Don’t Believe Your Lyin’ Eyes

We have seen the future, and it is not pleasant. We have devolved into warring classes where we ascribe horrible motives to anyone who dares think and speak differently than we do. The Republicans seem to take immense pleasure in diminishing the stature of anyone who uses expertise to advocate for a position. Thus we see the marginalization of public health experts and scientists who developed a new class of vaccines and advocated for their use. In Tennessee this led to the dismissal of a public health officer who dared to state the legal fact that some adolescents under the age of majority could take ownership of their own decisions concerning their body. Even when state law is settled and several decades old, this mere acknowledgement of facts brought a backlash Dr. Michelle Fiscus could not withstand, leading to her firing. Not only was she fired, but it resulted in the abandonment of campaigns for any vaccination of minors.

This rejection of science and expertise has ramifications far beyond a mere cancellation of a vaccination campaign in a single state. It is symptomatic for what has become the abandonment of the scientific principle by those populists across the globe who have gained ascendency over the past decade. A scorched earth policy has taken over the political mind. This is especially clear in Brasil, where the scorched earth is literally scorched earth, where virgin rain forest lies in a smoking ruin as the inevitable advance of soybean cultivation marches on.

We have built a civilization where scientific advances have made it possible to support an unimaginable increase in human population, and has allowed significant increases in lifespan. But the technological advances have left a significant proportion of the population behind, mired in an ever more futile attempt to stay economically solvent. No longer is it possible to depend upon the mill down the road, or the local assembly plant, to take up the slack of those who lack technological skills in the job market. Multi-national corporations have done two things. First, they arbitrage labor and regulatory requirements globally, moving their operations towards the lowest common denominators. Second, they use technology and their advantage in capital to blast away at local retail establishments. These mega retailers are more efficient, but by displacing an entire class of entrepreneurs they have removed the ability of local communities to sustain a middle class.

So you have huge swaths of the country with no economic raison d’etre, where generations have now grown up with the reality of needing to leave their place of birth in order to have any economic prospects. It is even worse in my state of West Virginia, since the local work force depended upon low-education coal mining as its economic engine. In the time since I’ve moved here in the mid-1980s, I’ve seen the decline in shipments of coal. Few coal barges ply the Kanawha River now, and the coal trains that were once ubiquitous, now are an exception along our rail lines. Still, the local politicians view coal’s demise as a temporary aberration, and see no need in investment in education as the way to bring the local economy into parity with the rest of the country.

  We’ve built a global economy where low price is the mantra driving decisions. We now depend upon systems that would have been viewed as impossibilities 50 years ago. But the maintenance of these systems is dependent upon accepting the science underlying their foundations. If we wish to bring back lower skill industrial work, then we must accept the reality that items manufactured here will cost more. We are seeing the stirrings of this reality as we climb out of the trough of the pandemic, since people are not willing to accept the starvation wages of the service industry. In order to hire people back, wages must increase, but no one wants to accept the higher prices this will cause.

So now the political lines are drawn. One side insists the evidence of your eyes not be believed, and you must transform the events of January 6 into a Spongebob dream world, where prancing unicorns spread candy rainbows across the sky. That side is aligned with those who reject the benefits of science, which has resulted in novel vaccine development in record time. According to this side, not only must you reject the evidence before your eyes, you must reject anything developed by scientists, who after all are only interested in making money, and are wishing to push experimental poisons into the muscles of the unwilling.

The other side is somewhat smugly relying upon their knowledge that they are in the right, and it will only take time before the veracity of their position is apparent to those who are opposing them. Unfortunately, when one side is able to direct the discussion, the triumph of reason and logic is not assured. Humanity reacts to visceral images, and those who proclaim the anecdotal exception as a reason for their rejection of science, are likely to prevail over reasoned appeals about statistics and peer review.

For the side of logic and reason to prevail, it is necessary to bring up the anecdotal evidence of those who failed to take the vaccines and now are regretting that decision as they realize it has cost them their life. Fighting emotional fire with fire is the only way to win in the arena of public opinion, and those who do not wish to get down in the mud to wrestle with the pigs, will see the opponents grabbing the rhetorical high ground.

