Archive Page 2


Japan’s Nuclear Problems, then Energy Production

Nuclear energy is dangerous. I’m not going to downplay the dangers of harnessing a highly controlled fission bomb that is hovering just above criticality and requires water to be constantly flowing to keep it cool. I just have a few points that need to be made:

  1. The earthquake didn’t damage the Fukushima facility, it was the tsunami; such inundation was beyond the design specifications of these reactors, although should have been taken into account when it was built that close to the ocean in an earthquake prone region.
  2. The problem wasn’t that the reactor was damaged, but that the generators which provided the electricity to maintain reactor controls were damaged. This resulted in damage to the reactor while controls were offline. Such is the problem with the 30+ year old boiling water reactors; no passive or inherent safety systems.
  3. The most recent completed reactor (Fukushima I-3) went critical in 1979, the first was in 1970, the first and second reactors should have been in the decommissioning cycle already. All reactors built before 1980 should be being decommissioned in the next few years.

Do these points mean nuclear power is a bad idea? Of course not, power companies are so far behind the research and technology curves within their own field, I’m starting to think they really don’t want to maximize their profits and instead only want to limit day-to-day cost; is it a requirement to operate a major energy company (or most medium-large companies, in my experience) for one to be short-sighted? The three most cost effective greenhouse gas free sources of energy are, in order: hydroelectric, wind-inshore, geothermal, advanced nuclear. The cost per megawatt, of course, varies with region, in some cases, a nuclear reactor would be cheaper than a hydroelectric facility. Wind may be more expensive than geothermal or nuclear. It depends on the region, but all are universally cheaper than advanced coal facilities or conventional combustion turbines; why build them? Photovoltaics are useful for individuals with expendable income and the desire to decrease on-grid dependency, but cost several times that of wind, hydroelectric, or geothermal when calculating the cost per kW-h over the lifespan of the equipment. The future of energy SHOULD be in hydroelectric (well designed), geothermal, and nuclear (wind and solar have their own issues).

Natural gas is the most cost-efficient greenhouse gas producing source of energy with conventional coal without any CCS or any scrubbers (the nastiest and cheapest coal plants out there) still being more expensive than advanced natural gas systems.

In short, if an energy company is building a new plant that is not advanced natural gas, hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, or nuclear, they are being stupid fiscally.


Welcome to the internet

For those of you new to the 14th 20th 21st century, such as the Phelps crew, I would like to welcome you to the internet, where claiming a group of hackers attacked your website then challenging them to do it again is generally pretty stupid. Apparently the Phelps cultists didn’t realize this and felt the urge to publicly slam and challenge Anonymous (the hacktivist group) for shutting down their websites and claiming they couldn’t “stop god’s message,” in response, Anonymous posted a message, which was fairly nice.

Continue reading ‘Welcome to the internet’


Alligators get sick, too!

I was having a discussion recently (as in last night) about alligators and pathogens, and that reminded me of Mycoplasma alligatoris and Sebekia. These are two of the many types of parasitic organisms that can and do infect alligators. For all the news in the past few years covering the “amazing immune system of alligators,” you’d think these would get a bit more press coverage, particularly M. alligatoris since it is known to have caused numerous deaths at alligator farms (Sebekia could, in principle, but large outbreaks have not been observed). Other parasites in the wild include Beauveria bassiana and several species of trematodes and nematodes. M. alligatoris is the one that most affects high population densities (as seen on alligator farms or in some wildlife refuges).


Bad Science+Bad Journalism=Bad Publicity

It is unusual how press-conference-quality-science often doesn’t meet the qualifications of undergraduate-quality-science. Examples of this include Ida, arsenic DNA, vaccines cause autism; I could go on, but you get the idea. All of these have several things in common, many things wrong, and interesting lessons. These are important for many reasons, but mostly because, even with bad science, we can learn from them.

