Category Archives: Random Tangent

Random Tangent – African Safari Edition!

By Michael Pickering

My wife and I had the great pleasure of traveling to Kenya this year for a couple of weeks.  As Judy and her friend (our traveling companion) are both avid photographers, we’ve got some spectacular pictures to share.  Everyone at Pickering Labs has enjoyed the stories and photos, and I am hoping that you’ll find them entertaining as well.

Judy and I visited five conservancies in total while we were in Kenya, traveling around for the better part of three weeks.  As such, we have thousands of animal photos to share, which I am told is a bit too many for the Pickering Labs webpage.  So, Judy has helped me select several choices for public consumption and we have included links to the places we have traveled for more information than I will detail here.

In Nairobi, we first visited the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.  This conservancy focuses on the protection and preservation of elephants and rhinos.  We were able to visit with orphaned elephants, and even saw that the baby elephants learn to bottle-feed themselves during their fostering!  In the second picture below, you can see me posing with Mbegu, the orphaned elephant we “adopted” during our visit.  She came to the conservancy at a very young age and injured, but we are happy to report she has made a full recovery and is thriving in her new community of orphaned elephants and their faithful and hardworking keepers.

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From Nairobi we continued north to Sambaru, where we were able to see a lot of African wildlife!  We watched elephants drinking from wells that the local people maintain for both themselves and the wildlife.  We also saw Grevy zebra (an endangered species) and cheetas when we visited the Lewa Wilderness Camp.  In addition to staying in the lodge, we also visited some of the 62,000 acres of conserved lands there.

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Lewa lands are home to over 70 different animal species and 350 different bird species.  Lewa is particularly famous as a leading rhino sanctuary, so I wanted to share a photo of the Black Rhino with you.  We also learned that of the 3,000 Grevy zebra remaining worldwide, a full 20% make their home on this conservancy.  The birds we spotted onsite were spectacular!  Here is a picture of the lilac-breasted roller and a pair of crowned cranes for your enjoyment.

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Inspired by the multitudes of birds surrounding us, I was also eager to take flight!  Lewa has an amazing biplane, and although Judy remained earthbound, I was able to take a ride in the skies and view the wildlife from a whole new vantage point!  The biplane experience came complete with the classy attire necessary to remain comfortable during the ride, much to my wife’s delight.

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We travelled to a Maasai village and the local warriors performed traditional dancing to welcome me to their village.  You can see in the photo below how incredibly high they jump!  Judy has video of this dancing, and my attempts to join in on the fun, but there are some visuals best left to the imagination.  Let’s just say that when Judy tells this story at the lab, everyone is cracking up by the time she’s done.

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From there, we crossed the equator and visited Ol Pejeta Conversancy and saw lions and warthogs pictured above.  Ol Pejeta is the largest Black Rhino conservancy in East Africa, with 108 Black Rhinos on site.  We also visited their Endangered Species Enclosure and below you will see a picture of me meeting the last male Northern White Rhino on the planet. 

Cmp17soloonsidered extinct in the wild, the last three Northern White Rhinos are protected at Ol Pejeta, where they are kept under 24-hour armed guard and enjoy a 700-arce enclosure.  Unfortunately, breeding efforts have proven unsuccessful – it has been determined that the females, Fatu and Najin, are unable to naturally reproduce.  Sudan, the 43-year old male in the picture, is an older fellow and his sperm count is pretty low…  But there is hope that artificially-assisted reproduction is a possibility and the Northern White Rhino subspecies can be saved from complete extinction.  This is an international effort, and you can learn more about the efforts taking place right here in California on the San Diego Zoo’s webpage

From Ol Pejeta, we flew to the Masai Mara Reserve, which is where the prey animals cross the Mara River.  Although the Wildebeest migration occurs between July-October, we missed the massive herds moving through.  Instead, we saw a whole lot of hippos!  You can see them below, and notice the baby sunbathing with mom!  We also took photos of more cheetahs and lions.  I won’t share those particular pictures, but these lions were definitely an actively mating pair!

