Author Archives: bob

Nerve Gas and Tomahawk Missiles

In August 2012 President Obama said “a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around …that’s a red line for us.” This was in reference to an admission by the Assad regime in Syria that they had chemical weapons but they would “never, never be used against the Syrian people or civilians during this crisis, under any circumstances.” Within a year, there was evidence that suggested that the nerve gas Sarin had been used on a civilian population.

In the U.S, polling showed that the public had tired of war and was on record as opposing more involvement by our military in the area. Obama sought a joint resolution for an “Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against the Government of Syria to Respond to Use of Chemical Weapons.” The resolution failed. With neither public nor congressional support for military action, Obama sought an agreement with Assad to remove the chemical weapons.

After the recent use of Sarin, the current administration acted without congressional approval and launched an attack with 60 Tomahawk missiles on an air base in Syria. It is thought that this was the base from which the most recent chemical attack was launched.

Sarin is a very toxic nerve agent. It actually isn’t a gas but rather a liquid designed to be aerosolized, meaning sprayed as a fine mist. Contact with bare skin or especially inhalation causes a number of symptoms ranging from heavy salivation, profuse sweating, muscle cramps, convulsions and death resulting from respiratory paralysis. Not pretty, huh?

Sarin is a member of a class of poisons known as Acetyl Choline Esterase Inhibitors. Other substances that have the same effect, but lower toxicity are a number of insecticides. Even the relatively safe house and garden type insecticides kill insects by the same mechanism. So how do they work?

Imagine you want to wiggle your big toe. A message travels from your brain via several nerves “talking” to each other to get the signal all the way to your toe. For the signal to get from one nerve to the next requires the opening and then closing of a “gate.” The gate opening allows the signal and the closing stops the signal. If the gate doesn’t close your toe would continue to wiggle. That is the way Sarin and other Acetyl Choline Esterase Inhibitors work. They keep the gate open. A small stimulation of a nerve can’t be turned off. The affected tissue is overstimulated.

Back to the deaths from Sarin in Syria and our military response. By bombing the airfield a message was sent but is seems to be a fairly ineffective one. Within days the base was back in operation and launching conventional bombing attacks on the same town that had been attacked with Sarin. Now we are left with what’s next?

A recent Galllup poll found that a scant 51% supported our missile attack on the airbase, and 54 % oppose any further strikes. Finally, 69% are not confident that the the one strike will dissuade Assad from again using chemical weapons.

Republican Healthcare – or Lack Thereof

About the only way I know to lower the cost of health insurance for those willing and able to buy it is to let people die on the curb in front of the hospital. Yep, give up your humanity and you too can save on health insurance.

If you opt for humanity and take that person into the hospital, it will cost you, and likely cost you a lot. That person without health insurance will incur costs which the hospital must absorb. The only way a hospital to stay in business if they accept indigent care is to charge paying customers, usually insurers, more to offset the unreimbursed care.

If we are to be humane and provide care for the free riders, is there a better way? If we wait for high blood pressure to cause a heart attack, treatment of that one condition can cost hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. Alternately, drugs to manage the high blood pressure can cost pennies a day – Penny wise, pound foolish.

The reason the republicans struggle to produce a health plan to replace the ACA, even though they have had several years, is there is no plan that actually works if it doesn’t include everybody. There are two ways to do that – make sure everybody has access to affordable care through private insurers or go to a less costly single payer universal healthcare system like just about every other country in the world.

Government managed systems work well. We currently spend much more per capita for healthcare and with poorer outcomes. There are over 40 countries with lower infant mortality rates, greater life expectancies and lower costs.

The new president said while campaigning that his replacement healthcare plan would cover everybody and cost less. As to the costs we won’t know until after the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scores the new bill. I can predict immediately however that it won’t cover everybody because the first line of conservative talking points is repealing the mandate to purchase insurance, guaranteeing free riders. Another promise is to lower ACA spending, which means that subsidies for the poor will be lowered or eliminated, further reducing the pool of insured.

