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Politics and Statehood

Congress has the power to create new states and the bar is not high, at least according to the constitution:

“New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the congress.”

That’s it. In practice, things have been more complex. Several statehood applications have been rejected. Sequoia would have been a state, basically to give statehood to Native American tribes in what is now Oklahoma. Deseret would have been a state encompassing much of the inter-mountain west but was likewise never approved by congress.

Congressional approval of statehood requires only a simple majority vote, no supermajorities, no participation by other state legislatures, just a simple majority vote in congress. Of course, the president could veto the enabling legislation which would require an override vote requiring two-thirds majorities in both bodies.

In the past, the Republican and Democratic parties have worked to some degree to compromise on objectives but in our current political environment that doesn’t seem to be the case. So why a discussion of statehood now? Raw political power, in particular control of the majority in the Senate.

Currently, a minority of voters in this country wield power over the majority. This is an undeniable fact of our electoral system. The current administration received about three million fewer votes than the opponents in 2016 and the current elected majority in the US Senate represent about seventeen million fewer voters than are represented by minority members.

I’ve done no polling but I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that most in the United States truly believe in democracy. It is a simple concept: everybody gets a vote and each of those votes is worth the same. Current polls show a majority favor abandoning the electoral college, up from polling in the past.

Currently, a minority of voters in this country wield the power over the majority. This is an undeniable fact of our electoral system. President Trump received about three million fewer votes than Clinton in 2016 and the current elected majority in the US Senate received about seventeen million fewer votes than were received by the minority.

If new states were created such as Washington DC and Puerto Rico, this could tip the balance of power in the Senate and electoral college. This is hardball but it is the game as it is played today. It needn’t be. Comity could prevail because the Senate makes its own rules. If the Senate dictated, they could simply require that passage of a bill would require enough votes in the Senate to actually represent the majority of voters.

Equity in the electoral college could be managed via a compact where the electors pledge to cast their votes for whomever wins the popular vote.

Perpetuation of the this system will only get worse if the current demographic changes continue to move people out of rural areas into more urban environments. When will “enough be enough?” How disparate will the system be before reform is recognized as necessary?

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

The Broad Street Pump – Epidemiology

Resolution of the COVID crisis, that is the saving of health and lives will take several approaches. Disease in an individual is studied in a clinic and or hospital. Laboratory studies complement the data gathered in the clinic. For widespread disease study in an affected population, epidemiology is the appropriate tool.

The study of epidemiology is not unlike journalism where one attempts to weave a story around the common threads of illness in multiple individuals. It is the who, what, where, when, how of medicine. The tools of epidemiology range from good old gumshoe to powerful forensics such as DNA. Contact tracing is part of epidemiology. There is a rich history of epidemiology. Circa 400 Before the Current Era (BCE) Hippocrates noted in an essay “On Airs, Waters, and Places” that environmental and host factors may influence the course of diseases.

In the annals of epidemiology one study and one name stand out. London, England in the mid-1800s was racked by cholera outbreaks. The disease often ravaged poorer communities in flood-prone low-lying areas where fog would form. The “night air” was thought by some to be the source of cholera, called the miasma theory. John Snow, a physician thought otherwise.

He felt that it was more likely waterborne. He studied a particular outbreak in the summer of 1854. The surviving patients were in hospitals over a wide area, rather than localized. This in itself was unique. Dr. Snow with the help of Reverend Whitehead interviewed the various patients, determined where they lived, and then examined where they went on a daily basis. Essentially he took the role of a geographer to find how the paths of those impacted crossed.

Although the cholera victims lived at a distance of each other, the one commonality was their drawing drinking water from one pump – The Broad Street Pump. John Snow removed the handle from the Broad Street pump and ended the cholera epidemic. It turned out that this one well was contaminated with sewage. Cholera is waterborne. If exposure to contaminated water is stopped, the disease is stopped.