We are on ecologically shaky ground. As a species, we’ve grown our numbers far beyond the carrying capacity of this planet. The tools of science and logic have enabled this to happen, but the results are complex systems with non-uniform sharing of the economic benefits. It seems the response from many is to tear down the entire edifice, but if we do, we’ll find out how fragile our world really is and how mean and nasty life will become when everything is transformed into a struggle against starvation and warfare. At least, we no longer will be concerned about the fate of the Kardashians.

At Last! A Health Care Proposal From Republicans!

It was warm and humid down in the boiler room of the club house. Yet those who toiled down here kept coming up with winning strategies, even if they seemed just a bit far-fetched.

“Let’s say that all of the votes for Joe Biden came from illegal aliens. No, not just those people who are here illegally, but the aliens from all of the flying saucers we keep hearing about. Think that’ll fly?”

Lem switched the ever-present cigar in his mouth from one side to the other. He had long ago reconciled himself to living in a smoke-free world, but the taste and feel of a cigar still held sway in his mind. He snarled out his reply. “You’ve got it! No matter how they spin this, we win! Even if people come up and say they voted for Biden, you can get folks saying they aren’t really human, they came from the saucers.”

Shannon let a thin smile turn up the corners of her lips as she basked in the praise she got from her boss. It was hard for her to acknowledge how fast her rise up the chain had been. Only a few short weeks ago she had been an intern for the congressional representative from northwest Georgia, where she had been indoctrinated into the mysteries of Q and the reality of the stolen election. Now she was partly responsible for coming up with the lines that would be echoed across the conservative biosphere.

She wondered whether she dared to bring up the dream idea she kept buried deep in her psyche. But she realized there would never be a better time to broach the subject.

“Look, no one has ever seen any of these viruses or bacteria, right? Why do we think they exist?”

Lem shifted in his chair, his green eyeshades tilted slightly as he turned to look at Shannon. “Where are you going with this?”

Shannon brought her hands together, fingers connected at the tips as she continued. “Why do we believe any of this nonsense about disease. It’s gotta be a hoax aimed at keeping the doctors and pharmaceutical companies rich and comfortable. What if we said all of these were fake news, and we had recruited an army of shaman to deal with health issues?”

Lem leaned back in his chair, the light from his table lamp casting immense shadows on the back wall as he shifted back. “I like it. We could make it so no one had to spend any money on medical stuff. You know, this is the health care plan we’ve been looking for, for so long.”

Shannon smiled more openly this time. She continued with her dream scenario. “In one fell swoop, we eliminate the Medicare racket and all of the unnecessary money people spend on this stuff. And we make it so people could stop all of these tax withholdings because of religious beliefs.”

Lem picked up the thought line. “In one brilliant insight, you’ve come up with the holy grail. Get rid of that accursed Obamacare, eliminate the Medicare deficit, and cut the payments of true Americans for health care down to almost nothing. Those shaman, they don’t need much money, do they?”

Shannon pondered, but only for a moment. “I wouldn’t think so. And it will be so much cleaner when we don’t have to worry about the greedy insurers and doctors. You know, we may begin this as voluntary, but when people see how much money they can save with this new health care system, it should take over for all.”

Lem shifted the cigar again in his mouth. “Ever since Obamacare came out, we Republicans have been searching for some way to discredit it and let free enterprise come up with the solution for the nation. I can see, this is IT! I can’t wait to tell this to the big guy, hear him at the podium start to sell this to his followers. Shannon, you’re a genius!”

And so it came forth, that the new Republican program for health care was to have witch doctors contract with individuals to give aid and comfort to those who suffered from illnesses. And the people of the Donald saved many millions of dollars, and were very happy. Until they became subject to illness, and died.

In his tomb, the shades of Darwin smiled.

Let Me Know When We Get Back To Normal

The former Trump Plaza casino is imploded on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

We’ve had more self-proclaimed witch hunts than Salem had at its peak. One more government prosecution, one more charge of a political witch hunt coming from our witch-in-chief. Yet we should not be surprised. We are now witnessing the ultimate case of failing up, and the denouement of this case is causing severe angst amongst the few who benefited from the Trump empire.

Certainly it has not been the myriads of small businesses and craftspeople who built the edifices intended to glorify the namesake of the empire who benefited from the business. They had to resort to legal action in order to recover even a tiny portion of what was owed them. Certainly it has not been the banks, who had to take over ownership of the various pieces of the empire after they had fallen into bankruptcy. Certainly not those family members who were associated with his loser brother, who had the temerity to renounce the family business and take on a proletariat occupation. They disgraced the family name and had to settle for a pittance of what they were truly owed.

