Monthly Archives: August 2013

Ozone hole shrinks to near minimum recorded size

The hole in the ozone layer, prominently displayed in Al Gore’s 2006 movie, an inconvenient truth has been oscillating in size and generally shrinking since 1996. It’s currently reached its second lowest size on record.

South pole ozone hole shrinks to 2nd smallest size on record. Credit: BIRA/IASB

South pole ozone hole (blue circle in photo), shrinks to its 2nd smallest size on record. Note outline of antarctica plus end of south america and africa. Photo Credit: BIRA/IASB

The reason for the oscillation is unknown. The ozone hole is small this year, was large for the last few years, and was slightly smaller in 2002. My guess is that it will be big again in 2013. Ozone is an alternate form of oxygen containing three oxygen atoms instead of the usual two. It is an unstable compound formed by ions in the upper atmosphere acting on regular oxygen. Though the ozone concentration in the atmosphere is low, ozone is important because it helps shield people from UV radiation — radiation that could otherwise cause cancer (it also has some positive effects on bones, etc.).

An atmospheric model of ozone chemistry implicated chlorofluorocarbons (freons) as a cause of observed ozone depletion. In the 1980s, this led to countries restricting the use of freon refrigerants. Perhaps these laws are related to the shrinkage of the ozone hole, perhaps not. There has been no net decrease in the amount of chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere, and the models that led to banning them did not predicted the ozone oscillations we now see are common — a fault also found with models of global warming and of stock market behavior. Our best computer models do not do well with oscillatory behaviors. As Alan Greenspan quipped, our best models successfully predicted eight of the last five recessions. Whatever the cause, the good news is that the ozone hole has closed, at least temporarily. Here’s why the sky is blue, and some thoughts on sunlight, radiation and health.

by Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, dedicated to bringing good news to the perpetually glum.

Detroit Teachers are not paid too much

Detroit is bankrupt financially, but not because the public education teachers have negotiated rich contracts. If anything Detroit teachers are paid too little given the hardship of their work. The education problem in Detroit, I think, is with the quality of education, and of life. Parents leave Detroit, if they can afford it; students who can’t leave the city avoid the Detroit system by transferring to private schools, by commuting to schools in the suburbs, or by staying home. Fewer than half of Detroit students are in the Detroit public schools.

The average salary for a public school teacher in Detroit is (2013) $51,000 per year. That’s 3% less than the national average and $3,020/year less than the Michigan average. While some Detroit teachers are paid over $100,000 per year, a factoid that angers some on the right, that’s a minority of teachers, only those with advanced degrees and many years of seniority. For every one of these, the Detroit system has several assistant teachers, substitute teachers, and early childhood teachers earning $20,000 to $25,000/ year. That’s an awfully low salary given their education and the danger and difficulty of their work. It’s less than janitors are paid on an annual basis (janitors work more hours generally). This is a city with 25 times the murder rate in the rest of the state. If anything, good teachers deserve a higher salary.

Detroit public schools provide among the worst math education in the US. In 2009, showing the lowest math proficiency scores ever recorded in the 21-year history of the national math proficiency test. Attendance and graduation are low too: Friday attendance averages 71.2%, and is never as high as 80% on any day. The high-school graduation rate in Detroit is only 29.4%. Interested parents have responded by shifting their children out of the Detroit system at the rate of 8000/year. Currently, less than half of school age children go to Detroit public schools (51,070 last year); 50,076 go to charter schools, some 9,500 go to schools in the suburbs, and 8,783, those in the 5% in worst-performing schools, are now educated by the state reform district.

Outside a state run reform district school, The state has taken over the 5% worst performing schools.

The state of Michigan has taken over the 5% worst performing schools in Detroit through their “Reform District” system. They provide supplies and emphasize job-skills.

Poor attendance and the departure of interested students makes it hard for any teacher to handle a class. Teachers must try to teach responsibility to kids who don’t show up, in a high crime setting, with only a crooked city council to look up to. This is a city council that oversaw decades of “pay for play,” where you had to bribe the elected officials to bid on projects. Even among officials who don’t directly steal, there is a pattern of giving themselves and their families fancy cars or gambling trips to Canada using taxpayers dollars. The mayor awarded Cadillac Escaldes to his family and friends, and had a 22-man team of police to protect him. On this environment, a teacher has to be a real hero to achieve even modest results.

Student departure means there a surfeit of teachers and schools, but it is hard to see what to do. You’d like to reassign teachers who are on the payroll, but doing little, and fire the worst teachers. Sorry to say, it’s hard to fire anyone, and it’s hard to figure out which are the bad teachers; just because your class can’t read doesn’t mean you are a bad teacher. Recently a teacher of the year was fired because the evaluation formula gave her a low rating.

