Friday, November 13, 2009

Singapore Airlines wins Hand Towel Stakes: Secret Technology Revealed

Nobel Laureate's Travel Log: Hot Towels! Who would have thought they were so difficult to get right. The best hand towels are from Singapore Airlines. The luxurious cotton towels arrive hot but not scalding, damp but not dripping wet and are very lightly scented. In comparison, Qantas towels are tiny scraps of material with no pile on the towel, usually dripping wet, and often too hot or too cold because they don't have enough substance to retain any heat during distribution. Emirates towels are a little better but no-where near the SA standard. Cathay Pacific are close but not quite as nice as the SA towels.
So that I could spend the remaining years fo my life sometimes using decent hand towels, I obtained the secret hand towel formula from SA. Here is how they do it (this could be a draft S.O.P. for the rest of the airlines).

  1. The plush cotton towel weighs 21g dry and 55 grams wet.
  2. It is 12 inches by 9 inches and has the SA logo in the top left corner (see picture)
  3. The required amount of water is added to the towels.
  4. The towels are microwaved to reach a temerature of not more than 50C
  5. Before distribution, the temperature of the towels is tested with the back of the hand to make sure they are safe to use.
The sad thing is that Qantas staff probably never fly on other airlines, or apparently have no way of providing input into the proceedures they use every day. The low quality hand towels have persisted for several years already so maybe they can try to match the world best. I have other suggestions for Australian travel industry which I will put here from time to time under "Travel Log" subheadings. Watch out for next week's entry which will be "Security".

Thursday, November 12, 2009

On the Anniversary of Darwin's Book - More thoughts on his illness

It is 1:15 am in Perth, but only 6:15 London Summer Time so I can still say this entry is on the 150th anniversary of Darwin's book "The Origin of Species". I have been too busy to spend a lot of time researching Darwin's illness but it is very easy to conclude that he had a gastric illness by searching the Darwin on-line archives located here. If one searches for "stomach" or "my stomach" you can find about 70 instances where he refers to his illness. If one searches for "heart", "my heart", "palpitations", "pulse" etc. you can find only a few references and most are to do with his normal emotions rather than his physical organic cardiac symptoms. Thus it seems to me that the idea of a cardiac illness is rather over-rated (notably some kind of sympathetic or parasympathetic disturbance caused by chronic Chagas' disease).
However I do concede that Darwin refers often to "flatulance" but rarely if ever to disturbances of the bowels e.g. diarrhoea. Thus it seems that his flatulance symptoms are actually a feeling of distension in the episgatrium which are commonly related to and releived by aerophagia (swallowing air) and eructation (burping) respectively. This type of symptom is common in acidic conditions such as duodenal ulcer and is especially so when accompanied by hiatus hernia and gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GERD/GORD). But the nausea and vomiting he often suffered from makes gastritis and duodenal ulcer a likely associated cause.
Flatulence can also be due to lactose intolerance and this has been invoked to explain his illness by several authors. This year, Mike Dixon finished a book (Darwin in Ilkly by Mike Dixon and Gregory Radick) where lactase deficiency is championed (I have not read the book yet so cannot give an opinion on the evidence). If Darwin did have milk intolerance then it seems to me that he would have worked out himself that he was lactose intolerant e.g. drink milk = abdominal gas and +- diarrhoea and farting with a lead time of an hour or two. It is interesting to speculate that if lactose intolerance is genetic, then it could be diagnosed on his remains at some future date.
Getting back to my ulcer/Helicobacter hypothesis now, I have previously noted that he took bismuth and various antacids at the hight of his illness. Also, when he was especially unwell, his father prescribed "calomel", which is mercury, yet another heavy metal. At other times he took arsenic. Of course everyone took these things in the early 19th century because there weren't any other antimicrobials. But each of these heavy metals might have been expected to kill H.pylori in the stomach and cause a remission if taken daily for 2-4 weeks.
So, I admit that I am curious about the language Darwin used and the meaning of his "flatulance". I have several secret strategies for finding this out. If it was colonic anal rectal expulsion of air then the case for a carbohydrate malabsorption (lactose intolerance) is strengthened. This could be correlated with a diary of his illness to see if milky foods could correlate with his apparent gassy problems.
Once more I have not discussed psychosomatic causes of his symptoms - there does not seem to be any need to invoke this.
By the way, there is quite a nice new book out by John Van Wyhe which contains facsimiles of some original Darwin research notes in little pockets on the pages. Nice work John. My clock just struck 2 am - time to go.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Fingerprints and Infectious Diseases (e.g. Swine flu)

After I discussed the issue of fingerprints and 'flu virus transfer with a few people in London, I was told this story about the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
Apparently, they were planning to use fingerprint readers for I.D. at the athletes' access gates but the French medical team objected because the print readers might transfer some diseases and infect their healthy team (which presumably had been quarantined before the events). So lanyards and bar-coded I.D. cards were used.
So in 2000, it was already known that fingerprinting devices were a health hazard!
Well, too late now. The horse has bolted.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Does Fingerprint ID at Entry Portals Spread Swine Flu?

On May 26th 2009, one month after the Swine Flu pandemic started, I entered the USA at Newark Airport, on my way to conferences in Winston Salem and Chicago. As I passed through Passport control I was asked to press my four fingers and then my thumb of each hand onto a glass plate and have my photo taken. The officer stamped my passport and then allowed me through with a cheerful remark.

