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.

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.

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.

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.

Of Thermodynamics, and Sealing Wax, and Other Fancy Stuff

Power plant cooling towers venting waste heat

The gauntlet has been thrown down. The US needs to cut their carbon dioxide emissions by 50% by 2030, starting with a baseline of 2005. In order to accomplish this, real changes in the US economy must occur, along with some sacrifice by US citizens. And, the entrenched interests in continuing the status quo (energy companies, Republicans, utility providers) must be convinced of the necessity of this extreme action. Pretty difficult to do especially since the Republicans have made it their brand to not only dismiss the need for change, but they have proudly waved the banner of climate change hoax / no science to refute the claims of climate scientists. They have waved these banners for generations, and their influence will not go away, especially at the state and local levels.

First, it is necessary to present some simplified discussions of thermodynamics. This is the branch of physics which describes the limits nature imposes upon humanity. The first item needing description is black body radiation. Simply put, it means a body will emit radiation which puts it at equilibrium with the incoming radiation. Any disruption that affects the radiation balance will affect the equilibrium temperature. In our case, radiation from the earth is dispersed into the coldness of space. One is most aware of this phenomena on cold clear nights, but still above the freezing point of water, where frost forms on surfaces that are exposed to the vastness of space. Like, your car windshield which requires scraping when there’s no frost anywhere else.

The increase in carbon dioxide concentration (CO2) in the atmosphere affects this radiation balance. Put simply, CO2 absorbs some of the radiation that is escaping to space, and re-radiates it in all directions. The fraction that is radiated back to earth is radiation that increases the total amount of radiation earth normally receives. It increases the equilibrium temperature of earth, which is global warming. Since CO2 happens to absorb radiation in a range normal atmospheric components do not absorb, this means that CO2 exerts an outsized influence even though it is a minimal component of the atmosphere. Those who say that a small amount of this gas cannot affect the temperature of the globe are ignorant of basic physics and mathematics.

There is a second aspect of thermodynamics that comes into play with fossil fuels. That is the limitation in the amount of useful work that can be extracted from a high-energy fluid. All large-scale power plants depend upon a heat source (burning fossil fuels, nuclear fission, burning biomaterials) to heat and vaporize water to form steam. It is the steam that turns the turbines and results in the generation of electricity. Well, thermodynamics imposes a limit of about 50% peak efficiency for this type of power plant. You’ll have to trust me on this figure, since understanding and calculating the Carnot system efficiency is a staple of college engineering and science courses. There’s only so much explanation you can put into a blog post.

This says that whenever you have a concentrated source of energy being converted to another type of energy (combustion of fuel to electricity), you only get about 50% of the useful energy as an output. The rest is wasted as heat. Any time you convert one type of energy to another, there are losses involved. So why are folks so convinced that renewable energy sources are so necessary? One reason is that the conversion losses from solar and wind energy are much less than from a standard power plant. In the case of solar electricity, there is also much more potential for locating the power generation at the point of consumption. This reduces transmission losses.

The problems with renewable energy production? It’s variable. In the case of solar, it is guaranteed to not produce at least half of the time due to earth’s rotation. In the case of wind, it is at the mercy of the wind. Therefore, you need to either supplement renewables with a concentrated source of production, or you need efficient means of energy storage. While progress in energy storage is impressive, it is still expensive to use either battery storage or capacitors to bridge the gap between availability of renewable energy and consumption of that energy. The second problem with renewables is that you are depending upon a diffuse source of energy. The sun only shines so hard, and even wind turbines can’t compare to the energy density of a classical fossil fuel source.

The other problem with renewables is that they allow the consumer to bypass the utilities and the fossil fuel companies for some of the energy demand. While the prospect of going off the grid is extolled as an ideal, it is not practical for most people. We still need an energy infrastructure to cover those times when energy is required to supplement locally produced electrons. It is expensive to maintain and improve this grid, and what we’ve seen, especially with Texas, is that the grid can fail catastrophically if it is not maintained. So as much as we might want to be rid of giant monopolies governing our energy supplies, we need to construct a future system where they play a role, or else their looming obsolescence will cause them to resist any needed changes.

In my state of West Virginia, we’ve been in denial about the future of coal ever since I moved here in 1986. Coal was the exclusive source of electricity in this state for decades. Only with the increase in natural gas availability due to fracking did anyone in this state seriously doubt the moral goodness of coal, and of those who mined it. So we have suffered as local communities were shattered by the blasting needed to support mountain top removal. This form of mining only employed a small fraction of the workforce needed for an underground mine, but when it is all you know, you put up with a lot. We now have many acres of once pristine woodland and hillside covered in scrub grasses, devoid of topsoil, and unable to sustain much life. Such places would be ideal for solar farms, and slowly this state seems to be growing aware of this possibility.

