Summer Reveries

Summer flowers

It is good to know in the midst of all of the concurrent crises we face, that nature  proceeds at its own pace unconcerned with all of the worries humanity has. Thus we return to summer in West Virginia, where the biggest issue is whether the cowbird will be successful in laying an egg in the wren’s nest up in one of our flower baskets.

We are loving it out in our outdoor living room, where we enjoy our coffee and newspaper in the mornings, and use its space for our afternoon cocktail. In between we can read or just watch  nature as it visits our porch. The finch feeder is in use most of the daylight hours, with the purple finches unafraid to visit while we sit there, though the gold finches are shy and only visit when we are not present. We were treated to seeing a hummingbird chase a finch away one day, though what the finch did to draw this attention is unknown. This year we are not seeing any non-conforming finches, where a brood is raised that includes a foreign egg from a cowbird. Last year we saw a young bird that was unable to use the finch feeder, though it tried valiantly. Instead, it chirped and waited for its father to deliver a seed directly to it, since it could not reach into the feeder with its own beak.

A wren built a nest in one of our hanging flower baskets. You can see it dart in and out, and it often scolds us, especially when we are at the table with our coffee. That puts us directly next to the nest, and that is obviously too close for the bird’s comfort. But it is the cowbird couple that is the most interesting. Last week I saw the couple, with the male perched a few feet away while the female scoped out the nest. At that time there were obviously no eggs there, and they flew away. But just yesterday I saw the female eyeing the nest again, and this time the wren flew directly at the cowbird, chasing it away. It remains to be seen if the battle will have future acts.

The fallout from the finch feeder keeps other birds busy who do not have the physique to feed directly from the feeder. Often we can hear the whooshing of the morning dove wings as they fly away after having poked through the rubble looking for intact seeds. And chipmunks cross our porch regularly, stopping sometime to search for seeds, while other times stopping under the hummingbird feeder and lapping up the spilled sugar water. Then they hustle off to whatever their business is.

This year I’ve seen not only the neon blue skinks skitter across the porch, but another color of skink. They are fast and you have to really be watchful in order to see them. So far they are the only reptiles we’ve shared our space with.

The flicker loves the hummingbird feeder. It will hang off of the feeder, and you can see it drinking as it brings the liquid into its beak and works it down its throat. The hummingbirds know that they cannot force the flicker away (too big), so an uneasy detente exists where the hummer will visit the side of the feeder opposite the flicker. It is amazing how much entertainment you can get out of a half-cup of sugar dissolved in water. We have seen at least one hummer battle, but know that more are to come as the alpha male perches on the wires leading to the house, keeping watch and driving away any other hummers who dare to intrude on its designated home turf.

2018 flicker

Several years ago we had to take down the hemlock tree that graced our front lawn due to storm damage. We replaced it with ornamental trees that won’t grow as tall so as to threaten the wires. The ornamental cherry directly in front of our porch is growing daily, as you can see the new leaves stretching higher each time you look at it. It may never give us shade, but that doesn’t matter to the birds who use any location as a handy perch.

We have apple trees which have very seldom given us apples. Not because the apples weren’t produced, but because the squirrels get to them first. But until this year, they’ve always left the crab apples alone. The tartness of them must be a turn off even to voracious squirrels. This year, though, the squirrels are taking the crab apples right off of the trees and eating them.

Squirrel

It is good to take the time to really see the world around us. If nothing else, this time of physical isolation and separation from the rest of humanity, has intensified the desire for watching the world of nature. It is good to realize that the life outside does not care about human pandemics, or divisive politics, or any of the other matters that occupy the airwaves. Just hearing the sounds of birds, and the chirring of the crickets helps to put things into perspective.

Only a Cold

2020 daffodils 1

I caught a cold last week. It showed its ugly presence on Saturday, with spasms of sneezing, a sore throat, and a developing cough. In the four days since that time, I’ve persuaded myself that it is not the dreaded new disease (no fever or chills), and that the disease is receding as I would expect it to. But its appearance even in the time of increased precautions against viral invaders shows that the new virus can be just as sneaky and opportunistic.

