I've just read a medical article that seems to be what we have been looking for since this whole Covid thing started: an detailed explanation of what it does in the body. And no, it didn't come from doctors in lab coats, it came from a supercomputer analysing statistical data. Take that, humans! Anyway... First of all, read the article: A Supercomputer Analyzed Covid-19 — and an Interesting New Theory Has Emerged. And before you go all "Oh, it's on Medium! I don't go to that crap, they use a paywall!", know that this is a free article. (also you can read anything on Medium if it seems to be coming from Twitter)

  Long story short (you should really read the article, though) is that the virus binds to the ACE2 receptors - and degrades them, then tricks the body to make even more ACE2 receptors (even in organs that normally don't express them as much) to get even more virus in. The virus also tweaks the renin–angiotensin system  which leads to a Bradykinin storm which causes multiple symptoms consistent with what is seen in hospitals and leaves many a doctor stumped: dry cough, blood pressure changes, leaky blood vessels, a gel filling one's lungs (making ventilators ineffective), tiredness, dizziness and even loss of smell and taste. Also, because of a genetic quirk of the X chromosome, women are less affected, which also is shown in statistical data on severe cases.

  Quoting from the article: several drugs target aspects of the RAS and are already FDA approved to treat other conditions. They could arguably be applied to treating Covid-19 as well. Several, like danazol, stanozolol, and ecallantide, reduce bradykinin production and could potentially stop a deadly bradykinin storm. Others, like icatibant, reduce bradykinin signaling and could blunt its effects once it’s already in the body.

  Good stuff, people! Good stuff! The person responsible for this is Daniel A Jacobson and his research assistants should take all the credit! Just kidding.

  But how new is this? Bradykinin is not an unknown peptide and we have known from the very beginning what ACE does and that Covid binds to it. My limited googling shows doctors noticing this as soon as the middle of March. In fact, the original article that the Medium article is based on is from July 7! Here is a TheScientist take on it: Is a Bradykinin Storm Brewing in COVID-19?

  For more info, here is a long video talking about the paper: Bradykinin Storm Instead of Cytokine Storm?

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  If you really are into medicine, check this very short but very technical video about Bradykinin, from where I also stole the image for this post: Bradykinin | Let the Drama begin!

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  I hope this provided you with some hope and a starting point for more research of your own.

There are few big questions as big as "Why death?" and "Why getting old?" and "Why sex?. And it's surprising that the answer is probably parasites.

After a lifetime of fighting disease and random damage, it becomes more efficient to give up and just start anew. Death comes just as a natural consequence of a body that has (or should have) achieved replication already and is out of warranty, so to speak.

Sex is similar. Once a parasite finds a way in, it makes a whole lot of other parasites that know that way, too. If an entire population is the same, clones of the same splitting creature, they are all just as vulnerable. Sexual reproduction mixes things up and leads to more variety, jump starts evolution and maximizes the chances that a portion of a population is immune to any one attack.

And I've been thinking today, as a tangent, that another big question might have the same answer: "Why are there sociopaths?". If societal development and cooperation is the solution for gaining supremacy over individualistic populations, why aren't we all social and empathetic and nice? And I am thinking: empathetic people want to help others, especially sick and hurting people. Instead, they get sick themselves and help spread the disease. It helps to have a small, but significant minority, of assholes who only care about themselves. In case of a major outbreak, they stay clear and survive.

While being hosted in a small house in the Arges county, I found myself face to... err... hairy body to hairy body with a large spider, at least 10 cm from the tips of the front legs to the tips of the hind legs. The body itself was about 2 cm in length. I tried to catch it, but it ran away and I didn't exactly feel safe handling it. However, from my standpoint, the adventure was just beginning. It starts with a picture:


In a previous post, I was telling you about a web site that recognized plants from blurry pictures I had taken. I assumed that somewhere there was something similar for spiders. Alas, it doesn't seem to be the case, so I reverted to the classic Google search with descriptive words: a European spider 10 cm in length. I found it almost immediately, clearly a member of the genus Tegenaria in the family Agelenidae. Or is it?

