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In Print: Chemical Makeup Predicts Wealth, Mailing Poop

The Newscripts blog would like to be closer Internet buddies with our glossy print Newscripts column, so here we highlight what went on in last week’s issue of C&EN.

Here’s a trick for appearing wealthy: Put on sunscreen.

As mentioned in last week’s Newscripts column, a team of researchers at the University of Exeter, in England, has identified nine chemicals that tend to appear more often in those of higher socioeconomic status and nine chemicals that tend to appear more often in those of lower socioeconomic status. As one of the team’s researchers, Jessica Tyrrell, explains in the above video, these 18 toxicants were identified after conducting an analysis of 10 years’ worth of data from the National Health & Nutrition Examination Survey, which monitors general health in the U.S.

Through its analysis, the research team noticed that benzophenone-3, a sunscreen ingredient, appeared more often in wealthier individuals. The same was true for arsenic and mercury, which the team believes are more prevalent in the wealthy since they consume more shellfish. Lead and cadmium levels were higher in poorer individuals given their higher rates of smoking and working in heavy industry, the team posits.

“We know that humans have low-level exposures to lots of chemicals, hence we have chemical cocktails in our bodies,” Tyrrell tells Newscripts. “Efforts need to be made to have a greater understanding of the health effects of these chemicals so that policymakers can make informed decisions about which chemicals need to be more tightly controlled.”

Moving from England to Spain, the second part of last week’s Newscripts column visits the town of Brunete, where a rather unorthodox approach was taken to encourage dog owners to pick up after their pets: The town mailed left-behind poop back to dog owners.

According to a New York Times article published last month, Brunete mayor Borja Gutiérrez came up with this idea after enlisting the help of a marketing firm to battle his town’s poop problem. The firm proposed having volunteers stake out popular dog centers. Volunteers could then nonchalantly approach negligent dog owners, pet their pooches, and ask for their animals’ breed and name. After waiting for an offending dog and its owner to leave, volunteers would scoop the poop and then head over to city hall to look up the offending dog’s registration information. Before long, a box of the left-behind poop was delivered to the door of the responsible party.

Here’s a video describing the process. At its beginning, be on the lookout for the remote-controlled poop figurines that initially roamed around Brunete in an effort to educate dog owners about their responsibility to pick up after their pets. Unfortunately, the figurines elicited more laughs than civic action, and they were soon discontinued.

As the video says, 147 packages were ultimately delivered to offending dog owners over the course of two weeks earlier this year. Gutiérrez says that the effort has resulted in a dramatic improvement to the cleanliness of his town’s parks and sidewalks.

To figure out if a similar program would work stateside, Newscripts contacted Ali Ryan, manager of the Portland Parks & Recreation Dog Off-Leash Program, which supports dogs and their owners in the Oregon city. “Here in Portland, we mostly rely on what we call ‘petiquette’ to encourage dog owners to do their duties regarding doody,” says Ryan, who laughs off the idea of mailing poop back to negligent dog owners. Instead, starting this month, Ryan’s city will begin issuing fines of up to $150 for scoop/leash law violations while also rolling out a citywide petiquette education campaign. “Our goal with all our many education and enforcement efforts is compliance with leash and scoop laws,” she says. “Ideally, folks [will be] alerted to the impacts of their behavior and stop doing it–no citation needed.”

Attorneys will argue on three motions on Monday in case against Patrick Harran

With Michael Torrice

On Monday, Aug. 26, University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick G. Harran is scheduled to appear in court for a hearing regarding felony charges of violating the state labor code. The charges stem from the death of research assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji after a 2008 fire in Harran’s lab.

Harran was initially charged in the case on Dec. 29, 2011. Preliminary hearing testimony was heard in November and December, 2012. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Lisa B. Lench ruled on April 26 that there was sufficient evidence to send the case to trial.

Harran faces four charges of violating California Labor Code section 6425(a), which makes it a crime for “Any employer and any employee having direction, management, control, or custody of any employment, place of employment, or of any other employee” to willfully violate an occupational safety or health standard in such a way that causes death or permanent or prolonged impairment of the body of an employee.

