Author Archives: bob

Climate Change, Weather Change

Climatology is meteorology writ large. They are really just different branches of atmospheric science. If you want to know whether it is likely to rain tomorrow talk to the weatherman who is a meteorologist. But if you want to know about what the weather will be like in a number of years, you should consult a climatologist.

As I write the water has yet to drain out of the east Texas area where Hurricane Harvey caused the greatest rainfall event ever in United states (over 50 inches of rain.) Meanwhile, there are three hurricanes off our shores. These are weather phenomena which are impacted by climate. Climate change of necessity causes weather changes.

Hurricane Irma is the most intense Atlantic hurricane ever. It appears to be on a collision course with Miami Beach. If it veers slightly to the west the Carolinas are threatened. Right behind Irma is Jose streaming in our direction from the east. Hurricane Katia is stewing off the coast of Mexico with little indication of movement.

Meanwhile on our west coast earlier this year we saw record flooding and now a severe heat wave and wildfires from Los Angeles to Vancouver.

Is this normal? Or is the the new normal if climate change is factored in? There is uncertainty in blaming any one event on global warming. Realistically that can’t be done. But let me analogize if I may. Mark McGuire was a major league baseball player. Much of his success at home plate he later admitted was due to his use of performance enhancing steroids. Just one example, from 1996 to 1999 he led the league in home runs.

So here is the question: Can we attribute any one of those home runs to steroid use? Not really. What we can say is the muscle mass developed due to his steroid use greatly contributed to his success.

Adding Carbon Dioxide to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels is like providing steroids to an athlete. The added CO2 causes heat to be trapped in the atmosphere which which causes warming, but also creates a more dynamic atmosphere. More droughts occur because it’s hotter. More intense rainfall events occur because a warmer atmosphere holds more water.

Hurricanes are driven to large degree by the warmer ocean water, clearly demonstrated by the summer/fall hurricane season when the Atlantic is naturally warmer. Make it warmer still from global warming and you get Irma, the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever.

The concentration of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere is now higher (407 ppm) than it has been for at least 2 to 4 million years. Other heat trapping gasses such as Methane and Nitrous Oxide are also at all time highs. Yet there are those, in fact whole political parties, which deny anthropogenic climate change even in the face of rising seas, melting ice, and intensifying storms.

The United States contributes 20% of the heat trapping gasses to the atmosphere, but only constitute about 5% worlds population. Every scientific body on the planet including all major science organizations in the United states agrees that climate change is a threat and needs to be addressed. Our government is alone among the nations of the world in our refusal to address global warming. ALONE.

Executions and Midazolam

It appears that the State of Arkansas plans to perpetuate its inhumane misunderstanding of pharmacology – again. It has secured a supply of Midazolam for use in executing those convicted of capital crimes.

Over the years Arkansas has shot, hanged,electrocuted, and now poisoned convicts. The last hanging was in 1914 – John Tillman was executed for killing his girlfriend and throwing her body down a well. John Swindler became the last to be electrocuted in 1990. Charles Singleton, whose appeal took 24 years due to schizophrenia, was the first to be executed by lethal injection in 2004.

The standard protocol is to use a three drug cocktail. First, Sodium Thiopental (a rapid acting barbiturate) is given to induce deep anesthesia. Second, Pancuronium Bromide is used to cause paralysis of skeletal muscles which stops breathing. This drug is similar in chemical structure and mode of action to Curare, the famous dart frog poison of the Amazon. Lastly a massive dose of Potassium Chloride stops the heart.

If one can describe any execution as humane, this is supposed to be. First you’re made completely insensate (comatose) then and only then your breathing and heart are stopped. You’re dead and it’s over. A problem in the protocol arose when drug companies decided they didn’t want to be associated with (or there was insufficient profit connected to) providing drugs for the executioner. First the European Union banned the export of Sodium Thiopental to the US, and then the only US manufacturer refused to sell it to states for execution.

Enter, arm right, Midazolam. Some states, including Oklahoma and Arkansas were unable to obtain Sodium Thiopental. They decided to stay with the three drug protocol but substitute Midazolam for the anesthetic drug. The problem is that Midazolam is not, nor was it ever intended to be an anesthetic. Midazolam is a sedative, and a mild one at that. In surgical procedures, it is use as a per-anesthetic. It can make you drowsy but not insensate. If a person is not insensate when injected with the muscle blocker trouble ensues.

