More Covid-19 Random Thoughts

Previously on Covid-19 (April 2020):

  • We were starting to reopen. US death toll, about 20K. Flights from Europe were largely prohibited. “Anybody who wants a test can get one”.
  • Some potentially helpful thoughts were coming out of White House (Clorox kills germs, almost immediately – couldn’t we look into getting some into bodies? Maybe if we could mitigate some of the unhelpful side effects, like corrosiveness, toxicity….)
  • Hydroxychloroquine (still that?). Just because numerous controlled trials showed it didn’t work doesn’t make it true, does it?
  • It will go away, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Here in early August, some things have changed:

  • US death toll has risen to 160K, or thereabouts. MAGA, indeed!! We lead the world: Just don’t plan to fly to Europe anytime soon. We’ve gone from Shining City on the Hill to the world’s pariah. Although there are improved treatment options, no vaccine yet. Toolbox, as they say, still limited to social distancing, masks and testing, such as it exists. (It seems to have increased the number of cases, according to WH). Also, how good is testing if one needs a week or more to get results? Makes contact tracing much more difficult (what is that anyway?).

The economy seems to be getting worse. Since the number of cases has burgeoned, early opening states have had to close again, throwing more people out of work. Our solons on Capitol Hill can’t seem to agree on how (or whether) to put some Federal dollars out there, so that poor people can survive. The relief initially provided (moratorium on evictions, $600 weekly on unemployment) has expired. Throwing people out of homes benefits neither landlord nor tenant. GOP folks (some of them, at least) worry about disincentives to work if we’re too kind to the poor. In the meantime nothing gets done.

Seems to me that the nation needs to attack this situation (much as we did during WWII) on a holistic basis. Some ideas:

  1. We can’t restore the economy in any meaningful sense until we control the virus. We need to adopt nationwide steps to close down, big time, for maybe 6-8 weeks. The major means remain social distancing and mask wearing – MANDATORY – NO EXCEPTIONS! Never mind this nonsense about individualism, freedom. As the cliché says, we’re in this together. We need to enforce this, perhaps ruthlessly. Such a policy would involve significant economic suffering. We need to alleviate this by, to put it bluntly, throwing money after it. It’s long past time for the feds to put money where their collective mouths are! This will involve a few trillion dollars we can’t afford, except that we have to. It will cost less in the long run. Let the printing presses roll!
  2. We can’t open schools until we get this thing under control. If we close up until it’s controlled (see Item 1) we can open late. It’s too dangerous to open now, not only for students but teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, etc.
  3. We can do this! We did it after Pearl Harbor. We need to take a holistic approach. Look at what needs to be done, step by step, to support people no longer working. Do we need contract tracers? Lots of them? Let’s recruit them form among the unemployed. Let’s do some infrastructure repairs while we have so many unemployed people.
  4. Don’t hold your breath about getting a vaccine anytime soon. Even if we do, it must be proven safe as well as effective. This takes time. You can’t rush this, you can’t cut corners. We do have a significant minority of the citizenry convinced, regardless of scientific evidence, that vaccines cause autism. Makes one wonder if this is a “designer” bug, as contagious and harmful as it appears to be. Hmm…

Unfortunately, we sorely need leadership, FDR style, from the federal government. The present administration seems to have given up, thrown in the towel. We can’t seem to get this chief executive to even invoke the Defense Production Act. At times like this, I wish we had a European system, where we could take a “no confidence” vote. Shutting the economy has worked in many nations (cf.South Korea, Japan); God knows we couldn’t have screwed this up any worse if we tried.

The More Things Change

The French have a saying: Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose (The more things change, the more they stay the same). This is well illustrated by study of the decades long battle to enact legislation to regulate the food and pharmaceutical industries in the late 19th and early 20th century. Accounts of the determined opposition to passage of a law to accomplish this is eerily similar to what goes on in Washington these days.

The 19th Century saw the introduction of food and drugs on an industrial scale, largely replacing the small mom-and pop operations which had supplied foods to the populace. This had become necessary as a much larger proportion of workers made their livings unconnected to farming, while the proportion of people living in cities increased drastically. Although numerous nations in Europe had passed laws to regulate food standards and safety, lobbyists prevented anything like this from happening in the USA.

