Faces of bigotry.

OceanCountyFreeholders.jpg OK, here we go: this is just one of the stomach churning stories I alluded to at the start of the last post. Terrance has the full story and links here and here. Briefly: Laurel Hester and her partner of six years, Stacie Andree, registered as domestic partners a year ago, when Hester was diagnosed with lung cancer. Hester now has months to live, and New Jersey law has a loophole of sorts that allows the five assholes pictured above, the Ocean County freeholders board, to decide whether Andree will get Hester’s pension when she dies (it will mean the difference between keeping or losing the house they bought together). The board has said no. You can send them email; keep in mind that these scumbags have all the power here, since there’s no way to change the law before Hester dies, so forgo the satisfaction of a vicious rant and try to get them to do the right thing. Here’s what I sent:

Sirs —
I write to ask you to do the decent thing in respect of Lt Laurel Hester. She has earned that pension, and the right to say to whom it will pass when she dies, with almost a quarter of a century in service to her community. It is simply unjust to deny her that right.
The world is watching. Please show them that American justice has compassion at its core. Please do the right, the fair, the just, the American thing — and grant Lt Hester’s request.

Before I could write that, I had to get this out of my system:

You maggots. You self-righteous, self-satisfied, evil fucking bastards.
Laurel Hester worked her whole life in public service; she’s earned that pension and the right to say to whom it will pass on her death, and you have no right to deny her that. You happen to have the opportunity — the law has made an error, and handed you the opportunity to hurt someone — and you’re falling all over yourselves in your rush to take it.
You contemptible excuses for human beings. If there is a God of eternal torture, as the good Christians tell me, be assured that He is setting aside coals and pincers for you even as you read this.

The spousal unit tells me that Hester may be able to sidestep this whole thing by granting Andree power of attorney. I have the feeling that there’s a reason that won’t work, or they’d have simply done it and avoided the fuss. Any lawyers reading this? I didn’t explain it properly — spousal unit didn’t realise it was an inheritance issue, for which power of attorney is no use.

Ah, I needed that.

rg.jpg js.jpgrgjs.jpgI’ve got a dozen posts in the pipeline, none of which will probably ever be finished because I just don’t have the heart for it. Das Welt tut mir weh.
So here, in case you too are feeling overwhelmed: go see what real humanity looks like:

Sixty-one years ago, Joanna Zalucka hid a young Jewish girl in her bedroom for eight months, keeping the child from the Nazis in their native Poland during the Holocaust.
The girl survived, rejoined her parents and moved to Brooklyn in 1953. On Friday, Ruth Gruener, now 72, was reunited with her Polish friend at Kennedy International Airport.

Via Julia; modern picture from ABCNews, childhood pictures of Ruth (right) and Joanna from The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.

Posted in joy

An idea whose time has come.

