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Saturday, December 06, 2014

Mussels make superglue?

Nature is so amazing. I heard about this topic on the radio last week and was curious to learn more about it. Even with all the technological advances we have made, humans still pale in comparison to what nature figured out a long time ago.  One such example is the fibers and adhesives that mussels use to attach themselves to objects in the sea.  Their ability to stick to wet surfaces is of particular interest as this may have potential application in medicine for wound closure due to surgery or injury.  This could even include surgeries to unborn babies.  Current chemical adhesives are no match for the salty, wet conditions of the human body. Mussel adhesives are so strong they are able to hold on during waves and storm currents making them a great example to study. Hmm...and here I was just thinking they were a seafood dish.  Check out this article to learn more.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Support Bangladesh Arsenic Education Project on IndieGoGo


Dear friends of Chemists Without Borders,

I am pleased to announce the kickoff of our campaign on IndieGoGo aimed at educating high school students in Bangladesh on the dangers of drinking water contaminated with arsenic. Chemists Without Borders has provided arsenic test kits to six schools in Bangladesh to test the drinking water in their schools and in their surrounding communities. Our goal is to educate the students about arsenic poisoning, which is a critical health issue in Bangladesh and many other parts of the world. For wells that test above the limit of 50 parts per billion (ppb) of arsenic, we plan to work with other organizations to provide for alternative sources of clean drinking water.

Please take a few minutes to take a look at the IndieGoGo site, watch the brief video, and read about the success so far of the project. I am very proud of the work we have done so far, and with your help, we plan to scale up the project to reach more schools, eventually reaching all areas affected by arsenic in Bangladesh and elsewhere. Please feel free to share this information with others in your network who might be interested in the work Chemists Without Borders is doing. We can’t do it without you!

Warmest regards, and best wishes for a peaceful holiday season.

Steve

Steve Chambreau
President, Chemists Without Borders
stevechambreau@chemistswithoutborders.org

Chemists Without Borders is a 501(c)(3) organization registered with the Internal Revenue Service.  All donations are tax-deductible as permitted by US law.  Please check with your employer to see if they will match your donation!

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/bangladesh-arsenic-education-project#home

 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Functional Stupidity in Academia Blocks Meaningful Efforts to Pursue Sustainability

by Josh Kearns

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Hi - Your erstwhile correspondent Josh Kearns here! As a Chemist Without Borders doing work of on-the-ground relevance, you may enjoy this critical look at the continuing struggle to bring academia into accord with the real world....

*     *     *

OK, so a paper came out in PLOS-ONE a couple months back where the authors used statistical analysis to predict that the area in the southeastern US covered by suburban sprawl would double or triple by 2050 if we continue development by business-as-usual (defined as a forward linear extrapolation of the past few decades). 

BLECH – more suburban sprawl!!!!” was my knee-jerk first response, typical of most enviro-types like me I reckon.

But then I was like, “Hold on – two to three times the area? That’s a huge area. It would take a vast amount of energy, resources, and capital to build that!”

“And hold on – business-as-usual continuing several more decades? No way! Not happenin’! Resource constraints are already seriously hobbling our economy – how can they assume growth like we experienced during the 1980’s and 1990’s? Fuelled by what? Shale oil? Ha ha good luck with that....”

I’m not in a position to judge the internal details of the authors’ statistical and modeling methods. But I can recognize that the baseline assumption upon which their model is predicated is false. And absurd. 

You would think, then, that it wouldn’t make it through peer-review. You would think.

Anyway, this thing was enough of a burr under my saddle that I decided to write the authors, and leave comments on the article’s web page, and even get in touch with the editor. To wit, the exchange is reproduced below.

In a society as afflicted with such poverty of imagination regarding any economic M.O. other than “grow or die” as ours is, hokey baseline assumptions for future scenario modeling made by tame academics is a factor we’ll have to contend with if we hope to meaningfully address our current economic and environmental predicaments. 

The first step is rooting out learned stupidity. 