For those middle income folks there may be cheaper insurance policies available, but only because substandard policies will again become available. Lower costs mean lower coverage. The ACA policies required a minimum standard of coverage which included preventive care. Cheap policies will be available which only cover catastrophic costs. Ironically, avoiding the costs of preventive care leads to greater catastrophic costs.

The real winners with the proposed healthcare law are the rich, no surprise there. Taxes will go down while at the same time subsides not previously available to the rich will go up.

Conservatives continue to try to view healthcare as subject to the same market forces as buying unessential commodities, but it just doesn’t work that way. We are alone in the world with our failure to make that recognition.

The Eyes Have It

Charles Darwin published the “Origin of Species” in 1859 and established evolution as the central organizing principle of biology. The molecular basis of evolution became clear about a century later with the understanding of the structure of Deoxyribonucleic Acid – better know as DNA.

DNA is the stuff of inheritance, and changes in DNA are the stuff of mutations and ultimately evolution. The code of life is defined by a simple alphabet consisting of only 4 letters and a grammatical structure which demands words can only be three letters long. Although this means there are only 64 words (called codons) in the DNA dictionary, “sentences” in the genetic code can be crazy long, literally tens of thousands of words long. The functional unit of DNA are strings of codons called genes which specify instructions about life.

Most importantly, the code is shared by all life. The codons mean the same thing in an aardvark and a zebra, from simple bacteria to you and I. Closely related organisms have closely related sequences of codons. This has allowed confirmation or rearrangement of the cladistic relationships of life. Not only can whole organisms be compared but also individual organs.

The evolution of the eye can be seen by comparing DNA across many organisms. Devotees of the idea of intelligent design, i.e, the god did it crowd, have suggested that an organ as complex as an eye cannot have arisen by evolution. They proffer the idea of irreducible complexity. It’s the old “what good is half an eye” argument. Mammalian eyes, just as one example, have several parts including a retina, an iris, a lens, a pupil, etc. Arthropods have compound eyes with multiple lenses and retinas.

There is a range of types of eyes that serve different functions and therefore have different levels of complexity, but in the last analysis they all share one common feature and that is the detection of light. The basic requirement for light detection, shared across all life, is a group of closely related molecules called rhodopsins. If light shines on this molecule, it changes shape and that triggers a signal to the brain that says light! Multiple copies of the molecule allow greater sensitivity and features such as a lens add acuity to the detection. Slight variations in the structure of the rhodopsin allows for detection of different wavelengths (colors). That the rhodopsin occurs across all kinds of life is seen in the gene which codes for the production of the molecule.

Here is the really interesting part. The gene for rhodopsin synthesis occurs in forms of life that have no eyes, such as a primitive organism know as cyanobacteria. These ancient bacteria have been around for billions of years. Why would a bacteria that couldn’t care less about detecting light have rhodopsin? It turns out the bacteria use this molecule for an entirely different reason.

Minor mutations in the rhodopsin gene allowed for the “repurposing” of the molecule to serve as a light gathering structure, rather than the function it serves in bacteria. This repurposing of structures is not an uncommon feature in evolution and allows for small changes to make big differences. Life is not irreducibly complex.

End of the Empire?

Since the conclusion of world war two, the United States has been viewed as the global leader. Much of this was due to the fact that we were the only industrial power on the planet that didn’t suffer massive infrastructure damage due to the war. We also had vast reserves of fossil fuels which we exploited to considerable advantage.

To most of the world we were the industrial, technological, educational and even moral leader. Now and especially since the election of the present national leadership, much of this is being questioned.

On the energy front we are still a major producer of fossil fuels, especially with the advent of the marriage of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. The problem is that the world is moving on. Fossil fuels are yesterday’s technology. This has been clearly signaled by the Paris Agreement.

Seventy-two countries have ratified the agreement to reduce carbon emissions through efficiency and increasingly sophisticated solar and wind technologies. The countries which most vigorously develop and deploy these these “future fuels” will become the next leaders. Although we here in the US invented solar photovoltaics and pioneered wind power we are becoming small time consumers in this energy market.