Orac has a post up about MacGyver science — you know, supercolliders made out of toilet rolls and chewing gum, or in this case an electrophoresis rig made out of kitchen stuff. Orac concludes, sadly, that it’s not a practical way to cut lab costs. He’s right, but there are good ways to cut lab costs.
(There are bad ways, too. I’ve done the grow-your-own Taq thing that RPM mentions in comments; it’s not worth it. Too much fiddling and no one else in the lab will trust their experiments to your crappy enzyme anyway.)
For instance, commenter Dave raises a good point about resource pooling. A colleague of mine, lab manager in the last lab I worked in, estimated that he saved the lab about 30% of its running costs just by instituting a central ordering system. Once all orders went through him, he could shop around for best prices and pool orders with other labs to save on shipping. The institute that lab was in also saved itself a ton of money by putting together a central Store, so they could buy in bulk.
(A brief digression. It occurs to me that most of my tens of readers won’t be familiar with what it costs to do biomed research. Quite apart from salaries, on-costs and infrastructure, I’d guess that most labs spend at least $500/month/staff member just on reagents and consumables (such as disposable plasticware). For a medium sized lab of five people, that’s $30K per year. On top of that, costs vary widely from experiment to experiment; for instance, the lab I’m in now probably spends at least a further $20K/year on facilities for transgenic mice. If, like Orac, you do a lot of qRT-PCR, that’s spendy too — I think it goes close to $0.5/reaction and “a lot” is thousands of reactions per month, if not per week. To take a less fine-grained view, the average cost of an NIH grant (1992-96) was $274,710/year. Them’s your dollars, taxpayers, so you should be keeping an eye on us — in fact, there’s a whole nother post — hell, a whole nother career — right there.)
Anyway, the whole point of this post is: there’s another kind of resource pooling that is due for an internet-era upgrade: simple “hey have you got an antibody against X?” sharing. A while back, my current PI came up with the idea of a central database for sharing biological reagents; it’s an idea best illustrated by example. (For non-scientists that is; labrats reading this will already be punching themselves and going “oh man why didn’t I think of that, does it already exist, where is it gimme gimme gimme”. Patience, I’ll get to it.)
I happen to be interested at the moment in a protein called Smad3. We had an antibody to the molecule, but I also wanted to be able to distinguish between the phosphorylated (active) and non-phosphorylated (inactive) forms. You can buy an anti-phospho-Smad3 antibody, but it’ll cost a bundle and you may be buying a lot more than you need. For instance, the one I linked comes in 40 µl lots for $110 (though most antibodies typically aren’t sold in such small lots; the 100 µl/$250 size is much more usual). The company says that’s enough for 4 blots, but I could probably stretch it to 40 — if I wanted to run 40 blots, that is. Until I ran the first experiment, I didn’t know whether I was going to pursue that line of inquiry, so I didn’t want to toss 110 hard-earned taxpayer dollars (plus shipping and handling, and you really get screwed on that believe me) at something that might not pan out. (Plus, I wasn’t too keen on the cross-reactivity with pSmad1, a related molecule, that the linked antibody displays.)
In such cases, and there are MANY, MANY such cases, what you typically do is wander forlornly around the building, asking if anyone has the antibody (or plasmid, or yeast strain, or oligo, or whatever it is) that you want. I did that — even sent a couple of emails to groups elsewhere on campus — but no luck. So I did the next thing you do, which is I ran a few searches and read a few papers, and discovered that there were a couple of antibodies in the literature that fit my requirements nicely. One of these was made in the lab of Prof Ed Leof at the Mayo Clinic; promisingly, it was cited in several papers by other groups (“the anti-pSmad3 antibody was a gift from Ed Leof”). So I sent Prof Leof email, and about 24 hours later someone in his lab sent me enough of his antibody for at least 100 blots (Prof Leof, Dr Edens — if you’re reading this, thanks again, and FYI the Ab can be re-used at least ten times, just put azide in the dilution buffer). All it cost our lab was FedEx shipping for a small container on dry ice.
Now, that’s the way it’s supposed to work — and in fact, in my experience, the majority of such requests are met with similar collegiality and generosity. For myself, I am always pleased when I can help a colleague out. But here’s the thing — there’s probably a lab right here on campus that has an antibody I could have used. I tried the obvious suspects (labs working on systems in which Smad3 might play a role), but even though they didn’t have any I bet there’s someone on campus who does. It’s even likely that they bit the bullet and coughed up for the antibody on spec, and it’s been sitting in their -80°C freezer since that first experiment didn’t go the way they hoped. That shit happens all the time, ask any researcher. I want to emphasize that: this whole example, from me wanting something for just one look-see experiment to the likelihood that it was available on campus but I just couldn’t find it, happens all the time.
Enter the idea whose time has come: an online database into which labs everywhere input the biological reagents they’re willing to share: antibodies, plasmids, viruses, bacteria, yeast, mutant model animals, peptides, oligos, primer sets, cytokines, spendy chemicals — the list of potential shareables is enormous and ever-expanding. Some of this functionality exists — for instance if the mouse you want already exists, Jackson Labs probably has it or knows about it, and you can always do the literature thing like I did — but it’s scattered and inefficient. Think how much easier my quest for an anti-pSmad3 antibody would have been made by such a tool: one search and up comes a list of labs and antibodies, pick an antibody, sort the resulting labs by location, email (or walk over to) the nearest one. Here’s another example: I have a new search going right now — I want some Smad2/3-null mouse embryo fibroblasts and a set of Smad2/3 expression plasmids. I’ve sent out seven or eight emails to colleagues I found in the literature; I’ve had one negative and one positive response, but the positive response depends on permission from someone else from whom I’m still waiting to hear. I’m still not sure I’m bothering the right people, it’s been almost a week (and Thanksgiving’s coming up), and dammit there’s probably someone in Portland, or maybe at the Hutch in Seattle, who has what I want and would share it with me.
See what I mean? Happens all the time. I want that database and I want it now! Peter suggested I make it happen, at least initially on a limited, local scale — start with the six labs in our institute, then expand to include the whole OHSU campus. Great idea, so as a first step I googled around to see whether anyone had already done it — turns out they have:

Welcome to BioRoot Bioinformatics
BioRoot is a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering communication, collaboration, and increased productivity in the biological sciences through information exchange.
We provide centralized databases to collect, store, and disseminate information about commonly used molecular biology reagents: antibodies, plasmids, strains, and oligonucleotides.
Use of these BioReagent databases will cut costs, save time, and accelerate research benefiting the bench scientist, the PI, and the public.

The guy behind it is David Nix, who clearly has the programming chops to go from “an Excel spreadsheet uploaded to my web space somewhere”, which is probably where I was going to start, to a fully-functional database complete with privacy/security measures. Major, major kudos, dude. (What is slightly odd is that I found out about BioRoot by googling, and found David the same way. Why haven’t I heard of this everywhere? It’s the best thing since PubMed, it should be huge. Apart from one subscriber-only article in The Scientist, I couldn’t find anything.)
I’ve sent BioRoot an email, so we’ll see how things work out. If it’s what it looks like (and why wouldn’t it be?), I’m going to become a hardcore BioRoot evangelist.


