Monthly Archives: August 2013

My Fifteen Minutes of Blame

My fifteen minutes of blame

Blame the Republican house, blame the Republican party, Blame the Republicans. Yesterday evening Steve Womack – Republican representative for the third congressional district came to Russellville, Arkansas for a townhall meeting. A small crowd of about thirty folks listened quietly for about a half an hour as he politic-ed. From the nature of his presentation it was obvious that he worried more about his right flank.

He explained how shutting down the government over Obamacare was a bad idea. Not because it would harm the public welfare, but rather because it was politically unwise – it would turn the public away from the party. He staked out the traditional republican position, railing against spending, the Affordable Care Act, and the senate position on immigration. This kind of republican is actually more dangerous than the buffoons of the tea party.

A couple challenges from his right, shutting down the government and deporting all 12 million undocumented people were deflected. The real fun came from his left. A local pastor who happened to be sitting next to me made an eloquent and sensible argument for passage of the senate immigration bill. She spoke of how two of her parishioners, brothers, risked their lives (and their mothers life savings) by riding on the tops of trains for three weeks to get to the United States for a job. She was taunted somewhat by the crowd about lazy Mexicans, even though she had previously said that they had traveled for three weeks and risked life and limb FOR A JOB. I suspect those brothers have a stronger work ethic than most of the people in the room.

Then I got a few bites at the apple. On one of his slides (there’s an anachronism) he included a bullet on health savings accounts. [ME] OK, consider a guy with a health savings account who gets really, really sick; cancer, heart attack, or stroke with extended hospital care. He runs up a tab that is twice his savings. Who picks up the remainder of his costs? Somebody needs to pay for the drugs and reimburse the nurses and aides and janitors who cared for him. Bankruptcy is about his only alternative. I’ll tell you who pays, we do through our insurance premiums! [HE] ummm. He gave no real answer, he just went off on how if you have this savings and you don’t use it for healthcare, then you have this nice little savings account to use for other purposes. The long and short of it: he wouldn’t or couldn’t answer the question.

Probably my favorite encounter of the evening is when I asked another simple question: [ME] I understand why we all have an obligation to our common national defense, why not a similar obligation to our common national health? [HE] uhhh. Then he gestured by holding his hands in the air as if he were trying to measure the relative weight of a couple of objects. [HE] The two aren’t the same, providing for the national defense is in the constitution! [ME] So is providing for the general welfare! Then he said something about having skin in the game, but provided no real answer. He tap danced around the subject for a while, only to make his case worse.

He said something which I still don’t understand about do I pay to get my teeth cleaned. Maybe he was leading to a discussion of preventive care. [HE] I’m proud that while mayor of Rogers, AR we built a taxpayer-funded Adult Wellness Center. A lot of people benefit because of the center, why one gentleman I talked to said that he paid over 2000 dollars a month for some medication but since he started coming regularly to the center, his costs for the medication have been cut in half!

My jaw-droppingly obvious answer: [ME] My point exactly. If we taxpayers act together we can save ourselves some money. If we provide preventive care for the poor we will save money overall. Ten cents a day spent on the front end for a generic blood pressure drug can save us hundreds of thousands dollars in the prevention of just one hear attack or stroke. And that is a big part of the Affordable Care Act! [HE] We’ll just have to agree to disagree! He made my point, what else could he say?

One final egotistical riff. Another participant there who knows me commented on something about caps on payments for physical rehab. He said “as Dr Allen said…” while gesturing towards me. Womack swung his gaze at me and his eyes got just a little bit bigger. I guess titles still impress some people. It was just a funny moment.


What about China?

There is a consensus among virtually all scientists that humans, by burning fossil fuels, are contributing to global warming and thus changing the climate. The climate has changed many times over the billions of years of earth’s existence, so what if we are changing it, why does it matter?

It matters because we are changing the climate on a timescale never seen before; hundreds, even thousands of times faster than any naturally occurring climate change. We are changing the climate at a rate which can cause massive extinctions as plants and animals fail to adapt.

The only viable solution is to stop burning fossil fuels. Coal, oil and natural gas represent carbon that was removed from the atmosphere over hundreds of millions of year. We are burning up these fuels at a prodigious rate, returning all that carbon to the atmosphere over a couple of hundred years. This has resulted in much, much higher concentrations of heat trapping gases and particulates in the atmosphere. Additionally we are making the oceans much more acidic.

