Air Liquide

me: Boss asked me to get a quote for CO2 from Air Liquide.
Mr Potato: Why? Aren’t we already using Air Liquide?
me: No, all our gas comes from Afrox.
Mr Potato: But Air Liquide is the gold standard in science.
Mr Potato: Because I had no idea we were using Afrox!

Backstory: We’ve been having trouble growing macrophages and Boss is convinced it’s due to the carbon dioxide supply being contaminated with chemicals from the tanks. (Mammalian cells are usually cultured in air with added 5% carbon dioxide.) Mrs. Boss was tasked with putting together some home-made chemical scrubbers, basically, cylinders filled with activated charcoal, but hasn’t gotten around to it for months. Meanwhile Postdoc and I have not been able to do macrophage experiments because they keep dying…

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Dereliction of predation

Just thinking about mosquito larvae cos I need to email a Plasmodium guy to ask him to be on my academic committee…

Back in Singapore I kept dwarf pufferfish for a while. They’re really cute and funny little fish, smaller than a marble. They’re also quite aggressive going after any live food that piques their interest, like snails. You won’t have a snail problem with these guys. Continue reading

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There are no cats in America

Another guest post by Mr. Potato.

  • It’s 1992 and I am an 8 year old sitting on the floor of my parent’s house in Wisconsin watching a cartoon about a talking mouse immigrating to the US in 1885. Towards the beginning of An American Tail, the anthropomorphic mice sing of their expectations– “There are no cats in America, and the streets are paved with cheese!” For some reason, I never forgot that song.
  • It’s March 2015, a crisp Sunday morning in Durban, South Africa, and I am at church. My attention is wandering when suddenly the words “American politics” jolts me back to the sermon. The pastor is illustrating one of his points using the US political system and specific party platforms as an example. I get it, of course. But so does everyone else because they know American politics as well. What could you say about the political system and parties of, say, Canada? South Africa?
  • Continue reading

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Half way to the best policies on earth: an engineer’s first impressions of South Africa

Mr Potato has been here for a couple of months now; he sent this email to his former colleagues at Aerospace Company That Shall Not Be Named.

I’ve settled into life in South Africa, with all its ups and downs. Power cuts, theft, and language barriers. That’s just life in Africa. The land here is beautiful, and my wife and I agree that, on the whole, South Africa is more beautiful than any other place we have lived. I think only Ireland is as pretty.

This place is pretty screwed up, though, no way around that. South African natives I meet and hang out with openly admit it. When people hear my American accent, they immediately tell me how much they want to move to America (oh, but that’s a topic deserving its own email later) or anywhere else.

One thing I’ve noticed in South Africa are some of the best public/government Procedures (as opposed to Policy or Processes) anywhere I have lived. The US could learn a thing or two about laws, statutes, and regulation. For example, roads in dark and winding areas have LED lights on the sides of the road to make sure you don’t wander off a hill at night. In a land full of diseases I see posters and other encouragement for good sanitation. Anti-HIV drugs are free to anyone. Immigration laws are actually more concise and navigable than the US.

But this place is profoundly dysfunctional! The laws are world class, why is this place a third world country? Continue reading

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Sleep will not come to this tired body now

Something woke me up in the middle of the long night. My nose was stuffy and itching. I picked at it for a bit until it felt better and then closed my eyes, wrapping myself against the cold air of the bedroom. Rocking there in the dark, I felt my breathing slow again until a calm oblivion settled into my bones.

It seemed an instant later that I woke again – I knew it must have been some time, but in that dreamless torpor it felt like none. I felt terribly congested now. I sneezed and scratched at my nose, but it would only partially unclog. And as I scraped at it, I realised the horrible sensation of something growing, creeping up my face; a rough hairless texture. I almost screamed. What was I going to do? I couldn’t wipe or scrape it off.

After spending a few minutes silently panicking, I calmed down. Flapping about wouldn’t solve anything. The only thing to do was to go back to sleep and wait for the long night to be over. It’s common sense, I told myself. I’d feel better in the morning.

The next time was worse.

The entire front of my face around my nose and mouth felt like it was burning. My ears had started to itch fiercely as well. Perhaps it was psychological, but something seemed to be wrong with my wing membranes too. Please God, not my wings. There was definitely some kind of crust on my face and the thought of it on my fine, smooth wings made me feel sicker than anything else. I had to stretch at least. Just a few flaps to make sure they were all right.

Close your eyes. Close your eyes, I told myself over and over. Morning had to come.

