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Noxious Chemicals

A couple of days ago, there was a brief article on CBC news about a chemical that was removed from a laboratory by the bomb unit.  The article contained so few details that I could not guess what  chemical this was.  I was a lab technician in my first permanent job.  We did use a number of noxious chemicals there, but none of them could become explosive by themselves.

My first job was in a soil analysis lab.  It was essentially analytical chemistry adapted to the requirements of Soil Science.  Most of the reagents we used were rather benign, although at times we did use strong chemicals.  We were aware of the risks, and did take precautions when necessary.  We didn’t have all of the protective clothing that technicians wear now, but we did have lab coats and rubber gloves.  We were careful to avoid spills.  Whenever we were evaporating something that gave off a corrosive vapour, we did it in a fume hood.

I recall some of the hazardous substances that we used:

  • 30% hydrogen peroxide.  We used this to oxidize organic matter in soils.  It feels just like water on your hands, but in a few minutes, you will notice a tingling sensation there.  When you look at your hands, you will see white patches where it wet your hands.  We quickly learned to wash it off if it got on our hands.
  • Perchloric acid.  We had a special fume hood built out of asbestos-cement board and stainless steel so that we could evaporate perchloric acid safely.  I recall neutralizing it on an automatic titrator attached to a pH meter.  The meter was calibrated from zero to 14, but when the electrodes were first placed in the perchloric acid solution, the pH went below zero.  I’d never seen that before.  We were all aware of the risk of explosion when organic material like wood was allowed to absorb perchloric acid fume.  We were careful with that stuff.
  • Hydroflouric acid.  We used this reagent to dissolve silica, in teflon or platinum crucibles, needless to say.  Hydroflouric acid is quite dangerous.  It’s absorbed by the skin, but it’s painless, leading to severe burns later on.  We were aware of the dangers, and made sure we always wore rubber gloves while handling this chemical.  I had no problems with it, but I did hear of one technician who did receive some burns that required medical attention.
  • Ammonium hydroxide.  This chemical came in cases of six four-litre bottles.  We kept them on shelves in a basement room.  I recall one time I knocked a bottle off the shelf onto the concrete floor while I was reaching for another chemical on the same shelf.  The ammonia fumes filled the room.  I got out of there quickly, and told another technician what I had done.  He went down there to clean up the mess.  I didn’t expect that response.  I suppose all it took was lots of water to flush the chemical into the floor drain.  In any case, I didn’t see it until it was all over.
  • Sodium hydroxide.  This chemical came in white pellets that we dissolved in distilled water to make the correct solution.  It had a soapy feel on your hands.  That’s because it was reacting with your skin to create a soap.  We quickly learned to keep that reagent off our fingers too.

I suppose we were fortunate that all our accidents were minor ones.  Certainly, nothing ever exploded, or presented a risk of explosion.  We were aware of the risks, and that meant that we showed proper respect for the noxious chemicals.  All in all, it was an enjoyable and exciting part of my life.


Not Total Recall

I was watching an episode of Midsomer Murders, a BBC detective series, recently.  The murder had been committed with a large pair of taylor’s shears.  DCI Barnaby’s wife had been in the taylor’s shop just before the incident.  She witnessed a scuffle that broke out in the shop.  After the murder, Barnaby asked her to recall her memory of the taylor’s shop.  She reported that the shears were hanging on a peg in the shop before the scuffle, but then they disappeared.  Barnaby was able to use this information to identify the murderer.

Memory doesn’t work like that.  This is the “watching a movie model” of memory recall, one that we now know is incorrect.  Recalling a memory is not like viewing a movie.  People who work in IT know how much storage even a short video clip takes.  We don’t have that sort of memory.  There’s no survival advantage for us or for other animals in devoting that much of our brains to storing movies.  We won’t be able to discover additional details of an event by reviewing our memory of it.

