Author Archives: bob

Bezoar Stones

Bezoar Stones also called mad stones, have a considerable history in American folklore. They were thought to have the power to treat or neutralize poisons or venoms in wounds. Those wounds may be from insect stings, poisonous plants, snake bites, and even the bites of rabid animals. Treatment consisted of simply holding the stone up against the wound.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac published a story about mad stones in a 2010 edition. The story referred to a number of instances dating to the 19th and into the 20th century where the stones were used for snake bites and especially bites from rabid dogs.

Also clear from these stories is that the stone only worked if obtained directly from an animal or was received as a gift. Buying and/or selling destroyed the power of the stone, and if stolen would actually cause harm to the thief.

Bezoars are usually golf ball sized concretions of hair and calcium salts taken from the gastrointestinal tract of ruminants. Farm animals such as goats and sheep and wild deer are often a source. Hair is difficult to digest, especially by ruminants. The material can persist in the gut of these animals for months to years. Gradually calcium salts bind to a wad of hair. Peristaltic action, the muscular churning in the GI tract, forces these masses in to the shape of a ball.

The name bezoar is taken from Persian, Padzahr. This word and the concept date to the classical period of Persia, around 500 BCE (Before the Current Era), or over 2000 years ago. The Persian word means “protective against poison” A Persian pharmacopeia of the time listed bezoars as effective in the treatment of not only insect stings and snake bites, they were also considered an antidote to various mineral and vegetable poisons.

By the 16th/17th century their purported efficacy had extended to treating diseases or conditions from epilepsy to smallpox and bubonic plague. Bezoars came to be prized possessions in Europe at the time. For one special use, the stones were encased in ornate gold cage-like containers complete with a several inch long chain attached. These could then be dipped into a goblet of wine for instance, to remove any and all added poisons.

Certain Europeans, Catherine de Medici, and Lucrezia Borgia to name just two were thought to be heartless poisoners who gained and held power by poisoning their political enemies. Poisoning at the time was somewhat of an art. Arsenic was often the poison of choice, and the better poisoners knew how to disguise the poison to make it less detectable.

Interestingly there is a good reason to think that in this particular case of poisoning by Arsenic, the bezoars may have worked to prevent poisoning. Nerd alert – chemistry digression. The physical composition of a bezoar includes hair, and hair is loaded with a class of chemical compounds known as sulfides. The presence of sulfides makes for the foul odor when hair is burned. More importantly however, the sulfides are known to chemically bind to many heavy metals including Arsenic.

For a goblet of wine with Arsenic, adding the bezoar stone could adsorb the poison. Remove the stone and remove the poison.

Wrong Way President

Republicans have long been known as the party of business, both big and small. The party that believes in the free market. The party that doesn’t want government picking winners and losers. The GOP platform statement is unambiguous. “Government should not play favorites among energy producers.“

Recently Trump has floated a plan to order the electrical grid operators to buy power from coal and nuclear powered electrical generators. Even though power from natural gas-fired plants is cheaper and cleaner. Even though power from wind turbines and utility-scale photovoltaic systems(solar) is far cleaner and now cheaper than coal-fired plants.

His argument which will drive up the cost of electricity is a somewhat poorly disguised attempt to prop up industries whose time has past. Twenty-five coal plants have closed since he began as president. The two largest coal plants here in Arkansas are in negotiations for closure within a decade. There hasn’t been a new order for a nuclear plant in several decades.

Meanwhile, wind and solar power are rapidly expanding. Clarksville just added its own solar array and Entergy is building two major solar plants.

The plan to help the coal and nuclear industries is couched as a national defense emergency, and if this order were to be enacted would employ a regulation normally used to respond to national crises such as weather-related disasters.

Coal and nuclear plants are referred to as baseload plants. They’re designed to be turned on and stay on, at full power. It is Trump’s position that replacing these baseload plants with renewables will somehow make the electrical grid less resilient.

Nope. Numerous studies show that a broad mix of renewable energy supplies on the grid leads to greater stability. Two countries, Germany and Denmark, have far larger percentages of their electrical energy generated by wind and solar and have an order of magnitude fewer outages than the United States. This may be in part due to better investments in the grid infrastructure, but it certainly shows that renewables don’t hurt.

