Monthly Archives: September 2014

A shaggy dog story

Shortly after Patricia O’Hara marries Sam Whack, a talking shaggy dog walks into the bank where Patricia works and asks her if he can borrow $10,000. The dog claims to know the bank manager. ‘What have you got for collateral,’ Patricia asks, and the dog presents her with a ceramic octopus that he claims is very valuable.

What is this? she asks.

What is this? she asks.

Confused, Patricia goes to the bank manager. ‘What is this?’ she asks.

“It’s a nick knack, Patty Whack, give the dog a loan.

R.E. Buxbaum, September 29, 2014. The nick knack belongs to a long-time friend, Rich Fezza. The joke is also a long-time friend. For other jokes, click on the navigation bar at right.

Change your underwear; of mites and men

The underware bomber mites make it right.

Umar, the underwear bomber.

For those who don’t know it, the underwear bomber, Umar Farook Abdulmutallab, wore his pair of explosive underwear for 3 weeks straight before trying to detonate them while flying over Detroit in 2009. They didn’t go off, leaving him scarred for life. It’s quite possible that the nasty little mites that live in underwear stopped the underwear bomber. They are a main source of US allergens too.

Dust mite, skin, and pollen seen with a light  microscope. Gimmie some skin.

Dust mite, skin, and pollen seen with a light microscope. Gimmie some skin.

If you’ve ever used an electron microscope to look at household objects, you’ll find them covered with brick-like flakes of dried out skin-cells: yours and your friends’. Each person sheds his or her skin every month, on average. The outer layer dries out and flakes off as new skin grows in behind it. Skin flakes are the single largest source of household dust, and if not for the fact that these flakes are the main food for mites, your house would be chock full of your left over skin. When sunlight shines in your window, you see the shimmer of skin-flakes hanging in the air. Under the electron microscope, the fresh skin flakes look like bricks, but mite-eaten skin flakes look irregular. Less common, but more busy are the mites.

The facial mite movie. They live on in us, about 1 per hair follicle, particularly favoring eyelashes. Whenever you shower, your shower with a friend.

The facial mite movie. They live on in us, about 1 per hair follicle, particularly favoring eyelashes. Whenever you shower, your shower with a friend.

Dry skin is mostly protein (keratin), plus cholesterol and squalene. This provides great nutrition for dust mites and their associated bacteria. In warm, damp environments, as in your underwear or mattress, these beasties multiply and eat the old skin. The average density of dust mites on a mattress is greater than 2500/gram of dust.[1]  The mites leave behind excrement and broken off mite-limbs: nasty bits that are the most common allergens in the US today.

An allergy to dust shows up as sneezing, coughing, clogged lungs, and eczema. The most effective cure is a high level of in-home hygiene; mites don’t like soap or dry air. You’ve go to mop and vacuum regularly. Clean and change your clothing, particularly your undergarments; rotate your mattresses, and shake the dust out of your bedding. Vacuuming is less-effective as a significant fraction of the nasties go through the filter and get spread around by the vacuum blower.

As it turns out, dust mites and their bacteria eat more than skin. They also eat dried body fluids, poop residue, and the particular explosive used by Umar Farook, pentaerythritol tetra nitrate, PETN (humans can eat and metabolize this stuff too — it’s an angina treatment). The mites turn PETN into less-explosive versions, plus more mites.

Mighty mites as seen with electron microscopy. They eat more than skin.

Mighty mites as seen with electron microscopy. They eat more than skin.

There are many varieties of mite living on and among us. Belly button mites, for example, and face mites as shown above (click on the image to see it move). On average, people have one facial mite per hair follicle. It’s also possible that the bomber was stopped by poor quality control engineering and not mites at all. Religion tends to be at odds with a science like quality control, and followers tend to put their faith in miracles.

Chigger turning on a dime

Chigger turning on a dime

larger than the dust mite is the chigger, shown at left. Chiggers leave visible bites, particularly along the underwear waste-band. There are larger-yet critters in the family: lice, bed bugs, crabs. Bathing regularly, and cleaning your stuff will rid yourself of all these beasties, at least temporarily. Keeping your hair short and your windows open helps too. Mites multiply in humid, warm environments. Opening the windows dries and cools the air, and blows out mite-bits that could cause wheezing. Benjamin Franklin and took air-baths too: walking around naked with the windows open, even in winter. It helped that he lived on the second floor. Other ways to minimize mite growth include sunlight, DOT (a modern version of DDT), and eucalyptus oil. At the very minimum, change your underwear regularly. It goes a long way to reduce dust embarrassing moments at the jihadist convention.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, Sept 21, 2014. Not all science or life is this weird and wonderful, but a lot is, and I prefer to write about the weird and wonderful bits. See e.g. the hazards of health food, the value of sunshine, or the cancer hazard of living near a river. Or the grammar of pirates.