We really only remember fragments of an event.  These are significant fragments, probably the ones with the highest emotional content.  All of our memories are reconstructed.  They seem complete and logical, but this is an illusion.  Our mind fills in the gaps from our general knowledge, making the memory complete.  It does this in recalling a memory the same way as it does it when we are experiencing reality.  Details of an existing memory can be altered.  Entire memories can be implanted.  Regardless, they still seem real, complete, and logical to us.  Our mind makes it that way.

In fact, our mind is as economical as possible.  It uses the same facilities for dreaming, for recalling memories, and for experiencing reality.  Of course, we can generally tell which is which, but they all seem real.  Steven Pinker explains some of this in his book How the Mind Works.  I know that realizing that memory is always reconstructed is contrary to our normal beliefs.  It gets even stranger.  Apparently, when we recall a memory, the original memory is erased from our minds and a new memory is stored in its place.  Memories can therefore change each time they are recalled.  It’s not at all like watching a movie, even though it may seem like that.


Yeast Extract

The other day, I read the label on a can of mushroom soup.  One of the ingredients was yeast extract.  I knew immediately what that was.  There’s a trend of food manufacturers changing the name of some ingredients, especially those that might alarm most consumers.  They strive to make these ingredients seem more natural, probably because many people now believe that natural means good.  Yeast extract is another name for monosodium glutamate.  It also appears in ingredient lists as hydrolized protein of various sorts.  MSG and all the other glutamates are flavour enhancers.  That’s why it’s added to so many foods.

You may not know this, but we have a taste sensor for protein on our tongues.  When activated, it produces the sensation of deliciousness.  It actually responds to glutamates, which are breakdown products of protein.  Many foods contain glutamates.  Ones that are particularly high on glutamtes are cooked meat, prepared meat, old cheese, sauces, and gravy.  Now you know why all fast foods include cheese and bacon.  It makes them more delicious, more appealing to the consumer.

People believe that MSG causes Chinese restaurant syndrome.  Symptoms of this purported disorder are headache, rapid heart rate, and nausea.  This belief originated with a story written after the author became ill after eating at a Chinese restaurant.  This doubtful story led to the false belief.  Many scientific studies have shown no such symptoms after people ate foods that contained MSG.  The author of this story even admitted to making an error.  In spite of the evidence, many people continue to believe that MSG causes this syndrome.  Consequently, Chinese restaurants all display a notice on their menus that no MSG was used.  People also avoid any foods that list MSG on their labels.

There are a few people who do react to MSG in foods, but they also react to all forms of glutamate.  They can’t eat any of the foods that are high in glutamates, old cheese and bacon included.  This is an allergy, fortunately one that affects only a small number of people.  For the rest of us, there’s nothing to fear from MSG regardless of what name it’s listed as.  It’s simply a flavour enhancer.  Is it really needed?  That’s another question, one in which the consumer certainly plays a role.


Class Reunion

My college, now a university, was holding a class of 1964 reunion as part of their annual homecoming weekend.  Should I go to the reunion?  I felt some trepidation over that decision.  I’d never attended a class reunion of any sort before.  In fact, I had actively avoided people who were in my school and college classes.  It was an occasion, though.  It was 50 years since I graduated from college.  I might never get another opportunity like this one.  I didn’t keep in touch with the members of my class.  I didn’t know any of them.  They wouldn’t know me, either.  Perhaps that was better.  Perhaps meeting each other as strangers was better too.  They would be more likely to treat me with respect that way.  I decided to do something I’d never done before:  I decided to go.  I even found the beanie I had worn during the initiation ceremony, when I was a freshman all those years ago.

They wanted each member of the class to write up a story about themselves, specifically about what they had been doing for the past 50 years.  I had just read Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, where he writes in great detail about the first half of his life.  I could have written 900 pages too, but I knew that the organizers didn’t want that.  Even though I never pasted labels on bottles, I felt like David Copperfield.  Somehow I was able to compress my whole life into a few hundred lines.  Is anybody going to read it?