There have been errors during surgeries where patients were given insufficient amounts of anesthetics, then administered Pancuronium Bromide. They report extreme pain and even terror during surgery because this drug has no effect on the central nervous system. They were awake but completely incapable of reacting physically.

In Oklahoma in 2014, an execution begun with Midazolam never finished the complete protocol. Clayton Lockett struggled, convulsed, and 14 minutes into the procedure spoke and tried to get off the executioner’s table. 43 minutes later he died of a heart attack, without ever receiving the heart stopping drug.

In April 2017 Kenneth Williams was executed with Midazolam as the initial sedative. He convulsed violently even before the administration of the muscle blocker. It is quite conceivable that he was fully aware of his circumstances but unable to react after the administration of the second drug. There are sufficient questions about the efficacy of Midazolam to induce a coma and therefore reason to question the humanity of this method of execution.

Local Money

Money is the untimely fungible commodity. Within a specific currency two fives and ten can be traded for a twenty regardless of where they come from or who is doing the trading. Even between currencies money is fungible as long as a mutually agreed upon exchange rate is employed. (Money is also a progressive rock piece by Pink Floyd, but that is a matter for discographers, not economists.)

It stands to reason that before money goods with actual intrinsic value were bartered – cows, salt, grain, etc. Bartering is not the same as money however, because money has little to no intrinsic value other than as a medium of exchange.

Paper money sometimes referred to as banknotes, coins (specie,) and recently even electronic money such as bitcoin are traded across communities, countries and the globe. There is a trend to develop local money which can be used to exchange for goods and services with a limited area. The use of local money ensures that it will stay within and therefore benefit the local economy.

Ad hoc money pops up temporarily at certain venues. Attendees to things like multi day music and entertainment festivals use “real” money to buy the event money. This event money is used within the venue for buying goods and services. After the event the vendors exchange the event money back into “real” money.

There is a growing trend for locales to create their own money to support the local economy. In the light of bank failures during the depression years, and especially in rural communities, local banks produced notes to be used locally. The value of the banknotes was guaranteed by the gold reserves held by the issuing bank. More recently (1973) an experiment with local currency began in Exeter, New Hampshire.

This was followed in 2006 by the issuance of Berkshares in Berkshire county Massachuttes. These are traded by over 400 merchants around the region. Currently their value is pegged to US dollars but it has been suggested to peg their value to a basket of local goods, further isolating them from the non-local economy.

Other local currencies include Baybucks (San Francisco), Aloha Hours (Hawaii), and Clearwater Hours (Tampa Bay) among many others. Modern local currencies are popping up outside the US. Barcelona, Spain is the titular capital of the Catolonia region. Their local currency is for commerce, and at least partial payment of wages and salaries of municipal employees. A number of other cites in western Europe are experimenting with local currencies.

Economists are generally much less sanguine about the significance of using local money at least compared to the proponents. One of the stronger arguments against local money is it doesn’t seem to persist, as many roll out and are in use for a few months to years, then fade out of existence. There are albeit small but real costs with creating and maintaining an alternate currency, thus creating a penalty for both buyers and sellers. Costs of goods that benefit from economies of scale can be higher if required to be produced with the local (small) economy.

The strongest argument against local money is that no community has ever tried to completely isolate its commerce from outside money. That kind of isolation would be a return to a sort of archaic tribalism. Evidence for economic value may be lacking but there still remains a human value at least in the eyes of Sociologists . Their position is that local money produces a sense of community and neighborhood ties. Conversely, local currencies seem to do best where these qualities already exist.

The TSA is Afraid of Me!

The TSA is really, really afraid of me – for what it’s worth.

A chronology of my return to the USA. Our travel to and around Spain was uneventful, at least to the extent that this timeline addresses.

Thursday afternoon July 20, Barcelona Spain: I go online to check-in for our return flight. Check-in for Susan went normally, but the site said I have to check-in at the airline counter. This should have been my first warning but I didn’t think much of it.

