Sunday, December 31, 2006

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

Grendel is coming.....
That ubermonster of history will soon make an appearance on the SciFi channel in its own movie. Grendel, you see, is an ancient monster featured in the poem Beowulf (c. 700-1000 AD). Grendel moved his scary little self into the mead hall and made it uninhabitable. Our hero, Beowulf, kills Grendel by ripping its arm off, whereupon Grendel bleeds to death. Grendel's mother then shows up to avenge her offspring's death, but is also slain by Beowulf. I can't imagine this left the meadhall in much of a useable state, but I guess it's easier to clean up after a dead Grendel than after a live Grendel. It's your standard epic hero's tale from northern Europe. All it lacks is Valkyries.

I wonder if a Grue would scare Grendel. :o)

Silly Computer
My gaming box is being difficult. I'm trying to install the upgrades for Asheron's Call so I can game with the guys tomorrow. I got a lovely error that informed me that various applications on my machine (unrelated to AC in any way) were not Win32 applications, thus were not executable. This typically indicates it's time for a HD re-install. I have uninstalled the AC software and plugins. With any luck I'll be able to pinpoint where the problem arose and fix it. In the meantime, I'm cutting a quick backup of my files, just in case....

An interesting discovery...
I discovered yesterday that my living room window wasn't completely closed. I last had it open the weekend of Thanksgiving. I had managed to get one of the sash locks to close properly and the other one to latch on top of the female half of the bracket. I discovered this when I heard wind whistling through it after I opened the back door to get some fresh air. For the past month I've been trying to heat the great outdoors. I don't know that a whole lot of heat loss was occurring, but I imagine the living room won't cool off quite so quickly now. At least I found it now instead of in April or May when I opened the window!!

Cooking done!
The collard green and black-eyed pea soup is done. I threw in a couple handsful of rice when I started the slow cooker. It smells pretty good. I'll have it for lunch most of this week. Now I just need to whip up a batch of cornbread.

Winding down
Now I'm trying to decide whether I'd rather knit for the rest of the evening or do some spinning. I could probably finish another repeat on the Kiri shawl. I just don't know if I have the mental capacity left at the moment to not goof it up. I already have to fix the mistake I found yesterday.

Year 2K v6.12 draws to a close....

T-minus 1 day and counting until the arrival of Y2Bond!

There is an advertisement for the cardiac drug Coreg which states that 1 in 4 persons who suffer a heart attack will have a subsequent heart attack. That's 25%! A tremendous proportion! The question that comes to my mind is what happens to the other 75% who do NOT have a subsequent heart attack. Would you like to know the answer? THere's a very good reason why some of those people do not have a subsequent heart attack. It's because THEY'RE DEAD! About half of the people who suffer a heart attack die from it.

More spectacular entertainment options!
There is a marathon of "The Twilight Zone" on Sci-Fi channel today. *SQUEE*! Now, here's the kicker. The Twilight Zone gives me the creeps in large doses. It's not that I start to think that there are monsters in the closet or under the bed, just a vague unsettled feeling. A feeling that something isn't quite right and that there is something bad lurking just outside of view, waiting for an opportunity to do something bad. It's the same sort of paranoid creepiness that I get when I play Half-Life for more than an hour or two. Very strange.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

End of Year Recap

I caught the TCM tribute to those in the motion picture industry who died in the past year. You can watch the video clip here. Windows Media Player seems to be required. You can also review who died in 2006 at IMDB. I hadn't realized (or had forgotten) that Mako died this year. All three of my favorite Japanese actors are now deceased: Mako, Toshiro Mifune, and Pat Morita.

Things I accomplished in 2006:
The big stuff: Got a new job, moved to a different state, bought a house and some other big ticket items. And all of it was all by myself.

Knitting accomplishments (that I can remember since I didn't write them down this year): one lace scarf, probably 2-3 pairs of socks, three kids hats and maybe half a dozen dishcloths. Started projects still waiting to be finished: red lace socks, blue socks, red cable socks, Kiri shawl, blueberry sweater, gray sweater, green ski sweater, orange tank top, purple vest and green polo top (just needs to be seamed).

Projects to start: flower jacket, cabled raglan pullover, angora lace pullover, probably 3-4 pairs of socks (I have yarn for a couple dozen pair of socks). I'm also spinning up the prepared fiber I have stockpiled, so there will be more projects developing as the yarn is produced.

New Year's Eve Plans:
TCM will feature a Marx Brothers Marathon starting at 7:15 CST on New Year's Eve. *That* should be hilarious. The line-up kicks off with Duck Soup, in which Groucho is named the dictator of the country of Freedonia. He then declares war on a neighboring country. There is a highly entertaining scene in which Groucho is trying to get work done at his desk and Harpo and Chico are "helping" by answering phones, etc. In the 1990s, Spy Magazine asked assorted Congressmen and -women what they thought about the conflict and ethnic cleansing in Freedonia. Nearly all of them made up an answer about the terrible tragedy and how the US needed to support the people of Freedonia in these difficult times. Only a few of them indicated that they either didn't know about it or that they had no comment.

There is also a CSI marathon on SpikeTV and I now have the full Thin Man movie collection, so there are plenty of things to keep me occupied.

New Year Plans:
It's my own personal tradition, but I like to begin a new year with a clean house. I have just now finished tidying things up, dusting and vacuuming. When I take a shower later, I'll clean the bathroom from top to bottom. I even put away the last box of stuff from the spare room (the board games, puzzles and toys). I still need to fold up the t-shirts from the past two weeks of laundry, but that's relatively minor and I'll catch that up tomorrow.

I don't know why it's important to me to start clean, but it is. Perhaps a desire to get a good start on the year. Perhaps to clean out the detritus, good or bad, from the previous year. I actually look at two separate starts to the year--one in January and one at the end of October (Samhain), which neatly coincides, more or less, with the start up of the school year.

I am already soaking some black-eyed peas to make black-eyed pea soup with collard greens. It is supposedly good luck to eat black-eyed peas on New Year's Day. I'll make some cornbread too.

Speaking of food things, I've decided to go vegetarian this year. The only time I eat meat, poultry or fish is when I eat out or am traveling anyway. Other than in baking, I think I will have little trouble giving up eggs too. Cheese and milk might be a bit more difficult, but I think I can manage. I always feel better when I go veg and reduce my fat intake. It makes fast food eating a bit tricky, but with a little planning, I think I can manage without too much trouble.

Knitting goals/projects for 2007: I'd like to actually catalog my yarn and fiber stash. I had started an Access database some time ago for that purpose. It would be a fairly easy task to finish up the job and document what I've got. That would also give me a chance to see what I've got and plan future knitting projects, as well as organize the stash I have and label the containers.

Along the lines of managing the stash, Wendy of WendyKnits and L-B are resolving to Knit from Their Stash in 2007, rather than continuing to buy yarn at a breakneck pace, though there are certain exceptions (sock yarn and spinning fibers are exempt as are yarns purchased to knit specific projects). This has, of course, cause some particularly crabby persons to leave nasty comments on their blogs about how these two persons will be responsible for the going out of business of all the yarn shops in North America. I wonder if these crabby-assed yarn shop owners will ever figure out that their crabbiness might have something to do with their loss of custom.

