September Ponderings

Each September brings a different perspective. Some years the day to celebrate working people comes with brown leaves skittering along our driveway, and grass needing the coolness of fall to green up again. This September comes with an abundance of green, and an outdoor symphony composed by minimalists who only can think of one melody. When multiple composers are making their noises simultaneously, the symphony of late summer emerges.

Our hummer wars continue. One day we will miss the aerobatics around our feeders, but today the combatants fight one another for access to our sugar water. They will disappear this month, and we will miss them. Only wasps and flickers will remain to enjoy the dregs of sweetness we share. We put out another feeder full today, but who knows how long we will need to keep the feeders full.

This year we waited for painting on our front porch to be completed before we brought out all of our plants and completed our outdoor living room. It was into July before our plants could enjoy the sunlight and warmth of a West Virginia summer. We still partake of our coffee and physical newspaper on the porch, though jeans and flannel shirts may replace summer apparel later in the month. Things change in September, and even though the summer seemed endless, it always comes to an end.

This year the tomatoes and banana peppers have kept in production. It is a true luxury to slice down a tomato and enjoy its fruit right off of the vine. Plus we’ve received the excess from one of Carrie’s friends, a 92-year old (as of this weekend) ex-Marine who still is able to grow and harvest tomatoes and peppers. She is quite a woman, but slowing down just a bit, and who knows how much longer she’ll be able to bring forth harvests.

We’ve kept the hanging baskets alive throughout this summer. Each year we seem to fight a losing battle where the contents of the hanging baskets look like shriveled corpses by September, but this year we’ve managed to keep them alive and blooming. Now we even see the hummingbirds dart about the flowers, even flitting near our faces as we sit outside.

Our cat, Blinky, is now about 17. He no longer wants to come outside, and he’s grown increasingly deaf. Of the four flutes my wife practices (piccolo, C flute, Alto flute, and Bass flute), he only objects to the piccolo. He still has some high frequency hearing left. Anyway, he sits in his perch in our window overlooking our porch and front yard. Most of the time he just observes when not asleep, but one night he let out a piercing scream as something must have invaded his space, even though he no longer patrols it physically. Whether it was the neighbor’s cat, or possum, or raccoon, we don’t know but his reaction woke both of us from a sound sleep.

We both despair of the trends of the world. How we ended up with total idiots as governors of some of our most populous states we will never know. All we can do is live our lives each day at a time, enjoying the warmth while it still filters in through the trees across the street and up the hill. When you live on a hillside, the next street up is 200’ higher in elevation, with forest in between. The fires in California hit areas like ours extremely hard, but when you routinely have nearly 50” of precipitation per year, you don’t worry nearly as much about forest fires. It’s been over 30 years since the last bad fire year, and then the fires only seem to attack the ground litter, not the canopies of the trees. I could not imagine how it must be to see fire leap from tree top to tree top, sweeping across hillsides like ours as if they didn’t even serve as a speed bump. So we know what we have, in a place to live that would cost a fortune in some portion of this country that was in demand. Here, we just have to accept that people don’t want to live where the economy does not boom. However, as we watch, they are marching up the street with new fiber optic cable, eventually to link this isolated corner of our country with the rest of this nation. When we have true high-speed internet, and the possibility of remote work is more feasible, will an area where houses cost $70/square foot suddenly become in vogue? Time will tell, and that’s what we enjoy, the time to share an afternoon in our summer living room.

So We Fight To Keep The Dream Alive

Fire hoses in Birmingham in 1960’s

Critical Race Theory. Three words that strike dread into the hearts of many who believe this theory is being forced upon their innocent children, and makes the children feel bad. Of course, most of those who protest CRT wouldn’t know it if it struck them alongside their head like a 2×4. Instead, what we have is a noisy bunch of naysayers who have been driven to protest by what has been said on their various media sources. There CRT is mischaracterized so much that any attempt at presenting a contrary view to the lily-white version of American history is seen as communistic influence aimed at making Americans feel guilty toward the inherent racism of our society.

