My First Blog Post

The Biden crime bill and Crack

— Oscar Wilde.

In the late 1980’s, cities in this country were confronted with a new drug fad involving cocaine; namely, “freebasing”. Traditionally, cocaine is abused by “snorting”; the user inhales the powder up the nose. This can be somewhat uncomfortable, In that the individual crystals are rather sharp, and repeated use can damage the septum, the membrane between the nostrils.

I hate to do this, but we need to consider some chemistry here. Cocaine, along with most other drugs, fall into a category called “nitrogeneous bases”, substances that contain nitrogen in the molecule. These are frequently messy, smelly liquids (think of ammonia). As such their physical properties render them unfit for ingestion. What is generally done about this is to convert them chemically to acid salts, usually the hydrochloride (HCl). This dramatically alters them to a more suitable form for use in the body. For instance, the conversion makes them dissolve better I n water, which makes up most of us. Another property which changes is the melting point; it is much lower in the freebase form. One can smoke the stuff, which gives a quicker high, and avoids damage to the nose. Win-Win!

In a pervious life, I worked in DEA forensic labs. I was once called upon to do a dog-and-pony show for agency higher-ups. I took a gram of cocaine HCl , added an ounce or so of water and a teaspoonful of baking soda, stirred briefly, and a white solid dropped to the bottom of the beaker. I poured out the water, and voila! Crack cocaine!!

In so doing, however, I increased the penalty for dealing the mere gram of coke (as the HCl salt) to what it would have been for a kilo. Talk about value added!

Evidentally, Joe Biden, then a senator, had some responsibility for drastically increasing penalties for trafficking on crack, vis a vis cocaine as the HCl salt. This had the unintended consequence of filing jails with low level druggies, mostlyminorities, with no effect to speak of on cocaine trafficking by the organized crime cartels, who rarely fooled with crack.

The crack epidemic was a crisis in many large cities at the time. Whether this did any good to deal with the problem is well above my pay grade. The law was modified in 2010 to reduce the sentencing disparity from 1,000 to 18. It is probably still too great, but a baby step in the right direction, maybe.

Miscellany (stuff that keeps me awake at night)

Did the Founders ever contemplate the wide disparities in population between the states of our union? They were probably not that great among the 13 originals. While there had to be compromises to protect the smaller ones (the Senate and the Electoral College) it seems unlikely that anyone could have forseen the California/Wyoming population disparity that exists today. If we have to have a Senate where each state gets two regardless of population, maybe the British House of Lords would be a more suitable role model, kind of an elite debating club without any power to influence events. Likewise, the Electoral “College”. MSNBC’s 10PM host, Lawrence O’Donnell pointed out recently that while many democracies copied parts of our founding documents, none of them included this anachronism,. Oh well, too late now……..

There seems to be a movement to declare the United States a “Christian nation”. I can’t help thinking what they really mean is a White Christian nation.What about Jews, Muslims, atheists, Black and brown folks, Asians, and indigenous people, to name a few. I am old enough to remember when Catholics were less than desired. Maybe we need to include Protestants in the definition (White Protestant Christian nation. Has a nice ring to it?). The Founders clearly never intended us to be quasi religious (separation of church and state?). WWJD – remember that saying? What would Jesus of Nazareth think of some of this nonsense?

Lest you think I’m a chronic malcontent, I fully realize that this nation is the last, best hope for humankind. Why do we have an immigration problem? Very, very few people want to leave compared with the “huddled masses yearning to be free”, and risking their lives to get here. And when they do get here, the vast majority are willing to work very hard to earn their keep. Full disclosure: both my wife and I are children of immigrants, from Italy and France, respectively. This country needs immigrants, since we appear to have a shortage of workers. There is a lot to do! We need all the help we can get.

Let the People Vote!! We’ve come a long way from the original republic where relatively few were educated. Much is made of the fact that our participation rate is lower than other democracies. On the other hand, the USSR had rates in the 90’s (you could be arrested or shot if you didn’t vote, but that’s another story). Even well predating GOP efforts to curtail voting, we make it too hard. The pandemic brought about a major increase in voting by mail, but the (GOP) powers that be are trying to roll back these reforms. We are a large nation consisting of 50+ voting units, Why should it be significantly harder to cast ballots in some states than others? We need federal standards for ballot access (sorry if this makes me seem like a Socialist). LET THE PEOPLE VOTE!

