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.

The Squirrel Gang Rides Again

Casing the joint

I am sitting at home awaiting the knock on the door. You see, I am a purveyor of the most addictive substance in the world. Mealworms. They are the crack of the animal world. Titmice, mockingbirds, and squirrels all throw themselves at the feeder just to partake of this wonderful food.

The knock I am awaiting? It is not law enforcement. Rather, I am waiting for the squirrel gang to figure out a way to pound on the door, letting me know the feeder is empty. The other day, when we had a proper mealworm feeder, I counted 5 squirrels plotting on how to reach the platform of luscious treats. While I wasn’t watching, the squirrels managed to tear off the feeder portion, leaving only the clear plastic roof. The same roof a squirrel landed on, only to slip off and fall down onto the Lenten rose below. Once I heard a squirrel land squarely on the metal railing around our porch. Anyway, they tore off the bottom of the feeder, and we have yet to find it. I have visions of squirrels conducting their version of a cargo cult, gathering around the feeder base in the woods, chanting to bring back the wondrous food.

Mockingbird getting his fix from the late feeder

This morning as we were enjoying our coffee and newspaper on the porch, I filled the makeshift feeder we now have. It was literally seconds before the first mockingbirds descended onto the feeder. Undoubtedly they were watching the feeder from above, awaiting the delivery of manna. A few minutes later, the flock of titmice arrived, skittering up to the feeder whenever a mockingbird was not present. It mattered not that we were sitting there, a few feet away from them. The siren call of the mealworms was all that mattered. Bird crack, addictive as hell.

One of the squirrel gang showed up, and he paid us no heed as he worked out a way to get onto the platform. Yes, he could look on the ground for those worms tossed overboard by messy bird eaters, but the mother lode was up there awaiting his arrival. He looked at us as though we were interlopers in his realm, and all we wanted to do was prevent his ascension into the garden of Eden. So what if we sat there watching him? That was not going to bother him one bit.

Almost there!

We will have to figure out a safe way for both birds and squirrels to have their feasts. Where we’ve set up the feeder now, we are seeing the plants in the adjacent planter destroyed from the acrobatics of the squirrels. Our wind chimes are at risk as they use them as trapeze platforms, trying to gain enough altitude to reach the promised land. Or they plop down from the roof, giving their all to hold onto the feeder without tumbling onto the ground below. Whatever we choose, we will enjoy watching the battles over our mealworm donations. And if we think we can just let the feeder run dry, let me ask you. Have you ever been cursed by both mockingbirds and titmice? It’s not a pleasant experience, I assure you.  

Nirvana

Fool Me Once? Shame on You. Fool Me 156 Times?

How many times must Charley Brown have the football pulled by Lucy before he gets wise and takes his football home? Apparently, this is something Sisyphean that keeps on looping forever, like a GIF. Since Peanuts is on eternal reruns, Charley Brown will never learn his lesson.

Democrats are the equivalent of Charley Brown. They keep expecting Republicans to be rational and to accept the proffered hand of bipartisanship, since getting things done is obviously more important than partisan politics. And time after time, Lucy in the form of the Republican party pulls the football away, showing where the Republican priorities are. If you can envision Mitch McConnell as Lucy, it humanizes him (slightly).

So now we are in the waning days of the greatest pandemic the world has seen since the flu epidemic of 1918. At least, waning in this country as we have rolled out vaccines early here, a byproduct of our affluence. Now all those who are freeloading off of the reduced transmission of the virus (freeloading via their refusal to get vaccinated) will feel emboldened to proclaim that the whole incident of the pandemic was an overwrought hoax, and certainly did not call for the abridgements of freedoms that wearing a mask represented. Those poor snowflakes on the right were completely undone by having to wear a flimsy cotton or paper covering on their faces.

The entire world has seen economic damages exceeding even the human toll of the disease. Billions have lost income, and it was only in those countries where it was possible to borrow money, that enough income could be replaced to keep the economy alive. Elsewhere in the world, economic disruption has been severe. Remember India, where at the onset of the crisis, millions of laborers had to walk back to their homes due to imposed restrictions? Even in the US, we heard about those who starved to death on these forced migrations.