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After Ol Pejeta, we traveled to our final stop at the Amboseli National Park.  We found the highlight of our time there to be the herds of Maasai giraffe.  Particularly fun was watching them drinking from a pond, as you can see in these pictures.

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mp23On our very last day in Kenya, we were treated to a rare treat.  I was sitting outside the lodge, soaking in the sights and sun, when I spotted movement at the edge of the lawn.  There was some distance of grass forming a manmade lawn, and from there a clear edge to more natural foliage, fallen leaf debris and assorted bush.  Running parallel to the lawn, I watched as something moved just exactly along the edge.  Of course I needed to evaluate from a closer distance, so I called to Judy to bring the camera and set out across the grass.  A snake!  How excellent!  By the time Judy arrived with the camera it had moved off some ways into the brush, but we were able to take enough pictures that, combined with my detailed descriptions, the lodge safari guide was able to find the snake in his book: a black-necked spitting cobra!  Truly a delightful find. 


Secondary Metabolites

By Michael Pickering

Peyote Plants (1)

This name encompasses the category of chemicals that living organisms make which are not used in their normal growth, development, or reproduction.  They are a staggering array of chemical structures and properties.  Antibiotics are largely produced by bacteria, and a large variety of mammalian toxins are of fungal origin.  Pigments are produced by both botanicals and insects.  The peyote cactus, Lophophora williamsii, produces the hallucinogenic alkaloid mescaline.  Fugu, the Chinese puffer fish, harbor symbiotically produced tetrodotoxin.  


Puffer Fish at Japanese Market (2)
The producers of these exotic structures usually must isolate them to keep them out of the traffic of their living processes.  They can interfere with everyday life, or more often are toxic for the producer.  Dalea emoryi (aka dyebush) makes an intense red pigment that it stores in blister-like vesicles on its bark.  Coyotillo shrubs, Karwinskia humboldtiana, make deadly neurotoxins which they store in the seeds, discouraging browsing animals such as cattle, deer, and sheep from eating them. (You can read more about this plant in a previous newsletter:  Coyotillo in Del Rio, Texas)

Lotus scoparius, or deer weed, makes a water-soluble flavinoid, which is a biodegradable germination inhibitor, and stores in its seeds.  Upon first rain, this compound sterilizes the surrounding ground so that no seeds can germinate.  The result is that competitive weed seeds rot.  When the second rain comes, the deer weed seeds germinate with nothing but clear sky surrounding them. 

Sometimes, we can see a competitive advantage of the presence of these chemicals: attracting pollinators, protective insects, or mates, or discouraging predators, competitors, or tramplers.  But often not.  Today’s musings are about two species (an insect and a botanical): Daclylopius coccus and Citrus sinensis. 
"Gusano Rojo", Dactylopius coccus

Red dyes produced by insects have been and remain among the most important dyestuffs in human commerce.  Before the Americas were exploited, the most abundant source of red pigments was the Asian scale insects and their excretions.  This broad class of quinoid dyes bind permanently to proteinaceous substrates (in dye talk they are ‘fast’) such as wool and silk.  Historically, they have also been used as art pigments.

Early in the 16th century, the Spanish introduced the world to the American cochineal, and the Asian scale insects were doomed to a mere historical reference. 

Cacti with Cochineal (3)



Cochineal Cluster (3)

The females of this American species that feeds on cactus provide the popular Latino name “red worm.”  Interestingly, Dactylopius coccus is not actually a worm, but is part of the cochineal family. By dry weight, the females can produce an astounding double digit percentage of pigment.  The pigments have great variation of color and intensity (Carminic Acid extinction coefficient 6800, Laccaic Acid A extinction coefficient 43700).  The commercial growers of the pigment use the cactus Indian Fig Opuntia (Opuntia ficus-indica) to feed the caterpillars, whose fruit and tender young shoots are also popular in Latino diets.  The same insects in a blue agave farm are considered a pest.