On a brighter note, wouldn’t it be nice if the people of this nation was as well off as the ones in the drug commercials? Talk about the good life! Just latch onto that (expensive) pharmaceutical. Now if we could just eliminate the voiceovers telling what really might happen. Talk to your doctor – good luck with that! Ours won’t even return phone calls trying to set up appointments.

I know that this is a rich nation, but how many bucks are wasted on political attack ads? How many hungry kids would this feed or clothe? Many are the texts and Emails I get from Democratic candidates (funny, but I never get any from Republicans) claiming they get no funding from corporate donors (dark money). I know that they need to spend $$ to get elected to clean up the mess in (fill in the blank), but, with what little money I have, I prefer to feed kids.

Finally, let me end this diatribe with an observation that we as a nation (and others) tend to reward the wrong professions. We compensate hedge fund managers (whatever that is), drug dealers (legal and otherwise), college and pro football and basketball coaches, entertainers (rock stars) and many others, at the expense of teachers, first responders, cops (please don’t defund the police), nurses, not to mention people who care for our increasingly numerous elderly population. Can’t we find more creative ways to at least partially level the playing field?

Infrastructure (Planes, Trains and…..)

One of several items the Biden Administration has been able to pass is a big infrastructure package, decades overdue. (His predecessor held Infrastructure Weeks, but got nothing done). Perhaps Mitch McConnell supported it because of a crumbling bridge over the Ohio River into Kentucky which is slated to be rebuilt. Doesn’t matter.

Recently, we needed to journey to Washington, DC to resolve a medical issue. Our adult kids forbad us from driving from our home in Virginia Beach “up there”; at 83, I arguably shouldn’t be driving, let alone several hours over interstates. So, they sent us up there on trains.

It’s been, literally, decades since we had last been on trains. Our route ran from Norfolk to Alexandria, then continued north to Boston, with five stops along the way. The ride up was pleasant, the return trip, not so much. While we boarded in Norfolk as the start of the route at about 6AM, everything was on time. The return, however, probably originated in Boston, on an extremely hot day. By the time we boarded in Alexandria the train was already two hours late.

It may seem like nitpicking, but the stations were ancient and in need of refurbishment. The AMTRAK employees were polite and helpful, both in the station and onboard. They were undermanned. On the return trip, our tickets weren’t even checked. The delays were probably caused by tracks being overheated (it was a hot day), but one wonders how bad it would be when climate change reaches an end point (if ever). Since trains are probably the oldest method of intercity travel, they are, arguably, most in need of rehabilitation. With Amtrak Joe in the White House, hopes are high!

I haven’t flown recently, but from what I hear, our airports, control systems, and aircraft are also in need of modernization. Being a very large country, we were probably the first in the world to develop intercity air travel. After decades of neglect it shows.

In the 1930’s, Lt. CoL Dwight Eisenhower was ordered to move some equipment and vehicles from the West Coast to the East Coast. The trip, over miles of old U.S. highways, took a ridiculously long time, much longer than Ike had planned. He became President, and fathered the interstate highway system. I well remember taking a cross country trip in the summer of 1961 with a friend, from New York City to Los Angeles. We went on the same roads the future president had traveled as an Army officer, except for completed portions of Interstates. You would go a ways on an Interstate, only to be led back onto the old roads. Miles and miles of Ike’s roads are in drastic need of repairs, not to mention widening (the U.S. population has increased 2.5 times since then).

Money has (finally) been allocated to repair numerous crumbling bridges and highways. However, the nation’s information highways are also in need of repair. Broadband needs to be expanded, particularity in “flyover country”, between both coasts. If only for our kids; if you think the pandemics are over, I’ve a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. And, how about our electrical grid? Perhaps even Texas might be persuaded to join the rest of the country?

