Category: writing

A Few Words From the Scientist Who Invented Wonder Women’s Invisible Jet.



First of all, I totally get it. You’re watching Super Friends or reading some Justice League of America comic book, and what do you see? Wonder Woman floating in mid air, in what is apparently an “invisible jet.” And for some reason, the fact that you know that it’s an invisible jet (because someone has gone to the trouble of outlining the jet with white phantom lines), is supposedly meant to make this OK.

Except that it doesn’t. You know this and I know this, and well, everybody knows this. Because the truth is: Wonder Woman looks kind of stupid floating in mid air. I mean, seriously, what is the point of having an invisible jet if the pilot—and a pilot wearing bright sparkly superhero colors—is so… well… visible?

So I get all the hate, I totally do.

But listen: I invented that invisible jet! That invisible jet is my research. It’s my baby.

And the reality is that the invisible jet was never meant to hide the pilot. It was just meant to be invisible on its own. If you don’t believe me, then by all means, look it up—my doctoral dissertation and my research publications are quite clear about this.

Wonder Woman totally got this. Actually, she was pretty amazing about it. She was like, “whoa… invisible jet… that’s pretty cool.” And then I was all like, “Yeah, but you know that it’s only the jet that goes invisible right? You know that you won’t be invisible when you sit inside it, right?” And she was like, “Yeah, I get it, but that’s OK, because well… invisible-freaking-jet!

She basically said that it was totally fine to spend a whole bunch of her money on it because (a), it was a good way to support interesting science, and (b), well… it was just awesome.

Unfortunately, her Super Friends buddies were all idiots about it. They were all like, “Diana… you know we can still see you?” And Superman was prone to flying in a seated position and making steering motions and going, “look at me,.. who am I?” Meanwhile, Batman was all like “my utility belt is way cooler.”

But she knew what was going on. She knew that the reality was this: that the jet is a goddamn SCIENTIFIC MARVEL! Something that should be admired—because ingenuity, years of hard work, and significant research funds was all involved to develop that piece of technology.

Now, do I want to continue my research so that things entering the jet also become invisible? Sure—because that would also be pretty awesome. And maybe, one day, I will work on that research goal, and if I do, Wonder Woman is totally going to get first dibs on that piece of hardware.

Because listen, folks: this is how science works, one small step at a time. It’s not fast (like a speeding bullet), or able to make progress (in single bounds). It’s not about gimmicky quick fixes (like the kind you pack in a utility belt), and it takes serious investment (we’re not all caped billionaires with money for caves and batmobiles). This discovery stuff is slow and incremental, and that my friends, is the honest to goodness Lasso of Truth.

(Originally published at McSweeney’s)

DNA as a Magic 8 Ball: Concerning the President of the United States

Prepping a genomics 101 workshop as we speak, and I’m just going through some older material of mine.  Will use this to explore the issue of correlations in big big data sets.  Anyway, this piece written back in 2006 was a fun exercise in this notion, although it was a little freaky how the correlations were for the Bush era folks.  One of these days, I should do an update on this – might be interesting to see how those matches come up.



Every living thing on this planet adheres to a script, a biological language that is not unlike the ingredient lists on the back of your grocery store products. This script is DNA, composed of a limited alphabet of four building blocks (or letters, if you will): A, T, C and G.

Our human document is just over three-billion letters in length. To offer some perspective, E. coli has just over four-and-a-half million letters, a fly has about 150-million letters and rice has close to 400-million. In all—as of August, 2005—over 100,000,000,000 letters of code have been sequenced from a multitude of earthly delights and made publicly available for research within the life sciences.

DNA orchestrates the production of proteins—the molecules that are responsible for the architecture, mechanics, senses and defenses of each and every cell and tissue in an organism’s being. These proteins actually do the work of “living.”

And here’s where it gets interesting: Proteins are composed of strings of amino acids, pieced together as a direct result of DNA code. There are 20 different amino acids, each one denoted by a single letter. Since amino-acid alphabet is only missing the letters B, J, O, U, X and Z, one can look for relevant words within the huge dataset of genomes—within life’s code—and, perhaps, find wisdom for important decisions.

With this in mind, I decided to supercollide genetics and politics—more specifically, to contemplate specific words, built with strings of amino acids, and search all available genetic and protein sequence data for relevant matches.1 And it is these matches or answers that are gleaned—as if from a Magic 8 Ball—to reflect and evaluate our leaders, our options and our future. Whether you buy into this brand of decision making or not, here is what you’ll discover when you search genetic code for amino-acid sequence strings such as “BUSH,” as well as other names from current events.

1. The query for “BUSH” receives no hits, primarily because it is deemed a “low complexity sequence.” This is compounded by the fact that the letters B and U do not exist as specific amino acids.

2. To be fair, I tried the string “GWBUSH.” Here, the closest match resulted in the sequence “GWDASH.” It was interesting to note that 21 of the top 22 matches were derived from the genomes of “uncultured” organisms—ones that cannot be grown in any laboratory setting

3. Next, I tried “GWBLISH,” under the pretense that when you squint, it looks like “GWBUSH.” In this case, the best sequence match referred to the Japanese strain of Oryza sativa (paddy rice), a food staple from a country that is justifiably sensitive to past actions of the United States.

4. Because none of the above results sounded particularly encouraging, I figured that a better indicator of Bush’s worth might come from querying the names of his top advisors. However, when the sequence strings “ROVE,” “RICE” and “ALITO” are queried, all are met with the “low complexity sequence” result. The top hit for “RUMSFELD” was Xylella fastidiosa, a grapevine-decimating pathogen infamous in the wine industry. Interestingly, the top two matches for “CHENEY”are Vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium in the same family as those that cause cholera, as well as Vibrio speldidus, a nasty intestinal pathogen known for inducing vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain.

5. Finally, in an effort to further demonstrate my impartiality, I begrudgingly entered “PRESIDENTBUSH.” In this case, the best non-hypothetical match—one that can actually be assigned a biological function—was from the genome of Entamoeba histolytica. The organism is a single-celled, parasitic protozoan known for infections that sometimes last for years, which may be accompanied by vague gastrointestinal distress or dysentery—complete with blood and mucus in the stool.

6. For good measure, I considered how 2005 could have been different politically, entering a couple of searches related to Senator John Kerry. A query for “KERRY” received many perfect hits from a wide variety of different organisms, and “PRESIDENTKERRY” results in a best non-hypothetical match to a gene in Zygosaccharomyces rouxii, an organism belonging to the kingdom fungi.

I’m left to make the following conclusions: Simply stated, Bush is of low complexity. Addressing Bush using his first and middle initials suggests that he will run away or act in an uncultured manner. Squint at Bush and he just might make fun of your slanting eyes, call you “sushi lover,” or make some other inappropriate comment. His closest advisors are, at best, too simple for the task or busy attacking wine, or, at worst, will make you suffer horribly. At the end of the day, if you don’t want the hypothetical, but instead want the truth: President Bush is akin to an extended period of significant discomfort in your gut.

In hindsight, it would appear that these queries reflect accurately on the past year, what with the general mismanagement of the Iraq war, the fallout from Hurricane Katrina, the administration’s rebuff of climate change, as well as the President’s awkward but accommodating tone with intelligent design.

But, what if John Kerry had been elected president? Well, he would have just been a “fun guy!”

Perhaps there is some merit to this method of divination after all?

As a postscript—and to look forward rather than back, it being a new year—I ran one last query. Given Hillary Clinton’s potential candidacy in the 2008 presidential race, I performed one last search, inputting “HILLARY.”

Here, the top non-hypothetical hit corresponded to Burkholderia vietnamiensis strain G4, a bacterium known for its prowess in eliminating various hazardous environmental contaminants that are found in groundwater. Could this result possibly foreshadow an interesting campaign ahead? Is HILLARY someone that will bioremediate—literally “clean up” —the polluting mess left by the current administration.

No matter, I think it is best that I leave that act of interpretation to you the reader, since my actual Magic 8 Ball suggests that I “better not tell you now.”

1. Anyone can do this with a common bioinformatics tool known as BLAST. Follow the link and click on the “search for short, nearly exact matches” under the PROTEIN subheading. In the new page, enter your query, and then hit the “BLAST” button.

Originally published January 11, 2006 at Seed Magazine.

Han Solo and Chewbacca Weigh In On Their New Hybrid Millennium Falcon



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HAN SOLO: Well, so far, it seems like it’s a pretty good thing. Me, I’m not too up on the technology, but Chewie is pretty good at that stuff. Right Chewie?

CHEWBACCA: Uuuhhhggg. Rrrrggghhh. Hhhgg-aaa. Rrrrn.

HAN SOLO: Yeah, that’s a good point. Chewie just reminded me that this new system has significantly increased our energy efficiency. This basically means less money spent at the pump, and more money in our pockets.

CHEWBACCA: Rrrrrr! Aaaa-Ghhhuuurr. Uuuuhggg.

HAN SOLO: Right. And lower emissions too. Although I don’t get why that would be such a big deal in deep space. Do greenhouse gases do anything out there anyway?

CHEWBACCA: Uuuuhhh-rrrr. Ghhhgggg. Uuugggg. Ggg. Rrrrr-uuuuaa. RRRR! NNHHHUUUR!

HAN SOLO: Alright, alright. Calm down. I’m not saying it’s not a problem. I know there’s science behind all this stuff. It’s not like you haven’t told me to be environmentally conscious like a hundred times already. Look, I’m sorry buddy. I didn’t mean to sound negative like those Empire bastards.


HAN SOLO: Yeah, I know. That would be pretty funny to watch you pull the arms off a one of those guys. Doing that would be carbon neutral too right?

CHEWBACCA: Gghhnn. Nnnnh.

HAN SOLO: Yeah, sure. But listen Chewie, seriously: How would lower emissions in deep space help? I just don’t get it, you know?

CHEWBACCA: Grrrrgh. Uuurhh. RRRggllhh. Hhuu-hhhuu. Auhhh-ghu-gh. RRRRR!. Ggg-rrr, uurrghh. HHGGU! Uuuuhh. Rrr, ggghhu. Huuhhhg. GGGrrr. Uhh?

HAN SOLO: Oh, O.K.. That makes sense. You say you still want fewer emissions because there’s still a lot of flying involved when the Falcon leaves or returns to a planet, or just when she does her cool maneuvers close to the surface. These things still directly contribute to increasing greenhouse gas amounts within the confines of the planet’s atmosphere. Hence, not helping with the global warming problem.

CHEWBACCA: Ggggrrr. Rrrrh. Uuuhhggr. RRRR! Uhhfuckinggghug.

HAN SOLO: Definitely. And you’re right, Tatooine is already too damn hot.

CHEWBACCA: Rrrrrhhg. RRRGGH! Hhhuurrg. Ggrrgh. Huurg. Grrhhg. Guuuaaauu. AAAURRGG! RRRRGGG!

HAN SOLO: Yeah, O.K. I mean I’m basically pretty happy with the modifications. Really, as long as we can still make the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs, I really don’t care. Plus, I still get to say stuff like “Punch it Chewie,” right? Chewie, you love that stuff.

CHEWBACCA: Ggrrrrgghhaarr.

I suspect the I.P.C.C. report might be more effective if it went with acronyms that were more narrative in nature.


The IPCC report1
The YIACCAYII report4
The SCTINFSC report13

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1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

2. Specifically, this would be the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fifth Assessment Report Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis

3. Or we could go with Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change For Realz

4. Yes, it’s about climate change, and yes, it’s important.

5. O.K. So it’s like this report is where several hundred academics get together and try to summarize all available evidence on the science of climate change.

6. Basically the evidence says: climate change is real, it’s not a good thing; and also, it’s partly our fault.

7. O.K. Technically, it’s a 95% likelihood that it’s our fault, but that’s because 100% is the kind of assessment that isn’t possible in the scientific realm.

8. In other words: scientists are as certain as scientists can be about this.

9. Maybe you can say things with 100% certainty in the political realm, but we all know how those kinds of statements tend to turn out.

10. Seriously, it’s all there in the report. Because, you know… Science, it WORKS.

11. For fuck’s sake, just read the goddam report! Or at least try to read a credible news piece on it.

12. And by credible, I don’t mean outlets, lobbyists, political commentary or advocacy groups where funding directly or even indirectly comes from folks invested in fossil fuels and the like.

13. Scientific conspiracy? There is no fucking scientific conspiracy.

14. Also, ask yourself: who would most likely be guilty of that kind of spin? Messaging that is influenced by oil lobbyists with lots of marketing money? Or thousands of academics conspiring in secret faculty meetings and organizing grand exchanges of covert information?

15. Anyway, screw this. The question is, are you on board with what the IPCC is saying?

16. Because if yes, then wonderful! The future just got a little bit better…

17. If no? Well then, that’s a real shame. Isn’t it funny how scientific laws can help us make climatology predictions, but they’re less useful in predicting human behavior? Still, we’re going to go with a 95% certainty that your children and your children’s children are going to be more than a little disappointed with you.