The people who really know what’s best are the grid operators themselves. They view today’s grid in better shape than ever in terms of reliability. Trade groups for the oil and gas industry joined with environmental groups to issue a joint statement claiming that the plan was legally indefensible and guaranteed to raise the cost of electricity to consumers.

A similar but more subtle plan was pursued last year by Rick Perry, administrator of the Energy Department. Perry requested the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to guarantee a financial return for any power plant that could store on site ninety days worth of fuel. This would, of course, mean coal and nuclear plants. The FERC earlier this year unanimously denied the request.

Trump, the purported deal maker, would be in this case increasing the cost of electricity for consumers. He would be reversing the trend towards cleaner air and lower greenhouse gas emissions. And finally, the plan would only make worse the problem with high-level radioactive waste, an issue we haven’t been able to resolve after sixty years of commercial nuclear power production.

Amphibian Pandemic

One of the unfortunate hallmarks of the human condition is our purposeful or incidental reduction of biodiversity everywhere we go. Most obvious was the elimination of large herbivores from woolly mammoths to giant ground sloths. This makes a certain sense as they were prey species which fed our rapid expansion across the planet.

Global warming, by forcing changes to the climate, impacts all life on the planet. Fauna are indirectly threatened by simple reduction of suitable habitat. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has identified habitat loss as a main threat to 85% of all species described in the IUCN’s “Red List” (those species officially classified as “Threatened” and “Endangered”).

A common example is when forested areas are cleared and converted to agricultural use. The destruction of diverse forests in southeast Asia for use as palm oil plantations threatens everything from Orangutans to Tigers.

An incidental apocalypse is now occurring with amphibians worldwide. The class Amphibia has existed for over 300 million years. Today frogs, toads, salamanders, and the lesser known caecilians are dispersed worldwide and exist in a number in niches from rain forests to deserts. A northern most amphibian is the wood frog of Alaska which literally freezes up during the winter. When the weather warms it thaws and goes about its business.

Compounding threats to amphibians from habitat loss and climate change is a rapidly expanding pandemic of a Chytrid fungus, specifically Batrachorchytrium dendrobatidis (BD.) The fungus has been know for over a century in parts of east Asia and Africa but only in the past few decades has it spread worldwide.

There are several hypotheses for the mechanism of dispersion. In the 1930s a British researcher by the name of Lancelot Hogben, hence the eponymous Hogben test, found that injecting urine from a pregnant woman into the the African Clawed Frog induce the frog to lay eggs. The test was faster and didn’t require the sacrifice of the animal as was the case in the rabbit test. It was used on several continents from the 1940s to 1960s.

Recent study of the DNA of numerous samples suggests the origin of the BD dispersion began on the Korean peninsula in the early 1950’s. The Korean war, with the massive movement of men and materiel in and out of the area could have dispersed the fungus. The fungus can easily be transported on any kind of moist material, in addition to the amphibians themselves.

The global trade in amphibians for foods and pets is probably responsible for the dispersion of new strains which may be even more toxic. BD grows on the skin of amphibians. Amphibian skin is responsible for much metabolic activity such gas exchange. Essential electrolytes, Sodium and Potassium are also exchanged across the skin and it is a disruption of electrolyte balance that kills them.

Of the roughly 7000 amphibian species, 200 have recently been extirpated, and another 2000 are threatened. Nearly half of all amphibian species are in decline. Defenders of Wildlife here in the United States has called for the Fish and Wildlife service to ban the import of amphibians.

The moral of this story is that we ought to leave the critters be. Transporting them from hither to you could very well accelerate the amphibian pandemic.

Miniaturization

In the mid -1960s, IBM corporation introduced the S/360 computer. This computer is thought of as ushering in the modern computer age. IBM executives, especially Thomas Watson, Jr, literally bet the company on this one product – and won. The machine and subsequent later generation models were widely accepted and employed in both science and industry. The term computer systems originated to a large degree because of the interoperability of the IBM machines.

The 360 and its ancillary input devices such as card readers, and keyboards, output printers, card punch machines, and tape drives for storage could fill a good a good sized room.