The majority of wind turbines and solar panels here in the US are made overseas. Wind turbine blades, made here in the US, are made by foreign companies’ subsidiaries. Our labor goes to produce profit for companies in China and India.

And what does our current leader do? He has signed executive orders rolling back President Obama’s clean power plan that would have drastically reduced carbon emissions at little to no cost. The president’s proposed budget eliminates the energy star program – a program which has returned an astounding 300 dollars for every dollar invested! What does he say about our energy future? We’re gonna make coal great again. This makes about as much sense as subsidizing buggy whip manufacturing.

What does China do? China is on a trajectory to drastically reduce their reliance on coal. They are the world leader in producing photovoltaic panels and just recently became the world leader in installing solar. Denmark is a world leader in wind energy – currently getting 42 % of its electric power from wind. They are on target to reach 84% by 2035.

We currently get a scant 4 % of our electric power from wind and have essentially no target for improvement. We have essentially abandoned our position as world leader in the future of energy production.

Our immigration policy shows that we no longer really care about the “huddled masses yearning to breath free.” It is also impacting our educational leadership. Student in-migration is down. Forty percent of graduate schools are reporting decreased applications from foreign students. They represent the world’s best and brightest, who no longer see the US as the place to be.

Is this end of the empire? Just as the center of civilization passes from one society to another we very well may be witnessing the decline of or dominance in the world. We still possess the world’s biggest military but we may no longer be the world’s leader.

Sanctuary Cities

Recently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered a crack down on sanctuary cities. He has threatened withholding billions of dollars in federal grants that would otherwise go to the cities for projects such as transportation and housing infrastructure.

The title sanctuary city is a rather non-specific appellation but it refers to communities that don’t fully cooperate to capture and hold the undocumented for probable deportation by Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officials.

The Justice Department argues that sanctuary cities allow violent criminals to roam the streets. AG Sessions mentioned a couple of gruesome examples of undocumented men who had been picked up for minor crimes but released and then went on to commit much more violent crimes. Conversely officials in sanctuary cities argue that it is not their job, nor do they have the resources to act as proxies for ICE.

The question is, should we be detaining for likely deportation those undocumented immigrants who have been picked up for minor crimes? Answers to a few questions would be helpful. Do undocumented immigrants commit violent crimes at higher rates than legal immigrants and/or citizens? Is the level of violent crime higher is sanctuary cities than others? Can this kind of police action actually make cities less safe?

To the first question, numerous studies over many years have shown that undocumented immigrants are no more violent than those born here. Census data for 1980-2010 shows that US citizens are anywhere from twice to five times as likely to be incarcerated for violent crimes than immigrants. The Migration Policy Institute has concluded that “undocumented immigrants had crime rates somewhat higher than those here legally, but much lower than those of citizens.“

The president has claimed that sanctuary cities are breeding grounds for violent criminals, but again the data don’t support the assumption. Professor Tom Wong, Professor of Political Science, UC San Diego analyzed data from the FBI statistics and found that counties designated as “sanctuary” areas by ICE typically experience significantly lower rates of all types of crime, including lower homicide rates, than comparable non-sanctuary counties.

So what, you say. It’s good to get rid of those illegal aliens, whether they are violent criminals or not. Maybe so, maybe not. In February an undocumented woman went to the El Paso, Texas county court house to obtain a protective order for an abusive domestic partner. While there ICE agents arrived and detained her for probable deportation. Since then undocumented women across the country are apparently dropping domestic abuse cases for fear of deportation. Essentially it is open season for domestic abusers. And it’s not just domestic abusers. In this type of environment any undocumented person is subject to more violence because the violator knows that they are less likely to have their crime reported.

Police everywhere know that finding the bad guys/solving crimes is a whole lot easier if they have the community on their side. When police go to the door to ask an occupant if they have knowledge of a crime in front of their home, is an undocumented person going to cooperate, if they know it may result in their deportation? Or will they just not answer the knock, even if it means a violent criminal remains at large?