We are transitioning from fossil fuels, or so I hope. Apparently, electric cars will be common on our roadways by midcentury. I hope we’ll have enough charging stations by then. This, in turn, will require a massive increase in electric power generation, there being no such thing, to my knowledge, as a free lunch. Waiting in the wings? Power derived from fusion, from an almost inexhaustable source of cheap material, such as water.

A short physics lesson. We are all familiar with nuclear power plants (think Three Mile Island, Chernobyl). These plants generate power from fission. Heavy radioactive elements (radium, uranium, for example) are caused to split into lighter ones, releasing lots of energy. On the other hand, if two much lighter elements (such as tritium, a “heavy” form of hydrogen) can be made to merge (fusion), even greater amounts of energy result. This is the source of the sun’s energy, as well as that of the hydrogen bomb. Unfortunately, bringing about fusion in a controlled process is an engineering challenge which has eluded humankind for decades.

What’ll it be? Fission or fusion? If the engineering challenges can be worked out, fusion is the way to go. Products of fission reactions are radioactive, some of them for centuries. This presents storage and disposal problems we have never really solved. Fusion reactions, by contrast, produce light elements, for the most part, harmless. All we have to do is get it going

Treason, Bribery (and other High Crimes and Misdememors)

POTUS #45 has been in the news lately (when hasn’t he been)? If I may cherrypick a single area, namely, his recent travails concerning stewardship of documents, I kinda wonder what his motives were, and perhaps still are.

Many of us who failed to get draft exemptions for fallen arches (or whatever got him out of harms way) became custodians of “registered publications”, consisting mainly of classified documents. In my particular case, I was operations and communications officer while serving a on a WWII-era destroyer escort. We had, among other items, delineation of our part in hostilities with the Soviet navy (remember them?). These war plans were classified Top Secret. We endured annual audits/inventories of these documents. Every page had to be present. Woe betide me if anyone of those pages went missing. It could have resulted in an all-expense paid tour of Fort Leavenworth or Portsmouth Naval Prison, no excuses!

No one ever said that life is fair, but one wonders if this turkey will ever be held accountable for mishandling much more consequential materials – the type of stuff that gets people killed if some of this information gets into the wrong hands. What has not been explored is motive for grabbing these items, and clutching them for dear life. His neice the shrink hasn’t really been heard from recently, but one wonders whether this is an extreme case of anal-retentive psychosocial development, (or lack therof). At very least, Mar A Lago is hardly a secure environment to house this stuff, it being a private club and all.

Could there be a considerably more sinister motive? This is, after all, a man who toadied up to some of our more obnoxious international rivals throughout his presidency. He is also a supremely lousy, failed businessman, who is probably in debt up to his eyebrows. Could he be trading secrets for $$ (or the currency of his choice….)? Motivation for engaging in espionage has evolved from ideological (think Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg) to greed (Aldrich Ames).

Of course he could be planning to establish his presidential library, or better yet, write his memoirs. Give me a break! The guy is marginally literate at best. Don’t tell me he has even read any of the stuff he stole He is, however, good at getting someone else to build buildings, and putting his name on them.

Didn’t we used to call some of this stuff “treason”?

QA and QC (Your FDA in Peace and War)

Earlier in my illlustrious career with Uncle Sam, I was a chemist with the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). This was in the ’60s, back when everything seemed possible. I worked for the New York office, which encompassed the New Jersey pharmaceutical industry. Some bright people far above my pay grade started a new program, where, instead of the traditional inspect-collect samples-slap on wrist approach, we would help troubled firms to clean up their act. We called it Intensified Drug Inspection Program (IDIP).

We descended on a firm which shall go nameless, since I’m not sure it is still in business 60 years or so later. One of its products was an opthalmic solution, a preparation listed in the United States Pharmacopeia (USP). The object of the game, so to speak, was to manufacture the substance so that it met the standards of the USP. Most of these firms had an in-house Quality Control lab which would test batches of the product to ensure it met these standards, one of which, for this stuff, was acidity.

