicate little biological molecule  vaporized into eternity, the X-rays would scatter off it and form an image of the protein. Then, they could use the structure to understand biology, design new medicines etc. Totally Tonto, I tell you!

Thing is - looks like it might be working........

Tuesday, June 10, 2014


The Mittelstand is the historical heart of the German economy. Small firms, with about 50-100 workers, say, that we have never heard of, still make quality products sold all over the world. Eberhard Voit, a Professor at Georgia Tech who models metabolic systems in the Bioenergy Science Center, gave me a cute example of this in the bar last night.

Eberhard comes  from a town close to Luedenscheid in North-Rhein Westphalia. During the industrial revolution  folks there started working with metal, and someone found out how to make nice buttons. They made more and more of them, saturated Germany, then started exporting. By 1860 millions of Luedensheid buttons were being sent everywhere, equipping even the Chinese military.

Did workers in this small town, as 100 years ago they were packing boxes full of buttons to be sent to some "exotic" location,  dream of what it would be like to actually go there?

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Tellico Blueway

We canoe-camp the Tellico Blueway - a pristine, unspoiled 11-mile paddle along the Tellico River. These stump-filled waters are too treacherous for large motorboats, but ideal for serene canoeing. 
The trip starts  as a narrow channel,  wild roses grow along the river banks, and, as the waterway gradually widens, we pass cattails and tall, light-brown limestone bluffs with gnarled cedars clinging to the rock. 

Before lighting the fire at our primitive campsite,  we watch long-jawed orb-weavers at work in the canopy.  There is no-one else within miles. Next day the river widens, with nesting  ospreys and great blue herons. 

Most surprising of all - this is Memorial Day weekend. About 800,000 people will have visited the Smokies in the month of May, but Stephine and I are alone in doing this. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Connie Sausage and Annie

Annie Fenniger
I'm presently in Vienna. I have been participating in a workshop on the cold, slow death of everything; well, entropy in bimolecular systems, actually, but it's kind of the same thing. But things are hot in Austria, with Connie and Annie. They're both champions!

Anna Fenninger is the new World and Olympic ski champion. She's highly in demand - a good wholesome, beautiful,  sporty and now highly successful girl.

 Connie's a bit different. She won the Eurovision Song Contest -  the competition that has been boring everyone on the old continent for decades but nevertheless stokes up some amusing remnants of nationalism (Franco's men bribed the juries to make Spain pip Britain's Sir Cliff Richard in 1968, for example) and the contest did start out Abba. Anyway, Connie won it this year for Austria with a magnificent offering entitled River Phoenix or something like that. Thing is, though, Connie's a man with a beard. Conchita Wurst (real name), when literally translated, means something like 'she of the immaculate conception who doesn't give two hoots about anything'.

Conchita Wurst
Although, like the Eurovision voting panel, the IOC have not been averse to bribery in the past, Annie won the Olympics all fair and square.  She decided to not grow a beard, though -  shaving seconds is most important in ski-ing, you see.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Boat Person Update.

Update: The full story of my neighbor's escape from Vietnam is here.

It's even more dramatic than he had told me.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Bye-Bye Premier League! We're DOWN!!

That's it, Norwich City are relegated after three years in the Premier League. Relegated in the worst way - with a painful slide plonking us just over the lip into the death zone right at the end of the season. A season for which the club invested heavily in strikers who,  poorly nourished from the midfield, lost confidence  and shriveled on the vine. And the coach, Hughton, universally loved for being a nice guy, showed he was too nice, unable to motivate. The team lacked passion. Now they are down.   (At least Ipswich weren't promoted, though.)

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Excessive Regulations are Turning Scientists into Bureaucrats

A new report from the National Science Board, the National Science Foundation's policymaking think tank,  describes how excessive regulations are turning scientists into bureaucrats. Something we recently mused upon. Overregulation, while mostly well-meaning, often ends up flattening the very flower it is trying to protect.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

On the cusp of the unthinkable

For the last three years Norwich City have been basking in the limelight of the Premier Division, while our arch-rivals Ipswich Town languished in the neglected backwaters of the second division  (called the 'Championship').  Of course, we reveled in this situation.  Moreover, as last year it looked as if Ipswich would even be relegated from the Championship to the third division,  City fans, polled as to whether they would like this to happen,  nearly unanimously voted 'yes', even though this may have condemned us to several years without derby games against them.