So what does epidemiology say about our current pandemic? It has revealed that our current pandemic most likely originated in a Wuhan wet market where a diverse number of different wild animals are kept for sale, even butchered on the spot. This strongly suggests and DNA studies help confirm that COVID-19 is a zoonotic, a disease formally in an animal that has “jumped” to humans. Other zoonoses include AIDS and Ebola.

Although the virus originated in Asia, the biggest outbreak, that in New York City, came through Europe on its way here. The virus is spread by droplets and/or aerosols of an infected individual which can travel several feet from just breathing but especially from sneezing or coughing. These droplets/aerosols are infectious when they contact mucus membranes of the mouth or nose.

The solution in the long term is vaccination but that is unlikely to be available until sometime next year. Until then the solution is to physically block transmission. Masks vary in their efficacy but just about any mask is better than no mask. Physical distancing works and the greater the distance the better. And wash your hands.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Fungi, a Few Highlights

There are estimated to be some five million species of fungi, from deadly mycotoxin producing molds to gastronomic delights worth hundreds of dollars per ounce. From the fungus singularly responsible for the global alcohol industry to a fungus responsible for jock itch.

The defining characteristics include the fact that they are eukaryotes – they have a cell nucleus unlike bacteria and possess specialized organelles that allow for the “burning of fuel;” that is, combining oxygen with sugars to produce energy. They are all sessile – they can’t get up and move around nor do they use sunlight like plants. As absorptive heterotrophs, they gain nutrients by digesting food externally and then absorbing it. By this function alone they are very important in recycling plant and animal matter.

On the positive economic side, the arguably most important fungus is yeast, specifically of the genus Saccharomyces, or Brewer’s yeast. The global market for alcohol is one to two trillion dollars per annum. There is evidence of wine production dating to circa 6000 BCE in eastern Europe. A minor side product of brewing is a one-hundred-year-old product called Vegemite, a mixture of leftover brewer’s yeast and some flavoring – Australians swear by it.

Some fungi known as smut can cause damage to plants and especially stored grains. An interesting example that plagued medieval Europe is ergot, Claviceps purpurae. This fungus can grow on rye and related grains and when the infected grain is consumed causes a condition known as Saint Anthony’s Fire. Chronic low-level ergot poisoning leads to gangrene with damage to extremities whereas acute poisoning results in headache, spasms, disturbances of the GI tract, convulsions, and psychosis. During the middle ages in Europe whole communities would have been occasionally affected. The last know outbreak of St Anthony’s Fire occurred in France in 1951.

Alkaloids from ergot were later used to produce a semi-synthetic derivative known as LSD – the hallucinogenic drug made famous by Timothy Leary in the 1960s. Other hallucinogens are known to occur naturally in several different species of mushrooms, They were traditionally used during religious ceremonies.

The Aztecs consumed a mushroom known as Teonanacatl, Pslyocibe mexicana. In Siberia a mushroom called Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria was similarly employed with a unique twist. In a Siberian ceremony the Shaman would consume the mushrooms, then because the active drug was not transformed, would serve his urine to acolytes. Drinking the urine produced the same effects as having consumed the mushrooms themselves.

Consumption of many wild mushrooms is capable of producing all sorts of untoward symptoms from minor GI problems up to an agonizing death. One edible, but it depends, mushroom is called the inky cap, Coprinopsis atramentaria. Consumption of this mushroom, common in both Europe and North America, is not a problem unless alcohol is consumed ant the same time or shortly thereafter.

The mushroom has a compound that interferes with the metabolism of alcohol. This causes a mildly toxic intermediate, acetaldehyde, which induces nausea and vomiting within minutes of consumption of alcohol. Not surprisingly another common name for this mushroom is tippler’s bane.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University. His website is Bob of the Ozarks,

Flowering Plants

This time of year there is an explosion going on. The woods around my house are exploding with flowers. Flowering plants, known as angiosperms, are one of natures great inventions. Of course I use the phase loosely, flowering plants came about due to evolution.

The first life on the planet was a very simple single-celled organism. Life was simple and relatively unchanged for a billion or two years until the evolution of a specialized type of organism known as cyanobacteria, often improperly referred to as blue green algae. These “critters” changed the world.

