Grg Lstr's linkdump and thoughts on science, family and things in the ocean that would kill you if given the opportunity.

Category: Science Fandom (page 1 of 11)

No, that probably is not a brown recluse bite, I’m sorry to say

This, THIS! Is a Brown Recluse, honey.

This, THIS! Is a Brown Recluse, Radel.

I think I love this press release from UC-Riverside. Yes, it is nicely written and has a fine, eye-catching headline. (Really, I appreciate these things.)

I think I love it, however, because it doesn’t solve a problem for me. In fact, it creates new ones. And, sometimes, you have to appreciate the beauty in the world burning (and itching). Every spider in my house is a brown recluse. Just is. Until proven otherwise. And, perhaps that’s the safest way to negotiate a world that contains brown recluse spiders, even if they really aren’t an issue here in Jenkintown.

Basically, in a JAMA Dermatology paper,  researchers suggest that a misdiagnosis of a brown recluse bite could mask other serious skin conditions. When I first saw this press release, I somehow thought it would be about how rare these bites are and how easily misdiagnosed. Nope, it turns out that, with some skin conditions, you might just prefer the bite. That’s not going to go over well in Stinkbug Manor.

Another reason to love this press release–this video:



That’s just gorgeous.

But it gets better! The UC-Riverside entomologist and his dermatology pals at University of Missouri Health Sciences Center (I say the whole thing to make the Missouri flacks happy) even came up with a mnemonic device: NOT RECLUSE. Which, well, a little on the nose, but there you go.

For example, the REC of NOT RECLUSE indicates Red, Elevated and Chronic. Recluse bites are whitish blue or purple (not red), flat (not elevated) and don’t last more than 3 months. So, if a patient has a wound that is elevated or red or persists more than 3 months, something other than brown recluse bite should be considered.

Then the release goes into  little biographical detail about the lead author, Rick Vetter, now retired UC-Riverside, who wrote a book on the topic and created a map of where you can find brown recluse spider populations.

Note: Not Pennsylvania

The Top 10 More Bester Fictional Labs

A friend sent a link at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, which you should read, that links to a Popular Science article, which is kind of meh, purporting to list the 10 Best Fictional Laboratories.  Its a click-bait article, as most of these Top X things are.  I can’t even disagree with their list, but it felt a bit lazy in their descriptions and their justifications, which just linked to other PopSci materials.

To save you from hitting the NEXT button nine times:

  1. Bat Cave
  2. Dexter’s Laboratory
  3. The Dharma Initiative from LOST
  4. “The Portal Lab” (C’mon, they mean Aperture Laboratories. I never even played the game and I knew this.)
  5. The “Jurassic Park Cloning Place” (For crying out loud InGen–International Genetics Technology–was the company!)
  6. The TARDIS (Really? I don’t recall any R&D occurring there. Weak.)
  7. The “Iron Man Lab” (Sigh. They should have gone with Stark Industries.)
  8. The Breaking Bad RV (Cute.)
  9. The Holodeck (That’s a stretch, but I guess they did some science there.)
  10. Frankenstein’s Laboratory (Strong finish, at least.)

Of course, this should be in descending order, but its easier to just hit the list button.

Its not overly objectionable, but I think I can do better for you.

The 10 Bester Fictional Laboratories


10. Veridian Dynamics

Veridian Dynamics was the all-encompassing R&D megacorp from the short-lived workplace sitcom, Better off Ted. It was full of wide-eyed, earnest scientists and evil corporate stooges looking to cure the world’s ills, especially the ones its marketing department created. It was surprisingly science literate for a sitcom, but my favorite bits were their parodies of corporate branding advertisements.

9. Global Dynamics


The winter before last I came down with pneumonia and spent the week watching Eureka on Netflix and vomiting so hard I burst the blood vessels in my eyes. (Those two things are related, mind you.)

Global Dynamics: Blowing Up Weekly

The central conceit of the series is that it took place in a secret government-funded laboratory/think tank (and accompanying small town) where researchers worked to create all sorts of sci-fi gadgets and gizmos to both destroy and create. Good times. Global Dynamics was the RAND Corporation-like home of the lab with seemingly infinite resources. A handsome Secret Service agent turned Sheriff was at hand to apply common sense solutions to the experiment gone awry-of-the-week

8. Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems


This one is a personal favorite. In one fictional universe, Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems is the New Jersey home of the evil Red Lectroids of Dimension 8 in the cult classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. They arrived on Earth just before the Halloween of 1938, landing in Grover’s Mill, NJ, after being exiled from their home dimension.

Led by the evil Lord John Whorfin (they’re all named John in Dimension 8), they learned to channel their evil in the most direct way possible, by becoming a post-war government contractor.

