Articles for the Month of November 2016

In The News – Week of November 13th

A return to normality, at least as much normality as I can summon up in a post-apocalyptic, Orange-Hitler-as-President kind of world.  Some news stories of interest from over the past week:

Deer Mouse

A Deer Mouse…cute little suckers, but not when they try to enter your home! New research reveals they have the same genes that control speech in humans, so perhaps when one tries to get into the house, he’s just looking for a little camaraderie and conversation.

Other animals have genes for speech — I, of course, love birds.  I love attracting birds to my yard, with a small feeder complex outside of our sun room, and trees and bushes to attract birds.  Unfortunately, the feeders also attract other critters.  Some…Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels…are cute and I don’t mind.  Others…Deer Mice…are not wanted guests, particularly if they try to occasionally get into your home!  We’ve taken measures to get rid of them, but after reading this study, perhaps I overlooked one method…a simple conversation!  According to this research, many mammal species have been found to have the same kind of genes that regulate speech in humans.  This includes mice, the focus of this study.  Next time a wayward Deer Mouse decides he wants to investigate our house, perhaps a stern discussion will be all that’s needed to convince him to head back outside where he belongs.

Scientists react to election — From Nature, a summary of opinions from a number of scientists on what Trump’s election means for science in the U.S.  Some pretty high-minded statements about what Trump should consider as the government science agenda likely becomes realigned.  To the ten or so scientists offering their opinions and advice?  You’re giving the Trump administration FAR too much credit if you think there’s this much thought that’s going to be placed into their science agenda.  Look for far simpler motives (corporate profit, political motivations) than what these experts have outlined.

2016 set to break climate records — 2015 was the hottest year on record.  2016 is almost certainly going to break that record.  Perhaps this is why climate change doesn’t get anywhere close to the amount of attention it should be getting?  Is it pure boredom?  The same old same old story?  Indeed, at this stage you can take the title of this paragraph, leave the “2016” blank, and just fill in the current year from her on out, and there’s a good chance you’ll be correct.  Despite the lack of “novelty” in stories like this, perhaps the media should focus on how frighteningly commonplace such headlines have now become and what that means for our future.

Beer Pong

Science, used to explain the sanitary filth that occurs when playing beer pong.

Beer Pong Bacteria — I wasn’t ever a huge drinker in college. Perhaps I was just being smart.  In what has to rank as one of the most “fun” science experiments ever, scientists studied what happens from a sanitary standpoint when people play beer pong. It’s not pretty!  As you can imagine, if you bounce a ping-pong ball on a table, it hits the floor on occasion, it’s bouncing from cup to cup after people have been drinking from them…the biodiversity that starts to build up in the cups gets to be a little disgusting.  Perhaps that morning-after feeling isn’t all just from the alcohol…

Zika, Dengue, and Chikungunya all in one bite — Our vacation in 2015 was to the U.S. Virgin Islands. We’d never been in the Caribbean, and had a lovely cottage that we rented, with our own private beach and ocean access.  It was wonderful, and we really enjoyed the privacy, the snorkeling, and the beautiful weather.  One thing that was NOT enjoyed…the mosquitoes.  OH MY GOD, the mosquitoes.  Upon arriving, the Virgin Islands were in a very bad drought, to the point they were shipping in fresh water.  We were told that because of the drought, mosquito populations were very low.  Somebody forgot to tell the mosquitoes that!  I’ve never had so many mosquito bites in my life. In one way we were fortunate…”Chikungunya” disease had swept through the Caribbean the previous year, a new mosquito-borne virus that infected a very high percent of inhabitants across the region. It had largely burned itself out by our vacation, and despite the dozens of bites, none of us were ill.  As this story notes, scientists have now found that mosquitoes in North America have the ability to carry THREE tropical viruses…Zika, Dengue Fever, and Chikungunya.  For you lucky folks in the southern U.S., central America, or the Caribbean, you could strike the lottery and get sick from all three illnesses, all from a single mosquito bite.

The Onion

Facebook and Google are joining forces to reduce the influence of “fake” news online. I just hope they implement the new rules judiciously, and recognize the brilliant satire of The Onion! We NEED this kind of humor right now!