West Virginia has suffered population loss for decades, ever since the coal mines first became mechanized. What better way to offer hope to the youth who now succumb to opioids than to provide jobs in solar energy? Education to enable people to learn the basics of electrical installations would raise the general education levels in this state. We must resist the siren song of reversing coal’s decline, and embrace the trend towards renewable energy that is the wave of the future. No matter what the Republicans say.

No Vaccine For Me, Please

So now we wait for the unintended consequences. Now that the US CDC has removed the requirement for masking in most situations for those who are fully vaccinated (or vacciminatedified as my elder son says), what can we expect to see going forward? First off, those governors including our own in West Virginia will be under extreme pressure to remove any masking mandates. This has already taken place in West Virginia as of May 15. Second, we can expect non-governmental groups like my church bureaucracy to relinquish their limits on in-person services (and perhaps on singing in church as well).

But the primary consequence is that there will be a low level of severe coronavirus continuing to circulate through the population since the virus will still have plenty of unvaccinated people to attack as we go through the months and years to come. If you look at the Venn diagram of those who will not get vaccinated, and those who have resisted masking, you will see a very good overlap. So those who have not been vaccinated will not follow any guidelines from the government. As those of us who have taken the jabs celebrate our freedom from the limitations imposed by the response to the virus, we must be aware that there is no visible sign to mark the vaccinated from those who are not. Since the vaccine was supposed to be the mark of the beast, I figured there would be some visible means to distinguish those who are protected from those who are not. Alas, that is not the case.

We must all be aware that even though we in the US are fortunate enough to see falling case rates, our health system will continue to see a large number of virus patients filling our hospitals. The stressed health professionals will not be able to totally abandon pandemic status, but the reduced levels we will see will likely mean our health care system won’t be overwhelmed.

That is obviously not the case across the globe. One needs only to look at the severe effects of the virus surge in India in order to understand this is a global fight, and no one is really safe until all people have the chance for immunization. Eventually the uncontrolled spread in many countries will result in a viral mutation that will evade the existing immune response from vaccination. So we have a selfish interest in preventing the scenes of suffering we see as images from India are seen on our media.

But I fear it will be nigh unto impossible to disabuse those who insist that this vaccine is evil, and a part of the New World Order mission to depopulate the earth, and we are only waiting until the 5G signal comes that activates the self-destruct mechanism we’ve had injected into ourselves. As has been said, you can’t fix stupid. And what’s worse is that so many folks are willingly adopting these ludicrous beliefs because they’ve been persuaded by the constant drumbeat of the media of the right.

Look, the right loves to bewail the perceived intolerance of the left. Well, this partisan of the left is open, and has gone so far as to read an extensive link about gain of function research conducted at the Wuhan virology lab and sponsored by that paragon of evil, Anthony Fauci. This was a link provided by my younger son, who has been vaccinated but is also deeply suspicious of China.

I will say we do need to find the animal reservoir for this virus, else the description in the link will be more likely to describe the actual origin of the virus. Regardless of the actual source of the virus, it is apparent that the initial tendency of the Chinese government was to minimize the severity of the initial outbreak. That does not justify the ethnic sniggering conducted by US government officials who were only too willing to blame an entire ethnic group for this viral dissemination. It is the words of these government officials which emboldened so many US citizens to attack their brethren for appearing Asian. What those on the right do not want to admit is that their followers take their words literally and view actions they take in support of ill-advised words as justified both legally and morally. Cancel culture from the left can result in the loss of a job, and that loss is sometimes not justified. Cancel culture from the right can result in the loss of a limb, or a life. After all, extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And when one side defines what liberty is, extremism is often the result.

So we will emerge from the pandemic haphazardly. Some countries will see greatly decreased frequency and severity of infections. Others who may have escaped the ravages of the disease to date will find themselves overrun by later surges induced by more infectious variants. Meanwhile, the host country for the Olympics is questioning the worth of holding this event in the midst of an ongoing surge in cases. Given the expenses involved in hosting an Olympic game, it seems that there will be great reluctance for future cities to vie for the right to spend themselves into oblivion. Especially if this year’s games are canceled. Maybe that’s symbolic of how the world, which once was unified by athletic competition, is now unraveling due to the overwhelming trend towards provincialism sweeping over the nations of the earth. Much like the virus has swept over the earth, totally ignorant of the imaginary lines dividing the countries on the ground. Some realities just cannot be ignored.