It is amazing how quickly the world has changed. Last week at this time, we were still looking forward to taking a trip to Key West for some hedonism. That was before I saw a cumulative display of disease cases day by day since January. When you see for yourself that the rate of reported cases was increasing by 12% per day, the numbers came alive for me and told me that if we ran the risk of taking a trip, we were not going to have a good time. Even if we safely ran the gauntlet and did not catch the disease, our time of relaxation would be ruined by worrying about making it back in one piece.

Having a background in math and statistics made it clear to me that we are in a global exercise we’ve not gone through since 1919. When a new virus emerges and passes into the human population, one that no one has immunity to, and one that appears to have a significant mortality factor, you have to watch it closely in order to gauge its infectivity and its effects. What is ironic is that China and the US shared an initial response to belittle the potential harm that this virus posed. In China, this resulted in the doctor who raised the initial alarm being censured by the Chinese state, prior to the time that the doctor succumbed to the disease. In the US, the potential for an epidemic was ridiculed by the President and his favorite press sources. We heard about the Democratic hoax that was aimed at bringing down the President. Even today, as of March 17, you can see a post by Dr. Ron Paul decrying the response to this epidemic as being overblown. In both cases, China and the US, precious time was lost in responding to the emergence of this disease. They will only take this disease seriously when family members are stricken by the pneumonia this disease can cause, and those family members are turned away from all hospitals because they’ve had to ration respirators and only those under age 80 will be treated. That’s the decision they are making in Italy, having to ration their available slots to the younger population.

It is a bit jarring to hear myself described as elderly, but since I’ve now crossed the age 65 divide, I now fall into the target demographic for this virus. So far the effect for us has been canceled concerts and canceled trips, and a lack of church services. The chorus we’ve been working on for months, a performance of Carmina Burana scheduled for April, has not been canceled formally but since no one can rehearse for it, it is on borrowed time. Our children are out of the house, and though one son is working in retail and will likely take a hit, we are able to help him out if needed. If we are not hit ourselves by the virus, we will weather the storm relatively easily.

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But for the economy of the world, we are now seeing the issues caused by the streamlining of supply chains by linking to non-domestic sourcing of parts. For decades now, the maxim of running public corporations solely for the maximizing of return to the shareholders has caused businesses to rely fully on foreign partners, either for finished goods, or for creating semi-finished goods that get completed elsewhere in the world. Quality improvement processes preached the benefits of lean assembly lines, since excess inventory hid systemic inefficiencies. So more and more businesses performed global integration of their supply chains. That process worked well until there was a supply disruption at the original point of manufacture. If the ultimate goal is to have product available to sell, then some inefficiency may be needed to allow for supply chain interruptions.

The disruptions in supply chains will continue to ripple through the world’s economy for months to come. Add to that the immediate disruption in the lives of service providers who will be laid off from their retail and food service jobs in the coming weeks, and we have the potential for a huge decrease in economic activity during the year. Already the governments of the world are generating proposals for helicopter money to be shoveled out and spread across the land. All of it with money borrowed from our distant descendents. This crisis has the potential to turn into a debt implosion, with the destruction of much of the seemingly secure capital in the world through waves of bankruptcy and discharge of debt. Will this black swan event be the one that causes the world to fundamentally reset its economic system? Growing economic inequality and growing dependence upon government debt to sustain the illusion of economic growth are at the point of totally collapsing. When no one can keep the appearances up, what happens to the world?

The barren shelves in the stores and the anecdotes about pitched battles for the last shreds of toilet paper have shown us how close we are to unraveling as a civilization. As long as we had sports, and access to material goods when desired, and good restaurants to pig out at, then we were happy. But let us have one week where demand outstripped supply, and we see how thin the veneer of civilization is.

I figured that the tone of this post is so much bleaker than most of my posts, that I needed to leaven it with a reminder that there is still beauty in the world. The pictures are of my daffodils that have burst into glorious flower within this past week. Every year I have a couple of weeks of peak daffodils. This is their time, and a reminder that spring is coming, and better times are ahead. I leave you with a delight of daffodils. Stay well in the days ahead.