At the class of ’64 dinner on the Friday night, I got the opportunity to meet most of the members of my class.  With the exception of two people, they were all strangers to me.  Only the names seemed vaguely familiar.  They had spread out all across Canada.  Most of them came from rural areas in this province.  They lived together in residence and got to know each other from that experience.  I lived within walking distance of the college.  I never knew the other people in my class very well.  I felt like an outsider at the reunion, even though they were very welcoming and pleasant people.  I was impressed that some of them had even read my story.  We also had an open mic session where people told us stories about our class.  Most of these were about people from the residence, people I didn’t know.

There was a basketball game, a barbecue, and a building tour on Saturday.  I skipped them because I wanted to visit with my parents while I was there.  The organizing committee certainly kept things going all day.  I did go to the reunion dinner on Saturday night.  All the classes at the reunion were in one place for that one.  It was quite an impressive event.  Before the meal was served, I wandered around and chatted with people I didn’t know.  Some of them I had met the night before.  I was amazed at how many of them had gone on to distinguished careers and to satisfying lives.  One fellow who had been in the pre-med class had become a specialist in infectious diseases.  All, including me, were retired now.  After dinner we had awards presentations and addresses from leaders of each class.  One of my class, a man who had been in the diplomatic service, gave a longer talk.  It was A Peek at the World.  Even though it was late in the evening, even though it was a long talk, I found every detail to be extremely interesting.  I was amazed at how many secrets he revealed to us.

I’m glad I went, although I expect that I’ll never see all those people again.  The class leaders put a great deal of effort into this reunion, certainly something I appreciated.  No doubt everybody appreciated their effort.  The university also put quite an effort into this reunion.  They even gave me a scarf, in the same colours as that beanie from long ago.   Of course, they want a donation from me.  I will be doing that too.


Oil Causes Cancer

It certainly seemed that way, that oil sands extraction caused cancer in the people who lived nearby.  The settlement of Fort Chipewyan is on Lake Athabasca, only about 200 km downstream from the oil sands operation at Fort McMurray.  About a thousand people live in Fort Chipewyan.  Fort McMurray, on the Athabasca river, is the site of oil sands open pit mines and oil production facilities.  About 60,000 people live there.  A doctor who looked after residents of Fort Chipewyan first noticed the problem.  There was an unusual number of cancer cases in the town.  Had he identified a cancer hotspot?

The government of Alberta decided to find out, in an epidemiological study.  They determimed that the incidence of cancer in Fort Chipewyan was only slightly higher than in the rest of the province, and that the difference was not statistically significant.  It was certainly not a cancer hotspot.  They did identify three types of cancer that were somewhat above normal.  Two of these had known causes, causes that were clearly not related to the proximity of the oil sands development.  The third type had no known cause, meaning that it might also be unrelated.  There was certainly no clear link to the nearby oil sands operation.

The second study was done by the University of Manitoba.  It utilized a variety of methods, including heavy metal analysis.  They did find an association between eating country food and ill health, as well as one between elevated heavy metal levels and ill health.  Of course, associations don’t indicate that one thing cause another, but only that the two vary together.

I actually have some experience with heavy metals in the environment, specifically with lead, cadmium, and mercury.  With sufficiently sensitive methods of analysis, these are always present in samples.  That, by itself, means nothing.  Levels higher than ones deemed to be safe are a cause for concern, of course.  Even then, it’s difficult to determine the cause of elevated levels, and difficult to identify them as the cause of disease.  In the case of Fort Chipewyan, both studies have some validity, although they generally do not contradict each other.  My impression is that the Alberta government study has better scientific evidence.


What Can You Trust

There’s been a great deal of controversy about restaurant reviews and review sites in general, recently.  Traditional reviews are not a part of this controversy.  These are usually fairly long, written by well-known authors, and appear in news web sites or newspapers.  They are usually trustworthy, although they surely are spread across a spectrum of validity.  I’ve even seen traditional reviews included with restaurant menus.

The controversy mainly concerns the brief reviews that have begun to appear on web sites that specialize in reviews.  The most recent news has been about fake positive reviews.  Business owners can benefit greatly from positive reviews, providing the incentive to purchase fake ones.  It’s cheap advertizing for the companies.  Web sites do try to remove fake reviews, but people still need to be able to identify them as well.  The new style of reviews are just the personal opinions from customers.  Often they are quite brief, just a few lines or even a row of stars.

