Five questions on going gonzo posted at

ReynoldsCenterEntranceNot long after my Mashable story on the world’s greatest drug test posted, my former Daily Camera colleague Alicia Wallace — now the business editor there — touched base. Would I be interested in doing a Q&A for Arizona State University’s Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, i.e.

I’m usually ask the questions, I told her. But okay.

Results posted here. I’m not quite sure I made sense, though one can’t blame Alicia for that.

iPad Mini zebra malfunction

iPad Mini with Zebra-screen malfunction

iPad Mini with Zebra-screen malfunction

While we were away for spring break, my daughter was reading a  book on the Kindle app of the iPad Mini she had recently received from her grandparents on her 11th birthday. The  edges of the screen awoke with strange, slightly undulating zebra patterns — very tight, maybe five pixels wide each — extending the length of the screen. She kept reading (I believe Cupcake Diaries) until the stripes engulfed the reading material.

My first thought was that Apple was taking subtle revenge on Amazon for its usurpation of iBook business. But a hard reboot (pressing the home and power buttons for a few seconds) didn’t help; nor did a factory reset, which I did  with assistance from the phone support people (here, you hold the device’s home button while plugging it into the PC with iTunes running — until you get a message acknowledging your desire to whack everything your daughter has done to make this sexy little device her own and return it to its Foxconn state).

These failures were unsurprising. There were allusions to the problem on the message boards, and they seemed to point to a hardware failure. Some component, probably. So we set up an appointment for 11:30 a.m. on Monday, today, at the Apple Store in Denver’s Cherry Creek Mall.

The girls were off school (today was a “teacher work day” of the sort that pushes even those not viscerally anti-union to be at least slightly anti-union. I mean, couldn’t you come in a half hour early and prep? After a week off? With summers off anyway? And Christmas, and and and?), so they came along. The mall  was quiet, except for parents with school-age kids wondering why their school-age kids weren’t in school. The Apple store was mobbed. This is apparently normal.

Part of the mob were athletic looking women and men of Asian persuasion wearing matching red warm-up suits decorated with kanji. The women in particular were young and with highly defined cheekbones… ah! These were members of the Chinese women’s national soccer team, which had played the Americans up at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park yesterday. My eight-year-old daughter Maya is a soccer player on a team called the Mighty Dolphins. I said, Maya, these women, in addition to being big-time shoppers of Apple products, are awesome soccer players. Of like 600-some million women in China, they’re the very best ones. Think about that!

She thought for a moment and said, “Why don’t they just shop for iPads in China?”

“Because it’s cheaper here,” I said.

Maya wanted me to buy her a device. I said, “Of course you do.  Look at this place. The sharp lines, the thick Scandinavian wooden tables. The iPads that look like they’re melted into blocks of ice that is in fact Lucite. The bold colors on the walls contrasted with the crisp white elsewhere. I want one of everything, too. But we’re here to replace Lily’s broken iPad Mini.”



The girls opened up some sort of photo booth app on a MacBook Pro at the table where we waited for the blue-shirted person to come by. When he came by, I realized the camera was activated, and that the software was putting a little merry-go-round of animated bluebirds over my head. The blue-shirted person, a guy, showed up right then, and this distracted me when I explained the issue.

One of the great regrets of my life is that, in 1996, I failed to buy Apple stock when it was at like $6 a share. The company now boasts a market cap of $439 billion (the world’s largest; Apple is, at the moment, worth more than IBM and Procter & Gamble combined) and is sitting on a hoard of $159 billion in cash. As I suspected, they replaced our iPad Mini with one whose screen functions as advertised. But I figured, as a public service, I would put this out there just in case someone out there with zebra screen is feeling alone.


Inhaling for the narrative

Ogre Indica, 1g, bought at Medicine Man Denver for Mashable story on CU ToxicologyMashable published my story on what is probably going to be the future of drug testing today. I figured I’d add a bit of backstory.

I came across CU Toxicology and their high performance liquid chromatography/dual mass spectrometry (HPLC/MS-MS) drug test while doing a story for University of Colorado Hospital’s biweeky online magazine. It struck me as something that had a lot of interesting ingredients for a bigger piece for a wider audience. Then I thought of Mashable. I’d worked with Josh Catone, the site’s executive director for editorial projects, in the summer 2013. He had come across a story I’d done for Smithsonian Air & Space and was looking for a Colorado writer to do a piece on ET3 with a Hyperloop hook. I liked working with him and his colleagues. So I pitched him. Here’s the pitch, as they say in baseball. I sent it off on January 6:

From the state that just legalized recreational marijuana comes a new drug test so sensitive and broad-based it can sniff out about anything you’ve been toking, smoking, sniffing, shooting or popping.