An excellent, highly readable and entertaining account of this is found in “The Poison Squad” by Deborah Blum, one of the best science writers around, for my money, anyway. The book is about Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, one of the true heros of the U.S. civil service. Dr. Wiley was appointed Chief Chemist of the Department of Agriculture in 1883. He had been a professor of chemistry at Purdue University. The title of Blum’s book is taken from a tactic Dr. Wiley employed to dramatize the hazards of food additives commonly used at the time.

As we well know, food spoils on storage. This problem was especially difficult in an era when there was no electric service to homes. You can’t preserve stuff without refrigeration. At best, people used ice boxes, with commercially available blocks of ice (“ice box” was an old name for fridges, back in the day). Preservatives are used to this day, but we have a much better handle on safety.

Some of the chemicals used included formaldehyde, borax (yes, 20 mule team) and salicylic acid. Formaldehyde was often used to extend shelf life of milk. Although pasteurization was a proven technology, American dairy producers were slow to adopt it because it cost too much (sound familiar?). The title of Blum’s book describes an experiment to test toxicity of some of these compounds. Dr. Wiley solicited volunteers among governmment employees to consume foods containing them. You had to be young, healthy and male. Low salaries, coupled with the high cost of living in Washington (hasn’t changed much, has it?) induced many to enjoy (albeit tainted) chow at government expense. The volunteers ate three meals per day, for a specified period; they were rotated in groups which consumed preserved food, then rotated to a similar selection without preservatives. The term “Poison Squad was coined by a Washington Post reporter, much to the chagrin of Ag Department higher-ups. Following each rotation, the men were given thorough physicals. As it happened, some of these food additives did sicken some of the volunteers. (Milk, by the way, preserved with formaldehyde was nicknamed “embalmed milk”, since the substance was widely used in funeral homes).

Indiscriminate use of preservatives was by no means the only problem with food adulteration at that time. Strawberry jam, for example, often consisted of mashed apple peelings, grass seed and red dye, and (maybe) a strawberry or two (or, maybe not).

Finally, in 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed. Although far from perfect, the new law began a process to prevent some of these abuses. In 1938, it was replaced with the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, which is basically the law in use today. As so often happens, the passage of the legislation resulted from a tragedy which killed 107 people who had ingested a drug, sulfanilamide, which was dissolved into diethylene glycol (still in use today as antifreeze). Plus ca change……..

Teaching (and Learning) Chemistry

Of the many things I did to earn my keep, I had the most fun teaching chemistry. I started part time (adjunct) in community college after doing my day job with DEA. (full disclosure: I was, at best, a lousy college student back in the day). For the most part, I taught adults who were trying to better their lot in life by earning credentials for occupations such as nurses or respiratory technicians. These were some of the most motivated folks I ever worked with.

After retiring from DEA, I got a job teaching science at Bishop Denis J. O’Connell High School. I did teach some other sciences such as physics, but for the most part I taught chemistry. Although I had a few education courses, I’m by no means an expert on teaching.

On my first day, I went to lunch in the faculty lounge. I was greeted by colleagues who informed me that chemistry is the toughest course in high school (!). They had to be kidding. I would consider calculus and biology to be much tougher. Both at the college and high school levels, however, students are scared to death of MATH! I spent a good deal of time rehashing elementary algebra. I tried to get it across to th em that it never got more involved than that – just that the numbers were funkier than they were in the math classes,

Calculators have simplified the handling of numbers, but like anything else, there are issues. I can remember spending a lot of class time trying to teach folks using them for the first time. Chemistry also involves working with far-out numbers, such as Avogadro’s constant (6.02 exponent 23). So, one needs to figure out how to put exponents into a calculator (without using the exponent key, the constant looks like this: 60200000000000000 – oops, did I count the zeros right?) In case you’re wondering, this represents the number of atoms, widgets, items, you name it in a mole (not the furry garden critter) of … whatever. It is, to say the least, difficult for students to wrap their minds around a concept like this.