(Originally published at the Science Creative Quarterly)

The 2013 Candy Hierarchy



Click on the image for larger graphic.

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– We suggest photocopying at 129% – LTR to 11×17 –

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The “Candy Hierarchy” represents a thoroughly authoritative attempt to scientifically measure and classify Halloween Candy by assessing “joy induction.” More or less. Since 2006, Cohen and Ng have curated these rankings as an ongoing longitudinal study, one which reassesses itself through the use of the newest technologies (often teeth and jaws) and robust scientific peer review (comments). This article therefore presents the latest rankings with insight into the complex cultural underpinnings of “sweet” things. Specific notes of interest are two fold: (1) the emergence of a child-centric sucro-fructo-tastic gummi/chewy/taffi layer into the upper strata and (2) the recent prominence of corporatized corn fructose agents potentially, but we doubt it, influencing the hierarchy. Speaking of corporate influence, we are proud to be sponsored by Sweetum’s this year. Sweetums!: When fructose jitters can’t wait, try Sweetums, an American delight! In conclusion, these findings continue to demonstrate the enormous challenge in monitoring the constantly changing landscape of candy joy induction. Except, of course, for Whoppers – Whoppers still blow. And, good god, if I get one more box of Nerds. They’re gone. It’s done. Boom. Drop the mic.

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This year, we had money. Gobs of money. Like lots and lots. If Everlasting Gobstoppers were money and not gobs used to stop things, we would be that. So much money it was crazy town for a while. It’s like, this year for Halloween we’re not going to be giving out Toblerone; we’re going to be giving out 3D printers that make Toblerone. But don’t let’s get all braggy. Our point is this: we got big cash and we did fancy research.

And what did this research look like? Well, all sorts of scientific things—things like booking time at CERN to collide candy corn and chocolate bars together in an attempt to explain why some fundamental particles (bodies) have (more) mass; things like using next gen sequencing methodologies to elucidate the genetic variation within populations of same-flavored and different-flavored Starbursts; things like setting up a Dancing-with-the-Stars-like competition where we had animated FTIR machines (which we printed with our disposable 3D printers) spit out competing glucose fingerprint codes to see which danced the best. Was most of this wasted time, effort, and money? Sure, maybe…the CERN data showed that colliding candy together at high speeds resulted in smaller bits of candy (intriguing); the Starburst genome project essentially suggested that Starbursts don’t, in fact, have genomes (curious); and it’s not clear that Dancing FTIR thing even made sense. But it’s not for us to decide the findings’ value. That’s what the peer community is for. Who knows how this knowledge might one day be applied? Besides, the stuffed coats at Sweetum’s tell us we can’t actually make the good data public until Sal in marketing vets it. I think this discussion is supposed to be redacted, actually. Rob, can you go check on that before this runs?

Regardless, we can state this: lo and behold, this year’s hierarchy reveals a bi-modal fracturing at the top strata. Previous rankings had found chocolate dominance at the top. The new hierarchy reflects discoveries made in the last year whereby some kids don’t think chocolate is top tier. Seemed like bullshit at first—because, really? Non-chocolate? But data don’t lie. So check out the graphic above.

Know what else? After years of failed get-it-right fast schemes, in this scheme we got it right. And fast. With some methodological retooling, more data sets, further research, and hundreds of additional peer review comments, the hierarchy is now entirely correct. There will be no need for comments. You can turn the internet off now. Yes yes, we said that last year, and the numerous years before. But that was before Twitter was big so nobody really read this. People always say they’re super confident, and you can never believe them, and don’t ever trust who ever acts like they’re one hundred percent certain. It’s just, if someone says something is entirely correct, you have to be a bit skeptical, right? But this time we are one hundred percent confident; this hierarchy is entirely correct. Why? Because of that corporate sponsorship. That’s why we’re proud to thank Sweetum’s Good Times High Fructosery for funding this year’s hierarchy. Sweetum’s, the quicker picker upper. Anyway, the scientific process is largely structured by corporate mechanisms and economic considerations, we’re told. Scientific research is underwritten by commitments to those problems our funders deem worthy of study. Right? And so here we are. Lots of sugar. Eventual diabetes. Meager dentistry. Yum.

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1. Because like, score! (Bcsizemo, 2010)

2. a.k.a. God’s Candy

3. These may be rolled to a friend.

4. Not sure if this should be included. Systematics are still on going – denomination appears to be key.

5. Like that fish you’ve seen on television. You know – the one which looks like it can breathe air and stuff.

6. Appropriate ranking may depend entirely on date of purchase versus date of opening. Experts in this field often refer to this dichotomy as “fresh CCE” versus “stale CCE,” or FCCE versus SCCE (Beschizza, 2011). Note that its interior has also been described as “pustulent.” (Petersen, 2010)

7. Sometimes spousal influence forces these placements as with, ahem, this primarily southern delicacy.

8. Blame the children on this one, Canadian children too. Also, sponsored by Sweetums (“Sweetums!: When fructose jitters can’t wait, try Sweetums, an American delight!”) whose corporate dollars may or may not be messing with your heads.

9. Always a contentious subject with a rich history of controversy. Briefly: Candy Corn, as of 2006, remained unclassified, but as of 2007 had been tentatively placed in the Upper Chewy/Upper Devonian. 2008: no sighting. This year, we have elected to place in a new tier, although what this means exactly has yet to be determined.

10. Includes comparable Commonwealth version of “Smarties.” (Devo, Legionabstract, gadgetgirl et al, 2011)

11. Although has also been classified as packing material (Cunning, 2010)

12. Placed solely to acknowledge, make fun of, and possibly undermine British opinions. Google it, but be careful when you google it (2012).

13. This is from EU pressure, known in diplomatic circles as the “Hornby Concession” (see his many footnotes from the 2012 version).

14. In which we acknowledge the complex underpinnings of this here Candy ranking exercise: apparently, the wrapper of the Ferrero Roche gets a higher ranking than the candy itself (due to high artwork potential). (Son of Anthrodiva 2012)

15. Whoppers blow.

16. The authors are curious as to which neighborhoods you belong to.

17. Also a hot mess of debate. Not to be confused with hot messes involving actual persons named “Mary Jane.” (Girard, franko, lexicat, Easton, Petersen, Halloween_Jack, 2012)

18. The discontinued candy, not the equally rankable discontinued board game.

19. Oh smack, can you even imagine if you got Fritos?

20. You know, we don’t even know what this is, but, hell, your sister marries an Australian, they have a kid, now you’ve got a niece, and you want a nice life for her, you want her to have a stake in the hierarchy, so okay, Aussie Lollies — Picnic bars, cherry ripe, Frys Turkish delight, probably something Chazzwozzer-based too, knock yourself out.

21. In a word, surreal… Plus grandpas with eyepatches always make everything better. Pretty sure, this is reproducible. (Gyrofrog, petertrepan, Koerth-Baker, Olsen 2012)

22. By some accounts, these two are actually one and the same (Gadgetgirl, 2010)

23. Yet some would be just as well to be left off. Bit-o-Honey, for example, might be called a lower tier member, but why bother? It says to your trick-or-treaters, “Here, I don’t care, just take this.” The lesson of Bit-o-Honey is: you lose. Doorstep offers of lectures in civics, too. You’re making a social statement–“I hate you and everything you represent”– when you give these out.

24. Yes, we really meant fruit that is healthy, clean-cut upstanding fruit that takes time from its gym membership and all the demands that come with it to contribute a positive message of citizenship and camaraderie to the community. This isn’t a typo of healthy for healthful. (see U.M.H. 2011)

25. Research has further defined this relationship. Currently, it has been suggested that Blackwing Pencils > Hugs > Creepy Hugs > Pencils. (Lobster, Prufrock451, and Warreno, 2010)

26. Unless it’s something caramel, pronounced “caramel.”

27. Unless you eat them properly. To quote Anonymous, 2010: “The trick to realizing how brilliant and delicious Now ‘n Laters are is a two step process. The first step is to carefully read the name of the candy. “Now ‘n Later.” What does it mean, you ask? Well, it implies that the candy will be different “now” (when you put it in your mouth) and at some point “later” in time. A small leap of logic takes us to the second step: be patient. You need to suck on it for a while until it softens. If you skip this step, the Now ‘n Later will be an inedible, rock-like colorful brick quite worthy of the low end of the hierarchy. But if you are patient in your candy-eating process, oh the rewards you will reap!”

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Originally published at Boingboing.net.

Similarities I Noticed Between George W. Bush and the Burning Bush


Natural disasters figure prominently for both.

In their own ways – doing their part to increase carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

Neither necessarily follows international conventions

I gather, both on the same page with this stem cell business.

When they speak, it’s kind of surreal.

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(Originally published at Seed Magazine, December 2006)

Jetlag, Zip Line Nuances, Libraries that Abhor Interdisciplinary Interactions, and the Airfix Curse

Sorry for the less frequent postings on Popperfont. I’m actually in England right now, and posting is a little on the sporadic side. On the other hand, I’m having a bit of fun writing about the trip, so you can read on if you’re curious.

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The trip, so far, has been pleasant enough, although the jetlag seems to have grappled us tighter than usual. We’re still a little disorientated in our sleep patterns with our brains mostly insisting that it’s perfectly fun and cheery to be awake at the most strangest of hours.

Indeed, no one in our family seems to be immune to this (especially Kate and Hannah), which is why we’ve sort of decided to just take things extra easy over the next few days.

Still, we’ve had a good look-see of the local neighbourhood, which appears to be flanked by a couple of very different looking high streets (Kilburn High Street and Salusbury), and a lovely assortment of parks. Queen’s Park is definitely the favourite so far, buoyed by the presence of a zipline, and subliminally enhanced by an as yet perfect ice cream record (we’ve already been twice, and both times got something sweet, cold and of the diary persuasion). I even got to go on the zip line today (twice), which is more strategic than you think, since I get slightly embarrassed by the fact that I’m more than double the height of all of the other human beings lining up to have a go.

We’ve also hit two libraries in our few days here. Swiss Cottage was the first. It is quite big, and also interesting to me since it’s the first library I’ve been to that (perhaps inadvertently) encapsulates C.P. Snow’s much maligned “Two Cultures” train of thought. The library is mostly composed of two physically separate and distinct areas, defiantly labeled “Sciences” and “Arts,” and kept apart by a cavernous and presumably deliberately unexciting middle space. A sort of bookish “no man’s land,” which if nothing else, makes it very clear that the “Here there be Sciences” and “Here there be Arts” areas are not to be mixed in any manner whatsoever.

Or maybe, I’m just overanalyzing – especially since this science art thing is a bit of a theme on the book that I’m supposed to be working on (as oppose to, say, writing blog posts).

Anyway, the other library (Kilburn library) was much smaller, but also much less worried about confusing folks who happen to enjoy both science and art things, more so when they are deliberately mixed together. Still, Kilburn library did manage to confuse us a little, as it took some friendly staff to teach us how to use the book machines properly (yes, this is as lame as it sounds – I’d imagine that if the CCTV camera caught our attempts, those photos would make a brilliant pamphlet on what not to do in a library, or as an introductory piece on the whimsical luddite attributes of Canadians). Oh, and the library is also a lot closer than the big one, so I think it’s going to be our library during our time here.

As far as heading out past our neighbourhood, we have had a few excursions, mostly with an aim to find Ben a particular toy which he has been asking for since we’ve gotten here. To those, who don’t know this story, the toy in question happens to be an Airfix model, inspired in part, by a recent viewing of a James May television show where Mr. May went about and made himself an Airfix spitfire, but at 1:1 scale (!)

As a result of this hunt, we’ve also popped by a few of our favourite haunts from our previous London visits (Holland Park, Natural History Museum, and the Victoria Albert Museum). Just quick visits for now, which is entirely doable since a particular grace of the city is that a lot of its most extraordinary museums are free to visit.

Anyway, you’d think that finding a model kit toy in the greatest city in the world would be pretty straightforward. Except that it isn’t – if anything, it’s turned into a bit of an epic quest, with Ben currently believing that a curse of some sort has been cast upon him! For instance:

1. We go to Kensington High Street to have a picnic at Holland Park, but also because we know that there is a nice toy shop along that road. We get there, and find out that shop closed up a year ago. Strike one.

2. We next pop into an Argos (a sort of catalog place where you look things up, and then see if they have it in the back of the room). We see that they do indeed stock such airfix things. Except that they are out of stock, and not expecting anymore for a few weeks, with which they could then mail it to us, at a cost that would more than double the original purchase price. Strike Two.

3. Then, we plan a trip to a bank that happens to be close to the museums, and note that there is, indeed, another toy shop in the immediate vicinity. We track it down, and instead find a pastry shop. This toy shop, apparently, was also closed a year or so ago. Strike Three.

4. Finally, we do another google search around the museum area and see that another toy shop (this one called the “Hoop and Toy” is only a few minutes away. Again, we follow our maps and descend upon its coordinates, only to discover that the “Hoop and Toy” is, in fact, a pub. Strike Four.