Showing just a count of likes or followers is even simpler.  It’s also even more misleading.  You can’t dislike a restaurant, only like it.  Businesses sometimes run contests or offer rewards to entice people to visit their web page.  There’s no way to tell if people really liked the product, or just went there to enter the contest or obtain the reward.

The other side of the controversy is that companies may threaten to sue people who have written negative reviews.  Just a threat is enough for most people to remove the review.  In general, businesses don’t sue their customers.  It’s for the same reason that shopping centres don’t tow their customer’s cars, even though they are parked in a no-parking zone.  Neither of them want the negative publicity that might arise from such and action.

I had a curious example the other day.  I received a flyer from a local company offering snow removal services.  Everything in the flyer seemed very good.  When I did a web search on the company name, I only found a few reviews.  There was perhaps one per site.  All were negative.  This company must have more than three customers.  What do I do now?

I know that people tend to believe online reviews from other customers, more so than something that is obviously advertizing.  I’ve searched for such things myself, always discounting ones where the poster had something to gain.  I see now that I have to be even more skeptical.  Positive reviews can be faked.  Negative reviews can be suppressed.  They all can be advertizing of a more subtle sort.  If it’s a review site, the site’s policy may help you judge the reliability of their reviews.  In any case, look at many of them to come up with a consensus, keeping in mind that some reviews may be fake and that some negative reviews may be missing.


All Soap Operas

I’ve been enjoying Netflix for some time.  I don’t watch ordinary TV because I don’t like commercials, but Netflix doesn’t have commercials.  I started out watching movies, but after a while I’d seen all the movies that appeal to me.  Now I’ve started watching certain TV series, also without commercials.  I generally watch one or two episodes of a series each day, depending on their length.  Compared to a movie, which only runs for a few hours, a TV series can extend for hundreds of hours.  No doubt they have great difficulty finding enough material to extend for that length of time.

One of the series I watch in its entirety was Breaking Bad.  Initially, I was interested in how Walter dealt with events that arose in his life.  I ignored the science because I recognized pretty quickly that it was bogus.  Some of the decisions he made were the same as I might have done, but some of them seemed peculiar to me.  Eventually, he was drawn ever deeper into anti-social behavior, and couldn’t see a way out.  At that point, he entered a world that was quite foreign to me.  Rather than stop watching, I became interested in each of the characters, and how they carried out their predetermined roles.

After that series, I moved to House, MD.  Each episode featured a medical story, and a series of attempts at a diagosis.  At first I found them quite interesting.  After a while, though, they became quite predictable.  I’d seen seizures so often that I made fun of them.  The stories also became more and more improbable.  I checked on one later, and found that it had only happened once, and that was in a different part of the world.  After a while, they began to repeat some of the medical stories.  Again, I switched my attention to the characters, House and Wilson.  I wanted to see how they worked out their problems in life.

I also watched a British TV series, Midsomer Murders.  Like all murder mysteries, the crimes were quite improbable.  Most murders are crimes of status, where one young man pulls out a gun or knife and kills another one.  The circumstances and the culprits are usually well known.  In the stories, though, the crime is carried out in mysterious circumstances.  Everybody in the story behaves in a suspicious manner.  Part of the fun is guessing who is the killer.  Towards the end, the detectives reveal the culprit and explain their reasons.  It’s usually somebody you didn’t even suspect.  Eventually I gave up trying to guess, and turned my attention to the detectives, Barnaby and Jones.  Their behavior seemed normal for the lives that they led, although I’m sure their lives were quite fanciful.  Nobody has to deal with that many mysterious murders, week after week.

My experience was that all of these TV series evenually became soap operas.  I began with an interest in what the characters were doing, but eventually gave that up, and focused on the characters themselves.  I don’t know if that was the intention of all the people that created these stories, but that was how I found them.  I wouldn’t choose to watch a soap opera, but I was led into watching them.  I wonder if other people have had the same experience?



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