Facebook and Google cutting revenue to “fake” news sites — For anyone on Facebook, it can be rather annoying to see sensationalist “news” stories, often which include propaganda and other material that is anything BUT “news”.  During the campaign and after the election, stories were coming out that revealed a shockingly high proportion of the American Public relies on social media as their primary news source.  Given the preponderance of fake news (aka, “bullshit”) on Facebook, this week both Google and Facebook have cracked down on fake news sites, greatly reducing advertising revenue to sites that attempt to titillate or serve as click-bait for fake news.  Fake news didn’t decide the election (no, I’ll blame an ignorant, hateful electorate), but this is a nice move on the part of both Facebook and Google.  Both entities have such a massive influence over the distribution of information…it’s good to see them recognize the harm that can come from misleading information.

Skim Scum Stops Sickness — Is it possible we are just TOO focused on cleanliness, and that it is making us sick? Our skin is home to a bacteria-filled mini-ecosystem, one that we simply do not understand very well.  This research highlights the beneficial role one kind of bacteria plays in protecting the skin from diseases such as psoriasis, dermatitis, or even skin cancer.  With allergies and other select other diseases exploding over the last several decades, scientists are finding several similar situations, where our very cleanliness and focus on sanitation may have a negative impact on immune response and the progression of disease.

Eastern Fox Squirrel

Cute? Cuddly? How about EVIL SLAYER OF HUMANITY!?!?! Scientists have unexpectedly found that squirrels in Great Britain are serving as a host population for the same strains of leprosy that devastated Europe in the Middle Ages.

Gun Control Laws Work, Says Science — Americans seem hell-bent on ignoring fact and logic, despite the best efforts of scientists and other “truth-based” occupations.  While I’m sure this will be ignored by the vast majority of gun-loving, weapon-toting Americans, here’s yet another study that shows how incredibly effective gun control laws are at preventing violent crime. Americans, this is now your cue to 1) start screaming about the 2nd amendment, 2) start screaming at the people behind this study as liberal nincompoop, and 3) go out and purchase more guns and ammo for your in-home arsenal.

Leper Squirrels Invading Great Britain!! — There’s nothing to immediately panic about, my British friends.  Not yet, anyway.  But alas…those cute, cuddly Red Squirrels running around your yard could very well be infected with the same leprosy bacteria that caused such misery for humans in past centuries.  Leprosy dramatically declined in Europe after the Middle Ages, and is almost completely absent in today’s world.  However, scientists unexpectedly found that two different strains of leprosy bacteria have been found in Red Squirrels, strains that are remarkably similar to centuries-old versions that caused disease in humans.  Scientists are now working to understand how the bacteria has survived for so long in another host, and whether squirrels or other mammals may serve as a reservoir of the bacteria that could someday re-emerge and start infecting human beings again.

 

American “Christianity” (or lack thereof)

Coexist

A great idea, different religions, people with different beliefs, living in harmony. It might actually even work…if people would actually practice what they preach, and follow the actual teachings of their religion.

Yes, I’m an atheist.  A 100%, dyed-in-the-wool, god-denying atheist. I DO respect the right of people to believe whatever the hell they want to believe.  I will NEVER give anybody grief for following the true doctrines of Islam, Christianity, or any other religion.  While I don’t believe at all in the underlying premise of religion, of some omnipotent, invisible, all-powerful god overseeing the universe, the basic tenets of the major religions are, overall, honorable and good.  Teaching love, understanding, CARING for your fellow man…the world would be a truly wonderful place if the primary doctrines of these religions were actually followed. Given the overall “good” that nearly all religious belief teaches, I could easily overcome my certainty that there is no god, could easily overcome my cynicism on how much energy is spent on religious activity, and even SUPPORT these religions, in terms of what they’re supposed to be trying to accomplish.  I COULD respect religion and religious followers more, except for one tiny issue…

The actual doctrines of these religions seem to mean very little to their followers.

I’m not going to talk about Islam. The teachings of Islam are primarily the same as those of Christianity.  Yes, there clearly is a very small minority of Muslims who have twisted the teachings of Islam into an agenda of hate and intolerance.  Guess what America…they’re not alone.  Christianity has also become perverted in the U.S., primarily due to the forces of fear, hatred, and ignorance.