I’m sure most of you are familiar with the term pH. (Full disclosure: there’s some chemistry coming……). Briefly, the pH scale for water (aqueous) solutions ranges from 1.0 (strongly acidic, think battery acid) to 7.0 (neutral, think drinking water) to 14.0 (strongly alkaline, think Drano). The USP requirement specifies a pH of about 6.0 (weakly acidic) for drops you are putting in your eye. The lab tested various batches over several months. Fresh ones met the standard, however, after a couple of weeks, the pH dropped to 1.5. Placed into the eye, that would smart! Big time! This was reported to Manufacturing, who, basically, did nothing. No wonder the firm was in trouble.

Since we were functioning as consultants and problem solvers, I checked out the formulation. Most water contains a small amount of dissolved oxygen. Seemed that it included a chemical called sodium hydrogen sulfite, (NaHSO3) which functioned to keep the product from turning brown. However, in solution, NaHSO3 combined with dissolved oxygen (in Jersey water) to form NaHSO4, which is strongly acidic. To prove this, I made up some material using water from Brooklyn which I deoxygenated by bubbling nitrogen through it for five minutes or so, and then put a cap on it. The pH held at about 6.0 for several weeks. Problem solved.

The Quality Assurance Program (QAP) attempted to answer that question. On a monthly basis, one of the 8 DEA labs provided a previously analyzed exhibit to all labs. The sample was quantitavely analyzed, and the average (mean) of the results was compared to the original analysis. The folks analyzing the QAP sample were (well) aware that this was part of the Program (did they tend to try harder?). If the original analysis (or any of the QAP results) fell outside of predetermined limits, lab management initiated corrective action.

It’s a fact of life, so to speak, that anytime you have a mixture of chemicals in a sample to analyze, you will get variation in results. There are numerous other factors which hinder accuracy (the deviation from the “real” answer), or precision (how closely the values in a series of assay of the same material are). I won’t bore you with any more of this mind-bending stuff. Just so you know.

Spring Cleaning

As usual, the calendar has passed me by. Most of us regard the end of spring as being Memorial Day, which has happened for this year. However, if you would indulge me, I’d like to propose some spring cleaning. None of these are ever going to happen, but it’s fun to picture what our republic (assume we can keep it) might be like if we could get at least some of this done.

Item Number 1: Abolish the Electoral College. This relic probably was created by the Founders having the masses-are-asses mind set. We would select well qualified folks to make this crucial choice. Well qualified, in those days meant property owning White males. It took the better part of a century to grant suffrage to females, and at least one of the political parties is actively engaged in trying to limit suffrage as far as possible. After all, shouldn’t the voters decide an election? Well, they did, until they didn’t. After all, twice in this young century the electoral choice was the candidate who won fewer popular votes, both Republicans (how ’bout that!). Is this a democracy, or what.

Item number 2: Repeal the Second Amendment. What does it mean, anyway? The Amendment mentions a “well regulated militia”. Well, we have the police, National Guard, Army and Marine Corps, or the Navy and Air Force – aren’t they “well regulated” enough? I can see the point of rural folk who need firearms to protect livestock from predators, but have we had wild Indian attacks lately?? No less an authority than Warren Burger, a retired Chief Justice opined in a televised interview that the Amendment is, at best, archaic, and should be repealed. State of the art weaponry in the 18th Century consisted of flintlock rifles; bullets weren’t even invented until the 19th. Can’t imagine AR-15’s in the calculus of that time.

Item number 3: Get rid of the U.S. Senate, or at least, eliminate the filibuster. In our zeal to give the minority a voice, we have all but strangled the majority. How democratic is it when Wyoming (population 0.76M) is equal to California (39M) or Texas (30M) in terms of representation. The Senate’s function would hardly be missed; it does nothing anyway.

Item Number 4: Sweep out NRA’s top management, starting with Wayne La Pierre. The organization is corrupt, and virtually out of business in New York, anyway. It used to stress training in firearm safety, which has been deemphasized in recent years. NRA seems to exist largely to support the munitions industry by lobbying against any and all attempts to minimize our epidemic of gun violence.