Fortunately, it wasn’t all calculations. Particularly for high school kids, you could do a lot of demonstrations (Mr, Canaff, can we blow stuff up??). The emphasis on problem solving and STEM stuff has crowded out much of the descriptive chemistry we old timers were taught in the pre-calculator (slide rule) age. Lab work, a crucial component of any science, has been de-emphasized in many schools, due in large measure to liability issues (yes, there is a price to pay for the overly litigious society we have evolved). I taught a course for several years (Chemistry for Nurses) in more than one college where there was no lab work at all!

I started teaching at the dawn of the Internet (although several years after Al Gore is said to have invented it….). Although I didn’t do a lot of writing assignments, one of

the things I tried to get across to my high schoolers is that just because an article appears on the WWW doesn’t make it true. I vividly remember one student doing a piece on legal status of marijuana citing something he got off the Net; turns out it was from a site for NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), hardly an unbiased source!

I could go on, A useful lesson I learned early in the game was to respect my students. One day, well into my first year, when things were winding down, I had a class tell me that whatever they learned or didn’t from me, they were grateful that I had respected them. Seems strange to me that anybody wouldn’t have. Chemistry is hard enough, but can’t be compared to the difficulty of growing up (especially in this day and time).

Ensign Screw-Up

Version:1.0 StartHTML:0000000168 EndHTML:0000005770 StartFragment:0000000438 EndFragment:0000005753

A significant rite of passage for young men back in the 1960’s involved military service. Once one turned 18, all males were required to register for the draft. You reported to your draft board, and after a physical, you were classified with a draft status. I never knew how these were assigned their meaning, but most of us were classified “1A”, which meant full eligibility for service (self included). On the other hand, you could be classified “4F”, which meant you were ineligible for physical reasons (I never could find a doctor willing to sign off on my bone spurs…)

Having passed my pre-induction physical with the proverbial flying colors, I had several options to serve my “military obligation”. The default was service as a draftee in the Army. I had done some ROTC at City College, where I learned at least a couple of things. As one instructor noted, “when generals screw up, privates die”. Another aphorism I learned from a sergeant was that second lieutenants had the highest mortality rate in the Army. Not for me.

A friend of mine decided to join the Naval Reserve. Meetings one night per week, and active duty for training two weeks. Not a bad deal. As a Vietnam vet friend of mine put it, “3 hots and a cot”. Sure beats K rations and a tent. My first two weeks of training was boot camp at Great Lakes, Illinois. There had to be a better way! Since I was a college graduate, why not go to Officer Candidate School, get a commision and go in style. The only trade-off was that I had to serve three years, instead of two. I became a 90-day wonder! Ensign, USNR.

My first duty station was line officer on a ship whose mission involved laying acoustical cable on the ocean floor, enabling us to track movement of Soviet submarines. My billet on the ship was Ship’s Boatswain. One day, I took several enlisted men and a motor whaleboat on a little job in the coastal waters off Newfoundland. I actually had command of something for a workday. I don’t even remember what we did, but around quitting time, we set a course back to the ship. The channel involved a straight run for maybe an hour, then a 90 degree turn to starboard for another hour or so. Couldn’t we just take a short cut and go from Point A to Point B? I don’t remember whose bright idea this was, but it was irrelevant, since I was in command. When we ran aground, I learned that channels were marked that way for a reason. I took some well deserved ribbing around the wardroom (not to mention a scolding from my department head).

Sometime later, I was standing a bridge midwatch as Officer of the Deck (OOD). We were returning to home port (Kittery, Maine) from a deployment. The job of a OOD was to drive the ship, so to speak, while the captain slept. We had standing orders to notify the skipper (wake him up if needed) of certain potential tactical threats: a ship coming within a spcified distance (potential for a collision), sudden appearance of a Soviet warship (!), a significant drop in barometric pressure (harbinger of a storm). Also included was spotting a navigation aid (buoy or lighthouse) before or after we expected to sight it. In this instance, we failed to spot a buoy when we were supposed to. It didn’t seem of much importance to awaken the captain at 2:30 in the morning. I did, however, need to notify him later of another vessel appraching too closely. When he arrived on the bridge, he found out from the quartermaster of the watch about the missed sighting. Apparently, the ship had wandered off course (this is several decades before GPS, remember). After making the appropriate course correction, he chewed me out big-time, and ordered me to spend the next watch on the focsle (front of the ship) watching out for navigaton aids, instead of going to bed.

