It snowed

Oh, what a shame!
There barely is reason to hope 
For a thick white coat.

If I were young, 
I'd pray there be 
Music without party, 
Drinking and regretting,
Pretending and forgetting. 

If I were young, 
I'd learn to wait 
For nothing that won't come, 
Learning but not winning, 
Caring but not crying.

Now it snowed while I wait
For the damned season to pass.
I no longer think the next better, 
I still find the longing bitter. 

It snowed. Oh, what a shame! 

A brief account on SARS-CoV-2 variants

Information retrieved from World Health Organization website on 15 December 2021.

The World Health Organization (WHO) monitors and coordinates the efforts of member states in the fight against SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. Viruses mutate rapidly, meaning that many different strains (variants) of virus can circulate in parallel, each with potentially different rate of transmission, severity and nature of disease caused, and resistance to current treatments and preventive measures (hereon referred to as Traits).

Naming and Classification

The scientific community labels each strain of virus using different systems based on the compiling of genetic analysis results. However, these labels are difficult to use by media and the non-expert population. WHO has adopted through their Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) simple-to-use and non-discriminatory Greek letter labels for key variants.

WHO distinguishes three categories of relevant variants (in decreasing order of health risk): VOC, VOI, and VUM, the former two accounting for key variants. The following descriptions are based on WHO working definitions:

  • VOI Variant of Interest presents genetic changes known or predicted to affect Traits and is observed to cause an increase in total number of cases with increasing strain prevalence.
  • VOC Variant of Concern fulfils the criteria for VOI and additionally is shown to cause a detrimental change to any one of the Traits on a scale significant to global health.
  • VUM Variant under Monitoring has genetic changes suspected to impact virus characteristics and some indication for possible future risk.

Variants that are no longer circulating, have been circulating without an impact for a long time, or have been classified of no concern using scientific data stop being monitored.

Actions

The actions required of member states and the WHO to manage the pandemic in the context of rapid virus evolution are as follows:

  • Member State reports detection of a new strain and its possible classification to WHO and uploads genetic sequencing data to a public database, such as GISAID. If resources allow, conducts further laboratory and field research to assess impact genetic changes have on Traits.
  • WHO gathers and analyses data to monitor on a global level spread of novel strain and the impact it has on public health, in comparison to other strains. When required, coordinates research efforts between member states. If a strain has been labelled as VOC, WHO reports on the findings to member states and updates guidance, if necessary.

English and I – overcoming the second language barrier

English is not my mother tongue. Can I hope to overcome this ‘disability’ and be given a chance to use the language as my tool of the trade?

I imagine with English being a dominant language currently, many find themselves in a similar position. Is there a real barrier? I am going to analyse the practical and psychological factors, starting from the job applicant’s perspective and moving to the language learner’s experience.

Proficiency

The Oxford Languages definition ‘a high degree of skill; expertise’ and the Cambridge Dictionary definition ‘the fact of having the skill and experience for doing something’ are broadly comparable; the former attempts to quantify skill and set a bar for the ‘proficient’ person, and is what people have in mind when they use the word ‘proficient’. I find the latter pragmatic: being good enough to accomplish the task at hand.

When searching for a job, we often find ourselves faced with demands for ‘proficiency’, especially when it comes to using software or language, the latter potentially having the twist of asking for ‘native speaker’. As I do like to provide context for my opinions, let’s first analyse this from the employer’s or recruiter’s position. It is understandable that they would ask for nothing but the best (which is what I assume they had in mind), knowing they are unlikely to find a perfect candidate anyway, but it is not sensible. And it is counterproductive on all sides involved. As mentioned above, proficiency should be about being good enough to do the job. Hoping to find an English language scholar to write promotional material is unlikely to get you results. They are more likely to be writing books or teaching university courses. And neither is the ‘native speaker’ necessarily going to fit the bill. Just because someone was raised on the English language does not guarantee they have the ability to write good quality text. I think providing some detail as to what level of skill the candidate ought to have would be more useful; do you require someone with vast vocabulary, ability to write complex sentences, or who can just write in plain English so that the proofreader doesn’t need to spend more time on the text than the writer?