Perhaps if we did away with the 2nd Amendment we could look honestly at our nation’s preoccupation with guns. We could start with the fact that there are more guns than people in our republic. Do all of us need protection from Indians (pardon me: Native Americans)? Somehow, our fellow democracies get by with about 5% of our gun ownership per capita. Their crime rates are a small fraction of ours. I don’t think British, Canadian or Japanese school children need to practice live shooter drills as do increasing numbers of American kids.

If we must have a Senate, can’t we at least get rid of the filibuster? Or, how about (if we must have one) making it like it used to be, where one had to hold the floor until exhaustion set in, or death, or whatever. We make it too easy.

Perhaps we could solve more critical, existential problems if we went back to an earlier principle of democracy: let the majority rule, just like you were taught in grammar school. Elections do have consequences.

Legalized Pot: Are We Ready for this?

About a year ago, I posted some thoughts on aspects ol marihuana legalization. At this point, it would seem that the cat is out of the bag, so to speak – about 36 states have taken some steps to decriminalize the stuff. As I’ve said in other posts, I am wholeheartedly in favor of legalization for medical uses, but I wish we had some idea of what we’re dealing with.

There is, of course, the legal definition, which is stated in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which takes a full paragraph in Schedule I, reserved for the most heinous, dangerous stuff out there, having no accepted medical use. (By contrast, fentanyl, which has killed thousands of our fellow citizens, resides tn Schedule II of the Act; it does have legitimate medical uses). The definition specifies rhe plant Cannabis sativa; which is home to several dozen chemicals having diverse (and pretty much unknown) effects on the human body. Of this plethora of substances two are singled out in most discussions – cannabidiol (CBD) and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The former appears to be useful in treating seizures without psychoactivity (doesn’t make one high). THC does.

CBD, anecdotaly, has significant promise as, among other conditions, an anti-seizure med. It also shows promise as a pain reliever. CBD can be purchased without a prescription at your local Food Lion (and probably other supers). It has never been approved by FDA or any other US government agency (it is, after all, derived from an illegal substance under existing Federal law).

THC, on the other hand, is stuff to make you high, period. Well, then, how do you use it? The most common practice is to smoke it, although it can be baked into brownies or other recreational food. OK, lets consider cigarettes. How strong a dose do you get in a cigarette? Who knows. Does anybody? What is true is the THC potency is estimated to be at least 10 times what it was 30 years ago, What effect does this stronger pot have on the developing adolescent brain? I suppose we could set a smoking age, maybe 21. Good luck with that!

Tobacco cigarettes are a well-known hazard. Limited studies have shown that marihuana cigarettes may be even more hazardous, although marihuana smokers are probably not going to smoke 2 or 3 packs per day, every day.

We, as a society, would benefit greatly from research into effects, safety, quality assurance, dosage and other aspects of marihuana use. Since pot has been around since biblical times, it would be hard to create a pathway toward patent protection (and, as a result, encourage Big Pharma to do what it does best, namely, conduct research for fun and profit. Oh well, why bother, anyway? We’re just using it for R and R. No, I don’t want to return us to reefer madness, but we do need to take this a bit more seriously to safeguard our young people (at least those that survive school massacres…..).

An Endangered Species

We don’t often think of male humans as being in peril. My generation was brought up to think of guys as the “stronger” sex, probably because men were the ones fighting WWII. (Nowadays, there are more sexes which tends to further confuse the issue). What “they” never adequately explained was that the “weaker” sex outlived us, decade after decade. Moreover, women can withstand pain and privation better then men (can you imagine men having babies? God knew better, as usual).

I never gave this much attention,until I retired from Federal service and applied for a teaching gig. I was told that girls needed to be encouraged to speak out in science courses. This was Catholic high school, circa 1994. The assistant principal in charge of academics, however, had other ideas. Sister Marie laReine told me in no uncertain terms that if student applicants were judged solely on grade school achievement, rather than trying to balance the genders. “this would be an all-girls school”.

By and large, I usually found female students to be more successful than guys, although the “maturity gap” had narrowed somewhat by the time the kids had attained high school age. Much the same the could be observed in my community college chem courses. At that time (early 21st century), at least the proportion of the sexes were abuut equal.