They were the first photosynthetic organisms which means they used sunlight to fix carbon from the atmosphere, producing oxygen in the process. It took another couple of billion years for the oxygen produced by these organisms to saturate the atmosphere to anything like the concentration that exists today.

It took another billion years for more complex, multi-cellular plants to show up on land, something that we would recognize as plants. Simple organisms such as mosses and liverworts were the first. Plant complexity expanded over millions of more years to include the gymnosperms. A giant leap evolutionarily occurred with the plant sex. This favored more rapid evolution and greater adaptability of plants. Pollen from pines is the male part of plant sexuality. I mean really, do the males have to coat everything for miles around with their sperm?

Last to show up evolutionarily in the plant kingdom are the flowering plants – the angiosperms. They date to about two hundred million years ago. The flowering plants including trees and grasses that now dominate much of the land surface of the globe. A key to the success of flowering plants are the symbiotic partnerships which form between pollinating organisms and the plants. Plants produce sweet nectar, attractive colors and odors all to attract pollinators. Some produce odors resembling that of a decomposing corpse to attract flies for pollination.

Hummingbirds just arrived at my feeder a couple of days ago. They always arrive with the blooming of trumpet honeysuckle. These long tubular flowers are adapted to and provide nectar for hummingbirds who act as the primary pollinators.

Some orchids induce pollination via male bees by producing a flower that actually stimulates the bee to have sex with the flower. The attraction is both physical and by odor – the orchid produces a pheromone used by female bees to attract males.

Seed dispersal is important to the success of flowering plants. The energy a plant expends to produce a succulent fruit will go a long way to aid reproduction via seed dispersal by the animal that consumes the fruit. Many plants produce attractive nutritious fruits but toxic seeds. The fruit is eaten but the seed then excreted undigested, with added fertilizer from the animal excreted with the seeds.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.


Dealing with an Epidemic

Unless you live under a rock, you are at least aware that we have a viral infection rearing its head in the United States. Whether you call it an epidemic or a pandemic is immaterial. It began most likely in a market in Wuhan, China where any number of wild animal meats were on sale. Bats have been suggested but it isn’t yet clear.

The infection due to this virus is called COVID-19, as it is a member of a group of viruses known as corona viruses and it appeared in 2019. The virus itself has been given the name SARS-CoV-2 – short for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome second corona virus.

The first response by the government has been to close our borders to countries where an infection is already established. This response was too little too late. It appears the virus has been circulating in the United States for weeks now. There are reported cases in 15 states and 6 known fatalities. As a respiratory virus, its symptoms are similar to the annual flu but more lethal. It also seems to be more transmissible.

Meanwhile, on the economic front, the Federal Reserve has taken a step to stimulate business by lowering the rate it charges to loan money. The idea is to stimulate economic activity and get folks out to spend money. Weird huh? On the one hand, we are told to stay home to avoid the possibility of person to person transmission and at the same time get out in the public and spend to get the stock market value back up.

The Whitehouse proposed a couple of billion dollars to fight the epidemic and the Democrats have proposed much more. Even if approved it is not clear how this money will be allocated. Obviously a vaccine must be at or near the top of the list. Testing equipment and medical supplies from face masks to respirators are needed. Most important is to disrupt person to person contact. Officials have recommended the usual hand washing and if you exhibit symptoms, stay home – don’t go to work or school.

But here our for-profit healthcare system begins to fail us. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, a former drug company executive and pharmaceutical lobbyist, said that although he would want to make it affordable, he won’t promise that it will be. You hear all the time that related vaccines are “free” but the fine print says “with most insurance.” When the working poor get sick, they don’t stay home. If their children get sick, they go to school. There are a lot of folks whose jobs have no sick leave option – you don’t go to work you don’t get paid.