The right candidate

The problem with having vague, excessively demanding job descriptions is that it might put the right people off applying, or get you, the job advertiser, too many applications altogether. An under-confident person will maybe give up on applying when faced with an employment litany. The over-confident or past caring will apply anyway. And this leads us to the psychological factor relevant to all jobs, even the recruiter’s: what you can do vs what you think you can do.

Most people have a good ability to learn. It seems unlikely to me that any job will leave you perfectly prepared for the next. On the first day on the job you are ‘shown the ropes’, introduced to the idiosyncrasies of the place, and told what it is exactly you are expected to do. You learn. And you probably will find you can do the job and that what you learnt previously is only relevant incidentally. You become proficient at doing this exact job, because you don’t have a choice. You are either good enough to stay, or you will probably have to leave. But you can only find out if you applied, were offered a chance, and gave it a try. Otherwise said, if you and the employer had the right mentality.

My experience

I started learning English sometime before the age of 10. I quite enjoyed it initially since someone drawing a duck and telling you ‘duck’ is quite fun when you are that age. After having a few private teachers set up the basics, I ended up in a school with lots of English classes. Having for the most part been useless in school, and faced with a boring and perhaps too challenging English language education (grammar!), I lost interest. For the next 6-8 years I made negligible progress compared to what I could have achieved. I learnt English from TV and the internet.

Because I wasn’t actually a complete moron, and some things worked out, I ended up applying for universities in the UK, for which I had to take an English language test. Following a month of study with the help of a tutor, I passed the test, and eventually ended up studying in the UK. And I guess I have been improving my English ever since.

How do I rate? Well, I guess I’m alright. I am sure there is plenty of room for improvement, and I am working on it, but can I assess myself? And going back to the point discussed earlier, assess myself using what standard?

The gap

So here is my list of to-dos, with the added perspective of the foreign vs native language learner:

  • Improve knowledge of informal language. This is perhaps the hardest to do. Because much of this vocabulary is only heard, and rarely written, it can be hard to get enough exposure to it. This, I believe, doesn’t have to do just with the amount of social interaction you have; the spoken language varies among regions, times, and depends on the speaker’s preference. This is in contrast to the formal language which changes more slowly and is heavily edited in publications. For the foreign learner, I am afraid it is down to having time and good memory: being exposed to the language and wanting, and being able, to remember it. The native speaker has the advantage.
  • Write without grammar and punctuation mistakes. Control of these two interdependent features of the language is something the professional writer should indeed have. Is anything perfect? No, but I assume an editor will expect to find less than a handful of mistakes in a book. This is my idea of how publishing works. For the foreign learner, just like the native, study is the solution. I don’t think there is an intrinsic advantage here for the native speaker: grammar is not studied everywhere.
  • Improve spelling and pronunciation. These two form another pair, but making mistakes with the latter is more easily forgiven. Some variation is expected in pronunciation (i.e. accent), but none is tolerated in spelling. The American/British spelling situation does not make for an example in tolerance, and it surely confuses the foreign speaker of English. Having a good memory helps with both skills, either by allowing for enough examples to be learnt to make pattern recognition feasible, or by learning common rules. What I find more useful for a foreign learner is studying phonetics. Having a basic knowledge and being able to read phonetic spelling for dictionary entries does wonders for your progress towards listening and spelling like an (educated) native. I only have basic knowledge, but I have found it useful and very rewarding. It goes miles towards dispelling the myths about the chaotic English language. The native speakers have an advantage, which they can grow through study.
  • Expand vocabulary. I guess this is the complementary entry to the first in the list; I am using it to talk about formal language. This is just down to memory and probably the volume of reading one goes through. Any advantage on the native’s side comes really in the form of time and education.

You might have noticed this covers most aspects of language learning. A language, not just English, is vast. You can keep learning for as long as you want.

