Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It's not the symptoms, doc, it's the side effects..

You might not think that something called "Restless Leg Syndrome" (RLS) is all that serious, but for those of us that suffer from it, it is a major pain in the... well, the leg.

If I don't get to sleep early enough, I risk lying awake with RLS, wanting to rip my leg off and beat it against the wall. This basically means a night with really, really crappy sleep, which everyone can agree is miserable.

So when adverts come on the TV for things that I have (or think I have, as my wife points out), I pay attention. I'm not happy that I'm paying more and more attention to these adverts as I age, but that's another post about sampling frequency...

There is a product called Requip by GlaxoSmithKlein for treatment of RLS, and one of the side effects quickly stated at the end of the TV advert really caught my attention: "Also tell your doctor if you or your family notices that you develop any unusual impulses or behaviors, such as pathological gambling or hypersexuality," and later: "Most patients were not bothered enough to stop taking Requip."

Duh. Of course I'm not going to be bothered enough if I have pathological needs for gambling and sex.

Hmm. I think I'll stick with beating my leg against the wall, thanks.

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 Sunday, December 16, 2007

Summoning Angels

While I was at college, I lived in a dorm where most of the beds were elevated on A-frames to within a couple of feet of the ceiling. This was done to allow more space within rooms, since they were quite small to start with. One night, during my freshman year, I fell asleep in my bed while my room-mate worked at his desk, tucked below his bed at his desk on the opposite side of the room.

I remember dreaming that I had found a very old piece of vellum with what appeared to be an Enochian Chant written on it. These chants were used in the Middle Ages to summon angels, and are beautiful pieces of vocal composition. I began to sing the chant (confirming that this was a dream, because I cannot read music, much less hold a tune). When I got to the end, I was disturbed to find that I had just sung the chant to summon Lucifer.

Sometime later, I was lying on my stomach awake in the dark, and I felt something approaching. When I picked up my head and looked, a great big bat landed on my face! With a start, I woke from that dream, to find myself back at in my room, with my room-mate's desk light still on, but with him nowhere to be found. Instead, sitting on the end of my bunk bed was a very old, wrinkled man, who held out a bony, freckled hand. He said, quite pleasantly, "Shake the hand of Satan."

I watched with amazement as my hand moved out to grasp his -- without my being able to stop it. And then it was all gone, and I woke up the next morning. I asked my room-mate whether he had noticed anything strange the night before, and when he replied that nothing had happened, I explained my dreams. He told me he had not left the room at all, and had gone to bed quite soon after I had last spoken to him, turning out his light.

I tried to convince myself that this had all meant nothing, but I did spend the next days wondering about that handshake. I had a very creepy feeling that I had just done something that would not do me very well in the near future. Luckily, nothing did happen, and I was able to file this event away under "strange (nested) dreams," but I often wonder what would have happened to me mentally had some other strange chance occurrence come to pass while I was affected.

Should I ever find out that such an Enochian Chant exists, I will be sure never to read it.


 Thursday, December 13, 2007

30 years ago today

Bill Gates could still smile, despite a rough day:

The reason for this third run-in with the law in New Mexico are not clear, as all records of this particular arrest have been lost.

The world could have been very different, very different.


 Saturday, December 08, 2007


Earlier this year I went to a meeting at the OAS about metrology.

Metrology? Yaaaawn. Isn't the definition of units settled? Isn't that something you do in grade school?

Well, yes, and no. The study of units (metrology) mostly has to do with commerce - just as it did over two millennia ago when rulers wanted to ensure that merchants were measuring properly (and probably the motivation was not to protect the customer, but to ensure proper payment of taxes).

When you buy a thermometer, you'd like to know that it was accurate, right? Not taking your child to the hospital for an actual fever of 105 when it shows up as 103 on your thermometer could have serious repercussions. And these serious errors are out there: most thermometers in the world are made in (surprise, surprise) China. In a recent test carried out by the Uruguayan metrology lab, over 20% of the 120,000 annually imported thermometers for home use were found to be seriously defective. Similar failure rates were found for sphigmomanometers and other medical measuring equipment. (Source: Alexis Valquis, German Federal Technical and Physical Institute, PTB)

There are also cases where mismatches between standards can have large economic repercussions. The market for Canadian white paper is about $5 billion/year, with a great deal of this being in the European market. However, the North American and European 'standards' for paper 'brightness' differed by 0.5% to 1% on the same papers, and this implied an extra annual cost in bleach to Canadian mills of about $65 million to meet the European 'standard.' An intercomparison and recalibration removed the problem, which was completely artificial.

Even when you decide to use a standard from which to measure, you have to make sure you are using a common standard, since there are many different 'standards' out there. On building a bridge over the Rhine between Germany and Switzerland at Laufenberg, construction was almost finished when both sides realized there was a 54 cm height mismatch between the sides. They had known there was a 27 cm difference between the national standards, because the Swiss used the Trieste sealevel standard, while the Germans used the Amsterdam standard. However, since 54 = 27 x 2, someone forgot to check which one was actually higher than the other, and the corrections were applied in the wrong direction. You would think that two countries with such careful engineers would have caught this before it became a really expensive fix. (Source: Swiss Government website (in German))

Here's a good example of where you might be concerned (besides driving over a bridge where the sides didn't match): the amount of lead in wine. Samples from the same batch of wine were sent to labs all over the world, and the labs were asked to measure how much lead (Pb) was in the sample. Here's the spread in the reported results:

The stunning part of this is that the 10% spread is the narrow grey line, and the actual spread is well over 50%. The good news is that the national labs responsible for most of our safety got it right to within the 10% band. (Source: J. Anal. At. Spectrom., 2001, 16, 1091–1100, DOI: 10.1039/b103248h)

But what do you do if the 'standard' is actually changing? Incredibly, this is actually happening to the kilogram. As you might expect, for a long time the standard has been an actual physical object: a platinum and iridium cylinder cast in 1889 that is kept under high security at BIPM in Paris, along with six official copies (image below). Along with the original, many duplicates were made, which were shipped off to many countries existing at the time for them to use as their national references. The availability of many duplicates allows some sophisticated statistical studies, and they have allowed the rather odd conclusion to be drawn that, despite the security, it can be reliably demonstrated that this cylinder has lost about 50 micrograms over its lifetime. This change may seem small, but it has huge implications for the metric system, since there are many other derived units which depend on the base unit of the kilogram. There are all sorts of efforts underway to define the kilogram using physics rather than a physical object, as has been done with the meter (the meter is now how far light travels in 1/299,792,458 of a second, rather than the distance between two marks on a 'reference stick' kept in Paris). There is currently a struggle between two camps: one which wants to generate a new object - an ultraprecise sphere of ultrapure silicon, and the other which wants to simply agree on a specific number of Carbon-12 atoms (Source: Eurekalert article).

Another point about the metric system - there are three countries that have failed to convert: Liberia, Myanmar and the good old US of A. Good company to keep. And how do these countries define their own standards in these older units? They refer to the metric system standards, of course.

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