I was raised a Lutheran.  I went to church with my family every Sunday.  I hated it…primarily because I had to get out of bed early every Sunday morning!  Despite that, overall it helped shape who I am.  It taught me tolerance. It taught to love my fellow man.  It taught me how to be good to people.  As I grew up, as I started viewing the world through an objective lens, through the eyes of a scientist, the underlying belief in any “god” quickly faded away.  But the primary belief system has stayed with me.

The simple mantra of “practice what you preach” clearly comes into play this week with the election.  During the entire campaign, Donald Trump played on the fears and hatred of Americans.  He reveled in racism, stoking fear of Muslims, stoking fear of ANY immigrant, whipping up anger towards ANY group with a different skin color or religious belief.  He talked about a return to waterboarding and other torture techniques.  He’s a man on his 3rd wife, with documented affairs during the marriages of each. He’s a man who speaks of women as playthings, who openly said in an interview that  he doesn’t respect women.  He’s a man accused of assault by a number of women. He’s a man who has been sued over 3,000 times, is known for purposely stiffing contractors who have done work for him, and is currently involved in a fraud trial for Trump University.

In short…he’s not the most “Christian” of candidates!! Instead, you can make a very strong case that throughout American history, Donald Trump is the most corrupt, least “Christian” candidate that has ever received a major party nomination, much less won the presidency.  Did that cost him at the voting booth?  Did it cost him support among those with strong religious beliefs?

Not in the least.  With the possible exception of Utah, where a sizable chunk of principled Mormon voters refused to support him, Trump received very similar levels of support from evangelicals as have all past Republican candidates. For the past 30 years, Republicans have tried to cast themselves as the party most associated with Christian belief.  I understand the one issue, abortion.  I’m as liberal as liberal can be, and will always support a woman’s right to choose, to manage her own body, but even for me, abortion is a queasy issue.  I could possibly understand all the evangelical support for Trump, IF abortion were the driving issue.  However, there was very little discussion of abortion during the election, and it’s QUITE clear what actually drove Trump’s victory.

Racism.  Fear. Hatred.

What happened to those strong Christian beliefs? What happened to the actual TEACHINGS of Christianity in this election?  What happened to love, tolerance, helping your fellow man?  Instead, the overwhelmingly white “Christian” electorate that voted in Donald Trump erupted with anti-immigrant hate, “Build that wall!!” chants, violence towards non-whites at Trump campaign rallies.  We’ve seen ugly racial epithets and images, with an even more pronounced spike this week after the election.  We’ve seen groups like the KKK and alt-right actively back and endorse Trump, dreaming of a return to a “white” America.  We’ve seen vast support to end Obamacare, an effort that would result in 22 million Americans immediately losing health care coverage.  Ironically, despite all the hate in the campaign, we’ve also seen a rather hypocritical push by these same supporters to increase the role of Christianity in American life (while simultaneously trying to suppress Muslim influence).

In short…there’s VERY little of Trump’s campaign that jives with a Christian lifestyle.  How do “Christian” Americans reconcile their (supposed) religious belief with their actual actions?  Clearly they can’t.  You can’t claim a Christian heritage, yet actively support racism. You can’t claim a Christian heritage, yet value money and selfish greed over helping your fellow man.  You can’t claim a Christian heritage, yet base your lifestyle on the fear and HATRED of others.

I have a very difficult time with the entire idea of religious belief, not only because of my stance as an atheist, but because of the incredible hypocrisy from many self-proclaimed Christians in the U.S. I may be an atheist, but if there should actually be a God, I can guarantee you that in his/her eyes, I would be considered FAR more of a “Christian” than the vast majority of self-identified Christians in this country.

 

“The Great Melting Pot”

Nobel Prize

There have been six Nobel Prize laureates in the U.S. so far this year. EVERY ONE OF THE SIX is an immigrant to this country. That exemplifies what America SHOULD be, a place where a diverse, multi-cultural group of citizens work towards the greater good. Instead, this week has shown that’s all a sham, and we only value the “Great American Melting Pot” when it’s dominated by white Christians.

Remember when America was looked upon as the “Great Melting Pot”?  Remember when that was a source of tremendous PRIDE, when we loved that our populous was one of the most diverse and unique on the planet?  What the hell happened to that?