Friday morning at the airline counter: Susan is already checked in and gets her boarding passes, then I get mine done there, no problem – I thought.

We proceed to the security line. Then I notice that Susan has the TSA-pre on her boarding passes, but I don’t. Still no big deal, just an oversight I think. We go thru the scanner and all of a sudden they pull me over for what at the time was described as a random check, several question about my trip, my luggage and then I’m swabbed for explosives – negative of course. Irritating but “whatever.” Keep in mind that I have done the TSA pre-screening so I am supposed to be recognized as an OK kinda guy.

We go on to our boarding gate. We start to board but the agent looks at my pass and says, “go with him.” I’m escorted to a special screening location where they start a serious questioning about why I’m there and where I’m going. I remove my shoes and they do a serious inspection therein. I and the contents of my backpack are swabbed for explosives again (this is less than an hour from the previous swabbing and within the security area.) now I’m beginning to think what the heck?

We fly back to Atlanta and go through the immigration reentry process. We have the Global Entry cards which expedites the process. One goes to a machine, scans a passport, get photographed and are quickly on one’s way. Susan is fine,l but my ticket has a big X and tells me to report to an agent. I take my ticket to her, she looks, shrugs and sends me on.

We have to fly to Little Rock so back through a security check, take off shoes, belt, etc and pass thru a magnetometer, then I’m sent to a “hands up” body scanner. Once again, I’m pulled off for further scrutiny. This time a really invasive pat down, including genitals. Then more swabbing – hands, waist, wallet, backpack, etc.

Finally they let me go home. Somewhere at the start of the process I was tagged for close scrutiny and it followed me from Spain and across the ocean to Atlanta. Damn – I’m a bi-continental, seriously scary dude!

Tick Talk Time

As we slide in to summer or as some call it “tick time,” it might be important to focus on the tick part. We’ve had a mild winter so at least in Bullfrog Valley we have had ticks active year round. There are five species of ticks found in Arkansas most of which are capable of carrying various pathogens and now the new risk of alpha-Gal. Stay tuned for more on tick induced problems.

Regardless of species all ticks go through four phases: Egg, larva, nymph, and adult. The total life cycle can range from one to three years depending on species and environmental conditions. Adult ticks have eight legs and are classified as arachnids, related to mites and spiders.

A tick, like every other form of life begins as an egg. Ticks hatch in the spring to become six-legged larvae. All stages of all species require blood meals from any of a variety of birds, small and large mammals including you and me, and North America’s only marsupial – the Opossum. For the larval tick, the blood meal is usually obtained from more accessible small mammals like mice. After the blood meal they morph into to the nymph stage. The larva will only eat one meal. This means that this stage of a tick cannot transmit disease, because it must eat first to be exposed.

The nymph of the deer tick more formally known as the black-legged tick, will then overwinter in a dormant stage. In the spring when the air temperature gets about 10 degrees Celsius the nymphs become active. If a deer tick larva fed on an alternate host which was infected, the nymph becomes capable of transmitting any of the several diseases: Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Erlichiosis, and others. The nymph then molts and becomes an adult. Only the female adult will now take a blood meal and be capable of disease transmission. After feeding she mates, lays eggs and dies.

As an aside, you would be advised to not run over those possums on the road as they are a principal tick vacuum plus they are a poor reservoirs for disease. One study found the average possum carried around 200 ticks at any one time and were capable of killing 4000 ticks a week. Even if bitten, possums are unlikely to become infected with disease vectors, so larva or nymph which fed on a possum is unlikely to become a vector itself.

If you are not creeped out already to hear of all the tick born diseases, there is a new concern on the rise, alpha-Gal induced meat allergy spread by the lone star tick. Alpha-Gal is present in the meat of all mammals except primates thus humans. If a lone star tick nymph feeds on a deer or mouse, then the adult feeds on on a human, it can transmit enough alpha-Gal to induce a delayed immune reaction. Later consumption of meat by the inoculated individual can induce a range of symptoms including itching, hives, digestive upset and even life threatening anaphylaxis. In extreme cases even diary products can induce a reaction.