Antarctica and Global Warming

Antarctica, the southernmost continent is literally the last place on earth. It occupies about 14 million square kilometers (5.4 million sq. miles.) For comparison, it is about twice the size of Australia and half the size of North America. Because of the tilt of earth’s axis and local elevation, it is obviously the coldest with an average wintertime temperature of – 60°Celsius, and summers averaging -28° C.

Interestingly Antarctica is also the driest, windiest and highest. Annual precipitation is 20 centimeters (8 inches) and most of that falls on coastal areas with the interior even drier. Ironically, although it is a desert based on precipitation, it contains 70% of the world’s fresh water as ice.

Wind speed averages 23 mph across the continent, but straight line winds of 200 mph have been recorded. Compare this with a category 5 hurricane whose winds are a puny 156 mph. Only an F5 tornado creates wind speeds equivalent to that encountered routinely on Antarctica.

One of the reasons for the cold weather in Antarctica, as noted earlier is its average elevation. The North Pole is at sea level, actual below it because the land mass at the North Pole is under the Arctic Ocean. The average elevation however for Antarctica is over 8,000 feet. The South Pole itself is over 9,000 feet and the highest point is 16,300 ft. Ice over much of Antarctica is a mile or more thick.

So what’s up (pun intended) with Antarctica? The temperatures? Well, it’s complicated as parts of the continent are warming while others aren’t. First the warming part. Both computer climate models and recorded data over decades show that while the planet is warming as a whole, the polar areas are warming even faster. This is a result of several different phenomena. Clouds, ice cover, water vapor and large scale weather patterns have all be implicated.

Ice is shiny stuff and reflects much sunlight. As ice over the sea melts the sun warms the less shiny water more. The term for light reflected divided by light absorbed is albedo. For very shiny snow or ice the albedo is about 0.9 (total reflection would result in a value of 1.0). Open oceans are much less reflective hence absorb more heat and have an albedo of less than 0.1.

The south pole has a confounding variable – the ozone hole. Essentially the reduced amount of ozone over the south pole reaches a maximum in the austral spring. The ozone hole is gradually decreasing due to international protocols which banned the use of chlorofluorocarbons. As the amount of ozone returns to normal the temperatures in the south pole are expected to rise as rapidly as in the north. As the Antarctic continent warms and sea ice melts, some of the land based, 1 to 3 mile thick layer of ice will begin to melt.

Were all this ice to melt sea levels would rise over 200 feet. This catastrophic sea level rise would inundate Manhattan Island, Miami, New Orleans, Houston and on and on. This won’t be happening soon, but without first recognition of human impact to global warming, it will happen.

Environmental Services

mangrove atoll

mangrove atoll

Environmental services is not only a name for numerous companies that provide, well, environmental services but also the concept that our environment provides many services to humanity. Also called ecosystems services, these range from the obvious such as recreation and food to the not so obvious but critical – regulation of the climate. Because of the burgeoning human population and the ever increasing use of fossil energy sources, these services are being taxed like never before.

The importance of climate stability is in the news daily for those willing to pay attention. The trend for decades has been that every year is warmer than the last, glaciers and polar ice are melting at an alarming rate and sea levels are rising (three-quarters of the world’ megacities are coastal.) Less commonly addressed are some physical changes occurring in the oceans.

The oceans provide half the people in the world with their principal source of protein. Ocean fisheries provide sixteen percent of all protein consumed by humans. These food sources are under threat and the threat can turn into collapse (of fisheries for example) frighteningly fast. This has been shown already due to overfishing.

The grand banks off the coast of Newfoundland had been the world’s premier cod fishery. Europeans may have fished the site even before European settlement, but surely by the sixteenth century. Hundred’s of millions of tons of cod were taken over the centuries, a supply thought to be inexhaustible. In the late fifties, fisheries managers began to grown concerned. In 1968 the catch had dropped to just under a million tons. Just six years later it was down to under fifty thousand tons. The Grand Banks are now closed to international fishing. In a couple of decades, the blink of an eye in terms of human populations, the world went from “inexhaustible” to gone.