As this week (and the last year of campaigning)  have shown, it was all an illusion.  “The Great Melting Pot” was a great concept for Americans…until that Melting Pot started turning less white, and more diverse.  “The Great Melting Pot” was fine, as long as whites still held all positions of power, and those of a different race, color, or religious belief “knew their place” in the overall scheme, and didn’t rock the boat too much.  “The Great Melting Pot” was fine as long as whites felt comfortable and insulated from anything other that white, Christian culture.

This week certainly shows the incredible power of fear.  It shows the incredible distrust of “others”.  Please spare me any bullshit about this election being primarily driven by economic concerns.  Even supposed economic concerns voiced in the campaign from the working class were generally thinly veiled gestures towards racism, such as the outrage of immigrants taking “our” jobs.  Not that America actually believes in science, in FACT any more, but study after study after study have shown that the net impacts of immigration on the U.S.economy are very positive.

I’m fortunate enough to have a career and social circle where I get to experience a broad range of cultures. I’m fortunate enough that I get to witness firsthand the incredible contributions being made by immigrants who believed America was THEIR best opportunity to contribute to a brighter world.  And now, I’m unfortunate enough to witness first-hand the fear in their voices as they come to grips with rampant racism and hatred that is so broadly spread that we end up with an obvious racist as leader of the free world.

“The Great Melting Pot”…what a concept.  Perhaps someday we’ll actually evolve enough to make that pie-in-the-sky dream a reality.

 

Climate Change Research under Orange Hitler

Fire World

What the hell. Let’s just torch this sucker now, Might as well, with Orange Hitler completely dismissing the possibility of climate change, and appointing energy businessmen to oversee our nation’s ecosystems and resources.

I can’t even say the fucking name right now. It’s like freakin’ Voldemort in Harry Potter, “he-who-shall-not-be-named”.  So for the time being (perhaps for four years), I’ll be referring to “him” as “Orange Hitler”.

I’ve avoided the news as best I could today.  My heart just can’t take it.  First and foremost on my mind is my son, and the fate of Obamacare.  Pre-existing condition rules, carrying insurance from job to job, covering a child on your insurance until they’re 26, ENSURING you have access to health care…all pretty damned important for a father when your child has Type-1 diabetes.  I hadn’t allowed myself to think how Orange Hitler would affect the environment and climate change.

Gulp.  Now I know.  ONE FUCKING DAY IN as president-elect (throwing up in mouth right now), and announced likely Cabinet members include:

  • Newt Gingrcih – Secretary of State.  We’ll see if he’s as “diplomatic” (aka, an asshole) as he was as Speaker of the  House
  • Rudy Guiliani – Attorney General. Good.  Fucking; God.  This man, among all others in the campaign, distinguished himself for his bullshit rhetoric.  Given how much of that we got during the campaign, that’s saying something.
  • Chris Christie – Commerce Secretary — Are you fucking kidding me?  Is he just picking EVERY scandal-ridden scumbag on the planet to fill his cabinet?
  • Reince Priebus – Chief of Staff — Ah, so THAT’S why this piece of crap stuck with Trump throughout the campaign, as RNC head. Now he gets his reward.  And it was Hillary that was getting accused of “pay-for-play”, all for the Clinton Foundation that did incredible charity work, and all without a shred of evidence.

 

It’s already so sad that climate science in the U.S. is looked down upon by so many. Half of America (and our president elect) are so vociferously anti-science. 1-day in as president-elect, and we have the following:

1) The head of Lucas Oil is the guy likely to lead the Dept of Interior, which manages federal lands, and is where USGS and other agencies are. A 74-year old business man with a focus on oil extraction…he’ll be in charge of national parks and other lands.

2) The head of the EPA is another business person, someone who is best known for leading climate-change denying work.

3) 1 day in, and a Trump administration has announced they are going to implement a hiring freeze on all Federal employees. The goal…squeeze down size of government by just letting employees get old, wither, and die, without replacing them. That is a huge impact, as without young scientists continually brought into the fold, you lose innovation and new perspectives.

4) A “de-emphasis” of climate-related science. What else can you say here?  Let’s just stick our heads in the sand and IGNORE the greatest human-caused environmental catastrophe on the planet.