Funny enough, most of the spiders assigned to Tegenaria were recently (2013) moved to another genus, Eratigena, based on DNA and molecular analysis. So my spider, likely a "giant house spider", can be found either as Tegenaria atrica or Eratigena atrica (not to mention Tegenaria duellica, Tegenaria gigantea and Tegenaria saeva). I also can't be completely sure of the identification. As far as I can tell, it's a male, based on the large (pedi)palps, used not only to hold on to prey, but also to deposit sperm in the females. But while I think it looks most like an atrica, based on the pictures I found online, it could also be an Agelena labyrinthica or a Tegenaria parietina, even if the first is found in Denmark and should be smaller and the second is rare and native to Central Asia.

Considering it's a giant spider I found in a house, I will go with Eratigena atrica, but one has to wonder how active biology as a science is to have species of common arthropods reassigned from one genus to another just a few years ago. So yeah, a nice little story, for me at least, all starting from a picture of a spider in a bathroom.

Whenever I am trying to determine the translation for a plant or animal, I go through two steps: first I look the name up in the language that I know, in order to get the Latin name, usually from Wikipedia; second I look the Latin name with site:ro in the query or whatever other language I am interested in. This way I get information about both language and the characteristics of the species. But how did we come to have this universal naming of living things and the single one used throughout the biological sciences? Even the British use it!



It's thanks to this guy called Carl Linnaeus (or Carl von Linné or Carolus Linnæus, it was a long time ago and they were playing with names back then, heh heh), a Swedish biologist and physician. He devised around 1750 what we call the binomial nomenclature, in which any living species name would be encoded by two Latin parts, the first, also known as the generic name, would be the genus and the second, also known as specific name, identifies the species in the genus. Now you also know how the words generic and specific came by, maybe :). To be fair, his work is based on Gaspard Bauhin's, who lived in the 1600s. Now, the words could come from any language, you just have to spell them in Latin.

While the system is rational and helpful, there are peculiarities in it that are worth attention. For example, how come a lot of species use vulgaris as the specific name? Because it means "common" in Latin, so for example Beta Vulgaris is the common beet. What other specific names are there? How about species where the generic and the specific names are the same? They are called tautonyms or, later, tautonymous names, of which some are funny enough like Gorilla gorilla gorilla (yes, three names, hold on, I'll get there). It's like saying "a man's man" :) A bonus fun thing related to this, botanical nomenclature forbids tautonymous names, defined as having identical generic and specific names. However, if you spell them differently, even if they mean the same thing, that's allowed, so you get stuff like Picea omorica, which means pine in Latin and Serbian. For zoological names, tautonyms are allowed, though.

There is more. How about the three part names? You can get stuff like "Something orother Linnaeus 1753" and "Another thing (Linnaeus 1753)". They both mean that the guy who first named the species was Linnaeus, but the second form indicates that the name has changed since first named. There are obvious reasons for that, as the taxonomy of species was first based on physical similarity, while more recently it is based on genetic similarity. One species might appear to be part of an existing genus just to find out later that its genes are of a completely different origin. Another reason for a third part of a species name is the trinomial nomenclature, which introduces the concept of taxon. The system is used to mean different things in botany and zoology, since it is governed by different organizations and you know, they just have to differ in opinions. How Linneaus must roll in his grave. Anyway, taxa are so vague that not even the same body of people agree on what the rules are on that.

Let's return to binomial nomenclature for a bit, though. I've stumbled upon the specific name officinalis. Linnaeus gave the specific name "officinalis", in the 1735 (1st Edition) of his Systema Naturae, to plants (and sometimes animals) with an established medicinal, culinary, or other use. That's a very interesting category and it endures in the age of medicinal pills created in labs by big pharmaceutical companies. When you look for the name of a plant, you usually get some local name that then became the general term for that plant in a language, but when you look at the Latin name, you understand that it has medicinal or culinary properties. Funny enough, the name comes from officina, which is the name of a building attached to a monastery where the monks prepare their medicine, but in modern Italian it means workshop. Also check out this paper: On "officinalis" the names of plants as one enduring history of therapeutic medicine.