Ida-that delightful little Darwinius masillae fossil from the Messel pit in the southwest corner of the state of Hesse in Germany-was a gorgeous fossil, and could have been even more remarkable had it been properly studied without trying shoehorn this little fossil as a transitional form between Strepsirrhini and Haplorhini by only comparing her to living primates. You cannot use paleontology to prove a point while simultaneously ignoring all of the other paleontological finds.

The autism-vaccine crap utilized something else entirely, several somethings to be more precise. It relied on a small uncontrolled study (12 data points) to draw sweeping conclusions. Data were manipulated to show a stronger correlation. Some of the children had medically documented problems BEFORE they received the vaccines while others did not show any problems even after being vaccinated (except in the paper). So these data were very well cooked and manipulated to fit the conclusions Wakefield (and/or the lawyers that had been paying him) wanted.

The arsenic DNA debacle is the most recent of these cases of highly publicized bad science. If you look closely enough, though, you can find a number of similarities between the “science” of all of them.

1) There’s always a press conference in really bad science, not like “MHC effects mate selection” bad–which was pretty bad, but seems to be an honest mistake, but “not even wrong” bad or ignoring/misrepresenting previous research.
2) The paper is always released at the same time as said press conference leaving no time for review.
3) The data/methods/conflicts of interest are not fully disclosed

There are a few other things that these cases have in common:
1) Discrepancies between the press conference and paper
2) Overly simple explanations of the paper during the press conference
3) The press conference will often present wild implications of the scientific impact of the paper.

If all of these high profile press conferences continue to be facepalm inducing botches, it will continue to diminish the public perception of science. So, as someone educated but (unfortunately and not by choice) not active in the scientific community, go where the research leads, not where you want the data to lead.


Randall Munroe does it again

Ok, so Arsenic-based-life isn’t exactly what I would call it, it’s just a really neat extremophile. And while extremophiles are pretty awesome little beasties for illustrating the conditions life as we know it can survive, it doesn’t exactly live up to the hype like another recent find. It particularly pisses me off when a press conference is held at the same time and on the same day that electronic versions of the paper are released and before anyone can accurately provide dissenting opinions and critiques of an overhyped paper. Give a few leading scientists that also happen to be writers (Switek, Myers, Smith, Laden, etc.). Don’t just slam a factually unprepared press with crap for them to imbibe like dehydrated camels, let alone not release the methods or data in the press conference. It’s in the paper behind a pay wall (which I shelled out for in this instance, although in retrospect, I shouldn’t have). I have a feeling any hyped up press conference won’t be getting any attention; they don’t merit it.

Until we find entropy-defying chemical systems on another planet, the term Astrobiology should be limited to philosophy.


Genetics and Stupidity: Part 1/307000000

Those of you familiar with the actual genetics of genetically modified foods would probably laugh in the face of those in opposition to the latest spat with transgenic salmon. What they did was change the promoter sequence for one of the regulated growth hormones for one that is always expressed. In order to do that, they took the growth hormone from Oncorhynchus tshawytscha and used the promoter for an antifreeze gene found in Zoarces americanus and fused the two. This was then integrated into the genomes of Salmo salar to produce breeding stock. After generating a breeding population of homozygous fish, females were then exposed to a hormone which causes the fish to generate male gonads. So you’re left with genetically female but physiologically male fish capable of fertilizing wild-type eggs to produce a homogeneous brood of heterozygous females. Since most people don’t really care about the environmental health, and are only concerned about their own tiny worlds, I have decided to only glance over the ecological dangers (which do exist, and are fairly well dealt, although not to the extent I would like) and focus instead on what health risks such modifications carry.

Growth hormone levels are typically regulated by a myriad of factors ranging from time (time of day, day of year, and years of age) to food intake to environmental cues (such as dietary changes or, as in the case with Salmon, re-exposure to fresh water). The change here is in the sensitivity of the promoter, keeping the “time of day/day of the year” parts of the promoter sequence in the “on” position while diet and food intake still influence total growth hormone levels. The only real change here is that the gene is on for longer, but not in higher levels. This means that consumed genetically modified salmon have no instantaneous higher levels of these hormones than do wild salmon, they just have the highest levels seen in wild salmon more frequently (although, in simulated wild conditions, the fish isn’t much larger; 3-5%). The difference is seen in saturation diets where this fish is fed at maximum rates. These conditions (as would be present in fish farms) produce markedly larger fish (30-50%). This means more food, at lower cost per unit weight, than would be attainable by wild-type salmon.