Today, however, a large portion of the male gender seems to have dropped out. Consider one symptom – higher education:

Overall community college enrollment: 57% female

Bachelors Degrees awarded: 57% female

Masters Degrees awarded: 58% female

Doctoral Degrees awarded: 53% female

Law School Graduates: 54% female

Medical School Graduates: 52% female

Sister LaReine was obviously on to something. These stats are the latest available. In most cases, 2019-2021. As they say on Wall Street, this could be simply a “correction”, inasmuch as women have been held down by men for centuries,and they are finally claiming their piece of the action, so to speak. I mentioned the stronger/weaker sex thing earlier. Have things changed? My congressperson here in Tidewater Virginia is one Elaine Luria, a retired Navy commander – her last billet was Commanding Officer of a destroyer! We have a long way to go, still, but are getting there. The last male “oppressors” are getting older and retiring. Are women too strong for men?

Meanwhile, the dropout of young men seems to extend to employment. Obviously, the “great recession” of 2008 and the more recent pandemic had a considerable impact, although most of the pandemic job losses have reappeared. However, anectodally, there are a large number of service sector jobs unfilled in places like the Tidewater area of Virginia. How are people living? Where are people living? In parents’ basements? According to a RAND Corporation analysis I read recently, 64% of unemployed guys under 36 have had some brush with the law, and 46% have been convicted of something. Obviously, this has a chilling impact on job prospects.

Full disclosure: I am a “coastal elite”, having lived all of my life in New York City and various parts of Northern and coastal Virginia. I can only read about (and try to imagine) how life is in the Rust Belt and the Deep South,where the opioid addiction crisis has ravaged large parts of these states (not that my part of the country has escaped it).

Demographically, there are serious problems afoot in many parts of the world. China, which had a fertility problem a generation ago, chose to limit female births. As a result, males greatly outnumber females in contemporary China. This has had a number of effects – birth rates below replacement, not to mention a plethora of social problems brought about as a result of a female shortage. Not good! Women moderate men’s behavior and curb many of our worst instincts (and cause us to live longer, as a result). In our own country, white men will soon become a minority (if they are not already).

Since I don’t really understand what has caused this, I’m not about to propose solutions. I hope those in authority are at least aware of it.

Where have all the young men gone, long time passing…….

It’s Even Worse Than We Thought

Several months ago, I postulated on history’s ranking of POTUS 45. I ranked him as, unequivocably, The Worst Ever. Little did I know how bad he really was. Like it or not, we need an update.

Presidential historians used to rank the several weak sisters surrounding Abraham Lincoln (Buchanan, Fillmore, Pierce and Andrew Johnson), along with 20th century figures such as Richard Nixon and Warren Harding as the worst. None of these even begin to approach, in mendacity and sheer incompetence, #45.

No, I’m not a political scientist. I did spend a few decades as a federal worker and manager, including a tour as a naval officer (I couldn’t find a doctor to sign off on a 4-F draft status because of flat feet). In that capacity, I served as a Custodian of Registered Publications. I was responsible for maintenance, inventory and general safeguarding of classified stuff. Woe betide me if I lost, misplaced or shared any page, paragraph or sentence. The penalty was a courts -martial. I can only imagine the outrage felt by many Custodians when stories appeared in the media about how POTUS 45 had taken a bunch of these to his retirement home, and, to put it delicately, flushed some of them down the toilet! Why is he still walking around a free man?

Then, there are the events of January 6, 2021. With apologies to the Eagles, do I believe my lyin’ eyes? Here is the Chief Executive on video exhorting followers to proceed to the Capitol for a, er, peaceful demonstration. Cost the lives of several policemen, for what that’s worth. What is the commonly accepted term for these events? I thank it’s an insurrection. To the extent I can trust my lyin’ eyes, sure looks like the man committed treason. Why is he still walking around free??

As I write this, it is near the end of income tax season. I think, at long last,the man has been forced to make public some of his tax returns. What we seem to know, for certain, is that he valued some of his numerous properties low to evade taxes, and high to obtain loans. I think the term of art is income tax evasion. Didn’t they get Al Capone for that? Why not The Donald?