Only the lone star tick most common in the Southeast US causes this problem. It is a growing problem, possibly due to burgeoning populations of deer and/or global warming. The allergy is rather new to science, so it is not known whether the allergy becomes a static life long condition or waxes or wanes over time.

Scalability in Energy Production.

Scalability is the capacity to expand production as the need for additional power comes to the fore. A nuclear power plant can take years from the time of initial planning, permitting, and construction, whereas installation of solar panels for a home array will take only a couple of days. The material and labor costs during the construction or installation phase raise the cost of the power source over the cost to fuel and operate the facility once completed.

For necessarily large projects like nuclear or hydro-power facilities, long lead times are needed to bring power on line. This means that planning and construction must begin long before the power is available. This has considerable monetary cost because money is spent year after year before any money comes in from the sale of the power after completion.

An unpredictable risk inherent in the long term, big projects is that conditions may change. A steep drop in the economy during the recent “great recession” resulted in decreases in demand for energy world wide. Changes in technology, particularly with power sources which are more scalable may make a large project obsolete. Natural gas turbine technology is quite scalable. Turbines designed for jet aircraft can be used to generate electricity. The advent of directional drilling and fracking has greatly increased the availability and lowered the cost of natural gas which fuels scalable gas turbine facilities. Planning and construction of large scale coal plants are being canceled left and right.

Our economy is slowly recovering from the recession and new power sources are needed. Scalable power supplies are rapidly replacing large projects because they can reliably deliver power when and where it is needed and at a lower cost.

Solar power is booming across the country. Solar PV is growing 17 times as fast as the economy as a whole. This is due in large part to its scalability. If you need a little power, use just a few panels, such as what be need to charge the batteries on a remote cabin or an RV. To power the average home requires about 20 or 30 panels (10 kilowatt system which can produces 1100 kWh per month.)

For utility scale solar the numbers can get quite large. A one megawatt facility in Benton AR just went online. It employs 3,840 panels on a 5 acre site. The largest planned in Arkansas is an 81 MW, 500 acre facility with 350,000 panels. The country’s largest array not surprisingly is in California. At 550 MW, the array of over 2 million panels will power close to 100 million homes.

Wind is similarly scalable except at the lowest end of the spectrum. Modern wind turbines for utility scale facilities are 2 MW, however 8 MW turbines are being used in offshore locations. For perspective an average nuclear reactor is 1000 MW. Wind farms in the midwest vary in size but average around 200 turbines. A wind farm of this size could cover 50 square miles, but the actual footprint is minuscule as the land within the farm can still be used for forage/pasture.

Trump Pulls Out

It is now clear now that the current administration has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement for specious reasons. Trump will take us off the world stage, away from 195 countries who do recognize the risks of ignoring global warming, ocean acidification, and climate change.

Global warming as a concept is not new. Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist and Nobel laureate wrote in 1896 on the risks of continued burning of fossil fuels and the resultant accumulation of Carbon Dioxide (CO2)in the atmosphere. [On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground] The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere had been stable stable for hundreds of thousands of years – under 300 parts per million (PPM). In under 200 years we have raised the concentration to the current value of over 400 PPM, 150% of the value at the start of the industrial revolution.

Despite the relatively simple physical principals involved and despite the evidence from air and water temperatures, rising sea levels, and melting ice President Trump still thinks that global warming is a hoax. He seems fixated on the idea that developing sustainable energy supplies will drag our economy down. Is there evidence of such?

Very simply -No. Germany has installed more solar photovoltaic energy systems per capita than any other country, yet they are running a trade surplus with the United States. On a good day Denmark can produce 100 % of its energy from wind turbines and runs a considerable trade surplus with the United States. Ironically, much of their surplus involves selling wind turbine technology to us. We do have a small industry manufacturing wind turbine blades, but the company is Danish. China has leapt to the head of the pack for producing solar panels and we all know about their trade imbalance.

What do the captains of industry here think? Big fossil fuel producers such as Exxon-Mobil support the agreement. Even coal companies support the agreement. Walmart supports the agreement. Of course forward looking companies like Alphabet, the parent company of Google, Apple, Tesla support the agreement. Polls shows that the majority of Americans in every state, across the political spectrum support the agreement.