When will we ever get to the place where we can accept that multiple versions of the truth can exist simultaneously? Sure, the settling of the American Midwest involved much sacrifice by those who tried to eke out an existence for their families on soil they had to tame themselves. But at the same time, it is a fact that this land was occupied for thousands of years before white settlers broke the soil with their plows. The conquest of the indigenous peoples of North America enabled the white settlers to take over the lands and only have to fight nature instead of the previous residents. Sure, we gave Indians great reservations, and set up residential schools for the young (where the indigenous culture was carefully extinguished). Is it any wonder that today, reservations are where you find the most entrenched poverty, along with a plethora of substance abuse problems?

When it comes to the ongoing story of Black Americans, the story keeps getting stranger and stranger. Apparently since we elected a half-African as President, all of the racism in our society magically left and we now are in a post-racial society. Or, at least, that is the bromide Fox viewers keep telling themselves. What is not acknowledged is the social rebound coming from Barack Obama’s election exceeded the push to put him in office. Once he was there, the antipathy towards his policies was not only tinged with racism, racism became the sole motivating force. Using the example of the Affordable Care Act, something that was modeled after a Republican’s approach, immediately became anathema. The requirement to pay a tax penalty if you were uninsured was viewed as onerous and tyrannical. Underlying everything was the unstated fact that this was a program developed by a Black, and therefore must be opposed with every ounce of effort. We tried to link the opposition back to our founding fathers, by calling these racists “Tea Partiers”, as if they would be washed clean by the waters of Boston Harbor through this alliance.

When the rebound resulted in the election of Donald Trump, the unspoken part often became overtly spoken. Like in the response to the death in Charlottesville, where a moral equivalence was drawn between those protesting the racism, and those who emulated a torch march from the 1930’s and who felt morally justified in using their macho car as a lethal weapon. It took the events of 2020 to really show how far these purveyors of white pride would go to maintain their power. Antifa, that paragon of anarchy, became the boogeyman for the right, and their non-existent organization was decried time and time again. Meanwhile, those who instituted real violence on January 6 were coddled since white Americans could never be a danger, even when they used mountaineering tactics to scale walls, and mob techniques to overrun police lines. Of course, it was obvious that the Antifa provocateurs were behind all of this. Everyone who entered the Capital building were peaceful tourists who would never have caused damage or defecated in the hallway.

I am old enough to remember the television news showing the fire hoses and police dogs turned on those who demanded their right to vote. The fact that we have to revisit those scenes nearly 60 years later in response to Republican malfeasance in state legislatures is horrendous. The fact that my Senator from West Virginia believes in a non-existent comity among the Senators is worth more than moving legislation along to address voting discrimination is very disappointing. And the fact that so many folks wish to return us to a previous state of Great where it was ok to subjugate anyone who didn’t fulfill the Aryan ideal is worse than disappointing, it is disgusting.

I am an example of how demography is not destiny. I am a Caucasian retired chemical engineer, who spent his entire career in a manufacturing industry. I grew up in Nebraska, and now have lived in West Virginia for more than half of my life. If anyone should identify with the Fox news archetype for my political beliefs, it is me. But I grew up detesting the evil exposed on that television screen. And I am now exasperated at how we are having to fight the battles of the 1960’s over and over again, only this time with the added burden of those who refuse to recognize the true common enemy of the virus. I hope we have enough strength to repudiate those who select evil over humanity and actually work to build a society where all can share in the great wealth we generate in this country. There are ways we can do that and encourage work and thrift and all of those virtues supposedly embodied in that mythical time when America was Great.

PLAY-SEE-BOW. It’s Right For You!

Slimey’s home

I was surprised to see my old friend, Slimey, sitting on a park bench apparently deep in thought over the piece of paper he held in one of his clawed hands. Slimey, as you may remember, is the 8-foot tall reptilian life form I encountered first coming out of the Tidal Basin early on in Trump’s administration.

I walked over to him, clearing my throat so as to alert him to my presence. It was a smart thing to do, since his reflexes were so much faster than mine, and he is capable of evisceration when startled. Those claws are sharp!

“Friend” he called out. “Come over here. Maybe you can help me with a marketing problem.”

I came over and sat at the opposite end of the park bench. I could see that the piece of paper Slimey held had several proposed names on it for some sort of pharmaceutical. Slimey pointed to the paper.

“I’m trying to come up with a name for my new COVID medicine. I’ve narrowed it down to two: PLAY-SEE-BOW, or Bug-Be-Gone. Which one do you think will be better?”