5. And today, we find a place that sells mugs proudly emblazon with airfix images! But not an actual airfix model in sight. Strike Five

Clearly , in baseball vernacular, we would be done with this – although now it’s turned into a bit of a “thing” for us here. Still, we’ve only been here for less than a week. So for now, let’s just do the sensible thing and blame it on the jetlag.

The “I’m at a science conference at the product displays, and I want to see how much free stuff I can get” game.


The below is a point sheet I occasionally  use for my molecular biology class.  Essentially, if the timing is right, there might be one of those large scientific equipment/product showcases on campus, and if so, it’s always fun to let loose a pack of graduate students hungry for free geek-related swag.  Note that this only works if you happen to have an hour or so, in between lab steps.

It’s quite funny to see this game in action (it has a real Amazing Race vibe to it), because if you get students who are in the zone, you’ll be surprised at how much cool stuff they get.  Especially, since these trade shows seem to get stingier and stingier each year.  Interesting sidebar:  this use to be an annual activity given that UBC’s big scientific trade show consistently fell on our class day.  However, there was this one year where the class haul was simply unreal, incredible, a bit offensive really and funny thing – the trade show dates were changed the following year. Anyway, I’ve always wondered if the move had anything to do with our silly game…


You can download a pdf of the sheet here

The scientific method with alien hypothesis slide #myfavouriteslides



A slide for talking about the scientific method, hypothesis, generation, and testing via experimental design. Oh yeah, and aliens.

The set-up is to provide context with a story about declining stork populations as well as lower fertility rates in a particular country (this actually happened, for instance, in China in the 80s).

Who is Hadi? He’s a colleague at UBC, who does very cool stuff.

A Biologist in Nigeria

This is the unedited version of “DNA and Nigeria: Survivor for Science Geeks” first published in the June/July 2004 edition of Maisonneuve.

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Dr. Oyekanmi Nashiri is a busy individual who exudes enthusiasm, embraces optimism, and covets high expectations. Then again, as the principle organizer of a somewhat curious scientific program, he would have to be all that and more – some would even say that his good intentions place him squarely in the category of certified nutbar. Nash (as he prefers to be called) has spent the better part of his scientific career developing and implementing the West African Biotechnology Workshops, a focused attempt on bringing scientific expertise and potential research collaborations to his homeland, Nigeria. Which is to say, he is intent on bringing the realm of high technology into an otherwise struggling country.

Ironically, I was thrown into this mix by virtue of my reputation as a university instructor, the lure of traveling to an altogether foreign place, and the somewhat naïve notion that this challenge could bring some merit into the developing world. Ironic because part of the appeal stemmed from my being guilty of harboring the same preconceptions about Africa that every other non-African seems to have. That is, the whole romantic ‘Out of Africa’ thing, where the nations that hold the continent together live in natural but primitive splendor.

“Which,” as Nash would often say “is all nonsense.” Nash is an animated speaker – his continuous gestures and movements betray his scientific patience. “You can’t think of Africa as one place, one culture. It is distinction within distinction. Every place is separate and special from the other. We are not going to Africa, David, we are going to Nigeria.” And in retrospect, he couldn’t have been more correct.

Nigeria is a country of unfathomable extremes, the kind that Meryl Streep and Robert Redford would take little comfort in. It has a population of over 100 million individuals crammed into a small wedge of land that is the coastal armpit of West Africa. Its growth rate is such that the population is expected to rise to about 300 million individuals by 2025 – a figure that would mirror that of the United States, except that it would be squished into an area half the size of Alaska. Such numbers also give rise to extreme cultural diversity, which is well exemplified by the more than 250 different ethnic groups, of which three stand out and comprise 65% of the population (Hausa in the Muslim north, Igbo in the agrcultural lands of the south-east, and Yoruba in the urban south-west.). In spite of this dominance, the remaining groups certainly do not want to be ignored. Each has its own language; each has its own way of life; and each has its own fiery brand of pride. In short, Nigeria is as close as it gets to a real cultural melting pot, African or otherwise. Quite simply, it is distinction within distinction within distinction.

It is also not a very nice place to visit. The travel advisories within the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade say it all rather succinctly:

The official language is English. Tourist facilities are limited. Power shortages and low water pressure are common. Telecommunications are unreliable. Those attempting to contact the police may have difficulty getting through. Violence and unrest sparked by tensions between ethnic and religious communities occur in various parts of the country and have resulted in numerous deaths. The military may intervene and curfews may be imposed. Canadians should always maintain a high level of security awareness and inquire about local conditions when travelling in the country.

To be more specific, our final destination was actually Lagos, a crowded and polluted city of some 13 million inhabitants, and a city with the dreadful reputation of having one of the highest crime rates in the world. In fact, the lonely planet guide I picked up heartily recommends it for the “truly masochistic voyager.” And upon reading through several sources of information, it really seemed like it would be wise to avoid, by all counts, practically everything.

To these information nuggets, Nash would quickly rebuttal. “This is all nonsense. Do not worry about such propaganda. Nigeria is the West African superpower. We have one of the most highly educated workforces in the continent …” And then in the middle of the blur that is his hand gesturing, he would pause and smile, “and we are going to win the World Cup.”

Still, as an educator who teaches pupils and the public alike in the nuances of biology, I wasn’t necessarily swayed by his arguments. A country’s soccer prowess holds little weight in teaching scientists the practical and theoretical aspects of molecular genetics (for instance, I have yet to witness an offside penalty in my lab). But things like reliable power and water sources do matter and, as Kate my wife would so ardently point out, it’s also nice to not worry about things like violence and riots.

* * *

The morning I left for Nigeria was a bit of a somber affair in my homestead. I would be away from my wife and my baby daughter for two and a half long weeks, the first time I was to be away from them as a new parent. This wasn’t really how it was supposed to unfold. Originally, this teaching assignment was scheduled to be held in a previous year, where Hannah would be but a twinkle in our eyes or at the very least, safe in a second trimester haven – both situations that wouldn’t have yet revealed the emotional enormity of fatherhood. It was originally to be an adventure. Even Kate had toyed with the possibility of joining me. However, adventure would now take a secondary role to family life and Kate would join me only in spirit and kind words via a bundle of letters – one for each day of my trip. It seemed that she took to heart the warnings about unreliable telecommunications.

Thankfully, I was not traveling alone. I enlisted the help of Dr. Samantha Greunheid, a post-doctorate and colleague at the University of British Columbia. Sam was a specialist in infectious diseases, which seemed to be a good fit given our destination. She was also knee deep in proteomics, a burgeoning research field that looks at proteins (what the DNA genes code for,) and, for lack of a better description, tries to look at all of them in any given circumstance. For instance, Sam was primarily interested in looking at proteins present in her bacteria, and in particular trying to observe differences between samples that were docile, and samples that were actively involved in an infection. In this respect, proteomics is a newer breed of science that relies heavily on high technology, high throughput and almost steamroller-like tendencies, all the while generating massive amounts of data such that mathematicians and statisticians are being courted into the process. This part of her research would be completely novel to the primitive state of Nigerian science. It was to be a compelling and interesting mix. Most important, however, Sam was down to earth and had an easy low maintenance attitude, which I feared was going to be necessary for this trip.

Before we had even departed on our flight, it became clear that our itinerary was a focal point of some intrigue. I remember the conversation we had in Seattle with one of the immigration officers who examined our visas. It began innocently enough:

“Where are you going?”


Then came a short pause. “Nigeria eh? Why are you going there? Are you missionaries?”

“No, actually, we’re university teachers. We’ll be teaching a science course there.”
Another pause. “Well,.. better you than me.” A sidewise glance, “You know, you may as well say goodbye to your luggage now. Those folks down there, they just take whatever they want.”

* * *

How Lagos, and Nigeria in general came into these troubled circumstances is rather neatly if not bluntly explained in the book “The World’s Most Dangerous Places,” a Christmas gift given to me by my not so subtle parents. In it, Robert Young Pelton – who could give the Crocodile Hunter a run for his money for pure bravado – provides descriptions and anecdotes for destinations you would best avoid. My worried mother had actually folded down the pages on Nigeria, such that its 3 out of 4 ‘peril rating’ was immediately evident.

In short, Nigeria had for the better part of its 40 year history been subjected to the whims and follies of various military rules. Which together with its diverse cultural mix and its lucrative oil deposits, exacerbated into an unwieldy recipe for political chaos, ethnic tension, and rampant crime. However, even the casual follower of world politics knows that what makes Nigeria especially infamous, is its almost legendary propensity for corrupt practices. In fact, Nigeria has consistently ranked as one of the worst offenders in various Corruption Perception Indexes, and it would probably surprise no-one if its unclean borders were shown under thesaurus entries next to words like corruption, profiteering, racketeering and venality. In general, the whole messy predicament had turned Nigeria into an economic mess that to this day precariously teeters on the strength and weakness of oil prices. From this viewpoint, it is no wonder why the country has had the reputation it garners.

And yet, Nash would consistently reassure us that things were now different. That the country, and even detestable Lagos had its merits, its civility, and its comforts. That since 1999, the country had been mending albeit slowly with the first elected president residing over democratic government. He would tell us that the time was now ripe for science to return to his troubled homeland.

However, truth be told, I wasn’t sure what or who to believe anymore. Frankly, my mind was now more preoccupied with evaluating the worth of my small science workshop. Nigeria, it seemed, had problems that were much bigger than biotechnology.

* * *

Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos seemed to be as good a place as any to feel out the current truths on Nigeria’s reputation. This place was to be our testing ground, a microcosm of sorts, and would provide us with a visceral sense of things to come. In this respect, the airport would be a focal point of a number of things. First up was the task of transporting scientific supplies from Canada into Nigeria. Part of my responsibilities entailed the delivery of some special chemicals that were not readily available in Nigeria. An innocent enough endeavour as these chemicals included relatively obtuse things like ultra pure varieties of water and salt; as well as some more sophisticated reagents like antibodies, DNA molecules, and even live but attenuated bacteria. A few of the tubes even contained samples of fake data which were a teaching lab’s last resort should the experiments go completely awry. All of which were harmless and worthless of course, given that my work centered round educational goals rather than specific research goals. Unfortunately, all of the reagents needed to be kept cold in order to stay happy, which meant packing everything in copious amounts of dry-ice, a problematic venture given dry ice’s hazardous reputation in the transport business. This nuance caused no end of frustration especially since the reason for it being labeled dangerous wasn’t clear to me or, for that matter, to any of my chemistry colleagues.

Nevertheless, it was imperative that these supplies make it to Nigeria. For advice, I contacted Dr. Terry Pearson, a noted parasitologist at the University of Victoria, whom Nash had invited as the keynote speaker for our workshop. Terry, who specializes in Trepanoma research, the causative agent of sleeping sickness, has long had collaborations with various institutes in Kenya and was the person in my neck of the woods to consult on the ins and outs of transporting scientific goods to Africa. Although, we would later formally meet in Nigeria, he was a veritable wealth of information – a Yoda-like antidote to my ignorance.

“Don’t even bother with a courier.” he would tell me, in a gruff friendly manner that perfectly imbues someone equally at home in a state of the art biochemistry lab and in the safaris of southern Kenya. “They’re too damn expensive, and in my opinion, you’ll never see your package again.” He added, “You can try the air cargo route, but I’ve never had much luck with that myself.”
He then went on to explain that the only way to guarantee getting the materials over to Africa would be to simply bring the icebox to the airport and carry it on the airplane myself. “You’ve got to go to the airline agent and suck up big time, hope that they trust you, and let you bring it on. That’s really the best way to do it. The only way to guarantee that you actually get it to your destination. If you want, you can bring all your fancy credentials – it certainly can’t hurt. But at the end of day, it all depends on whose manning the desk, and whether they like the look of you or not.”

It boggled my mind that my best chance in all of this chaos would be to bring the reagents onto the plane myself. Reagents that included among other things, an assortment of scary sounding chemicals, kilos of dry ice, and (get this) live bacterial samples. I shuddered at the thought of trying to explain to airline staff on the harmlessness of the bacteria in the security intense world of post September 11.

Consequently, I thought it pertinent to also give the airmail route a go using either a courier or cargo service. Terry was not kidding. Although the reagent package itself was no bigger than say a stack of 5 compact discs, the process of transport itself due to flight connections, and navigation through various custom ports, meant that the trip would take a minimum of 4 days. Which translated to an awful lot of dry ice to keep things frosty throughout the whole venture. This now heavy package would subsequently amount to a small fortune in shipping costs – to the tune of about US$450 via a company like Federal Express. or a more reasonable but still expensive US$200 using an air cargo service. Still, it was an alternative worth using, and approximately a week before the workshop, I arranged to send package number one into the unknown.