The four specific charges center on:

  • Failure to provide employees with information and training to ensure they are apprised of the hazards of chemicals present in their work area [Title 8, section 5191(f)(4)]
  • Failure to establish, implement, and maintain an effective injury and illness prevention program that includes “methods and/or procedures for correcting unsafe or unhealthy conditions, work practices and work procedures in a timely manner based on the severity of the hazard” [Title 8, section 3203(a)(6)]
  • Failure to require body protection for “employees whose work exposes parts of their body, not otherwise protected as required by other orders in this article, to hazardous or flying substances or objects” [Title 8, section 3383(a)]
  • Failure to require “clothing appropriate for the work being done” [Title 8, section 3383(b)]

Monday’s hearing will center on three motions filed by Harran’s defense team to try to get the case dismissed. While we have not yet been able to obtain the initial motions, we have the district attorney’s opposition arguments and the defense’s replies to the opposition.

Motion to dismiss pursuant to penal code section 995
California Penal Code section 995 says that an indictment or information shall be set aside by the court in a few specific situations, such as if a defendant has been indicted without reasonable or probable cause.

From the district attorney’s opposition document, page 10:

Distilled to its essence, the Motion to Dismiss claims: 1) The California Code of Regulations sections charged do not apply to defendant Harran because they only apply to an “employer”; 2) Defendant Harran did not “willfully” violate the law because he was unaware of his duties; 3) Victim Sangji was trained by someone (the defense offers up Pomona College, Norac Pharma, defendant Harran, and Dr. Paul Hurley as possible candidates); 4) Defendant Harran was not responsible for devising an Illness and Injury Prevention Program; and 5) The use of lab coats was “optional” at UCLA. Subsumed within these five arguments are various sub-arguments that will be addressed to the extent necessary below.

District attorney opposition to motion to dismiss
Defense reply in support of motion to dismiss

Notice of demurrer and demurrer to felony information
According to Nolo, a demurrer is “A written response to a complaint filed in a lawsuit which, in effect, pleads for dismissal on the point that even if the facts alleged in the complaint were true, there is no legal basis for a lawsuit.”

From the district attorney’s opposition document, page 4:

The defense essentially offers three arguments in support of its Demurrer to Felony Information. The defense asserts that the Information must be dismissed because the occupational safety or health standards: contemplated by Labor Code section 6425(a) and violated by the defendant do not apply to him. The defense claims that 1) Labor Code section 6425(a) is not a “stand-alone” statute and for criminal liability to attach a defendant must willfully violate any occupational safety or health standard, a claim that the People do not dispute. The defense further claims, however, that on the face of the charged regulations, those regulations do not apply to defendant Harran. The defense next claims that 2) if the safety or health standard is read to encompass the defendant, the charged standards or orders are imperrnissibly vague and therefore violate the defendant’s due process rights. The defense finally asserts that 3) Title 8 makes a clear distinction between employers and supervisors, and therefore this court must conclude that the charged standards or orders do not apply to the defendant and that supervisors are criminally liable under Labor Code section 6425 only when the specific standard or order expressly places obligation upon a supervisor.

District attorney opposition to demurrer
Defense reply in support of demurrer
Declaration of John J. O’Kane IV in support of defendant Patrick Harran’s reply in support of demurrer

Motion for Franks hearing, to quash arrest warrant, and demurrer to felony complaint
A Franks hearing, which gets its name from the 1978 case Franks v. Delaware, is usually held to determine whether a police officer’s affidavit used to obtain a search warrant was based on false statements by the officer. In this case, the defense argues that David Higuera, a senior investigator for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, omitted key information from his affidavit that led to an arrest warrant being issued for Harran. If the affidavit is eliminated, then the arrest warrant is invalid, and the case goes away because prosecution didn’t start before the three-year statute of limitations ran out.

This motion was filed under seal and parts of the filings are redacted. The arguments appear to be largely a repeat of the defense’s attempt to get the case dismissed last summer. The redacted parts of the filings likely pertain to an alleged juvenile criminal history of California Division of Occupational Safety & Health investigator Brian A. Baudendistel, who authored the report that formed the basis of Higuera’s affidavit. Harran’s defense team argued last summer that a conviction for a 1985 murder, when Baudendistel would have been 16, undermines the inspector’s credibility.