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Human Induced Extinctions

dodo

This is the sixth in a series of seven posts regarding the threats I see facing humanity. This threat is human-induced extinctions. Scientists have determined that we live in a new geologic era, described as the Anthropocene, where human activity is the predominant factor in describing how the Earth is behaving. It is reflected in the erosion that comes from agricultural practices, creating new river deltas much faster than in previous times. It is reflected in the effect of industrial and civilian gas emissions, which affect the composition of the atmosphere. It is reflected in the crowding out of wildlife due to the incursion of human activities into locations where wildlife has existed for millions of years.

Perhaps there is no place where the effects of humanity has been so pronounced as in the ocean depths. There we have found the ultimate repository of the plastic we use so gratuitously, single use plastic that finds its way into the ocean waters. Stories abound about the wildlife found to be starving to death, because inert plastic has filled the stomach and gut of an animal. It literally feels full, since the stomach is full, but will not take in new nutrients since there is no urge to fill the stomach. That is one form of human incursion into the oceans. Another is the cruel and indiscriminate fishing practices that go on throughout the oceans. Huge dragnets haul all creatures up and then the catch is sorted once it reaches the surface and is dying. Much is either discarded or kept as junk fish, good only to be ground up as food for other fishes, or for pet food. Some is from species we identify with as being intelligent, like dolphins. I remember the TV show Flipper, which anthropomorphized a dolphin beyond recognition. But it is undoubtedly true that dolphins are intelligent, and capable of compassion, since the stories of dolphins assisting humans to survive are common.

The worst fishing practices are those that drag the bottom of the ocean. Those vessels disturb all of the creatures colonizing the ocean floor. Very few of these species are considered as human food, yet those that are (like flounder) are highly prized. The ocean floor will not recover for hundreds of years, yet the fleets of fishing ships keep trawling continually.

Oceans are one thing, but no human has their natural habitat under the sea. The problems of species extinction exist for each class of plant and animal. Though it is extremely difficult to quantify (how do you prove a negative?), the rate of species extinction is estimated at between 10 to 100 times greater than the rate of extinction normally present on Earth without an external cause. And anecdotal evidence is that insect populations are being affected extensively. Journals such as Science in 2017 published a story titled Where Have All The Insects Gone? The article noted that scholarly research on insect populations is scarce, but that in certain long-term studies of populations, the number of insects found in fields has been reduced by over 80%. The study referred to the “windshield effect,” noting that many people have seen fewer insect / windshield collisions over the years. The damage to bee populations has been severe, with the colony collapse disorder causing massive losses to bee populations. A cause for the reduction has not been definitively named, but the class of insecticides known as Neonicotinoids is, as the police would say, “a chemical of interest”. These chemicals were originally marketed as reducing the need to spray more toxic organophosphates and organochlorine insecticides. They often are used to coat the seeds, and when the plant sprouts, the insecticide is absorbed into the plant where it provides defense. But since it permeates the entire plant, it is expressed in the pollen as well. That is how it appears to affect pollinator populations. Since honeybees are used in commerce, the losses in honeybees was noted first. But concern exists for all other pollinator species.

Much has been written about the intrusion of humanity’s effects on tropical forests. Nowhere is that seen more clearly than when a road is cut through virgin forests. Once a road is available, it is soon followed by those who exploit the opening. Forestry now tackles the old-growth trees, reducing stable ecosystems into a maze of forest edges. Species that once had free range across a canopy now find themselves having to traverse new agricultural lands to get to the next patch of undisturbed forest. And when populations of people begin to live in these newly opened lands, a market in bush meat is created. The Amazon is ground zero to display the effects of roads and subsequent land disturbance. Take a quick trip on Google Earth to the Amazon, and note that wherever you see a road, you will also see the encroachment of cleared land and settlements.

We as humans do not always understand the impact of our actions. We do not know what will happen when insect A is eliminated from a portion of its normal range. What other species used insect A as a food source? What insects or plants did insect A help keep in control? Will we see a reduction in birds due to the lack of insect A? Humans, being emotional animals, are much more capable of generating sympathy for the large, photogenic animals that are endangered. But the smallest insect may have as much impact or more on the ecosystem as a large furry mammal.