Package number two was safely bundled in one of those squishy ice bags, and packaged with enough dry ice to last for a 16 hour flight. It also came with a wad of paper, large enough to look like a novella, but which actually contained MSDS or materials and safety data sheets for each and every item in the package, as well as photocopies of every official looking letter of intent. The MSDS sheets were considered to be both advantageous and detrimental in our efforts to board the plane. They were the documents required to state the relative hazard level of each chemical, but in reality they often depicted the most harmless of things as being dangerous themselves – after all, even water has a lethal dose. As I approached the airline desk with Sam, it suddenly dawned on me that my chances of getting the package on board the plane would have increased significantly if I had my baby Hannah as a token gesture of innocence. However, in one of those surreal moments where one’s expectations are flogged and hung, we experienced no problems, no lines of questioning, not even a customary look of concern. Neither Canada nor the United States seemed to care about my icebag and my package number two was therefore on its way.

The actual arrival at the airport in Lagos was our second task, and was also an exercise in tension for both Sam and I. Tense, because according to all accounts, personal and otherwise, the airport was the place for peril and quite simply, it was the one part of the trip that we were most worried about. We were repeatedly warned not to converse with anyone that we didn’t recognize, and to not take any mode of transportation without directions from someone we knew. Taxi drivers were notorious for partnering with any number of robbers and bandits, and it was reputed to be a calculated risk to interact with any stranger at the airport. Definitely not the most tourist friendly location I’ve been to. Basically, we were focused on thoughts of getting through without being detained or being robbed. In other words, we were under the uneasy impression that our lives depended on Nash showing up at the airport to be our personal escort.

Surprisingly, customs at Murtala Mohammed International Airport was brief, and my package number two caused no curiosity. In truth, the airport itself, seemed to be relatively quiet, no doubt a consequence of the armada of severe looking armed guards that manned all the key entrances. I could see through the main doors that the roadway outside was populated by a throng of locals, tidily kept behind a number of security fences. This was presumably to clear the main road of congestion, and possibly the riff raff we were told to avoid. For a fleeting moment, we sensed our folly at believing all of the tall tales, which at this point, seemed to be grossly exaggerated. Everything was going smoothly and everything seemed relatively civil.

However, as soon as we picked up our remaining luggage, we were accosted by two persons – a man and a woman – who aggressively asserted themselves as our escorts, and forcibly directed our cart towards the airport exit. Of course, this scared us out of our wits, as the very thing we had been warned about seemed to be happening before our very eyes. Even with our protestations, our new escorts were adamant on leading us into the outside throng.

Thankfully, before we ended up causing a minor scene, and likely one with the participation of armed guards, Nash appeared from the chaos to save us. It would be an understatement of monumental proportions to say that it was a relief to see him in person. We were suddenly empowered with the one criteria required for travel in Lagos – that is, a friendly face.
Boarding into a van, we soon found out that our two headstrong escorts were indeed official members of our host institution, the University of Lagos. In no small way, the whole incident clearly showed us the destructive power of heresy. Looking back, it’s still hard for me to pinpoint whether our feelings of panic were attributed to information we had been given, or to the situation itself.

As we began to move, I immediately sensed a grimness in Nash’s demeanor. He was not as animated as usual. When confronted he said, “The lab is below my expectations. The Local Organizing Committee has done a very terrible job of this.” I, ever the optimist, bounced back, “Well, at least package number two made it through.” I clutched the ice bag as if it was the most important thing in the world. “How did package number one fare?” I asked.

“It is here.” he replied curtly, “but I cannot get it without paying a customs fee.” When I explained to him that I explicitly made it clear in all the documentation that the materials were not of any worth, he just smiled at me and said, “Welcome to Nigeria.”

* * *

Bribery, or dashing, as it is affectionately called in Nigeria, is a national pastime second only perhaps to soccer. Nash would explain to me that the airport authority controlling our cargo had asked for a flat fee of 30,000 Naira, which was roughly equivalent to US$300. A tidy sum of money that is no less than a small personal fortune in Nigerian standards. Of course, Nash, ever the pragmatic individual, flatly refused to pay. Over the next two weeks, we recieved daily updates on the current amount of dash needed to relinquish the package. On the last day, the bid fell to 5,000 Naira – to which Nash responded, “Send it back to Canada.”

As predicted, our rendezvous at the airport provided a window to Nigerian life in the here and now. Sam and I both agreed that in hindsight, a lot of the apprehension we carried was a consequence of distorted information. What we saw instead, was a nation in transition, going from bad to not-so-bad (albeit slowly), and a culture that was as foreign as any other to the serious traveler.

It was when our van took us through the harrowed and crowded streets of downtown Lagos, that the full brunt of culture shock finally hit. Peering through the windows of our vehicle, we saw a completely different way of life – primitive, at times decrepid, and altogether frightening. The heat of the night seemed to mix well with the incessant dust and ramshackle nature of each and every building we saw. These sights made us instinctively think of home and so our first order of business was to look for an internet cafe. This was to qualm the fears of our loved ones with a friendly and reassuring message of “I’m in Lagos and go figure, I’m safe and sound.” Then a welcome stop for food. I think Nash was trying his best to make us feel comfortable since he took us to a ‘Mr. Biggs’, which was more or less a clone of the MacDonald’s variety, except with burly armed guards. As I ate, I found it decidedly ironic that the first meal I had on this exotic adventure was a hamburger and fries.

Nash then took us to our accommodations. We were staying at the University of Lagos Guest House which was more a hotel than a student residence and was considered luxurious at a cost of about US$40 a night. Although my own room was fairly large, this did little to obscure its general disheveled state. Despite this first impression, I counted my blessings since the room actually had reliable power in the form of a back-up generator, working air conditioning, a toilet (sort of), and a television with 5 channels (curiously, three of which were set to MTV). It even had malarial pest control in the form of staff spraying the room each night with a can of Raid, and it also came with a comforting set of door locks. In any event, it would more than suffice and I gladly dropped off my backpack, and then queried Nash for a good place to stash the contents of my ice bag.

Although we were very tired, Nash said that the best place would be in a scientific freezer, and that we should see the lab facilities immediately. The sense of urgency and the fact that he continued to look sullen was troubling to say the least. Here was the eternal optimist reduced to a stoic figure. I was thinking, “how bad could it be?” We had, after all, been corresponding with the Local Organizing Committee for several months, and according to all the pertinent check lists everything appeared to be sound. Everything should have been ready and waiting, and the only possible shortfalls we had to worry about, were the chemicals and reagents in my package number two.

* * *

The Local Organizing Committee or the L.O.C. for short was a group of scientists, and university representatives who were responsible for providing us the necessary facilities and equipment required for the laboratory workshop. However, it was clear upon first glance of our adopted lab space that the L.O.C. really had no apparent skill in organizing anything. To begin with, our allotted space was not even in the university campus but was instead situated several kilometres away at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (N.I.M.R.). Although this distance itself didn’t sound so bad, the additional need to travel by car was very awkward given that the streets of Lagos consistently imbued a state of pandemonium. There was even a colloquial term for the act of driving – a very appropriate “go slow.”

When we approached the iron gates of the N.I.M.R. compound, it was evident that the entire area was caught in the grips of a power outage. In the somber light of our vehicle’s headlights, we drove further into the maze of buildings and stopped in front of a rather unpresuming looking wall. Then following flashlight beams, we were guided like airplanes up a flight of stairs and into a room that looked gutted, disorderly, and plain filthy. “This is our space,” Nash said matter of factly.

In short, the space was horrendous, and dirty to the point that sterility would be pure fiction. In addition, the emergency generator backing our area was ranked somewhere between sub-par and non-existent, which meant that loss of power was a real consideration. However, this concern was soon countered with the realization that we were given next to no equipment to run our experiments anyway.

As we blew off the dust from the one solitary bench in the room, I was drawn to one of three conclusions. One, that Nigerian science had deteriorated to such an extreme that even a campus that boasted a student population of 30,000 students and connections with over 100 other Nigerian Universities, could not muster up enough basic equipment for 12 experimental stations. Two, perhaps Nash had been misleading us all along with respect to his country’s resources. Or three, maybe all of those tall tales were not so tall after all.

The following morning was spent contemplating the Guest House breakfast menu, which basically consisted of eggs and toast, toast and eggs, eggs alone, or toast alone. The poor selection of items mirrored our facility and equipment status. Consequently, our second day in Nigeria would primarily concern itself with sorting these problems out and we would try to do this at the opening ceremony. Here, we would have the opportunity to meet face to face with some of the members of the L.O.C.. and voice our concerns. Unfortunately, it soon became very clear that the L.O.C. were largely indifferent. Instead, most of the members were more interested in garnering attention by using the ceremony as a chance to exhibit their skills in speech making. We did, however, have a few sympathetic ears – individuals who were quite apologetic about the whole situation and tried to explain that the lack of resources was a pressing reflection of the financial hardships within the research community. Not so much that the equipment didn’t exist, but rather that the equipment was such a precious commodity that the distinction between the haves and the have nots was zealously guarded. In Nigeria, the notion of collaboration was swept under rugs, in favour of concealment and selfishness.

In retrospect, this reality was already evident, given our experience with transporting reagents. If securing a small shipment of chemicals had cost me several hundred dollars in transportation and “custom” fees, then what hope was there for the average Nigerian biologist. This was beginning to look less and less like a workshop on molecular techniques, and more and more like a Survivor episode for science geeks.

Fortunately, due to my background as a Boy Scout and an inbred predisposition to being prepared, I had taken every tall tale I heard in Canada to heart and had pretty much prepared for any and all contingencies. So after the opening ceremony, Sam and I immediately went to work assessing the general status of the workshop. To begin with, the sparse supply of equipment necessitated a change in how the students would work together. Nash had originally arranged for enough chemicals so that a class of 24 students could be split into 12 working pairs. However, the equipment that was given to us by the L.O.C. would limit us to only 3 working groups – each with 8 students, which was hardly optimal. Nash was especially angry with this nuance and even went so far as to accuse the L.O.C. of arranging this on purpose so that the excess reagents could be scavenged for personal use.

Even the equipment we did have was suspect at best. For example, the lab was supplied with one centrifuge that worked in a quirky fashion. This machine to the uninitiated is a device that contains a rotor capable of spinning around at high speeds. The net effect of this action is the creation of centrifugal force – the type of force that makes water stay within a swinging bucket. In essence, this machine speeds up the ability to separate constituents within a mixture according to density. For instance, a mixture of sand and water would result in a sand pellet at the bottom of a tube with the fluid on top. Anyhow, our centrifuge worked like a charm except that the lid wouldn’t open unless you turned the machine upside down, which was a really aggravating feature since our separated samples would simply become mixed up again.

We were also in dire need of a Polymerase Chain Reaction machine or P.C.R. machine for short. This device essentially allows an experimenter to amplify DNA molecules such that you can have a billion fold increase of material to work with. In short, this makes it easier to observe and characterize DNA molecules, especially when the initial amount is very small. To the layman, P.C.R. was the token technique described in Jurassic Park. Although, not actually powerful enough to clone dinosaurs, its overall utility is such that this is the machine of choice for a number of key experiments such as DNA fingerprinting, DNA sequencing and any technique devised to look for specific genes. All in all, about a quarter of the procedures in the workshop syllabus would rely on this one piece of machinery. Frustratingly, the L.O.C. had actually provided us with a machine to use, but only after politely telling us that it was broken.

We had heard through the grapevine that the N.I.M.R. compound actually had a brand new P.C.R. machine, and soon found out that the device itself was only a few hundred feet away from our own disordered facilities. This adjacent building turned out to be a newly built structure with the explicit purpose of conducting research on the human immunodeficiency virus, the causative agent of AIDS. Funded by the Bill Gates Foundation, it was exactly the sort of space that our workshop should’ve been offered in that it was clean, it was fully equipped, it had reliable power, and from first sight, it even appeared to be underutilized. I immediately cursed my luck for it being a centre for HIV research since this would imply strict procedural rules that would make it next to impossible to borrow the entire facility itself – HIV is after all a hazardous organism. However, I saw no problem with the use of its PCR machine given that our samples were essentially benign and had no chance of jeopardizing any of the HIV work.

So all in all, pressing on with the workshop presented itself as a formidable task, and it was decided that clear objectives needed to be tackled. I would begin by assessing a general flowchart of how the lab would run, taking into account all of the possible shortfalls along the way. Sam would visit working internet to see if she could find information on ways we could cheat or MacGyver our way through certain procedures – essentially finding procedural tricks that would enable us to perform the experiments without the luxury of certain scientific supplies. And Nash would see about getting us permission and access to the Bill Gates’ PCR apparatus. Taken together, it was clear that we would need some extra time before the lab was ready, so in order to stall, we announced that the first day of the workshop would be limited to a full day of lectures.

* * *

Meeting the students changed everything. In contrast to the wallowing apathy of the organizing committee, these young faces were a breath of fresh air. Although, it was a grueling first day of work where my time was spent rooted in front of a small blackboard, it was enlightening due to the enthusiasm of the young crowd. In light of all the hardships that this country faced, it was evident that the Nigerian youth took its education seriously. This was further espoused by the country’s willingness to grant access to university level education based on free will alone. Despite this positive outlook, it was discouraging to ponder the future of bright individuals who appeared focused, willing to learn, and yet realistic in what outcome this workshop could bring. You also had students who naively embraced the hope that the workshop would literally change their views on science, and unquestionably lead to a better life. And of course, in a society such as this, we were not surprised by personalities who were desperate to leave the country, and simply viewed Sam and I with the ambitious and tenacious intent of a possible ticket out.