Disclaimer: It’s not that I think this particular paper represents the most egregious instance of functional stupidity in academia. Not at all. Not by a long shot, in fact. (See, for example, our Reinvent the Toilet Project. That project was arguably significantly more stupid because it wasted a lot of money and physical resources and was not limited to simply inconveniencing some electrons in a futile computer modeling exercise.) 

I pick on this PLOS-ONE paper because it’s pretty straightforward to argue that the conclusions are totally meaningless since the premises upon which the modeling was based were false (notwithstanding however technically rigorous the subsequent computations were). If a dumb hillbilly like me can see that much, then it should’ve raised some red flags among the reviewers, if not the authors themselves.  Therefore, carping on this paper serves as an effective foil to underscore the point that absurdities can sail through the peer review process without a hitch as long as they conform to prevailing prejudices. 

And of course this particular kind of blindness isn't limited to academia, but is pervasive across all sectors of our society.

* * *

Hi XXXXXXX (editor’s name redacted) - 

I am writing in response to an article recently published in PLOS-ONE entitled “The Southern Megalopolis: Using the Past to Predict the Future of Urban Sprawl in the Southeast U.S” by Terando et al. for which you are listed as the editor.

This paper has some methodological flaws that deserve highlighting. In fact, a fundamental premise of the study is false. I have raised these concerns with the corresponding author as well as in the paper’s comments online section at the PLOS-ONE website, but – perhaps predictably – have not gotten any traction in so doing. This is an interesting case to consider however, as it provides an illustration of how study premises that are in reality absurd or impossible are often fairly likely to pass peer review if they conform to prevailing prejudices.

The paper is based on the stated assumption that, "For fast growing regions such as the Southeast US, the most relevant scenario for conservation and adaptation planning is the “business-as-usual” (BAU) scenario in which the net effect of growth is in line with that which has occurred in the past." However, here the author’s have committed a version of Bertrand Russell's "turkey fallacy." Being fed by the farmer every morning consistently for several months, the turkey contentedly but wrongly extrapolates the happy circumstances of the recent past far into the future. The turkey is correct, until Thanksgiving.

The authors conclude that, "Our simulations point to a future in which the extent of urbanization in the Southeast is projected to increase by 101% to 192% [over the next 50 years]." However, they appear not to have tallied the (affordable) energy, material, and financial resources that would be required to deploy suburban sprawl over 2-3 times the current area throughout the region, or inquired whether it is realistic to expect that the required growth in these resources will materialize over the time period in question.

To illustrate with one example: the extensive deployment of the suburban armature over the preceding few decades has been keyed to dependence upon an increasing supply of affordable, high-energy-profit-ratio (or energy return on investment, "EROI") oil. The last major discoveries of such high EROI oil - the North Sea, and the north slope of AK - were brought online in the late 70's/early 80's, and their production is now winding down. Today's "tight oil" (e.g. shale deposits) does not qualify as high EROI since it is so much more expensive in both energy and monetary terms - and thus will not support the same rate of growth in infrastructure and finance as yesteryear's high-EROI conventional "light, sweet" crude. In addition to the declining energy profit ratio of oil (the "master resource"), other factors of resource depletion, climate destabilization, unsustainable debt accumulation, and the impingements of bio-physical limitations to continual economic growth make projections of growth "in line with that which has occurred in the past" (i.e., the "turkey fallacy") increasingly implausible.

I suggested this to the corresponding author in a personal communication. His response included the statement, "we believe it's reasonable to first give folks an idea of what patterns of growth may look like if we continue our current policies and preferences." Implicit here is that continuation of "our current policies and preferences" is a possibility, when it is in fact not a possibility. In a society where there is widespread lack of understanding of and the political will to deal with bio-physical limits to continued expansion of the human economy (a lack that extends right up to the highest levels of government, business, and academia), this suggestion by the authors sends an incorrect and unhelpful message. 