Vaccine, Vaccine, Vaccine, Vaccine!

So we now in the US have more doses of vaccines available than we have people wanting to take said vaccines. In some states, available vaccination appointment times are being wasted as we run up against the recalcitrants who believe one or all of the following:

  • The virus is not a real threat, and is nothing to be concerned about
  • The vaccine was developed too quickly and horrible side effects will emerge over time
  • The vaccine contains tracking devices from Bill Gates equivalent to the Mark of the Beast
  • The Chinese are just waiting for enough vaccinations to occur before they unleash part 2 of this pandemic, resulting in depopulation. Only vaccine virgins will remain.
  • Doctors and hospitals are overstating the coronavirus toll since they have a financial incentive to call as many deaths as Covid-related as possible.

I have seen these mentioned on the internet as reasons for not taking the vaccine. It is amazing this degree of stupidity is prevalent but given the electoral history in the US in 2016, stupidity is capable of leading this nation.

Many of the issues I have seen involve the rapidity of vaccine development. Those who refuse inoculation do not understand that we have built the scientific understanding of mRNA, and we can now control its construction so it can be used instead of a killed virus particle aimed at generating immune system response. Instead of having to rely upon a vaccine that can sometimes actually cause the disease, they are scared of the latest advances in science where only the target system on the virus is attacked. People have expressed concerns about use of fetal derived cells in the culturing of the vaccine. Well, the mRNA vaccines do not use any living material at all so this cultural concern is now moot. But if folks really want a more conventional vaccine, the Johnson and Johnson version, and the Astra-Zeneca versions have a killed virus at their core. Just not the COVID virus. I’m not as familiar with the Russian and Chinese vaccines, so I cannot speak about them.

It is incredible how fast our knowledge has grown about genetics and manipulation of genetic components. Just 20 years ago I hung a poster up in my office showing the human genome. It’s only been 20 years ago since the human genome was sequenced, and that effort took over a year to complete. Now, the sequence for this virus was done and sent out to the world in a few days. This enabled scientists to design the genetic response attacking the virus, which resulted in an effective vaccine being developed in record time. The rest of the time was taken up with the clinical trials, which are a necessary step in the release of a vaccine. And indeed, the trials were held, although we do not know essential things like how long does the immune system stay protected. That’s because this virus only came about in the last year, and we’ve not had time to get long-term data on immunity.

There are those who proclaim their belief in God is all they need to protect themselves from germs. These folks would have fared well back in the middle ages with the bubonic plagues. I’d wager most of the folks who succumbed to the plague in bygone days were religious, and that did not save them at all. I just wish these folks would understand that we as humans were given the ability to understand nature, and it is a gift from God to have the knowledge to design new treatments for disease. It is not a refutation of your religious beliefs to accept this wondrous new gift enabled by our abilities provided by God. But then, I cannot comprehend how many believers in this nation were taken in by a charlatan who laughed at their religious devotion.

As I’ve said before, we have an opportunity to see evolution in action. Especially now, since it is the younger people who still can spread their genes to the world who are preferentially refusing to take the vaccines. If those who refuse to take the vaccine end up dying in larger numbers, then fewer of the next generation will have science denial as part of their genetic and cultural inheritance. It is a shame that we must take part in this experiment, because the fewer people who get immunity through vaccines, the more likely it is new variants will develop requiring a tweak to the vaccine, and subsequent booster shots. If we cannot convince folks to get a basic inoculation, then I expect much poorer compliance with subsequent boosters. But maybe it is part of the evolution of the human species causing preferential survival by those who believe in science, and those who are willing to accept the gifts coming from scientific progress.

The End Of The World, As We Know It

virus-1812092__340

To many, these times we live in are reminiscent of Götterdämmerung, the twilight of the Gods. Certainly that is the image presented at the abomination called the Republican National Convention. They see the changes our society has undergone as being so threatening to their way of life that they cling to a would-be autocrat who has leveraged their fear into a term as President. He now himself clings desperately to the power he has enjoyed, and is pushing all of the levers of that power in order to gum up the normal electoral process. To the group that believes their way of life and unchallenged superiority is indeed challenged, all tactics seem fair to ensure their continued grasp on power.