There is so much to discuss on this subject that it would make too long an entry and I lack the necessary time. Even the few tidbits of information here are taken mostly from Wikipedia. Imagine digging a little further... it's a huge rabbit hole that holds a lot of promise. If you are the kind of guy that plays RPGs and takes a Rogue character so you can sneak past enemies and collect flora to make potions, then you should really dig in here :) Or if you are interested in the lost medicinal and culinary qualities of plants and animals. I hope this gives you a nice start for something really interesting. Last fun fact, the winner of Wikipedia's influence list in 2014 was Carl Linnaeus. The most influential person on content in Wikipedia. Not some rock star, not an American president or British writer, but a 18 century Swedish biologist who gave us a way to name things.

New Scientist is a science oriented news site that has existed in my periodic reading list for years. They had great content, seemingly unbiased and a good web site structure. But they went greedy. Instead of one in ten articles being "premium" now almost all articles I want to read are behind a pay wall. While I appreciate their content, I will never pay for it, especially when similar (and recently, event better) content can be found on phys.org or arstechnica.com completely free. So, I feel sad, but I need to remove New Scientist from my reading list. I understand there is an effort in what they do and that quality requires investment and cost, but brutally switching from an almost free format to a spammy pay wall is unacceptable for me.

I have updated my blog page with the Asteroids in the Solar system. There are only 892 at this date, rather than the 1500 I had before, but these are only the NEOs larger than 1 kilometer and the data is dynamically loaded rather than embedded in the page as it was before. Why didn't I use all of them? Because there are almost 500000 asteroids in the database and displaying them all would have been meaningless. Enjoy!

BTW, if you are wondering what the effects of an impact would be, play with this simulator.

There was this quiz from the Planetary Society where Robert Picardo was interviewing people at a sci-fi convention and asking them what is the planet with the hottest surface in the solar system. The expected answer was Venus. Yet, if you think a little bit, Jupiter probably has a solid core, gases made liquid by high pressure and the temperature at the boundary between the gaseous and liquid layers is immense. Shouldn't Jupiter be the answer?

No. And that is because of the definition of a planetary surface. Quoting from Wikipedia: Most bodies more massive than Super-Earths, including stars and gas giants, as well as smaller gas dwarfs, transition contiguously between phases including gas, liquid and solids. As such they are generally regarded as lacking surfaces.

So there you have it: Jupiter loses due to a technicality... just like Pluto! Just kidding. I was cheating, as there is no clear boundary between the gaseous and liquid states inside Jupiter. It is hard to imagine that, since we have a clear image of what a liquid and a gas should look and behave like; it's like boiling water in a kettle and not being sure where the steam ends and the water begins. Jupiter, though, is a big kettle.

Lab Girl should have been the kind of book I like: a deeply personal autobiography. Hope Jahren writes well, also, and in 14 chapters goes through about 20 years of her life, from the moment she decided she would be a scientist to the moment when she was actually accepted as a full professor by academia. She talks about her Norwegian family education, about the tough mother that never gave her the kind of love she yearned for, she talks about misogyny in science, about deep feelings for her friends, she talks about her bipolar disorder and her pregnancy. Between chapters she interposes a short story about plants, mostly trees, as metaphors for personal growth. And she is an introvert who works and is best friends with a guy who is even more an introvert than she is. What is not to like?

And the truth is that I did like the book, yet I couldn't empathize with her "character". Each chapter is almost self contained, there is no continuity and instead of feeling one with the writer I was getting the impression that she overthinks stuff and everything I read is a memory of a memory of a thought. I also felt there was little science in a book written by someone who loves science, although objectively there is plenty of stuff to rummage through. Perhaps I am not a plant person.