The other argument is that Higuera did not include information from a prosecution interview with Steve Carr, an organic chemist employed by the Los Angeles County Sanitation District. From the defense’s reply to the district attorney’s opposition argument, page 1:

Dr. Carr opined that: (i) it was “nebulous” as to whether Ms. Sheharbano Sangji would have required additional training regarding techniques used to transfer the pyrophoric reagent at issue here, tert-Butyllithium (“t-BuLi”) and the use of personal protective equipment (“PPE”); (ii) it was reasonable for Professor Harran or someone in his position to have believed that Ms. Sangji did not need ‘additional training regarding the use of t-BuLi or with PPE because Ms. Sangji’s. resume and background indicated that she was “operating at a high level” and a very “sophisticated person;”; Sangji already knew how to perform the requisite t-BuLi transfer techniques, as evidenced by a she performed on October 14, 2008, which was observed by Professor Harran and during which Ms. Sangji wore the appropriate PPE, as well as an experiment she performed three days later, on October 17, 2008; and (iv) that an experienced chemist would have performed the experiment in the manner Ms. Sangji utilized on the date of the tragic accident (e.g., without clamping the bottle or strict adherence to the Aldrich Bulletin, etc.).

District attorney opposition to motion for Franks hearing
Defense reply in support of motion for Franks hearing

Thursday chemical safety round up

I can only imagine the letters we'd get if we ran this photo today. Via the Watch Glass, http://cen.watchglass.org/post/57517779213/gum-if-this-operator-is-kidding-his-employer

We all had different standards back in 1969. Via the Watch Glass, http://cen.watchglass.org/post/57517779213/gum-if-this-operator-is-kidding-his-employer

Catching up on a few weeks of chemical health and safety news:

  • First, a lab clean-up haiku from the Baran lab blog:

    Deep beneath the sash
    BBr3 oozes forth.
    WTF, Sure/Seal™?

  • A study of flash point values on Safety Data Sheets shows that “there were significant variations between the disclosed and measured flash point values. Overall, more than one third of the products had flash points lower than that disclosed on the MSDS.”
  • From It’s the Rheo Thing, the Added dangers of a fire at a plastics plant and Another monomer John won’t work with
  • From the Pump Handle, on the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, Better band-aids or systemic change?
  • From Restricted Data, the Third Core’s Revenge, on the havoc wreaked by the plutonium core that was prepared but never used to bomb Japan in World War II
  • What really went on at Area 51?

    When workers at Area 51 first came to me in the 1990s, they described how the government had placed discarded equipment and hazardous waste in open trenches the length of football fields, then doused them with jet fuel and set them on fire. The highly toxic smoke blowing through the desert base was known as “London fog” by workers. Many came down with classic skin and respiratory illnesses associated with exposure to burning hazardous waste. A chief aim of the lawsuits was to discover exactly what the workers had been exposed to so they could get appropriate medical care.

  • Wal-Mart reached a settlement with OSHA that includes addressing exposure to workers to cleaning chemicals
  • OSHA also issued a final rule “that will require all federal agencies to submit their OSHA-required injury and illness data to the Bureau of Labor Statistics every year. This data will allow OSHA to analyze the injuries and illnesses that occur among the more than two million federal agency workers and develop training and inspection programs to respond to the hazards identified.”
  • Continued repercussions of the Chevron refinery fire in Richmond, Calif., including lots of lawsuits
  • Crews rush to clean up former Cold War rocket test site in California, although I question using “rush” in the story headline given that the mess stems from a 1959 nuclear accident
  • Chemical drums found on Okinawa likely contained military maintenance shop and hospital waste, not Agent Orange

Fires and explosions:

  • An explosion at Turkish Mechanical & Chemical Industry Corp.’s gunpowder factory in Turkey killed two workers and injured sixteen others; the subsequent fire spread to adjacent fields
  • A fire at hazardous waste company Perma-Fix in Georgia “started as employees were mixing chemicals,” including acetone, although the cause of the fire is still being investigated; two employees were still hospitalized five days after the fire
  • Something sparked an ethanol fire at a Kinder Morgan plant in Louisiana, one worker was hospitalized
  • A fertilizer tank at Gulf Sulphur in Florida caught fire twice in a week, resulting in the tank being emptied of sulfur for a thorough inspection