Realistically, if planners and officials believe that BAU is possible, they will pursue it. The authors’ agenda of modeling based on BAU and then pointing out the dreadful ecological implications of the resulting sprawl is an emotional/moral appeal. The environmental/climate movement has long used this strategy with little success. Could a more compelling reality-based argument be made by demonstrating that that, due to high costs, insufficient EROI, accumulation of un-repayable debt, Ponzi finance dynamics, etc., BAU and the linear extrapolation of the suburban sprawl economy decades into the future is a physical and economic impossibility – and, therefore, we don’t actually have a choice whether to develop along a path that’s substantially different from BAU?

Rhetorical concerns aside, if the baseline condition (BAU based on the past few decades linearly projected forward 50 years) used by the authors in their modeling exercise is physically and financially impossible, then the output of their model is not meaningful. Consideration of the vast quantities of rapidly depleting energy and resources, as well as finance capital (itself dependent upon net energy and surplus wealth), that would be required to deploy suburban sprawl at 2-3 times the current expanse in the SE US should have instigated a "gut-check" regarding the plausibility of this modeling exercise - if not by the authors themselves, then by reviewers and PLOS-ONE editors. That - apparently - no "gut-check" was performed by any of the parties involved signifies the extent to which the idea of infinite growth on a finite planet is taken for granted, even among members of the intellectual class ostensibly concerned with "sustainability."

 In this analysts' opinion, in light of these issues and oversights the paper should be retracted, and an explanation for the retraction published in PLOS-ONE. This would help to shift the conversation towards the reality-based domain and away from the unhelpful mythology of perpetual “progress” and growth.

Regards –

Josh


I received the following response from the editor:

Hi Josh,

Thanks for the thoughtful email.

The crux of accepting this paper revolved around this explicit criterion at PLoS One: "Experiments, statistics, and other analyses are performed to a high technical standard and are described in sufficient detail."  I feel that the technical side of the paper is sound.  Your criticism is of an assumption, but that (to me) does not affect the technical standards of the model.  As such, I found this manuscript met criteria for publication in PLoS One.


Wow! I just couldn’t leave that one hanging out there... So I responded:

Fascinating! 

Indeed my comment does not pertain to the technical standards of model application, but only to the relevance and actuality of the conditions upon which the model is predicated.

I have a friend who is seeking to publish a statistical analysis of superb technical standards and described in ample detail regarding the metabolism of alfalfa by unicorns (based upon extrapolation from zebra data). I will let them know that they should submit the study to PLOS-ONE!

To which the editor replied: 

It is a strange standard - and why you see such high variance in paper quality there.  


Well, that's quite an admission. 

So, basically, the editor agrees with me but cites the journal’s editorial policies as the root of the problem and – what’s more – as constituting a block to any real corrective action.

This seems to be an instance of functional stupidity at the level of the academic enterprise (or at least at the level of one of the top journals). This concept was introduced by Alvesson and Spicer in a 2012 paper in the Journal of Management Studies entitled “A stupidity-based theory of organizations.”

According to Alevsson and Spicer 

Functional stupidity refers to an absence of reflexivity, a refusal to use intellectual capacities in other than myopic ways, and avoidance of justifications. 

It’s functional in the sense that it contributes to the stability of the organization or enterprise. It’s stupid in the sense that it involves willful or unconscious intellectual impairment – for example, that stemming from “group-think.”

What’s a contemporary example of group-think? How about the pervasive unwillingness to question the pursuit of infinite economic growth on a finite planet, for starters?

Alvesson and Spicer’s concept of functional stupidity has most obvious relevance to the corporate world. But they readily acknowledge is applicability in academia as well:

Functional stupidity as a general condition that pervades many spheres of social life, including academia. Contemporary academia could be seen as a hothouse for functional stupidity. In academia, huge amounts of time and energy are expended on writing papers for publication in top ranked journals, in our bid to ‘play the game’. These papers may be read or used by very few, and mainly by those eager to pad out the reference lists attached to their own papers. Rarely is there any serious discourse around the meaningfulness of this enterprise, apart from occasional debates about ‘relevance’. Perhaps this is because publications are not only a measure of our ‘market value’ but also are seen as an expression of our intelligence and knowledge. The result of an article being accepted for publication can be a deep sense of satisfaction and strong identity-confirmation, simply because it ‘proves’ how smart we are. Of course there are material rewards, but these are often less important than the symbolic ones. One could say that functional stupidity is a key resource for any institution eager to maximize careerism. This can make researchers into willing journal paper technicians who focus on writing papers for leading journals within a narrow subfield. This may detract from broader scholarship with slower and less predictable results and, perhaps, with a greater likelihood of saying something really interesting and/or socially useful.