The Conclusion

Unsurprisingly, the native speaker does hold an advantage when it comes to language. If during a lifelong ‘race’ both native and foreign learner put equal amounts of effort in, they will find themselves closer and closer together the longer they ‘race’ for, with the native holding a shrinking advantage. But does it matter for job prospects? I would like to believe it doesn’t. The problem with answering the question is, in fact, one of general relevance. How can an employer know the candidate is any good without hiring them?

Whistlejacket – Part of the Little Blue Marbles Series

Rupert got in to work at 6.30 am, just like he always did. He was the first one of the day, before even the security staff had a chance to unlock all the doors and gates. His unusual habit of arriving so early was tolerated only because of how long he had been working for the recycling centre. Three years working there were an eternity by the average worker’s standard of six months or less. Those years felt like an eternity for Rupert. Nonetheless, he was always hardworking and serious, never having fun with the others, skipping tea breaks (all four of them everyday), all of which added up to him just not being liked by anyone. Just respected.

One person made for an exception. Dylan. He had been working there for six months, and during that time he became Rupert’s one and only friend, at work and outside. He didn’t raise an eyebrow when he heard about weird Rupert and his commitment, and that earned him the chance for Rupert to talk to him. Rupert was acutely aware of his surroundings, even though he never interacted.

There was only so much statistics could be cheated however, and now it was Dylan’s time to leave. He hadn’t told anyone besides management, not even Rupert, who while getting changed this morning, noticed that Dylan had cleared out his locker and turned in the overalls. Sadness flowed over Rupert’s face, and after the flash flood passed, bitterness remained in the gullies carved by the rapid waters, reminding him that, contrary to his strongest held beliefs, he did need people in his life, he wasn’t numb, but also feeding his ego with the thought that he had been right: people don’t care about him. He hoped for a fleeting moment that Dylan would at least say goodbye.

He ate lunch by himself, sat at the corner table, hoping someone would want to sit next to him, but not anyone who was there, not even Dylan if he turned up, and fearing that one of these people deemed inappropriate would actually want to sit at his table and ruin his comfort of finding solitude in a busy room. He checked his phone. Dylan had messaged him four hours before: ‘Should we get a pint after you finish work today?’ All his despair at having been abandoned by his only friend was for nothing. If only he learnt to trust his reasonable curiosity to check his phone every now and then, rather than submit to his phobia telling him to do the opposite of what he wanted out of fear of ‘giving in’. That was Rupert, a stoic without a purpose.

‘Whistlejacket’

read the sign hanging over the entrance to the pub, below the lettering a rather well-made reproduction of George Stubbs’ masterpiece. Drawn by the warm glow flowing out the windows, Rupert overcame his hesitation and turned left, walking into the narrow courtyard separated from the street by a mostly dried out boxwood hedge, and then gathering his strength once more, into the loud but surprisingly welcoming pub. He stood frozen scanning the premises for any sign of Dylan, and having found none, decided to venture to buy himself a drink from the bar.

Sat down at the table he was surprised to find the famed painting reproduced on the cork coasters, frayed and slightly falling apart from the chronic booze soaking. He swore he would one day go to see the real thing. He didn’t however feel out of place in the pub, which, beside the name and elevated choice of signage, was as regular as they got. He noticed for the first time how people don’t call the name of the place they are in. ‘Yeah mate, I’m here.. at the pub.. The pub, you know.. the one with the horse..’ Probably no one in the establishment had ever seen the painting. Or would be inclined to do so, if told where to find it. He fell into thought, squinting to study the colours of the hair, the eyes, the subtle gradation in the background, things he could see on the coaster reproduction mostly due to the creativity-inducing properties of alcohol. He finished his first pint of IPA in less than 5 minutes. He was in line for the second one when Dylan arrived.