Here is my version of the Knit from the Stash 2007: actually knit stuff from my stash instead of just planning what I'll knit, but never getting started. I can think of at least four sweater kits that I could work on, plus the yarn for 20+ pairs of socks, a half dozen sweaters and two shawls. I have additional yarn that isn't yet earmarked for anything, like the lovely Ironstone mohair or the bag of black Lopi. That should be enough to keep me busy for the winter and then some. :o)

Since this is a long weekend and I need to get it done anyway, I'm going to re-organize my bank records and get everything put into Quicken again. I'd gotten into the habit of balancing my checkbook via Quicken before I moved, but then didn't get back to it once I got settled in. No reason to not keep better track of things.

Speaking of tracking things on the computer, I need to set up a backup system. I haven't backed up my desktop files in a looooooong time. Ideally I'd backup to an external HD, but for now I can put document files on CDs. That's better than nothing. With the HD solution, I could set up daily incremental backups and complete backups once a week.

I don't know what movie I'm watching....
but Jon Bon Jovi's kitten is playing with bullet casings, batting at them on a hardwood floor. Looks like it might be .45 caliber. I didn't get a close enough look at his gun to see if the casings actually matched the gun caliber. There must be a JBJ movie marathon on or something. When I surfed through the channels a few hours ago "Moonlight and Valentino" was on. Can't say I am complaining. He's smart as anything, incredibly talented and darned handsome too. His character in this particular film seems to wear nothing but black, in which he looks good, but it's getting a bit boring. I guess they think it's "artsy" since his character is an actor. Of course, lots of guys can't figure out how to match colors/clothes anyway, so wearing all black like Queen Victoria might be a wise choice.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Ah.....another holiday weekend

The downside to this time of the year is that one becomes accustomed to having short work weeks. In about two weeks we're going to run out of holidays for several MONTHS. That always makes winter seem longer. There just aren't any paid days off between President's Day in mid-February and Memorial Day at the end of May. Ick.

But at least the days are getting longer now.

On the other hand, I kinda would like it to snow. I miss snow. It was almost 60 degrees here today, so I have a sneaking suspicion that there won't be any snow. I have, however, been given permission by an online buddy in Norway to wish for snow in Norway for my birthday. Apparently he doesn't think it's winter until it snows and they haven't got any snow which is unusual for them. I offered to help out and he said to go for it. I am not to be held responsible for any problems caused by major snowfall in Norway. The last time I wished for snow for my birthday was in 1996 and several states were declared federal disaster areas. I was advised to NOT do that again.

Philosophical Question of the Day:
Posed by a UFie, of course. :o)
"Can a deity create a minion who's better than him at something?"
Krikkert was replying to raptor 187 who had asked if Krikkert was better than him at *everything*. It certainly is a good question, don't you think? Apparently the answer is, as raptor put it, "yes, for some values of deity." He mentioned that Zeus was better than some things than Chronos. So perhaps there is hope for Raptor afterall....

Get Out of Jail Free Card...
Well, I wasn't really *in* jail, but I did get to visit. :o) The inmates were more respectful than I had expected, based on experiences with the Champaign County jail. They asked if we were the health team. When a few inmates had to walk between us to get out of the block door, they all said "Excuse me." when they passed through and most of them tried to squish themselves down to be as unobtrusive as possible.

I don't think I'd like to live there. Everything is hard--surfaces are all cinderblock or metal. At least the sink and toilet are porcelain. The rooms are about 8x10 feet with two residents in each. The bunk beds are attached to the wall and there's a window in the exterior wall at the end opposite the door. I also don't know that I'd be very happy living with 126 other people. It'd be bad enough to have to share a large room or even my house, nevermind sharing an 8x10 foot room.

I did learn that the prison system has an employment system for the inmates. There is a dairy and a textile plant at one facility. In the arts/crafts building at this particular facility, there were two saddle trees waiting to have saddles built on them. Presumably the saddles are later sold. The hallway of the security building was decorated with paintings made by inmates. Many of them were stunningly beautiful. These guys have some serious talent. However, at some point they also got in to bad situations and made some bad choices. Being an artist is not exactly a reliable paycheck when you're trying to get back on your feet. It's tough when you're stuck in a bad environment with few options that are positive. And it may be that they didn't discover their artistic talents until after they were incarcerated.

Updating databases
We've been going through the past contact investigations and checking the computer data against the paper records we have for testing, then shredding the paper records for the persons who tested negative. Persons who tested positive or who were lost to follow-up before getting tested will have records kept. This looks like it will clear up about 3/4 of a lateral file drawer. The paper records are effectively useless for most purposes anyway. The records were filed according to the name of the actual TB case they were associated with. So if I wanted to find the record for John Doe, I would first have to know which case he was involved in. We have a total of five corrections case files. That means searching through all the file boxes and drawers. For a few of the cases the contacts were sorted by institution, so there are multiple folders within each case that the contact could be found. Needless to say this means that you can't really find people that easily.

To go through the paper files, I added a column to each of the spreadsheets for the case's initials, then combined the spreadsheets into one big file. Sort the data by the inmate's name, ID number and case name and suddenly going through all those records is simple. I can sort and re-sort the data in whatever way is convenient. I'm not sure who set up the spreadsheet, but they didn't understand the feature that enables you to print specific rows at the top of each page of a multipage document. Instead, they put in forced page breaks with repeated header rows. There was also some sort of goofy color coding system for some records. None of the rationale behind the spreadsheet or the filing of the paper records was documented anyplace and, of course, the person who set it all up no longer works here. Metadata may seem like a giant pain in the butt when you're setting it up, but it's *really* useful in situations like this. It's the only way you create institutional memory and continuity in operations over time.

I think one of the most important things I can do at the office is to organize things and to develop metadata for various systems and procedures. Perhaps it's just me, but I prefer to be prepared for emergencies and disasters, instead of trying to react to them after they happen. Certainly emergencies can't be expected to run smoothly, but if you figure out what gets goofed up, learn from your experiences and actually make the changes to fix the identified problems, then you eventually come out really far ahead. I think the mentality at the office is to just keep doing things the way they've been doing them because that's what they've always done. They also seem quite determined to not learn new things. There are plenty of days where there is slow time and learning, documentation or process improvement could take place. Perhaps this is what my boss was talking about when she said she thought I could raise the bar a notch or two.

Quotes from Run's House ("reality" show based on the life of Rev Run, formerly of Run-D.M.C):
"Nobody in the world goes bear hunting. They go bear hiding or bear running."
"Why does everybody go white water rafting? Why doesn't anybody go dark water rafting?"

Rev Run was commenting on something his wife Justine said about things they could do while on a family vacation in Colorado. Reality shows may not be the brightest things on TV, but he *does* have a point about running or hiding from bears as opposed to seeking them out.

Russell Junior is currently pointing and laughing at his father who just got put into a wetsuit so they could all go rafting. He's got an infectious laugh and he's really whooping it up. His dad is putting on his best "wet cat" look.