The 2016 election proved this. While the Democratic candidate won by 2% of the popular vote, due to the small state bias built into the electoral college, the Republicans won the office. They proceeded to rule based as if they had received a massive vote in favor of their policies, though vote really did go against them. Therefore, they knew it was imperative to provide the tools to ensure the changing demographics of this nation did not prevent their takeover of all of the reins of power. In a way, we were fortunate. This President was so ignorant of how government worked, that his first year’s efforts at neutering government were mainly failures. Think of how many different iterations of the Muslim ban came down the pike, only to be swatted away by the judicial branch. But unfortunately, those within the government were able to learn how the levers of power worked. And by the third year, they were capable of implementing the family separation policy. Oh, they didn’t have a way of reuniting families, but who cared?

In a way, it is remarkable that this nation has succeeded in using a single set of founding documents to navigate through the ensuing 2+ centuries. The Constitution has stretched enough to deal with the intervening crises that swirled through this country. But the events of this year have shown that continuing to rely solely upon the document that preceded the technological age, does not always work in the current era of globalized material and people flow, and instantaneous flow of both real and misinformation. When so many people simply refuse to accept what appears to be unambiguous scientific facts, it becomes impossible to conduct a purposeful discussion. This shows itself in so many folks refusing to believe that we are in a pandemic, denying that the outbreak of disease is anything more significant that a variant of the normal flu virus.

Though the current administration insists that the country of origin for the virus was fundamentally negligent in allowing the genii to escape, what happened early this year was what epidemiologists have known and feared would happen in a world interconnected by human and material flow. Before this year, very few people in the US could have identified Wuhan on the map, and even fewer knew that the city and its environs had 11 million residents. But the outbreak of a virus that exhibits high infectivity showed that it could not be contained within a single country. Soon outposts of the virus were set up in Italy, and thence migrated into the US. But of all of the nations hit by the first wave of the virus, it has only been the US that has not brought infections down below a simmering boil. The virus has shown that it is still present, and shows up in all locations where the guard is let down even for a moment.

But in the US, a confluence of events and trends have prevented us from ever bringing the virus under control. The US has never viewed it as necessary to have the Federal government serve as a backstop to private enterprise. So when it was necessary to shut down commercial life in order to reduce the spread of the virus, the mechanisms to provide financial support were creaky at best, balky and unworkable at worst. And now, those mechanisms have been exhausted, and this nation still is operating under the assumption that it is a moral failing that so many people cannot find work, rather than accepting that we are in a fundamentally different era. Then the strain of individual liberty fanatics insisted that any mandated protective acts were an infringement on constitutional rights. Even the simple, though uncomfortable practice, of wearing a face mask has become weaponized, and blood has been spilled in defense of the right to infect others.

Those who were convinced that the blood of Jesus would protect them against any infection were also convinced that the government was infringing against their first amendment rights by preventing them from worshiping in person. You can see time after time where ministers were insistent on holding services in person, even though those services spread disease and death. Indeed, the American desire for a divine miracle to protect the faithful is fully in evidence as a response to this pandemic. The viral particle doesn’t recognize religious denomination, or even if someone is or is not a religious adherent. It recognizes only the opportunity to colonize a new host and spread itself. It is a mindless automaton with only the genetic information inside of it to allow it to propagate.

If there is to be divine intervention, it is because the knowledge of humanity has allowed it to understand the genetic code of the enemy, and to effectively devise biological weaponry to defeat it. That can be manifested through effective treatments for the symptoms of the virus, but all hope is on one or more of the vaccines in clinical trial will be found to be:  1) Effective at preventing infection through activation of the immune system, and 2) Able to provide this immunity without adverse side effects. Indeed, the rapidity at which vaccines have been shepherded into phase 3 trials has been amazing. But due to the same tendency within this nation to reject science and any uncomfortable challenges to beliefs, even when a vaccine is released to the population, a sizable fraction will refuse to take it. Whether it is due to fears unleashed by the anti-vaxxers, or whether it is the belief that the entire virus episode has been a New World Order conspiracy, there will be enough who refuse to take the vaccine that it will still circulate within the population, causing infection, and illness, and preventable death.

The upcoming election does offer the opportunity to return to a semblance of normality. Whether enough of the electorate will recognize that the Federal response to this virus represents a natural outgrowth of the belief system of this administration remains to be seen. The ignorance of the American public can never be overestimated. Let us hope that incompetence can be seen for what it is – a natural consequence of selecting a con man four long years ago.

