Chemicals I Have Known (and Made) – Methyl Methacrylate

methyl methacrylate

This post describes the last of the large volume chemicals I made when I worked at the Memphis plant in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. It is methyl methacrylate, which is used in many of the plastics that are known as acrylics. You may know them through their trade names like Plexiglas®, or Lucite®. You encounter them on every airplane flight you take, since they are used in the windows that let you see the clouds and the ground.

The process to make methyl methacrylate is complex, and large in scale. Our plant made several hundred million pounds per year. Some of the product was used on the plant in an acrylic sheet plant, that made both clear and colored, often marbled colored sheet. There are five steps to make methyl methacrylate. First, acetone (good old nail polish remover) is reacted with hydrogen cyanide (discussed in my first post on chemicals) to make something called acetone cyanohydrin, or ACN. As with anything involving cyanide, the material is toxic and great care was taken to prevent release of the chemical. The next step takes the ACN and mixes it with extra-strong sulfuric acid called oleum. Oleum is basically 100% sulfuric acid (one of the strongest and worst acids to deal with), with extra sulfur trioxide gas dissolved in the acid. When it hits anything containing water, it instantly reacts with it and sucks the water out of what it hits. This oleum is tweaked by adding tiny amounts of water to make the mix right at 100% acid when it hits the ACN.

The reaction process is very energetic, and produces an intermediate chemical called methacrylamide (I know, too many unpronounceable names). This intermediate chemical in a sulfuric acid solution was then reacted with methanol, and the resulting chemical was separated out and purified. The sulfuric acid solution contained a bit of organics, including some polymer. It was allowed to settle in a large tank so that the polymer could float up to the top and be removed in what we called skim tubs. The sulfuric acid tails were then fed into a sulfuric acid manufacturing process, where extra sulfur was added to make up for process losses, and new extra-strong sulfuric acid was stored and fed back into the reactors.

As you may have realized, these chemicals were all very nasty, and either toxic or corrosive or very hot, and I used to walk around miles of piping and vessels carrying these fluids under pressure. Only the product methyl methacrylate, was relatively non-toxic and non-corrosive, but it was at the end of a long process to make it.

In the few years I worked on this process, there were two main tasks I had. First, I was working with our staff of PhD chemists to improve the yield of the process. One very intriguing possibility was replacing the water that we used to mix with the sulfuric acid with methanol. Lab data showed a significant yield increase by introducing methanol in the first step. Since the reaction of sulfuric acid with methanol releases water, it solves the problem of controlling the acid strength when it is mixed with the ACN. The main difference between methanol and water was that it took a lot more methanol than water to provide an equivalent amount of water content. For every gallon of water, it took almost 1.9 gallons of methanol to substitute. But everything looked good in the lab, so we began work on a full-scale plant test. We went through an extensive process hazards review process to try to see if there were new hazards introduced, but could not come up with a reason to halt the test.

So I was the engineer in charge for the plant test when we got ready to swap out our water feed with a new methanol feed. The way we injected water into the sulfuric acid was through a mixer, where the acid was twisted through fixed barriers in the pipe to ensure complete mixing. We closed the valve for the water, opened it for the methanol, and watched to see what would happen. Almost instantly we became aware that despite all of our planning, something was going very, very wrong. The water injection line now holding methanol started to jerk around severely, and one thing you never want in a chemical plant is to have piping moving back and forth. I gave the order to turn the methanol off, and turn the water back on, and the piping stopped shaking. We probably were on methanol for no longer than 10 minutes before I halted the test.

What we had overlooked was that when we substituted water for methanol, we were adding a larger volume of a liquid that boiled at a much lower temperature. Methanol boils at about 149ºF vs. 212°F for water. It also takes a lot less energy to boil methanol. And when we started swapping out the water for methanol, some of the sulfuric acid would go partway up into the methanol pipe and induce boiling where we had never had boiling before. That was what caused the piping to jerk about. Fortunately I stopped the test before anything broke, but that was one of the scariest experiences I ever had in that plant. We never did go back to that test, since it would have taken a significant redesign to come up with a mixing system that could handle the differences between the two fluids.

The second project I had during this time was one I had inherited. I mentioned the skim tubs where polymer floated above the spent sulfuric acid as it cooled. That polymer had been skimmed off, packaged into metal drums and sent out as hazardous waste. Now there was an old incinerator down at the bottom of the plant, that someone had the bright idea to re-commission as a hazardous waste incinerator, depending upon its ability to meet hazardous waste disposal regulations.

One of the advantages of working for a world-wide company was that we had a wealth of technical expertise. There was a whole cadre of folks at the Engineering Services Division, or ESD, who had PhD credentials. They concocted the idea of putting the polymer into 30 gallon cardboard drums with plastic liners, and then burning them in the incinerator. But since this was an operation that needed to operate automatically without human intervention, they had created a Rube Goldberg contraption to make it work. They designed a conveyor system where drums would be placed on rollers. When the time came for a new drum to be inserted into the incinerator, alarm bells would go off, warning lights would flash, the knife valve they had installed on the top of the incinerator would open up, and the next drum in line would advance up the conveyor’s slope till it teetered at the end, and then would plummet headfirst through the top of the incinerator. Imagine an automated system to throw virgins into the maw of a volcano, and that’s what this thing looked like.

Well, I oversaw the construction work to install the conveyor and all of the equipment. We got ready to test the system, but there was one really little itsy-bitsy problem we encountered. See, during the time between when the scope was prepared for this incineration process and the design was installed, there had been another change made to the chemistry of the process, in order to improve yield. This chemistry change converted the polymer from being hard chunks that didn’t hold much acid, into a soupy mix that held a lot of the spent sulfuric acid. We had problems with drums leaking since the plastic liner was not intended to hold hot sulfuric acid, but worse than that, when the drums were consumed in the incinerator, a plume of sulfur dioxide came out of the stack and came down all over the place on the plant.

During the process of trying to get this incinerator to work, I had been transferred from Memphis to our Belle plant in West Virginia. The last thing I did at Memphis was to try to conduct a trial to see if this setup would meet the environmental requirements. We were successful in incinerating a liquid stream from our Lucite® sheet plant, but the attempts to incinerate the polymer drums was an abject failure.

Both of these efforts showed me how small and subtle things could cause a huge unforeseen problem. It was the effect of unintended consequences that got us in both cases. Once I went to Belle, I was working in a sister plant of the Memphis methyl methacrylate plant, only it was a plant that used water instead of methanol in order to create an organic acid. But the statistics I was exposed to in Memphis, proved crucial to me in the next phase of my career where I used statistical techniques to extend my working career well beyond many of my peers who weren’t as adept at math as I was.

 

 

 

 

 

The Apprenticeship

3 dollar bill

I am almost feeling sorry for the man. Imagine that you have been trapped all of your life in a search for approval, yet never have been satisfied. First you tried to gain the approval of your father, and even though you were showered with wealth, you continually had to return to your real sugar daddy to bail you out of one bad investment, one bad deal after another. The father whose approval you never could truly take for granted cast a huge shadow on the psyche of the son.

Then you tried to gain the approval of the true elites, those exemplars of the highest of the high class in Manhattan. But even though you moved your real estate empire to that island, and built your gilded trophy, those who really counted in the world turned their back to you, and worse than that, actually laughed at you. Oh, the pain!

