A Ray of Hope … from the past?


Exploring the universe with lego

Some good news from The New Yorker this week…

First, the (nearly) nonagenarian magazine is opening up a large part of its archives to non-subscribers. A look into this library can be found here.

Second, Andy Borowitz reports that once, this nation actually believed in science. That’s right, these United States supported and the advancement of science as a public good. We have to wind back the clock to a time not so long ago, when science had a convergence of basic and applied goals. The public was rallying behind a space race to the moon (we chose the moon as the finish line because it was the only time we were ahead), while the politicos rallied behind the rockets that propelled them. After all, if we can put something on the moon with such precision that people could survive the journey, we can certainly put a rocket (and whatever payload we wanted) into any backyard in the world (even the Kremlin). 



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Posted by on July 22, 2014 in Uncategorized


Another addition to the ‘Little bit of knowledge’ file

I’m balking at bringing up this recent political hot potato, but because it is specifically referencing science and infectious disease, I feel like I ought to throw in my two bits. 

Rep. Phil Gingrey of Georgia recently voiced his concern that the children sent into this country illegally following political unrest in their home countries are likely to be brining many diseases across the border with them. What I take issue with are the diseases he is suggesting that these children might carry. 

From a M. Richinick article posted on msNBC:

“Reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis are particularly concerning. Many of the children who are coming across the border also lack basic vaccinations such as those to prevent chicken pox or measles. This makes those Americans that are not vaccinated – and especially young children and the elderly – particularly susceptible,” Gingrey, a longtime physician, wrote in the letter.

Gingrey defended his letter Tuesday.

“The border patrol gave us a list of the diseases that they’re concerned about, and Ebola was one of those,” he told NBC News’ Luke Russert. ”I can’t tell you specifically that there were any cases of Ebola, I don’t think there were, but of course Tuberculosis, Chagas disease, many – small pox, some of the infectious diseases of children, all of these are concerns.”


The disease that has caught the most attention is Ebola. And given the recent outbreaks of Ebola in West Africa, it would be a major concern if it were to be brought into the States. Fortunately, the only cases of Ebola ever reported are in West Africa (For the geographically impaired, Africa hasn’t been close to Central America since about 100 million years ago). 

Another disease I would really, really worry about is Smallpox. Because there hasn’t been a recorded case anywhere in the world since 1978, it would be very bad if these kids had it.

We have related insects here in the US, but not the same Kissing Bugs.

We have related insects here in the US, but not the same Kissing Bugs.

Lastly, Chagas Disease. This one is at least possible. Lots of people do get Chagas Disease, and it is prevalent in Central and South America, where it is transmitted by its host, the Kissing Bug, which lives in thatch roofs and infects people sleeping in these homes by biting them and defecating on their faces. The infectious organism, T. cruzi, gets transmitted when these bite victims scratch at the bite and get the contaminated feces in the bite wound. Blood-to-blood contact can also spread this disease, but that is quite uncommon. So, again, I have to say I’m not too worried about Chagas Disease either.

Sorry for not putting more references in this post – perhaps I’ll edit it later. Right now I’d call it a rant. And… one last thing to add before I sign off: Gingrey is an OB/Gyn


Posted by on July 16, 2014 in Uncategorized


A Little Bit of Knowledge

ist2_5576987-old-microphone-isolatedWhile I was in the garden today I was listening to This American Life episode: 293. The gist of the episode was to uncover the occasions where having just a bit of knowledge was enough to get people in trouble. The first act consisted of Nancy Updike reflecting on things that she and others grew up ‘knowing.’ Things that parents or other figures of authority told them when they were small. Things that were just plain wrong. Yet, these ideas crystalized and remained somehow fixed in their minds even as they grew up to be old enough to know better.

One example was believing that unicorns were real. “Are they endangered or already extinct?” Like many of the anecdotes in this segment, the question was followed by stunned silence by all listeners.

Another take on the pitfalls of having just enough rope to hang yourself came from a story about an electrician, Bob Berenz. During the course of doing some background study in physics to help in realizing a dream of building a superconductor,” he happened upon the biggest idea of his life: A revelation about physics that would disprove Einstein, and Newton.”

Pursuing his new idea that all of modern physics was wrong, Bob has hit roadblock after roadblock, leaving him to with the conclusion that physics in such a closed community that no one else’s ideas are ever given a chance. To help resolve this, the producer of this story, Robert Powell, takes Bob to meet a physics professor and hash out his ideas. 

At this point, something happened that made me sad. This was a perfect moment for the professor, Dr. Brandt Watson, to embrace the teachable moment with Bob, but either he did not – or this was edited out of the story as I heard it. What I wanted to hear was not an argument about the math or confusion of terms (although these are obviously very important), but that the only way we know something (as well as we ever can) is to do experiments designed to falsify our thesis.

From the 1925 Boy Scientist, an illustration of how gravity bends light, in accordance with Einstein's theory

From the 1925 Boy Scientist, an illustration of how gravity bends light, in accordance with Einstein’s theory

I can only assume that Bob’s hypothesis made some sort of testable claim. Einstein, himself, struggled with this for many years before his ideas were put to a test to determine whether massive objects could bend light. The best way to test something – even a poor hypothesis – is to determine what it predicts in key situations and then see if the predictions are accurate.

Alas, poor Bob left Dr. Watson’s office unmoved by Watson’s criticisms. 