Compare that with a current model cell phone which are hundreds of thousands of times smaller, yet have computational powers billions of times that of the IBM 360. In fact, one of today’s cell phones has millions of times the computational power of all the NASA computers used to develop and guide the Apollo Missions to the moon. And a cell phone, besides its communications functions, does so much more – cameras for still and motion photography, mapping functions from GPS signals, and an ever expanding group of applications.

This is without doubt the best example of miniaturization, ever more power in an increasingly smaller package. It certainly isn’t the only example however. About the same time as the figurative launch of the IBM 360 was the literal launch of the first commercial communications satellite, Telstar. This satellite, built by Bell Labs and utilized by a consortium of communications companies delivered phone and television signals across the Atlantic.

The satellite itself was about 3 feet in diameter and weighed a couple of hundred pounds. The signal strength was weak so the ground station which handled the signals was huge. The antenna dish needed to track the satellite was housed in a radome the size of a 14 story office building. The elliptical orbit of the satellite meant that it was capable of only 20 minutes transmission time out of its 2.5 hour orbit of the planet.

Recently a group of “cubesats” were launched. These mini satellites are smaller than a thin paperback book. Only four were launched but the plan is to launch hundreds of these “space bees” to be placed in geostationary orbits around the world. Their purpose is to tie the Internet of Things together in one massive globally connected group of devices. Radios to refrigerators, toasters to televisions, all will interconnect via the space bees.

The medical field is seeing the application of miniature devices. A device the size of a pack of chewing gum has been designed to monitor several blood components and send the data via a Bluetooth connection. Right now device is designed for hospital use collecting data from drainage tubes employed after surgery. In the not to distant future and with continuing miniaturization, I can envision devices the size or grains of rice circulating in our bodies and sending back information on any number of biological parameters.

Miniature medical devices may go far beyond data collection and be used to correct conditions. Marrying tiny electronic devices with molecular scale creations such as antibodies will not only be able to detect but even correct numerous disease conditions. While siting on your couch or running at the beach, your phone signals you that devices within you have detected malignant liver cells. Not to worry – there’s an app for that! Problem found and corrected.

Opioid Addictions

Once again, and for all the wrong reasons, we are at the top of a list. Arkansas leads the nation in childhood abuse of opioids. Basically, our teenagers consume more prescription pills and various street drugs such as heroin than those of any other state.

Opioids include drugs, whether legal or not that are derived from the Opium poppy – codeine and morphine, also semi-synthetic drugs that are made by chemical conversion of opium – notably oxycodone and hydrocodone. Fentanyl and related compounds (congeners) are made completely synthetically.

The only difference among these drugs is relative potency, the amount (dose) necessary to produce a given effect. The range is incredibly broad. Fentanyl and its congeners are hundreds, even thousands of times as potent as morphine. Emergency personnel have been poisoned by simply touching pills. The adage “one pill can kill” is frighteningly true.

The death rate due to this epidemic is rising and seems to cross all lines – red states and blue states, rich states and poor states. The top ten states for death rates include both the poorest and richest states based on income.

In some states there seems to be a concerted effort to oversell prescription drugs. Over a recent 5 year period, 780 million pills were shipped to West Virginia. Its population is only 1.8 million. Every man, woman and child received the equivalent of over 400 pills! It is no wonder that they lead the nation in opioid overdose deaths.

The numbers are no less staggering in Arkansas. In 2016 physicians prescribed 236 million opioid pills. That’s about 80 pills per person. Almost half of all adults filled one or more prescriptions that year. In Arkansas, someone’s son or daughter dies on a near daily basis from an opioid overdose.

A coalition of cities and counties in Arkansas recently sued dozens of makers and distributors of opioids, arguing that the companies should bear the cost of drug abuse in the state. Whereas this should help with prescription drugs it may drive those already addicted towards street drugs which are much more dangerous due to the unreliability of dosages and the vagaries of intravenous drug use.

Some states have begun needle exchanges to reduce the secondary infection rate due to shared needles. New York City has gone so far as to create safe sites where clean needles and a safe location for injection are provided.