We need a healthcare system that recognizes it only works if it works for all. Free vaccinations. Full stop, payments to those who shouldn’t be going to work and payments for care of their sick children. And importantly a system that guarantees that they will still have a job if they stay home for an illness.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Europe Gets It

Donald Trump, early in his presidency stated his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, a voluntary agreement to which every nation around the world is a signatory. The scientific consensus around the world is that the planet is warming and humans are the cause. The response of the rest of the world is to work towards reducing the damage by limiting the use of fossil fuels as a major step.

President Trump’s position however is: “as of today the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country. This includes ending the implementation of the nationally determined contribution…”

Wind and solar, as replacements for coal are already the less expensive alternative for generating electricity. Leaders around the world know this and are implementing the use of renewable energy as a cost-saving measure in addition to reducing global-warming carbon emissions. Much of Europe is ahead of the curve. Below are the highlights of a few European countries energy mix.

Of course, some countries have natural advantages: Switzerland is mountainous, Denmark windy, and Spain sunny. Ninety-seven percent of Switzerland’s electrical energy is produced from hydropower. In terms of potential expansion, hydropower is difficult because in the developed world, most of the good sites are already developed.

Denmark is currently a wind energy leader, both in installed capacity and technology companies focused on wind technology. Over 60 percent of total electric generation is renewable, most of that coming from wind. Denmark utilizes much off-shore wind where turbines are larger and the winds stronger and more consistent, all of which lowers the cost.

As noted Spain benefits from the sun, but also some hydro. Their total fraction for renewable energy is 40%. Over half of that is solar photovoltaic arrays with some solar thermal plants. Surprisingly, about 4% is from geothermal which is tens times as much on a percentage basis than the United States.

Germany is interesting, they are not especially blessed with wind or solar but are working hard to utilize these sources none the less. Germany relies on coal and nuclear, both of which they plan to phase out in the not too distant future. Their renewable energy is now about 30%. Wind generation is spread across the Republic but especially in the north and off-shore in the Baltic and North Seas. Solar PV installations dominate in Southern Germany but there is much rooftop solar as far north as Cologne. For reference that is farther north than Winnipeg, Canada.
Compare the USA at 18% total renewables, 7% hydro, 6% wind, and 1% solar, with solar the fastest growing. With our vast potential for both wind and solar, we could be leading the world. More wind turbines and solar panels are needed but also needed is the infrastructure create a robust electrical grid. Particularly needed is transmission capacity to move an abundance of wind energy from the Midwest.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Hybrid, Plug-in Hybrid, and Full Electric Cars

Vehicles powered by electricity come in several flavors; simple hybrids (HEV,) plug-in hybrids (PHEV,) and fully electric (EV.) Their biggest advantage is that vehicles powered somewhat or completely by electricity are more efficient. This means they are inherently less costly to operate.

Toyota has led the charge with the introduction of their hybrid Prius in 1997 in Japan and 2001 in the US and the rest of the world. It is basically a traditional Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) and drive train. It has a small battery and electric motor which provides supplemental power, increasing the efficiency of the vehicle, even though the battery is charged mainly by the ICE. Scores of cars now use this hybrid technology and even a few pick-ups.

A very important component to all these electric vehicles is regenerative braking. When the car decelerates it causes the alternator in the vehicle to become a charging device for the battery, in the process slowing the vehicle without using the brakes.

Intermediate between simple hybrids and fully electric are plug-in hybrids. They are different in that they are true electric vehicles with an ICE to extend the range. The drive train in these vehicles are powered by the electric motor, the ICE is just used as a generator. The PHEVs have a battery which gives the vehicle a range of about 40 to 50 miles, generally enough for the majority of commuters. The vehicle can then be plugged in at home to recharge the battery for the next day’s commute. For longer trips, the ICE charges the battery on the fly.

The ability to charge a battery-powered car from the grid, that is by plugging into a wall outlet creates considerable savings as the energy to power a vehicle by electricity costs one third to one quarter as much as the cost of gasoline. Another bonus is cleaner air. Electric power is inherently cleaner than ICE power because much of the energy used to produce the electricity is from clean sustainable sources such as wind, solar and hydropower.