Yeah – what they said.



Monday, August 25, 2014

Cell phones really are becoming the all-in-one device

George M. Whitesides of Harvard University and coworkers have invented uMed, an electrochemical detector that uses the voice channel of a cell phone on any cellular network to transmit data for remote analysis.  It costs about $25, so it could bring water quality testing to people that cannot afford expensive electrochemical instruments.  It even uses the cell phone’s vibrate setting to mix samples.  The device uses test strips or electrodes with a potentiostat to perform chronoamperometry, cyclic voltammetry, differential pulsed voltammetry, square wave voltammetry, or potentiometry.  This can be used to detect trace amounts of toxic metals in drinking water, measure glucose in blood, monitor sodium in urine, and perform an electrochemical enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay for malaria antigen.  For such a simple, inexpensive device, it really packs an analytical punch.  The article mentioned that further work would involve using the device to gather data in the field and get some feedback by users. Maybe Chemists Without Borders could volunteer to gather some data & provide feedback in exchange for the use of the devices.  Seems like a win-win to me.

Link to publication:
If anyone is interested, the publication indicates that correspondence be directed to : gwhitesides@gmwgroup.harvard.edu

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

"Smart lens" technology

     I have a pretty strong corrective lens prescription.  I have astigmatism in my left eye which is not corrected very well by glasses, but toric contact lenses do a pretty good job since they are weighted and return to proper position with every blink.  With my prescription I am becoming more and more limited in what corrective lenses can do for me as I become more and more nearsighted.  As I get older, my eyes are starting to change less as the muscles in my eye begin to weaken, but I have often wondered, "What will I do if my eyes move beyond the realm of what can be corrected with current lens technology? "   
09229-notw7-contact
A prototype smart lens.
Credit: Novartis
     Enter Google X and their scifi problem solvers. They have designed “smart lens” technology that works to incorporate sensors, microchips, and other electronics into contact lenses.  Novartis is licensing this technology with a couple ideas in mind. One possible use is the treatment of the loss of the eye’s ability to focus on close objects (presbyopia).  Refractive surgery would likely need to be combined with the lens, but together they could possibly return the eye’s natural autofocus ability.     This seems like just the beginning of what a lens like this could do to correct vision. Who knows, maybe one day I will benefit from this early work with “smart lenses”. 
     Another really impressive idea is using the “smart lens” to measure glucose levels in the eye fluid of people with diabetes. People today must continuously draw their blood to measure glucose levels, but maybe one day their “smart lens” would wirelessly send their glucose level to their phone. No fingerpicks. Pretty neat idea if they can get it to work as reliably as a blood glucose meter. 
     Maybe Google X can develop a cheap sensor for Chemists Without Borders that would wirelessly send water contaminant data to an analyst halfway across the world…you never know…horseless wagons were futuristic long ago.

Monday, August 04, 2014

REMINDER - IdeaConnection Projects Q&A call: 9am PST August 7, 2014

IdeaConnection Projects Q&A call: 9am PST August 7, 2014


Chemists Without Borders - IdeaConnection Projects Conference Call Agenda
Dates: Aug 7th 2014 9am PST


Project Overview in Google Docs: CWB IdeaConnection Solutions  

Join a Team:
 
1) ACTIVE     8504 Cottage Industry Arsenic Removal (filter)  Sign Up for 8504
2) ACTIVE     8500 Arsenic Penny per Test  Sign Up for 8500
3) PENDING  8505 Water Treatment Tool Kit     Sign Up for 8505
4) PENDING  8502 eWaste (plan)  Sign Up for 8502
5) PENDING  8503 Water Testing Tool Kit  Sign Up for 8503 
Conference call AGENDA:

In this open conference call, Dr. Steve Chambreau, President of Chemists Without Borders, will give an update on the IdeaConnection solutions provided recently to Chemists Without Borders. This will detail the history of the IdeaConnection collaboration, including proposed challenges, the solution evaluation process, and the accepted solutions that we plan to move forward. We will discuss how to move these solutions forward and look for team members to help with this. Please see Newsletter #15 for more details. 