Leaks, spills, and other exposures:

  • In Louisiana, a train derailment resulted in cars leaking lubricant oil, sodium hydroxide, and dodecanol; cars containing vinyl chloride were damaged but didn’t leak. Approximately 250 people were evacuated from homes in the area.
  • Acrolein leaked at a Dow Chemical plant in Louisiana
  • Hydrochloric acid spilled from a 55-gal drum at Rockwater Energy Solutions and 200 gal more spilled at metal-salts provider Blue Line, both in Texas
  • Styrene spilled from a 55-gal drum at Hi-Lite Markings in New York
  • Adhesives manufacturer H.B. Fuller in Michigan released isocyanite from “a 3,000-pound pressurized container”
  • A 55-gal drum of 50% hydrogen peroxide “began to have a chemical reaction” and was offgassing at a Kansas wastewater treatment plant
  • Ammonia leaked at C&S Wholesale Grocers in Maryland and another 50 lbs vented through a pressure release valve at a Pennsylvania dairy, paramedics treated 17 people and took 11 to hospitals
  • A lightning strike at Intercontinental Terminals in Louisiana resulted in release of butadiene
  • “An undetermined amount” of mercury spilled at a maintenance shop behind a hospital in Idaho; mercury also spilled at a hopsital in the Philippines
  • Termite exterminators turned up a glass jar of sodium cyanide buried under a home in California

Not covered (usually): meth labs; incidents involving floor sealants, cleaning solutions, or pool chemicals; transportation spills; things that happen at recycling centers (dispose of your waste properly, people!); and fires from oil, natural gas, or other fuels

Harnessing Entropy

In Solar, a novel by acclaimed author Ian McEwan, the protagonist, a physicist named Michael Beard, has been tasked to evaluate submissions from the public sent to a UK panel looking for new ideas for clean energy. He divides them into piles: those that violate the first law of thermodynamics, those that violate the second law, and those that violate both. This cleantech reporter could relate.

That’s why ideas that start with the laws of thermodynamics – rather than those that have to account for them later – are so attractive. Take entropy, for example. In our daily life we struggle against entropy – the iPod headphone wires that get totally knotted up in my handbag, the fact that the neatest person you know still has a junk drawer, and so on.

This week’s issue of C&EN explores research that tries to harness the universe’s arrow-like movement to disorder. When CO2 laden emissions from power plants are released into the atmosphere, the CO2 mixes into the ambient air mass. As Naomi Lubick explains, an electrochemical cell could harvest the energy that is released when these two gases mix. Researcher Bert Hamelers of the Dutch water treatment tech center Wetsus, has developed a lab scale device to do just that.

But Lubick points out that to implement such a solution would require overcoming at least two hurdles – one, the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides may foul the system’s membranes. And two, it is no easy task to dissolve huge amounts of CO2 in liquid.

Dissolving gas in liquid requires toil and trouble. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Dissolving gas in liquid requires toil and trouble. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In fact, dissolving the gas uses quite a bit of energy. Which reminds me of another literary reference: the witches of Shakespeare’s MacBeth chant “Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble” – indeed, there is some toil and trouble involved.

I know that many other researchers and technology companies are working on these two problems. For example, there are programs working on carbon capture and storage that are using liquids, catalysts and membranes to grab components of power plant emission gases. And firms such as Calysta Energy and Lanzatech have plans to use microbes to make useful products out of gases such as methane and flue gas. For that, they need to dissolve the gas in water. It is not a trivial problem.


Nerd Nite Globalfest

(OR How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Esoteric Minutia)

This post was written by Rick Mullin, author of the blog “The Fine Line,” business reporter for C&EN, and, apparently, a nerd.

I arrived early and waited outside with the first two nerds on the scene. We sipped our coffee next to the chalkboard indicating we had come to the right place: “Nerd Nite Globalfest” at the Brooklyn Lyceum.

Yes, I went to Nerd Nite Globalfest.

My business journalist colleagues demurred when the home office (C&EN headquarters in D.C.) inquired as to whether one of us in the Manhattan bureau might want to swing by the event for a day and see what it’s all about.  But I gave it a little more thought:  “Nerd Nite,” I said to myself. “A conclave of people so unlike me that I will have an opportunity to do some truly objective reporting.”