That’s weird. My comment on this Inhabitat post was deleted. From memory, what I said was

Love the site too, but ads in feeds are a dealbreaker. If the ad-free excerpt feeds go I’ll just stop reading.

Am I missing something here? Why would you delete that? It occurs to me that there was no mention of culling the ad-free excerpt feeds, so I over-reached a bit there, but still. As it happens I have unsubscribed, because the “excerpts” turn out to be title-only and the titles aren’t all that informative. I read rss feeds for the convenience, because I don’t want to have to click through on every post. If the ads are all-important, if you’re running the blog as some kind of business, then this rant’s for you.
Schade, I really liked their stuff.
Update: I wrote the admin, and Jill F wrote back to say that my comment was collateral damage when she deleted a couple of obnoxious ones. I’m glad not to have given offense. Jill also points out that the site is free so it’s a bit rich for me to complain about ads. I confess to a deep hatred of advertising, but I didn’t mean to complain so much as add a data point to the thread. I can stand ads on the site, hell, I’ll even click through occasionally; it’s just ads in rss feeds that cross my personal line. I’ve left a new comment that I hope is clearer. (And — now that I look at that first comment again — less pushy.)

The world is run by 20-somethings.

And if more of them were like Adam Frankel we’d be a lot better off. I’m really impressed with his “ten lessons from the Kerry campaign”, for which he was a speechwriter. The excerpts below are to whet your appetite; do go read the whole thing.

The difference today between having good leaders and not having them is the difference between war and peace, life and death. It’s the difference between a satisfying, rewarding life and a miserable one, the difference between good health and sickness, prosperity and poverty, enlightenment and ignorance. Ultimately, it’s the difference between right and wrong.
When I was a senior in college, working on a thesis about the global AIDS pandemic, I met with a former Dean of the Yale School of Public Health. He asked me, “What’s the goal of the fight against AIDS?” I said, “To increase condom distribution around the world.” He said, “That’s a tactic. What’s the goal?” I tried again: “To increase our support for the Global AIDS Fund so countries can tackle their own epidemics.” He said, “That’s also a tactic.” “The goal,” he said, “is to stop the spread of AIDS and care for those who have it.”
If a politician needs a poll to know whether to raise an important issue, that politician has failed a central test of leadership.
I joined the Kerry Campaign, because I was angry about the course of our country, and I thought Kerry could change it. But as I realized, a few months into the campaign, anger will not sustain you … Whenever I was feeling exhausted or beat, no matter how small or unimportant the issue I was working on, I’d think about all the people in this country who were depending on us. That’s where I got my energy. You have to have a hunger to build — to repair — not just to tear down.
If you were born with a sense of injustice, hold onto it. If you were born with a sense of entitlement, I hope you’ll outgrow it. And if you were born with curiosity and an active mind, I hope it will lead you to a life in public service.

another update: Target still targeting women

Further to this entry, I got the same form letter back from Target that Joseph got:

From: guest.relations@target.com
Date Fri, 18 Nov 2005
To: me
Subject: Filling Prescriptions at Target
Dear Bill Hooker,
In our ongoing effort to provide great service to our guests, Target consistently ensures that prescriptions for the emergency contraceptive Plan B are filled. As an Equal Opportunity Employer, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also requires us to accommodate our team members

Cantwell can.

Via On The Road To 2008, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) has a petition she’d like you to sign:

Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska has introduced a bill to repeal the Magnuson Amendment, a law written by Washington’s own Warren Magnuson in 1977 to limit oil tanker traffic in Puget Sound. The Magnuson Amendment has kept the Cherry Point Refinery near Bellingham from becoming a super-port for oil to be shipped overseas and across the country. Stevens’ bill will undo these protections. If it passes, pristine Puget Sound is at risk for oil spills, with little economic or energy benefit to our state.
Senator Stevens has also suggested that Cherry Point should expand dramatically to refine oil taken from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. As you know, I have been leading the fight in the Senate against under-handed measures to open the Refuge to drilling, and I intend to fight this expansion. Stevens’ plan will quietly reverse important protections supported by Washington’s Republicans and Democrats for decades.
Last month, Democrats and Republicans in the House blocked a similar plan, but Senator Stevens is trying again. And this time he is keeping a low profile. But we can’t let him get away with it. We have to show Senator Stevens that Washington state won’t stand by silently and let one of our greatest treasures fall to the whims of greedy oil companies. Please join me in signing this petition to keep the Magnuson Amendment in place and protect Washington’s waterways and coastlines from being overrun with oil tankers.

Stevens (R-Porkbarrel) is, you may remember, the guy who wants to build a $223 million bridge from Ketchikan, Alaska (pop. 8,900) to its airport; the ferry ride the bridge will replace takes seven minutes. Stevens is also a constant menace to the ANWR. If you have a minute, go help Sen Cantwell smack him around some.