Because of the significance of these insect-derived pigments in human history, they are the subject of anthropological study in ancient art.  In 2004, we were invited into the study by the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research of the Smithsonian Institute.  Although the pigments have long wavelength chromophores (little or no interference) and large extinction coefficients, the sample size is only 2-5 ng to minimize damage.  As the pigments are only a small component of the sample, adequate detection requires a post-column reaction to make the pigments fluorescent.  We made them an inert system as the reagent AlCl3 is a powerful reducing agent, which translates as very corrosive to hardware.  During the reaction, the Al3+ reduces the quinone to a hydroquinone, which chelates the spent Al3+ and makes the entire complex fluorescent. 


Oranges, Citrus sinensis

Valencia oranges produces two main bitter principles, Limonin, a terpenoid, and Naringin, a flavenoid, which it mainly stores in its seeds.  The seeds are easily removed when the fruit is harvested for juice.  Lacking seeds, the navel orange must develop a different storage strategy. 
The navel orange stores the Limonin and Naringin as tasteless precursors (at neutral pH) in the peel, concentrated in the vestigial seed, the navel end.  When the orange is juiced, the membranes are torn and spill their contents into the acidic juice.  The acidity catalyzes the hydrolytic elimination of a sugar from a tertiary alcohol and facilitates a ring-closure to form a lactone, the bitter Limonin.  
The tasteless Naringin precursor reacts similarly.
California, and I am sure other commercial orange-producing areas, has strict standards for exportability of the whole fruit, size being paramount.  Thus, the most important commercial value in un-exportable fruit is the juice.  One hundred percent navel orange juice is unpalatably bitter. 

It is my opinion, and I encourage you to compare, that non-specific blended frozen orange juice concentrates contain a noticeable amount of navel orange juice.  Pure Valencia concentrate is available, so do the experiment and voice your opinion.  We will post opinions (with your bylines, or make up a cool avatar name) in the next newsletter.   

Further Reading and Photo Credits:

1) Peyote photo from Wikipedia:

2) Puffer fish Photo by Mikael:
3) Cochineal Photos from Wikipedia:

Pass the Bubbly

By Michael Pickering

I first had the pleasure of knowing Laszlo through our mutual involvement with AOAC (far longer ago than I’m willing to admit).  I admired his technical knowledge, and the excellent ways in which he represented the interests of his home state of Montana, his lab there, and the AOAC organization as a whole.

Laszlo first started working for Pickering Labs twelve years ago, and my professional admiration for him blossomed into a lasting friendship.  My wife and I have many fond memories of visiting Napa and Yellowstone with Laszlo and his wife Sondra, and over the years we have had the pleasure of hosting them several delightful times in our home.

Laszlo has been a valuable member of our team here at Pickering, too.  His insight is bubblyunmatched, and we have benefited so much from his tireless travel on our behalf.  I have always known that Pickering Labs is well represented by Laszlo, and I particularly enjoyed traveling with him to AOAC International 2009 in Philadelphia and watching him work firsthand.

So, I propose a toast to Laszlo Torma!  Congratulations on your retirement!  You will be greatly missed, and thank you for your hard work and warm friendship.


The Pickering team raise a glass to Lazlo on Friday, December 12, 2014:

Champagne for Laszlo(L to R): Jim, Wendy, Fidel, Sareeta, Mike, Michael, Ed, Tony, Anita, Maria, Gloria, Rebecca, Diana, Gabriela, Severo, Jay, Saji, and David (behind the camera)

Food Labels, Naturally

By Michael Pickering

While making my selections at the grocery store, I am often struck by the myriad of claims presented on food packaging.  I wonder what exactly qualifies a peach jam as “organic,” or a powdered diet beverage as “natural?”  made with natural ingredientsOr when is a manufacturer allowed to claim specific health benefits from their product, or to declare that their food is a “good source” of a nutrient? My own experiences and growing curiosity have led me down this rabbit hole of exploration, and in sharing my discoveries I hope to add transparency to your next grocery trip.

At one time, specific nutrient descriptors were only loosely defined and the serving size was up to the discretion of the producer.  As you’d expect, this led to wildly different nutrition labels from one manufacturer to the next, even when comparing the same product.  Although there are still several misleading areas of food labeling (to be discussed), the regulatory push to standardize nutrient labeling, create serving sizes that reflect typical consumption, and plainly list common allergens has benefited today’s consumers.  It allows us to quickly compare two brands of the same product and determine the nutritional value of each.