At the moment, we are shipping billions of dollars worth of military hardware to Ukraine, a victim of the “brilliant” (if demented) dictator of Russia. POTUS #45 is an unabashed admirer of Vlad the Terrible. He has expressed, in the earliest days of the “special military exercise” his admiration of how “brilliant” it is.

We often speak in parables about how “nobody is above the law”. How about “equal justice under the law”. Somewhere in Texas lives an ordinary person who wasn’t aware that her legal status prohibited her from casting a ballot in the 2016 presidential election (bet she didn’t vote for the Republican cabdidate). Fortunately, the election police voided the ballot, but she was sentenced to five years in the slam for this heinous crime. Meanwhile, POTUS 45’s Chief of Staff voted twice, once of which was in North Carolina, where he had bought a trailer, but never spent a single night in it. Is he doing time for this? I doubt it.

One of his sorriest legacies is one we will be dealing with for decades – best expressed by the term “hollow government”. Besides placing numerous totally unqualified individuals into key cabinet and sub-cabinet positions, for the most part these were put in as “acting”, thereby avoiding any pesky advise-and- consent by Congress. These could be fired more readily (sound like a TV show the man starred in, by chance?). His son-in law had a bulging portfolio of serious problems he had no clue how to handle.

As a populace, we Americans tend to be contemptious of government. This is one reason why the party which wins the presidency tends to do poorly in the off-year elections. Another effect of this ingrained attitude is the en masse resignation of just about all appointed officials, even if the party/president is reelected. The result is a lag in filling major appointments in most agencies for at least a yesr. Why hasn’t the Attorney General prosecuted any of the higher-ups (maybe including #45)? Probably because more help is needed. Much more. Prosecuting rich, well connected.folks is, to say the least, extremely labor intensive.

Don’t believe your lyin’ eyes………….

The Making of a Chemist

Chemists are made, not (save a very few) born. I started about age 10, when I acquired a chemistry set. In those days, the set of choice was an A.C. Gilbert (still very much around; check out the Amazon official site). I haven’t seen a set since the mid Fifties, but I’m sure they’ve been sanitized to the point of boredom.

Back in the day, a Gilbert set could be used, for example, to produce a gas with a “diabolical odor” like rotten eggs. Naturally, I had to try it out in my unventilated lab in the basement. The procedure called for heating sulfur and paraffin in a test tube (I have never heard of this method,to this day),but it sure worked! Unfortunately, I developed a world class headache and nausea. Years later, I found out that hydrogen sulfide was as toxic as hydrogen cyanide, the active ingredient in gas chambers. I’m sure the lawyers have gotten involved and spoiled a lot of fun (and probably saved some lives).

The rather small amount of chemicals in the set needed replenishment from time to time. You could buy stuff from Gilbert, but you’d pay the price. Fortunately, a friend recommended John H.Wynn, who sold chemicals to chemistry majors. To get to Wynn’s shop on West 23rd Street involved a subway ride (with one transfer from GG local train to the F express) from our home in Queens. I was 11 at the time, and my brother Alfred was 7. I needed to take him along (there’s strength in numbers, after all). My parents’ sole concern was that we had to dress suitably in case we met someone we knew (after all, NYC’s population was 7 million at the time), since we were going to the City. Imagine trusting kids to do this, in this day and time…….

We made the trek several times over a few years, to the point where Mr. Wynn trusted us to buy concentrated sulfuric and nitric acids (but not glycerin, which would have enabled us to make nitroglycerin, which is truly bad stuff).

We also dabbled in gunpowder and pipe bombs for the Fourth of July,and tried out small scale making of moonshine. I won’t bore you with the “how” of these pursuits. There are plenty of them on the Internet).

The advancement of technology has changed the learning experience of chemistry. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that we have emphasized the solving of problems at the expense of what used to be called “descriptive chemistry”, where we looked at chemicals in terms of what they looked like, smelled like, their physical state and other aspects. For example, yeah, hydrogen sulfide smelled like rotten eggs, hydrogen cyanide smelled like burnt almonds, mercury is a liquid, chlorine smells like a swimming pool, fun stuff like that. In many ways, we’ve taken the joy out of studying it. We’ve made it the “toughest course in high school”. To what end?