In the foolishness of youth, I resented having to interrupt my promising career as a chemist in the Food and Drug Administration to serve my country. In retrospect (which is often 20-20), this was one of the most rewarding times of my life. Imaging being given responsibility for driving a large Navy ship at the age of 25 or so. I learned valuable lessons in leadership and paying attention to detail (I’m not there yet, but its better than it was). Years later, I used to tell chemistry grads I was recruiting that although the salary was somewhat paltry, where else could one identify illegal drugs, and then be trusted to render expert testimony in courts of law. People often thank me for my service, a stark contrast to how it was when I mustered out in 1966. Thank me for what? Wouldn’t have missed it for anything!

The War on Drugs – Notes from the Front

Early in his first term, President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs. I had just joined the Drug Enforcement Administration, in whose forensic labs I spent the next quarter century. Within a year or so, I was at headquarters, where, among other pursuits, I was tasked with trying to figure out how a small coterie of barely literate French “chemists” were producing the finest heroin ever made.

Heroin was the first target in the “war”. We were interested in knowing the way the stuff was made, so that we could “remote sense” where they were cooking. Stepped-up intel had produced a recipe or two. All we had to do was translate the bad French. I knew some of the language, being of French descent (and having studied it in high school and college). The next step was to apply the best technology available at the time to find where the cooking was taking place.

Heroin manufacture starts with opium poppies, from which a sappy, milky substance is painstakingly extracted and dried out, producing raw opium. The material is then smuggled to a place where morphine is extracted from it (roughly 10% by weight of the raw opium). Morphine was then smuggled into France, where it was chemically converted to heroin. Without boring you with details (easily found on the Internet, if you need them), morphine was reacted with benzene and acetic anhydride to form diacetylmorphine, aka heroin.

Any attempt to sense a facility actively making heroin needed to zero in on volatile chemicals (those which, basically, you can smell). Benzene and acetic anhydride were both suitable. At the time (early 70’s), a contracter fitted a helicopter with a vacuum to draw vapors, sucked them into an instrument known as a mass spectrometer, which detects and identifies chemicals by measuring their molecular weight.

To try this scheme out, Uncle Sam sent me to the Mohave Desert, along with my boss and a DEA Special Agent. My task was to set up a heroin lab and start cooking, while the contractor would fly above us with the helo and mass spectrometer. (I was sent to the local Kmart to get supplies, which included a crab pot my family used for years afterward. We brought the morphine and chemicals with us from Washington; Kmart was out of stock……).

Ultimately, the attempt was a failure. The technology was not “mature” enough. I found out years later that when they tried out a prototype in France, all they detected were dry cleaners and wineries. Oh well. Nothing ventured…..(What did you do in the war, Daddy?)

Coronavirus: Random Thoughts

Clueless Red State Governors

Georgia -Just found out within last 48 hours that the virus can be transmitted even from asymptomatic people….(been common knowledge for at least two months before that utterance…Who knew?)

-South Dakota is not New York. We don’t need these closures, distancing measures, etc. (Tell that to Smithfield packing plant employees, where a “cluster” now exists…I guess there are some similarities after all….)

Government People

Coronavirus is nothing new. After all, its name is Covid-19; this is the 19th iteration of the germ (actually, the “19” in the name is the year it first appeared, making it well, new; it’s why they call it “novel”.) Perhaps Kellyanne Conway’s observations were taken out of context. Sure hope so.

Conservative Talk Show Hosts

Coronavirus is basically a common cold-type virus. Why all the fuss? (About 2 million people worldwide have caught this cold, and many have died. Medal of Freedom holder Rush Limbaugh might need to fact check, for once)

Is this even a pandemic, wonders Bill Bennett (former Education Department cabinet secretary; author of the Book of (Republican?) Virtues. If more than 2 million people in 184 countries (that we know of) have the disease, might this not constitute one?