Consistent serving sizes by product are now defined and enforced, and the serving measurements are required to be printed in both metric and common household units.  handheld labelHealth claims are required to follow more exacting guidelines – the amount of nutrient required to be present in order to claim a direct link to the health-related condition has been clearly defined.  For example, in order to print claims about reducing the risk of osteoporosis, a food must contain at least 200 milligrams of calcium, in a form that can be readily absorbed into the body.

In addition to specific requirements for claiming health benefits, manufacturers also must follow specific guidelines when using phrases like “free” or “fresh” or “source.”  For example: labeling a food as “Sodium Free” requires it to contain less than 5 mg of sodium per serving and not have any ingredient that is sodium chloride, and if the food occurs normally as being sodium free without additional processing or alteration, that must be disclosed.

During the last couple of years, I’ve seen a growing number of labels declaring foods to be “gluten-free.”  In line with my observations, the FDA recently implemented clear requirements for “gluten-free,” and any food that fails to meet the 20 ppm (20 mg of gluten in 1 kg of food) maximum will be prosecuted as misbranded.  Gluten-containing grains (wheat, rye, and barley) must be absent completely from the ingredient list, as well as any ingredient derived from a gluten-containing grain (such as flour).   In fact, I learned that food producers must now clearly label whether a product contains any of the most common allergens, which are responsible for 90% of all food allergic reactions.

Most Common Food Allergens
Milk Peanuts Shellfish Tree Nuts Eggs Fish Soy Wheat

Organic foods follow strict criteria and regulation by the National Organic Program (USDA).  To be labeled “organic,” a food must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients.  There is a list of nonagricultural substances approved for use in the remaining 5% (which are not commercially available in organic form).  Organic foods are produced using approved organic farming methods, which prohibit the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.  They also may not be irradiated or genetically modified.usda organic

The discussion of “organic” foods leads us organically into a discussion of “natural” foods, and here is where food labeling begins being less transparent.  The FDA defines “natural flavoring” in great detail, including specifying that a natural flavor may only be expressed in the food’s label if that flavor simulates the food from which it is derived.  For example, using a natural flavoring derived from an apple to make a juice taste of strawberries requires the manufacturer to either label it as “artificially flavored” or else to label the juice as containing “natural apple flavor.”  While on the subject of juices, the FDA declares that if a juice drink is less than 100% juice, it is not allowed to declare itself neither “100% natural” nor “100% pure.”free of stuff tags

Interestingly, this is where the FDA guidance for “natural” comes to a halt.  There is no FDA definition or regulation of “natural” on food labels, beyond the previously discussed flavors.  The USDA has limited the use of “natural” to only indicate a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and only minimal processing, but this only applies to the USDA-governed meat, poultry, and eggs.  The FDA has a longstanding policy (not a formal definition) to consider the term “natural” to mean that nothing synthetic or artificial (including all color additives regardless of source) has been added. Without further regulation, foods labeled “natural” can include high fructose corn syrup, genetically engineered ingredients, and any other plant-derived substances such as flavors or sweeteners.

When comparing foods as “organic” versus “natural,” I like to think of the analogy of a person describing themselves as “religious” versus “spiritual.”  Much like a religious person follows particular guidelines for their practice, so too is organic food grown with specific procedures and outcomes in mind.  In comparison, I think of a spiritual person as more fluid, with fewer specific rituals or at least less commonly-defined ones, and that would hold true for natural foods.  Natural foods are not rigidly regulated, which results in each manufacturer creating their own set of beliefs for what determines how “natural” their foods are.

Food for thought, when you are next out grocery shopping.

In the News: Phthalates

By Michael Pickering

While reading the NY Times one morning in March, I came across an article titled “A Plastic Threat to Male Fertility” in the Science Times section. Having encountered phthalates in the past, I was curious to read further.