You couldn’t even join the club of sports franchise owners. Oh, you did own one for a brief time, couldn’t even claim a New York name but had to call it a New Jersey moniker. Yes, you did hire one of the greatest players coming out of college, and your upstart league had pretensions of horning in on the big boys of the NFL. But you yourself forced the league from its smaller but seemingly successful niche of spring football, into a head-to-head battle royale with the NFL. Challenging them in the fall with your schedule, and leading a challenge in court against the big boys on anti-trust grounds. If ever there was a case of winning the battle, and losing the war, it was your league’s victory against the NFL – and then the court laughed at you by giving you damages of $1. No wonder you have not been a fan of the justice system for a long time.

We could go on. The disastrous bet on Atlantic City, doubled down when you took on the failed construction project you named the Taj Mahal, though it lacked any traces of the grandeur of the original structure of that name. Having to be bailed out once more by your father, who spent millions for casino chips one day, a day before your next loan payment due date. But even your father could not save you from your own hubris and you lost your entire casino stake as the overall market in this small gambling mecca declined and faded.

Eventually you found your niche. Marketing yourself, the dream of the glitz and glamour of one of the world’s most egotistic billionaires. So much into yourself that you were prompted to make self-promoting calls to journalists, posing as someone other than yourself, in order to keep your name in the news and to extol your praises. You grabbed lightning in a bottle when the book that you “wrote” took off, and solidified your reputation as a canny and world-class dealmaker. You found that your name on a brand was a guaranteed money-maker, as those who are easily impressed by wealth and status try to grab a little of yours by buying a shirt, or a tie, or a steak, from one of your licensed vendors. You built your empire up despite the crashing down of portions of your portfolio through multiple bankruptcies. Ah, but you yourself never held the bag after these public humiliations. It was always someone else who took the loss, someone else who you could blame for the ultimate loss in the marketplace.

You never had to account for your actions to anyone else at all. Once your father died, there was no one mightier than you. You surrounded yourself with a crowd of sycophants, who were only too happy to let you know that they agreed with everything you said. You were told that your knowledge was vast, your command of the situation, whatever situation you wished to weigh in on, was superior to anyone else in the world. If only those who had power would listen to you, how much better this country and the world would be. These thoughts began to saturate your mind, began to whisper to you that you and you alone could fix these things that you see are wrong.

Then, in 2004, the opportunity of a lifetime came around for you. With your reputation as a world-class businessman secure, no matter how hollow that reputation was, you were tabbed to be the centerpiece of yet another reality TV series. The Apprentice became your trusted companion for 12 years, allowing you to express your wisdom and discernment to an audience that came to believe in you. They believed in your charisma, in your reputation as a canny businessman, they believed you were a strong leader who was more than capable of telling someone to his or her face that they were fired. You entered their homes year after year, and as your fame grew, so did your conviction that you really could grab the gilded brass ring.

You thought about 2012, but the conditions were not right, and you sensed you could not successfully challenge Obama. Ah, but you could cast aspersions against him. Imagine, someone who looked like him claiming to be a real American. It was easy to buy into the rumors on the internet that he had actually been born in Africa, and it was only through a plot extending back to 1961 that his birth was reported in a Hawaiian newspaper in real time. Why should we believe our eyes when it was so much more satisfying to stir up the pot, and the emotions of millions by claiming that the President was not eligible under the rules of the Constitution. This is where you learned how much your words resonated with a significant portion of the American public. So you kept your profile high, but your active political pursuit was placed on hold.

Now, in 2015, you pounced. You went all-in, and started to position yourself as the business outsider who would drain the swamp, who would bring back the greatness of America when the culture was white, and the recovery from the war unleashed the cornucopia of growth as far as the eye could see. You and you alone would redress the issues of the forgotten men and women of flyover country. You and you alone sensed the palpable disgust of this group as they saw their prosperity stolen from them, by hordes of illegals who stole their jobs, or subsisted on welfare taken from their paychecks. The disgust from the people who realized that it was the global economy and global elites that had taken their factory jobs, and moved them over to Mexico, or China, or somewhere else and stolen their chance to make a decent living. What was left were the dregs of the economy, and dregs are difficult to swallow if that’s all you have to eat.

Like so many before you, you realized you had a talent for whipping crowds up into a frenzy. All it took was a few easily repeated single syllable words, that you could start and then let the crowd chant it ad infinitum, building the momentum for these barely defined ideas. “Build the wall!” “Lock her up!” It did not matter that there was no definition behind these catch phrases, they had captured a life of their own. And then, it was time to take down the challengers. These sissies who had grown up in the rarified world of politics, where it was expected that people would behave rationally and with at least a semblance of politeness, they were naive waifs when confronted by a real man, one who had been tested in the world of New York real estate. All it took was pairing up a candidate’s name with a derogatory adjective, and the image formed then took hold in the public’s mind. One by one, you knocked them out of the ring, until only you remained.

You never believed you would get this far. You had gotten into this chase as a vanity project, and to help your own brand, but now that you had the nomination, you had to at least pretend that you were serious. But that did not mean that you really wanted to dwell in the mundane minutia of building a transition team. No, let Chris Christie do that. You can always pull the rug out from under him later. All you needed was your family, and those advisors you’ve had for a while. But it was always you who was the most important one. It was your knowledge, it was your wisdom, it was your negotiating skills that would save the day.

So, it came to election day, and all of the things you had given tacit approval to – the links with the Russians to mine for emails, the coordination of campaign data with the social media teams in St. Petersburg, all of these things had kicked in and to your surprise, pushed you over the top. You found yourself a winner of the greatest prize in electoral politics.

Well, maybe you were right. You don’t need all of those swamp creatures in all of these government offices. So you plan to leave many positions empty, just don’t even nominate someone for them. For the courts? Outsource your selection to the Federalist Society. That way your supporters who may not like you, but have hungered for reversing the liberal bench legislation, and will sell their souls for Supreme Court seats. They will stay happy and overlook your other faults.

Except you have no faults. You know that you have been the most successful President EVAH! Even though you’ve only been in office for two years, you are already determining how to fit your visage onto Rushmore.

Ah, but those critics. Why do they keep yammering at me? Why do they insist that I’ve done something wrong? I’ve never done anything wrong, ever. I’ve always been honest, and humble, and trustworthy. If you think I’ve been inconsistent, you just didn’t know what I meant. Mexico was never intended to write a check for that wall. That wall was never supposed to be 30 feet tall, and beautiful concrete. No one ever asked the Russians to do anything to help our campaign. We shouldn’t ever apply sanctions to the Russians, they have done so much for me and my businesses over the years. They buy my apartments. Of course I like them.

Now it’s that harridan, Nancy. She and that new uppity woman from Queens. Nobody good ever came from Queens. They are after me. I even gave them candy, which they took but wouldn’t give me my wall. Well anyone can see now, they’re taking Dodge Caravans, driving them right over the border and turning left. Only I can fix it.

We are nearing the point in the movie when Captain Queeg in the Caine Mutiny is on the stand in the court martial, where Captain Queeg breaks down discussing the theft of the strawberries, and pulls out his stainless steel ball bearings, running them back and forth in his hand for comfort. When will the breakdown come when Donald pulls out his stainless steel balls and mumbles about the theft of the country, and only he can fix it? Some of us are ready to see the end credits of this reality show. But by the end of the Caine Mutiny, you are left with some feelings of sorrow for Captain Queeg. Will we have similar feelings at the end of the current season of The Apprentice?