We as a civilization do not yet seem concerned by the loss of species we are seeing. Even in countries where an effort has been made to reduce the loss of species, a change in the government can reverse decades of efforts almost overnight. In the US, there is no mistaking the intent of the Trump administration to roll back the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. There is a strong belief that laws and regulations limiting the ability of a property owner to develop property as they see fit, represent an unconstitutional taking of the owner’s property right. Since insects or birds or other animals cannot hire a lawyer to defend their right to life, it falls to environmental groups to challenge regulatory repeal. Still, the attitude of the administration towards science-based evidence remains clear. Science and scientists are viewed with disdain, and they are clearly leftist in their politics since they so often stand against the rights of those with property.

What can science do to deal with these problems? It would seem that an effort to develop new pesticides that do not have such systemic effects is required. These efforts are proceeding within the large agrichemical companies, but it takes years and sometimes decades before a novel chemical class is commercialized and finds its place in the marketplace. It appears that legislative action across the world may be needed to ban certain classes of chemicals shown to cause excessive harm. The role of scientists would seem to also include quantifying the loss of species, and doing research to show what happens when one thread of the web of life is pulled out.

Maybe the best use of scientists would be to increase their role in educating the public as to the risks we are running by conducting our current experiment of causing the extinction of so many species. In the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, humanity was given stewardship over the creatures of the Earth. If nothing else, we have been proven to be bad stewards.

 

 

The Apprenticeship

3 dollar bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Day At The Beach

ocean flood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Bugs We Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

And the Living Is Easy (2018 Version)

2018 fawn

And the living is easy. This is a follow-up to my post a year ago when I evoked the bucolic aspect of my summer environment during the height of the summer season. Well, it is that time of year once again. As you can see, the new generation of hooved rat has been born, and is doing its best to persuade me that all members of the species are cute and adorable. So I find myself conflicted, deciding to not use my slingshot to poke at the mothers of the fawns that I find in my backyard. So far, I’ve seen one doe with a single fawn, and one with two. Since I don’t keep track of each deer around, I have no idea if that is the population growth for the year, but I’m good with that.

A week ago Sunday, we had just returned from a trip to NY late on Saturday. Accordingly, we decided not to make it to church on Sunday morning, and thus I was outside on my front porch, perusing the paper and sipping coffee, when it began to rain. It was not a normal rain, it was pouring down rapidly, so I looked at the drain in our driveway to ensure that we weren’t getting flooded. No problems. But then, the culvert across the street got blocked up and all of a sudden, all of the water from the hillside above us was cascading across the street and towards our driveway and drain.

 2018 flood

The street drains rapidly plugged with the same vegetable matter that had plugged the culvert, and muddy water inundated our driveway and blocked the grate in front of our garage door. It knocked down my simple paving block retaining wall, and ran across the yard, both above and below my car in the driveway. Having lived in the house for over 25 years, we had taken preventive action to keep water from infiltrating our garage and our lower floor. This was the first test of our new earthworks and we were pleased to find that no water made it inside of the garage except for a minor irritating amount that could be washed out with a hose. None of this 6″ of water soaking all of the miscellaneous material found inside of a garage. No mud coming into the lower floor of the house, requiring commercial assistance to prevent mold formation. I was pleased that I only had to move a bit of dirt and replace blocks in the retaining wall to return to pre-flood status. The picture shows the flow overwhelming the culvert across the street.

2018 tomatoes.jpg

The tomatoes and peppers are in their peak pre-BLT days. Lots of foliage, lots of small tomatoes set on the vines, but nothing ready to eat yet. Tomatoes got set out late this year because I had to do the deck cleaning and waterproofing before I wanted to set out the plants. Thus it was late May before I managed to get the plants out on our deck. The deer have still not figured out how to climb up the steps of the deck to get to the plants. Speaking of our deck, we moved into our house in 1992. At that time we had a deck made out of cypress that had clearly not been taken care of. We figured the deck was built sometime in the 1970’s, but it was nearly at the end of its useful life. We replaced the deck in 1996, and now our “new” deck is probably about the same age as the one we replaced. It really shows the advantage of ongoing maintenance – our deck has no wood rot or pitting problems, and the wood looks nearly like new. At this rate, the deck will outlast us.