Federal researchers recently spent four years tracking 501 couples who were trying to have children. The goal of their study was to assess the impact of everyday chemicals on fertility. While both men and women were exposed to known toxins, men appeared much more likely to suffer fertility problems as a result.

“Anything you can think of that’s testosterone-dependent is likely to be affected.”   – Heather Patisaul, North Carolina State University

The gender disparity was most significant when it came to phthalates. This group of petrochemicals finds its way into many commercial products. Phthalates are among a group of compounds known as endocrine disruptors. As the endocrine system controls the production and distribution of hormones in the body, they have been implicated in a range of health problems. Unlike many of the study’s other industrial toxins that bio-accumulate, phthalates are metabolized within hours of ingestion. However, their pervasiveness in the environment means almost constant exposure, which increases their impact.

Among the myriad uses for phthalates are as plasticizers (rendering polymers flexible rather than brittle) and in cosmetics, where they improve smoothness of flow upon application.

Partial List:

  • Cosmetics
  • Plastics
  • Household products
  • PVC pipes
  • Hospital tubing
  • Medicine (pills, capsules)
  • Air filters, residential and commercial

While the evidence for an effect on male fertility is compelling, it is still difficult for researchers to gauge the full impact these prevalent phthalates are having. If you want to minimize your exposure, read labels, do not heat anything you intend to ingest in plastic, and bring your own glass to the keg party.

IN THE PAST: Phthalate Blues

Personally, my formal introduction to phthalates was when I quit teaching high school and went to grad school. My research involved isolating and characterizing secondary metabolites in the plant family Rutaceae. The process involved solvent extraction (soxhlet) and evaporation followed by gravitational silica column chromatography. We learned quickly that all the bulk silica, most of the solvents, and the most popular clear flexible tubing (Tygon) all contained di-octylphthalate (DOP), an oil. The air in the building was also loaded with DOP due to the filters. Fortunately, it was easy to keep track of DOP because of its blue fluorescence. The low polarity of the plasticizer made it easy to elute off of the columns with the slurry solvent. For our 20cm x 20cm x 1-2mm thick layer prep plates, we formed and dried them, and then placed them in the chromatography chamber with acetone. Upon re-drying, the plates viewed under UV light were flat white with a bright blue edge along the top.

Most of my targeted metabolites are fluorescent; yellow, green, pink, and blue to the eye. I once inadvertently isolated a non-chromophoric terpene because I was chasing an indigo blue fluorescent spot on the TLC. Upon elution from the plate, I got an oil. Mass spectrometric analysis revealed the terpene in a tableau of DOP fragments. The friend who ran the mass spec for me, Charlie, was in charge of a spectroscopy lab for a veterinary toxicology department at the time. He said he could recognize all the spectrographic manifestations of DOP from twenty paces.

My last encounter with DOP was several years later, in a Pickering customer’s lab. An extremely agitated gentleman had called to announce that he had “NO PEAKS!!!” So, our customer service chemist went for a visit, and I went along for the ride.

We arrived at 10:00am, and fortunately the system was running. He had a Carbamate post-column instrument paired with a water/methanol two-pump, four-piston binary gradient HPLC. The pistons were ganged in series. Our chemist engaged the customer while I observed the instrument. The fluorometer was so overloaded with signal that the PM tube was regularly turning off. There was no troubleshooting information available from the magnitude of the signal, but there was a very regular and periodic spike, implying a piston cycle.

Upon further observation of the HPLC, I noticed that both reservoirs’ contents had traveled up into the Nitrogen lines and was sloshing around in the Tygon tubing. With this back-flowed solution being sloshed back into the reservoir periodically, I realized the problem. Although Tygon tubing is phthalate-free today, it was loaded with DOP back then. The swamping fluorescence was in both reservoirs. The spike frequency was the last piston on the methanol pump, where the DOP concentration would be the highest.

The customer had his peaks, he just couldn’t see them for the bright lights.