I must have looked dumbstruck. “You have a COVID medicine? How did you develop that?”

Slimey looked up, and though his jaws were fixed as always (only when he was going after food would those jaws move), it appeared he was wearing the expression of a smile. “I tried to think of the one thing those people who refuse the vaccination would lap up. And I came up with this.” Slimey held gently in his clawed hand a small vial, similar in size to one of those energizer drinks.

“What’s in it” I asked.

Slimey answered in a bit of a round-about way. “I saw a report that the virus couldn’t survive in water. So I got myself a bit of the water from down my way.” Here he turned his head towards the Tidal Basin and to the swampy expanse of the Potomac. “I added a little bit of hydrogen ions, and some chloride ions, bottled it, and here it is.”

“So let me get this straight. You bottled some Washington swamp water, and added hydrochloric acid to it?”

Slimey nodded in agreement. “The little bit of acid killed anything bad in the water, and gives it a bit of a kick. I just know it’ll give COVID a knock-out”

I shook my head, unable to believe the scam about to be perpetrated on the American public. “When do you go live with this?”

Slimey turned his massive forearm till he could see the watch. “Supposed to have our first ads go on Tucker’s show tonight. That’s why I need a name, and soon.”

I pondered for a bit, then said “I think PLAY-SEE-BOW is your best shot. I think that describes your product perfectly. How are you planning to sell it?”

Slimey said, “A four pack of bottles will sell for $15.99. I can see us putting it up at the cash registers of feed stores, and at your corner bodegas, and of course we will sell it direct. I’ve been trying to work a co-marketing strategy with Mike Lindell, but I’m afraid that’s fallen through. Seems he thought we weren’t supportive enough of his position. Well, it’s his loss.”

I tried to take this all in. Seems we were just about to undergo a massive advertising campaign for this new product. I could see it now, the TV and Facebook ads where a beautiful person begins to cough. Up comes their savior, with a bottle of PLAY-SEE-BOW, and says to the cougher, “Try this.” The cougher unscrews the cap, then takes the whole dose in.

“Wow. That’s got a kick. What is it?”

“That’s PLAY-SEE-BOW. We can’t get the FDA to approve it, so you know it works.”

The cougher smiles, and says, “I can tell it’s working. COVID doesn’t have a chance.”

Voiceover says, “PLAY-SEE-BOW. For when you get that first inkling something might be wrong.” And of course the usual list of side effects has to be enunciated, only in this case the side effects would be unusual sexual attractiveness, excessive muscular development, and reversal of all aches and pains. If ever there were a can’t-miss product, this was going to be it.

I asked Slimey, “Do you need anybody to invest in this? I think you’ve got a winner here.”

Slimey shook his head, no. He said, “We’ve got the seed money for this from Fox and the RNC. They wanted to take a piece of this real quick. We might even get the Cyber Ninja’s to go out and sell this for us when they do their next audit.

I got up from the bench, and made my adieus from Slimey. For once, he had something that just couldn’t miss. Knowing his audience as well as he did, all I could think about was what was he going to do with all of the money he was about to get. After all, there was a huge untapped market for PLAY-SEE-BOW, and I could feel proud to have been there at the beginning of it all.

American Taliban? You Decide

It’s an ill wind that blows from outside. The wind that brings disease and death to those it encounters who are not armed against it. The wind that causes schisms within towns and families, as it dismantles inhibitions for those who adamantly believe in the other side’s evil. The wind emanating from the new phenomena of the internet, with its ability to connect huge crowds only to give them faulty information to share among the most rabid.

In the end, the wind comes from ourselves. We are the ones who keep the falsehoods and lies alive through our incessant need to be proven right. We are the ones who end up yelling at each other as we encounter those who won’t follow our correct protocol. Look, I received much scientific and mathematical training during my years of schooling. I know which side of the faith / science divide I land on. It is certainly not the side of those who expound their faith that natural immunity given by God will protect them from this virus they don’t even believe exists.  It is on the side of those who believe God gave man the intelligence to assert dominion over even the lowliest near-life forms we share the planet with.

But it is a reality that the other belief system does exist, and those who adhere to this belief system cannot see the virtues of the opposing arguments. In fact, many of those people believe that the vaccine is a tool for mass depopulation by the evil ones who are inspired by Satan. It is evil these people believe they are facing down as they encounter those who favor public health measures.