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Posted by on July 16, 2014 in Uncategorized


The stimulus response pathway

Originally posted on adesarroff's Blog:


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Posted by on June 25, 2014 in Uncategorized


It crawls… It creeps… It eats you alive!

Compounded Interest

How money or value or perhaps even The Blob grows. In the simplest of all settings, interest can be as straight forward as, I’ll loan you $10 for a hamburger today, and you pay me back $11 on Tuesday. In this case, Wimpy is taking out a loan of $10 at 10% simple interest.

That’s great for a cartoon, but it’s not the case in most real-life examples of interest. In real life, a loan you take today might accrue interest every year, month, day, or even continuously. Although the last case is one of the most interesting ones as it deals with a special number ‘e’, I just want to address the more intuitive cases.


Clean Shaven Man

Let’s say Wimpy is keen on that hamburger today, but he won’t have any cash until Tuesday again. This time, his usual rubes are all cash strapped as well, so poor Wimpy has to go to a formal lender. This lender is OK with the loan, but as insurance against Wimpy’s ability to pay back the loan on time, he insists on compounding interest every week.

“Let’s be clear about this Wimpy,” his loan officer says, as he walks him through the conditions. “You can have your $10 today at 10% interest. The loan is due on Tuesday, and that will come to a total of $11. If you can pay it off then, great. But if you need more time, we will be compounding the interest – that means that you will essentially be getting a new loan of $11, at the same 10% rate.”

“OK,” says wimpy and leaves his mark on the loan document.


This is exactly the right way to think about it.

  1. initial loan is made: $10 at 10%, due in one week.
  2. If the loan continues, another 10% is charged on the new total.
  3. Week after week, this goes on until Wimpy can pay up or he’s referred to collections and they repossess his barbershop.


Mathematically, this takes the Principal (loan amount ) and multiplies it by 10% every week.

  1. week 0: $10
  2. week 1:$10 + 10% = Principal x 1.1                                                          -> $11.00
  3. week 2: ($10 + 10%) x 110% = (Principal x 1.1)2                                              -> $12.10
  4. week 3: (($10 + 10%) x 110%) x 110% = (Principal x 1.1)3       -> $13.31


This can be generalized by the formula:

Amount owed at time      t = P (1 + R)t

Where P = principal

R = rate (expressed as a decimal)

T = the number of times interest is compounded

(whether its days, years, months, whatever)

(10)(1+.1)3               -> $13.31


This goes for any compounded growth.


oooo – Air Conditioning!

The Blob arrived in Downingtown, PA in 1958. At first it was just something riding into town on a meteorite. But soon after, an old man touched it and got it stuck to himself. Steve McQueen comes to the rescue and gets the old fellow into town to see a doctor. Meanwhile, it becomes evident that the blob is not letting go, and is hurting terribly. Dr. Hallen decides to amputate, but before he can, the blob grows large enough to eat the old man, then a nurse, and then the doctor.

From then on, the thing just keeps growing. Let’s say it grows at a rate of about 50% an hour and use the same formula…


  1. hour 0: 100g
  2. hour 1:100g + 50% = Principal x 1.5                                             -> 150g
  3. hour 2: (100 + 50%) x 150% = (Principal x 1.5)2                                               -> 225g
  4. hour 3: ((100 + 50%) x 150%) x 150% = (Principal x 1.5)3        -> 338g
  5. hour 24:         ——-à                                                                       ->1,683,411g


You can really see how this thing gets huge fast (or at least massive, we never talked about the density of this thing).

Graphically, the blob’s growth looks like this:


One troubling thing is that this could also represent the balance on a credit card that isn’t attended to.

“It crawls… It creeps… It eats you alive!”

-Tagline, The Blob 1958


For a good explanation of interest, compound interest, and ‘e’ – check out Khan Academy’s lectures on this or this site that does a great job illustrating the difference between several types of interest.



Posted by on June 13, 2014 in Uncategorized


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Matting down the grass

ImageI put on a stern voice every morning as I try to get my dog, Penny, to ‘go poop’ after her breakfast. She wanders about, obviously taking in something more than I can perceive. She circles a spot and smells intently making a slight move as if – no. That was the wrong place. She bounces away and starts mimicking a tracker again, following some invisible trail.

“Go Poop!”

I imagine that I am helping her.

Despite my frustration with the dog this morning, I start doing exactly the same thing later in the day. I just arrived at the library to do a bit of quick studying (for the Chem Praxis Exam), do some research (regarding a product I am consulting on), and check email before I head over to the Enterprise Center of Johnson County (ECJC) for a lunch seminar. Because I arrived just at opening, there is nothing but space here and only a very few people. Like my dog - or like Dr. Sheldon Cooper trying to find a good movie seat, I go through the same antics.

I’ve wandered around for a while looking, then tried a few possibilities, and even now I’m sitting at what is decidedly NOT the right place.

I need to get something (other than this) done, so I think I’ll try just one more place and get to work.



Posted by on June 12, 2014 in Personal Life, Uncategorized


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Miss Scarlett

With the Candlestick

Well, of course I did it, Darling.

In writing a quick post for one of my other blogs I came across the studio of Joanna Katchutas, who made a piece of artwork that I thought worked well with the piece. Check out that post – about the game and film, Clue, here.

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Posted by on June 11, 2014 in Uncategorized


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