A Story with Bearing: Cholesterol

A Story with Bearing: Cholesterol

By Michael Pickering

Years ago our friend Peggy told us that her doctor had prescribed a diet devoid in cholesterol, as her blood test indicated worrisome numbers.  The doctor recommended that all of the usual suspects be excluded from her diet, such as egg yolks and butter, but it was all to no avail.  Regardless of how long she maintained the exclusive diet, her blood numbers did not budge.  So, she decided to experiment with her own dietary exclusions.  One of her first experiments was targeted at a food everyone who knows Peggy is well aware that she is addicted to – milk chocolate.  It was only then that her blood cholesterol numbers improved.

While it is true that one’s diet is an important factor in the level of cholesterol in one’s blood, the amount of cholesterol in one’s diet is not germane.  Unlike the essential amino acids and minerals which must be harvested from the diet, the cholesterol in our blood is synthesized inside our bodies from smaller synthons (many acetates, a popular biosynthetic mode, see flavonoids).

So the issue isn’t whether cholesterol is in one’s diet, but rather how cholesterol is behaving in one’s blood.

The key link between the importance of diet and the behavior of cholesterol in one’s blood is the amount and type of fat you ingest.  Highly saturated fats have the most negative impact on the solubility of cholesterol in the blood.

mink coat front

Blood chemistry is necessarily dominated by water soluble processes.  Magnesium, sodium, citrate, and all manner of water soluble nutrients must course around freely.  However, cholesterol is not water soluble, even though it must move as freely through our veins.  The body’s solution is to cloak the cholesterol with a hydrophobic interior (cozy coat) with a hydrophilic exterior (sort of like a 1960’s Bill Blass coat with the mink on the inside and the satin on the outside).mink coat back

These water taxis are called LDL and HDL: low density lipoproteins and high density lipoproteins.  Our body considers the HDL to be better than the LDL because, among other things, it’s easier to void.   Tom Scheve’s description of the reason for this in his article for Discovery Health, entitled “What’s the difference between LDL and HDL Cholesterol” eloquently expresses my own musings:

When the lipoprotein has more protein than cholesterol [HDL], it resembles a Ferrari, gunning through your body without stopping until the cholesterol arrives at your liver, where it’s converted into bile acids.  […]  When the lipoprotein has more cholesterol than protein [LDL], however, this makes for a rickety    ride, and that jalopy doesn’t get too far.  Cells have special receptors that bind tightly to these lipoproteins as they pass.  This LDL sputters down the road, careening off the arteries, running into things and leaving bits all over the place.  While the HDL Ferrari sees a pileup and nimbly speeds around it, the LDL jalopy crashes right into it, adding to the jumble of tangled fenders and tailpipes (or platelets and plaque).

The overall solubility of cholesterol in the blood is governed by a ternary phase diagram. ternary phase diagramMaintaining these three components in the proper ratio crates a zone of solubility in the triangle.  If the diet (the source of phospholipids and fats) biases the ratio out of the soluble zone, the cholesterol precipitates with the fenders and tailpipes.  And like all solids in a moving fluid, they deposit in the zones of slowest flow.  In a vascular system the slowest flow is in the arteries.

The lipids (fats) in our diet can be broadly sorted into two categories: 1) naturally occurring, and 2) man-made.  Obviously the naturally occurring fats and oils are derived from plants and animals.  The man-made fats are partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.  The saturation level determines the melting point and viscosity regardless of the source.  So highly unsaturated lipids like sesame oil have a low melting point and viscosity and so are inappropriate for frying, whereas poly-saturated lard and butter have a high melting point and viscosity, and are well suited for frying.  Similarly, an award-winning pie crust can be made with lard or butter, but not with unsaturated oil.  Partial hydrogenation thus controls the melting point of the fat and establishes its suitability for any particular application.

However, a side reaction also occurs during the hydrogenation: isomerization.  Natural unsaturation tends to be cis-configuration but hydrogenation isomerizes the bonds to trans-configuration.

cis trans fat structuresWhile the hydrogenation controls the melting point precisely (which is essential for processed foods), the resulting fat is not recognized by the body as food.