A silver lining to the opioid cloud may be about to appear in Arkansas. Studies consistently show that states with medical marijuana have much lower rates of opioid overdose deaths. Researchers examined medical marijuana laws and death certificate data in all 50 states between the years of 1999 and 2010. At the time, only 13 states had medical marijuana laws. It was obvious that the rates of fatal opioid overdoses were lower in states that had legalized medical marijuana.

The effect seems to be due to the lower use of legal opioids among those who have access to marijuana. Ironically the federal government classifies marijuana as a schedule one chemical or substance – drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

Sustainability is the Future

The United States became the dominant world power by the conclusion of World War II. In essence, we were the last man standing, ie, the only real industrial power not impacted by war. In fact, the war brought us out of a depression and stimulated our industrial might. Additionally, we had vast resources of fossil fuels to run the factories.

To this day we are still the largest economy on the planet, but no longer the leader in some of the technologies that will be important, even determinative, in the future. Our utilization of fossil fuels in the past brought us to the top but continuing to rely on then in the future will bring us down.

Whether we recognize the inherent dangers of global warming and the need to decarbonize our energy mix, most of the rest of the world does. President Trump is trying to move us in the wrong direction by abandoning international agreements such as the Paris Accord. He has ordered a cutback of fuel efficiency standards, opened vast areas of public land for fossil fuel exploitation, and generally thumbed his nose at any and all previous measures meant to deal with global warming.

Clean, sustainable energy is the future. Economies built on this recognition will in the long run prosper. Although we pioneered electricity generation from wind, China has blown past us in installed capacity with over a third of the world’s installed power. The European Union led by Denmark, Germany and the Iberian peninsula, is now producing more than the US.

The latest big move into wind power is the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The UK has moved rapidly to install offshore turbines and now has more offshore capacity than the rest of the world combined. Scotland leads the world in the fraction of electricity demand it meets with wind power. An astonishing 53% of all electricity production comes from wind turbines. In the US, it is 6%. And they are not resting on their laurels. The UK will soon be home to the largest wind installation project with a capacity of 1,800 megawatts off the Yorkshire coast. The largest in the US the Alta Wind energy project with 1,548 megawatts.

This wind project will be powered by 150 turbines each generating 12 megawatts of power. Each turbine will provide enough energy to run 16,000 homes. These giants stand over 800 feet tall, almost 3 times the height of the Statue of Liberty.

A similar story holds for solar. China leads with about 25% of total world production. The US is fourth after China, Japan, and Germany. In terms of the fraction of total production, the US falls to tenth place with only 1.4% of our total production. Italy leads with 7.5% of there total.

As stated earlier, the countries which deploy the greatest fraction of their energy production via sustainables will lead the world if for no other reason than a decreasing demand for a diminishing resource is a good thing. As important however, is the advantage of leading in the development of tomorrows technology.

Every wind turbine and every solar panel also means cleaner air and reduced global warming potential. Did I mention that the Arkansas Public Service Commission is likely to soon make a ruling which will disfavor home solar arrays? MAGA, Making America Grate (on our nerves) Again.

Happiness is sharing

I think we can all agree that we know what happiness is and when we and or our friends are happy, but can happiness be measured for whole countries? And when we talk about happiness for a whole population, just what are we talking about.

For individuals., important things like being in a stable and loving relationship, having a secure and fulfilling job, being secure in the fact that if you get sick or have an accident that you will be able to afford proper care all come to mind. Other factors include access to education, freedom of activities, a comfortable retirement, and importantly protection from violence and even political coercion.

A number of organizations from the United Nations to the Gallup poll, using survey and economic data come to the same conclusions: Scandinavia wins every time, Canada beats the USA which is in about the middle in happiness, and at the bottom despotic, and especially war-torn countries.

Factors which gather all this input into a simple number are the Gini indices for wealth and income, especially income. The Gini index is a way to put a number, between 0 and 1, on the distribution of some asset. It is usually applied as noted to wealth or income but can be applied other things. If something, wealth for instance, is held by very few or even one and nobody else has any then the index would be at or near 1. On the other hand, if it is evenly distributed throughout the population, then the value would be near 0.

Back to happiness. It should be obvious that the happiest countries all favor socialism in the broadest meaning of the word. Economic systems in countries are organized somewhere between capitalism and socialism, although neither exist in the purest form anywhere in the world.