Or … not.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Nerd Nite would be an excellent place to assess the pop culture phantasmagoria into which science would seem to be sliding all helter skelter, what with the rise of science-y sit-coms and TED Talks. And what better place than Brooklyn, N.Y., to investigate the conflation of nerd and hipster—a troubling social phenomenon that threatens to turn the definition of nerd upside down.

I realized I had some strong opinions. But I kept them to myself while chatting with my two nerd companions, Cristina Romagnoli and Gunther Oakey outside the lyceum this past Saturday.

Romagnoli told me how she had attended a previous Nerd Nite in Orlando, shortly before moving to Brooklyn this summer.  “I felt that I’d found my folk down in Florida,” she said. And these folk told her about the Brooklyn Globalfest, which was obviously an ideal way to get back with her people in her new hometown. “So I showed up last night and met up with the five Nerd Bosses from Orlando!”

Oakey told a familiar story of grade school ostracism followed by nerd solidarity and collectivism in boarding school, after which things got even better. “Luckily, we are in the Golden Age of Nerdom, where movies and pop culture are all, sort of, glorifying nerds,” Oakey said.

Inside, I met organizer Matt Wasowski, who is the “Big Boss” of Nerd Nite. He explained to me how the series evolved from a regular gathering of scientists in a bar in the Jamaica Plain area of Boston in 2003. The bartender begged these people to stop talking, or to try to organize their endless science discussions into something like a monthly meeting, “and get it over with in one fell swoop.”

That worked. And the idea caught on, with Nerd Nites now taking place in more than 60 cities around the world, including Dublin, Sydney, London, Amsterdam, Santiago de Compostela (the capital of the autonomous community of Galicia in northwestern Spain), and most major cities in the U.S. The global event in Brooklyn succeeded in being at least continental, Wasowski said, as several people from Canada showed up along with folks from Austin, Ann Arbor, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and other metropolises.

The Nerd Night concept, Wasowski said, has also succeeded in branching out from “hard science” to disciplines such as history and art. On a typical Nerd Nite, three experts give a 20-minute talk meant to be entertaining yet informative.

“We are trying to strike a careful balance and keep it from almost being too fun,” he said.

What lay ahead for me on Saturday was not your typical Nerd Nite, however. It was a Nerd Whole Day. Continue reading →

Behind the Story: Urine Rides Wave Of Media Attention

A funny thing happened after Newscripts’ Lauren Wolf wrote a post promoting peeing in the ocean late last month: The article, much like the urine it discussed, slowly spread through the waters of the Internet, garnering attention from everyone from Gizmodo to Jezebel. In the video above, fellow GlobCasino blogger Carmen Drahl asks Lauren what it’s like to be known as a “urine evangelist,” whether there’s any truth to dyes detecting urine in pools, and why Lauren’s husband would still rather not pee in the ocean.

This conversation is the second videocast that Carmen and Lauren have produced. Definitely check out their discussion about the history of the National Organic Symposium, if you haven’t already.


In Print: Science Should Be Seen And Not Smelt

The Newscripts blog would like to be closer Internet buddies with our glossy print Newscripts column, so here we highlight what went on in last week’s issue of C&EN.

Cameo: Star Trek's USS Enterprise was filmed partially in LLNL’s National Ignition Facility. Credit: Paramount Pictures

Cameo: Star Trek’s USS Enterprise was filmed partially in LLNL’s National Ignition Facility. Credit: Paramount Pictures

Let’s be honest, there’s probably sizable overlap in the Trekkie and science nerd populations. Which is why it makes so much sense that this summer’s “Star Trek Into Darkness” teamed up with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to create realistic starships on the silver screen. The film crew transformed parts of LLNL’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) to create the engine room of Captain Kirk’s USS Enterprise and parts of the Federation’s USS Vengeance, explains Senior Editor Jyllian Kemsley in last week’s print column.