More Thoughts

Biology is not my long suit. I became a chemist, because it’s much easier to understand. What I do know is that viruses may or may not be living things (I think there is some dispute), and they cannot exist outside of a host. This one is particularly contagious. Therefore, to rid us of this plague, we must deprive it of hosts. It appears that social distancing of at least 6 feet renders it unlikely to reach another host, along with wearing facial barriers (masks) to block body emanations, such as saliva. After an unnecessarly late start, social distancing appears to be working, wherever it has been implemented.

Unfortunately, we have had to tank the economies of most of the world, which has caused untold suffering by mostly poor people and minorities. Efforts to alleviate these effects have been, at best, sporadic. Schools are closed; we are using computers to instruct. Sounds nice, except that in many school districts, relatively few have computers at home. We had a considerable disparity of quality of education, even before all this happened. This is, at best, a fig leaf which will widen the gaps between rich and poor. Are we creating a new underclass? It will buy us much trouble going forward.

Yes, we have to open up economies ASAP. We cannot do so, we are told, until widespread testing is available, and we have contact tracing in effect. For some reason, we can’t seem to get our act together to perform either function . Other countries, notably South Korea, have tested a much greater proportion of their populace, much earlier. Why can’t we? At this writing, we do not appear to have funding to hire people (around 100-200 thousand) to conduct contact tracing.

Yes, we need a vaccine. Depending on who you ask, the most rapidly we can expect such salvation is sometime in the next year. I have been struck recently by seeing interviews on CNN of the leader of the effort to develop one. A do-nothing civil servant who happens to be a woman of color. Maybe a helpful sign that we are through wasting such talent through stupid racist prejudice. One can hope.

Dihydrogen Monoxide: A Strange Substance

Dihydrogen momoxide (aka Water) is an extremely common substance we all know about – or do we? Some odd properties of water:

  • It has a much higher heat capacity than most substances. Heat capacity is the quantity of heat which must be applied to raise the temperature of a given amount of substance by, say, one degree Celsius (or Fahrenheit). For example, it takes about one calorie of heat to raise the temperature of one gram of water from 25 degrees Celsius to 26 degrees, By contrast, only about 0.2 calorie would be needed to raise a gram of aluminum by 1 degree C, and even less to do the same thing to a gram of iron. The heat capacity of air is, also, much lower than water. This is why we see highway signs telling us water on bridge surfaces freezes well before it does on road surfaces having soil under them (heat capacity of soil is greater than air). This property of water also explains why, after sundown, air temperature drops much lower in dry air, than in humid air. Obviously, this has a profound effect on climate. Think of heat capacity as the ability to retain heat. The higher moisture (water) content of humid air “holds” the heater better than dryer air.
  • Water is the only common substance whose liquid state is more dense than its solid state (ice). Ever wondered why ice floats? Density is a comparison of how much a substance weighs to the amount of room it occupies. Mathematically (don’t be alarmed, it’s simple) it’s defined as the ratio of mass to volume. One gram of liquid water occupies one milliliter (or cubic centimeter) of space. It’s density, therefore, is 1.0 gram per milliter. By contrast, a gram of ice takes up about 1.1 milliliter. Density of ice is 1.0 gram divided by 1.1 milliliter, or about 0.9 gram per milliliter. Densities less than 1.0 gram per milliliter float; densities greater than 1.0 gram per milliter sink. Because of this counterintuitive property of water, ice in lakes, ponds, or for that matter, oceans, will freeze, leaving a lower level of water beneath, whose temperature will not go below freezing, enabling marine life to survive winter.
  • Ever wonder why a steam burn is more painful than one from hot water? We probably learned the “formula” for water in grade school. H2O, right? Well, that’s something of an oversimplification. If water is simply two atoms of hydrogen bonded to an oxygen atom, the substance would be a gas at room temperature. Water is actually a loosely bonded bunch of individual H2O’s; the attractive forces holding the bunch together are called hydrogen bonds. The strength of a H-bond is only a fraction of the strength of the bonds within the molecule. When liquid water is heated to its boiling point (100 C;212 F). additional energy is needed to break the hydrogen bonds. This energy does not even register on a thermometer, but it’s there, all right. The steam has more energy to burn you as a result.
  • Once water is boiling, you can’t raise its temperature above the boiling point, no matter how much heat you (or the stove) applies. Boiling points can only be raised by increasing barometric pressure. If one constructs a pot with a tight lid, the steam has no place to go, the pressure in the pot goes up and the boiling point will increase. In a kitchen, this pot is a pressure cooker. The hotter boiling water cooks stuff much faster as a result.