Failing up. Imagine an entire career where the Peter Principle was embodied by its leader. Only this was a case where the one true skill of the leader, self-aggrandizement, was successful enough to cause millions of followers to be mesmerized into believing in the divinity of the leader. The embodiment of greed became the mantra of masses of otherwise normal people. So instead of the real example of a failed businessman who had never truly succeeded at any of his ventures, the image of the self-made business genius prevailed, and nothing anyone could say would disabuse his true believers from their delusions. Certainly not the investigative reporting of the various media sources, which had been transformed into the “enemies of the people” by the repeated statements of the leader.

Now, with the indictment of the Chief Financial Officer, and the indictment of the business itself, Donald Trump may find it impossible to fail upwards anymore. Everything for him is now pointing downhill, like the demolition of one of his Atlantic City casinos shown in the photo above. Whether this is the event which will cause the dear leader to accept his failings is doubtful. We’ve plenty of evidence to show it is impossible for The Donald to accept any self-failings. It has to be someone else’s fault. It is simply not possible for any actions of Donald to be less than glorious in its magnificence.

His minions and worshipers will be unmoved by the legal travails emanating from the various indictments swirling around. They still believe in the neo-deity and divine inspiration of the charlatan. In order to acknowledge the failings of Trump, it would be necessary to admit they were wrong in hitching their wagon to his ascendency. After all, the vision of a world where black and white were clearly defined, and each was in its place, is at the heart of the world view of his followers.

It is nearly six months since the leader of this movement abdicated his Washington shrine for his southern estate in Florida. This nation wants desperately to move on, yet we continue to be held hostage by the ravings of the ex-President, and by the sycophantic sniffling of those who still curry favor with the failed leader. It is now entering the dangerous phase, where a significant segment of the US population believes blindly in the lies and deceptions uttered by those who seek to gain from their association with the ex-President. We now have a schizophrenic Congress, with a split personality. Who will be our psychiatrist capable of reconciling these diametrically opposed personalities? Will we reach reconciliation before we have violence in support of the big lie?

Once more, it is necessary to put our faith in the hands of the administrators of justice. Only they have the ability to ensure the behavior of the Trump organization does not become normalized across the business world. Only they are able to finally administer accountability to the man who has held this nation hostage, by letting him know once and for all that his behavior was and still is unacceptable. Certainly it is not possible to expect Congress or state legislatures to administer this accountability. In the case of Congress, the culpability of many members in the January 6 insurrection must be covered up and buried. For state legislatures, they sit in craven fear that the Republican base will come after them if they dare to show independence from the story of the big lie.

I wish I still did not feel obligated to express my feelings about the failure of our 45th President. Maybe in another six months, he will have receded far enough from the daily topics of the news so that he himself will no longer present a danger. But it will be a long time before his followers can be deprogrammed, and re-enter the world of reality. There lies the real danger.

CRISPR Revisited

One of the privileges of writing a blog is that you can look back at older posts and see how they hold up over time. One of the first posts I made was back in March 2017 (Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread? Sliced DNA!) discussing a technology called CRISPR. Since that time, the founders of the technology have won a Nobel prize, and just within the past week came word that a test returned its first results with stellar responses. An intractable and fatal genetic disease appears to be successfully treated via internal application of CRISPR-modified material. It is very early in the process, and the market for this particular disease is very small, but the response in the stock market was explosive. Fortunately for me, I had put money on two of the stocks in this field, and I am experiencing the volatility of the biotech field in my investments.

Here is the text of the original post. I haven’t changed a word since the potential benefits and potential adverse effects still hold true. You may have heard that a rogue scientist in China crossed an ethical line and treated twin fetuses with CRISPR. In that case, it was to remove the potential to be infected with HIV as opposed to treating a genetic defect. That is still not allowed, and the scientist was punished.

Over the past decade, a new technology has emerged, begun commercialization, and provides amazing potential to revolutionize biological science. My guess is that you’ve never heard of this incredible advance in biology. So let me introduce you to: CRISPR. As is often the case, CRISPR is an acronym. It stands for: Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. Having given its full name once, let me just say that it refers to how it deals with DNA inside of a cell.