The real future of surface transportation is all-electric cars. These vehicles take advantage of regenerative braking and other computer controlled mechanisms. The EPA rates EVs by comparing the electric energy used to the amount of gasoline an equivalent ICE car would use. It comes out to something like 130 miles per gallon equivalent or better. Although electric cars initial costs are higher, over the lifetime costs are frequently lower than ICE vehicles due to lower fuel and maintenance costs.

By far and away the best known electric vehicle is the Tesla, built by visionary Elon Musk. Depending on the model, Teslas have a range of between 250 to over 300 miles on a charge. More importantly for Tesla however is the fact that a fast charging network has been built out across the US such that travel, at least on interstate highways, not a problem. The Tesla charge stations are located so that a 200 to 300 mile drive get one to the next charger. Charge times to fill the battery are on the order of an hour or less.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Immigration Issues

Recently, President Trump has proclaimed, referring to immigration at our southern border, that we are full. “… We can’t take you anymore. We can’t take you. Our country is full.” But really are we full? The birth rate in the United States has been below replacement level for several decades.

To maintain a stable population there must be 2.1 live births per female. The fertility rate now is less than 1.8 births per female. The average age in the United States has risen by ten years over the last 50 years, from 28 to 38.

Without immigration we would be experiencing negative growth – our population would be shrinking. Some might say that we do have too many here already and we need to shrink our population but that creates a demographic problem. Quite simply a shrinking population is an aging population. An aging population means a shortage of more youthful workers to maintain economic productivity, and provide the tax base to support social programs for the aged.

A rapidly growing population presents its own problems. Rapid growth means a youthful population. A very young population distribution can mean trouble for education and employment. Young , poorly educated, and unemployed could mean disaster. Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria all have an average age under 25. The most extreme are a number of African nations where the average citizen is a teenager.

The current growth rate in the United States is 0.7 %, due to the combination of births, deaths, and immigration. Compare this to the global growth rate of 1.2%. Although the population in both the United States and the world is growing, the rate of growth is slowing for both.

Over the last couple of decades, the immigration rate to the United States has been decreasing. This is partly due to a reduction in the number of migrants from Mexico. Increased prosperity (NAFTA?) has lowered the pressure for impoverished Mexicans to flee to the north.

The current wave of immigration, the infamous caravans, come from a region called the Northern Triangle (of Central America.) Poverty and Violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have driven whole families to risk a perilous journey of over 2000 miles to seek asylum in the United States.

Closing the border will not change the plight of the Central Americans. Besides, the migrants are flocking to legal ports of entry, close those and they will head to more dangerous border crossings in essentially unpredictable areas. Likewise unregulated totally open borders is no solution either.

The current rate of immigration is not particularly high. The only crisis is our inability to rapidly process the claims for asylum. We don’t need walls or barriers to immigration. We need facilities to humanely house the migrants. We need mechanisms to get them to where there are jobs so that they can do what they came for – raise their families in a safe and prosperous environment.

Over the past five years, the Immigration rate for Canada is about twice that of ours, and for Norway three times. We can handle it. Si Se Puede.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Voting – Compassion vs Fear

Most of the campaigns where the race is truly competitive, say within a five-point spread, are making their closing arguments. They are focusing on a message that has been honed over a year or so of campaigning.

In campaigns which involve national issues and even some local ones which have become nationalized a couple of central themes have evolved. Democrats are delivering a more positive message of the importance of compassion, health care, and civil and human rights whereas Republicans operate more on fear, fear of violence, fear of immigrants, and essentially fear of “others.”

Stepping away from the labels of Democrat and Republican and using the proxy of liberal and conservative, there is good evidence from psychological and even neurophysiological data for these different approaches to campaigning. It is not only what you think but actually how you think – how your brain responds to subject matter and what part of the brain is activated.

First the more obvious sources of difference between liberals and conservatives. Upbringing, education and personal experiences all influence our political attitudes. Two of these are easily observed. College students from conservative communities as freshmen in college tend to vote much like their parents. Graduate students from those same communities tend to vote much less conservatively. A liberal education actually does make one more liberal. Buzzwords like egghead, ivory tower and over educated are used almost exclusively by conservative commentators when describing liberals, never visa versa.