Making changes involves upending union seniority rules. Further, there is an Americans with Disability Act that protects older teachers, along with the lazy, the thief, and the drug addict — assuming they claim disability by frailty, poor upbringing or mental disease. To speed change along, I would like to see the elected education board replaced by an appointed board with the power to act quickly and the responsibility to deliver quality education within the current budget. Unlike the present system, there must be oversight to keep them from using the money on themselves.

She state could take over more schools into the reform school district, or they could remove entire school districts from Detroit incorporation and make them Michigan townships. A Michigan township has more flexibility in how they run schools, police, and other services. They can run as many schools as they want, and can contract with their neighbors or independent suppliers for the rest. A city has to provide schools for everyone who’s not opted out. Detroit’s population density already matches that of rural areas; rural management might benefit some communities.

I would like to see the curriculum modified to be more financially relevant. Detroit schools could reinstate classes in shop and trade-skills. In effect that’s what’s done at Detroit’s magnet schools, e.g. the Cass Academy and the Edison Academy. It’s also the heart of several charter schools in the state-run reform district. Shop class teaches math, an important basis of science, and responsibility. If your project looks worse than your neighbor’s, you can only blame yourself, not the system. And if you take home your work, there is that reward for doing a good job. As a very last thought, I’d like to see teachers paid more than janitors; this means that the current wage structure has to change. If nothing else, a change would show that there is a monetary value in education.

Robert Buxbaum, August 16, 2013; I live outside Detroit, in one of the school districts that students go to when they flee the city.

Slowing Cancer with Fish and Unhealth Food

Some 25 years ago, while still a chemical engineering professor at Michigan State University, I did some statistical work for a group in the Physiology department on the relationship between diet and cancer. The research involved giving cancer to groups of rats and feeding them different diets of the same calorie intake to see which promoted or slowed the disease. It had been determined that low-calorie diets slowed cancer growth, and were good for longevity in general, while overweight rats died young (true in humans too, by the way, though there’s a limit and starvation will kill you).

The group found that fish oil was generally good for you, but they found that there were several unhealthy foods that slowed cancer growth in rats. The statistics were clouded by the fact that cancer growth rates are not normally distributed, and I was brought in to help untangle the observations.

With help from probability paper (a favorite trick of mine), I confirmed that healthy rats fared better on healthily diets, but cancerous rats did better with some unhealth food. Sick or well, all rats did best with fish oil, and all rats did pretty well with olive oil, but the cancerous rats did better with lard or palm oil (normally an unhealthy diet) and very poorly with corn oil or canola, oils that are normally healthful. The results are published in several articles in the journals “Cancer” and “Cancer Research.”

Among vitamins, they found something similar (it was before I joined the group). Several anti-oxidizing vitamins, A, D and E made things worse for carcinogenic rats while being good for healthy rats (and for people in moderation). Moderation is key; too much of a good thing isn’t good, and a diet with too much fish oil promotes cancer.

What seems to be happening is that the cancer cells grow at the same rate with all of the equi-caloric diets, but that there was a difference the rate of natural cancer cell death. More cancer cells died when the rat was fed junk food oils than those fed a diet of corn oil and canola. Similarly, the reason anti-oxidizing vitamins hurt cancerous rats was that fewer cancer cells died when the rats were fed these vitamins. A working hypothesis is that the junk oils (and the fish oil) produced free radicals that did more damage to the cancer than to the rats. In healthy rats (and people), these free radicals are bad, promoting cell mutation, cell degradation, and sometimes cancer. But perhaps our body use these same free radicals to fight disease.

Larger amounts of vitamins A, D, and E hurt cancerous-rats by removing the free radicals they normally use fight the disease, or so our model went. Bad oils and fish-oil in moderation, with calorie intake held constant, helped slow the cancer, by a presumed mechanism of adding a few more free radicals. Fish oil, it can be assumed, killed some healthy cells in the healthy rats too, but not enough to cause problems when taken in moderation. Even healthy people are often benefitted by poisons like sunlight, coffee, alcohol and radiation.

At this point, a warning is in-order: Don’t rely on fish oil and lard as home remedies if you’ve got cancer. Rats are not people, and your calorie intake is not held artificially constant with no other treatments given. Get treated by a real doctor — he or she will use radiation and/ or real drugs, and those will form the right amount of free radicals, targeted to the right places. Our rats were given massive amounts of cancer and had no other treatment besides diet. Excess vitamin A has been shown to be bad for humans under treatment for lung cancer, and that’s perhaps because of the mechanism we imagine, or perhaps everything works by some other mechanism. However it works, a little fish in your diet is probably a good idea whether you are sick or well.