Date: Thursday, August 07, 2014
Start Time: 09:00 AM Pacific Daylight Time
End Time: 09:55 AM Pacific Daylight Time
Dial-in Number: 1-626-677-3000 (West Coast)
Access Code: 365675










If you are interested in learning more about the IdeaConnection solutions and how you can help Chemists Without Borders with listed challenges, please attend this conference call.

Louis J Ciabattoni

louciabattoni@chemistswithoutborders.org
Vice President of Membership and Administration
Mobile: +1-650-255-2760      Skype/@Yahoo/@Google: CiabattoniLJ
Follow us on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+. Twitter, Blog, More coming

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Business, Bees, and Nicotine


Since 1945, the use of pesticides has risen 3,300 percent, however crop loss due to pests has not decreased. Despite the fact that USA (on average) uses 2.2 billion pounds of pesticides annually, crop loss has increased by 20 percent. To make matters worse these statistics were taken a decade ago, and if you remember anything from your high school biology class, pests evolve and adapt swiftly to the new environment. Now, with tougher pests you need stronger chemicals, and the vicious cycle continues. Since there is a high demand for these pesticides, hundreds of thousands of chemicals are produced (yearly) and they have to be screened by the EPA. Theoretically, this is what EPA should do and would like to do. However, unfortunately their major back-logs and a continuous stream of chemicals are constantly being pushed by respective firms thus creating a loop hole where a couple of hundred chemicals make it to the market without ‘intensive’ screening -- among them are several neonicotinoids.
Photo: taken from the ACS 'molecule of the week.' Clothianidin-
One of the first neonicotinoids to make it to the market was Clothianidin. This  insecticide was jointly developed by Bayer and Takeda Chemical Industries to replace nicotine (as an insecticide). As a Side note, nicotine was thought of to be a good insecticide, however it degrades too quickly thereby not practical in large scale production. In general neonicotinoids have an affinity for nicotinic acetylcholine receptors which are in control of sodium channels responsible for cell signaling. These neural receptors bind with the neonicotinoid which results in paralysis and death in insects – no cell signaling, no movement. Since there were massive domino effects on bees and other organisms, several neonicotinoids have been issued a 2-year ban for further investigation.
Due to the wide-spread usage here in the USA, bee populations are are already feeling the heat.In a memorandum to federal agencies Obama ordered the EPA to assess the impact of all pesticides, on pollinator health with a deadline of 180 days. EPA has started the assessment, which now has a deadline. There are environmental advocacy groups pressuring EPA to ban neonicotinoids because of its impact on bees. Larissa Walker, head of the pollinator campaign at the Center for Food and Safety says, “The White House announcement is on the right track, but assessment and habitat building alone won’t save our pollinators.” What do you think will come about this?

-Quote taken from C&EN article “The White House and Bees.”

Blogger:
Michael (Mykola) Schur
Chemical Engineering student at Calvin College
@Mykola_Shchur

Friday, July 11, 2014

IdeaConnection Projects Q&A call: 6pm PST July 17, 2014


Chemists Without Borders - IdeaConnection Projects Conference Call Agenda
Dates: July 17 6pm PST and ALSO on Aug 7th 2014 9am PST

Project Overview in Google Docs: CWB IdeaConnection Solutions  

Join a Team:
 
1) ACTIVE     8504 Cottage Industry Arsenic Removal (filter)  Sign Up for 8504
2) ACTIVE     8500 Arsenic Penny per Test  Sign Up for 8500
3) PENDING  8505 Water Treatment Tool Kit     Sign Up for 8505
4) PENDING  8502 eWaste (plan)  Sign Up for 8502
5) PENDING  8503 Water Testing Tool Kit  Sign Up for 8503 

Conference call AGENDA:

In this open conference call, Dr. Steve Chambreau, President of Chemists Without Borders, will give an update on the IdeaConnection solutions provided recently to Chemists Without Borders. This will detail the history of the IdeaConnection collaboration, including proposed challenges, the solution evaluation process, and the accepted solutions that we plan to move forward. We will discuss how to move these solutions forward and look for team members to help with this. Please see Newsletter #15 for more details. 