 

We have our hummingbird feeders out, and they receive a lot of attention. It is too early in the summer for the alpha male hummers to set up ownership of the feeders, as they are still content to take their turns. But what was surprising to me is that another species loves the hummingbird feeders. The flickers are opportunistic feeders, and they will slowly draw nigh to the feeders, assessing the behavior of the humans who are sitting outside where they live. Eventually they start to suck the sugar syrup from the feeders, gaining sustenance from the red and yellow flower imitations. Flickers are omnivores. I have seen them on the ground, stirring up insects to munch upon. They also seek insects like other woodpeckers. Their ladderback feather patters and their clear call remind me that we are but trespassers in their turf. The other species we have a lot of this year are mockingbirds. They perch on the various wires leading to the house, and share their soliloquies of all other bird speech. I’ve often wondered what evolutionary advantage it is for mockingbirds to duplicate the sounds of the birds around them. That wonderful on-line source, Wikipedia, says that the birds sing the songs of others in order to convince rivals that this turf is already overpopulated with birds, and it is not to your advantage to stick around. My thought is that mockingbirds can be seen as lounge singers, doing cover songs of other birds, and it is up to you whether you think their act is good enough to stay for another round of drinks.

2018 flicker.jpg

Speaking of birds, in the summer one of my favorites is the finch family. It’s really family groups, as 5 or 6 finches come to gather around our feeder full of thistle seeds. You can hear them coming from far off as they chatter flying up to the multiple perches available to them on the feeder. Occasionally a chickadee will share a perch, but mostly it is the red and yellow finches who take turns on the feeders. Since they are messy eaters, they spill as much as they eat, which spawns a whole ecosystem of other animals cleaning up the spoils. Mourning doves and sparrows hop around on the ground, and chipmunks scurry about, finding the whole seeds that have fallen from the feeder. It’s a good thing that our two black cats have gotten older and are not much interested in going outside, because chipmunks are definitely one of our cats favorite prey. Right now, the chipmunks are catching a break instead of being caught and eaten.

2018 finch family.jpg

Summer is if nothing else, a state of mind. We have the great fortune to be able to slow down in the summer, and enjoy the late afternoon warmth while enjoying our favorite beverages. It is good to observe the rhythm of life going on around us, knowing that we are doing our small bit to keep things going by providing space free of herbicides and pesticides, allowing nature to coexist with us on our bit of West Virginia.

 All pictures by the author.

 

Spring Encroached Early

spring 2018

So far, the famed groundhogs of the east are not proving to be expert prognosticators. Here in South Charleston, WV, we had our first crocus out on February 15, and the daffodils started blooming on February 25. Some of the purple crocus have already shot their wad, and lie listless and limp on the ground. The early bees liked the pollen while it was available.

The picture above shows a scene from the front of our house. A purple crocus fronts the first blooming daffodils. Hellebore, or lenten rose, is blooming directly behind. For us, this is the best time of year for flowers since these are the flowers that our hooved rat interlopers will not eat. Soon there will be thousands of blooms open in our yard, and the next 6 weeks will be the peak time for our gardens. But there’s work to do, especially with the hellebores, since last year’s greenery that lasted through the winter, has now wilted and browned, and must be pruned away from the vibrant new foliage. So I must arouse myself from the winter induced stupor and take advantage of any dry and relatively warm days that we have. Of course, last week with its 81º temperature reading spoiled me for a normal day like today, back in the low 50’s.

I assembled the new deep bed raised bed for my vegetable garden. Three years ago, when I had just retired, I bought some inexpensive 4″ high cedar beds. They’ve reached the end of their useful life, and I bought a new one to replace the one in the middle of the three beds. Now I have to get the fabric liner purchased and installed, and the extra topsoil to mix with this year’s compost. Even though we have had exceptionally early warm weather, there will be later cold snaps that would nip early plantings in the bud. So it will be the second half of March before I plant any of the cold-loving vegetables.

I’ve already seen courtship dances with some of the birds in the area. I need to mend our bluebird house before our residents come back and are disappointed at the housing shortage. Still haven’t seen the robins come back. The earthworms and other bugs are out and about though. As I shoveled out the dirt from my old raised bed, I saw many worms and beetles emerging from their enforced inactivity. You wonder what a beetle may be thinking about as it sleeps under the earth in winter.