Our wild type diet is clearly designed around whole grains as the staple, a source uniquely rich in unsaturated (cis-) fats, phospholipids, and protein.  The goal is to manage the trace chemistry in our blood, the hydrophobic components.  So the lesson is: eat as little saturated (mostly animal) fat as you can tolerate, eat whole grains and exclude all partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.  Read the label!

So while the amount of cholesterol present in a milk chocolate bar (24 g) is comparable to that of a tablespoon of butter (30 g), the two had very different effects on Peggy’s blood work.  Cocoa fat is among the most saturated of the vegetable oils.  The melting point is so high that the bars are wax-like at room temperature.  The chocolate was in effect creating an excess of LDL jalopy wreckage in Peggy’s blood stream, by causing the LDL and HDL levels to get out of whack.

The cholesterol had no bearing.


Editor’s Note: Always consult a physician first. The views presented herein are strictly editorial in nature.

Caltrans, the Blunder Lizard

By Michael Pickering

The largest known dinosaur was the Brontosaurus, literally the thunder lizard.  Its brain, estimated as the size of a fist, was too small to manage the whole beast. Apatozaur, Apatosaurus, Brontozaur, Brontosaurus,, Instead, it used a distributed intelligence in the form of neuro-bodies called ganglia.  Since they had only one neural system, the decision nodes were in constant, real-time communication.  This form of committee decision is the initial model for Caltrans management.  However, unlike the dinosaur, Caltrans adds an orthogonal system of decision node ganglia.  Not only is there a multiplicity of decision nodes within Caltrans, but other state agencies are nodes as well.  The dinosaur’s decisions were planar while Caltrans is a volume, both horizontal and vertical.

In the last century, during my early teens, perhaps middle or high school, I heard a Q/A joke:

Q:  What’s orange and sleeps four?

A:  A Caltrans van.

Caltrans was founded in 1895 as the Bureau of Highway.  Today it owns and operates ~15,000 miles of the California State Highway System.  Its annual budget is in excess of six billion dollars and it has more than 20,000 employees.

Because of the amount of public moneys involved and the scale of their projects, Caltrans regularly makes front-page news.  Unfortunately, it is always bad ink: delivery deadlines missed by years, budget overruns by many zeros.

In 1993, in order to address these common failures, Caltrans Director Van Loben Sels issued a charter to hold a peer review of the project management implementation plan.  The study group included Bechtel Corp., the U.S. Corps of Engineers, and the US Department of the Navy.  Some of their findings include the lack of:

  • realistic goals and objectives linked to civil service constraints;
  • communication, with specific roles and responsibilities not uniformly understood;
  • consistent management support with different district agendas; and
  • authority, with micromanagement by headquarters.

Similarly, in 1994 SRI International evaluated project management in response to Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 72.

bay bridge new span 2013
Eastern Span of Bay Bridge in 2013
Photo: Michael Macor, The SF Chronicle

The study found that Caltrans remains “rule driven” rather than “product driven” due to its longstanding bureaucratic culture.  SRI concluded that the Caltrans culture, not the organizational structure, was the culprit.  At the time, news analysts across the state described the audit as “scathing.”

So here we are in June of 2013.  Caltrans is front-page news because the replacement Bay Bridge span is years overdue and seriously over budget.  (Does anybody even remember that the reason for building the new span is that the old span is damaged and unsafe?).  The headlines are “Who Picked the Bad Bolts?”  The federal government is investigating California, the California legislature is investigating Caltrans, Caltrans is investigating vendors and other State agencies, and vendors are professing that all products were produced to the ordered specifications.  Although the bolts were made to spec (we hope; the jury is still out on this point), using them in this particular bridge design was inappropriate.

Eastern Span of Bay Bridge 2005
Photo: Wendy Rasmussen

The news reports of the multiplicity of investigations will drift off of the front page.  No little brain will be found, no ganglia identified.  Nothing will be revealed in real time.  The volume of decision nodes will hide all culpability.  The last report will be silence.



Editor’s Note:

The dinosaur which many of us know as Brontosaurus never really existed. The paleontologist who assembled the beast mistakenly placed the head of camarasaurus on the body of an apatosaurus. NPR has a fun story on this topic:

So does the UnMuseum