Even in capitalistic United States we have socialism in the form of social security, medicare and medicaid, and even more mundane structures such as police and fire protection. Rigidly socialist North Korea has some capitalism by way of street vendors who sell things like food and cheap commodities.

The strongest objection by capitalists to socialism is that it throttles innovation. Why work hard or try to create wealth when the government just takes so much in taxes? The happiest people live in the Scandinavian countries which are all are relatively socialistic. They also have relatively high gini (wealth) indices. The people of Denmark, frequently ranked as the happiest, has a gini index comparable to the United States.

Where we and the countries with the happiest people vary is the gini index for income. Income is much more evenly dispersed in the happy countries. This is net income which includes not only cash payments for work but also the social welfare network which provides healthcare, education, retirement, a host of other services which enrich life.

The happiest people in the world live in countries that have low gini indices for income but relatively high indices for wealth. This means that the largest number of people have sufficient income to ensure that they don’t have to worry, while at the same time allowing wealth to accumulate to those who seek it.

Biodiversity = Sustainability

Ask ecologists what is the best measure of the health of an environment and they will tell you diversity. There are a multitude of ecological niches from the frozen tundra to boiling hot springs, from bone dry deserts to ocean expanses. In every case, greater biodiversity signals greater productivity and hence greater sustainability. Broader plant diversity means more food available to herbivores, and more herbivores makes for more prey animals.

Homo Sapiens, the only species on the planet that is actually capable of thinking about its impact, doesn’t. At least not much. We might forgive our Ice Age ancestors for wiping out most the megafauna on the planet because they didn’t realize their impact, but whenever humans showed up on the scene large animals disappeared. Other than Africa where we co-evolved with several large mammals, few are left around the world. Even the African species are dwindling.

The slaughter began as modern humans migrated out of Africa as early as 100,000 years ago. Europe, Asia, Australia and finally the Americas saw the rapid disappearance of large mammals. Some blame may be placed on changing climate, especially what is called the Holocene extinction at the end of the last glacial period, about 12,000 years ago. This period coincided with human migration into the Americas. Not only did the more northerly megafauna disappear but others such as a giant beaver as big as a compact car and a giant ground sloth which towered over 20 feet tall.

A similar rapid extinction took place when humans made their way to Australia about 40,000 years ago. A prehistoric marsupial weighing in at 3 tons disappeared shortly after human arrival. Also on the extinct list are a 2 ton Goanna (lizard), a turtle with a shell diameter of over 6 feet, and 500-pound flightless bird.

Probably the best-known example of a human-caused extinction is that of the Dodo, a 50 pound flightless relative of pigeons. Over a very short period of time it was extirpated from its island in the Indian Ocean. The Dodo was first seen by Dutch Sailors in 1598. It was gone from history by 1662, a species driven to extinction over the course of one human lifetime.

At the same time that we drive wild megafauna to extinction, we are replacing them with a very limited number of livestock, principally cattle, sheep, hogs and chickens and little else.

The combined mass of humanity is currently around 300 million tons, that of our livestock, 700 million tons. Compare that with the combined weight of everything from beavers to blue whales, which adds up to only 100 million tons. There are 200,000 wolves in the wild compared to 400 million dogs. Our closest relative the chimpanzee number about a quarter million compared to 7.6 billion of us.

The last western Black Rhino died in 2011, the last male Northern White Rhino died last month, leaving two infertile females of the species. Biodiversity means resilience means sustainability. What is our plan for our descendants?

Yet Another Dam?

Here in and about the river valley, we enjoy what could be described as plentiful rainfall, and a pinch of snowfall on occasions. In all, we average about 50 inches a year. Precipitation is generally spread over every month of the year with maximums occurring in the spring and early winter months. For the time being, we have sufficient water for both agriculture and drinking water, but this will change in the future. Growth alone will mean that we need to expand our drinking water supplies.

If the projections of computer models continue to correctly predict changing climate, we’re in for more trouble. Generally, global warming should mean more rainfall as warmer air can hold more moisture, but computer modeling predicts changing weather patterns with less rainfall in mid-continental regions and more on the coasts. Further confounding the issue of water availability is the prediction that what precipitation we do get will come in more intense and less frequent storm events.