As I walked away I looked back at the hundreds of people waiting in the Non-US Citizen lines, who were about to press their fingers on similar flat glass panels. I looked at my hands and wondered how many hundreds of people had touched that same glass panel before me. A looked to see if anyone was wiping the glass panels but did not see anyone doing that. From my own experience I knew that these devices worked best with slightly greasy fingers.

This happened five weeks after the first deaths from H1N1 were reported in the United States. I suspect that all non-US-citizens coming into the USA from Mexico would have had their fingerprints taken in the same way, since the procedure was adopted by DHS late in 2008 .

According to my sources, when many people touch hard surfaces in a short period of time they are very likely to spread viruses. Fingerprint recorders might be able to spread flu to hundreds of people.

It is June 29th 2009 now and I have just attended another flu pandemic lecture by experts in Europe. I was told today that the US pandemic has passed 1 million cases and the country is preparing for 100 million cases next winter. Luckily, I have not had any illnesses this trip. I wash my hands a lot now, and enter bathrooms by pushing the door with my elbows. I shake hands much less and gradually spend less time kissing and hugging people who are not close family members. I recall that Queen Elizabeth always wears white gloves when touching people - perhaps that would be a bit extreme - but perhaps not. I carry hand cleaner and wet-wipe tissues in my laptop bag now.

As I prepare for the long flight home to Perth Western Australia, my paranoia builds. My mind fills with questions such as.
  1. How many Non-US citizens developed flu after passing through US immigration?

  2. Do persons not fingerprinted (US Citizens?) have the same rate of flu as Non-US-citizens?

  3. How many people, after travelling abroad, then developed Swine flu but, as far as they knew, had never been in contact with a case?

  4. Do fingerprint machines still work if they are wiped with alcohol between people?

  5. Would it be possible to give everyone a little hand towel after passing through so that we needn't worry?

  6. Are the fingerprints really being used for anything or is it all just a practice run?

  7. Is there anyone at CDC who has tested these machines for viruses using a sufficiently sensitive and validated technique?

I sneezed once this afternoon but I feel quite well. It's probably an allergy. Have I still got my box of Relenza? I will make sure it is in my carry-on. Fingers crossed. Time to hit the sack.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Darwins Illness was Helicobacter Pylori

It is almost midnight on 12th of February and I am writing from Orebro Sweden so I have one more hour before it is midnight GMT. Today was the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birthday. One aspect of Darwin's life which has not really been analysed much in recnt years is the cause of his illness - a type of "nervous dyspepsia" according to his quack phyician Dr Gully at Malvern in 1849. In brief, Darwin spent most of his life with a gastric complaint, complaining of nausea and stomach pain. Like almost everyone in Victorian England, and the rest of the world, Charles Darwin most likely carried Helicobacter. Of people with Helicobacter, 10% have chronic peptic ulcer in their lifetime and maybe an equal percentage have chronic dyspepsia. I will elaborate more later - and try to have a short paper published on this - which so far has been rejected. Suffice it to say - the origin of the species which troubled Darwin was Helicobacter. End of Story!

Sunday, February 08, 2009

What's Happening 2009

My new year resolution is to make some blog entries this year.
  1. My biotech company (Ondek) is developing new vaccines based on the Helicobacter bug. They clone DNA from influenza into H.pylori so that you can be vaccinated against the 'flu by drinking H.pylori. The picture below shows what we expect to achieve. It links you to the Ondek web site.
  2. At the University of Western Australia, Professor Geoff Shellam and I have started The Marshall Centre for Infectious Disease Research and Training. You can do a master's course in infectious disease - with various levels of intensity - over one or two years.
  3. Since 1996, Dr Warren and I have been Western Australia's Ambassadors for Life Sciences and our Nobel activities are managed from The Western Australian Office of the Nobel Laureates. Our scheduled activities are usually managed from links on that site. Our international travel is usually arranged about a year in advance.
  4. I still see patients at Gastroenterology within Sir Charles Gairdner hospital. Virtually all my patients generously assist with clinical reasearch projects. These vary from trials of new antibiotic treatments to vaccine research. It is interesting and usually quite easy, but time consuming. My University office arranges this activity and I am assisted by several research assistants who help manage the communications which arrive through the H.pylori Research Laboratory.
  5. I try to keep fit by looking after a small farm at Gingin (200 acres of bushland mostly) which is 70 km northeast of Perth. We have some grape vines and may make a tub of wine some day. The location is near and is in the picture from a 20km height view in Google earth if you want to fly there.
  6. I like to spend time with my family who are located in Perth (Luke, Carina, Lorian and Rigel), Melbourne (Bronwyn, Troy, Paige and Amelia), Peoria Ill (Caroline and Paul) and London (Jessica and Nick).
  7. My hobbies are computers and electronics, internet, digital photography and anything technical. The books I read recently are "Darwin and the Barnacle" (Rebecca Stott), "Measuring the World" Daniel Kehlmann, "Old Time Radios! Restoration and Repair" Joseph Carr, "Understanding Bioinformatics" Zvelebil and Baum. I also listen to the books I don't have time to carry around or the strength to hold up. A couple of favourites are "Relativity 1916" Albert Einstein (Librivox) and "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson (Audible). I subscribe to "The New Yorker", "Silicon Chip", "Scientific American". I have on-line subscriptions to "The West Australian" and "The Australian". It seems a lot but actually, I don't read all that much.
  8. This year I will attend or speak at conferences in Sweden, USA, Spain, India, China,UK, Singapore and some others which slip my mind at present.
  9. Things I want to accomplish this year are... hmmmm, it seems that everything I want to accomplish takes at least 2 years. Maybe, just trying to accomplish something, is most of the fun. Once it's done the novelty wears off so quickly.