The bottom line is that I was expecting someone autopsying their daily life, not paper wrapping disjointed events that marked their life in general. As it usually is with expectations, I felt a bit disappointed when the author had other plans with her book. It does talk about deep feelings, but I was more interested in the actual events than the internal projection of them. However if you are the kind of person who likes the emotional lens on life, you will probably like the book more than I did.

I was reading this summary of a talk that Dr. Gerard Holzmann held at USENIX Hot Topics in System Dependability mini-conf on 7 Oct 2012 in Hollywood, California. In it there is a link to what the people in the JPL decided to use as the core of the coding standard: The Power of 10. Yeah, it sounds like a self-help system for addicts, but in fact it is a very smart idea. You see, when you code for the JPL you are talking about code that you will design and test on Earth, then run in space, often years after first developed. It needs to be robust, it needs to be as safe as possible and to make easy detecting problems early on. They tried with a style coding standard, but they failed, mostly because people were not being able to follow all the rules they decided on. Here comes the brilliant idea of taking the most risk alleviating ten coding rules and make it a kind of core of their development style. A form of software ten commandments, if you will.

Some of the rules there are quite counterintuitive. You may check them in link format here and in PDF format here. I was particularly interested in rules 2 and 3: allocate everything you need before you run the program (so eliminate things like more memory allocation or garbage collection) and giving all loops an upper bound (so make sure there will never be an infinite loop). The others are either common sense or already implemented in modern programming languages.

If I were to implement this, I would try to encapsulate the idea of finite loops, so instead of foreach/for loops I would use a class with Foreach/For methods (akin to Parallel). The memory allocation thing is trickier in .NET. The idea of garbage collector is already built into the system. The third rule in P10 says "Memory allocators, such as malloc, and garbage collectors often have unpredictable behavior that can significantly impact performance". I wonder if there is any way to quantify the performance losses coming from the framework memory allocation and garbage collection. As for disabling this behavior, I doubt it is even possible. What I could do is instantiate all classes used for data storage (all data models, basically) I will ever need at some initialization stage, then eliminating any usage of new or declaring any new objects and variables of that sort. It kind of goes against the tenets of OOP (and against P10's rule number 6, BTW), but it could be interesting to experiment with.

What do you think? Anyway, feel free to ignore my post, but read the document. People at JPL are not stupid! I loved this minimalist idea they used: just reduce all coding rules to the more important ten.

In January 2016 SpaceX made history by landing the first stage of a rocket that they have just launched. I know, Blue Origin did it first, but SpaceX rockets are designed for GEO orbits, while Bezos' reusable rocket is for LEO, so different animals. However, they have tried doing the same three times, last time just yesterday, only landing on a special barge at sea. Each time this have failed. But let's watch the three attempts, see what's going on.

First time, a year ago, January 2015, you can see that something was wrong with the way the stage came down, it was already angled and the horizontal speeds were really high.


Second time, three months later in April 2015, it almost got it right:


Third time, yesterday, 18 December 2016, it actually landed, then a landing leg gave out:


But what happened? Each time the stage reached the landing spot, each time in a vertical position and with low vertical speeds. Every time the engine exploded it did when the stage tried to stop and fell over. Wouldn't a specialized grabbing mechanism have prevented some of these accidents? Maybe even the first one!

Now, I understand that the purpose of SpaceX is to have a first stage that can land anywhere, and so they must rely on their device only, assuming nothing of the landing site, but once they go through the engineering issues, just catch it in a net, intersect three metal cables to support the upper part of the stage, do something. Look of those things, slowly falling down: you want to jump and catch them, like you would a drunken friend. Make your rocket understand it's not alone, Elon, that it's got our support! :)

Seriously now, I can't even imagine what would happen if the wind started blowing harder while the rocket tried to land on the barge. Since you have a specialized landing vehicle, make it better. The rocketry is fine, it is time to work on the support infrastructure with just as much aplomb and creativity.

Here is a nice video about the Dawn mission. It is hosted by the Planetary Society and very accessible for most levels of understanding of science and astronomy. Check it out, it is a fascinating mission.