 

A Day At The Beach

ocean flood

This is the fourth in a series of seven articles aimed at describing some of the threats that humanity faces in the coming years. It is the issue of global sea rise. There are many who dispute whether carbon dioxide and methane emissions from human civilization are the primary cause of global warming. But regardless of the source of the warming climate, it is becoming more and more clear that sea level is rising in response. That will have an incredible impact upon the population of the world, since there has always been a great desire to live at or very near to the sea shore. And the level of the sea has seldom been constant over geological time, since glaciers have expanded and contracted many times over the past million years, causing the sea level to vary hundreds of feet during these oscillations.

What is different this time, is that our current civilization was developed with the current sea levels. So all of the infrastructure associated with the great cities of the world, it is mainly at sea level. And for many of the people who live in poor countries, like Bangladesh, they exist on river estuaries which are extremely susceptible to sea level rise. So whether the current rise in sea levels is due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, or whether it is merely a continuation of the cycle of ice sheet expansions and contractions that preceded our species, it becomes necessary to develop a plan for dealing with ongoing sea level rise.

The best option would be to have a controlling thermostat knob on our climate that we could use to compensate for either natural effects on the climate, or for those that humanity has caused. At present, we do not have that. If the scientists who are convinced that human emissions of greenhouse gases are responsible for increasing the temperature, then one knob would be raising and lowering the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere. As seen by the political response to this in the US, there is extremely heavy opposition to this technique from those who are invested in the status quo of the energy industries. It also will require huge investment in both research and in physical facilities to enable renewable energy resources to supplant fossil fuel sources. There is no doubt that we do need to invest in both the research and the facilities, along with redesigning of the electrical grid to be more resilient and to accept the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources.

One option for a zero carbon energy source that is not being discussed is nuclear energy. No, not the energy created from the fission of U235 atoms used in every nuclear power plant in the world at present. Instead, what is needed is to develop reactors that use the thorium power cycle. At one time, nuclear energy research considered thorium as a viable source of electric power. There is one small problem with the thorium cycle, though. It is not capable of generating plutonium as a byproduct. Back when the nuclear power industry was being developed, there was a desire to have plutonium production so that spent uranium fuel rods could be processed to remove the plutonium for weapons production. The vast majority of the research for nuclear energy used enriched uranium U235 as the source for power generation, and thus research for thorium went by the wayside.

But the U235 power cycle also produces other long-lived radioactive isotopes that keep reactor rods fatally radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Thus humanity is tasked with trying to isolate wastes from power generation inside of geologically stable environments for many millennia longer than humanity has had a civilization. This is scarcely a realistic model to build a sustainable civilization upon. And U235 reactors are inherently unstable. Complex neutron absorption systems have to be maintained in order to keep the reaction at the sweet spot. Too much absorption, and the nuclear fire goes out and no electricity is generated. Just right, and you can remove the excess heat with water that flashes to steam and eventually turns electric generators. Too little neutron absorption, and the system is capable of melting down into a puddle of zirconium and uranium, that will eventually break through all known containment systems. At the same time, gases generated from the reaction will likely ignite, releasing a cloud of radioactive elements out of the containment system.

Thorium, on the other hand, is an inherently stable reaction system. The active isotope of thorium (Th232) is 99.98% of all thorium in nature. When it absorbs a neutron, it eventually reacts through subsequent beta particle decay into U233. This isotope of uranium is capable of sustaining nuclear fission, but unlike its cousin U235, it does not create longer-lived radioactive isotopes as byproducts. Instead, the fission products it produces are all lighter than the starting materials, and their radioactive half lives are mainly less than a hundred years. Thus it is conceivable that waste products could be maintained in an isolation facility for a reasonable period of time and then would not be a hazard to future generations in future millenia.

The thorium cycle has another advantage. It is impossible to get a runaway reaction using thorium. Since the proposed design for a thorium reactor involves a molten salt reactor, any loss of containment would result in a salt-thorium mixture solidifying on the ground, incapable of performing further fission. All of these advantages over the existing U235 nuclear cycle says that thorium fission should be investigated thoroughly and promptly brought to commercialization. Again, another problem (reducing CO2 generation while providing stable electrical power generation) that could be solved by the investment of the government into scientific research, and opportunities for employment of nuclear engineers and metallurgical engineers and mechanical engineers. Oh, and by the way, the main ores of thorium also contain rare earth metals and phosphates. Both of these are highly desirable materials. Also, thorium is four times more abundant in Earth’s crust as is uranium.

This was a detour from the immediate problem we are intending to address, which is sea level rise. What is needed is a way to do triage for the developed world in trying to determine what infrastructure is indefensible given a certain amount of sea rise, and what infrastructure can be salvaged if we begin to take action now. For example, London installed a barrier on the Thames back in the 1980’s that serves to protect London from abnormally high tides. Would such a barrier be feasible for the Hudson to protect the NY – NJ region from ongoing sea rise? What will the implications of ongoing sea rise be for cities such as Miami, where the tourist infrastructure is at risk. As much as those who believe in karma wish for Mar-A-Lago to suffer inundation, the entire southeastern coast of Florida is at risk. And areas like Newport News and Charleston South Carolina are already going through periods of rainless flooding caused by peak tides. This will only get worse over the next few decades. What is needed to enable these highly-populated metropolitan areas to still be functional? What if it is determined that it is not feasible? How do we deal with the displaced populations?

The issues of displaced populations becomes even more dire when you consider the underdeveloped nations most at risk from rising seas. In these areas, it would be necessary to develop lower-tech means to mitigate the risk. One partial solution is to reestablish mangrove barriers as initial surge suppressors. Mangroves have the ability to capture soil in the roots, thus allowing the ground level to rise as the water level rises. But it will be necessary to develop ways to prevent salt water intrusion, and it will be extremely beneficial if the techniques used to counteract sea level rise use the local farmers and laborers as the contractors to do the work to save their own land. That way, they receive a benefit in building and maintaining these facilities, presumably receiving an income, and they then have an incentive to make sure they work, since their farming livelihood depends upon the new systems functioning properly.

The issues concerning sea level rise are longer-term in their impact and solutions. But in order to effectively deal with them, we must plan now based on what we know will happen. Otherwise we will be caught off guard, like in 2018 when the warmer and less dense waters of the Gulf of Mexico caused the extremely rapid intensification of Hurricane Michael. For one of the consequences of global sea level rise is due to the decrease of density at higher temperatures. Seawater takes up about 1% more volume at 30ºC than it does at 20°C. And the higher water temperatures from a warming climate not only act directly on the water level, they also provide more fuel for the storms that feed upon their heat. We may have been caught off-guard by a hurricane much stronger than expected, but we should not be caught off-guard by physical effects we can predict decades in advance.

 

 

A Letter To The President

Trump's world

Dear President Trump,

It has now been nearly two years since you assumed the reins of power in this nation. During that time, you have managed to transform this nation into an international laughingstock. You have managed to ridicule each ally we have relied upon over the past 70 years and you have sought out the comforting embrace of authoritarian strongmen around the world. You have implemented policies that degrade those attempting to come to this nation to work, while defying any attempt at development of a comprehensive immigration plan in favor of simplistic, wasteful and environmentally harmful policy of installing a physical barrier across 2000 miles of trans-national border.