We have to stop! We have to decarbonize as quickly as possible. We have started but only by baby steps. The fastest growing carbon free alternative for producing electricity in the US is wind power, which has increases by thirty per cent over the last five years. That’s the good news, the bad news is that that represents less than three percent of our total production.

Our solar electric production has increased by a phenomenal five hundred per cent, but has further to go with only a tiny fraction of one per cent of total electric production. We have a long, long way to go. And there are impediments. One argument against abandoning fossil fuels is that we will be at a competitive disadvantage with other countries that continue to rely on fossil fuels.

So what are our economic competitors doing? What about China? If the objective is to limit carbon release to the atmosphere but China isn’t why should we? And India, if India is still polluting, why do we have to stop? You know in some childish, schoolyard way I guess that makes sense. But we need to be adults about this. We need to provide the global leadership to show the world how it can and should be done.

The US consumes close to one quarter of the world’s resources, yet we constitute a bare five per cent of the global population. It shouldn’t be a matter of what others are doing, but what we need to do to get our house in order.

Actually the “what about China” question is an UH-OH. China is already the world leader in wind power; growing by leaps and bounds, twice as fast as the US over the past five years. How about wind generation as a fraction of total energy production?



Denmark beats us by an order of magnitude, with over twenty per cent of total electric production from wind.

We are similarly behind for solar electric. China is the world leader in the production of Photovoltaic panels, and Germany leads in per capita production, over twenty times the US ratio.German-Solar-Houses

We still have the largest economy in the world and if we were to invest in renewables we could be a world leader in preparing for a carbon-free future. Think American Exceptionalism.

poison ivy

Poison Ivy

The old adage “leaves of three, let it be” helps to identify and therefore avoid poison ivy. The plant is polymorphic, growing as ground cover, small shrubs up to two or three feet high, or a climbing vine. It is often confused with virginia creeper which has five leaves. Formally named Toxicodendron radicans, it and other related plants contain urushiol (oo-rush-ee-ol) . The substance is present in all parts of the plant; leaves, stems, roots, and berries. Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are known to cause the characteristic itchy, blistering rash.



Other plants such as cashews also have urushiol when raw and must be properly processed, shelled and roasted, to remove the plant oil. Lacquer, the stuff that produces the beautiful shiny finish in furniture, contains small amounts of urushiol and can affect hypersensitive individuals. The name urushiol comes from the Japanese name for Lacquer, urushi.

The first time, or first few times one is exposed there usually isn’t a reaction. Only after being exposed does one become sensitized and on second exposure develop the itchy rash. This is because urushiol is an allergen, something which causes an allergic reaction , and and the allergy has to be “learned” by exposure.

Actually it is a bit more complex. Only proteins, very large molecules, can cause an allergic reaction. Much of our bodies are protein so our immune system must be able to distinguish our proteins and foreign proteins. Antibodies develop as a method to rid the body of foreign protein. A whole cascade of chemical reactions occur once the immune system identifies a foreign protein. Urushiol is not a protein but a substance know as a hapten. Haptens are small molecules which can chemically react with protein. Once a protein, for example the keratin of our skin, has reacted reacted with urushiol our bodies no longer recognize the protein as “self” but rather as foreign.

Urushiol is a fat soluble oleoresin, which means that it can penetrate the skin within an hour or two. There it reacts, “labels” the protein, and sets the allergic reaction in motion, the rash occurring several hours after exposure. Heavier exposures result in a faster reaction.

This has lead to the misconception that the allergen may be carried through the blood. For example heavy exposure to the back of the hand and only slight exposure to the upper arm means that the rash will show up on the hand first and arm only later.

Another misconception is that the fluid present in the blisters contains the poison. Once the blisters form, the poison is long gone. You can’t get a reaction just by coming in contact with someone else’s rash. You can be exposed by secondary contact however. There is a fairly wide variation is sensitivity so exposure and subsequent reaction can occur when a sensitive person handles the clothes of a less sensitive person.

In extreme cases, people are exposed by inhaling smoke particulates from burning poison ivy. This can be dangerous as the rash occurs in the throat and even in the lungs.

Geothermal Heat Pumps

The term geothermal when applied to heat pump technology means that the ground is used as a heat exchange medium, rather than the air. Heat pumps are nothing more than reversible devices to heat and cool a home.