Weekend Plans:
The usual mundane stuff (laundry, cleaning, etc), plus I'm hoping to get in some gaming (Asheron's Call). The gaming will depend upon getting all the necessary software installed and configured properly. I haven't been able to buff my chars in a while, probably due to failed plug-ins, so I haven't been able to go hunting the big monsters. While there was once a time when my main character found it just about impossible to kill the azure gromnie (a big blue lizard) on the beach, she's a wee bit past that point now. (At one point there were eleven dead Morennas laying on the beach while a nearly naked Morenna was still trying to kill the gromnie so she could get her stuff back off her other bodies. Since you lose armor, weapons and strength with each death, this was rather a losing proposition. I ended up calling one of the regular gaming crew for help and I could HEAR them all laugh when they got down to the beach and saw the "Sea of Morennas". I did, however, get full points for being persistent.) Morenna is now a level 80+ archer with a killer set of purple armor. Well, it used to be killer armor. I'm sure it's just above average now.

My other chars include a sword char named Miss Anne Thrope, a war mage named Tsu Dho Nimh, and two "mules" named Guy Noir and Conestoga. Anne might be lvl 20. I don't think Tsu got to 25. The mules didn't even get into their teens. (They're called mules because they hold cargo.)

Anyway, I miss spending half the weekend gaming. As long as I didn't get lost or get picked on too much by the monsters, it was pretty fun. Once I start collecting monsters chasing me, I have a hard time running away AND healing or drinking a health potion fast enough to keep from dying. Michael, Don or Wayne usually ended up spending a lot of time keepign me from dying while Mitch or someone else actually killled the critter. And everybody got worried whenever Michael said "Uh-oh." cuz it usually meant he'd aggroed something we'd all hoped would ignore us or he'd managed to die in an "inconvenient" place. "Inconvenient" to Michael meant the most impossible place where all four of us who were left would have difficulty getting the critters killed or kept occupied long enough for someone to get Michael's stuff off his corpse. This was inevitably on top of a spawn point, so new monsters kept popping up right on top of us.

I wonder if I can still find my old hunting area with the killer jello, aka Knath, and the Lugians. It wasn't major kill points, but the loot was fairly good for selling and I often found some unusual potion or plant that Michael was looking for. Michael's "trick" was to spend weeks trying to find particular plants and then I'd play for an hour or two and find three or four of them. I finally just started leaving random plants in his char's apartment for general amusements. Speaking of apartments, I hope someone's been paying the rent on Morenna's apartment.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

More on traditions....

To start with, I, personally, do not happen to celebrate Christmas. Yes, I buy presents for friends and family, but that's not a Christmas thing. Its origin is actually in the Roman winter solstice festival of Saturnalia. That's where decorating evergreen trees came from too, by the way.

I do not wish people a Merry Christmas. I will say Happy Holidays, but not Merry Christmas because I don't celebrate that holiday. It bugs me a bit that people borrow the holidays from a religion that are convenient or somehow result in some benefit to them (like the loot from gift giving at Christmas), but don't follow the rest of the religion that goes along with it. Seems a bit hypocritical to me, but that's their choice. I do advise some people to have Happy Solstice or a Happy Yule but those tend to be people who really don't care what holidays the people around them celebrate.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

On the Edge of a Trip

Wow, that makes it sound like I'm about to fall down some stairs. Don't worry, I'm not.

I am, however, about to go on a road trip, along with millions of other Americans. I had hoped to get my little car into the VW dealer in C-U on Friday so they can fix the leak in the trunk, but when they finally called me back today they said their first opening was a week from Friday. Obviously that won't really work since I'll be 700 miles away. Dang it.

While getting ready for said trip, I have downloaded a new supply of podcasts. That should enable me to survive the drive. I've got a supply of various NPR broadcasts, including "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me!" and the technology and health summaries for several weeks. If that doesn't keep me amused, I've always got a hundred hours of music. I hate getting bored when I drive. I actually get a lot of productive thinking and problem solving done when driving long distances.

I have decided to take an alternate route this trip for a change of scenery. It's not 4 lane highway, but it will be something different. We'll see how it goes.

I'm taking Thursday afternoon off so I can get out of town earlier. I'll stop in C-U Thursday night, then visit various people on Friday before heading on to the 'burbs. Maybe I can use up some of the gift certificates I have for stores in Champaign while I'm running around. I'm definitely stopping for dinner at The Courier Cafe. I wonder what the soup choices will be. :o)

Friday, December 15, 2006

So close and yet....

I just watched a guy get told to turn around from his summit attempt on Mount Everest when he was only 350 feet from the top. Of course, that 350 feet is two hours of climbing for this guy and he only had two hours total oxygen left on him (leaving no oxygen for the climb back down to his last oxygen stash). He is ignoring the order from the expedition leader to turn around. Mind you, he's already seen a nearly dead climber get lowered past him.

Logic does not work well in an oxygen-deprived brain. Even standing next to the dead body of a dead guy who failed to turn around soon enough, they are pressing on and arguing with the expedition leader and a Sherpa with the 10 summits under his belt. Everybody in the expedition that's down at Camp 4 is trying to convince them to turn around. These guys are going to die. Unfortunately, they'll end up taking Sherpas with him.

Bold climbers die. Smart climbers live. Everest will always be there.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Chichen Pops!

Or at least that's what I once heard a toddler call them. The grown-ups call them chicken pox or varicella. There are some school-aged kids in the region who have come down with chicken pox just in time for the winter holiday break. Without a definitive exposure event, there's no telling when any susceptible kids will start showing clinical signs and symptoms, but a rough estimate is right about the time they go back to school in early January. The post-exposure prophylaxis protocol is to give varicella zoster immune globulin only to persons at high-risk of severe disease. So far we haven't found any of those, so we'll let things take their course. We have identified all the kids in the school with no evidence of immunity to varicella and their parents/guardians have been notified. Now we wait and see who, if anybody, gets itchy and scratchy.

Other infectious news
Looks like green onions are in the clear, but lettuce might be implicated in the Taco Bell outbreak. Interestingly enough, another fast food taco shop, Taco John's, is having an E. coli O157 oubreak. I haven't heard anything about implicated food products in that one. I believe that the genotype results show it to be a separate outbreak, but don't quote me on that.

I was pleased to notice that the AP report on the Taco Bell outbreak included an explanation of the outbreak investigation procedures. They mentioned that while the bacteria hasn't been isolated from any of the food items, the lettuce was the most likely source of infection, based on comparisons of what the sick people ate and what the well people ate.

Recent reading:
Yesterday at lunch I read a new Christmas book by Dave Barry. It's The Angel, The Shepherd and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog. I was laughing so hard that I very nearly squirted Diet Pepsi out my nose. I did laugh out loud several times. I highly recommend it if you want a quick and entertaining read. Let's just say it involves a Christmas pageant, a dog and lots of bat poop.