Another spring crop has emerged on our roadways. The traditional American Pothole is appearing in all of its pestilence. This year, the crop is especially large, since there were a significant number of potholes that weren’t fixed last year, so they over-summered and are larger than ever this spring. I’m hopeful that these pests are soon followed by the blooming of the orange road flowers, indicating the attempts to eradicate the American Pothole. Our state committed itself last fall to significant bonding to fix our roads, so we are hopeful.

It is always amazing how filthy things get over the winter. On our front porch, remnants of bird seed are scattered all over the floor, along with bird excretions. Broken branches mingle with the last leaves of the fall, and the leaves that fell after the last raking. Bunches of wild onions are poking their heads through the uncultured lawn. In all my years as a homeowner, I have never attempted to develop a perfect grass monoculture. I prefer diversity in my lawn, so I’m just as happy to see moss develop as I am to see fescue or bluegrass. I think the reason why at this time of year, my lawn is riddled with blooming crocus, is because I don’t use any herbicide at all on the surface. I’ve never known how crocus spread as much as they do – I may have planted some 25 years ago, but those few bulbs have multiplied by the hundreds now.

daffodils 2018

I expect more cold weather to come, and more snow and ice before the end of winter. But since we’ve already enjoyed frozen drinks on our front porch in February, we can bear the brunt of late winter’s onslaught. But please, bring on the spring!

Winter Did Come

Snow in woods

Whose woods are these? They’re mine, you know. And they are really filling up with snow.

apologies to Robert Frost.

Poem paraphrase courtesy of my wife Carrie.

When you are retired, the concept of a Monday doesn’t resonate quite as badly as during a work week. But last week, we truly had a Monday. It started in the cold morning as the temperature was down to low single digits, after having been below freezing almost continually for 2 weeks. This was the longest sub-freezing cold streak I can remember since moving here in 1986. It finally got above freezing on Sunday, and the temperature in our unheated garage rose enough to allow water to flow through the copper tubing and find the hole which had burst during the extended freeze.

My wife was getting ready to go to the Rec Center to do her water exercises, but she heard water running. Never a good sign when you have no reason for water to be running. Turns out we now had an improvised car wash that was knocking the salt off of our car inside the garage. I stumbled downstairs in response to her call out to me, and was able to turn off the flow of water by closing the two valves leading out to our garage. Now the takeoff for this water line is upstream of the main house shutoff, so later this year, we will be plumbing this whole thing up right, including relocating the takeoff to downstream of the shutoff valve, and providing heat tape for the section of the line in the garage. Fortunately for us, we caught the leak shortly after it started, so no water damage, and we won’t be using the outside hose for a while.

Later on Monday we had cabinetry installed, so the kitchen was full of workers. Then we had a backup in our weirdly configured plumbing down in our laundry room, where the combined effluent from the kitchen dishwasher and the washing machine was backing up out of the floor drain and flowing across our basement floor. Discovered this just before I had to leave for a previously scheduled dental appointment. So I had to leave the mess to Carrie. An hour later, the workers from Roto-Rooter were in the driveway along with the cabinetry folks. I parked on the street but they had gotten the plug loosened (was related to the cold weather but wasn’t a frozen line). So add it all together, and I figure we’ve had enough Monday mishaps to last us for months.

Winter has settled in on our house, after having left us virtually untouched the last few years. Still not much snow – the 4″ we got this week was the biggest snowfall we’ve had, and it was so fluffy I could push it and not have to lift it. So the snow blower has yet to receive its first workout of the year.

The local birds and squirrels are pleased with the buffet laid out for them on our porch. Actually haven’t seen too many squirrels, but the morning doves come in droves. When I open the porch in the morning, the whirring of their wings as they take flight echoes from the feeder, the porch rail, the floor. We must have 6-8 of them who are focused on our feeder at times. The suet feeder is attracting many different birds, including a misplaced mockingbird I saw the other day. I always thought they migrated away, but I saw one last week at the suet.

morning doves

Its seed catalog time. This is the time when the marketing team for the Burpees and Gurneys and other seed vendors arrive unbidden, and they bring the hope and dreams of spring and summer. I have a new raised bed to install, replacing a 4″ x 4′ x 4′ with a 15″ deep x 3′ x 4′ version. When I made my garden 3 years ago, I crowded the beds too much, leaving inadequate space between beds. Plus my knees are much worse than they were, so having a 15″ high bed will be very nice. As the other frames deteriorate, I’ll likely change them as well. One thing I’ll say is that you will never receive a positive cash return if you are using raised beds for gardening. They are expensive and their yield is less than you’d need to make money from them. But if you just love to have the fresh vegetables, and enjoy the work to make things grow, the return is more than positive. The dreams of spring grow apace in winter.