The urine test, which relies on parallel mass spectrometry and proprietary algorithms, was developed by a nonprofit based at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. It’s led by a former Silicon Valley venture capitalist named Blair Whitaker and a small group of CU anesthesiologists.

CU Toxicology is poised to pull drug testing technology out of the 1970s, where it’s been mired, and provide an alternative to expensive, narrow drug tests offered by major labs. The test also shows promise in changing outdated approaches in areas as diverse as pain management to geriatric care (for, say, seniors who forget what meds and how much they’re on). The test has the hallmarks of a potent new tool with still-unknown applications. From the perspective of those of us being tested, it looks like an NSA program for our bloodstreams. And while CU Toxicology is pioneering this full-spectrum approach to drug testing, others using similar hardware are sure to catch up.

Conventional drug tests look for a few of the usual suspects (THC, cocaine metabolites and so forth) using something closely related to a pregnancy test. The CU Toxicology test, in contrast, pushes modern mass spectrometers to the limit, cranking out parallel data on 112 compounds in 16 classes (anticonvulsants, antidepressants, benzoids, cannabinoids, opiates and so on). These compounds are the active ingredients in about 500 drugs. All of it happens in a few minutes.

In addition to providing a broad snapshot of what someone’s taking, the test is far more sensitive than traditional approaches. A standard screen for codeine cuts off at 300 nanograms per milliliter; CU Toxicology’s detects down to 10 ng/ml. For THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, the standard screen cuts off at about 50 ng/ml; the CU test sniffs out 2.5 ng/ml. It can tell if you’ve been trying to detox, too.

CU Toxicology’s origins story is interesting in that Whitaker learned about the nascent product from his anesthesiologist neighbor. An animated, MIT-educated software and telecommunications expert, Whitaker recognized that the chemistry was only part of the solution. They needed software to make sense of the data pouring out of the machines. With CU Toxicology’s test in quiet commercial use for about 18 months now, Whitaker is now confident enough in the technology to take it public. Whitaker, who handles everything from marketing to mailroom duties at the moment, aims to grow the lab into a monster nonprofit lab-services giant in the mold of Mayo Medical Laboratories.  

The Denver Business Journal and Colorado Public Radio are the only media I’m aware of having picked this up. The University of Colorado press office did a feature on it last summer. I think it would be of national interest, in particular among those who worry about drug tests, and a good fit as a Mashable Spotlight, for which I did a piece on Daryl Oster last summer.


Josh  was enthusiastic and said this felt like more than 3,000 words; I said, no, c’mon, Josh, I can get it done in 3,000. So we settled on that number. I filed 5,250 six weeks later.

What the hell happened?

Well, it dawned on me (in the shower, cliche, I know) that the best way to tie together the yin-yang of Colorado as a) home to legal recreational marijuana and b) Colorado as home to a crazy-accurate and wide-ranging drug test was to have me buy the the stuff somewhere (where, I didn’t know — the Denver Post’s “The Cannabist” section helped there), smoking it, and getting tested. Going gonzo, basically.

I bounced this off Josh first; he gave the green light, with the caveat that expensing the weed would be dicey. Then I bounced it off CU Toxicology founder Blair Whitaker, who was enthusiastic. I proposed paying for a single test (Mashable was amenable to paying for the maybe $200 that might cost); Blair said doing a few tests over a few days and watching the THC levels drop off would be more useful to him. I figured that would be more interesting to write about, too. He could add a few samples to a mass-spec batch and chalk it up to R&D he said. No charge.

I considered whether accepting $1,600 in retail-value urine drug testing represented a breach of journalistic integrity, but concluded that the service was of no value to me outside the bounds of the story. He dropped off a bunch of cups and a sheet to fill out with dates and times a couple of days later.

I assumed, of course, that the CU Toxicology test would spot THC in my system despite the pee-cup at Wiz-Quiz showing a negative. If you made it to the end of the story, you know it didn’t turn out quite that way. 

Which was why it turned out to be so important to have my friend Louis’s sample handy. He happened to be in town and happened to have rheumatoid arthritis and be on a lot of drugs to help with the pain. I knew he would want to smoke, something I do maybe quarterly, if. I asked if he’d play along, assuming that he’d light the CU Tox test up, which he did.