I paid careful attention to each of the student’s attributes, because Nash had vested in me the responsibility of selecting the four most promising individuals. These four would then benefit from Nash’s personal attention in mentoring and guidance. I took this decision very seriously because I really felt that being one of the chosen would result in a dramatic improvement in life itself.

All told, the practical sessions ran for two weeks and constituted a flash pan of memories. It was a session like no other, where each day brought a different obstacle to the mix, and like any challenge, there were notable ups and downs. The lab began in an interesting enough fashion with a brief visit from Dr. Emmanuel Denenu – a messenger from the Federal government and an unfortunate scapegoat for the frustration that must greet these students day in and day out. Although he came to discuss the future, opinions about the present took centre stage and the fire in the student’s voices during this confrontation would continue to ring in my ears for the rest of the workshop.

On many occasions, my heart sank as I began to second guess the value of the workshop. Sometimes, it seemed all too silly to be coming to a place such as this, to teach something as absurd as molecular biology. These pangs of doubt were constantly highlighted by the looks of disappointment on the student’s faces whenever it became all too clear that the chemicals and reagents that I lectured about, were simply not feasible in a country with corrupt shipping practices and freezers that were forcibly useless. How could one talk of delicate molecules, when we even had difficulty getting something as benign as chalk! (At one point, Nash would have to purchase some himself since the L.O.C. would refuse to help).

There was also a disturbing sense of innocence and a dangerous level of ignorance about the science in general. The students were often unrealistic in their assessment on what these genetic techniques could accomplish and how fast they could be performed. There were many instances where the idea of genetic modification was nonchalantly chosen as the be all and end all to experimental design. Many of the student presentations we heard would conclude with a simple “I would make this and that better by genetically modifying it.” This eagerness to so readily adopt the use of molecular biology was troubling to say the least. In our own developed society, there is a general theme of caution applied to any scientific endeavour, and it was important that these students understood the possible ramifications and considered the ethical arguments behind the use of such technology.

We spent a fair amount of time deliberating these issues, and it was interesting to hear the musings and opinions of Nigerian students. Suffice to say, opinion was mixed in that whilst all agreed with the general intention of being ethically sound, several suggested that the barrage of ethical polemic was a western luxury – that only for countries as rich as Canada or the United States, which reflected a high degree of stability, was wasting valuable time and money arguing over the pros and cons of a technology acceptable. This was certainly food for thought.

As a whole, teaching conditions remained pretty primitive in that the equipment and facility dilemma never really sorted itself out. Still, we could boast a few tangible victories. For instance, we were able to secure access to the Bill Gates PCR machine, although this achievement took a little maneuvering and involved a fortuitous meeting with the director of the N.I.M.R. facility over coffee, crackers, and (presumably for public relation reasons) several photographs. We were extremely lucky with our power situation, in that it never directly affected our experimental procedures. Rather, the loss of power tended to conveniently coincide with the lecture components of the course – it was almost uncanny. Most astonishly, we managed to tease success from about two thirds of our experiments, an almost unbelievable statistic that hopefully reflected our skills as instructors, our knowledge of the material, and of course, searing blind luck. In truth, we did have to resort to our “fake” data stash, but only once. It’s also safe to assume that there are now 24 Nigerian students who are quietly pondering the identity of this MacGyver fellow that Sam and I kept talking about.

The intangible victories were a little harder to ascertain. Apart from the empirical act of teaching new material, I hope we were able to leave the students with a strong sense of what we thought was wrong with Nigerian science. That is the prevailing acceptance of the harsh but understandable ‘every man for himself’ attitude. For us, this philosophy was painfully evident from the very beginning in the effort required to get any help whatsoever. In our minds, this selfishness was shattering any hope of allowing Nigerian science to flourish. In simple terms, here we had a well educated society that was stifling under limited resources – it simply made more sense to us to foster collaboration, to rely and build on each other strengths, and to share valuable resources.

We also left behind a small legacy of embarrassment. Our negative experience with the Local Organizing Committee and with the University of Lagos, in general, bequeathed a lasting impression on the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology. Dr. Denenu was obviously disappointed with the behaviour of the L.O.C. In the interim, it seemed that more than a few eyebrows were raised during our workshop, and Nash consequently earned the right to formally interact with the government in all future programs. One can only hope that this will lead to better things.

Fittingly, the last day presented itself with two dominant and opposing memories. In an amusing turn of events, Nash and I were presented with a bill for various charges. It was stunning to us that the L.O.C. would have the audacity to ply us for even more money. The bill itself was a mockery with money attributed to items like extringencies, which, to this day, is one of the great mysteries of the workshop. To be perfectly honest, no-one was even sure what the word meant. Nash took care of the bill in his own special way, which is to say that he probably threw it away.

The other memory was that of the students huddled together in a welcoming circle, holding hands and saying a small prayer.

“Thank you lord for your generosity in life, that you hold together our faith in you, and that you provide what you can in our lives. Thank you for the opportunity in allowing us to attend this molecular biology workshop, that we might take what we have learnt to help our people and country in need. That we use it responsibly and with respect to our land. We ask that you guide us in shaping a better future. That you guide us in the spirit of collaboration. That you help us all of us stay true to this aim and to deny the spirit of selfishness. We asked this in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.”

This is going to sound cliched but the workshop, and I suppose the whole experience itself, made me reflect on my own lot in life. I would be fooling everyone if I didn’t comment that during each day of our laboratory and lecturing sessions, I felt a strong sense of relief and gratitude. Relief in that at the end of it all, I actually had the option of leaving it all behind. Gratitude because through some cosmic roll of the die, I was born in a country where food, shelter, and indeed a decent way of life were readily available. We really take too much for granted.

Today, Nigeria like most of my memories is slowly fading from my mind, in this case buried by the security of my own family and kept alive only in souvenir status by the occasion headlines that skim my consciousness. Where indeed does science fit in a country that is on the one hand dogged by controversy over Amina Lawal, a woman sentenced to lethal stoning by a Sharia judge; whilst on the other hand prepares for the Miss World pageant? Next time I talk to Nash, I’m going to have to ask him. Turns out, Nigeria didn’t win the World Cup that year, but then again I suppose there’s always next time.

Why I Do Science



When I look out my office window, I see two sets of nucleotide bases – guanine and cytosine. I don’t mention this as an admission of psychotic delirium. The building where I work just happens to have a DNA molecule emblazoned on its windows. Admittedly, it’s an odd workplace view, but in my case it fits.

I’m a molecular geneticist—genomics, gene expression, cloning, and the rest of that good stuff – and these little guys are some of the fundamentals of what I study. In many ways, my field is actually about the flow of information in genes; how a code is represented in that mother of all blueprints and gets read to construct something so detailed and nuanced as life. My area of interest is how the information in that chain is used and communicated. It almost always happens in the same way; DNA to RNA to protein. It’s as good a slogan as any, and from time to time we even get to call it dogma.

More important than this dogma, is the way my field appears to me to be so much bigger than the molecules I study. Molecular genetics represents some of the most exciting, profound, communal, and frightening aspects of the collective scientific endeavor. Its speed of advancement defies belief, and its effects on the social, cultural, political and economical issues of the day do not afford the luxury of ignorance.

That’s why I sit at my desk and look at that DNA; to remind myself of the larger importance of those molecules on my window not only to myself, but to everyone else. I see that I am a participant in a greater flow of information—from expert to layman, from creating the trenches where research happens to leading the tours that engage our local community.

I suppose this isn’t a fashionable reason to do science. Perhaps a more proper reason is to talk of the glory and honor of being “first” —the first to discover, to see, to understand. But in my mind, that privilege is severely limited to just one or a few. Frankly, I have my sights on something bigger: a privilege that can be shared with as many people as possible; to make science come alive.

Scientist to citizen to decisions made – wouldn’t that make a lovely dogma as well?

In Canada, After Any International Climate Change Conference: I Fear Correspondence of this Sort will be Sent


“In stark contrast to its cuddly international image, Canada is the dirty old man of the climate world – missing its Kyoto emissions reduction target by a country mile (by 2007, it was 34% above its target) and showing no signs of reigning in its profligacy.” The Guardian, November 30, 2009



What the hell is going on? That conference was a freaking fiasco! What happened? And how is Mr. Environment Minister going to do to fix it?

Stevie (The PM).


Steve buddy!

O.K. We have a plan. A couple of things actually. Most of them revolving around science and stuff, since we keep getting hammered on our stance with what the climatologists are telling us (you know, the IPCC reports and such). Anyway, the plan is multifaceted, and we’re still bouncing off ideas (FYI: if you got any Prime Ministery input, just pass it on), but here is what we have so far:

1. To get the scientific community off our back, we’re going to challenge them to perform definitive, but basically impossible, climate science experiments. Doesn’t that sound great? I wrote that myself. And here’s one just off the top of my head, which I’m calling the TRI-EARTH experiment (also, wrote that myself). Here, we’ll ask scientists to create two other planet Earths, and populate them with identical geology, biodiversity and anthropogenic infrastructure, and then do a compare and comparison. Our current Earth could be the test subject, whereas the other two could represent “controls” (ooh actual science lingo). These would be conditions with (a) zero fossil fuel emissions, and (b) intensive fossil fuel emissions. Scientists would then be asked to collect data for 100 years, and then reconvene with their conclusions. Brilliant right? Oh man, our tech guys are gonna love making that website.

2. To get the environmental community off our backs, we’re thinking of asking the HR Departments of all tar sand companies to actively hire members of the biodiversity community. And we’re not talking scientists here, but actual animals – the cuter and the furrier the better!  Anyway, the idea is that this would be an excellent way to create tension between all those environmentalists. Imagine the debates! I can hear them already: “You can’t shut down the tar sands! Think of the livelihood of our friends, the [insert name of cute furry mammal]. How will they maintain their way of life?” Basically, with the right amount of nuts, we could get a squirrel or two to say anything.  As an added bonus, the irony alone just might get Suzuki’s brain to explode.

3. This one is a biggie! We’re looking into actually creating new scientific laws! Wouldn’t that be great? I mean a good chunk of the data out there is based on rigorous climate modeling, which is powered by scientific laws and mathematical equations (bla bla bla). So we say: why not take matters into our own hands, and create something like a new addition to the Laws of Thermodynamics. I mean, these laws are well known, they come up a lot in climate studies (the first law with its overbearing “energy cannot be created or destroyed” mantra is especially annoying), and as a bonus, they even have too many syllables which we know is always good for added confusion. If we’re smart, we can even make the new law a little “magical” (seriously, maybe something about unicorns – you like unicorns right?). This might make the whole creationism angle a little easier to swallow scientifically (and you know me, I’m always looking for ways to widen our support base).

4. Advertising: and lots of it. Maybe go with either a “Canada is a Climate Change Free Zone” angle (wouldn’t that look great on a t-shirt?); or maybe just a straight up promotion of things to do in a hotter climate. I think the “Hot Canada” idea could sell itself. I’m thinking five words: beach volleyball and umbrella drinks. Hmmm… let me write that down. Could work as a possible slogan.

O.K enough writing… I’m going to send this memo off right now. These are just a few ideas we’re ready to act on. Add on a good old general marketing blitz, and I think we got something that should do the trick. Anyway, just say the word boss and we’ll get on it pronto.




Sounds great. Make it so (I love saying that). Oh and how about this for a slogan, “No more sweater vests!”


Dear Oprah: Some thoughts on your credibility. #openletter

Just recently had the opportunity to read the excellent New Yorker piece on Dr. Oz (written by Michael Specter  and definitely worth checking out).  Dr. Oz’s behaviour and obvious media clout reminded me of a little rant I wrote for Boing Boing a while back.  Anyway, I thought it was worth reprinting here, so take a peek below.

– – –


Now that we’re half way through the university semester, I’m finding myself inundated with a lot of marking. Sometimes, I try to tackle this work at home, but being the skilled procrastinator that I am, this will inadvertently lead me into the land of daytime television. It was here the other day that I caught a few minutes of Oprah, and noted that in that short timeframe, I found my reaction changing from a sort of admiration to a feeling best described as a prolonged wince. The reason for this abrupt change of heart was essentially the appearance of Jenny McCarthy in what looked like a correspondence role – she of the celebrity ilk, noteworthy for being a very powerful advocate of some very shaky medical advice.

I won’t go into too much detail here about her travails, since they’ve been covered extensively here at Boingboing and elsewhere in the media, but suffice to say, both the medical and scientific communities overwhelmingly take issue with her claims regarding linkage between the MMR vaccine and Autism. Indeed, her opinion has not changed, despite recent studies that showed that much of the data in the Wakefield paper (the scientific article that laid the media groundwork for this linkage) was actually fraudulent in nature.