Today at lunch I started to read Heat by Bill Buford. I'm not very far into it, but it's also entertaining. So far he's discovered how to slice open his finger and annoy the heck out of the sous chef at his first job, all without trying!

iPod woes
My computer doesn't like to let go of my iPod. It won't let me eject the silly thing. It claims that the iPod is still in use, even though the update is finished. Even when I quit iTunes and try to eject using the OS to eject, I get told that the item is still in use by another application and to try again later. I can only eject the iPod if I re-boot my machine. This annoying little behavior started when I upgraded my iTunes software. Needless to say I'll be rolling back to the previous install.

iTunes woes
Everybody's trying to figure out whether iTunes is running out of sales or growing. There are grave statements that iPods are failing to drive iTunes sales. That may well be true. Of course, that also assumes that iPods were developed to support iTunes. I'm willing to bet the exact opposite is true--the iTunes store was developed to drive iPod sales. Have a good look at what's available at the iTunes store. There's a heck of a lot of content that's completely FREE. Ain't no revenue stream from that. You'll find a lot of public radio content on my iPod. I got it off of the iTunes store and I listen to it at work on my iPod. It's almost as good as live streaming radio on my work computer, but given that streaming radio is forbidden at work due to the inability of the network infrastruction to handle the regular workload at anything faster than a snail's pace, I must get what satisfaction I can from my iPod. It also means that I can switch at a moment's notice from The Ramones to Beethoven to NPR's This I Believe or Ebert and Roeper's movie reviews. Unless the iTunes store starts hemorrhaging money, and I doubt that will ever happen, I can't imagine Apple ever shutting it down. I expect Apple will continue to add more content as time goes on. While I may never watch a movie on my iPod, I just might download a movie via iTunes and watch it on my laptop while traveling.

I am *not* a geek
I was half-listening to a History Channel show on tea production last night. The narrator mentioned the British had to "hack an infrastructure" into their surroundings. My head snaps up and I am expecting to see racks of servers, cat-5 or fiber drops and other networking toys. What I see is jungle. I am momentarily confused. Until my brain processes "hack" to involve a machete and vegetation. *sigh*

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

RIP Peter Boyle

I still laugh out loud whenever I picture Peter Boyle as the monster in Young Frankenstein doing his little dance number to "Puttin' on the Ritz". Of course, more recently, you'll remember him as Frank on the TV show Everybody Loves Raymond. All the facial expressions and dry comments from grumpy Frank were my favorite thing about the show. Mr. Boyle was 71 years old.

The Light Bulb Quest is Complete!
I finally managed to acquire the necessary light bulb today. It took about a minute and a half to put it in the car. Yay! It's not exactly the same bulb as the original. The shape of bulb 5008 has apparently changed slightly since my car was made in 2003. But it fits into the tail light just fine and it works, so I don't know that I particularly care.

Conditionally Wrong Information:
I have identified another confusing thing in life. I got to thinking about information being acceptably wrong in some circumstances, but not in others. This is not a concept with which I am completely comfortable. Something is right or it's wrong. It's not sometimes right and sometimes wrong. I can't think of any instance where some fact is considered right when given to one audience and wrong when given to another. Well, it happens a lot in politics, but I don't think that's a good example.

Having the right info is important to me. You can't make good decisions without information that is reliable. Opinions and decisions can change, but information--the facts and the data--shouldn't change based upon situations. I have found very few things in life to be reliable except for information. One of the things I have always liked about programming is that the code is right or it's wrong. There isn't any gray area there. And developing the right bit of code or finding the elusive bit of data is one heck of an adventurous challenge. It's a game to me.

The Annual Holiday Card....
I think I actually might get cards sent out before Christmas Day this year. Last year I think it was mid-January or later when I sent them. According to my rules, they're not late until New Year's Day. I might even write the letter to go in the cards this week! Probably should do some of the old gift shopping too....

Gingerbread Houses
I caught part of the Food Network Gingerbread House Challenge tonight. I haven't quite figured out why it's part of the competition to move the finished pieces to the judging table. I guess the audience likes the suspense of the move and the chance that everything will come crashing down. Seems like an unecessary step to me.

I did really like the Victorian Brownstone looking house. It even had bats (or what looked like bats) coming out of the chimney. OK, so technically, they were musical notes. At a distance they looked like bats. I think bats would have been cooler. Maybe for a Halloween gingerbread house, not a Christmas-themed house.

I've always wanted to build a gingerbread house of some sort. I once had a gingerbread house kit that had pre-made pieces. All you had to do was "glue" everything together with royal icing and decorate it with candy. I never built it. I was so afraid of using it up or messing it up that I never used it. I finally opened the box probably 5 or 6 years after I bought it (in high school) and the pieces were kind of moldy, so I ended up throwing them out.

That sort of thing has happened a lot in my life. I learned that you weren't supposed to use really nice things. You were supposed to save them so they wouldn't get damaged or used up. But there's not much point in having something if you don't get to use it, is there. You don't get as much pleasure from just looking at a toy or other item as you do from using it. I try to use things gently, but I don't just let them sit in a corner or on a shelf waiting to crumble with age any more. Some things do get used up or wear out, but at least they get used instead of ruined without ever being used.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

More CSI annoyances....

I'd like to blame the CSI: Miami gang for this frustration, but the Las Vegas folks goofed too. I watched an episode that involved all three CSI crews. A sample of honey was collected from the body of a victim. The lab tech puts a drop of honey on a microscope slide and says he'll have to use high performance liquid chromatography to identify the pollen species. He then looks through the microscope and declares the honey is tupelo honey (which apparently never crystallizes). What was shown on the screen was air bubbles in honey. There were no visible pollen particles. Pollen is small enough that simple light microscopy isn't sufficient for identification. A second sample of honey was then put on the scope, viewed, and declared to be identical to the first sample. Of course, the images put on the TV for the home viewer were identical.

Here's where they went wrong:
Unlike an air bubble, pollen particles are not completely smooth on the surface. See the spiky, bumpy things in the picture for examples. (Image from The Emergence of Agriculture by B. Smith.) High performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) is not done using a microscope and it takes more than a few seconds to do. If it didn't, the biochem grad students I used to work with wouldn't have set up a cot in the lab when they ran assays overnight. Heck, they wouldn't have had to have run assays overnight. If it only took seconds, perhaps the PhDs would have graduated in less than an average of 6-8 years.

Grissom's goof: Novolin brand insulin is not the only "fix" for diabetic ketoacidosis. Any insulin will fix that problem, since it's a function of very high blood sugar and a physiological attempt to clear the sugar from the body. I'd think a faster acting insulin would be a better choice though.

They are correct that people in ketoacidosis do have fruity-smelling breath. The techs should have been able to detect sugar and in the suspect's urine sample quite easily while the show made it sound like they really needed blood to test for ketoacidosis. (The standard test for ketones is a urine dipstick test.) What they didn't consider was how functional you are when your blood glucose is high enough to cause ketosis-breath, especially ketosis-breath strong enough to get the smell stuck in the A/C system of a car. Most patients I've seen with blood sugar over 200 were feeling pretty crummy--sweating, short of breath, nauseous, weak. But, this is TV land and the bad guy couldn't have murdered people while he was ill, so he was fully functional and apparently was regularly in diabetic ketoacidosis.