The next time, I knew it was still too early and worse, with a sinking feeling, that I had already woken up more often than I should. We were still deep into the long night, the night when we should sleep in our big bedroom for months until the cold went away, but my belly and chest already felt too hollow.

The colony stirred. My roost mates were shifting restlessly around me. Some launched off and flapped in circles for a few wingbeats. It was usual that we would wake up now and then, fidget and stretch a little, pee, but then settle down again for the big sleep. Not all of us at once like this, crying and complaining.

I groomed and groomed but couldn’t get the horrible stuff off my wings even though it coated my tongue. Finally I gave up and tried to sleep, willing myself into the depths of unconsciousness against the nagging itch. But even as I wrapped my arms around my body again, I felt the cold consciously, in a way I had not since the first winter without my mother. It would get into my bones and devour me.

I woke up again.

I woke up again. There was very little left.

I woke up again. The urge to move was irresistible. To fly from the pain. I unfurled one wing but it was stiff, the membrane itself swollen thick. I tried to launch but couldn’t get lift and tumbled, like a clumsy baby, to the floor of the bedroom.

The soft thing I landed on was a friend.

The fall hadn’t hurt but I was too exhausted to make the effort of crawling all the way to the wall and climbing back up to any kind of reasonable launch point. I tried to scratch the now all-consuming itch, but only managed to twitch and flail.
The ground shook. The bedroom which had always been our safe space was being invaded by some big animals. From their voices, they were humans, which I had only ever seen from a distance.

There was a white light, and a presence lifted me up.

Backstory: Two days ago I heard a talk on bat physiology and diseases by DeeAnn Reeder, which included an update on the White-Nose Syndrome epizootic in the USA, a fungus imported from Europe which is killing bats by the millions. She showed some microarray data of infected versus uninfected tissue, in addition to a word cloud of keywords related to the upregulated genes (presumably the keywords are based on the homologues of those genes in humans and more familiar mammals). I thought the word cloud/tag cloud was a pretty cool way to show an understandable overview of what was going on, as opposed to a grid of coloured rectangles. But the two big words were “pain” and “itching” and she said that this is how we can guess what the bats feel. It’s haunted me in a way that pictures of the poor things with fungus all over their noses or little dead bodies on the ground don’t.

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What flashes before my eyes is not the memories of my life, but Eadward Muybridge’s motion picture, the kinetic series of a galloping horse that proved they take all four feet off the ground. The suspension phase seems to be a suspension of time as well until every violent plunge back down to earth. The world is flying past in a mad rush and slow enough to see the ground beneath our feet at the same time. The right rein that I had accidentally let go of whips around like a snake. I am embarrassingly aware that we are trampling over someone’s young maize crop and terrified that the horse will trip in a furrow, throw me off and kill me.
We were on our way back to the hotel and with the tour guide’s permission I wanted to canter a little across a straight flat part of the track, putting the beginner lessons I took in Colorado to good use. My rented Basotho pony apparently thought he hadn’t had enough exercise in a while and took off. Which was fine until I lost my grip on the right rein and couldn’t hold him in – pulling on the left (obviously, in hindsight) only steered him off the path.
My hands have his mane in a death grip but he is going so fast I’m afraid it will not be enough. In my head I hear my trainer’s voice, the stentor of someone used to calling instructions across an arena – “Knees, knees” – and embrace the horse with my legs. Thank you Stefanie. A few seconds later I realise he’s heading up a hill and surely will have to slow down. I take advantage and finally recapture the right rein, just in time to stop him running down the other side of the hill.
I turn him around and, even panting as he is, have to keep holding him in from starting back the way we came. In the distance are the guide and my flatmate’s friend. I try to wave as best as I can and shout “I am fine.” The guide trots up the hill to us quickly. “Are you all right?”
“I am fine,” I repeat.
“I was so scared,” he says. I understand very well. He would probably have gotten into big trouble if anything happened to a guest, regardless of whether it was the guest’s fault for making noob mistakes.
“I’m really sorry,” I say. “It was an accident. He ran and I couldn’t hold him.”
“You are a one hundred percent good rider,” he says. “Were you not scared?”
“A bit scared,” I say. “I am fine now.”
We walk our horses back down to the path where David waits, me leaning back with the reins in an iron grip all the way. Silly animal.
I know why he ran away. For one glorious minute, we were flying over the black and green mountain fields. I didn’t do it on purpose. But I would do it again.