Anyway, this is interesting to me. Ms. Winfrey by all accounts seems to have her heart in the right place, and as a person of considerable media clout, you would think that she (or at least her team) would have carefully thought through the ramifications of associating with such a notorious individual. Except that when you look a bit deeper, you find other instances where her brand chooses to ignore a very simple and sensible idea: that “claims,” especially claims that operate best under scientific ways of knowing, should only be supported when there is robust evidence to back them up.

An obvious example of this is her recommendation of The Secret. This is a book written by Rhonda Byrnes and which appears to be a very elaborate and (if I can be cynical here) lucrative interpretation of the placebo effect. Specifically, the author claims that an individual can “change their electromagnetic frequency,” so as to change outcomes in their life. Such language is striking because if you were to ask an expert who knows a thing or two about electromagnetic radiation – say a physicist – you would learn that this phrase is entirely nonsensical. More importantly, you could even ask physicists of different moral leanings, political sensibilities, and/or cultural backgrounds, and you would still get the same answer – because the evidence that refutes her claims stands on its own objective merits.

We could go on with other examples of Ms. Winfrey’s fondness of pseudoscientific trends – from the establishment of Dr. Oz, to providing the center stage to individuals like Susanne Sommers and Christiane Northrup – but I think you get the point. Let me also be clear: I do think there is some value to these things if individuals truly feel that they are benefiting from them. However, what’s worrying to me is when lines regarding safety are being crossed. All to say that for me, there’s a bit of irony here, because before seeing Ms. McCarthy on her show, one of things I applauded Oprah Winfrey for was her work in South Africa, particularly her involvement on the HIV/AIDS front.

As many already know, this is a country that continues to be devastated by the effects of this disease. According to the latest UNAIDS statistics (based on2009 data), South Africa currently has the highest infection numbers, estimated at 5.6 million of its population. This includes a startling 17.8% prevalence in individuals aged between 15 and 49. It’s also no secret that a significant part of this deadly reality is due to poor government policy, whereby from 1999 to 2008, the former President Thabo Mebki and his health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang were willing advocates of a variety of pseudoscientific claims made by AIDS denialists. Many of these deterred the provision of life-saving antiretroviral medicines: most infamously, Manto herself promoted the use of “beetroot and garlic consumption” as an effective treatment regime.

This narrative is strikingly similar to those that allude to Ms. McCarthy or The Secret. The difference, of course, is that with HIV/AIDS in South Africa, Ms. Winfrey chose to side with reason, data, and good evidence. More to the point: having both Ms. McCarthy and the South African HIV/AIDS issue being so prominent under a single brand is an odd dichotomy that begs us to wonder what to make of it. It is, quite simply, a mixed message. At best, it is confusing in a world where the glut of information is already a burden. And more seriously, it is an insult to the good people who have worked so hard on HIV/AIDS education, treatment, and research. But at its worst, it is an affront to all those who have been victims of the propagation of such dangerous claims, whether it is the people of South Africa or the millions of viewers that follow Ms. Winfrey’s every suggestion, every recommendation, and every action.

The Von Trapp Children Speak to a Geneticist



LIESL: Why is it that we can all sing very well?

GENETICIST: Liesl, that is an excellent question! And essentially one that boils down to the classic debate of nature versus nurture. Are your genes responsible for this particular talent, or has it more to do with your upbringing? Looking at this scenario objectively, I would have to say that it is both. There have been reports that the ability to have perfect pitch—that is the ability to distinguish musical notes without points of reference—is a hereditary phenomenon, thereby strongly suggesting a genetic basis. This would seem to be supported by your father’s musical talent as well. Of course, you’ve also had the benefit of being tutored by your wayward novice governess with all-world pipes, Maria.

In conclusion, like most things pertaining to our individuality, we are influenced by both our biology and our surroundings.

GRETL: I think Liesl is very beautiful. Why am I not as pretty?

GENETICIST: Assuming no mutational errors occur during the production of sperm and egg cells, there was approximately a 1-in-70,000,000,000,000 chance that you would have been an identical clone of your sister. If you included the multitude of mutational and regulatory events that ensue during this process, that statistic would escalate to an even smaller chance that is, quite frankly, unfathomable to calculate. How did I get to this absurd number? Well, one must realize that your genetic instructions are housed as a collection of 23 pairs of chromosomes (i.e., 46 in all). In other words, it is correct to say that each human has two sets of instructions—one given to you by your father, and one by your mother. If you keep in mind that your parents themselves also have 23 pairs of chromosomes, and you realize that the child may receive only one from each pair, the likelihood of siblings having the same 46 chromosomes is the fantastic number mentioned above.

However, Gretl, do not fret. You are the youngest of the lot and still have a good chance to blossom into a stunning flower like your sister Liesel. Furthermore, cosmetic surgery these days I hear is quite impressive. And then there is always the chance of Liesl having a disfiguring accident—I hear she may be a Nazi sympathizer, which is never a good thing.

FRIEDRICH: Yes, Liesl is hot. Sometimes, even I have feelings for her. Why is it bad for me to feel that way?

GENETICIST: Incestuous relationships, as well as being frowned upon by most of society, are also disadvantageous from a biological point of view. In the genetic world, diversity breeds fitness. One example is to imagine the following. You have a set of genes that determine the ability of your immune system to recognize and combat various pathogens. Your sister Liesl also has a set of genes that do the same thing. And because you and your sister come from the same genetic pool (you have the same parents), Liesl’s immunity is quite likely to be similar to yours. Do you not see that the net effect of this is that you would create offspring with a limited repertoire of immune-system genes? Compare that to your having a child with, say, Marcia from The Brady Bunch, and you will note that this union will create offspring that have the benefit of a wider genetic pool (your parents and Marcia’s parents), thereby allowing your children to acquire a more diverse and fitter immune system.

Also, dude, she’s your sister.

BRIGITTA: Why do all of our siblings have blondish hair and blue eyes, whereas Marta and I have dark hair and dark eyes?

GENETICIST: You are thinking, perhaps, that your mother was a whore? It is true that the disparity in your outward appearances is a mite unusual. However, there is no reason to believe that any adultery has occurred. Here is the reason why. Although it is generally thought—though not confirmed—that extreme blondness (as in the case of Louisa and Friedrich) has a recessive distribution, there are numerous factors that can account for your instances of dark hair and dark eyes. First, hair and eye color are very subjective terms. Is Greta or Kurt blond, dirty blond, or strawberry blond? Genetic characterization is very difficult when the observational characterization is less than strict. Second, the pigmentation of hair is normally attributed to melanin levels, which have been shown to vary greatly during different stages of a person’s life. You may have noticed, for example, that a person’s childhood hair color tends to be lighter than their adult hair color. Third, the amount of melanin that an individual produces is influenced in part by their environment. For instance, melanin acts to protect the person from the damaging effects of the sun’s radiation. In conclusion, I do not feel that there is anything to worry about. Besides, you did not mention Liesl, who herself has dark hair. Did you omit her because you are secretly jealous of her hotness?

KURT: I think I might want to be with another boy. Is this to do with my DNA?

GENETICIST: Unfortunately, the answer is currently unknown. There have been numerous reports that have tried to implicate specific genetic regions to homosexual behavior, but presently those studies, although titillating, are at best only an indication that there is a hereditary factor for this type of sexual orientation. However, there is an abundance of ongoing research in this area, particularly with homosexual men. If you are interested, perhaps you could participate in the scientific process. Of course, it is important to remember that the Nazis do not dig gay people.

LOUISA: Why doesn’t anybody remember who I am?

GENETICIST: Alas, it appears that this is because you are the second child. I would not be surprised if there are very few pictures of you. It is not, I assume, because your parents did not love you, but simply a facet of being born after the initial excitement and newness of parenthood has passed. This, of course, has nothing to do with genetics. In order to be taken more notice of, you could try different fashions, or perhaps a new haircut. In truth, Liesl could probably give you better advice, as I am, sadly, only a geneticist.

– – –

Originally published at McSweeney’s

It’s a Lucky Thing for Evolutionary Biology that the Following Passages aren’t in the Bible


Jesus then entered the farm, and saw creatures of every shape and size, and so said to his followers, “Hey, my Dad made that creature, and that creature, and also that creature… Actually, now that I think about it, he made them all.”

And at the early dawn of the seventh day, just before He rested, God did a lot of pretty complicated things at super duper God speed. This was so that people would think the whole Creation thing probably took a lot longer than seven days.

The heavens opened and the angels proclaimed, “Fear any literate man, capable of impressive facial hair, who is uncomfortable on boats, has a thing for finches, and is named Darwin, for he is basically an unrighteous phony. So it is said in the very literal Kingdom of God.”

And the Lord said, “Yes, my child, the unicorn was a first edit. They were poorly designed so I had to do away with them – kept goring themselves when nuzzling and stuff. Indeed, not my best work.”

With Cain facing Abel, God then commanded, “Look deeply into his eye, and marvel at my handiwork, because my child, making that eye work properly, took, like, for freakin’ ever!”

And God appeared to Moses as a Burning Bush – not a monkey, but a bush. Because clearly, God is no monkey.

This Here: An Equation that Calculates the Odds of Being Cast as a Stormtrooper Extra in One of the New Star Wars Movies.


It (hypothetically*) goes like this:


* Like all good science, this needs some testing…

– – –

When news hit that Disney bought the rights to Star Wars, and that J.J. Abrams would be manning the first movie of a new trilogy, my inner geek went into giddy overdrive. This was because it gave me a chance to revisited my bucket list, which had previously scratched off “be an extra in a Star Wars movie” as something that was unattainable having presumed the prequels were my last chance. But now, there is (literally), A NEW HOPE. Even better, is the fact that my kids are old enough to also want this.

And so, being a science-y sort and all, I figured the first step would be to actually try and come up with a way to calculate the odds of such a thing happening, and hence you see the above – or what I have termed the Abrams’ Stormtrooper Axiom. In effect, this is an equation that aims to calculates the odds of you (or anyone) being cast as a stormtrooper in one of these new movies1.

Here’s how it works. We’ll first look at (1) which expresses the equation in its most obvious form.


When you look at this equation, there are three main components: two in the numerator: WkSblaster and bmiopthopt

And one in the denominator: 5.4(1+bop+bow).

The denominator is an expression designed to address the likelihood of being cast, as having a dependence on the individual’s chance of contact with J.J. Abrams. Specifically, bop refers to the degrees of personal separation the individual is from the Director, whereas bow refers to the degrees of internet separation the individual is from the Director. The base of the exponential relationship is, of course, the standard May The Force Be With You Constant (or 5.4).

All told, if you have very little connection to the director, your odds can dwindle significantly, about 5.4(1+6+6) times, or roughly one in 3.3 billion! It also infers that even if you know JJ Abrams personally, it does not guarantee being cast – mathematically, the closest association would still work out to 5.4(1+1+1), or roughly a chance of one in 158. This is because there are other factors that need to come into play when determining whether an individual is right for a stormtrooper part.

Which is where the numerator expressions exert their influence. We can first begin with the bmiopthopt element, which essentially considers the physicality of the individual vying for a stormtrooper part. The bmi portion considers body shape, whereas the h portion considers height.

Each element can be further derived as:


Where (2) calculates divergence from an average body type (as expressed by an individual’s body mass index with m equals to the individual’s weight in kilograms, and h is equal to the individual’s height in metres). You’ll note that the more you veer away from an “average” body type, the greater the modification of the bmiopt number to a number less than one (and therefore further lowering your odds).

In the same manner, (3) calculates divergence from an optimal height (deemed 1.8 metres as determined from casual examination of Star Wars’ trivia – i.e. calculating Mark Hamill‘s height and noting the “Aren’t you a little short to be a Stormtrooper?” comment). Like the BMI calculation, the more you deviate from the optimal height, the greater the modification of the hopt number to a number less than one (and therefore further lowering your odds).

Note that both (2) and (3) are included in the overall equation for pragmatic prop design reasons (not every extra can have a custom made set of armour, so it makes sense if casting aimed for similar body types). Then, of course, there is the whole clone army narrative which might also presume the troops having similar physical features. (Also note that in case you weren’t familiar with the symbol, the straight up and down lines enclose a value where you only use the absolute number – i.e. remove the plus or minus sign).

Anyway, when you put it all together you get the expression (4).


Which only leaves Wk and Sblaster to be defined. Here, these two variables relate to two specific personality traits that are deemed important for the stormtrooper casting decision.

For instance, I don’t think I’m the only Star Wars fan who notices the incredibly poor marksmanship exhibited by the stormtroopers. There are many instances in the movies where there are many of them (with their weapons – presumably high tech in nature), in close proximity to the target, and yet, they still always fail to hit their target. The below video is one of many classic examples where you can see this:

Given this observation, I’m left to assume that Stormtroopers, as a whole, have a deep distrust of guns, and with that discomfort tend to misfire (perhaps subconsciously). This also leads me to hypothesize that not only are they not very skilled, but that they are probably the sort that are not at all familiar with gun culture in their private lives.

Consequently, Sblaster is a number assigned to measure the individual’s relative experience wth guns, whereby a value of 1.0 represents full disconnect from the use of guns in their personal lives, and a number closer to zero represents an individual who is very familiar with gun culture.