Jyllian toured NIF in 2009 to report on the facility opening, and this summer, she watched “Star Trek Into Darkness” in theaters. “This summer, I deliberately chose to see the Star Trek movie before I talked to LLNL about it. Four years after touring the facility, I was curious whether I could identify it in the movie,” she says. “It was an interesting experience, because I was sitting there watching the movie, getting into the plot but trying to remain conscious of the movie scenery, when they got to the first USS Enterprise engine room scene and there was NIF’s reaction chamber! You can see it in the ‘Final Approach’ photo in my 2009 story. NIF’s Valerie Roberts told me that her experience watching the movie was similar.”

Roberts, who describes her job as the “chief operating officer” of NIF, found her experience during filming “really neat.” After hearing Roberts’ account of the film crew’s work, Jyllian found it interesting that the two teams were alike in how they carry out projects: “For two seemingly very disparate organizations—a national lab and a movie crew—they actually sound pretty similar in how they execute projects. Both do detailed plans and schedules, and the teams are very structured in that each person has a specific role to play.”

Interested in taking a Trekkie/science nerd pilgrimage to see the lab? Jyllian says LLNL offers public tours that include NIF.

Outhouse: Birds hang out on the cliffs above La Jolla Cove, "painting" the rocks white. Credit: Flickr/PrettyKateMachine

Outhouse: Birds hang out on the cliffs above La Jolla Cove, “painting” the rocks white. Credit: Flickr/PrettyKateMachine

If travel plans to a scenic coastal spot sound more appealing, perhaps try the Golden State. California’s La Jolla Cave is known for its picturesque beaches, prime snorkeling locale, and, lately, sh*tty aroma. And that’s because the rocks are covered in poop.

A couple of years ago, the city of San Diego banned people from walking on the cove, leaving it wide open for birds to hang out and inevitably poop there. Reports of the stench eventually reached the office of Mayor Bob Filner, who deemed the bird doo a public health hazard.

That’s when scientists from Blue Eagle Distribution swooped in with a concoction to solve the problem with a bacterial solution. The foamy solution contains five species of Bacillus bacteria, which happily eat up the waste, along with a coconut-palm-based surfactant and a biodegradable acrylic polymer thickener.

For those concerned with adding bacteria to the ecosystem, Jyllian says the Blue Eagle scientists applied the solution as a foam rather than a liquid to minimize runoff and the crew avoided working during rainy days. As for a potential bacteria explosion, Jyllian says, “I assume that once their food supply (the poop) runs out, they die off—if not entirely, at least to background levels. Let’s remember that our environment is full of bacteria!”

By all accounts, the bacteria worked wonders on the stench, and Blue Eagle uses bacterial methods to clean up waste from restaurants, sewage, and dumpsters. Similarly, Jyllian wrote a couple of years ago about how wastewater treatment plants were experimenting with microbial biofilms to purify drinking water. So go, little bacteria, go–clean our water and our waste.

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Sophia Cai, Bethany Halford, and Jeff Huber.

mona lisa

Disappointingly large: Researchers “painted” the Mona Lisa on a substrate surface about one-third the width of a human hair (~30 µm). Credit: Courtesy of Georgia Institute of Technology

Researchers create the world’s smallest version of the “Mona Lisa,” which is great since most people who see the actual “Mona Lisa” usually leave wishing that the painting was much, much smaller. [ScienceDaily]

Why invest in sunscreen when you can gorge yourself on chocolate instead? [Seriously, Science?]

Feeling lonely and far from home (208 million miles, to be not-so-exact), NASA’s Curiosity rover sings “Happy Birthday” to itself, one year after landing on Mars (with video). [Washington Post]

Writer explores why people are afraid of clowns, inadvertently giving people who aren’t afraid of clowns plenty of reasons to freak out. [NPR]

The Newscripts gang loves strong brews. And now we can turn our spent coffee grounds into alcohol. Thanks, science! [ScienceNow]

Newspaper reports on a tortoise that ran away from home. In other words, it literally was a slow news day. [Crawley News]

D0lphins don’t need Facebook to remember their friends from 20 years ago, challenging elephants as the reigning animal of choice in memory idioms (with video). [iO9]

This frog may not be getting any ants, but we hear he’s killing it in Candy Crush Saga (with video). [Annals of Improbable Research]

World-class swimmers blame poor performance on the water, broadening the pool of excuses for failures everywhere. [Telegraph]