But, as things are right now, Ipswich are just one point from the play-offs for a place in the Premier League, while we look like we'll have to beat at least one of the elite clubs,  Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal, to stay up. So there's a significant chance that the unthinkable will happen - THEY WILL GO UP AS WE  GO DOWN. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Overregulation of Science

The Instapundit recently linked to a great blog detailing how overregulation has suffocated and stifled some areas of science.  Research ethics boards put up painful hurdles to investigation, sometimes leading to thousands of lost lives due to delayed clinical trials. These boards may be called ethics committees (in Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada) or institutional review boards/IRBs (in the United States). They delay projects and force scientists through laborious and unnecessary hoops. 

Now, I'm not sure science is actually overregulated in this regard. After all, we do need  expert guidance on how to deal with certain things. But what is certain is that the burdensome regulatory hurdles in place are counterproductive.  The whole thing reminds me of vehicle inspection in Europe (and some US states).  Europe requires high standards of vehicle maintenance: you can't drive your car there unless it is safe and meets minimum emissions standards. That's fine, and I appreciate its worth every time I see a filthy truck belching fumes on the I-40.  And cars with brakes that work reduce crash risks. What I am against, however, is Europe's compulsory vehicle inspection.  In Germany and the UK everyone must take time out and pay through the nose to get their car tested every year. That's overkill and not a cost-effective way to increase road safety. It would be much better to send everyone the book of requirements and tell them they can be randomly tested and, if their car doesn't measure up, fined. That would cut red tape and stop wasting everybody's time and money. 

The same goes for science ethics. Rather than force us to dispiritingly wade through molasses every time, give us the book of rules, tell us we must obey it and that we can either  volunteer to go through the committee (if we are uncertain about things) or run the risk of getting randomly investigated.  That shifts the responsibility to scientists while eliminating wasteful, expensive and time-consuming procedures.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Mercury Emissions Controls: Worth It?

During our Science Focus Area discussion dinner last night the subject of the effectiveness of installing mercury emissions control technology in coal-fired plants came up. It seemed to me that it may not be worth the US unilaterally spending billions to clean up its coal if the result is only global, i.e., a small worldwide reduction in mercury levels, with no other countries following suit. But in fact it appears that, although mercury is a global problem,  regional mercury action has regional, rather than global,  effects. Installing the clean coal technology has been estimated to reduce the mercury levels in the US by about 50% at a cost of $16 per household per year on average. That seems worthwhile to me. A computerized nationwide referendum would allow the question to be quickly asked of the whole country.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Boat Person

My next-door neighbor in Knoxville is from Vietnam. As a teenager in the 1980s he was in a monastery, but the communist government didn't tolerate monasteries.  So he became a fisherman, and decided to bide his time, learning the ropes. At the age of 19 he escaped in a boat with an engine, but was driven back by a typhoon. (Many perished in such typhoons.) One year in jail followed. My neighbor doesn't recommend communist jails. Then, he tried again, captaining a boat with 37 people, this time with no engine, and made it across the South China Sea to the Phillippines.  My neighbor: one of the Vietnamese Boat People. Puts the rest of us to shame, I think. How many more stories are there like that in the leafy subdivisions of middle America?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Reasons to be Cheerful, Part IV

Troy Wymore: had his sarin picture appear on local TV.
Demian Riccardi: incorporated Hackamol into finding potential drugs against hypoposphatemia.
Jerome Baudry: has been strongly recommended for tenure
Xiaolin Cheng: is still publishing all sorts of stuff at a rate of knots.
Barmak Mostofian: has entropy-driven explanations of ionic liquid effects.
Hong Guo: has navigated through a huge article on a mercuric reductase
Loukas Petridis: finds water has remarkable effects on cellulose
Tongye Shen: has nailed bacterial motions.
Hanna Qi: has been grappling with huge data and found contacts.
Derek Cashman and Pavan Gatty: got great new jobs.
John Eblen and Roland Schulz: have GROMACS running fast on Intel Mics.
Benjamin Lindner: published two Markovian theory articles in JCP.
Hao-Bo Guo: has figured out redox reactions in MerA.
Liang Hong: got his fourth PRL here accepted.
Karan Kapoor: has made advances in thrombosis that we can't talk about.
Amandeep Sangha: has made a first small step to drugs for four cancers.
Sally Ellingson: graduated! Then went straight to a faculty position.
Jason Harris: successfully predicted toxicity
Xiaohu Hu: is aging gracefully
Quentin Johnsongave us a great talk
Jing Zhou: published her cobalamine QM calculations.
Emal Alekozai: graduated!
Jerry Parks and Alex Johs: Won the big ORNL science prize.
Julia Cooper: retired. Many thanks for nearly four decades of service to ORNL.
Michael Galloway and Steve Moulton: got our new system ordered, installed, up and running.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Only Happy with a 15-point Lead