If you are interested in astronomy and the kind of space science that can be applied now, not in some distant future, this is the book for you. It describes the technical aspects of asteroid mining, an industry that is in its infancy (or should we call it still in the womb?), but is the only thing that can plausibly connect humanity to space. There will be no habitats on Mars, no colonization of the solar system, no interstellar travel - not for humans, not for robots, without the resources contained in asteroids. It is a short book, but filled with information and, as Lewis himself says, You presumably did not buy this book to be hyped by some huckster. If you did, I hope you will be sorely disappointed and not recommend the book to like-minded friends.

Dr. John S. Lewis is the chief scientist for Deep Space Industries, a space mining company that requires a separate blog post just to familiarize people with it. He is a world renowned asteroid resources scientist, with many written papers in the field, and also the author of Rain of Iron and Ice and of Mining the Sky. I hear you may consider these two part of the same series and, thus, you should probably try to get them before you read this book, even if it stands alone nicely.

Asteroid Mining 101 is filled with many pages on geology, minerals and general chemistry. I have to admit it is not what I expected, however true to its title. I thought I would read a little about asteroids, familiarize myself with the general concept outside my general knowledge of it, then read about the DSI's technical designs for spacecraft that would be used for prospecting and mining asteroids. Instead, it is a description of the concept of asteroid mining, followed by deep analysis of the issues that are involved and possible solutions. Reading it, one realizes how far we are from designing robotic miners when we haven't even developed the mining techniques that would work in space. Almost universally, the methods used on Earth rely on either gravity or heavy use of air, water or liquid fuels. It was therefore my first intention to criticize the book for being too geological in nature, but I end up praising it for it.



The book is structured as follows:

  • a very short introduction on the structure of the Solar System and on various spacecraft that can help prospect asteroids
  • a heavy geological description of asteroid composition, mineralogy and origins
  • classification of asteroids, including a very nice list of techniques used to calculate the various characteristics used
  • actual statistics on asteroids in the solar system
  • economical analysis of a space mining based economy
  • actual scenarios for finding, landing on and mining asteroids
  • appendixes with even more detailed information


From these, mineralogy and classification take more than half of the book. The mining scenarios section is small, but understandably so: Lewis tried to make this book as lacking in speculation as possible, and I have to admire him for that. This is not a book to make you dream, it's a book to make you think. This has the downside that there are no discussions on the politics of the matter, with the exception of nuclear fission energy not being politically feasible for spacecraft propulsion. Even if requiring speculation, I would have welcomed a discussion on the possible uses of asteroids as planetary weapons, conflicts in space or even the legal chaos of who owns what and what enforces law. The author is neither a military man, nor a lawyer, so these are subjects for other people.

Several ideas stand out in the book. One of them is that the true valuable resource in space is water. It is abundant and useful for everything from propulsion to radiation shielding and sustaining of life. The so called precious minerals are completely different in space, yet bringing platinum metals to Earth would have a very little profit margin and a very short one, until the market stabilizes on the planet. On the opposite side of the spectrum, nitrogen would be the limiting factor of an industry that could theoretically sustain millions of billions of people, while fissionable materials like uranium or plutonium would be almost missing. Energy has the same problem. In space, solar power would be the main if not the only source of energy, while the types of fuel used on Earth would be either too expensive to use, impossible to produce or irrational to produce (like high energy fuels containing nitrogen). Metals like titanium and aluminum would require too much energy to extract from the stable compounds that they are found in and are of little general use in space. Return on investment cycles would be long in space, maybe longer than the average political cycle. And so on.

Actually, I would say that this is the main idea of the book: how different a space economy would be, from the technical to the administrative. Problems that are insurmountable on Earth are easy in space and the other way around. What we need to make this work is to develop the techniques required, from the ground up (I know that this expression presupposes gravity and a planetary surface, but let's go with it), because out there we need to relearn everything from the beginning. It shows the potential of the asteroids in the solar system, the possibility of expanding the human civilization millions of times its current size, then it presents you with the difficulty of planning all of this from Earth, where everything is different. It is one of the books that demonstrate unequivocally why we need to go out in space and why we need to stay there: we need to begin to "get it".