In a way, it is like the belief systems exhibited by the Taliban, as they re-impose their will upon a people resistant to their beliefs. They know they are right, and if the entire rest of the world disagrees with them, they know their heavenly reward is guaranteed through their actions. At some point, folks who have a rational bone in their body would realize the rest of the world might just be right, not those few who yell the loudest and grab the most attention.

So the difficulty with defeating the viewpoints of those who deny both the virus and the vaccine is similar to changing the minds of those who adhere to the beliefs of the Taliban. Both are utterly convinced they are the only ones who are right, and they will ignore all contrary evidence in front of their faces. Thus we have the local politician who attends an anti-vaccination rally mere days after the death of his wife from COVID. Thus we have the fanatics in Afghanistan enforcing their version of Sharia law while the society they conquered falls apart around them.

Maybe we need to call the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers the American Taliban, since they seem to exhibit the intolerance of the Afganistanian group. Both groups wish to take society back in time, to where there is no need to acknowledge anything other than the magnificence of God. It is God who governs all actions, and vaccines subvert God’s will in that they prevent God from culling those who should be culled.

In my previous writings, I discussed various existential threats facing human civilization. One of those is the rise of Willful Ignorance. As I look back at this piece of writing now three years old, it is amazing how many of those threats we are facing right now. Certainly we have seen how vulnerable we are to the risk of infectious diseases. A plague that kills only 1% of those it infects is capable of grinding economic activity to a halt. Add to that the growth of Tribalism and Denialism, and you can understand the reaction of many governments to the pandemic. After all, in their opinion, the plague is caused by outsiders, not by true citizens. And then add willful ignorance to the brace of problems we face. What I did not anticipate was the pride that those who are willfully ignorant take in their ignorance. There was no way I could expect a group of people to self-identify who wear their maskless faces as badges of honor, and view anyone who exercises caution by wearing a mask as threats and cowards.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in a developed country do not realize the gifts we have been given. We live lives unimaginable to the vast majority of humanity through the millennia who never could enjoy adequate (or excessive) food, comfortable living quarters, personal transportation at our beck and call, treatment for most acute diseases, and instant world-wide communication available in our hands. Many in our world today would trade places in an instant themselves, and to see our civilization ripped asunder by those who refuse to take advantage of yet another of mankind’s advances, a new vaccine therapy, leaves many throughout the world wondering about the sanity of the inhabitants of the US. Count me in their number. I too question the sanity of those who insist upon taking horse de-wormer as a way of treating this disease that in their opinion is supposedly no worse than the flu.

In the end, we will either wear down this virus through mass exposure of the population, or through sufficient vaccination to cause it to seek new vulnerable hosts in vain. Letting the virus course through the population invites still more death and disability. It also enables new variants to develop and sooner or later, one will come about that laughs at our previous vaccines while ripping through the population at a pace that even the most fervent deniers will be unable to reject the evidence of their eyes. When human powered carts roll through our streets, with someone calling out to “Bring Out Your Dead”, then maybe those who have pooh-poohed this virus will finally admit we have something to be worried about. But by then, it may be too late for this civilization to fix the problem, and our descendants will find themselves living lives much like peasants in medieval times. Only with cell phones.

The Sweet Smell of Government Revenue

What’s a poor mobster to do? Over my lifetime, various forms of government have usurped one or another of the functions organized crime used to provide.

Numbers racket? Taken over by multi-state consortiums running nation-wide lotteries, and single-state simple lotteries.

Sports bookie? Through partnerships with the various states, you can now throw your money away on sports betting without having to worry about your legs being broken if you could not pay. You now only have to worry about paying your credit card bills which reflect the losses from sports gambling.

Gambling? The casinos in most states are partners in crime with the state government, resulting in favorable treatment for businesses whose business model relies upon separating its customers from their money.

Loan sharking? In many states you can use one of the legal services for a “payday loan”, or lend your car title to a business that can legally charge rates and fees originally reserved for the shady characters who frequented the alleys in cities.

Selling marijuana? In many states, that is now under the purview of the state, through licensing of the industry.