New mixed drink, the R°

Earlier this week, R__ turned 21, the drinking age in most of the USA. As a gift to her, I thought I might invent a new mixed drink that would suit her taste, and make her birthday more special. My requirements: that it should be kosher, that it’s made with widely available ingredients; that it should be relatively sophisticated, that it should be lower in alcohol (a fatherly concern), and that it should taste good to her and the general public.

The R___: gin tonic and grenadine

The R°: gin, tonic , ice, and grenadine

What I came up with, is something I call,The R°. It’s a modification of one of the great drinks of the western world, the gin and tonic. My modification is to use less gin, and to use grenadine instead of the traditional squeeze of lime. As she gets older, she may want to increase the gin content. The recipe: put 2/3 shot gin in a 10 oz straight-sided glass. Fill the glass 2/3 full of ice, near-fill with tonic water, and add a dash of grenadine, 1/4 shot or so (I used Rose’s). Stir slightly so the pink color stays mostly on the bottom. The result is slightly sweeter than the traditional gin and tonic, kosher in almost all places (you’ve got to check, but generally true), fairly sophisticated, good-tasting, and a reminder of Israel, a country where pomegranates grow all over. If you order one at a place with black lights and doesn’t stir much,you’ll discover that the tonic water glows electric-blue.

The verdict: R__ liked it. My hope is that you will enjoy it too. As a literary note, grenade is French for pomegranate; hand grenades got their name because of the shape. This drink is also suitable for talk like a pirate day (September 19).

Sept 14, 2014. My only previous gastronomic post was a recipe to make great lemonade. For a song by my daughter, go here, or here. For a joke about a neutron walking into a bar, go here.

How do technology companies sell stuff?

As the owner of a technology company, REB Research, hydrogen generators and hydrogen purifiers, I spend a fair amount of time trying to sell my stuff, and wondering how other companies connect to potential customers and sell to them. Sales is perhaps the most important area of business success, the one that makes or breaks most businesses — but it was sadly ignored in my extensive college education. Business books are hardly better: they ignore the salesmen (and women); you’re left to imagine sales and profit came of themselves by the insight of the great leader. The great, successful internet companies are applauded for giving away services, and the failed interned companies are barely mentioned. And hardly any book mentions smaller manufacturing businesses, like mine.

So here are some sales thoughts: things I tried, things that worked, and didn’t. I started my company, REB Research, about 20 years ago as a professor at Michigan State University. I figured I knew more about hydrogen purifiers than most of my colleagues, and imagined this knowledge would bring me money (big mistake: I needed customers and profitable sales). My strategy was to publish papers on hydrogen and get some patents as a way to build credibility (worked reasonably well: I write well, do research well, and I’m reasonably inventive). Patents might have been a better strategy if I had not then allowed my patents to be re-written by lawyers. I built the company. while still a professor (a good idea, I think).

When I realized I needed sales, I decided to use trade fairs, conferences, and ads as the big companies did. Most of my budget went for ads in The Thomas Register of American Manufacturing, a fantastically large compendium of who did or sold what (it worked OK, but was since rendered obsolete by the internet). I bought $1500 worth of ads, and got 2 small lines plus a 1/8 page. That’s where I got my sales until the internet cam along. In retrospect, I suspect I should have bought more ads.

William Hamilton cartoon from the new-yorker. I sure wish I could make deals.

William Hamilton cartoon from the new-yorker.

My other big expense was trade fairs. Many big companies sold at trade fairs, events that are widely attended in my field. Sorry to say, I never found customers at these fairs, even when the fairs were dedicated to hydrogen, everyone who’d come by was was selling, and no one was buying, as best I could tell.Somehow, my bigger competitors (also at the fairs) seemed to get interest but I’m not sure if they got sales there. They seem to find sales somewhere, though. Is it me? Am I at the wrong fairs, or are fairs just a scam where no one wins but the organizers? I don’t know. Last month, I spent $2000 for a booth in Ann Arbor, MI, including $350 for inclusion into the promoter’s book and $400 for hand-out literature. As with previous events, few people came by and none showed anything like interest, I got no e-mail addresses and no sales. Some hungry students wandered the stalls for food and freebees, but there was not one person with money in his/her pocket and a relevant project to spend it on. I doubt anyone read the literature they took.