Off We Go, Into the Wild Blue Yonder

rocket launch space discovery
Photo by SpaceX on Pexels.com

We are living in a golden age of exploration. Part of the human nature has always been to push the boundaries, whenever and wherever there was incentive. The spices of the Orient, along with unknown riches, tempted the explorers of Europe. Now, we are in a race for space. With the recent launch of the Perseverance mission to Mars, that planet is now infested with both unmanned rovers, and orbiting observers. Participants in this infestation include India, China, the joint venture between the Russians and Europeans, multiple missions from the US, and the mission from the United Arab Emirates that recently launched. For millennia humanity watched the planets, convinced that they held great influence over our existence on Earth. Though we may laugh at astrology today, it is undoubtedly responsible for the growth of knowledge about patterns in the cosmos, due to the need to know what the positions of the planets were at the time of the birth of individuals.

Indeed, astrology still has millions of adherents, convinced that the orientation of the planets hold the means to provide order to a seemingly chaotic life. But once our understanding of the cosmos went beyond mere observation, to a systemic search for knowledge, we have been merciless at trying to uncover the mysteries of our solar system neighbors. We have seen evidence of great floods on Mars, and the search continues to see if we can find direct evidence of life elsewhere, either from the past, or tantalizingly, still alive somewhere under the Martian surface.

Now there are private businesses aimed at the conquest of space. These are not just the vanity projects of the new tech aristocracy, but serious attempts at commercializing both near Earth exploration, and eventually solar system exploration. It will be difficult to provide a positive cash flow from these activities, but what we’ve seen is that companies are willing to fund the immense investment in space vehicles. We’ve weathered the gap between NASA’s shuttle (2 catastrophic failures out of 135 missions), to launches to the space station from US vehicles. What is different now is that it is a private corporation, SpaceX, that has contracted with NASA for a series of launches. The first of these launches just splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico, completing a seemingly flawless flight. SpaceX is in competition with Boeing, Boeing concentrating mainly on heavier launch capabilities. Since private enterprise is funding the research, they will be looking for payoff well beyond what government contracts provide. And that is why there truly is a new age of exploration, one that will result in humans setting foot on Mars sooner rather than later. The moon will also be revisited, and with the current missions aiming at prospecting for ice on the surface of the moon, it may actually be possible to build a base on the moon itself.

Why do this? Well, I for one think it much better to use humanity’s creativity in exploration, rather than in building munitions and munition delivery systems. Although there has been significant advances in our understanding of physics, metallurgy, and chemistry through the development of better means of destruction, the use of these tools comes with immense human suffering. And as we’ve seen in the recent explosion involving ammonium nitrate in Lebanon, it does not take a lot of technology to spread a lot of death and destruction.  Spending the money on science to increase our range and knowledge instead of on destruction seems a much more humane way to proceed.

Besides, there is much to learn. Even beyond the possibility of life on Mars, there is the tantalizing thought that life may exist underneath the ice caps covering the oceans of the satellites of the larger planets. The question we have is whether life is ubiquitous in the universe, spreading wherever the chemical conditions couple with the source of energy to power life. If we do find life outside of our planet, it will have immense repercussions among the world’s religions. They must see if their theology can adapt to life existing in multiple locations, and allow for a creator that likes to experiment, rather than one totally vested on earth. I have always thought that limiting a creator to a single site in this immense universe did a disservice to the creator, since it imposed such tight restraints on its capabilities.

The age of exploration we live in goes well beyond the physical limitations of earth. We have been exploring the intricacies of the genome, learning the secrets to manipulate the formulas of life for our own benefit. Tools such as CRISPR, and DNA sequencing improvements, are leading to the possibilities for us to deal with the microscopic universe. Those abilities are coming into play now with the unprecedented speed in which vaccines against COVID-19 are being developed. Back a generation ago, we would not have to knowledge to sequence the genome, learn its tricks for attaching to cells, and develop multiple ways to fight against this novel virus. It would have taken years of painful trial and error work to possibly come up with a vaccine. Today? We may have 3 modes of action incorporated into vaccines, and testing could be complete within a year from the initial confirmation of the virus’s structure.

Many ask why do we spend money on exploration, when we cannot meet our needs on earth. My answer is that it is through exploration and research that we discover the ways to increase the economic pie, thus allowing for a greater share for each individual. It is only through the growth of economic activity engendered by the discoveries from research and exploration that we can avoid the Malthusian fate that would otherwise engulf us.