You have exhibited a total lack of emotional strength by insisting upon having your own way, and if you cannot get your own way, you pick up your ball and go home. Or go golfing. You spent over 1/4 of your first year of the Presidency at one of your own golf clubs, while the nation lacks diplomats at many of the embassies around the world where serious foreign issues need a strong American presence. You have created a brand new word linkage – when you hear the word No, it must be followed by the word Collusion, even though to any reasonable outside observer, they keep seeing more and more evidence of coordination and communication between members of the Trump campaign and representatives of Russia and its government. Coordination of activities and joint communication are two of the key components of collusion, even though collusion, in and of itself, is not a crime. However, using the actions coming from the coordination of activities to ensure success in your election does violate criminal statutes.

You demonstrate the attention span of a golden retriever as you flit from one superficial engagement to another, while totally ignoring the real problems facing this country and the world. You use the 280 character limit of a social media platform to announce huge military initiatives that had not been discussed with allies and Congress. You use that same platform to insult and demean anyone who deigns to disagree with you. You insist that your gut is smarter than thousands of PhD scientists on any and all subjects. Only you can solve the problems!

You use your position to enrich your family through extortion of your supplicants to put up their money by using your hotel facilities. You continue to insist that there is no evidence to link MBS with the death of Jamal Kashoggi, despite all of the mountain of evidence available via your intelligence services and the Turkish government. You continue to insist that there is no evidence of Russian government interference in creating influence campaigns in the US, and in the dissemination of stolen communications from the DNC. That despite the unanimous consensus of all who have investigated the situation and reported on the extensive Russian meddling.

You sit at cabinet meetings with your arms crossed in a pose of defiance, while your sycophants chant your praises and ooze with obsequiousness. You insist that your administration has accomplished more than any other US administration ever (cue the laughter from the international community), while you terrorize your own cabinet members with dismissive tweets and public statements of non-support. You allowed the Republican party to enact a tax reduction plan that makes our long-term deficit balloon, while whispering sweet susurrations about unprecedented growth, growth that will fade away into recession in 2019.

In all areas you have touched, the stench of your sleaze sticks and your efforts become doomed. At this point in your administration, I have only one recommendation for you.

 

Get a dog.

 

A dog will give you the unbridled devotion that you so obviously crave. It will open your eyes to the fact that you can verbally abuse the animal, and it will still come up to you, eyes wide open, tail wagging, affirming that you are the greatest creature in its existence. You need a dog to open your empathy ducts, since it is obvious that being the President of the United States has done nothing to make you human. Time to turn to the animal kingdom to arrest this descent into madness you have imposed upon this country.

 

Technological Change Over A Career

Control room

I went from college into a career with DuPont starting in 1976. After an initial assignment, I worked in a process that used a DEC PDP-8 computer for data monitoring and for control of certain critical process parameters. This was in a process that produced hydrogen cyanide, so reliability of the computer system was critical. This computer, when it was booted up, required setting toggle switches in order to start the sequence. Then a paper tape was run through a reader, and the system would lurch into operation. This modern machine also used punch cards for program input.

By 1984, our company began to use IBM PC’s. To have this type of power upon your desk was amazing. These were not used for process control, but enabled us to have the power to write and distribute through an e-mail system documents that bypassed the old strictures of communication. If you can imagine now living within a hierarchical system that required all communications to be written by hand, approved by supervisors, typed by a secretary, then copied and sent through corporate mail systems, that was the world as it existed in my company. It was the same as existed in most other companies around the world. It was also a first introduction to the ability of technology to replace jobs. Secretarial positions shrank in number once they were not needed to serve as a key link in the communication process. Those who remained either had to be flexible enough to pick up other skills, or became administrative assistants to those high-ranking administrators where it was still valued to have someone to serve as an intermediary.

In the late-1980’s, the chemical process I worked with had a computer used exclusively for process monitoring. We had gotten past the toggle-switch and paper tape process, but I learned techniques for data compression. For each variable that was monitored, you got to choose how much change you would allow in the value before another data point was recorded. Computer memory was still limited, so it was necessary to use a bit of judgment to tweak each setting so that any signal noise was eliminated, but significant changes in variables were recorded and could be graphed. This computer also held the statistical program Minitab, which helped in determining correlations and other relationships between variables. I began using that program in 1991 to start tracking the performance of my 401K investments, a spreadsheet I maintained until my retirement in 2014.

This process had computers to monitor variables, but it still had individual control loops. Each variable that needed to be controlled had a piece of equipment on a panel board. Out in the field, a sensor would provide a reading that would be transduced into a 3-15 PSIG (Pounds per Square Inch Gauge pressure) signal in the field. That signal would be fed into a small metal tube and routed back to the control room, where it got transduced back into an electrical signal, and fed into the controller. We would use controller logic to provide the optimum settings for this particular loop to keep the loop stable. There was also a signal splitter that sent the signal to a chart recorder, where a paper chart was fed through and multi-colored inks were used to display multiple variables onto a single recorder. Normally there was a maximum of three variables on a single chart recorder. The electronic signal was also sent to the monitoring computer as well. Now, if modifications were made in the field, say for a new piece of equipment, it would require running a new piece of tubing from the field back to the control room, placing a new controller into the metal board, and installing all of the sensors and transducers to enable the system to work. The entire process was labor and capital intensive, and required a significant amount of operators, electrical and instrument (E&I) mechanics, and engineers in order to maintain a plant and keep it operating safely.

During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the next change in process control occurred. Distributed Control Systems were commercialized. These computer systems replaced all of the controllers on a panel board with two computer consoles and a pair of keyboards for entry of commands. These computers used wire pairs directly from the field to provide their input, so no longer were 3-15 PSIG transducers or metal signal tubes needed. You always installed extra wire pairs in a wire bundle from a field signal box back to the DCS so if you expanded the number of controls or signals in the field, it only required installing the last leg of the wiring in the field.

The displacement of workers with computerization was huge with this step. The number of E&I mechanics used to keep these systems up was much fewer than before with all of the signal transducers and individual controllers and chart recorders. Chart recorders were totally dispensed with, as all records were retrievable via computer. And fewer control room operators were needed, since no longer was it necessary to go up and down the control panel and record readings every few hours. A single operator could maintain the entire process by himself, and the back-up operator could be assigned into the field for a portion of his shift (most but not all operators were male). Even with engineers, there were fewer needed, since control loop tuning was all but eliminated with the new algorithms available in the computerized systems. There is no wonder why the population of workers in my plant kept going down, year over year. It became a ritual that every 2-3 years, we would undergo a purge of excess people. Not all of it was due to automation, since world economic conditions rendered multiple chemical processes uneconomical, but at least half of the reductions in force were due to automation.