I have also learned that little or nothing which I learned over the years was a waste of time. During my years of teaching high school, on one occasion, a “stink bomb” was released into the hall. My well trained nose instantly identified it as hydrogen sulfide. The factoid I mentioned earlier as to its toxicity vis a vis hydrogen cyanide which I discovered at the time was of great interest to Al Burch, the principal . This was during the innocent era prior to school shootings (although a year or two later, the first of them took place at Columbine High School). As the saying goes, “what goes around, comes around”.

The risk averse nature of our society has resulted in the de-emphasis of laboratory hands on experience. Too risky and expensive. Can’t we simulate this with computers? No, we can’t! In my later years, I taught a community college course, “Chemistry for Nurses”, the only chemistry course required – and it didn’t even include a lab! I had to sort of sneak exercises in taking some measurements for these kids. A neice of ours earned a nursing degree from Villanova in the 70’s, and took almost as much chemistry as I did. Maybe RN’s don’t need as much chemistry nowadays.


During a recent medical appointment, along with the usual chit-chat, the Physicians Assistant mentioned how she had had trouble with “O Chem” as an undergraduate. Turns out she meant Organic Chemistry. The word “organic” has, in modern times, acquired several meanings it didn’t have, back in the day. We speak of a subclass of food as a prominent example meaning, supposedly, that it was grown or processed without use of pesticides.

Organic Chemistry is a part of the science which deals with compounds containing one element, carbon, as an essential part. As I have mentioned in other posts, carbon-containing compounds far outnumber compounds consisting of the other 117 or so elements. Naming these presents another challenge to us consisting of yet another foreign language. Compounds of carbon are tied together, as it were, by covalent bonds, meaning that electrons are shared, rather than given/taken as is the case with ionic bonds.

To name this universe of stuff, we need some rules. Officially, the formal system is called the IUPAC. (It must be complicated because the acronym is 5 letters long!) Stands for International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, a mouthful in itself. I won’t induce any more sleep by trying to explain it further, but to point out that there are a mess of so called “trivial”names for them, used by practitioners.

Many of the chemicals we ingest are organic. The vast majority of pharmaceuticals are organic compounds. Illicit drugs are. Fossil fuels are . Proteins, carbohydrates and fats are. Sounds like Cole Porter lyrics? You get my drift….

Organic compounds can be formed by long “chains” of carbon atoms, 30, 40,50 or more, while inorganic compounds are considerably shorter. Since the carbon atom has 4 valence electrons, it can form bonds with four other elements (including even another carbon atom). Atoms (or groups of atoms) bonded to carbons are known as “functional groups”, since they can react chemically to form other compounds. This gives rise

to the extremely large number of organic chemicals.

The simplest (and, might I add, boring) organic compounds are the hydrocarbons. They burn, forming water, carbon dioxide (and, under the wrong conditions, carbon monoxide), and heat- and that’s about it. They keep us warm at a price – greenhouse gases. Halogens (Cl, F, Br, I) bond with carbon, as well as -OH (alcohols), -COOH (acids). These elements undergo numerous reactions to form other compounds.

As a practical matter, organic chemists specialize in certain groups of compounds. The chemicals I tended to work with included pharmaceuticals and such bad boys as cocaine, heroin and LSD, to mention a few of the home remedies out there. Although my work tended toward analytical chemistry (what is it, and how much is present) I did some work on synthesis (how do you make stuff). One of my earliest gigs, as a DEA program manager, was to “reverse engineer” procedures believed to be followed by “chemists” working in the south of France (making the purest heroin out there). I took advantage of my Franco-American heritage to translate recipes from French to English. We had lofty ambitions to develop remote sensing technologies which, unfortunately were not sufficiently mature to take on the road, so to speak. (as it happened, we were able to detect wineries and dry cleaning establishments, but, alas, no heroin refineries).

Not for lack of trying.