The daffodils of spring are starting to poke their heads up. As the snow melts on the banks, you can see the green shoots start to emerge. They are smart enough to not grow excessively for a while, at least until the temperature really warms for multiple days. But for us, the earliest harbingers of spring will be the crocuses that pop up all over the lawn. I’ve never known how these corns moved all over the lawn, but they have naturalized everywhere. There will be some of them that will emerge on the first 70 degree day, but not yet. The snow must leave and the robins must come back before they make their appearance.

Balanced Between Summer and Winter

fall Summer is hanging on doggedly, not wanting to surrender the stage to the coming frosts and freezes. We were able to enjoy cafe society and eat al fresco on November 5 in South Charleston, WV. Normally the tables and chairs are stacked up awaiting spring by this time at our favorite Mexican restaurant. We even followed our dinner up with a pitcher of frozen drinks in the early evening on our front porch, a bit of our own farewell to our rituals of summer. But each time I say that, along comes yet another warm spell, and we extend our outdoor living room’s life just one more day.

No, it is true, we are sliding inexorably into our cold season. This weekend was the peak for leaf color for us. The picture on the top of this post shows maple trees through our bay window. The plants we had on our front porch have migrated inside, where they will stay cozily on the wood of our bay window. All of the plants had grown significantly during the summer. We barely had enough room to place all of the foliage.

The cats have definitely noticed the change. We didn’t have the heat on until about October 20, but as soon as it came on, our cat Blinky assumed his post in front of the heating vent. It is this time of the year when the cat reminds me of my thermodynamics course describing black body radiation. He absorbs the heat from a warmer temperature, then reradiates the heat back into the room at a lower temperature once the furnace stops.

blinky

The cats are definitely slowing down with age. They are both just at 12 years old now, and they sleep much more, and are less eager to head outside, although yesterday they did share the warmth of the evening with us. The cats are about to have their lives upended, because on Thanksgiving week our younger son will be coming to visit, and will be bringing his 8 month old kittens with him. As my wife has said, there will be much weeping and gnashing of kitty teeth during this time. Should be fun.

The leaves are at peak, and since you can’t ever stay balanced on such a peak of color, the rain that we had overnight seemed determined to start stripping the golds and reds off of the branches. This is the time of year when I have to make the decision of whether to rake the same area multiple times, or wait for the large mass of leaves to fall before tackling the removal process. Since I abhor leaf blowers, it is the old fashioned arm power that gathers the leaves and carries them to the compost pile. I keep two piles going back behind the fence. One pile holds last year’s leaves and this year’s weeds, and it has decomposed down to a good powdery dirt. The leaves from this fall will enrich the vegetable gardens in 2019.

I’ll be making an investment in a deeper raised bed in one of our vegetable gardens. When I designed the gardens, I put in three 4’x4’x4″ beds in the space allotted. That did not leave enough space between the beds, and 4″ is not high enough to alleviate knee and back pain. So I will order a 3’x4’x15″ bed for the middle slot. One thing is for sure, you do not plan for a positive dollar return on investment with back yard vegetable gardens. The gardening infrastructure is pretty much just a sunk cost, but the benefits of picking your own produce makes it worthwhile. I figure out that if I get enough produce out to offset the cost of the seeds, it’s a good enough return for me.

I completed my annual task of digging up daffodil bulb clusters that had worked up to ground level. I spent an hour or so dividing them up into plastic bags holding a dozen bulbs each, and offered them to whoever wanted them after church one Sunday in October. I figure that I distributed about 750 daffodil bulbs this year, and hope that they bring smiles all over the valley once they bloom next spring.

In another week or two, the trees will be bare. They will hold no memory of what they looked like with their mantle of greenery. Their bare fingers extend into the air, awaiting the falling snowflakes they know are coming. And the earth will sleep until it awakens again in spring.