Oh well...nobody ever said television had anything to do with reality. Perhaps the disclaimers at the end of the shows should include "any resemblance to reality is coincidental and unintentional", not just resemblance to any persons living or dead.

The Great Light Bulb Quest

It would appear that I am not the only person who has suffered a burned out tail light bulb recently. There must be a small flock of vehicles which recently had their lights replaced. I know this because I have been unable to find any bulb #5008. I have looked in three establishments for said bulb. In the two shops which carried the correct bulb, both stores were sold out. They had 5-8 of every other kind of bulb except the one I wanted. I'll have another go at the last auto parts store on the way home and see if they have one. I really dislike driving at night with only one tail light, especially on an unlit road.

CSI fails again....
Today's quote (from Catherine when she was looking at insect larvae in a victim's wound): "Those are instar larvae." Technically true. Any larvae is an instar. Instar simply means stage. You never talk about "instar larvae" without specifying which stage (e.g. first, second, third, etc.). Furthermore, Catherine used the viewing of "instar larvae" to then estimate the time since death. That estimate would require knowing which instar she was looking at (and presumably she would have said which instar that was).

Who are you?
Today's amusement at work: Found a person in the surveillance database with three different names. Same DOB, same first name, same address. Different variations of the last name (e.g. Smith, Smythe and Smithe). One of the names has an open investigation, so I let the investigator know that there's a potential name issue and that she'll need to have the files merged when she finds out which is the correct name. Cool, no problem, she says. I go to lunch. When I come back she tells me that *none* of the names we had was right. The hospital had a different name, which was also wrong. She finally ended up calling the person's house to inquire as to the spelling of the last name. You guessed it. She got a FIFTH spelling. We also found out the person was deceased, so at least they won't be collecting additional names. The database guy speculated that the hospital got the wrong name because the patient coded while trying to specify spelling to an admission clerk that wasn't getting it right. :o)

Still have to finish up the mailing labels. I did, however, spiff up the newsletter yesterday with the help of a newsletter template from Microsoft. It looks a whole lot better than just plain text. The template even shifts the text to subsequent pages automatically and has one page formatted so you can fold and mail the newsletters. w00t! If I get the labels typed up tomorrow we can mail the silly thing by the end of the week.

New Shiny
As you know, I get bored easily. This is part of the reason why I don't usually finish a long-term project. I lose interest and/or find something else which is interesting. I have recently been switching up my knitting and spinning projects. I spent the weekend spinning and did no knitting. I am finding myself more interested in getting back to the knitting and working on not only the Kiri shawl, but also two different pair of socks. I don't know how long it'll take to finish the Kiri, but I think I'll try to finish it by Christmas.

I wonder if I can use this little habit of mine (the distraction of the New Shiny) to actually accomplish more long-term projects. For example, by dividing projects into sub-projects, then switching between sub-projects so that I always have something "new" to switch to. I've managed to keep switching between projects at work so that nothing gets too drawn out or too boring. I bet I can do that with knitting and spinning projects too. It's sort of a variation on Judy Sumner's method where each day of the week had a different project assigned to it, though it may come to that in the end. I'm not sure I want that much organization in my knitting.

Cooking adventures....
I just figured out that I have almost ten pounds of cornmeal. Good thing I like cornbread. I made a nice pan of buttermilk cornbread last night. It's my favorite thing to go with soup. Biscuits are OK, but not nearly as tasty as cornbread. I've never made tamales (or tamale pie), but I'll definitely be trying to make some in the near future. I also have a recipe for cornmeal cookies, though I'm not sure if that uses fine or coarse cornmeal.

I made a new recipe for dinner this evening. It's called Mediterranean Lentils and Rice, from The Vegetarian Express Lane cookbook by Sara Fritschner. I was wanting to use up some lentils I've had for far too long. I only had diced tomatoes packed in juice, not puree, so I added a can of tomato sauce to thicken up the lentils. I also put in a splash of lemon juice to brighten the flavors a bit. I think lentils can start to taste pretty muddy, but the addition of a bit of acid cuts that unpleasant (to me) flavor. Now I've got lunch for the next week. Yum!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Hercule Poiroit

This evening I found Murder on the Orient Express (1974) on TCM. Monsieur Poiroit (Albert Finney) was in the midst of his evening ablutions. Applying his hairnet and moustache net/guard. Putting cream on his hands, then putting on gloves. Reading the newspaper. The robe adjusted impeccably. A neat travelling case with all his combs, brushes, bottles and jars packed away in their little compartments. He was greatly irritated by various people making noise in the corridor while he was attempting to sleep. Of course, the morning dawns with none other than Sir John Gielgud (as the ultimate butler) bringing the morning pick-me-up to his employer only to find his employer dead.

I had forgotten all of Poiroit's little quirks. He likes things to be just so. He's not angry about it, just particular and precise. He doesn't get loudly angry at people in the corridor. He doesn't even glare at them. He just opens the door and looks at the steward, as if to inquire how the steward could have allowed such disturbances to go unchecked. At all times he is exceedingly polite and precise. Even when he is telling people that he is, in fact, Belgian, not French. I like it. Never does he get flustered or raise his voice. That is certainly something to have as a goal.

And the rest of the cast in the film are thoroughly entertaining to watch. Anthony Perkins is presently trying to explain how he couldn't have killed his boss. He stutters and he's a bit agitated, but not at all the same sort of nervous that he was in Psycho. Lauren Bacall plays the part of the annoying American in Europe from loud demands to a purse that carries everything (possibly including a kitchen sink) and all the way to the open-mouthed chewing of gum. Other cast members include Ingrid Bergman and Sean Connery.

While watching this film, it has occurred to me what I dislike about reality shows. It's really quite simple. The answer is that the persons who are on reality shows are never people that you would ever admire or aspire to be. Reality shows are presented to show the failings and shortcomings of the people on them. People watch them for the purpose of jeering and cheering when people fail or otherwise have a horrible time. Nor can I imagine anybody I admire even *watching* one of these shows.

Why I dislike television: For the most part, the shows are not particularly intelligent, particularly on network television. The shows which attempt to be more intelligent are more common now with the advent of The History Channel, The National Geographic Channel, etc. It's like having PBS shows on multiple places simultaneously.

The other thing I dislike about television, and this applies to all shows, is that it keeps people from getting on with their lives. People park their ever growing behinds on their recliners or on the couch and spend hours a day bemoaning the lack of anything to watch on their monstrously sized (and priced) television with its 100+ channels of mind-numbing "entertainment". TV junkies don't have lives. They live their lives vicariously through the people on TV. Yes, you can live vicariously through the characters in a book too, but that requires imagination, comprehension and creative thought. And most folks do not read for 4-6 hours a day for entertainment, while it's not at all unusual for people in this country to watch TV for 4-6 hours a day during the week. No wonder Americans are becoming more and more obese and we are becoming less and less competitive in the business and academic worlds. We wouldn't want work to get in the way of the television watching, now would we?

Have you ever noticed that the people on reality shows almost never watch TV? Even they have more of a life than the TV junkies and their lives are scripted!