So what we should have learned through this experience was how interdependent we have become. Our economy does not function if we do not have adequate child care enabling many to participate in the labor force. This is one of the new infrastructures we have constructed over the recent decades, and the latest legislative proposals reflect this human interdependence. Republicans, though, do not acknowledge the changes in the world they have brought forth. According to them, if you cannot build it, it is not infrastructure. And they would rather see bridges fall into the Mississippi River than even consider the need to raise taxes to prevent such occurrences.

Those who are unable to adjust to changing conditions will find themselves going extinct. We see this in the animal kingdom, where creatures who inhabit a small niche, are not able to withstand the disturbance of that niche.  It may be a small darter found in a single section of  stream, or a song bird using a specific tree species, or an insect battered by removal of its habitat and the onslaught of pesticides applied indiscriminately. Within humanity itself, groups who find it impossible to adjust to changing conditions, may also face extinction. Unfortunately, for humanity, those who are cornered often are at their most dangerous. This seems to be the fate of Republicans in the US where the knowledge of their upcoming obsolescence has led to an existential battle to retain the levers of political power. They use their power in state legislatures to rig the election process to give themselves an incremental boost in election results. Enough, perhaps, to overcome the demographic surge they fear so much. If they can retain enough power through this decade, then they may be able to elect a real capable autocrat who understands how power works, and this façade of democracy can finally be done away with.

The need to prevent this erosion of our liberties is why it is so critical to reform the electoral process. All Democratic Senators must understand that it is folly to expect Lucy to keep the football on the tee so they can kick it down the field. Instead, they say just enough good things to keep Charley Brown running forward, knowing full well they will pull the ball back and enjoy watching Charley Brown land on his butt once more. In this case, it is vital to reform the rules of the game so that one side cannot gain an insurmountable edge. If we don’t take advantage of the disruption caused by the pandemic, we will forever be falling on our butts in the future. And we will deserve it.

A Letter To My Senator Joe Manchin

Dear Senator Manchin,

I am a resident of West Virginia and a subscriber to the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Therefore, I had full access to your column of June 6 rather than having to settle for the abbreviated versions shown on TV. I appreciate your steadfastness towards your principles, but must disagree with you about the nature of those principles. You appear to believe that the stability of the democracy depends upon the continuation of the filibuster as a mechanism to foster bipartisanship. I believe you are mistaken as to the nature of the opposition, as it is now apparent that the party of Mitch McConnell disdains any attempt at bipartisanship. Just as the fanatics on the right have referred to Democrats as snowflakes, they in turn live in mortal fear at being called RINO’s. Ever since the members of the Freedom Caucus emerged from the primal swamp of the Tea Party movement, and burrowed into the halls of Congress, the rules of the game have changed.

No more is it possible for those of good will to seek out compromise with the opposing party. Being seen as being open to compromise is a sure way to gain an opponent on their right who will decry openness to compromise as socialism light. It is no longer possible to generate even a fraction of Republicans who are willing to extend their necks out in order to have them chopped off by those who still carry weapons for Donald Trump. Therefore, I believe your mission to save democracy by insisting upon the virginal purity of the filibuster to be misguided, and dangerous to the democracy you so rightly wish to defend.

This is the most dangerous time for the status quo to remain in place. With the decennial reapportionment staring at us, the result of redistricting in states with Republican majorities in their legislature will be gerrymandering on steroids. When you consider the results of the last election, where Republicans were able to convert a state where in 2012, Democratic candidates received 81,000 more votes than Republicans. Yet Republicans captured 9 of the 13 Congressional races in 2012 in North Carolina. This is the future you will unleash upon this nation due to your intransigence at both favoring the filibuster, and your opposition to the For the People act.

I believe you find more portions of the For the People act to be good than those that are prone to increase division. This is your opportunity to use the processes of the Senate to propose changes to the bill in order to gain support from the opposition, and become a bipartisan act. But it will only happen if you agree to some sort of proposal to enable the bill to be brought onto the floor of the Senate for discussion and amendment. Please go ahead and express your support for some mechanism to bring this bill up for debate. It does not have to be blanket abandonment of the filibuster, but whatever legislative sleight of hand allows this type of bill to avoid the strictures of being filibustered would be greatly appreciated by this constituent. We know what the Republicans will do if they attain the majority again. Handing them the keys to the car of state by allowing the For the People bill to die a lonely death will not end well. It truly is in your hands to keep democracy alive, but not by the means you believe to be necessary.