A simpler health trick is that it couldn’t hurt most Americans is a lower calorie diet, especially if combined with exercise. Dr. Mites, a colleague of mine in the department (now deceased at 90+) liked to say that, if exercise could be put into a pill, it would be the most prescribed drug in America. There are few things that would benefit most Americans more than (moderate) exercise. There was a sign in the physiology office, perhaps his doing, “If it’s physical, it’s therapy.”

Anyway these are some useful things I learned as an associate professor in the physiology department at Michigan State. I ended up writing 30-35 physiology papers, e.g. on how cells crawl and cell regulation through architecture; and I met a lot of cool people. Perhaps I’ll blog more about health, biology, the body, or about non-normal statistics and probability paper. Please tell me what you’re interested in, or give me some keen insights of your own.

Dr. Robert Buxbaum is a Chemical Engineer who mostly works in hydrogen I’ve published some 75 technical papers, including two each in Science and Nature: fancy magazines that you’d normally have to pay for, but this blog is free. August 14, 2013

Surrealists art joke

How many surrealists does it take to screw in a lightbulb.


The fish.


Surrealism aims to show the reality that exceeds realism; the dream-like absurd that is beyond the rational, common-sensical and practical. Beyond control engineering.

And you know “How many engineers would it take to screw in a lightbulb?” —- “Minimally two, and it would have to be a very large lightbulb.”

Even if the insights of surrealism are common-place, for example, that the eye is a false mirror of the world, I like is that they become real (if the surrealist is talented.)

False Mirror by Magritte; The idea, I suppose is that the eye is a false mirror of the world, seeing what's already within it.

False Mirror by Magritte; the idea, I suppose is that we see what’s already within us.

“The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the oceans was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” What I particularly like is the falseness of the mirror is shown as both false and true. The world is rarely this or that. Another insight / joke.

We all have masks, especially with those we love.

We all have masks, especially with those we love.

I imagine most I could make second-rate surrealistic works. The way to know your work is second rate it’s beautiful and insightful, but not funny.

Creation of Man-the-militant in the style of Michelangelo

Creation of Man-the-militant. Kuksi. It’s well done, and interesting (a retake on Michelangelo), but it’s not funny. See my cartoon in mechanical v civil engineers joke.

And then there is bad modern art. You could argue that this isn’t surreal, but some sort of other modern art, or post modern art. But that’s all false: it’s just bad art.

Bad modern art: little skill, little meaning, no humor. If you have to ask: "is it art?" It usually isn't.

Bad modern art: little skill, little meaning, no humor. If you have to ask: “is it art?” It usually isn’t.

If you buy something like this, and put it in your corporate headquarters lobby, the joke’s on you, and the artist is laughing his or her way to the bank.  Here is a link to why surrealism should be funny, And why architecture should not be (someone’s got to live in that joke).

R. E. Buxbaum, August 5, 2013

Mechanical Engineer v Civil Engineer Joke

What’s the difference between a mechanical engineer and a civil engineer?



Mechanical engineers make weapons; civil engineers make targets.



Is funny because ….. it’s sort of true. Much of engineering is war-related, and always was. In earlier times, an engineer was someone who made engines of war: catapults, battering rams, and the like. Nowadays, mechanical engineers are the main designers for tanks, cannons, and ships. A civil engineer is one whose projects have civilian applications. But as these projects have military uses (roads, ports, offices, and bridges, for example), civilian projects are major targets for an opposing army.

An observation about war and peace: if you are really at making peacetime products, you’re a hero in your country and outside; if you design weapons, you are vilified by the enemy and likely to become a prisoner in your own land. Consider the designers of the atom bomb in the US, Russia, Israel, India, or Iran. They can’t go abroad, and are likely suspect at home. The leaders have to worry that these scientists will give the same weapons to their enemies (it’s happened) or that they will not be dedicated enough to make the next iteration of the weapon (ditto).

My advice: specialize items for peacetime or civilian use if you can. Those who make better cars, music, art or architecture are welcome everywhere; advances in death usually rebound on the inventor. Here’s a joke comparing chemists and chemical engineers, a piece on a favorite car engine advance, on perfect tuning of musical instrumentsan architecture joke, and a control engineer joke. People like civil engineers.

What sort of guy does a king keep locked in the castle dungeon — not the common thief.  #wordstothewise.

R. E. Buxbaum, August 1, 2013. I’m a chemical engineer, who makes hydrogen stuff and consults, mostly for peace-time use.