Sports spectatorship psychology is infuriating. Why is it that, after not caring at all for the best part of three years, it suddenly has become very important to me that the UT Vols keep progressing in the Men's Basketball NCAA tournament? Talk about fair-weather fan-dom!  Also, why is it that we watch games that can rarely actually be enjoyable to watch?  If we really care about the result, we can almost never be happy until the final whistle (or buzzer). You see, in soccer, my team has to be 3-0 up to be safe, and this never happens. 2-0 is not enough because the other team can score one then put the pressure on. Likewise, in basketball, if you haven't got a 15-point lead then you can never relax.
So last weekend there were two games to watch: Norwich versus Sunderland in soccer and the Vols against Mercer in the NCAA Round of 32. Norwich won 2-0, but we were never safe.  The Vols, on the other hand, were 15 points or more in the lead virtually throughout. So only that game  could actually be enjoyed in real time. Now, as for Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen, I doubt there will be any pleasure there until, possibly,  the very, very end.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Faith in science? Really?

My colleague Glenn Reynolds, who is a Distinguished Professor of Law at UTK, a prolific scholar, and runs the Instapundit website, has written a column for the New York Post warning of trusting scientists. While stating that "honestly done, science remans the best way of getting to the truth on a wide range of factual matters" he claims that "people are losing confidence in... scientists and the institutions that purport to speak for them". He goes on to state that "there's no particular reason why one should trust scientists and especially..the people running scientific institutions, who often aren't scientists themselves." [Glenn:  minor point: while I'm loath to generalize, every scientific institution I know is indeed run by a scientist, albeit often one no longer active in research.] He suggests that scientists are often not skeptical enough and  that it's the "increasing use of science as ammunition for big-government schemes" that has led to more skepticism of the public. He finishes off with the statement "If scientists want to be trusted, perhaps they should try harder to make sure that those who claim to speak for science are, you know, trustworthy. Just a thought."

So here is a response, from one who 'speaks for science'.

As in other highly-technical fields, such as medicine, to be a scientist requires a lot of learning and training;   typically at least 10 years of undergraduate and graduate study.  Normally, although  aware that medical doctors have differing opinions and levels of competence, people do not  trust  someone without an M.D. to perform their heart surgery or fix their inflamed knee.  So why not trust scientists?

Well, this particular inflammation is of political origin, and the statement about big-government science schemes is at the core.  However, in my opinion, most people are in favor of some big-government science schemes while they may be against others. Consider, for example, a palette of projects: weapons research (such as the Manhattan Project) and other high-tech defense initiatives, blockbuster drug design,  supercomputing, biotechnology, alternative energy and climate.  None of these fields can advance (or could have advanced) rapidly without cooperative public and private investment - I'd be happy to explain why later for those who don't know. Which of these initiatives people classify as worthwhile tends to  depend on their political and world view. But these biases are often out of fear for political decisions based on the science discovered, and this conflation of science and policy is at the origin of  the mistrust.

Take our own Center for Molecular Biophysics as an illustration of the difference between the two. Quite a bit of our research is on biofuels or the environmental cycling of mercury.  Yet we don't advocate any particular political policy related to  these fields - indeed, we don't even discuss political aspects much.  As for me, I don't necessarily approve unilaterally adopting a US carbon tax or regulating US mercury emissions; these policy decisions by themselves might in fact have no real effect on the problems they are trying to address. But, like Reynolds, I am no expert on these particular questions. I don't know what other members of CMB think.

But where we do agree with each other is that we think it's important to understand the science behind biofuel production, and how mercury is transformed and transported in the environment. And so we try to understand what is needed to find technological solutions to bring down the cost of cellulosic ethanol, and we try to to understand what happens to mercury once it enters the food web.

Myself, being a 'believer' in the general worth of science and technology for mankind,  I want to see all the above-mentioned palette of projects pushed forwards. The cost to the taxpayer is small relative to other, non-science big-government schemes, and the economic return on investment enormous. Scientific research arms the population with the facts. What policy to adopt in response to the facts can then be chosen by the people and their representatives.  But if you don't have the facts in the first place, on what do you base a political decision? So why defund climate research, or epidemiological research at NIH, or research on mercury cycling?

There's no reason to 'trust' scientists more than anyone else in their advocacy for any particular policy, but cutting down scientific research itself, which is surely the corollary of not trusting scientists in general, will lead to a lurch back  towards an age of ignorance. Who then, would there be to trust?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Day in the Life of a Computational Chemist

My ex-graduate student, Zoe Cournia, writing on the Wiley Exchanges site "I  live in a virtual reality world, where everything from chemical reactions to drugs, food, materials, cosmetics, electronics, and proteins is being modeled and simulated. And you won’t believe it, but, yes, I do have a job."