Hope this makes some sense. Ain’t science wonderful!

Fentanyl – A Primer

Fentanyl is an extremely potent drug, whose legitimate uses include pain relief for cancer patients. It is one of the most potent drugs in the pharmacopeia. A usual dose of 100 micrograms or less does the trick; it would take about 10 milligrams of morphine to achieve the same result. For those who are metric challenged, a milligram is equal to 1,000 micrograms. If you do the math, fentanyl is about 100 times more powerful than morphine.

Fentanyl was first synthesized in 1960, and made its way into legitimate medicine a few years later. It is listed in Schedule 2 of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), owing to its extreme potency, making it highly prone to abuse. During my career with DEA, I never encountered the stuff until I had been “off the bench” for several years.

The CSA, along with state drug laws, has been on the books since 1970. Most of the listed drugs were “grandfathered” into it from earlier statutes. Obviously, there needs to be a mechanism for adding new substances. To do so, one needs to elucidate the correct chemical structure (not always easy), demonstrate that it has been “abused”, and then, DEA (part of the Department of Justice) can propose it for addition to the Act. The law, however, requires concurrence of the Department of Health and Human Services. Once this has been achieved, the drug can be added to the list. This can easily take months.

Unfortunately, fentanyl is relatively easy to make. Moreover, fentanyl “analogues” are also easily synthesized. As a consequence, there are numerous clandestine “laboratories” making these substances. The Internet describes several “one pot” procedures. There are at least a dozen or so of these analogues out there in the traffic. They are closely related structurally to fentanyl, and have the same effects. Only fentanyl, itself, was illegal. If someone was busted for trafficking in an analogue which was not on the list, no prosecution was possible under the CSA. What is a narc to do? Even back in the day, in my early career in the 1960’s, there were clever chemists who made analogues which were not listed (as the saying went they were staying “one carbon atom” ahead of the feds).

By now, you might be wondering what an “analogue” is. If a molecule such as fentanyl is represented by a Christmas tree, each ornament might be likened to an organic functional group. For example, a methyl functional group consists of a single carbon atom bonded to three hydrogen atoms. If the fentanyl tree is decorated with a methyl group, an analogue is formed. This is a different organic compound from fentanyl. Its effect on the human body may be the same as fentanyl, be totally different, or, in many instances, much more potent. The position where the group is bonded to the fentanyl molecule is indicated by a number, or a greek letter. Thus, an additional methyl group may be 3-methyl fentanyl or alpha-methyl fentanyl, each of which are compounds distinct from fentanyl itself.

This issue came to a head in the late 1970’s when a new, more powerful “synthetic heroin” appeared on the West Coast, sold as “China White”. The stuff, however, caused some fatalities, always bad for business. Some of the material was submitted to the DEA Special Testing and Research lab. At first, the sample was found to contain nothing but lactose, a harmless cutting agent. When the chemists concentrated the mixture, however, they were able to detect miniscule amounts of a new (to us, anyway) substance which appeared to be similar to fentanyl. It was later found to be alpha-methyl fentanyl. (“Later” took several weeks during which many more might have overdosed).

Clearly, a speeded-up process to add stuff like this to the CSA had to be devised. Congress did pass a law, the Controlled Substances Analogue Act, in 1986. This pretty much said that if a substance was “chemically similar” to a controlled drug (if it looked like a duck…) it was illegal. This helped somewhat, but with the plethora of illegal substances flooding the market during the 2010’s, it was not adequate. In 2018, Congress passed legislation to permit DOJ to list substances by class, rather than specific name. Fentanyl analogues could be regarded as a “class” of drugs, and included in the CSA. Unfortunately, the legislation was to specified expire in two years. Congress has passed legislation to extend this provision when the current law expires on February 8th of 2020. Stay tuned…….