The technology is the same as refrigeration. When a gas expands, it absorbs energy from the air, thus cooling the surroundings. Refrigeration works by using a pump to compress a gas, called the working fluid. The compressed gas, now a fluid, is moved to the area to be cooled and then allowed to expand. The heat being moved by a heat pump is expelled away from the area to be cooled. For most systems, “away” is the air outside the house.

The hotter it is outside in the summer, the harder a heat pump has to work to cool your home. This is where the ground comes into play. Geothermal heat pumps use the ground as “away”. The heat exchanger portion of a geothermal heat pump is connected via wells drilled or lateral lines on the property to water or some other liquid which transfers the heat to the much cooler ground, rather than the much warmer air. This process is more efficient at moving heat, and therefore summer cooling costs are lower.

The process is reversed in the winter. Compressing a gas inside a home produces heat, then the compressed gas is moved out of doors and allowed to expand and cool out of doors. Heat pumps are quite efficient at heating in the winter as long as the temperature is not too low. The colder it gets the less efficient the system. For a geothermal heat pump, it doesn’t matter what the air temperature is because the heat exchange is with the ground which is about fifty to sixty degrees Fahrenheit year round. In the winter the ground is warmer than the air so geothermal heat pumps are more effective than traditional air source systems.

Overall geothermal heat pumps are more efficient than normal air source heat pumps, particularly during the temperature extremes of summer and winter. In a study at Fort Polk Louisiana, heating costs during winter days below freezing were forty per cent lower. During the summer days with the temperature over ninety degrees, the costs of cooling were also about forty percent lower with the ground source heat pumps compared to air source heat pumps.

Heat pumps work best when the difference between the outside and inside temperatures are not great. Geothermal heat pumps take advantage of the more stable ground temperature, keeping the difference lower than for air source heat pumps.geothermal_heat_pump2


Geothermal systems require the drilling of wells or laying lateral lines to create the ground contact so the systems are inherently more expensive that simple air source systems, but because of their greater efficiency, usually have payback periods on the order of five to ten years.

Geothermal Energy

The term geothermal has come to be associated with two technologies which are only tangentially related; first, power can be produced by drilling into the ground to a depth where the rock is hot enough to boil water. The other use of the term geothermal is associated with ground source heat pumps which need only drill down a few feet to a temperature of fifty to sixty degrees Fahrenheit.
Utility scale power can be produced by drilling into the ground to a depth where the rock is hot enough to boil water to produce steam. The steam is then used to drive a turbine to generate electricity just as a nuclear reactor or a coal fired power plant produces steam to turn turbines. Electricity production from geothermal heat requires drilling several kilometers into the earth and is consequently very expensive, but in certain locations heat is near enough to the surface to make its utilization practical.
Heat at the core of the earth is approximately 6000 degrees Celsius, hence a temperature gradient exists: twenty five degrees C per kilometer. The heat is due to at least two factors, residual heat from the accretion of the planet over four billion years ago and radioactive decay of certain elements such as Uranium and Thorium.
To economically produce power, hot rock must be within three or four kilometers of the surface. This only occurs in geologically active regions, such as areas with earthquakes and/or volcanoes. In these locations fissures in the earth’s crust allow movement of magma near enough to the surface to be exploited for power production.
The simplest design for a geothermal power plant takes advantage of hydrothermal convection. Cool water from the surface seeps underground, is heated and then rises back to the surface. The heated water, now steam, is obtained by drilling wells to capture the steam and directing it to turbines for energy production. The water from the condensed steam can then returned to continue the cycle.
Although the heat is essentially free, the cost of drilling and maintenance of equipment can be high. Subterranean steam extracts caustic materials which corrode even the most inert metals. A limiting factor for energy production can be the rate of heat transfer through rock. As heat is extracted from rock surrounding the well site, heat must be transferred through the rock, limiting the rate of heat extraction.
The United States leads the world in geothermal electric capacity. The US has about 2.7 GigaWatts installed, a quarter of world capacity. Twenty six plants in one location called the geysers,

geysers north of San Francisco, accounts for three quarters of the total US production. For comparison, one nuclear reactor has a capacity of just under one GW.
Parts of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, and much of Nevada and Hawaii have potential for geothermal electricity production and much of the Rocky Mountain area could extract useful heat for direct uses such as space heat for apartment buildings, schools, and other large facilities.