Even if we get the same amount of precipitation, but it occurs less frequently, we will need more reservoir capacity to tide us over between rain events. Where will we get our drinking water in the future? In the 1980s City Corp looked to the North Fork of the Illinois Bayou as a possible site for a reservoir. Objections from the environmental community and the Ozark National Forest shifted the attention to the current site on Huckleberry Creek. The watershed of Huckleberry Creek is not large enough, but the reservoir is supplemented by pumping water out of the Illinois Bayou.

This “off-stream pumped storage” option has served the River Valley well for a couple of decades, but now City Corp is looking again to expand its supply by seeking an impoundment on the North Fork. Aside from environmental groups’ objections, and reservations on the part of the National Forest to cede land, there is the considerable expense of constructing a dam. If constructed this impoundment will flood a near pristine area currently used for hunting, fishing, camping, and other water sports.

And when this small impoundment’s capacity is exceeded, then what is the next valley to be flooded? And the next and the next? Ultimately the real long-term solution is to draw water from Lake Dardanelle. Why don’t we just cut to the chase and avoid the costs, both fighting with environmental groups and the monetary cost of construction of dams.

Water in Lake Dardanelle is good quality and can be further refined if necessary by technology. Reverse Osmosis (RO) is employed around the world to turn seawater in the potable water. RO systems are scaled from under the sink units for homeowners to multi-million gallons per day systems for municipal desalination plants.

The Arkansas Department of Health frowns on the utilization of the Arkansas River as a drinking water supply, but their objections are based on old data, and failure to recognize drastic improvements in the cost and efficiency of Reverse Osmosis technology.

Minimally treated water from lake Dardanelle could be pumped to the current Huckleberry Creek reservoir at a fraction of the cost of building more impoundments. This solution will allow us to have the drinking water we need for an expanding population under pressure from global warming. At the same time, we can save some of our wild places so our children and their children can have the experience of a relatively unexploited environment, the same as we enjoy.

Rural Digital Divide

Throughout the previous century and into the 21st, there has been a gradual population shift from rural to urban locales. The jobs just aren’t there anymore. Early on this was dominated in a shift from subsistence farming to a reliance on cash crops. Later, it was driven by the mechanization of farming technology.

This demographic shift was very obvious when looking at life in the Ozarks. Subsistence farming filled the hills and dales. Even in face of the double whammy of the economic collapse of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, families survived. The advent of World War II however, created jobs that hadn’t existed before. The Ozarks saw a huge drop in populations as whole families moved off to work in defense plants.

In addition to the demographic shift to towns and cities, there is also an age shift, with the average age of rural populations increasing. This is entirely understandable as the older folks with jobs in rural areas stay and the youth head to the cities to find employment.

A big step bolstered the success of rural life, rural electrification. President Roosevelt signed an executive order in 1935 which was followed later with legislation creating the Rural Electrification Administration. Were it not for this act life in rural areas would have disappeared even faster. Electrification brought some parity to rural life compared to life in the cities.

As we transition to the age of the internet, there is a new form of disparity between the cities and rural areas. Access to broadband internet is becoming essential to both learn and earn in contemporary society. Increasing numbers of jobs depend absolutely on broadband internet. With quality internet access, many jobs could come back to rural areas. Rural life is inherently attractive to many but there has to be an income source.

The value of broadband internet has been recognized now and even the smallest schools have access. But what about when the children go home? Not so much. The best method for broadband is fiber optic cables but the cost for rolling out the cable is unattractive to commercial entities. Broadband can be delivered via a cell phone signal to many rural areas, but again low population densities mean low income for private investment.

The Ozarks present a particular difficulty because of the topology, deeply cut serpentine valleys mean even more towers are necessary for complete coverage. It is time to consider a significant effort to support bringing broadband internet to rural areas, just like rural electrification. In fact, the electric coops could act to broker the delivery. The poles to string cables are already there. It would require an expansion of the skill set for the coops to manage internet connections, but that in itself would bring jobs back.

It’s time to bridge the digital divide and bring our rural areas into the twenty-first century. Children at home need access to high speed internet. Modern home security systems require connectivity, even many personal health notification devices for the elderly require access.