Stupid News Headline of the Day:

From the El Paso Times--"NY Bans Fatty Oils"
Far be it from me to point out the obvious, but from what I recall of my organic chemistry classes, *ALL* oils are fatty. In fact, they are 100% fat. The article was actually referring to the banning of *trans* fats from use in restaurants and other commercial food preparation in New York City. I hope folks don't start thinking there are oils which are non-fat or low-fat. Of course, I also hope that with the elimination of trans fats, people don't start to think that their "new" frie s, chips and other fried foods are now healthy.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

IronMan Stories

NBC is running its coverage of the 2006 Ironman Championship in Kona this afternoon. The race was actually in October. Right now, they're showing all the people who don't know when to quit and come across the finish line in the last hour before automatic disqualification at midnight. (That would be my category.)

They talked about Madonna Buder who was hoping to finish her *20th* IronMan. At the age of 76. She didn't even start running until she was 49. She's also a Catholic nun. She finished with one minute to spare before the midnight cutoff and she's planning to be back next year. Sister Madonna Buder is the only person aged 76 to have finished an IronMan.

Now *that* has boosted my recently flagging motivation to keep getting on my bicycle every night after work. I've been trying to spend an hour on the bike at night plus stretching and some weight work. Once it warms up in the spring (and is light out before and/or after work), I'll add in running too.

Disease Outbreak Investigation

One of the questions that gets asked a lot is "why do we hear about outbreaks days to weeks after they start?" It's a valid question and is best explained by showing you a general timeline, borrowed from the CDC:
As you can see, there can be almost a two week delay from the time the patient consumed the infected food item to the time they are diagnosed. There is another factor that contributes to the apparent explosion in the number of cases once an outbreak is announced. Most cases of gastrointestinal upset are never seen by physicians. How many times have you had nausea, vomiting and diarrhea and never sought medical attention? Most of us decide to wait it out, sometimes with the assistance of over the counter medication (which can, in some instances actually make the situation worse). But once an outbreak is announced, people start considering that their recent GI upset might be related to the problem in the news and may seek medical attention. So more people get tested for the causative agent and the result is an increased number of cases appearing.

The vast majority of gastrointestinal upsets seen by a physician never have a stool sample collected. Interestingly, though most cases of diarrhea and vomiting are considered to be viral in origin, antibiotics are prescribed in a large number of cases. Antibiotics, of course, are useless in the treatment of viral diseases. Even more interesting, antibiotics can result in a more severe course of disease. Antibiotic use is associated with the development of hemolytic uremic syndrome in cases of enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) infection. Some individuals who acquire a Salmonella infection are able to shed the bacteria in their feces for an extended period of time, even after they recover completely from any symptoms of illness. Extended shedding of Salmonella is also associated with antibiotic use.

A brief bit of digression...
Why do I care about extended shedding of Salmonella if I'm no longer feeling sick? The answer is that you can be a source of infection for other people. If you fail to wash your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom or otherwise contaminate your environment (door handles, faucets, light switches) before washing your hands, you can transmit the bacteria to other people. Asymptomatic persons shedding Salmonella who work in food preparation, whether at home or at their jobs, can pass their infection on to many other people. This is similar to what happened with Typhoid Mary, though that particular case involved typhoid fever, which is caused by Salmonella typhi. In order to protect the public, most states now require food workers to have two or more negative stool cultures performed at a specified time interval before being allowed to return to work in food preparation.

Note: Typhoid fever in the US is relatively rare. Most Salmonella infections in the US are due to species other than Salmonella typhi. Common Salmonella involved in gastrointestinal disease belong to the serogroups Salmonella enteritidis and Salmonella typhimurium. (Yes, it's another of those complicated bacterial families. Perhaps in a few days I'll post "More than you ever wanted to know about Salmonella.")

Back to the Outbreak:
Outbreak investigations involve asking a lot of questions. If an outbreak is suspected of being related to food, the questionnaire will include questions about *everything* you ate during the potential exposure period. Not just what you ate that you think made you sick. That means remembering everything you ate for 2-4 days, sometimes as long as a week or two ago. This is harder to do than it seems at first glance. Try recalling everything you ate two days ago. Including snacks and incidental things, like the bite of your kid's snack or a piece of cake at work.

Other things that are asked about are the signs and symptoms of the illness: when did it start? what was the first symptom? how long did the symptoms last? when was the last episode of illness? did you see a physician for this disease episode? did you take any over-the-counter medication or herbal preparation for this illness? did you take any prescription medications for this illness? was a stool sample collected and cultured? do you know anybody else who has had these same symptoms in the past X days?

The questionnaire will also include some things which may or may not seem relevant to you: Have you visited a farm in the past X days? Have you had any contact with pets or farm animals in the past X days? If yes, what animals and when? Have you had any contact with reptiles (wild or pets) in the past X days? Have you had any contact with raw or undercooked meat or poultry in the past X days? Do you work in food service? Do you work in a day care center? Does any resident in your home attend or work at a day care center?

The next step is to compile all of the gathered data and try to find patterns and similarities in what was reported. We analyze what commonalities there are between the sick people. Did they eat at the same place? Did they eat the same food items? What common symptoms and test results were observed?

Usually a few things start to stick out as potential sources of infection. The next step is to find other persons who were potentially exposed at the same time and in the same way, but who did not get sick. It is very important to identify persons who are non-cases but had similar exposure history. We compare the proportion of people who ate a food and got sick to the proportion of people who did not eat a food but still got sick and also compare them to the people who ate the suspected food item and did not get sick. The items that stick out as possible sources of infection are the items which have a high proportion of people who ate them *and* got sick with a correspondingly low proportion of people who did not eat the item and did not get sick.

What complicates this process is that most people don't just eat a single item in a meal. Furthermore, some food items have multiple ingredients, any of which could be the source of infection. Add into the mix the fact that some foods share ingredients in common and the whole analysis becomes very complex and difficult to tease out the possible infection source.

All of these things contribute to the delay associated with not only identifying the presence of an outbreak, but also pointpointing its source. After all of that work is done, the work to investigate how the infection was introduced to that source and what can be done to prevent it in the future begins.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The bug of the week is....

once again, everybody's favorite E. coli! This time the culprit is once again an item of fresh produce: green onions.

More than you ever wanted to know about E. coli
E. coli is a normal part of your normal intestinal flora. In fact, E. coli produces vitamins for you in your gut. Some strains which cause disease in humans are normal organisms in the gut of other animals. E. coli O157:H7, which is the bacteria involved in the current green onion outbreak and the spinach outbreak, is a normal resident in the guts of bovines, swine and deer, to name a few hosts. If that doesn't cause you to think twice about letting your animal friends lick your face, I can tell you all about other germs and parasites you can get, like hookworm, whipworm and Salmonella.

There are two parts to the classification system for E. coli. These two parts correspond to two antigens on the surface of the bacteria and are designated by the letters "O" and "H". The O antigen is part of the bacteria's lipopolysaccharide (LPS). LPS is a part of the membrane of gram-negative bacteria. The O antigen is a carbohydrate complex that branches out of the membrane and into the space around the bacteria. The H antigen is the flagella (the German word for flagella is "hauch").