So during the roughly 15 years while I was directly supporting chemical manufacturing, constant changes in technology kept paring the need for employees of the company. At the same time, the support staff kept shrinking as well. Whereas we once had an entire group of workers tasked with maintaining and updating blueprints (I can still remember the ammonia aroma of a freshly printed blue-print), they left once all print updates were done on the computer. Since most documents traveled by e-mail, the need for physical mail distributors went way down as well. Combine that with the growing international competition in the chemical industry, and you will understand why the plant I worked at in West Virginia did not hire any hourly employees for a period of 20 years. If you really want to know why the middle class has atrophied in the US, just look at the jobs that were displaced due to technology improvements during the time from 1975-1995. And the technological changes have only increased since then. That is why the talk about Making America Great Again by revitalizing manufacturing rings hollow. The direction manufacturing has taken involves replacement of people by technology, allowing a smaller number of people to maintain a growing production output. We’d best be thinking about how to restructure the workforce to pay wages that reflect the value society places upon the work, rather than weigh everything on the scales of economic efficiency.

The Rise of Willful Ignorance

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This is the third in a series of posts that discuss in more detail what I perceive to be threats to humanity today. It expands upon the discussion started in my original post that covered seven different risks. It concerns the rise of willful ignorance. This is a disease that may yet cause the extinction of the human race. We can see the effects when the government of a nation consists of individuals who are proud to admit that they are disregarding all scientific evidence, since after all, the scientists have their political agendas that just may show that the preferred action to avoid tragedy will cost a favored political ally some money. And we can’t have that. The recent superb book, The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis, shows what risks are increased if an administration takes over the reins of power of our complex government without any interest in the functions of the government agencies they now administer. Not only do they not have interest, they exhibit no curiosity as to what might happen if the risks they are supposedly managing actually bear fruit. They actively campaign to reverse the work undertaken during previous administrations aimed at reducing risk, like when they proposed spending 20% less on global nuclear materials security in a recent budget proposal.

We as a civilization have created an extremely complex network of interdependencies. We have managed to limit risk to our population through the process of regulations, and through the transparency of government actions. Unfortunately, the mindset of many currently serving in government is that all regulation is wrong, and we must hide the truth from the citizens of our nation so that the increased risk we are taking does not become evident to our citizenry.

Part of what has led to this attitude came from those in the nation who reject all claims of knowledge by experts. Just because someone has dedicated their life to the pursuit of knowledge, whether within a government agency, or at a university, why should we believe that they know more about a subject that we do? We don’t need no steenkin’ math or science, do we? If we can’t learn all we need to know with a 5-minute perusal of the internet, then the subject has been made too complex and anyone’s opinion is just as good as anyone else’s. Thus we have government spokespeople coming out in support of alternate facts. We have conspiracy theories for beliefs that are easily disproven by an examination of the facts, but of course, those facts were reported by the main street media and they are biased and since they are saying that these are facts, we must believe the opposite.

This type of belief system is self-reinforcing. Psychologically, it is very comforting to enshroud yourself in a mantle of community, where all believe the same thing and are able to reinforce that belief through daily interactions. It is known as an echo chamber. The internet has played a huge role in allowing these communities to develop, and those who belong to these communities are nigh unto impossible to convince that their beliefs are wrong. This is what convinces individuals to drive hundreds of miles to a pizza restaurant in Washington and fire a gun in order to bring down the evil child sex trafficking ring known to exist in the basement of a building without a basement. It is why many believe there is an active military operation to spread aluminum salts and other mind-altering substances behind jet aircraft, leading to the chemtrails many swear are meant to numb the brains of honest Americans. It is what convinces many to believe that human emissions of greenhouse gases could never be responsible for any kind of adverse effect.

 

Of all of the risks that humanity faces, this may be the most intractable. Other problems may yield to research, or to spending money, or to creating a better climate for administering programs. But this one goes to the heart of humanity. That is, the belief that my knowledge is good, and since it is good, if you oppose it, you are evil. The psychological reassurance you get when an entire community of like believers reinforces you for being a part of the group who is truly in the know. The only known antidote to this sort of willful ignorance is to increase the scientific and mathematical literacy of the population as a whole, so that the folly of the beliefs of the former group becomes evident. However, it is hard to teach this type of literacy when we as a society continue to struggle to teach a basic standard of literacy. Look at communication means such as Twitter. By trying to limit public discourse to a maximum of (now) 280 characters, they contribute to the belief that all discussion can be simplified to fit within that type of strait-jacket. No one needs to understand anything at more than a superficial level, since the entire world is doing just fine using Twitter to conduct our national political discourse. One quote of H. L. Mencken comes to mind from nearly a century ago. He said, “As democracy is perfected, the office of President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” Would he be happy to know that at last, his prophesy had been fulfilled?

 

 

We’ve Been Had!

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One year ago, I wrote a post titled You’ve Been Had!, highlighting the people that the administration had placed in positions of high responsibility, and detailing their (un)fitness for those same positions. It is now time to revisit this administration, showing how much (or little) progress has occurred in support of the stated objectives of Donald Trump, with a special emphasis upon how the actions taken are diametrically opposed to the goals espoused during the campaign. I would write more about the people involved, but most of the original list are either under indictment, or have left the administration in order to crawl back under the most convenient rock.

So what were the pledges that Donald Trump made that fully excited his base and enabled him to claim victory through the vicissitudes of the Electoral College. Here’s what I took away from the campaign in terms of pledges.

  • Build the wall. Build a physical barrier along the southern border of the US in order to reduce the 50% of the illegal immigrants to the country who physically cross the border
  • Lock her up. Appoint a special prosecutor in order to determine the basis for prosecuting Hillary Clinton for her E-mail pecadillos.
  • Drain the swamp. Run an administration that works for the forgotten people of this country who have been dominated by those coastal elites, who are probably Jewish
  • Eliminate all traces of the actions of that traitor, Obama

There were more, but these were the pledges that resonated most strongly with the base during the campaign events in 2016 (and 2017 and 2018). So now that we are two years into this administration, how are things going? How well have these pledges been fulfilled? Note that we are not discounting the one true accomplishment of this administration, that of turning our judicial branch of government over to the Federalist society to be remade in its own image. That is one that has been overwhelmingly successful, probably to the long-term detriment of the citizens of the US.

Build the Wall. Ban Muslims. Stop the invasion of the US by undocumented others. Well, after two full years, we have seen prototypes of physical wall designs installed near San Diego. We’ve fixed some of the existing barriers on the southern border. And we’ve sent thousands of active duty military to the Texas border where they are sitting awaiting the onslaught of, women and children and men who form a rag-tag army of pestilence aimed at inflicting gang violence upon an unprepared nation. Or so we heard in the lead-up to the mid-term election.

We’ve not had any fiscal authorization for a physical wall, even though Republicans have held a majority in both houses of Congress to this point. Maybe it is because even those Republicans who have had to link arms with the President in order to survive his famous tweets, realize that building a physical wall across thousands of miles of arid landscape makes zero sense. Who knows? But with the legendary negotiating skills of the Snowflake-In-Chief, we can expect a braying noise to begin hitting the airwaves about the absolute necessity to authorize funds for the wall. This is in order to allow a continuing resolution to be passed that will keep the Federal government operating in the near future.

We’ve seen incredible incompetence in the implementation of the zero tolerance policy earlier this year leading to the family separation debacle. To think that children would be separated from their families without even a rudimentary way to connect the parties after separation occurred! To think that, if concern for children being brought into the country for exploitation was a reason for this policy, they would not have had a genetic testing program in place to confirm familial relationships. No, what we the people got in the implementation of this program was a totally incompetent effort that was fatally flawed in order to demonstrate the toughness of this administration. Incompetence that is continuing with the show of military force at the Texas border.