Conceivably other fisheries can be managed or at least one would hope. It is also hoped that burning fossil fuels can be managed, but there is little sign of that happening here in the United States. Two factors negatively impact ocean fisheries due to burning fossil fuels, heat and acidity. Both these problems have to do with the solubility of gasses in liquids. Unlike solids which are increasingly soluble in liquids, gasses are just the opposite. Atmospheric gasses such as Nitrogen and Oxygen dissolve better in colder water.

Those who fish the streams and lakes of Arkansas know that trout can only survive in cold water. Colder water contains more Oxygen which trout require. Cool water fisheries support species such as smallmouth bass whose Oxygen requirements are less than trout but greater than largemouth bass.

The long and short of it is that as the oceans warm they loose Oxygen which can stresses fish – they are slowly suffocating.

The other ocean problem is the dissolution of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) which causes acidity. Although CO2 is a gas it reacts with seawater to become carbonic acid. The oceans are now about thirty percent more acidic than at the start of the industrial revolution when burning fossil fuels began in earnest. Coral reefs, the nurseries of the oceans are suffering from damage due to both heat and acidity.

Carbon and Taxes

There are a number of ways to raise money to pay for the various and sundry functions of government. Here in the United States we use many different taxes. At the local level, say county and city, the emphasis seems to be on real and personal property taxes and sales taxes. At the federal level income taxes predominate. There are many variations on these taxes such as luxury taxes, estate taxes, capital gains taxes and special exceptions, i.e, tax deductions, but a common theme runs through them all. In addition to raising money for the operation of the government, taxes are aimed a social policy.

Progressive income tax rates, dependent allowance for income taxes, sales tax exemptions for food and drugs, deductions for mortgage interest and child care to name just a few. The result of all this is a rather arcane web of taxes that keep certified public accounts and tax lawyers in the the tall cotton. It could be simpler, for example we could get rid of all deductions and exemptions.

Much of Europe uses a VAT or Value Added Tax. Basically this is a sales tax on the increased value of an item. Iron ore is minded to make steel, which is used to make pipe, which is used to lay an natural gas line. At each point the value of the product increases and that increased value is taxed. A similar tax has been proposed in the US called a “fair tax.” This is a 30 % tax on sales of goods and services. The rate is set to be revenue neutral, that is it would replace other taxes but neither increase or decrease net revenue.

The flaw with any tax is that it punishes some activity. Some are intentional such as sin taxes, those on the sale of tobacco and alcohol, but others aren’t meant to punish but do just the same. Income taxes punish income (work), sales taxes punish sales (business), and capital gains taxes punish savings.

We have to collect taxes and that collection inherently punishes some activity. An alternative promoted by environmentalists is a pollution tax. The tax rate could be calculated to be income neutral, and the tax rate of a polluting activity could be based on the importance of the pollutant. The most mature of these pollution taxes is called a carbon tax, actually a tax on Carbon Dioxide released on combustion of fossil fuels. Over ninety per cent of of fossil fuels go to the generation of energy (do work), the remainder being used for the manufacture of plastic bags and axle grease.

The carbon tax would embed an additional cost for heating your home, fueling your car (and the trucks and trains that move the goods across the country,) and keep the lights on in your home, as long as this work was done via fossil fuels.

An most important added value of this form of taxation is the favoring of clean energy production. Solar, wind, and geothermal processes do produce useful work but don’t pollute so wouldn’t be taxed. This would greatly stimulate the adoption of sustainable energy for our future.

The Travel Ban

During the presidential campaign Donald Trump made a point of excoriating Muslims. In December 2015 he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” This Muslim ban was talked up throughout his campaign and even after his election but before the inauguration.