The O antigen defines the serogroup of an E. coli strain while the H antigen identifies the serotype. There are over 170 O antigens and 56 H antigens at this time. So, E. coli O157:H7 is one specific strain of E. coli. It is not, however, the only strain which causes disease.

Which brings us to the virotypes of E. coli. E. coli strains can be grouped based on their virulence factors--on the features of the bacteria which make you sick and *how* they cause illness. There are five virotypes which cause gastrointestinal illness: enteroaggregative E. coli (EAggEC or EAEC), enteroinvasive E. coli (EIEC), enteropathogenic E. coli (EPEC), enterotoxigenic E. coli (ETEC), and enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC). To complicate things, EHEC are also sometimes called Shiga-toxin producing E. coli or STEC.

Enteroaggregative E. coli (EAEC)
These bacteria will bind to the mucosa of the small intestine, but do so in clumps, hence the aggregative part of the name. Other E. coli will bind uniformly. EAEC can produce a shiga-toxin like toxin and are known to cause persistent diarrhea in children. This virotype does not invade intestinal cells.

Enteroinvasive E. coli (EIEC)
As you might expect, this virotype does not just bind to intestinal cells, but actually invades the cells. After invading, the bacteria spreads between cells directly, instead of leaving one cell before entering the next. EIEC causes severe diarrhea. Although they behave virtually identically to Shigella species, EIEC does not produce Shiga toxin.

Enteropathogenic E. coli (EPEC)
This virotype also binds to the cells of the small intestine in clumps, but when EPEC binds to the cells, they cause dramatic changes in the cells. These changes in the intestinal mucosa also result in severe diarrhea, typically in children and sometimes fatal.

Enterotoxigenic E. coli (ETEC)
ETEC also adheres to the intestinal mucosa, but does not invade. It causes disease by releasing toxins which act on the mucosal cells to cause diarrhea. ETEC also causes vomiting and diarrhea. ETEC is a leading cause of severe diarrhea in infants and children in developing nations. Adults in areas where ETEC is common are less susceptible to disease due to partial immunity. Travellers' diarrhea, aka "Montezuma's Revenge", is caused by the ETEC virotype.

Enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC)
These are the bugs that get everybody's attention. There are over 40 strains of EHEC, of which E. coli O157:H7 is one strain. As you probably already know, EHEC causes diarrhea as well as nausea and vomiting. In binding to the intestinal cells, EHEC causes cellular changes very like those seen in EPEC infections. EHEC produces a toxin which is virtually identical to the toxin produced by Shigella species. This is why EHEC are sometimes known as STEC (Shiga-toxin producing E. coli) or Shiga-like E. coli. One of the unique characteristics of EHEC is their association with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). HUS results in acute kidney failure and can develop in children infected with EHEC. Antibiotic treatment is a major risk factor for the development of HUS in EHEC infections. Antibiotics appear to increase toxin production and thus increase disease severity.

Now you know about the various E. coli varieties that cause GI upsets. There are others which cause urinary tract infections and other diseases, but those rarely make the news headlines. Just remember, not all E. coli is bad and nearly any food product can be contaminated either in its production, processing, shipping or preparation for consumption. Room for improvement exists in most aspects of food production. Don't just blame large farms or producers. The little guys have contamination problems too. They just result in smaller outbreaks that don't make CNN and FoxNews headlines.

Re-launch Saturday
NASA is hoping to launch Discovery on Saturday evening. I'll be glued to the computer again, watching a live stream of the NASA channel. With any luck the weather will cooperate this time.

Thursday, December 07, 2006


The launch of STS-116 has scrubbed for today. The clouds were too thick and the ceiling too low. If you happen to be interested in watching the doings of launch preparations, you can watch the live streaming video. I was really looking forward to a night launch. It's been a long time since NASA had a night launch. I still remember watching the first night launch, which was Challenger, a long time ago now.

If you need something new for your desktop image, the NASA image gallery is always good for something dramatic and unusual. I like the pic of Ed White in the first ever spacewalk. I have it on my computer at work. I have a picture of the moon, up close and personal, on my laptop. I believe it's from the Cassini mission in 1999. No, that's not when they launched designer Oleg Cassini into space.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

I am *not* a geek....

Really. I'm not. The fact that I have a total of six foam penguins, four of which are mini Tux-es and all of which have red hats, does NOT mean that I am a geek. And before people doubt my ability to count, the sixth penguin is at the office. Geek people I know are requesting handknit hats for their penguins and monitors.

Moscow Speaks and the Plot Thickens....
British officials have now declared the death of Alexander Litvinenko to be the result of murder. The Russian government denies any involvement in the issue and, to prove that it is uninvolved, has blocked the extradition of suspects in the poisoning. Not only that, Scotland Yard detectives are not allowed to actually interrogate suspects themselves. The suspects will be questioned by Russian investigators while the British guys observe. Wouldn't you want to cooperate so that you can be proved to be uninvolved? Surely the Russian government has some idea how this looks to the rest of the world. (Like they're absolutely guilty and trying to hide it.) Surely the Russian government has figured out by now that "secret operations" have a habit of becoming un-secret. (See also the "secret camps" the US was holding terrorism suspects at in other countries, among other things.)

Chicken Contamination
The January 2007 issue of Consumer Reports includes an article investigating the rates of bacterial contamination of whole chickens purchased at various retailers. There is good news and bad news. The good news is that Salmonella contamination has been going down. The bad news is that Campylobacter contamination is going up and greatly exceeds the rate of Salmonella contamination. Chicken which was organically grown, was raised without antibiotics
or was air chilled in processing had higher rates of contamination than conventionally raised and processed chicken. Yum! (Campylobacter image from Adopt-a-Microbe.)

Speaking of germies on your food....
I got the go ahead today to start work on a microbial contamination research paper/project. w00t! It's going to involve a *lot* of library work/literature review, but it's something to do, it looks like fun and I should be able to publish it too.

Now, *this* is a science fair project!!
A co-worker's son is working on the effect of various chokes on the spread of steel bird shot from a 20-ga shotgun. Contrary to the working hypothesis that he and his father had developed, the full choke results in the best spread for the purposes of duck hunting. They were out on the water this past weekend hoping to put the research to good use.

Knitting news....
I worked a bit on the Kiri last night. Most of my fiber time has still been spinning up the merino. I put in another hour or so last night and I started prepping some silk caps for when the merino runs out. (Like that's going to happen any time soon. I think I have six POUNDS of merino roving left.) I picked up the silk several years ago at a fiber festival. It's mostly purple and indigo/cobalt blue with a bit of teal. I may make a scarf out of the resulting yarn. I'll figure that out once it's actually yarn.

I've also finished two hats for The Dulaan Project. I expect to make two more this coming weekend. I think I have some yarn which would make a couple of nice kid-sized sweaters too. Actually, there is probably a lot of yarn in my stash that would be well-suited to that purpose and which I am unlikely to use for my own purposes. Might as well put it to a good use, right?

Monday, December 04, 2006

On being naturally radioactive....