In another universe, Yoyodyne is the government contractor featured in Thomas Pynchon’s V. and The Crying of Lot 49, which inspired the reference of the name in Buckaroo Banzai, but also in the TV show Angel, Start Trek: The Next Generation and others.  There’s even a real Yoyodyne in New Jersey, a motorcycle parts manufacturer in Morristown.


7.  The Fortress of Solitude


An icy fortress where one superhuman goes to think and conduct research for the benefit of mankind. I know what you are thinking: Superman, really? Just because PopSci included a DC comic book reference, you can’t tell me that Superman’s Fortress of Solitude is a better laboratory than the Bat Cave! 

And you are right, my straw reader, quite right. But I’m not referring to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, I’m talking about the original.

The Fortress of Solitude of Doc Savage, the pulp polymath himself, predates Superman’s Fortress by at least a decade. Like Supes’, its in the arctic and its where an impossibly perfect hero goes to find comfort, rest, and work on engineering and medical projects. The Fortress is where Doc Savage created such amazing inventions as the automatic transmission, night vision, machine pistols and the answering machine, long before they were created in the real world.  When back amongst us mere humans, Savage had a cool lab/apartment/office on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building.

Unlike the Man of Steel, the Man of Bronze earned his physical toughness through a steady regimen of workouts and healthy eating. Superman’s a poseur in comparison.

6. S.T.A.R. Labs


If we are going to invoke DC Comics, we should recognize the foremost laboratory in their universe: Scientific and Technological Advanced Research (S.T.A.R.) Labs. Not only is S.T.A.R. home to some of the greatest minds in Research and Development, its also a franchise! Nearly every popular location on Earth (or Earth 2, depending on whether or not DC has gotten mired in its own backstory again) has a local S.T.A.R. lab outlet. Convenient!

7. Daystrom Institute

The Daystrom Instiute Motto: Conatus sum et defecit


Dr. Richard Daystrom had a vision: What if we could take all the fun out space exploration and just let drone starships do the work for us? It will leave us free to do…I dunno…something.

In the classic Star Trek episode “Ultimate Computer,” Daystrom creates an artificial intelligence to automate the USS Enterprise (with Starfleet’s blessing), which quickly goes out of control attacking and destroying the USS Lexington and USS Excalibur during war games (without Starfleet’s blessing).

Despite Dick Daystrom’s failure, his legacy carried on in The Daystrom Institute, a center of advanced learning, the particulars of which were never quite clear yet seemed to be quite prominent in Star Trek: The Next Generation and subsequent series (and their novel tie-ins).

4. Torchwood Institute


To be honest, I never liked the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood, but the concept was cool. Beneath Roald Dahl Plass stood a secret institution first created by Queen Victoria (to prepare against the Doctor, mind you, but later co-opted by pro-Doctor forces) to create defenses against alien invasion. They’d apply alien artifacts, recovered on Earth, to the defense of the planet…and further the glory of the British Empire. The Institute’s rich background history really added a great dimension to Doctor Who (and later its own, rather icky, series).

3. The Banzai Institute for Biomedical Research and Strategic Information


I can’t reference Yoyodyne without including the The Banzai Institute, home of Buckaroo Banzai, later responsible for the downfall of the Red Lectroids. Adding to the circular nature of things here, Buckaroo Banzai was created as a modern take on Doc Savage. Like Savage, he was a physician, physicist, inventor, musician, adventurer and all around awesome guy (Buckaroo lacked the physical perfection of Savage, but played the micro trumpet really well).

Unresolved: The Deal with the Watermelon

Where Savage had the Fabulous Five (companions who were all the tops in their respective fields, except where that might have overlapped Doc Savage’s awesomeness), Banzai had the Hong Kong Cavaliers, who helped create his oscillation overthruster (enabling Buck to cross dimensions) and also formed his backup band.

Syncopated music, baby.


The Banzai Institute was Buckaroo’s home base for both science and adventure. Other than the rocket car, brain surgery and the dimensional thing, they never really got into the goings on at the Banzai Institute. All you have to know is that it was impossibly awesome.

Best. End credits theme. Ever.

2. Baxter Building

This place has got everything.


Where PopSci goes for Iron Man, the true genius of the Marvel Universe is Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four. They make their headquarters at the Baxter Building, which serves as both Reed’s lab (where unstable molecules rule!) and the launch point of some wacky out-of-this-world adventuring.

Once, Doctor Doom launched it into space. Iron Man’s Malibu home could barely withstand a mere rocket attack. Advantage: Fantastic Four.

Too bad their movies were just awful. The FF work best when they’re out gallivanting across dimensions, not when they’re in some crummy action flick.

1. The Wildfire Laboratories


From Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain (and the movie of the same name).  Wildfire was a government program that led the study of the deadly alien microbe “Andromeda” that murderized everyone in Piedmont, AZ. Fortunately, the microbe mutates to a nonlethal form, so Crichton had to throw in some panic, some random epilepsy, and a nuclear bomb to spice things up.