Happy Endings

Ever wonder where the happy endings to our children’s nursery stories, to Hollywood pictures and other types of prose, have gone? Well, many of the nursery stuff (particularly ones from our English culture) were somewhat gory, when you think about it (think of the unfortunate Humpty Dumpty, Jack with Jill on the hill and others). Happy endings still do exist, if only on our TV drug commercials.

These art forms feature adults, for the most part, suffering from health issues. They take the medication, and, presto! They seem miraculously cured, or symptoms are magically alleviated. They all get better!

Back in the day, we went to the doctor, who would prescribe something. Under this model, we become more proactive (“ask your doctor if ____________________ is right for you”). How could it be wrong? Just watch the commercial. We do need to pose some questions, however guided by the voiceover:

-Have you been to places where certain fungal infections are common…..What? What are these? Where are these?

-Am I allergic to ______ or any of its ingredients? How would I know? What about some of the excipients used to make the tablets? Am I allergic to lactose, corn starch, D&C Red#1 used to color the tablets?

Then we have all the possible things which could go wrong (may lead to death….). Maybe some of these things have really happened, which begs the question why any sane person would take this stuff, anyway

The voiceover, is, of course, primarily intended to cover the drugmaker’s posterior. It is probably written by lawyers and, I guess, a necessary evil, but it casts a shadow over the spirit of good news (Well, we can’t have everything). Fortunately it is delivered quite rapidly, and there s no quiz afterwards. We are redirected to the optimistic wrapup (“going for my best. For Eliquis!”).

And so it goes. The good news is not completely free, of course. These commercials cost about 4.5 billion dollars annually, industrywide, which could be used for, maybe, R&D, or lowering the cost for these expensive meds. Maybe this is “why we science”!

The Seaman’s Exam

Fresh out of 90-day wonder school, I reported to my first duty station, line officer, USS Aeolus (ARC-3). (I always will remember when they passed out these assignments. My company chief told me where I was going, then took a beat “Mr. Canaff, what the hell is an ARC?”) The ship, converted from a Navy cargo ship, layed SOSUS cable to track Soviet nuclear submarines on the North Atlantic. Among the modifications was the complete removal of all gunnery from the ship, to allow for specialized cable laying gear (this becomes important later). I was made the Deck Division officer (Ship’s Bosun), with approximately 40 enlisted men under my command (who knew a lot more about what the ship did for a living than I did).

I was lucky to have excellent senior enlisted people, including a Chief Boatswain’s Mate and a First Class of the same specialty. Evidentally the Navy made sure to staff these ships with the best deck rigging types possible to perform the ship’s mission, oriented as it was toward complicated tasks involved in laying cable.

The remainder of my charges consisted of young seamen with limited experience. These men were almost all “seaman apprentice”, Pay Level E-2. Few, if any, had been promoted to E-3, “seaman”. In my limited experience, E-1’s (Seaman Recruit) were promoted to Seamen Apprentices upon completion of naval boot camp, then sent to their first duty stations. Within a year or so, they usually were promoted to Seaman, E-3. By contrast, my people seemed mired as E-2’s, even 2-3 years later. Why? They all seemed competent enough. What was holding them back? In 1963, when all this took place, monthly E-1 pay was $78 monthly, E-2’s drew $85, and E-3’s about $95.

It seems the problem was the sailors’ inability to pass a Navy-Wide written exam. Many of the exam questions concerned gunnery topics, which were all but impossible to train people about on a ship with no guns! I did do some bureautic research, and found that the “Navy-Wide” exam was merely a suggestion, not a requirement.

Each command could make up its own test, based on the ship’s mission. Ship’s command just assumed the test was a requirement, and nobody had bothered to challenge it.

After I had convinced them, I got with my senior enlisted folks and had them modify the exam to pretty much eliminate the gunnery questions, and substitute stuff most pertinent to laying cable. The test was taken shortly afterward, and most every SA passed and got promoted to Seaman. About $10 more in the monthly pay envelope.

No big deal, but even I, not having an MBA or any experience in management, had learned that a vital function of a supervisor is to look after your people. They will then, in the current idiom, in some manner, have your back.