So all of the effort we see is aimed at the interdiction of people physically coming over the border from Mexico. Meanwhile, we see zero activity aimed at stopping the roughly 50% of those who are in the nation illegally due to overstaying their legitimate visas. That’s about par for this administration. Devote outlandish attention to their incompetence with one half of the problem while totally ignoring the other half of the problem as if it doesn’t exist. The people of the US applaud the efforts of this administration to rid us of the flood of illegals who are forcing us to eat tacos.

Lock her up! We will show the nation what we value by assigning a special prosecutor to take down that noted criminal, Hillary Clinton. What she did by exposing the secrets of this nation to the risk of discovery by having her unsecured e-mail server is a traitorous act. So how’s this effort going? Uhh, there doesn’t seem to be a special prosecutor anywhere in sight for Hillary, but the effort by Robert Mueller seems to be giving this President fits at this time. I never realized that the word collusion had to be preceded by the word no, but now I cannot separate the two words in my mind. Seems like the walls are closing in on this President, much like the walls of the garbage compactor in the first Star Wars movie. Once Roger Stone is indicted, and the facts show that he indeed was the link between the Russian operatives and the Trump campaign, feeding them tidbits about the upcoming release of scores of e-mails, the loop will be closed, and we will see the collusion duck waddle and quack in a very duck-like manner. But it is amazing how the line of Lock Her Up still elicits uproarious shouts each time it is brought out at one of the hundreds of copy-cat rallies this President uses to get his adrenaline fix.

Drain the swamp! Yeah, that isn’t quite working like people may have thought. Who could have foreseen that by draining the swamp, that would include gutting the efforts to enable for-profit college students who were defrauded by institutions that scarfed down the Federal student loans of their marks  students, from being able to gain relief from these loans? Why, didn’t Betsy DeVos appoint a program dean from DeVry University as head of the Student Aid Enforcement Agency? What could be better than to have someone intimately involved with one of the for-profit colleges being sued, to serve in an oversight and enforcement role for the debt forgiveness program? Is not the fox the best guard of the hen house?

Ok, maybe this was an isolated case. Let’s look at something that really does affect many of Donald Trump’s core supporters. Those who are suffering financial distress, and have to turn to payday lenders in order to meet an immediate need for cash. Unfortunately, due to the excessive fees and interest charges for these loans, many who use them as their last resort find themselves trapped in an endless series of rolled-over loans, each with additional service fees added. It is the perfect mechanism to squeeze profits out of those least able to pay.

The Federal agency working on behalf of consumers, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued regulations on October of last year that provided at least some regulation of this new financial product offering. The regulations would have ensured that the lenders make an assessment as to whether the person seeking the loan could pay it back, and set a limit on the number of times that a loan could be rolled over. Alas, the regulations were not to become effective until August of 2019.

In July of this year, Treasury Department urged the CFPB to rescind the rule, stating that it was not needed. The administrators of the Treasury Department, who have only the hearts and well-being of the public in mind, insist that it is the proper role of the states to set guidelines for the payday loan industry. Just like they had done so thoroughly before the Federal effort to set regulations in this area. Guess that the swamp drain got clogged up with all of those donations from the payday loan industry to receptive swampers.

Oh well, I guess it is going to be difficult to find cases where the swamp is actually being drained. Let’s go on to the last of our items, erasing all traces of Obama from the government. On this pledge, we can unequivocally state that the pledge is well on the way to being fulfilled. From the Iran nuclear deal, to the non-binding Paris Climate accord, to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and through a myriad of other actions, Donald Trump is demolishing all traces of his predecessor in office. And he’s not through there. He’s demolishing all traces of the past 73 years of the post-war diplomatic environment. Through his blatant disregard for diplomacy and for the necessity to understand that words have consequences, this china shop bull has smashed the crockery higgledy-piggledy. Throwing the weight of the US around, he unilaterally withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear control pact. Iran is now unencumbered from adhering to the limits and inspections imposed by the pact, and could restart their nuclear program.

But Iran is small potatoes compared to the signal diplomatic achievement of the Trump presidency to date. That is the love affair he is conducting with Kim Jong Un of North Korea. Who can forget the statements of affection between Donald and Kim? “A very worthy, smart negotiator, absolutely,” in the aftermath of the June meeting between the two men in Singapore. And, who can ever forget what was said in Wheeling, West Virginia in late September. “I was really being tough, and so was he. And we would go back and forth. And then we fell in love, okay? No, really. He wrote me beautiful letters, and they’re great letters. We fell in love.” Of course, other than not conducting actual nuclear explosion tests, or new ballistic missile tests, there is absolutely no evidence that North Korea is taking any steps to denuclearize. Our inexperienced diplomat-in-chief, who knows more than all of the rest of the government put together, would never let himself be snookered by a tyrant whose only ambition is to keep his regime in power. I would bet that Kim has actually read Machiavelli. He certainly is using the playbook very well as he uses flattery to disarm the leader of the US until he can make his nuclear arsenal and its deployment a “fait accompli.”

No, even more so than when I wrote it in November 2017, it is clear that “We’ve been had.” The track record of nearly two years shows that we can only expect worse and worse as we wind our way to the next election cycle. At least there will be one chamber of the legislature that will not bow down to the leader of our nation, who is so afraid of a bad hair day that he would forego a centenary observance of the end of the first world war.

 

An Unexpected Visitor

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I was surprised by the sound of the doorbell. I was not expecting anyone on this November evening. When I got to the door and turned on the light, I was met by my friend Slimey’s face staring back at me. He was holding a plastic orange pumpkin in one of his clawed hands. I opened the door, and he greeted me with “Trick or treat!”

I motioned for him to come in, and said to him, “Did you know that Halloween was last week?”

“It was?” he asked. “You lose track of time down there in the swamp. I figured this was the best way to not attract too much attention, carrying the treat bucket. Most folks who drove past me just didn’t see me.”

I moved the coffee table away from the sofa so as to give him room to haul his huge girth towards a seat. He sat down with surprising grace, pulling his tail up behind him and laying it beside him on the couch. I asked him first, “How did you find my house?” I had only seen him alongside the tidal basin before, and had no clue how he knew where I lived.

Slimey looked up at me. “I Gargoyled you.” He pulled out a Slimey-sized phone with a well-scratched screen cover. “It’s the best way for my kind to keep up with what’s going on in the world above.”

I realized that I was being a poor host, not offering my guest any refreshments. “Could I get you anything to drink?”

Slimey thought for a moment, then said. “If you could, I’d like a glass of water flavored with some dirt from one of your plants. That would be delicious.”

I got up, and went into the kitchen in order to prepare drinks for us. I pulled a pinch of soil out of the aloe plant I kept in the kitchen, and placed it in the largest plastic cup I had, then filled it with tap water. As for myself, I poured a large scotch atop a few ice cubes. I figured that this was going to be an unusual evening, and I’d best be ready for anything.

When I returned to the living room, I noticed a trail of water leading to the sofa. When I looked back at the source, I noticed that all of the fish in my aquarium were missing, and Slimey was licking his claws. “I must complement you on the buffet you laid out there. That was mighty tasty,” he said.