CRISPR (pronounced Crisper) is a modification of a naturally occurring process in bacteria. Just as we are attacked by pathogenic bacteria, bacteria themselves are attacked by viruses called bacteriophages. These phages are able to hijack a bacterial cell’s DNA and inject portions of their own DNA that then enables replication of the phage, allowing the copied phages to burst through the cell wall and kill the bacteria. Naturally, it is to the bacteria’s advantage to detect and remove the rogue DNA. And evolution has developed a tool, in the form of a set of genes that enables detection of an alien DNA sequence, and essentially cuts it out and puts in its own jumper that bypasses the infected area. So nature has developed its own DNA repair process that enables a bacterial cell to detect infection, remove the infection, and repair the DNA to allow it to continue to function. Only the non-functioning repeated DNA segments is left in the DNA to show that the repair has taken place.

Researchers have discovered this process, and developed an improved process based upon it. Companies have formed around the technology, and other companies have licensed the technology and are actively working on applications. This process is just beginning, and it is one of the most exciting new developments in biology in decades.

CRISPR technology is far different than the genetic modifications that have been used in agriculture that stir deep revulsion in many. The process that Monsanto and DuPont and other agribusinesses use to produce seed that is resistant to herbicides requires the insertion of genes that are from another organism. This crossing of species creates what is called “Frankenfood”, and many nations have forbidden the use of foods created with this technology. CRISPR technology does not involve alien genes. Instead, it allows for the CRISPR process to inactivate genes by excising and bypassing the undesired section. This has huge potential application in human health, because many genetic-based diseases are caused through a fault in one of the genes. This faulty gene may create a faulty protein that causes the genetic disease. If you can simply snip off the bad part, and replace the gene with either a nonsense segment of DNA that does nothing, or a fully-functioning gene that works as nature intended, then you now have the potential to reverse a genetic disease.

CRISPR is being used to develop food seeds like the ones from Monsanto and DuPont. But in this case, species lines are not being crossed. Instead, normal plant breeding practices can be used to develop desirable traits, and the genetic technology can be used to greatly increase its effectiveness in the seeds. This eliminates the fear factor that previous genetically modified organisms generated.

The mechanics of how to introduce the desired genetic fix into an organism is one of the greatest uncertainties of how this technology will be used. Obviously, the smaller the organism, the easier it is to fix. That’s why some of the first applications of the technology are for things like industrial yeasts that ferment vegetable matter to convert it to ethanol for fuel. One of the limiting factors in bioethanol production, is that the alcohol becomes lethal to the yeast in too high a concentration. By working with strains of yeast that show greater resistance to high concentrations of alcohol, and by inserting the genes from these strains into other strains of yeast, the potential is there for greatly increased efficiency in bioethanol production. The technology is well developed for insertion of genes into seeds as well. So the earliest commercial applications are for agribusiness and biofuel production.

It is a far different task to introduce the fix to a genetic problem to a complex organism like a person. One area of early research involves the eye disease retinitis pigmentosa. This disease is genetically inherited, and eventually causes the retina to degrade, resulting in blindness for one and a half million people worldwide. The proposed treatment involves taking cells from the person with the genetic trait, converting them into stem cells, fixing the genetic defect with CRISPR technology, and transplanting the cells back into the retina of the person with the disease. There is a possibility that a human trial using this technology may happen in 2017. The gene repair process can work where the affected area is small in scope like the retina. How this can work in a disease that is expressed throughout the body has yet to be determined.

One obvious way the technology could be used is when the human with the genetic defect is still in the womb. Genetic tests that can detect inherited diseases are available during pregnancy. Eventually the potential will exist to provide a fix for an inherited genetic disease before birth, eliminating the disease before it happens.

That last bit is one of the ethical areas that must be fully discussed and agreed to by all before the technology is adopted for use in the womb. Any change that is made in the genome at this stage is able to be transmitted across generations. So far, there has been an agreement that genetic modifications should not be allowed if the modification can be inherited by subsequent offspring. The potential to eventually eliminate diseases like cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s chorea, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimers through this technology may be irresistible, and may eventually force the moral issues emerging from this technology to be addressed.

This field is emerging and growth in the field is exponential. I am a reader of Science magazine, and only became aware of this technology since CRISPR was declared the science development of the year in 2015. Since that time, multiple commercial companies have been created, some of which had their IPO last year. It is my prediction that within the next two years, this technology will become widely known and discussed, and remember, you heard it here first.