Oh yeah, some science getting done here.

Beneath an unassuming USDA agricultural station hid the Wildfire Laboratories, a high tech labspace that rivaled the Baxter Building for its impressive features and the USS Enterprise for its use of the self-destruct button.  The Wildfire Laboratories were designed in that cool, white and futuristic  60s-70s’ Tomorrowland sensibility. Dig it.

When they designed the new vivarium at work, I was disappointed the decontamination chamber didn’t involve stripping naked to be irradiated by exfoliating UV light. Oh well.


Dr. Leavitt, don’t look at the light. Oh, its facing the other way? Why the seizure then? Oh, and you’re no longer a man in this version!


Thing I learned: red-hot nickel makes an awesome sound when dropped into water

Just listen to this…well, watch it too:

Now, where can I find some nickel…

[Most Recent Quotes from]

What’s the deal with wooden nickels anyway?

Have soldering iron and spatula, will travel.

As seen on the careers page from Planetary Resources, the asteroid mining company…

Hotlinked from Planetary Resources.

If you can live up to these standards, you may very well be a great nerd and, possibly, a fantastic cook.

Some questions that you may be asked during the application/interview include:

Are you a space nut? Prove it!
Look around your home. How would we know that you are an engineer?
What are your three favorite tools to get the job done? What makes them your favorites?
What do you want to get out of working for Planetary Resources?
What do you do for fun?
Have you seen a product through its full life cycle: design, analysis, fab, assembly, test, and ops?
Have you designed and built hardware that someone else has used?
Have you written code that someone else has used?
Do you know how to use a mill and a lathe?
Can you debug a PCB?
Does a convoluted, system-level problem make you tingle with excitement?
Do you know how to create an interplanetary spacecraft trajectory to a celestial target?
Are you a mean cook?
Can you fix the heat if it breaks?
We would recognize your handiwork on such space missions or product releases as…
Are your soldering skills are best described as Cro-Magnon, Offensive, Survivable, Clean and Functional, Mil-spec compliant, or Angelic (cue choir sounds)?
How would you feel about moving to the Seattle area?
At Planetary Resources, we fail. A lot. In fact, we celebrate failure. Give us an example of one of your failures, how you fixed it, and what you learned from it.
What name would you give a crash test dummy, and why?
Paste a link to a picture that best describes you, but is not OF you.
If you were asked to give a 20 minute presentation on a subject for which you consider yourself an expert, what would be the topic of the presentation?

Golden Fleece hunts are never quests worth taking on–Or in Defense of Robot Squirrels

As I ranted before, Tom Coburn is the most recent fool in the Senate to take up quest for the Golden Fleece–an “award” popularized by Sen. William Proxmire to note wasteful government spending. (Coburn calls his the Wastebook [pdf]) This year, Coburn is targeting researchers at San Diego State University and their robot squirrel project, which was funded by the National Science Foundation to the tune of $325,000.

Robot Squirrel!

Coburn claims that such wasteful spending adds up to 18 billion in misspent taxpayer dollars, yet curiously this small project was highlighted as among the most egregious. Really, this is the best you got? This is how you lead your press releases for your Wastebook?

I’m not going to go into depth on why these awards are misguided–particularly when they are given to projects from NSF and NIH. In this case, as in years past, I’m sure some of Coburn’s staffers scanned through NSF’s list of award abstracts until they found something that sounds silly. At face value, robot squirrels sound silly. But read the abstract to see what we get for our money:

1) better robots (a plus)
2) a cool platform improving our knowledge about our world (squirrels are cool)
3) new scientists and engineers (or is supporting a better educated class of technically-minded people no longer a good idea?)

All for $325,000–over 4 (or possibly just 2) YEARS! Yes, look again at the NSF link above. The project begins in 2010 and is projected to end in 2014, with $325,000 awarded to date. Per year, that’s probably less than Coburn’s driver makes each year–and certainly less than his publicist.

I support the notion of an efficient, smaller government–and even the notion of going after “pork” spending–but this is a silly way to go about it. When you lump legitimate science in with congressional largesse, it undermines both the science and the notion that the porkbarrel can be a bad thing. That is, I see that Coburn’s staff misunderstood this project and I’m more inclined to think they’re full of beans, overall.

You can argue that agencies like NSF and NIH waste money by funding “safe” projects that may not necessarily be groundbreaking, but you’d be hard-pressed to find peer review-driven grants barren of merit. You can’t say that for spending in Congress.

Alternatives to Golden Fleece/Argo metaphors:
Coburn has treed a squirrel, but that dog won’t hunt.
Garbage in, Wastebook out.

That’s it. I was up in the ER most of last night with the missus (she’s fine, thanks), so pardon if this isn’t the most coherent defense of mechanical squirrel-based research ever.

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