I was flummoxed, yet I did not complain. It is never a good thing to complain when a 400 pound reptile with razor-sharp claws is sitting on your sofa. Instead, I handed over the cup to Slimey and sat down myself. “What brings you here tonight?” I managed to ask finally.

“I wondered if I could watch the election returns with you?” he said. “We don’t get good reception down in the swamp, and I’d really like to know what’s going on as soon as possible.”

“We can do that,” I said. I picked up the remote control and turned on the TV on the wall. Up came a scene of five people seated at an extended table, with graphics all over the walls behind them. They were talking about the closeness of the Senate race in Texas. “It now appears that Ted Cruz has defeated Beto O’Rourke for the Senate seat in Texas.” And up popped a giant picture of Ted Cruz, oozing his smarmy smile across the screen.

Slimey perked up. “That’s good for me, isn’t it? He’s the one who was so insulted a few years ago, but came back and kissed Donald’s ass this year, right? Anyone with so few principles has got to be great for the swamp.”

I nodded in agreement. While I personally would have wanted Beto to win, I could see it from Slimey’s perspective. The more candidates got down into the muck and mire to win, the messier the swamp would be.

Slimey took a swallow of water, then smacked his lips. “Ah, that’s good stuff you put in there. I can taste just a tinge of tartness from the dirt.” He pointed his claw up at the screen where the talking heads had moved on from the Texas race, and were talking about the wave of women entering the House.

“Now, that can’t be good. I know those women, they like to clean, they like to clean things up. I like it better when you’ve got a bunch of sloppy men around. They don’t worry about the filth.” Slimey took another gulp of water.

I nodded, then looked at the screen for more information. It was not to be found in the endless rehashing of the talking points they focused upon. I finally said, “You’re right, women don’t like dirt. But I don’t think they’re going to be able to really clean up the swamp. It’s too deep to get at.”

Slimey looked at me, then shook his head slowly in agreement. “I’ve grown attached to my swamp. I’d hate to see anything happen to it.”

I let out an unintentional yawn. It was getting late and they had just started going over the California results. Slimey noticed, and put his cup down and said, “I’ve imposed long enough. Thanks for the drink and snacks.” He unwound his tail from the sofa and maneuvered his way to the door.

I opened it for him, and said to him as he left. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about with someone trying to drain the swamp. Since no one’s done anything about it, the ocean warming will cause the water to rise. Soon the swamp will retake just about all of this town. You’ll be in good shape.”

For a minute I thought I was in trouble. Slimey looked rapturous, and started to move toward me to hug me. The thought of being squeezed by those huge limbs and crushed came quickly to me. But as swiftly as Slimey looked like he was going to embrace me, he backed off, and before he turned away he said, “Thanks. Thanks friend.”

I closed the door and turned out the light on the porch.

 

For previous tales of Slimey, see this Draining the Swamp

And this one: Sustaining the Swamp

 

The Bugs We Fear

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Back in May, I wrote a post detailing some of what I perceive to be threats facing humanity. This is the second of what will be seven posts providing more details on each of these threats. This one concerns infectious diseases.

Starting in the 1940’s, modern medicine discovered the magic bullet of antibiotics. Antibiotics have prolonged the lives of hundreds of millions of people by enabling bacterial diseases to be stopped before they created sepsis inside of humans, and caused massive organ failure. The practice of medicine soon became the story of the prescription of antibiotics, and the eventual over-prescription of the same. Once the knowledge of the power of antibiotics became known, the customer (i.e., the patients) were insistent on being prescribed antibiotics even when they suffered from a viral infection, like a cold. All of society believed that antibiotics were able to put the suffering of the past from bacterial infection out of the memory of humanity.

Except. Except that human greed and the needs of commerce got in the way. Except that human behavior caused the effectiveness of antibiotics to be compromised. Now, barely 77 years after the first widespread use of an antibiotic to treat diseases, the news is full of stories about bacteria that are resistant to all but the most powerful antibiotics, and even some strains of bacteria have developed resistance to all forms of antibiotics. How did we get here? It started when agricultural researchers discovered that by applying low-dosages of antibiotics to animal feed, weight gain for the animals was increased and disease incidence was reduced. Since agriculture in the US relies upon high animal density in farms and feed lots, and since anything helping the profit margins of farmers was viewed as a God-send, commercial animal feeds began to incorporate antibiotics as a key additive. Unfortunately, this served as an ideal breeding ground for bacteria to show the powers of evolution. Ever wonder why all antibacterial commercial products claim that their product kills 99.99% of bacteria? It’s because there are always a few bacteria that have a mutation that enables them to survive the onslaught of the chemicals aimed at killing them. It may not be a concern for a kitchen countertop to have some bacteria that survive bleach or other similar kitchen cleaner. But it is totally different when a strain of bacteria survives a dosage of antibiotics inside of a farm animal. That strain now faces less competition since many other bacteria were inhibited by the antibiotics in the feed. Soon, the resistant strain is circulating among farm animals, and slowly the antibiotic in the feeds lose their effectiveness as the population of resistant bacteria increases in the environment. Since they began to incorporate antibiotics, animal feeds have used most of the types of antibiotics, which means that effectiveness of many antibiotics have been lowered over time. Market demand is now pushing agricultural firms to proclaim that their animals are antibiotic-free, but only time will tell if that movement will grow fast enough to keep antibiotics at least partially useful.

Human behavior also plays a role. As noted earlier, patients often demand a prescription for an antibiotic even when their infection is viral. This dosage of unneeded antibiotics increases the chance of developing a resistant strain directly inside of a human. Add to this the tendency for some folks to stop taking a medicine once they feel better, and you end up with the worst case for developing antibiotic resistance. By not taking the full course of antibiotics, it is more likely that some of the bacteria will survive, and then their traits will be passed on to subsequent generations of bacteria. One way or another, the bacteria will outwit us as we currently use antibiotics.

But bacterial infections are only a part of the disease story. Viruses cause many more diseases, and there are several factors in our modern world that enhance the possibility of a viral infection causing huge problems in our society. First, viruses are mobile. They can hitch a ride upon any animal infected with the virus. Whether that is a chicken carrying the latest variant of bird flu, or whether it is an international traveler that had unknowingly been exposed to the latest version of Ebola or Marburg disease from Africa, viruses can travel amazingly fast in our modern, interconnected world. Then there is this little issue about climate change. Regardless of the source of a warmer climate, one result is that mosquitoes that are intolerant of cold, are now expanding their ranges into temperate climates. Thus malaria is expanding its range. Other viral diseases that once were known only in Africa are now showing up in Sardinia, a handy stopping place on the way to infect southern Europe.

Yet another factor is affecting viral disease transmission. Through extensive research, humanity has managed to control the immune system to enable it to react to viral invaders that can cause diseases. Thus, humanity has wiped out the dread disease smallpox as a scourge. Only remote pockets of polio remain, which means this crippler of people is nearly extinct. Who remembers iron lungs where the sufferers of polio were kept, enabling them to breath until they regained at least a semblance of muscle strength? The use of vaccines has greatly limited tetanus, and diphtheria, and whooping cough. The old childhood diseases of measles, mumps, and chickenpox are no longer rites of passage for children. All have been vanquished through the use of vaccines.