It is not surprising then that he acted on the proposition. His initial action was a blanket ban on all travelers from seven middle eastern countries: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, and Somalia. The ban was initially without exception, even for those who already had valid visas or green cards. The justification of the ban is based on protecting our citizens from terrorists. It is important to note that not a single terrorist attack has occurred in the United States by a citizen of any of the aforementioned countries. Not one.

The travel ban did not include several countries in the middle east whose citizens have committed terrorist acts, including the deadliest attack on American soil, the hijacking of planes and their subsequent suicidal attacks on the twin towers in New York and the pentagon in Washington, DC. These hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon, none of which are on the travel ban list.

The ultimate question is will this action really make us safer? As noted the travel ban was not on all Muslims, but on all citizens from a select group of predominantly Muslim countries, so strictly speaking it was not a Muslim ban. In politics however, perception is reality. Trump spoke of a Muslim ban but banned everyone from Muslim countries. This will be perceived by many as the Muslim ban that he flogged repeatedly.

There are close to 2 billion followers of Islam worldwide and most of them are neither in the middle east or have anything to do with terrorism, yet. The Muslims in the banned countries represent only 12 percent of all Muslims, yet all Muslims have been insulted by this action. It is easy to see how this could be used as a recruitment tool for groups such as ISIS and Al Queda. Will the ban make us less safe?

What we get with this travel ban is a further polarization of attitudes of our citizens, a questionable change in the likelihood of terrorism on our soil and an image to the international community that grows darker by the day.

The United States has been a beacon of hope and promise for the disenfranchised around the world. After all, we are in the main an immigrant nation. Our success as the world leader depends to some degree on perceptions of us as a free and open society.

Hottest Year Ever

Drum roll please, and the hottest year in recorded history is…wait for it… 2016! Actually this is not so surprising. The previously hottest year in history was 2015, and the next hottest before that 2014. If you think you see a trend there you do.

With the exception of 1998, the 15 hottest years ever occurred in this century. 2016 was 2 degrees hotter than the average of the 20th century. In contrast the last recorded coldest year was in 1911, over a century ago. These records have been recorded in the troposphere, the atmospheric layer closest to the ground. Sea surface temperature measurements are congruent.

The culprits for the heating are anthropogenically generated (man- made) releases of green house gases to the atmosphere. Carbon Dioxide causes over half of the radiative forcing so it is the major player but Methane, otherwise known as natural gas is a close second. The concentration of Methane in the atmosphere has recently been spiking and the likely source is fugitive emissions from fracking.

The new president has claimed that his EPA will “protect the environment and human health”; however, he has on numerous occasions called global warming a hoax. He has claimed that because it is cold outside (in the winter of course) that global warming doesn’t exist. He has claimed that the overwhelming scientific consensus is driven by climate scientists profiting from their research. The only thing making any sense here is that he would see money as the driver for any research outcome.

It’s not just the scientists here in the USA, every scientific body on earth that has addressed the issue agrees, global warming is real and a threat to both the environment and human health. This bears repeating: No scientific body of national or international standing holds a formal opinion denying the reality of global warming.

The actions so far in the new presidency seem to reinforce his prior proclamations. His selection to head the EPA is Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s Attorney General. Attorney General Pruitt has sued the EPA over numerous regulations designed to clean our air and water. He has begrudgingly accepted that it is getting warmer, but questions humanity’s responsibility. Further he questions what if anything we should be doing.

Rick Perry, former governor of Texas and the selection to head the Department of Energy is similarly poorly informed on climate science. Perry has recently softened his stance. Previously he claimed the science of global warming was a “contrived phony mess.” Now he thinks it’s real but efforts to combat it should not cost American jobs. Study after study has shown that there are many more jobs created with sustainable energy over continuing to exploit fossil fuels.
Regulations in the sights of the president include previous efforts of several presidents going back to Jimmy Carter. Look for lifting of the transportation fuel efficiency standards, blocking the clean power plan to regulate power plant emissions, and reduced restrictions on coal mining and use.

Preventing additional accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere is a zero sum game. You either add or you don’t. Utilizing fossil fuels adds, using sustainable energy supplies such as wind and solar don’t.