About all an honest mobster can do now is to import drugs other than marijuana, and facilitate prostitution. Of course, those activities are up for grabs as local governments keep searching for sources of revenue where those who are paying don’t object to their own debasement.

Two things are apparent when you look at the arc of history. One is that human nature has not changed much. It will always be profitable to prey on the need for fast money, money that is not earned through labor. More on that later. The second apparent thing is the need for escapism, either through chemical means, or through mass entertainment honoring humanity’s ability to inflict pain. See WWE and MMA for examples of those diversions.

Those who are on the side of the culture wars decrying man’s descent into debauchery see these growths in government activities as examples of what happened once we turned away from God. What they do not see is human nature, and how much of what we may decry actually hides the real villainy allowed by our legal structure. It is abundantly clear we have abandoned any pretense at honoring labor, since our taxation system is heavily weighted towards valuing capital over labor. Since the radical capitalists captured our legislative functions, the steady march towards giving capital a more favorable view than labor has been unimpeded since the beginning of the Reagan administration. Until now, that is. For the first time in a very long time, someone is proposing to reverse a few of the benefits of capitalism. And the wail from the capitalists is loud and long, as the specter of socialism is invoked on any proposed change favoring the working public.

Look, the Republican party laid their cards on the table when in 2020, they gave up any pretense at being a party of ideas. When things are going well for the money parties, it is not necessary to do anything but hold on to existing gains. Therefore, no party platform was proposed other than what Donald Trump wants. He is the flag-bearer for all of the cadres who wish to keep the favored position of capital. His overt fanaticism for one variant of patriotism, where he literally hugged the flag, hid his true agenda from view. That is, to ensure the continuation of the favored position of capital over labor.

So the ongoing culture wars really are a smoke screen aimed at diverting the attention of the voting public from the real agenda going on. If you get emotionally engaged at the threat of the “other”, you won’t care about the theft of the nation’s monies enabled by legislative action. One thing to consider though, is whether the animal spirits unleashed by the culture war engagements can be put back into the bottle. Witness the horrendous scenes where anti-maskers threaten those who have concern about conditions in schools. Witness the fanaticism unleashed on January 6, where even sober individuals who would not even consider breaching the capitol, were willing to follow and enter once the true believers broke through. Civilization has always had a thin veneer, and those who actively work to strip off this veneer for political and monetary gains must answer for these actions. They may not be able to stop the mob once they have unleashed it, and when that happens, the mob tends to strike back at those who enabled it.

Meanwhile, the real needs of people are still out there. Roads need to be paved, and sewage needs to be treated, and water needs to be delivered. Students must be educated, even though many in the privileged classes gave up long ago on public schools. These services, provided mainly at the local levels, have been hamstrung by limitations on taxation. The effects of Grover Norquist and his acolytes run deep within the legislative class. Therefore, if more revenue is needed, the government tends to coopt something originally considered to be a sin, and enable more revenue to be generated without raising the tax rates.

Are we better off to have the government as the one who skims off the top of the revenues we so willingly give away, as compared to organized crime? Probably we are. But that does not hide the unmistakable truth that government is promoting these activities now, all due to the prohibition against raising taxes. Maybe what we need to do is convert our income tax system into a lottery, where some people have their taxes forgiven, while a fortunate few receive refunds in multiples of the amount due. Perhaps we just are not looking at taxes in the right way, and we need to tap into the inherent greed of the American people and turn taxation into a glorified form of the lottery. We might be surprised at how much tax revenue would be released if that were to happen.

Corn? Corn Is Always Good!

Corn Ethanol Plant Craig MO

It is 2021, not 1973 with its Arab oil embargo and lines of cars dancing the slow samba towards the still-working pumps. Nowadays, no one can claim with a straight face of the necessity to grow corn to produce ethanol, thereby increasing domestic energy supply, and loosening the noose of foreign oil producers on the neck of the United States. Yet the mandate to use ethanol in gasoline has become a sacred shibboleth, and its importance gets reinforced each presidential election cycle, where Iowa is the first state to hold a presidential preference event Thus no serious candidate can propose elimination of the ethanol requirement in gasoline. Why? Because the corn industry, and its lobbyists, will whip up the furor of its Iowa farmers to decry any change in policy as being anti-American.