There is a perception that radioactivity and radiation are very very bad things. This is not entirely correct. Not all radiation is a bad thing.

For starters, not all forms of radiation involve radioactivity. Radiation is simply the emission of energy from a source. The lamp I am sitting next to right now is radiating visible light and infrared (IR) energy (also known as heat). My oven radiates IR. The TV radiates visible light. The microwave oven I own uses microwaves to heat things. The process of sending those microwaves through my cup of hot chocolate is radiation. None of these processes I have named involves radioactivity.

Radiation can be electromagnetic (wave) or particulate. Forms of electromagnetic radiation include visible light, ultraviolet light, infrared, radio waves and gamma rays. Particulate radiation emissions include alpha and beta particles, plus neutrons. An alpha particle is a helium nucleus--2 protons and 2 neutrons. A beta particle is an electron or positron.

Some radiation emissions have sufficient energy to ionize atoms (kick an electron out of the atom). This is known as ionizing radiation. Other emissions are not energetic enough to accomplish evicting an electron and is deemed non-ionizing radiation. Non-ionizing radiation can still cause lots of problems. If I lay my hand on the burner of my stove after it's turned on, I will suffer thermal burns even though no ionization occurred. Radio waves, microwaves, infrared, ultraviolet and visible light are all non-ionizing.

Ionizing radiation, the kind usually associated with particle radiation and some electromagnetic radiation (gamma and X-rays), has the energy to remove an electron from an atom. Sources of ionizing radiation include radioactive decay, nuclear fusion and fission and the sun. Ionizing radiation can cause DNA damage, so rapidly dividing cells are particularly susceptible to damage. Because it can induce DNA mutations, ionizing radiation can cause various forms of cancer, especially during chronic exposure. Acute exposure of high levels of ionizing radiation usually results in tissue death.

So, how can a person be naturally radioactive? There are natural sources of radiation in the environment. I have seen estimates of annual average radiation exposure in the US is 360 millirem (mrem). The vast majority of this is from natural sources and the remainder is almost entirely from medical sources (X-ray imaging and CT scans). Radon gas, a product of the natural decay of radium, is another natural source of radiation to which people can be exposed. Radon levels are elevated in areas where uranium deposits are found in the underlying geological structures. One such area is found in the eastern third of Tennessee, under Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In addition to radon, there are numerous common elements, such as carbon, phosphorus and potassium which have radioactive isotopes. The radioactive forms of these elements make up a very tiny proportion of the total amount of that element. But it's enough to make you and me and everybody else on the planet naturally radioactive. And now you know.

Knitting progress:
I have two hats made for The Dulaan Project. I haven't worked on a hat in two days. Perhaps tomorrow I'll start a new one. I did spin for about 90 minutes last night and for another hour today. I'm working through my stash of merino roving. I'd like to produce a 3-ply worsted weight yarn as a final product and then make myself a sweater.

I spent several hours today working on a sock while riding in a car for 5 hours. I did discover that I managed to break a single size 2 Bryspun double point at some time in the past several weeks. Fortunately I purchased a set some time ago that accidentally had 6(!) needles in it, so I'm even with where I should be. I think the blue sock is now 1/2 way down the foot. This is the second attempt at socks with this yarn. The first pair was knit in a basketweave pattern and the gauge varied widely between the two socks. I finally just frogged them and started over.

The stash room has been quietly telling me that it needs to be organized and catalogued. I did start an Access database some time ago for that very purpose. I never did finish it though because most of my stash was actually in a storage space, not where I could get at it easily. Perhaps that will be one of my winter projects. And then I can plan out what knitting, spinning and weaving projects I would like to accomplish.

Friday, December 01, 2006

And now for a quick lesson in radiation physics....

If you have been following the international news lately, You may have heard about the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian dissident. Mr. Litvinenko apparently ingested some polonium-210. Po-210 emits alpha particles. Alpha particles are essentially a helium nucleus: two protons and two neutrons. It's a big, bulky, positively charged charged particle which is relatively slow moving. A sheet of paper or the layer of dead skin cells on your body block them quite readily. Even a few centimeters of air can slow them down dramatically.

However, *if* they get inside of you.....that's altogether different. That big, bumbling tendency makes alpha particles the most destructive form of ionizing radiation. This is the same problem that the radium watch dial painters had. Radium on your watch dial or on your paintbrush isn't a problem, as there is no effective dose of radiation. *Licking* the paintbrush to get a better point on it leads to ingestion of the radium paint. And deposition of an alpha-particle emitting element inside the body where there is no layer of dead skin cells to deflect the particles.

Acute radiation syndrome (the technical name for "radiation sickness") is the result of large radiation exposure in a short amount of time. The damage is chiefly caused by the interference in cell division, thus cells which are rapidly or actively dividing are most susceptible to damage. This is why radiation treatments are used in combating cancer. In the human body, normal tissues which are highly susceptible to radiation damage include bone marrow (source of blood cells), the lining of the gastrointestinal tract and hair follicles. Thus the symptoms of acute radiation exposure include hair loss, massive loss of white blood cells (and correspondingly large increase in infection risk), plus nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Death can be due to infection or water-electrolyte imbalance. Depending upon the dose of radiation received, death can occur in weeks or in hours. Above 10 Sieverts or 1000 rem, death is inevitable.

Polonium was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898. Mme. Curie named it after her homeland, Poland. They discovered it when studying pitchblende. After removing the radium and uranium from the pitchblende, the Curies discovered that the pitchblende was even more radioactive than the uranium and radium combined, leading them to hypothesize that some other radioactive substance was also in there. Polonium has an activity level more than 1000 times greater than radium. Polonium is naturally found in uranium ores (it's part of the uranium decay chain) and has also been found in cigarette smoke made from tobacco fertilized with phosphate-containing fertilizers. (Inhalation is another great way to get this element into the body where it can do large amounts of damage.) Polonium dissolves quite nicely in weak acids, so small amounts could be introduced into food or beverage and used to kill someone. Care for a nice glass of lemonade or a carbonated beverage?

Polonium 210 has a half-life of around 138 days. This means that after 138 days, one half of the original amount of the polonium remains. However, at the end of a second 138 day period, all the polonium is not gone. One quarter of the original amount remains. For each passing half-life period, one half the current amount remains.

So where does one find polonium? In commercial products, it's used in some anti-static brushes for removing dust from photographic films. It's also been used as a heat source in lunar rovers. Certainly exposure risks occur in the mining and processing of uranium ores. Basically the stuff is just too toxic for much commercial use and other compounds are used instead. Ingestion of *micrograms* of polonium-210 is sufficient to result in death due to radiation sickness. Just ~7 x10-12 gram will result in 1100 becquerels as a body burden, which is the maximum limit. You can read more on the health effects of polonium at the Hazardous Substances Data Bank.

However, all of us consume some polonium in our every day diets. Argonne National Lab estimates that the annual US consumption of polonium is around 22 becquerels/year. The only way to keep polonium from getting in to your body is to cease eating, drinking and breathing. If you're reading this blog, it's already too late. You are, in fact, naturally radioactive, but that's a story for later.