Of course, perhaps the most important tangible characteristic (that could translate to a positive casting decision) is relative fandom itself. In other words, casting may be partly governed by how “into Star Wars” an individual is. Here, and in honor of Chewbacca’s reference of “pulling arms out of their sockets when they lose,” I’ve decided to use Wookie knowledge, or Wk as an indicator that can further increase casting chances. Essentially, this is a scale that ranges from 1 to 10, whereby 10 represents fanatical knowledge on all things Wookie, and 1 represents no knowledge at all. In effect, if you’re nuts about Star Wars (and wookies specifically), you can increase your chances of being cast by 10 fold.

In conclusion, I want to stress that this is the Abrams’ Stormtrooper Axiom, and by its very definition, an axiom is just a starting point. This means the equation will need more work, and it would be great suggestions to make it better. As it stands, it works as a general guideline using a number of test values2. As well, there is also the very real caveat of whether J.J. Abrams will even have stormtroopers in the new movies – never mind the fact that if he does, they may come in a different size, or be better at shooting, etc. In some respects, this reminds me a little of Schrödinger’s cat (we can call our version Abrams’ Stormtrooper): we won’t really know what he has in mind until he lets us open the box.

– – –


1. In general, I’ve used information from the original trilogy for points of reference.

2. For instance, an individual with no connection at all will result in a number that works against the backdrop of the total human population numbers. For J.J. Abrams, himself, where bop and bow are equal to zero, and his Wk is likely quite high, the equation would further calculate that he has practically perfect odds of being cast as a stormtrooper (which makes sense given his role in the movie). For the sake of comparison, I’ve calculated my own odds to be approximately: 0.00000519 or about one in 19,000.

On Inflatable Pools, #scio13, and the Messy Business of Preaching Science Outside the Choir.

Note that this essay is in regards to this.


The session began with a bit about inflatable pools: although here, a little context might help.

In the summer of 2009, my hometown of Vancouver experienced a small heat wave. It got very hot and humid, unbearable even, and not surprisingly my two young kids (Hannah and Ben) were quite miserable. Consequently, to led to the very popular idea of getting an inflatable pool for our backyard, which to all intents and purposes, appeared to be a genius move. And so before we knew it, we were suddenly on the hunt.

This naturally led us to a local toy store, where lo and behold, marketing geniuses that they are, the store had conveniently placed all of their pools front and centre. Here, we were confronted with the pool that you see in the picture above (on the left).

It looked, quite frankly, awesome, and, if you can believe it, it was also priced at only thirty dollars. Needless to say, we bought it immediately and full of excitement, took it home to set up. It was here that something odd happened. In essence, when the pool was inflated, it looked a little different from the box (see image on right).

Of course, being a scientist and all, my rational mind was racing and trying its hardest to come up with hypotheses that could explain what was going on. Why did the pool look so tiny?

Did I not blow hard enough and inflate it properly?

Was the photograph on the box taken in a land of small hobbit-like people?

Were my children, unbeknownst to me, massive?

It was all very bizarre, but at the end of the day, the explanation was quite simple. Apparently, in the world of advertising, it is permissible to use misleading images so long as there was some presence of text that exposed the reality of the product. For instance, the object’s dimensions are clearly printed on the box, or a statement such as “object in box may not be as appears” is included.

For our session at Science Online 2013, this silly anecdote served as a sort of meta-example of what we were hoping to talk about: That is, how do we talk science to folks who don’t necessarily care about science? How do we preach outside the proverbial choir, or go “beyond the choir,” or delve into things that are praeterchoral if you will. And perhaps more importantly, what are the tensions associated with trying to do this? Should there be important things to consider, say for the public good? And do such things even work (or how would we even know)? In effect, the two images represent the “truth,” and how the “truth” might come across when communicated. They are meant to represent a literate form of science communication, and a form that is not quite accurate but might be easier for the general public to engage in. In other words, we were wondering whether there is a cost to translating science in this way.

Looking at the two inflatable pool images, I can think of a number of potential problems. For instance, when using more creative methods, perhaps one will inadvertently dilute, distort, or even get the “truth” or the science wrong. Or maybe it’s not even a case of being scientifically sloppy, but rather one paints a slanted version of science culture by consistently focusing on the stuff that is deem interesting, strange, entertaining, or dramatic – we leave out the boring bits, which arguably present a more accurate portrait of science. As well, a lot of the science used to capture interest, might not be the sort of science that is quote-unquote “important,” or at least important in terms of civics and public good (yes, a narrative about an inflatable pool is charming, but shouldn’t we talk about climate change or gun control for instance?) Even worse, maybe in my zeal to be entertaining, funny, and/or quirky (never mind finding a way to show off my kids), I actually created a situation where clarity was lost in the discussion.

All to say that the act of preaching outside the choir has many nuances. Certainly enough to warrant an extensive list of things to think about: a list that Gertrude Stein might even approve of. Which was why Tom (@TomLevenson) provided a tour of such a list of considerations, prefaced by the dying words of Stein and made all the more pertinent because it was quite likely that the inflatable pool meta-example had failed (which you could say was sneakily deliberate – a meta-meta-example? – or a consequence of my not getting enough sleep and perhaps being too glib and overconfident in my ad-libbing speaking skills*)

In any event, this list (which can be seen in full here) was aimed at provoking the audience and included important questions such as: “Should we first ask: why do we want to engage such audiences (the uninterested)?”, “Where do notions of Civic Duty/Need (Proselytizing!) and/or Self-interest fit in?”, and “Does entertainment even work?” And in the end, this dialogue culminated in three simple queries: WHY, WHO and HOW?

Which worked well, because the audience took to the list and responded in wonderful and thoughtful ways. In particular, the discussion appeared to categorize itself into three particular trends.

Firstly, many of the comments showcased intriguing examples that took advantage of an unconventional pairing – for instance, the case presented by Chad Orzel (@orzelc) of connecting a narrative between the National Football League and the neuroscience of concussion effects. Along similar lines, there were also many examples where some facet of art was combined with the act of translating science. This included discussions around the use of aesthetics in artwork, comics, animation, video, or the importance of theatrical elements or story telling as a form of engaging narrative (@Indrevis, @BenLillie, @Beatricebiology). In particular, I remember Jennifer Ouellette (@JenLucPiquant) describing some of the mandates around her role as Director of The Science and Entertainment Exchange. This was great stuff, and really this should all be archived somewhere someday (maybe here even?).

As well, there was a category of stirring conversations which tended to be the ones that considered the motivations involved – as in, why do the people in the room do what they do. Here, we heard many comments around the simple idea of sharing one’s passion, and to hope that in doing this, one will engage someone to look a little deeper. Or better yet, a science communicator who wants to move outside the classroom mentality is doing this because they are, in effect, saying that “this is my view of science culture and I think that you might find it interesting too…” In other words, it’s not necessarily about being strategic or attempting to fix science literacy issues en mass but simply doing your part, in the context of whatever reach you can muster. I quite like this sentiment, especially when expressed with eloquence and passion by individuals like Danielle Lee (@DNLee5) and Annalee Newitz (@Annaleen). It feels right and, if I can be honest, it’s also downright inspiring.

Except that none of it feels very scientific, which presents a delicious sort of irony and also our third and final stream of commentary. More to the point, this discussion addressed whether any of our preaching outside the choir was actually working. Are our efforts for naught, or are we, as a roomful of passionate science communicators, actually changing societal impressions, views, and opinions around science? Anecdotally, yes, but can we call ourselves successful when applying a more rigorous scientific rubric.

This, to me, is an important question, but it’s also a question that might not have easy answers. In fact, Ben Lillie (@BenLillie) very nicely expressed this conundrum, so much so as to suggest that maybe it’s not something that can be measured – and I think there’s some merit to this train of thought. How do we evaluate such things, this talking science to the uninterested, and in any case, how confident would we be with this evaluation, knowing that it is likely a caveat laden process? It reminds me a little of a recent chat I had with a theatre academic – he told me his colleagues were constantly wrestling with the following question – “how exactly does one measure the value of art?

Still, that doesn’t make it a pointless question, and certainly not one that shouldn’t be explored. Indeed, Science Online was wonderful because others were interested in this challenge, and I’ve even managed to embark upon a research initiative with Marie-Claire Shannahan** (@mcshanahan) to hopefully capture a glimpse of what an answer might look like. It’s funny: This science communication business is all a little mysterious when you think about it, but upon reflection, I find it comforting to realize that this isn’t so different from the awesomeness of science itself.

– – –

* It was the latter by the way. This is why theatre is always workshopped, and I should’ve known better!

** More on this later. For now, we have both agreed to present this research process in a completely open manner. Right now, we’re stuck on the name of the blog where we would real-time share our discussions, processes and results.

If Science could make New Year’s Resolutions.


Recently, I was asked to imagine a set of New Year’s Resolutions that “Science” would aspire towards.  This was pretty general and in good fun, as well as potential fodder for a piece at Slate.  In the end, Slate only used a small part of my rambling, but I figured this blog is as good a place as any to share the rest of my role playing resolutions.  As well, I’ve categorized it into three main sections, and note that some of them are a little silly (albeit potentially AWESOME).

A: Proper science (technical) resolutions

– Some major mind blowing breakthrough(s) in the renewable energy category.  Something, basically where the cost per watt just destroys the competing fossil fuel economy.

– DNA Sequencing to hit that magic criteria where costs and speed are met.  Basically, something akin to someone getting that Genomics X Prize (http://genomics.xprize.org/).  With those kind of capabilities, I think this is where the ideas behind personal genomics can really be put to test (we’re fast approaching it anyway).  Note that ideally, this would also mean that the policy side of things can also keep up.

– Somebody works out an efficient, effective, and easy way to isolate, purify, culture, and even possibly reset adult stem cells.

B: In the education, and/or policy arena

– Some kind of decent increase in national funding for science research generally – this works for any number of countries, US, and England (and Canada), in particular.  This is especially true in the basic research category which tends to get hit the hardest due to lack of appreciation (by politicians and the general public at large) of how science tends to progress.

– Science expertise in policy making decisions is given much (much!) more clout.  This kind of clout is needed so that more (all?) political decisions are made based on rationality, validity and good evidence (climate change policy, I’m looking at you).  While we’re at it, such expertise must also be utilized in a much more efficient and quicker fashion, since this advice doesn’t help if it can’t keep up with the science (decisions around molecular genetics/genomics for instance).  Basically, science needs to have a much more primary role in the political world.

– Slow but strategic introduction of “Science Philosophy” concepts into school curricula, such that one day, it will have a much more significant presence throughout elementary and high school syllabus (and also diversified in where it turns up: such as in Social Studies as well as the usual science topics).  This is because the nuances of things like the scientific method are far too important to be really only covered at the earlier ages where it is presented in an overly simplistic fashion.  The epistemology of science much richer than that, and ultimately you want all citizens to comfortable and knowledgable in such things because they provide the best practices for good decision making.  (Plus, it doesn’t have to be boring either – check out this piece for instance)  In other words, it’s not necessarily about educating people to become scientists, it’s more about teaching everyone the value of “thinking” like a scientist.  Put another way, I’d like everyone to smile while looking at this t-shirt, but then on reflection, that same person would ask themselves “How is that claim validated?  What is the evidence?”

– I would love for science communication skill sets/options/practices to have a greater presence in the conventional academic science pipeline.  In other words, something like if there is a dedicated funding schematic for graduate students to have the option of exploring these practices.  Translation of science needs more advocates from those in the trenches, or at least needs more that have some experience in the public communications arena.

– Somebody to develop a “Downton Abbey” type television series, but revolve it around the contrasting relationships between supervising scientists (professors, etc), and the rest of the lab (graduate students, technicians).  That show is like crack (I can only assume) to me.

– Where science begins to be recognized formally as a “creative” endeavour.  i.e. you go to the art gallery, and there’s a floor or the permanent exhibit looking at how science is, in many ways, a form of art.  This isn’t so much from the point of view of “this data looks aesthetically pleasing,” but rather, “how they came up with that hypothesis is just so elegant.”  I, and I’m sure others, believe that there’s beauty in that.

C: “Out there, totally unrealistic but this would be awesome category.”

– Somebody invent a time machine already, so that we can finally persuade Climate Change denialists that Climate modelling is actually a very robust and validated science.  In other words, with this contraption we can finally go to the future, and say “See, told you…”

– Give the UN enforcement capabilities for international agreements concerning the environment or biodiversity issues.  I suggest giving them lightsabers so that everyone knows that this is serious now.

– A super group who makes a “Let’s promote science literacy” music album (can we still call it an album?).  I can see Thom Yorke, Peter Gabriel, and Bjork doing this as a triad of voices backed by the rest of the Radiohead band.

Alright, that was fun.  Any other suggestions out there?

(Image by Kenwyn Lim)

They say Christmas is a time for giving, but how much? How about 0.7% or roughly one cup of coffee a day?