In a way, and that is my speculative contribution on the subject, it is also a sad book. It makes it obvious how difficult, if not impossible, it is for the average Joe, commuting to work every day, worrying about mortgages and child education options, to understand what awaits us in space. By extension, how impossible is for politicians to do anything about it, even if they understood the concept and wanted to actually do something. Therefore, the need for private initiative is made clear and evident.

I have been watching this weekly space show made by a husband and wife couple working for SpaceX. Initially called Spacevidcast, now it is called TMRO (pronounced Tomorrow). It is a great show, great quality, nice humor and, more than anything, a comprehensive video report on weekly events in space exploration, commercial or otherwise. If you are even remotely interested in space, you should subscribe. And they have been doing it all from their own resources and crowdfunding for seven years! You gotta love that.

But the selfish reason I am blogging about them is that I got mentioned in the TMRO show! Click here to see how they are trying and even succeeding to pronounce my Internet nom de guerre. The effort is appreciated.


BBC's show The Sky at Night did a coverage of the Rosetta mission, called How to Catch a Comet. It is the standard popular science show, with a lot of fake enthusiasm from the reporters and simple language and explanations, but for people who read this blog entry and wonder what the hell Rosetta is, it does the job. The fat black reporter is really annoying, and not because she's black, but because she feels completely fake whenever she says anything. Other than that the show is decent.

You get to learn about comet 67P, the Rosetta probe features and mission, walk around ESA, talk to scientists and even see a how-to about photographing comets - it was funny to see a shooting star in the night sky while the guy was preparing his camera and talking in the video. Of course, for me the show stopped just when it was getting interesting. I know you can't do much in 29 minutes, but still. I hope they do follow-up shows on Rosetta and I can't wait for November when the lander module will try to grapple the comet and land.

Just in case I've stirred your interest, here are some links that can cover the subject in a lot more detail:
ESA Euronews: Comet Hunters: Rosetta's race to map 67P - 8 minutes and a half of Euronews report from 11 August.
ESAHangout: How do we journey to a comet? - Google Hangout from ESA explaining the mission. It's one hour long and it dates from the 26th of June. Many other videos about Rosetta can be found on the ESA channel.
A playlist about Rosetta from Mars Underground. The most interesting is this video, published on 11 Aug 2014. It lasts an hour and a half and shows the first mission images and science results.
Comets - A wonder to Behold, A continuing Stream of Surprises - The Beauty and the Danger, not about Rosetta, but one hour and a half about comets. The documentary is trying to justify a controversial theory about the electric nature of comets. It is well done with a lot of proof, but I know too little about the theory so I can't recommend it. Interesting, though.

In this post I will try to bring to your attention something that will probably change the world significantly. In 1909, German chemist Fritz Haber successfully fixed atmospheric nitrogen as ammonia in a laboratory and five years later a research team from BASF, led by Carl Bosch, developed the first industrial-scale application of the Haber process, sometimes called the Haber-Bosch process. Ammonia is extremely useful for many applications, the least of each is gunpowder and explosives and one of the most important is fertilizers. Without the Haber-Bosch process we probably wouldn't have the Green Revolution.

So today I found this article in Ars Technica that says that Researchers have developed a method to produce ammonia starting only with air and water. Not only is it more energy efficient than the century-old Haber-Bosch process that’s currently in use, but it’s also greener. The article goes on to say that almost 2% of the entire world energy is used to create ammonia; making the process more efficient is great! But I have to say that this is probably just the tip of the iceberg. Lowering the production cost of such a basic article will ripple throughout many industries, lead to innovation or the possibility to use some old innovation that until now was unfeasible.

I am not a chemist, so my enthusiasm may be way off-base, but my gut feeling is that this improvement on a century old process will have a great and positive effect.