Date:
Thursday, July 17, 2014
Start Time:
06:00 PM Pacific Daylight Time
End Time:
06:55 PM Pacific Daylight Time
Dial-in Number:
1-626-677-3000 (West Coast)
Access Code:
365675#

If you are interested in learning more about the IdeaConnection solutions and how you can help Chemists Without Borders with listed challenges, please attend this conference call.

Louis J Ciabattoni

louciabattoni@chemistswithoutborders.org
Vice President of Membership and Administration
Mobile: +1-650-255-2760      Skype/@Yahoo/@Google: CiabattoniLJ
Follow us on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+. Twitter, Blog, More coming

Monday, June 30, 2014

Can biomass char remove toxic synthetic chemicals from drinking water?

Earlier this morning, Aqueous Solutions launched a science crowd-funding campaign through experiment.com!

We're raising money to purchase laboratory supplies, reagents, etc., for a series of micro-column tests in the lab that will determine the capacity of locally generated biochar for removal of toxic pesticides and pharmaceutical residues from drinking water sources.

Check out our project website, and please consider supporting this work - thanks!

Biochar made from longan wood, by traditional village char production methods in northern Thailand. The micro-porous nature of biomass chars provides tremendous internal surface area, and makes for effective contaminant adsorption.



Thursday, June 12, 2014

Winter is coming, or is it always cold in Russia?

Fire at the regional trade union council building in Odessa, Ukraine Photo: Barcroft Media

In the midst of the Ukrainian crisis, tactics reminiscent of the Cold War began emerging—ones that trace back to the KGB laboratories half a century ago. From guns that spray hydrogen cyanide to assassination attempts with “Agent Orange,” it seems that the use of chemicals as weapons (not to be confused with chemical weapons) is still on the Soviet agenda. On May 2nd 32 people died due to a fire in the trade unions building in Odessa, which were occupied by pro-Russian protesters. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed outrage and immediately accused Ukrainian authorities for responsibility of this scandal: however, as investigations progressed, a well-known agent came into the picture—chloroform. Large traces of chloroform were found in the ashes of the building coupled with open exits, unscathed parts of the building and positions of the bodies that did not show signs of escape or struggle puzzled authorities.

But why chloroform? Chloroform (CHCl­3) is easily synthesized and dangerous depending on levels of exposure. It is a colorless liquid with a pleasant scent, and sweet taste (one of the discoverers that chemist Samuel Guthrie enjoyed was its “cherry like taste”) and occasionally took shots of the liquid. Chloroform can be easily synthesized by combining two common household items – bleach and acetone. In an exothermic reaction the two will form a heavy liquid where a simple decanting will yield a substantial amount of chloroform. Before chloroform was known to cause kidney and liver damage, it was used as an anesthetic, administered by breathing in more than 10000ppm of air. On its own chloroform is not a significant threat, but using it to incapacitate people in this situation is deadly.

Ukraine has asked Israel to help in the investigation: thus far, authorities from both sides of the crisis have been detained and further chemical analyses will reveal the truth. However, all eyes are on Russia with suspicion: more on the story to follow as the investigation furthers.

Blogger:
Michael (Mykola) Schur
Chemical Engineering student at Calvin College
@Mykola_Shchur


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Just So You Know



 Chemists Without Borders - Bego Gerber, our  Chairman and Co-Founder, is presenting our ongoing humanitarian work on Sunday afternoon August 10th and Steve Chambreau, our Co-Founder, President and Director, is also presenting at 8am on August 12th.   Come and join us for simulating presentations and further discussions. More details will follow…