To date, virtually all of my sales have come from the internet. I got on the internet early, and that has helped my placement in Google. I’ve never bought a google ad, but this may change. Instead I was lucky. About 20 years ago, 1994?, I attended a conference at Tufts on membrane reactors, and stayed at a bed-and-breakfast. After the conference let out, the owner of the BnB suggested I visit something that was new at Harvard; a cyber cafe, the second one in the US. They had Macintosh computers and internet explorer a year before the company went public. I was hooked, went home, learned html, and wrote a web-site. I bought my domain name shortly thereafter.

The problem, I don’t know the next big thing. Twitter? Facebook? LinkedIn? I’m on 2 of these 3, and have gotten so sales from social media. I started a blog (you’re reading it), but I still wonder, why are the bigger companies selling more? The main difference I see is they attend a lot more product fairs than I do, have slicker web-sties (not very good ones, I think), and they do print advertising. Perhaps they match their fairs to their products better, or have a broader range of products. People need to see my products somewhere, but where? My latest idea: this week I bought Send me advice, or wish me luck.

Robert E. Buxbaum, flailing entrepreneur, September 10, 2014. Here’s a feedback form, the first time I’m adding one. 

Marijuana, paranoia, and creativity

Many studies have shown that marijuana use and paranoid schizophrenia go together, the effect getting stronger with longer-term and heavy use. There also seems to be a relation between marijuana (pot) and creativity. The Beetles and Stones; Dylan, DuChaps, and Obama: creative musicians painters, poets and politicians, smoked pot. Thus, we can ask what causes what: do crazy, creative folks smoke pot, or does pot-smoking cause normal folks to become crazy and creative, or is there some other relationship. Dope dealers would like you to believe that pot-smoking will make you a creative, sane genius, but this is clearly false advertising. If you were not a great artist, poet, or musician before, you are unlikely to be one after a few puffs of weed.

The Freak Brothers, by Gilbert Shelton. While these boys were not improved by dope, It would be a shame to put the artist in prison for any length of time.

The Freak Brothers, by Gilbert Shelton. What’s the relationship?

When things go together, we apply inductive reasoning. There are four possibilities: A causes B (pot makes you crazy and/or creative), B causes A (crazy folks smoke pot, perhaps as self medication), A and B are caused by a third thing C (in this case, poverty culture, or some genetic mutation). Finally, it’s possible there’s no real relationship but a failure to use statistics right. If we looked at how many golf tournaments were won by people with W last names (Woods, Wilson, Watson) we might be fooled to think it’s a causal relationship. Key science tidbit: correlation does not imply causation.

The most likely option, I suspect is that some of all of the above is going on here: There is an Oxford University study that THC, the main active ingredient in pot, causes some, temporary paranoia, and another study suggests that pot smoking and paranoid insanity may be caused by the same genetics. To this mix I’d like to add another semi-random causative: that heavy metals and other toxins that are sometimes found in marijuana are the main cause of the paranoia — while being harmful to creativity.

marijuana -paranoia

Pot cultivation is easy — that’s why it’s called weed– and cultivation is often illegal, even in countries with large pot use, like Jamaica. As a result, I suspect pot is grown preferentially in places contaminated with heavy metal toxins like vanadium, cadmium, mercury, and lead. No one wants to grow something illegal on their own, good crop-land. Instead it will be grown on toxic brownfields where no one goes. Heavy metals are known to absorb in plants, and are known to have negative psychoactive properties. Inhalation of mercury is known to make you paranoid: mad as a hatter. Thus, while the pot itself may not drive you nuts, it’s possible that heavy metals and other toxins in the pot-soil may. The creativity would have to come from some other source, and would be diminished by smoking bad weed.

I suspect that creativity is largely an in-born, genetic trait that can be improved marginally by education, but I also find that creative people are necessarily people who try new things, go off the beaten path. This, I suspect, is what leads them to pot and other “drug experiments.” You can’t be creative and walk the same, standard path as everyone else. I’d expect, therefore, that in high use countries, like Jamaica, creative success is preferentially found in the few, anti-establishment folks who eschew it.

Robert E. (landslide) Buxbaum, September 4, 2014. The words pot, marijuana, dope, and weed all mean the same but appear in different cultural contexts. To add to the confusion, Jamaicans refer to pot as ganja or skiff, and their version of paranoid schizophrenia is called “ganja psychosis”. I’m not anti-pot, but favor government regulation— perhaps along the lines of beer regulation, or perhaps the stricter regulation of Valium. My most recent essay was on the tension-balance between personal freedom and government control. I was recently elected in Oak Park’s 3rd voting district. My slogan: “A Chicken in every pot, not pot in every chicken”. I won by one vote. For those who are convinced they’ve become really deep, creative types without having to create anything, let me suggest the following cartoon about talent. Also, if pot made you smart, Jamaica would be floating in Einsteins.