Except. Except that a growing percentage of the population no longer believes that the benefits of vaccination exceed the perceived costs. Especially with the growth of the internet, there are groups convinced that vaccines are causing the growth of conditions such as autism. And therefore they are opting out of mandatory vaccination protocols. Either opting out, or spacing vaccinations out over a longer period than recommended, all in a belief that they are protecting their children from a fate worse than the disease that the vaccine is intended to prevent. What this is doing is increasing the percentage of the population who does not have immunity to the disease, and as a result, diseases that had been nearly eliminated are making a comeback. In 2017 there was an outbreak of measles, mainly within the Somali immigrant population around Minneapolis. According to the CDC, the rate of measles vaccination of Somali children was only 54% in this area. This enabled measles imported from a visit from Africa to spread throughout the community, until 65 cases were recorded. Of those, 20 required hospitalization. I remember my own case of measles, back in 1961. I contracted it right after my tonsillectomy, another rite of passage that is no longer nearly universally prescribed. It was not fun, but I did not suffer any of the permanent effects that could have resulted.

How should we deal with infectious diseases in the future? Certainly there is a need for more pharmaceutical research in antibiotics. If we can stay ahead of the resistance curve, we may still be able to keep the tragedy of blood poisoning from killing thousands and thousands each year. Unfortunately, pharmaceutical companies are not investing heavily into antibiotic research. The perceived market is deemed too small to justify the vast expenditures required for drug development. This is an area where government-directed research is required since the lack of private company research does not appear to be amenable to a market-based solution. The current trend towards reducing antibiotic supplementation in animal feed needs to become universal. This may be a problem though, in other countries where a simple and cheap way to control animal disease and increase animal yield is not viewed as an existential threat.

Finally, for viral diseases, there may not be good ways to deal with them. The warming of the climate will result in the spread of many diseases beyond their current tropical ranges. Unless we can put the climate warming genie back into the bottle, we may have to deal with the effects. Vaccine development is required, and investment in additional vaccine capacity for diseases such as yellow fever. But the hardest problem to deal with may be the human resistance to acknowledge that science has the answer for disease prevention. It may never be possible in this fractured society to convince a large enough percentage of the population of the benefits of a vaccine. There will always be self-sustaining groups who convince themselves that they know more than all of the scientists in the world. After all, the scientists are the elites who have failed us, right?

 

Trump’s Greatest Hits!

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The time: A late night in early October, 2018. The place: A windowless room deep in the bowels of the White House. The players: The brain trust for the 2018 mid-term election.

“We’ve got to get back to the basics,” said the thin, balding man. “There is no way we can permit this revolution to fail.”

“Well, we’ve managed to make a martyr out of Brett. That should keep our base mollified.” A lone woman in the room gave her single contribution to the discussion.

The thin, balding man cleared his throat. “Yes, but once the vote’s taken, they’ll forget. They’ll be satisfied. And satisfaction is the last thing we want for our side. We want them afraid, and angry.”

The man in the immaculate suit and the neatly trimmed white hair raised his arms up in an air of supplication. “Stephen, why can we not go with what won before? Surely they haven’t wised up to us by now, have they?”

The thin, balding man looked over at the white haired man. He brought his hand up and stroked his chin, trying to think about this most critical month of the administration. Then, slowly, a smirk stole across his face. He spoke. “You know, it just may work. All we have to do is get the fear factor back. You there!” He pointed to a faceless form in the shadows. “What have you heard about a new group of migrants in central America starting to form up?”

The aide who had been summoned clicked on his laptop, then replied. “It looks like there’s a group in Honduras that may be ready to march soon. We’ve intercepted some communications that they are ready to begin as early as next week.”

The balding man smiled. “Is there anything we can do to help them? You know, without anyone finding out? The last thing we want is our fingerprints on their march.”

The aide, looked back at his computer, then said. “I’m sure we can manage a bit of logistical support behind the scenes. No one ever looks at how these things form.”

The white haired man said, “I’ll just bet if we work it right, we can blame a new caravan on Soros.”

The balding man replied, “Damn straight. We’ll tar him with this one just like we’ve done the last five times.”

Suddenly, the rumpled figure over in the corner stirred himself to life. His scraggly hair hung over his face, but he seemed scarcely to care that he appeared so slovenly. “Yes, that will be good. Revive the fear of the other. It would be good if we were able to deploy the military to the border before the election.”

The aide dared to speak up. “Sir, if these folks started tomorrow, it will be January before they reach any border.”

The rumpled figure glared in the aide’s direction. Then he turned to the balding man, “So much the better. The longer we can keep this in front of the public, the better for us.” He paused, then added “If we could just conflate this group of migrants with Arab terrorism, we’d get twice the pop out of this.”

The aide said, “I’m on it, sir.”

The rumpled figure got up from his chair, and brushed his hair back away from his eyes. “You guys asked me back in here because of how I managed the last campaign. Well, if you want my help, you have to be willing to do what I say. Is this a go?”

The white haired man said, “I can speak for him. We need you. We’ll do what you say. Anything but Nancy Pelosi leading the House again.”

The rumpled figure then started pacing back and forth, waiting for the words to form in his head. He started to speak as he crossed the room. “Ok, we’re in a bad place with this thing about pre-existing conditions. It seems that’s something even our crowd likes. We have to convince everyone that we are the folks who will keep this in place.”

Another aide who had been in the shadows spoke up. “How can we do that when we’ve been telling everyone we want to repeal and replace?”

The rumpled figure raised a finger at the offending voice. “You. Out. You have no place here.”

The second aide scurried to gather his things, and left the room, his back to the door so as to not ever show his back to the assembled crowd.

The rumpled figure stopped pacing, and held onto the back of one of the enormous office chairs around the conference table. “I have no patience for people like him. Why is it folks can’t see that it doesn’t matter what we’ve done in the past, all we have to do is come up with a common story and stick to it. Lying? That word doesn’t exist. If we say it often enough, they will believe. We’ve destroyed their ability to believe anything other than what we say.”

The balding man spoke. “There must be something we can do with all of these folks who are accosting our friends in restaurants, staging sit-down protests in the Capitol, yelling at us.”

The rumpled figure smiled. “I’ve thought of that. Let me see what you think of this. ‘Jobs Not Mobs’. I can see that plastered on signs at every rally he holds.”

The white haired man looked pleased. “I know I can sell that one to him. It’s short – he’ll remember it. Before we’re through, we’ll have convinced people that the Democrats are evil creatures, wanting only to seize power in order to make us the Venezuela of the north. I’m sure we can convince some of our friends to foot the bill for some really good visuals on TV.”

The rumpled figure nodded his head in agreement. “There’s one more thing that bothers me, though. That tax thing we did last year, it’s not polling well. Even our base has seen right through it. And it hasn’t resulted in more revenues – when that deficit figure hits, we’ll have to work hard to convince folks everything will be fine.” He paused. Then he resumed, “I’ve got it. Middle of this month, we have him talk about a middle class tax cut. Make it, oh, let’s see – 10%. Have him claim that it’ll be in effect by the election.”

The balding man spoke. “That’s genius! How have we done without you this past year.”

The rumpled man gathered his coat, and got ready to leave the meeting. “You weren’t too successful. May I just mention family separation? That was a royal mess. You needed me to reconnect with the people. Don’t you forget that. I’ll be waiting for your next call.” And the rumpled man left the room, while the others remaining were beaming with the knowledge that they had the game plan for the return of Trump’s Greatest Hits.