The agreement that we are walking away from is first and foremost voluntary. The agreement would in no way allow foreign influence of our laws or sovereignty. The agreement calls for international goals for reducing the rate of global warming by reducing the release of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses.

The US goal was a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 27 % of 2005 emissions by 2025. This is doable with a combination of energy efficiency, sustainable technologies such as wind and solar and switching from carbon intensive coal to natural gas. These changes to our economy are already underway and by participating in the agreement we show the world that we care about collective actions for all humanity, even for all life on this planet.

By not joining the agreement we turn away from 195 countries and join with Syria, torn by a violent civil war, and Nicaragua, who thinks the agreement doesn’t go far enough.

PV Primer, 2017

The cost of photovoltaic systems (panels and inverter) has dropped to about 1 to 2 dollars per watt. At this price, including the 30 % federal tax credit, systems have payback times in less than 7 years, regardless of size. This assumes a cost of about 10 cents a kilowatt hour (kW-hr) for electricity.

Here are a number of nuts and bolts issues for those interested in solar power. First and foremost you must have a location with southern exposure. Even a small amount of shade can seriously reduce energy production. For most this means a roof top location, but it needn’t be if you have the space to put the array on the ground. The simplest mounting puts the panels flat on the roof. The pitch of the roof is not all that important as long as it faces south.

The amount of space needed for an array of course varies as to how much total power you want to produce. Different manufacturers make panels in different sizes (watts) but the total space needed is the same because all PV panels have the same efficiency, about 15 %. Five 100 watt panels will take up the same space as one 500 watt panel. One kW requires about 80 square feet of space.

A big decision is whether the array is isolated or connected to the electrical grid. Grid-tied systems here in Arkansas can take advantage of net metering. This means that the power produced by the panels can actually make a meter run backwards if they are producing more power than the home is consuming at any time. About the only disadvantage of a grid-tied system is that when the line goes down, so does the solar power production. This is necessary to protect power line workers.

The alternative to grid-tied is to go entirely off line by buffering production with batteries. This avoids the aforementioned problem, but greatly increases the cost and “hassle factor” of the system. This is only practical when connection to the grid is cost prohibitive, as in remote locations.

The total amount of energy produced by a system is obtained by the total wattage of a system. For example a 1 kilowatt system can produce a maximum of one kilowatt hour only when the sun angle is ideal. Averaged over a year, a simple rule of thumb is that you can get 4 hours of net production per day. Hence a 1 kW system can be expected to produce 4 kW-hrs per day, more some days, less others.

Let’s use an average consumption of 1000 kW-hrs per month (close to the average in Arkansas) to determined a system sized to replace 100 % of electric needs. 1000 kW-hrs per month means 33 kw-hrs per day. Divide that by 4 to get a a little over 8 kW system. To allow for some inefficiencies say we use a 9 kW system. At 1.5 dollars a watt, the total cost would be 13,500 $. The 30% federal tax rebate brings the final cost down to 9,450 $. Sales taxes and installation will add to the cost, but these numbers can be used to approximate a cost if you are interested in going solar.

Human Energy, Embodied Energy

Humans, as just about all living thing, have a capacity to do work. By subtracting the energy we need for basal metabolism from total caloric intake we get a measure of useful work. For an average American, we do about 500-1000 kilocalories of work daily. Converted to kilowatt-hours (kWh) it’s only 1.2 kWh.

We consume vast amounts of additional energy in the form of electricity and gasoline to name just two, and the indirect energy embodied in the goods and services we use in modern society. If we add it all up and convert it to a single unit, it comes to 220 kWh per day. It is as if we all employ over 200 slaves a day! How in the world did we get here?

One place to begin is with human control of fire. There is clear evidence of the control of fire 200 to 300 thousand years ago, which roughly corresponds with modern humans, Homo sapiens. However there is growing evidence of the use of fire goes as far back as a million years ago. Not only did fire provide warmth and protection but also increased nutrition.

Only a slight step up from burning wood was the use of charcoal. This was important for the advancement of the various metal ages. Copper and Tin were ores easily smelted using charcoal which provided both an energy source and a chemical reactant for making metals. The bronze age, bronze being made principally from Copper and Tin, dates to the dawn of civilization – about 6000 BCE, 8000 years ago. This begins the use of embodied energy, rather than direct energy use.