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Brawling and Bawling

So on January 28th I was in Norwich and watched the Canaries take on Newcastle. The final score was a 0-0 tie.  Sounds boring to aficionados of American sports, in which it’s “No Ties Allowed”. But, in reality this game was 90 minutes of intensity in a packed, passionate, partisan arena.  

First up was Despair, as in the first half Newcastle were all over us, streaming through the midfield, wave after wave of their highly technical French strikers floating effortlessly down the wings past our full-backs. Men against boys; no way were we going to survive this. Gloom. We would have even taken a defeat, then, as long as they agreed not to humiliate us with a thrashing.

Frustration set in, with chants questioning certain characteristics of the visiting fans. Then, our tempestuous Scottish winger Robert Snodgrass, who was having another bad game, fluffed a corner and got some resounding abuse from most of our section of the crowd (the Snakepit). Amazingly, the little brat retaliated! Swearing at us and gesturing! So, of course, we shouted at him even more.  How dare he? We pay him a bloody Fortune (probably millions) and he has the gall to play worse than a squashed haggis then cuss at us for tearing him off a strip!  (Bet you wouldn’t see that happening in the NFL, either).

But Newcastle didn’t score; they hit the post three times, our goalie was brilliant, and we did better in the second half, both teams pushing, each giving 100%, desperately probing for the winner - end-to-end stuff. Then our hard man, Bradley Johnson, tussled with Loic Remy. Johnson pushed him, the Newcastle star might have headbutted him, Johnson went down and all hell broke loose; all 22 players in a brawl, the whole stadium on fire, jubilation as Remy was finally red carded then vitriol as, on reflection, the ref inexplicably sent Johnson off as well.  

Magnificent! But it wasn’t over – right at the end we twice nearly sneaked an undeserved winner, grazing  the bar then drawing an amazing save from their keeper. Afterwards, Snoddy came back down to the Snakepit and applauded us in contrition. We knew Snoddy gives everything - to quote Ray Hudson ‘working harder than a one-eyed cat covering three mouse holes’. So we forgave him and the evening finished in breathless mutual appreciation.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Let's make a Love Drug!

Oxytocin is the love hormone, the magic chemical  that creates warm, fuzzy feelings of bonding, trust, empathy and cuddle cravings. When someone's level of oxytocin goes up, he or she responds more generously and caringly, even with complete strangers. This is useful of course; for example, in the bar (chatting up a hot chick), or on the battlefield (making the Islamic Insurgents fall in love with their enemy).  The problem is though, that oxytocin has to be injected, which is rather inconvenient, of course on a first date  ("Excuse me, Cindy, just roll up your sleeve"?), and negotiating a ceasefire on the field for such a purpose is likely to prove nontrivial. So what is needed is something that one can just spray, or pop in a drink. That could be an oxytocin activator.  

Now, how about this? Last week at a neutron workshop in UCSD I chatted with Bi-Cheng Wang of UGA, with whom I wrote a paper 15 years ago on the activation of oxytocin (Boris Velikson was my postdoc who did the modeling). On the bus at the airport we decided that all we need is to design a molecule that will do the activation (cleave the precursor at Arg2-Asp13) and voila! - beautiful people wherever you need them. Drug is the Love! Anyone having problems with the wife or got an obstreperous teenager? Maybe a dog that barks too much? Send the research dollars our way!!!

[Disclaimer: for all the spoil sports - yes, I know there are ethical problems with this type of thing, and, yes, I'm not serious, and, yes, I know there is already a oxytocin nasal spray being tested for autistic kids [but an activator may be more effective anyway]].

Monday, January 13, 2014


Norwich City - lose!

I have been a fan of yours for 47 years.
I have never wanted you to lose before.
Not against Villa at Wembley when I was a ballboy.
Not against Chelsea or Panathinaikos or Inter Milan or Bayern (and certainly not Ipswich).

But I  bought a ticket to the Newcastle game on January 28th and a flight ticket back to the USA on the 29th. And now you have announced that, should you beat Fulham in the F.A. Cup 3rd round reply tomorrow night, the Newcastle game will be put back one day, to the 29th.

So tomorrow you must sink. Lose! Go Fulham!

Update: Fulham won 3-0! Whehaaay!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Quite Nippy

With temperatures  in Knoxville presently sliding towards zero Farenheit I was trying to remember the briskest weather I have experienced. It may well be the period of January 3rd-January 18th 1985 when I lived near  Grenoble, France. The temperature in the town never rose above freezing during that 18-day period. The average was around 10 degrees F and the lowest was -1F, on January 6th. Now that was in the town, and I lived 1200 ft  higher, at La Grivolee (see red arrow), so the average at home would probably have been about  4F and minimum about -5F. My poor little 2CV car, nicknamed "Turbo",  was just a cracked block.