(Reprinted and re-edited with more recent statistics from an earlier blog post)

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about good old 0.7%. This is the hallmark figure suggested by Pearson as a target for foreign aid to developing nations. In other words, the main idea is that wealthy nations do something nice and set aside about 0.7% of their gross national income, so that the sorts of things that the UN Millennium Development Goals are focused on, can be proactively tackled.  It’s all noble stuff: challenging yes, but definitely important in the global context.


Problem is, that not many countries actually do this, and this is why you have people like Bono and Jeff Sachs all in an uproar, etc, etc, etc. For example (based on 2009 stats), the United States puts aside approximately 0.2% of GNI, whereas Canada is only a little better at about 0.3%. Indeed, sometimes a small part of these G7 Summits that happen from time to time is about addressing this specific issue, except that often the agreements in place tend placate to long “statement of intent” type timelines – the sorts of timelines that are much longer than the life of existing elected governments.

Now, there is a lot of good debate about the relative merit and/or problems of going for the 0.7% target, which we won’t go into here, but I thought a good exercise in perspective (for you and I as individuals) is to think about what 0.7% actually looks like.

To do this, I thought a good place to start would be to think about that cup of coffee you probably drink every day.

Let us suppose that the average North American buys a single cup of coffee a day. And also let’s guess that the average price of that coffee sits somewhere around the $1.50 range. This takes into consideration, those who don’t drink coffee, those who can get their coffee cheaper (or for free) at work, those who buy larger sizes, those who buy the fancy coffee drinks, those who choose to also get the muffin – more or less, to say that an average cost of $1.50 per day doesn’t sound too unreasonable. Besides, it’s about what I spend daily on my caffeine perk for instance.

The point is, if you multiply $1.50 by the 365 days, you get a yearly budget of about $550.00. If we take that figure and extrapolate using 0.7% as a hallmark, it means that if you make about $80,000 per year, your coffee expenditure (under these parameters) would be equivalent to that 0.7% benchmark. If you make less than $80,000 or buy more than one cup of coffee a day, then your percentage actually jumps up significantly.

To me, the mental exercise here is to appreciate the relative insignificance of 0.7%, and to juxtapose that to what would happen if we all chose to use that coffee money towards developmental aid.

The answer, of course, is that “a lot of good” would happen. Actually, it’s a little mind boggling when you think about what how a person’s coffee habits and culture indirectly divert from some really serious global issues (rather than preach on what these issues might be, I invite you to take a closer look at the Millenium Development Goals to see what’s at stake).

Anyway, this is not to say that we should feel guilty for grabbing a cup of coffee, but rather to consider what that money might actually represent in the global context. Maybe we should all set up 0.7% collection jars or something – certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing. And probably more so in this holiday season.

A moment of your time: about Bill C-398 and how Canadians can contribute to global health

Dear Canadians:

On wednesday, a very important piece of policy will be discussed in parliament.   It’s called Bill C-398 and it deserves our attention.  It seems that it has been challenging for some to see its merits, and so, I’d like to take moment to clarify what it’s all about.  It turns out that it’s not just important – the narrative is compelling as well: it has a rich history of political intrigue; it is a story where viruses factor in prominently; it has a plot that involves armies of angry grandmothers; and above it all, learning about Bill C-398 can literally save lives.

Note, that the below piece is a re-edit of sorts, an update of a piece I wrote for Boing Boing that was an attempt to discuss that political intrigue.  And also note that there is some bias in my commentary – but I think this is natural.  There are obviously a variety of viewpoints involved and my own happens to disagree with those who choose to listen to corporate and political interests – more so when those interests rely on reasoning that is often spun a certain way to misrepresent useful facts. My bias happens to fall on the side of human dignity: something I think we should all spend a moment to contemplate, and something I think all Canadians would feel is a cause worth fighting for.

– – –

“Access to life-saving medicines is not a luxury, but a human right.”

~Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network

To me, the above statement is one of those things that sound like a no-brainer. Put another way, if I were to ask you whether you thought a person’s income should determine whether they live or die from something like HIV/AIDS, then I think you would see that the answer is nothing but obvious. But here I am, in Canada, writing this post, because there is a very real danger that members of my government think that this isn’t such an easy decision after all – that maybe wealth and business interests do matter when dealing with such ethical choices, and that there is a hierarchy where certain lives are worth more than others.

Let me backtrack a bit, and provide a little context. I’d rather not write a rant, emotional and heart wrenching as this discussion can be – I’d prefer to rely on reason, and not on rhetoric. Yes, rhetoric helps, but reason and validity are much more powerful.  I want everybody to understand why this is an important issue, one that deserves coverage, and one that deserves our involvement. More importantly, I want everybody to understand why the right thing to do is obvious.

To start, let me mention the letters and numbers that make up the label, “Bill C-398.” Keep them in your head – at least for a moment. If you’re the sort that prefers hearing at least a quick definition, then this one might work:

“Bill C-398 aims to reform CAMR and make it easier for Canada to export affordable, life-saving, generic medicines to developing countries.”

~Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network

If you’re thinking that this is a Canadian thing, then think again. Other rich countries are watching how Canada will behave. There’s always a few in Europe, and apparently even China is curious. In the U.S., the topic appears to be quenched, but the behaviour of the Canadian government could catalyze dialogue. And if you’re not from a rich country? Well, you might actually have lives that will be affected by it, millions of lives even.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: the developing world is heavily burdened with a variety of diseases, many of which are causing massive numbers of suffering and deaths.

This is understandably big. It’s a huge global challenge, and there are many reasons for why it exists and why it is difficult to both comprehend and fix. However, the presence of effective medicines is not one of the reasons. There is medicine out there that can help, and there is also a flow (sometimes slow) of discoveries that make these medicines better and more effective. In the case of HIV/AIDS, there are drugs that essentially turn the disease from a death sentence to something that is chronic and manageable. I can’t overstate how significant that piece of information is: it tells us that people do not have to die from HIV/AIDS.

So what’s the issue?

The issue is control without regard for doing the right thing: This is essentially about patents. It’s not that patents are bad, but rather that patents can be bad. As you probably already know, patents are a service provided by government to protect an inventor, such that the inventor has an element of control over how their innovation/product gets used. This is generally a good thing, because ultimately it provides order to a process that would get very chaotic very quickly should the patent not exist. However, sometimes the inventor isn’t the best person to make decisions about control. Sometimes, the inventor doesn’t have the best information to take stock of a situation, or sometimes there might be a moral argument where monetary performance should not take precedent. In other words, sometimes, there are special circumstances where you could say it is reasonable that this control is tweaked.

To illustrate this, here are some hypothetical (and not so hypothetical examples):

1. Your country has experienced a massive storm, perhaps one named after a character in Grease, and it has hit the East coast very very hard.  Many folks are still without power and water, but there is technology that would be incredibly useful to mitigate this. However, your resources are already stretched and this technology is too expensive at the scale that is required in such an emergency.

2. Someone has declared war on your country. To defend yourself, you would like to utilize a particular product. Unfortunately, it is under a cost prohibitive patent and therefore out of reach.

3. There are markets where your life saving drug is not being sold because no-one can afford them anyway. However, the drug (which could be a matter of life and death for millions) could be made at a cost (i.e. a generic) that makes it accessible in these markets, but if and only if, the patent over them is adjusted.

Here is my point. In all of the above cases, you would like to live in a civil society where the government can step in and forcibly change the patent, because in every case, there is an element of morality involved. And guess what – governments can do this and they do! It’s called a “compulsory license,” and they exist for this very purpose.

In fact, even the WTO is on board with this idea. They recognize that in some circumstances, such as those pertaining to global health, there needs to be an understanding that using such compulsory licenses is both necessary and an obligation. In fact, if you have a hankering for the legalese that outlines this for patents over essential medicines, you need only look up info on the Doha Declaration.

Canada actually took this to heart with a bill that came into force in 2005. Often referred to as “Canada’s Access to Medicine Regime” (or CAMR), it was an effort to put into action, the principles and details provided by the Doha Declaration. It was a way to try and enact compulsory licenses for the home production of generic drugs so that more accessible drugs could be produced. It was a good gesture.

Unfortunately, this initial attempt was flawed. The process was simply way too complicated, contingent on an army of legal expertise to navigate, which was all the more problematic because many of the actors involved did not have the means or access to do this. Indeed, the bill seems to contain a paradox in it, in that it can be interpreted as logically impossible to use. If you look closely, there’s a “you can’t do B until you do A” and a “you can’t do A until you do B” error in the details (see question 9 in this document for more details).

It was also very inefficient in that when a compulsory license was negotiated, it was always a one time affair, a one order affair, with specific amounts that could not be changed despite possible reassessment of needs, only good for one country, etc, etc, etc. Indeed, in the years that the law has been available, it has pretty much sat idle (I believe there has still only been one successful case where drugs were actually made and delivered, which provided ample evidence to demonstrate that this process was difficult at best). In fact, if someone were to asked me how difficult things are, the best description I could come up with, is that is it “catastrophically high maintenance.”

Which (finally) brings us to “Bill C-398.” This bill is basically “the edit.” Its sole purpose is to address the things that made the previous bill so ineffective, and at its heart it allows a more streamline and efficient way to issue these compulsory licenses so that production of these generics is more feasible.

No brainer right?

“Oh, but it’s not that simple,” they say. “There are many counter arguments,” they say. Only these counter arguments tend to sound like this:

Q: Shouldn’t we focus on other aspects of the problem. Like health infrastructure, or public education for HIV?

A: Hmmm… Let me get this straight. A government can only do one thing at a time? Nevermind the fact that passing this bill doesn’t actually cost the taxpayers anything. If anything, research has suggested that the foreign aid that we do provide will likely have greater bang for its buck.

Or maybe something like this:

Q: Wouldn’t these changes effect the pharmaceutical company’s bottom line, which in turn will effect R&D funding, and drive the home costs of medicine up?

A: The language is pretty clear in that these are generics that can only be sold in certain markets. These markets happen to constitute a very small percentage of pharmaceutical revenues (we’re talking single digits here). Oh yeah, plus you get royalties from doing this anyway. Also, there’s nothing stopping you from making your own generic version, so that you can enter the market yourself. Indeed, all research and current evidence would suggest a possible gain in bottom line. Plus, the R&D argument is totally a red herring. If that were so crucial, it might help if you spent less on PR and the like. Sneaky.

But what kills me, is that even if there is a reasonable and say unforeseen cause for concern, the Bill has a freaking “sunset clause” which is basically something that gives all parties a “we’ll see how it goes, in case it’s not working” escape route.

All to say, that because of this kind of political and big pharma semantics, there is a very real likelihood that the Bill will die (perhaps in the next few days when it is up for a second reading).  This would be an interesting commentary on the values of our government, although there is already a rich backdrop to this political story.

You should know that this is a Bill that had a previous incarnation two years ago.  It once lived in the country calling itself Bill C393, and it was one of those few Bills passed by the House of Commons where party lines were clearly broken.  Unfortunately,  during that time, the Conservative Senate stalled their vote to make it law, and they did this because they knew that there was an opportunity to “save face” with their industry interests by avoiding the issue altogether.

This was the frustrating part, and I have to admit, my trust in Canadian politics really took a hit.  Here, certain members of Senate, a place that traditionally falls in line with the vote of the House of Commons (because that is, after all, the democratic element of decision making), stalled discussion on this Bill 4 times over 4 days, and in doing so, Bill C-393 got killed by association when a new election was called.

To put this in perspective (and to use internet vernacular), let me just say that this horrific series of events represented a political facepalm of the highest possible order.  In fact, we invented a term for it: we called it a #megafacepalm.

And so here we are with another attempt. This is the essence of why you should care about BILL C-398. But what can you do?

Well, for starters, you can lend a hand by speaking out. Retweet this blog post, write about it yourself. You should definitely send an email to Prime Minister Harper and a few of his key Members of Parliament by using this ridiculously easy petition. If you’ve got something meatier to say, how about copy pasting this entire list of emails, and let the Canadian government know how you feel. If you’re not Canadian, do these things anyway, and then make this issue pertinent in your own country. This is an urgent matter, and for Canadians, there is only so much time to advocate. It’s really an amazing chance for Canada to lead the way.

You can also immerse yourself in this cause and get as much information as possible. You can check out organizations such as the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, which has all sorts of great documents including this informative myth versus fact sheet.

If you’re a university student, you can check out your local UAEM chapter. If you’re a Grandmother, you can hear what Grandmothers Advocacy Network have to say. Better yet, check them all out, or join these groups and volunteer your time.

There is also a twitter campaign in progress.  Flood the feed with hashtags like #C398, #fixCAMR, #medicinesforall, #cdnpoli and tweet out your support with phrases like:

“Please vote YES to Bill #C398 on Wed! We need to #fixCAMR and improve #accesstomedicines! #cdnpoli”

“Have you signed the petition in support of #accesstomedicines yet? Go to www.medicinesforall.ca! Let’s #fixCAMR & pass #C398!”

If you think the idea of Bil C-398 above seems reasonable and just, please do whatever you can. Because through it all, you should never ever forget: “Access to life-saving medicines is not a luxury, it is a human right.”

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