An hour later, many, many pints of increasingly cheaper drinks, and a belated awkward conversation, Rupert and Dylan knew everything there was to know about each other. Rupert had been averse to the custon and process of formal education his entire life, and after breaking his right arm shortly after starting his A-levels, he decided to quit. He felt as the injury, which he never ascribed a cause to, entitled him to take the decision. He hated sports, both taking part in and watching them. His dislike of people severely reduced his job options, and after his arm healed and he got sick of being rejected from supermarket staff jobs, he applied for the recycling centre. His attention to detail got him the coveted job of sorting supervisor. In the past three years he had become quite fond of environment protection, and took with great pride to call the place ‘recycling factory’, because they were part of making new things just like other industries. Dylan had been much more academically successful, having made it all the way to first year in uni. At this point he got sent down after peddling marijuana, an enjoyable and profitable activity he had been engaging in since he was 15. Because the university didn’t want negative publicity he was not reported to the police. He saw the ad for sorting positions at the recycling centre and he ended up under Rupert’s supervision. Rupert’s dedicated nature earned him not only Dylan’s respect, but also occasional lessons in chemistry, subject Dylan had been quite fond of.

‘So how did you end up selling pot?’

Blue

Sun is fallen.
All is blue.
In this world
All is true.

Sun is closer,
Don't forget,
Than you in dream
May ever get.

Making of

I started this work with the title in mind ‘Study in blue’. Having considered what does the colour blue mean to people: ‘cold’, ‘water’, ‘sky’, ‘night’, ‘flame’, I decided to challenge myself to create a painting using only blue to explore whether I could derive other meaning from using this colour. Otherwise said, could I suggest ‘warm’, ‘dry’, or ‘land’, in spite of using only blue?

Having sketched a few versions of this idea, I ended up with the one shown below. It was going to involve a great sphere (the idea having been in my head for a while); the landscape around evolved. In this final version, I couldn’t help but see a fallen sun, and that is how the poem came to be.

Final draft version of ‘Study in blue’; graphite pencil

Have I succeeded with this experiment?

No. It looks like a freezing winter night on another planet. But the painting and poem are good.

Dissolve and Melt

An illustration describing the difference between ‘dissolve’ and ‘melt’. The dictionary entry for the latter does cover the meaning of ‘dissolve’, but I feel this muddles up the simple science behind. I hope the ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ cliché will do its magic this time.

This one is sort of an archive item. I published this illustration on some of my social media before I had the website. I am still proud of it, and will look at making some more of this kind of content.

As far as background goes, I looked at the topic of solubility for chemistry knowledge communication when I presented for the RSC Chemistry Communicators’ Challenge, 2018. I have fond memories of the night; maybe I will look at doing something like that again in the future, hopefully with my illustration- and presentation-making skills much improved.

The tightening restrictions on DMF use in the EEA from 2023

I have recently come across a woeful comment on the future ‘ban’ of one of the staple solvents in chemistry: N,N-dimethylformamide, usually referred to as DMF. I decided to take a look for myself into some of the legal proceedings of the European Union and this is what I found.

Background

First, a tiny bit of background; all the regulations under discussion only apply to EEA countries. In 2006, the Regulation (EC) No 1907/2006 concerning ‘Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and
Restriction of Chemicals (REACH), establishing a European Chemicals Agency’ was passed by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. In the ‘Recitals’ section (as I’ve been told by someone knowledgeable it’s called, thank you!), entry 25 (page 10) indicates that it is the responsibility of manufacturers and importers of substances to assess the risks and hazards of those substances, and of those handling the substances to follow the prescribed ‘risk management measures’.

In 2018, the Italian Ministry of Health submitted a request (Annex V Proposal for a Restriction concerning DMF) to the European Chemicals Agency to amend the legislation concerning use of DMF, under the terms described in the Regulation (EC) No 1907/2006.