Petrified Wood and Petrified Brains

Wood from ancient West Virginia

My wife and I talked about visiting Cincinnati later this summer. There is one thing I am not allowed to consider, though. That is a repeat visit to the Creation Museum. I will admit I did go there once, and did manage to hold it together while I saw the full-scale replica of Noah’s Ark, along with all of the animals which supposedly sought refuge on the vessel. But as soon as I escaped the building, and entered the plaza where they sold ice cream, I broke out into uncontrolled laughter. So much so that my wife was afraid one of the armed guards would take exception to my merriment and provide a bit of a 2nd amendment solution. I did calm down, and tried to reflect on what I had just seen.

I had voluntarily paid for the privilege of seeing the literal interpretation of the Bible and the Old Testament stories displayed for my own faith to grow. Or at least, that was what was supposed to happen. Instead, I was the one who saw the convoluted logic displayed, which made it seem like the management of the museum really, really tried to fit the world into their tidy world view of total consistency with the Bible. One problem is the world is not that neat and orderly. Instead, it is an accumulation of acts and conditions that can trace their origin all the way back to the initial act of creation in the Big Bang.

My own house bears testimony to the impossibility of fitting all the niceties of the physical world into the 6,000-year saga of biblical history. You see, I collect petrified wood. As it turns out, there’s a strata of ground underneath this region that trapped fallen trees, hundreds of millions of years ago. And over the eons, that wood transformed into rock, tumbling out of the eroded hillsides and falling down to the creek beds below. Our front porches have displays of large chunks of petrified wood “artfully” arranged to greet any visitors. I used to go with my sons on expeditions down into the creeks where we would search for hunks of wood. I imagine they really enjoyed the freedom of splashing around in the water even if it came with the penalty of carrying the chunks of stone up the hillside to our house.

The large chunk weighs about 40 kg

But those who view the Bible as inerrant will discount the evidence laid out before them, no matter how persuasive it may be. To those believers, it is impossible for light to take millions and billions of years to reach us, because it is incompatible with a view of the universe not being over 6,000 years old. They discount use of radioactive decay as a tool to determine the ages of things in the past, since they enable ages to be traced back beyond the 6,000-year barrier where God created the heavens and earth and declared them to be good.

This tendency to believe only what you have been told is accurate even though the evidence of the eyes contradicts it, does not function only in a religious arena. Indeed, we are seeing an entire political party willing to overlook the evidence of their eyes, and claim the events of January 6 were a mere kerfuffle, not an event worthy of further investigation, and certainly not something to cause a critical eye to be cast upon those who instigated the crowds of January 6 and their violent storming of the Capitol building.

For four years, one section of the US public heard only that Democrats were evil, and as these claims met no opposition on the networks of the right, new beliefs were proposed stating the Democrats secretly were responsible for the huge surge in child abductions (really?), followed by satanic rituals of slaying these innocents for their adrenaline. Yet there was only a wink and a nod towards these purveyors of lunacy from those in authority. As long as judges could be confirmed who would bring America back to the pre-Warren years, they were willing to play along with the crazies. One problem. They never understood their words would instigate action, and they would have large crowds who took every word as inerrant, and a direct command. Rudy Giuliani may believe he was only being hyperbolic when he suggested “trial by combat”, but an entire sector of the public was already primed to act on the literal nature of his words.

The sector of the population who is willing to delegate their logical thinking to others is the sector calling for unending audits of past elections. Maybe we’ll find Chinese watermarks, or contamination of paper with bamboo fibers in the ballots, and can thus declare all votes cast null and void. I find it more than ironic that those who were on the victorious side in 2016, castigated anyone who dared to protest against the acts of the past President as having TDS. Yet the derangement evident today, where millions cannot accept the evidence of their eyes, resulting in endless rehashing of past elections, is viewed by them as a necessary step on the way of reinstating the true monarch of this nation. Talk about snowflakes! These partisans melt down if there is any doubt cast upon their outlandish conspiracies.

Way back in 2016, Hillary Clinton made the mistake that cost her the election. She put a name to the phenomena she saw in front of her. By declaring opponents as “deplorable”, she crystallized the opposition to her. Obviously, in her opponent’s perspective, she considered herself to be the better of those who didn’t share her beliefs. Well, she should never have said that word, but it doesn’t mean the words were false. It seems an entire political party has been hijacked by those whose world view does not permit them to hold any perspective other than what is provided for them. If it doesn’t have a simple solution, then give it one regardless. Fit the round peg into that square hole. It’s all they know.