Women tend to be more liberal than men most likely due to personal experiences. Women are more likely to support collective actions which protect a broader swath of society such as children, minorities, ethnic groups, and the LGBTQ community. Conservatives are more of the “rugged individualists” where experience has shown them that personal actions are more important – being the soldier, the protector of the family, the breadwinner.

Of course all of the above are very broad generalizations and exceptions abound but the data are robust and come from very large data sets in well-controlled studies.

These themes are seen clearly in campaign verbiage. No better example is the issue of border protection and immigration. Republicans believe that building a wall at our southern border will protect us from immigrant hordes of murderers, rapists, and drug gangs. A recent twist is that immigrants from Central America will bring disease to our shores. One commentator claimed that they will bring Small Pox, a disease which no longer even exists. It was eradicated by an international vaccination program almost 40 years ago. He also warned of a biblical plague of leprosy, a disease easily treated with antibiotics.

They believe that blocking immigration from predominantly Muslim countries will prevent terrorism in our country while the only real current terrorist threat is from indigenous white nationalists. Recently pipe bombs have been mailed to news agencies and democratic politicians, and a gunman murdered eleven at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Democrats believe in an immigration policy that controls our borders while at the same time recognizing that migrants fleeing violence should be treated with dignity and respect. They don’t believe in open borders, regardless of what Republicans claim.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Electrifying Transportation

As of 2017, the United States regained the position of the world’s top oil producer. We now produce 15 million barrels per day (mmbd) of crude oil. That’s the good news, the bad news is that we consume 20 mmbd. The difference is made up from imports. Dependence on imported oil puts our markets at risk to forces beyond our control. A supply disruption in any overseas market would affect the price of oil here as oil is traded internationally.

As an example, we don’t buy oil from Russia or Iran, but if some or all of their production is taken off the world market, the price we pay for even domestically produced oil will rise. Oil is a fungible commodity and the price is set by international supply and demand.

Virtually all the crude oil we use goes to the manufacture of fuel- gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel for transportation. Conflict overseas could cost us dearly at the pump. All our other energy sources such as natural gas, nuclear, and renewables are produced exclusively here in the United States and therefore much less subject to the vagaries of the international markets.

The sensitivity of our transportation system to price fluctuations could be greatly reduced by a rapid conversion to electric powered vehicles because crude oil is not involved in the production of electricity.

Intense research is increasing the efficiency of renewable batteries. At the same time, economies of scale from increased production is lowering the cost. The technology already exists or is in pilot scale production for everything from passenger cars to big rigs like 18-wheelers.

Most automakers are already producing plug-in hybrids. These are really electric vehicles with a limited range, up to 50 miles. They also, however, have small gas engines that act as generators to power the vehicle after the battery charged from the grid is exhausted. Less common but in production are more exotic vehicles like the Tesla or the more mundane Chevrolet Bolt. These vehicles are total electric cars with ranges between charges of over 250 miles. As charging stations are built out, these total electric vehicles will rapidly replace the passenger vehicle fleet.

The production of electric light-duty delivery trucks trails passenger cars but not by much. Fleet delivery vehicles with limited daily range requirement are an ideal market. Daily round trips back to a station house for overnight recharge would actually help the electrical grid, as excess power already exists at night. Ryder Trucks has just ordered hundreds of electric trucks from a start-up company in – where else – California.

Buses for everything from rural schools to urban transportation systems are coming into play. Blue Bird Bus Company is now taking orders for electric buses to be delivered this year.

Most surprising is the advent of all-electric Semis. Elon Musk of Tesla and Space-X fame is now building prototypes of electric Semis with 80,000 lb Gross Vehicle Weight. These are the industry standard currently fueled by diesel that fills the interstates and move over half the freight in the United States. Tesla’s Semi is designed for a range of 500 miles and a recharge time of half an hour.