The next step was a giant one, the identification of fossil fuels as energy sources. The demarcation of modern life begins with the industrial revolution around 18th to 19th centuries. This is the age of coal and iron and mechanization. The steam engine powered by coal not only revolutionized manufacturing but also transportation via steam trains and ships.

The beginning of the age of oil is usually connected to Edwin Drake’s oil well near Titusville, PA. Crude oil and its refined products rapidly displaced other energy sources because of convenience. Our success in World War II was due in large part to our exploitation of fossil fuels for manufacturing and transportation.

World War II also ushered in the atomic age, first with bombs, then “atoms for peace.” The first civilian nuclear reactor in the US (the first in the world was in the Soviet Union) was in Shippingport, PA in 1958.

As our consumption of crude oil continued to increase, by 1969 our ability to produce oil peaked. Shortly thereafter the Organization of Petroleum States formed, began an embargo, and caused the US to realize that in terms of energy we are not be the masters of our fate.

Loss of control of the oil market, coupled with the increasing recognition of the harmful effects of the burning of fossil fuels ushered in the beginning of renewable, or better described sustainable energy sources, notably wind and solar.

Name Your Poisoner

There seems to be a newfound fondness for the Russian government on the part of Trump’s followers, both in the government and the population at large. Several officials have been less than forthright about their connections with Russian government officials or moneyed oligarchs. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused from the investigation of Russian interference in our election. Mike Flynn was fired after only three weeks on the job due to his failure to divulge his connections to Russia. Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign manager was fired after it was revealed that he had multi-million dollar contracts with certain Russian oligarchs. Other examples abound.

There seems to be a consensus on both sides of the political aisle that the Russian government or associated criminal elements tried to affect the outcome of our election, and would like to see further destabilization of democracy in America. This is the usual stuff of “cloak and dagger” behavior reminiscent of the cold war. The Russian government also has a much darker side.

Early in the twentieth century, Russia developed a lab to test poisons to be used by various agents and spies. Poisoning is a common method for dealing with both foreigners and Russian dissidents. One of the more famous events occurred during the cold war. Georgi Markov was an anti-communist Bulgarian writer who lived in exile in London. While crossing a bridge to catch a bus in 1978, he was poked in the buttocks with a umbrella. Later in the day he went to a hospital with flu-like symptoms. Three days later he was dead. On autopsy, a small hollow pellet was discovered at the site of the poke. Chemical analysis showed that he had been intentionally poisoned with ricin, an extremely potent toxin made form castor beans.

Victor Yushchenko ran in 2004 for president of Ukraine on a policy of aligning his country with the west rather than Russia. Shortly after his election he met with Ukraine officials who favored an alliance with Russia. Later he came down with what was initially diagnosed as acute pancreatitis. Later still he developed extreme chloracne, a condition only seen in individuals exposed to certain chlorinated hydrocarbons. In Yushchenko’s case it was determined that he was exposed to TCDD, a toxic bi-product of the manufacture of Agent Orange. Although he survive he was ill for months and remains disfigured from the chloracne.

Another dissident, Alexander Litvinenko fled Russia for asylum in the UK. In 2006 he became ill in the evening after having lunch with two Russian officials. He was diagnosed with acute radiation poisoning from Polonium-210. Three weeks later he was dead. It is thought that only a few drops of a Polonium solution in a bowl of soup would produce a lethal effect. This synthetic element can only be had from reprocessing waste from a nuclear reactor.

Surely the luckiest Russian poisoning victim is Vladamir Kara-Murza. Mr. Kara-Murza describes himself as a Russian democracy campaigner. In May 2015 he became ill for unknown causes. Blood works showed elevated levels of heavy metals but no known toxins were found. Although sophisticated chemical analysis can detect the most minute amounts of toxin, it only works if you know what to look for. Last February he became inexplicably ill again. He was in critical condition for weeks but is now recovering. It can’t be said for sure if Kara-Murza was poisoned – twice – but surely he is a target of the Kremlin and Russian leaders have a long-standing monstrous tradition of poisoning political opponents.