Scientific grounds

I think it would be interesting to cover the scientific method backing this request:

  • Setting DNEL (Derived No-Effect Level) values. Using reported toxicological studies and REACH guidelines, the maximum amount of DMF to which humans can be exposed on a long-term basis, either via inhalation or by dermal contact, is set. These levels indicate the maximum amount humans can be expected to tolerate without noticing adverse health effects.
  • Estimating the expected exposure for different scenarios: DMF manufacture, its use in petrochemical, polymers, and leather, fur, and textiles industry, formulation, fine chemicals synthesis, and finally, the only registered non-industrial, professional use, as a laboratory chemical using dedicated software. Exposure is only considered for occupational purposes as DMF is not found in consumer products and it is readily biodegradable (therefore no environmental exposure).
  • Risk characterisation ratios (RCRs) are calculated using the DNEL and predicted exposure values. RCRs provide a measure for the perceived risk: how much is a person likely to be exposed to, related to how much they should be exposed to. Values of RCR above 1 indicate a potential risk. From the analysed scenarios the following indicate an unaddressed risk to the operator: production of fine chemicals including pharmaceuticals (exposure via dermal contact, even with high protection level gloves), polymer and leather, fur, and textiles production (if processes are performed at elevated temperature, exposure mainly via dermal contact).
    Aside: for using DMF as laboratory chemical the following statement is made: ‘professional use of DMF as laboratory agent is not expected to bear a safety concern for workers’. The Annex to this document does however mention ‘users should ensure that a sufficient and effective gloves management system is in place’ (page 297).

For the practising organic chemist working in R&D, this tells us what we already know. DMF is toxic, but can be handled safely by a well-trained and responsible chemist in a laboratory with adequate control measures. The fairly low volatility of DMF at room temperature and the adequate ventilation and containment make the risk of respiratory exposure low. Dermal contact is more of a problem as disposable nitrile gloves are not resistant to DMF.

Restriction options

Going back to the legal part of the story, what measure did the Annex V Proposal suggest? Certainly not banning DMF. This procedure was well-researched and the involved bodies aware that DMF does in general not have adequate replacement available and ‘banning of the manufacturing and uses of DMF, which is the ultimate consequence of an authorisation process, is not an appropriate risk management option’ (page 26). The report clearly predicts that banning DMF would cause some business to either shut down or relocate. The other Risk Management Options (RMOs) include restriction or authorisation. The authorisation route was deemed unsuitable, as not only it would involve higher costs, but ‘based on the socio-economic [authorisation] route some (uncontrolled) risks may remain’ (page 47).

Conclusion

And this brings us to the current affairs. On 19th November 2021, the Commission Regulation (EU) 2021/2030 was issued, which comes into force on 12th December 2021, and states that from 12th December 2023, DMF can be manufactured, sold, and used only if the DNEL values for occupational exposure of 6 mg/m3 for exposure by inhalation and 1.1 mg/kg/day for dermal exposure (values increased from the original proposal of 3.2 and 0.79, respectively) are ensured by appropriate control measures.

DMF will not be banned in the EEA. The increased costs associated with implementing the additional safety controls might result, however, in the DMF Winchester price going up. So, for those of you who need to wash your MOFs, research at will!

Lost

I feel lost.
Lost in my house,
Lost in my room,
Lost in my chair,
Lost in my clothes,
Lost in my skin,
Lost in my head,
Lost in my thoughts.

How glorious it is to
Set your course in act
And forget about the trifle fact.

I wonder how can a compass point so many ways at once?
I hate how a ship can sail in one direction only.

Sail, ship, compass, thought.
All I want is to think not.

Insidious burnout

I feel awful. I guess I could blame it on the ‘burnout’. Here is a three-point analysis for this term, according to my own experience.

  1. Defining characteristic. Confusion. I want to do so much. I have plenty of ideas; I start some of them, many I don’t. I lose focus: the ideas I have started, I don’t want to finish because I can’t decide if they are better than the ones I ignored in the first place. I am the headless chicken version of the compulsive multitasker.
  2. Onset. Insidious. Like an attack coming in waves, some of which get fended off, burnout sets in, winning the battle by attrition.
  3. Prognosis. Bleak. I know well enough from having spent years in this state. Rest doesn’t fix it. I can’t rest, the thought of how to sort things out keeping me up at night, distracting me during the day.

I now understand the mantra: ‘Ignorance is bliss’. It is not an option for me.