Under Bush, it was a dark period in that not only was climate change work “de-emphasized”, but for all those scientists working in the federal government, their work was often subject to ‘review’ by political appointees, with edits or publication restrictions if the results of the work didn’t agree with the anti-climate-change politics.

 

It’s the entire planet that suffers.  Climate change advances under Obama are going out the door.  And those who suffer the most will be future generations.

Try walking in someone else’s shoes…

Perspective. If you’re a voter in lily-white land who thinks this is a “normal” election and it’s just another guy who won, just for a second look at things from the viewpoint of my co-workers at a VERY diverse workplace, my friends, my acquaintances:

– My Somali-born, Muslim, immigrant friend with 2 of the most beautiful young children you ever saw. Now has to explain to them why the President of the United States labels Muslims as terrorists, and just yesterday in Minnesota told a crowd about the threat of Somali immigrants.

– My female friend who first harassed, then sexually assaulted by a co-worker, now having to face an America where that’s “OK”, where the President himself openly discusses assault and is accused by many, many women of assault.

– My Latino friend, being told by his president that his kind are “rapists”, primarily criminals, hordes invading from the south that are taking jobs from good white folk

– Or a COMPLETELY hypothetical story of a father in South Dakota, with the most perfect young son in the world, a son with Type-1 diabetes. Think of it from that perspective, knowing Trump said the first thing he’ll do in office is eliminate Obamacare, eliminate abilities to carry insurance across jobs, eliminate guaranteed coverage for pre-existing conditions, eliminate the capability to carry your child on your insurance until they turn 26. Put yourself in that father’s shoes, and fucking tell yourself that this is “OK”, that your son faces a world where his very HEALTH is less important than politics, where HATE won an election and cost him his health care.

Try walking in those shoes for a bit before laughing off this election as just the same old “politics”.

Way to go America — You’re more bigoted and misogynistic than I thought

I’m as cynical as they come.

I’m now more cynical. THIS is the man half of my fellow idiot Americans voted in as President:

  • Called women pigs, insults their appearance and grades them.
  • Talked about CHILDREN…13-year Paris Hilton, even his DAUGHTER, in sexual terms
  • Openly talks about sexual assault, and had over a dozen women come out and accuse him of it.
  • Called Mexican rapists, insinuated a U.S.-born judge with Latino blood couldn’t be objective.
  • Believes every Muslim is a terrorist
  • Doesn’t pay his taxes, and refuses to let people even SEE his financial records
  • Continually told lies throughout the campaign, was caught TELLING those lies, and repeated them like it was no big deal
  • Is incapable of taking criticism, and lashes out angrily in response.  Great characteristics for president

I’m embarrassed, ASHAMED to be an American right now, where our citizens are so completely ignorant on issues. Where “change” is voted on for the sake of “change”, despite an economy that’s roared back under Obama after the disaster of the Bush administration.  Where it’s OK TO INSULT, ABUSE, and HATE your fellow Americans.  Where those things are actually ENCOURAGED BY THE PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES.  Where the candidate actively endorsed by the KKK is EMBRACED for his racists attitudes.

I’m ASHAMED of Americans, and a media that facilitated it, who believed EMAILS are more important than CHARACTER, ABILITY, or TEMPERAMENT.

There’s absolutely NO doubt the stock market tanks tomorrow.  There’s NO doubt our standing in the world takes a massive hit.  There’s NO doubt we have four years of a mentally unstable child-man who cares only about himself, and not the position or the country.

CONGRATS AMERICA.  You fucking deserve what’s coming…

In The News – Week of October 30th

Common Swift - Apus apus

A Common Swift as normally seen…in flight. Photo by Stefan Berndtsson.

No posts since last week’s “In the News”.  There’s a good reason…I’m being cured of my internet news addiction!!  With the election coming up, I’m sick to my stomach thinking a man like Donald Trump is a heartbeat away from the most powerful position on the planet.  No news is good news, right?  Hence my attempts over the past week to kick the internet news habit!  With that…some more science/nature/miscellaneous news for the week:

Common Swifts airborne for 10 months — Common Swifts seem to be in a league of their own in terms of length of time staying aloft.  Scientists recently attached tiny trackers to 13 Common Swifts, a Eurasian species similar in appearance to some of the North American swifts.  In sum, the 13 swifts were airborne for ~99% of their time outside of the breeding season.  A few would land briefly during the winter months, but 3 of the birds didn’t land at all for 10 months straight.