So we are shackled to a policy which doesn’t save energy, causes demand for corn to be well above the market for nutritional usage, increases soil erosion and loss of nutrients to our waterways, and tricks Americans into believing the mantra of energy self-sufficiency. What’s the upside? We no longer have to worry about gas line freeze-up in winter.

There were two chemicals proposed to increase the oxygen concentration in gasoline. One was ethanol, and one was methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE). Increasing the oxygen concentration in gasoline reduces tailpipe emissions, while reducing engine knock. Thus MTBE was favored initially by gasoline refiners since it was simple to produce in scale, and was inexpensive. It does have one very bad characteristic, though. If it is released into groundwater, it migrates into the water, rather than stay with the organic phase. MTBE soon found its way into ground water, and into drinking water. It is a compound that can cause significant harm to humans over prolonged exposure, so MTBE was phased out of gasoline in the early 2000’s. Ethanol soon took over as the preferred oxygen additive to gasoline, and it had the unexpected benefit of raising the cost of corn for farmers in the Midwest who needed a price boost in order to stay solvent.

Once legislative mandates were in place requiring use of corn ethanol, the investment soon followed. When I graduated college in chemical engineering in Nebraska in the 1970’s, there was essentially zero chemical industry in the region. I had to move to where they made chemicals in order to get a job. Now, there are ethanol refineries dotting the farm landscape throughout the corn belt. You can see the steam plumes from miles away. Corn ethanol is favored legislatively. During the formative years of the corn ethanol industry, there was a $0.50 / gallon tax benefit given to gasoline refiners in order to use the mandated amounts of corn-derived ethanol. Thus US tax policy drove gasoline refiners to select corn-derived ethanol, imposing in essence a tax of 5 cents per gallon on the consumer to enable ethanol to thrive. In fact, the true price to the consumer is even higher, since the demand for corn for ethanol has put a floor on the overall corn price. If you look at food prices, much of that comes from corn, through its value in feeds for meats, or use as sweeteners. So by making the price of corn higher than it would be, the price of all derivatives of corn is higher as well.

One of the most pernicious effects of the legislative mandates for increased use of ethanol in gasoline is increasing corn acreage. Using USDA statistics, the 3-year average of corn acres in 2019-2021 was 91 million, while the 3-year average from 1997-1999 was 79 million. The key difference between the two periods was the increased demand for ethanol from corn. The 15% increase in acreage means that corn has increased its fertilizer demands, and it is no surprise that an ancillary effect of a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico due to excess nutrients, that dead zone has also increased in size during the two-decade period in question. Not only that, when all inputs are factored in, ethanol from corn may barely create more energy than it takes to produce. If methanol were allowed as an oxygenate, it could be generated from natural gas and reduce the impact on the land.

So why do we have this policy which seems in opposition to many goals we aspire to as a country?  We say we want to reduce the impact of humanity on the environment, yet we persist with a counter-productive policy mandating the use of corn ethanol in our gasoline supply. Square that requirement for an absolute volume to be blended with the now stated policy of converting half of new vehicles to electric by 2030. Sooner or later, the demand for gasoline will fall to the point that you cannot blend the mandated quantity of ethanol and still stay at a 10% ethanol concentration. When we get to that point, it will be interesting to see how the politicians deal with the physical limitations of the gasoline market. Of course, we could always export more gasoline and fulfill the legislative requirement that way, but I don’t think that will be looked upon favorably.

It is time now to look at the mandated use of corn ethanol and begin to wean the farm sector away from the incremental corn demand brought about by this legislation. Phasing out the requirement over a 10-year period would reduce the effect on any individual farmer, and then only the companies who have invested in corn ethanol production facilities will end up on the short end of the stick.

Do I expect our politicians to have this degree of foresight and begin to reduce the mandated volume? Amazingly, there is a bill stirring in the Senate that would repeal the mandate to use corn ethanol to produce gasoline. Tellingly, none of the Senators mentioned in conjunction with the bill are from major corn-producing states. Given the entrenched opposition towards ending any government quota program, my expectation is that the bill will suffer an ignominious death. But maybe, just maybe, it may be revived in the future, and face a better fate. I’ll believe it has a chance when I see some courageous presidential candidate have the guts to tell Iowa voters that corn ethanol is bad for the climate, and economy, and must go.

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.