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Dr Ahmed Kathrada

At a talk by South African civil rights veteran Dr Ahmed Kathrada. Am struck by how similar some elements are to British colonial legacy laws in Malaysia, like the 90-day detention without trial.

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The Headless Horse

Godfather horse head sceneOne of my colleagues at work told me the story of how Western Equine Encephalitis was discovered and later he sent me the source article, which is a biography of Karl Friedrich Meyer by Albert Sabin, of all people. Meyer was keen to find the cause of a strange encephalitis which had struck horses in the San Joaquin Valley of California, USA; however he had only been able to get long-dead horse brains which they were not able to isolate the pathogen from. Someone told him of a live horse which appeared to be sick, but when the scientists asked the farmer said…

“I won’t sell the horse, and if you ever do anything to the horse, I shoot you.” .. . I went down and I had a $20 bill in my pocket. This was a depression year and I was sure they would be glad to get rid of the horse for $20. [KF was warned not to talk to the farmer, and he said:] “I’m not going to talk to him. I’m going to talk to his wife.” I said, “Look here, this horse is going to die anyhow, and when it’s dead you haven’t anything. It just goes to the rendering plant and you get a couple of dollars. On the other hand, you see, you could contribute to the knowledge of what this is and perhaps to its prevention.” “Well,” she said, “My husband is just irate about this.” I said, “Yes, I can readily understand, but look here, suppose I trust you, and I give you $20 and the next morning you will find in the backyard the horse without a head?” “How are you going to do this?” “Look here, about nine o’clock at night when it is dark, I’ll be over here behind some bushes . . . [where] I can see the window of your house. When your husband is sound asleep you lift up the shade.” .. . I had a syringe with strychnine, I had a good sharp knife, and I sat around there and smoked a pipe, and sure enough about twenty minutes past nine the shade went up. Within about two minutes I was over the fence and in another two minutes the strychnine was under the skin of the horse and in another two or three minutes, the horse went down, and in another five minutes the head was off.
It was a heavy head, but I threw it over the fence and wrapped it up in burlap and we vanished as fast as we could…

My first thought on hearing the story was that it’s like that infamous scene in “The Godfather” backwards. This is the kind of virology they don’t train you for in school.


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Packing the rain

One of my local colleagues, a regulatory affairs specialist who favours maxi skirts with interesting patterns, was complaining the other day about how much it had rained this year. “I’m getting so sick of it…ugh, I just want it to stop.”

I didn’t have the face to tell  her that the soggy lawns and flooded underpasses were my fault.

Another guy exclaimed, “It’s never this green! By late summer everything should be brown!” They said this is really a desert, trees and carefully-watered lawns notwithstanding. I don’t think I could cope in a desert. I come from a land of dense, saturated green. I was afraid I’d miss the monsoons of home, or even the summer thunderstorms of the US Midwest where I lived for a while.

So in the last few weeks before leaving last year, I went up to the top of my high-rise government housing block and stretched out. It was a bit hard to reach because September isn’t really rainy season, so the clouds weren’t that low. But the slow breeze eventually blew one against my fingertips, and I drew it down wisp by wisp, like spinning wool by hand. I had to cup it very carefully between my hands as I walked down the twenty-seven flights of stairs to my flat in case the air currents in the stairwell snatched it.

I put it at the bottom of my suitcase and laid a pair of jeans on top to weigh it down before stacking the other rolled pieces of clothing like normal. I wasn’t too worried about it striking against something and breaking; obviously clouds aren’t brittle. But I don’t really know anything about their stability. If it had started raining in the middle of the flight it could have been anywhere from awkward to disastrous.

Every time you enter the US, Customs and Border Protection makes you fill out a form declaring if you’ve brought in any agricultural products (meaning pretty much anything edible), large sums of cash, and so forth. The last time I was honest and declared a packet of bak kwa from a visit to China, they seized it, so the next time I brought some bak kwa from home filed discreetly in a document folder among printouts of scientific papers.

How does one declare a cloud? It’s not an agricultural product; it’s an agricultural input. It’s not soil; it’s the opposite of soil. It’s not money; you can’t buy clouds but they say someday soon we will be fighting wars over water. So I didn’t declare it.

When I opened my suitcase, it was gone anyway. I thought it had evaporated somewhere in the long, deadening flight over the Pacific Ocean.

But I think the cloud found the West to its liking. This year, I saw the desert bloom and I like to think it was because of me.Flowers in Moab

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Forgetful Jones

New method of reminding myself not to leave the office before taking care of certain lab tasks.


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