Frankenspinach — Who thinks of things like this? Scientists have used a solution containing carbon nanotubes,and applied it to the leaves of growing spinach plants.  The spinach plants absorb the carbon nanotubes, and when the plants are in the presence of soil containing trace elements associated with landmines and other explosives, the nanotubes emit a fluorescent signal that can be picked up by nearby sensors, alerting monitoring stations of danger.

There’s gotta be life out there — One constant about the earth’s ecosystems is that if there’s just the tiniest bit of suitability to support life, life is found there.  Single-cell organisms can be found in the most hostile of environments, while even more complex life is continually found in new and surprising places. In this recent study, scientists looked at glacial landscapes that had been covered with ice for many thousands of years, but had the landscape recently uncovered as glaciers melt in response to climate change.  These incredibly hostile environments are largely devoid of life when glaciated, but the scientists found that very complex biomes are established very quickly after the ice retreats.  “Life finds a way” (Jurassic Park quote, I believe), which makes it pretty much a slam dunk that it’s not just Earth where life has established itself in hostile environments.  It’s yet another example of why many scientists expect we will find evidence of alien life in the next few decades.

"Classy" sticker

I’ve always thought these kinds of stickers on cars were tacky and crass. In reality, perhaps they are just a graphical depiction of our future of pee-powered cars!

Poop-powered cars — “Hydrothermal liquefaction” may be coming to a sewage treatment plant near you, turning human waste into a viable fuel source. The process converts human waste into a product very similar to oil products pumped out of the ground, a product that similarly can be refined into fuel.  People produce 34 billion gallons of waste every day in the U.S., enough to make 30 million barrels of oil per year. You yourself have the capability to produce a few gallons of fuel per year!  Thus, those classy folks who have stickers on their car showing a little boy peeing on a brand name they don’t like?  The producers of those stickers may have been prescient, and it’s really a symbol of a boy “fueling” his car!!

Ozone hole will still be around for decades — The ozone hole over the south pole grew achieved a maximum area of about 9 million square miles this year.  That still very, very large, but a touch smaller than the average over the last few decades.  It wasn’t until the mid 1980s that scientists even knew there was an ozone hole, which developed due to ozone-depleting chemicals used by humanity.  The ban on those chemicals has set us on the path to restoring normal atmospheric conditions, but as this story notes, it’s going to be a slow process. They estimate things won’t return to “normal” until about 2070.

Roller-coaster therapy for kidney stones — Passing a kidney stone can be some of the worst pain a human being can experience, with some stating it’s even worse than child-birth.  Options are sometimes limited for taking care of kidney stones, but researchers at Michigan State may have a new solution…roller coasters!  The researchers noted several patients of theirs had recently visited theme parks, and had passed kidney stones soon after riding roller coasters.  It’s thought the combination of the vibration and motion helps the body to move a kidney stone through the system.

We’re screwed — Count me as a major cynic about our feeble attempts to limit carbon emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change. As this story notes, the United Nations agrees, finding that our current efforts to curb carbon are woefully, painfully, ridiculously short of what’s needed to actually mitigate negative impacts of climate change.  Given that Americans in particular seem to prefer sticking their heads in the sand, rather than face scientifically verified reality, it’s not a surprise. We’re just too short-sighted as a species, focused on our own short-term welfare (aka, greed and selfishness), to do a good job planning for long-term catastrophe like this.

Avocado

The world’s most perfect food, but alas, it seemingly has a big environmental cost.

Everything has a cost — Damn. I LOVE avocados.  They may just be the world’s perfect food.  I of course use them in the traditional ways, but guacamole or just plain avocado is SO good on so many other “non-traditional” foods.  But alas, as with most things in life, there is a cost.  As this story notes, avocados are having a much more severe impact in Mexico than once thought, with deforestation and increased water use affecting ecosystems in many areas.  With an explosion in demand for avocados, the story is quite similar to the story of almonds in California, notorious water-suckers that demand a huge amount of resources to produce.  “Niche” products like avocados or almonds clearly can have devastating environmental impacts, just as do some major staple crops.

 

 

 

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