As for the ecological issues, as previously mentioned, the very slight size difference under wild conditions, in conjunction with >97% sterility, enclosed facilities, and the high predation rate of salmon means the risk of genetic contamination is fairly low (although I still think a synthesis gene for an easily supplemented nutrient of some kind should be employed) for wild stock.

Part 2 of this will examine what foods are genetically modified…


Four Loko Fiasco

I sometimes wonder how often people stop to consider how full of shit they actually are. Let’s actually think about this a bit, we’ll start with one of my personal favorite drinks.

Red Bull/Vodka=quite tasty, but it is 16% alcohol with 80 mg caffeine per 14.3 oz

In other words, it has a higher content of alcohol but probably lower content of caffeine when compared to this Four Loko drink. Since the quantity of caffeine actually in this beverage isn’t disclosed and I don’t have access to an HPLC (if you do, have a caffeine standard, and feel like running a few dozen samples, let me know!) then I can’t compare the two accurately. For comparison, most energy drinks in 23 oz cans contain 160 to 200 mg of caffeine, but we’ll up it to the concentration found in Red Bull, so a total of 240 mg of caffeine. If (this is probably an overestimation of the level of caffeine) you consider the alcoholic content and caffeine ratios between Red Bull/vodka and hypothetical Four Loko you get something like this:

Red Bull/Vodka: .16 oz of alcohol and 5.6 mg caffeine per oz

Four Loko: .12 oz of alcohol and 10.4 mg caffeine per oz

I would like to point out to everyone out there that 240 mg of caffeine is already dangerously close to caffeine intoxication conditions, so we shall assume the company wasn’t completely stupid and instead adopted a lower “yield” of about 160 mg. Now, are the makers of this drink stupid enough to put the higher,  dangerous, concentration of caffeine into their drinks? I certainly hope not. The alcohol in one drink, while significant, would elevate the BAC to about .11 for a 200 lb individual if drank rapidly (Δt=0). For comparison, that is the equivalent of a four decent beers. Have two of these, and you’re looking at a little over a six pack and definite caffeine intoxication.

While Four Loko may, in fact, be dangerous, the danger comes more from irresponsible drinking and caffeine intake than from any particular beverage. Let us examine who is being hospitalized for drinking this:

“Four Teens Hospitalized”
“Denton police say drunken boy’s crash killed his girlfriend; both were 14”
“Sgt. Ed Wessing tells The Arizona Republic 18-year-old Lanae Cummins of Mesa told police she was playing the drinking game at a friend’s house”

Holy hell, every single one of these is under the legal drinking age? Perhaps better enforcement of the laws already on the books would be useful? Let’s keep going.

“Troy officers arrested two 18-year-old males around 1:40 a.m. Tuesday morning on New King Drive after seeing the vehicle they were in speeding. The vehicle exited from Northbound Interstate 75, south of Long Lake Road, according to police.
The men said they were traveling to Oakland University.
The officer searched the vehicle and said he confiscated twenty-four 12 oz cans of beer, six 23.5 oz cans of Four Loko and a single 1.75 liter bottle of vodka.”

“Standing with the grandmother of a 18-year-old Long Island girl who died after drinking Four Loko, the Democratic senator said federal and state regulators have already wasted too much time studying the issue and must move to ban sales of the beverages.”

Do I really need to fucking continue? Don’t ban something because you can’t enforce the laws already on the books. I’m interested in the FDA’s actual findings and research and look forward to reading it, but for fuck’s sake people, quit blaming the manufacturer for the failures of the parents and already existing alcohol regulations.

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