In many ways, the piece played out as most stories do: what you think you’ll be writing about isn’t exactly what you end up writing about. Reporting takes you unexpected places, and going with the flow yields better results than sticking slavishly to the plan.

My being THC-negative on the CU Toxicology super-sensitive test despite the pee-cup positive meant a bit more reporting. I asked Blair what he thought might have happened. I talked to Heather Despres over at CannLabs. The gist of the story didn’t change — that these broad, sensitive drug tests are coming, that they can be good and bad, and that we need to be ready for both. But the THC surprise opened the door to a brief but important discussion on the stupidity of marijuana being a schedule I drug in the eyes of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, if only because it makes it harder for scientists to understand what it’s doing in — and to — our bodies.

New Yorker shows Swiss, Syngenta can be scum

corn field

At Syngenta, corn apparently trumps male genitalia.

The New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv did a great investigative piece on the tactics Swiss agrochemical giant Syngenta (once part of Novartis) has used to discredit scientists – UC Berkeley’s Tyrone Hayes in particular – whose studies show their products to be harmful to amphibians and, probably humans.

The European Union has banned atrazine; they sell about $300 million of the chemical in the United States still. Study after study – except those done by Syngenta scientists, of course – show it to deform the privates of boy frogs or change them into girl frogs outright. Atrazine is clearly an endocrine disruptor. The story cites an epidemeological study showing baby boys conceived in the late spring and early summer months, when atrazine gets sprayed on our nation’s corn crops, have a high incidence of undescended testicles and undersized penises. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, because of a law passed in during the George W. Bush administration, is having a hard time getting it banned here.

Aviv’s story shows the extraordinary lengths companies will go to cast doubt on scientists whose findings might impact their bottom lines, and the lack of humanity they can embody in these cases. Just as Ford did cost-benefit analyses relating to exploding Pintos back in the day, Syngenta sacrifices little boys and innocent frogs so they can pad their Swiss bank accounts (they don’t care much about bees, either, apparently). The subpoenaed notebooks of Syngenta’s public-affairs lady were particularly chilling. Lesson: the Swiss make good chocolate and have lovely mountains, but can be total scum.

Predictably, Syngenta is calling into question what will doubtless prove to be bullet-proof reporting. Merchants of doubt.

The implications here extend well beyond Syngenta – clearly a bad actor in this case, but not alone. The company is not inherently evil, but incentive structures drive behavior that is evil: money over people. Or more accurately, our people (our executives, employees, and shareholders) over the people. The company then has the advantage of deep pockets, dedicated employees and friendly legal-regulatory frameworks to advance the interest of the our over the the.

These kinds of revelations make further mockery of the catastrophic Citizens United case declaring corporations to be people. Corporations are made up of people, but they are just machines people build and inhabit to limit liability and operate in perpetuity with the inexorable goal of capturing profits. Often, they do so in generally beneficial ways and use acceptable tactics. Cases like this demonstrate the darker side, one that shows corporations to be beasts in need of restraint. Banning atrazine in the United States would be a good start.

Top 6 reasons I’m not bothered by Broncos’ Super Bowl trouncing

Denver Broncos graphic6. Football is a business, as the players constantly remind us come contract time. Getting too wrapped up in the fate of the Denver Broncos is like living or dying by the annual reports of Colorado-based Ball Corp., Chipotle, Inc. or Leprino Foods, maker of pizza cheese. At least one can own shares in these other businesses.

 5. Peyton Manning made an estimated $31 million in 2013 alone. Some of it was for endorsing Papa John’s, a major user of Leprino Foods pizza cheese. He’ll be just fine.

 4. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson seems like a good guy, and at 5’11” is merely freakishly athletic as opposed to freakish in size as well as athleticism. Plus the unfiltered energy and verisimilitude of Richard Sherman’s post-Niners-game rant was, in a universe of boilerplate sports interviews, refreshing.

 3. The Broncos AFC championship victory over the New England Patriots, amid a sea of orange at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, remains one of the great moments in the history of Colorado sports.

 2. I grew up in Dearborn, Michigan, as a Detroit Lions fan, an enduring (and unending) lesson in how not to hang your emotional well-being on a professional football team.

 1. I skied Winter Park with good friends under blue skies and on 30 inches of relative fresh until my daughter’s ski-school lesson wrapped at 2:30 p.m. Can’t do that in Seattle. Plus the game drained Interstate 70 of the typical traffic so we could bust home and catch the masterful first snap.