Friday, September 26, 2014

I have a favor to ask you.

Nope, not about Ebola, though that is still a very serious, changeable, contentious topic, with news that is nearly all bad.

It's about atmospheric carbon dioxide.  Too big a problem for individuals to affect; we're constantly told.

I disagree completely- I think history shows that it is only individual actions that lead to change.  No university or government agency ever came out with a clarion call (let alone actions) to give women the vote.   None ever worked hard to end the endless and unregulated slaughter of wildlife - to put feathers on women's hats and provide 8 different kinds of duck on the menu- every day.  Individuals. (Then, when there's a big group of individuals marching in the same direction- that's when the politicians, etc, jump in front of the crowd and announce they've been leading this parade all along.)

I have a specific action I'm asking you to take; a specific project you can support - meaningfully, with a few clicks.

Long-timers here will know already that I live close to, and work with, these folks: Badgersett Research Farm.  They've just launched a new initiative; one I'm familiar with, and believe in.

Most of you have probably heard some noise about the "promise" of "biochar"; to get carbon out of the atmosphere.  Lots of big names have agreed- like Bill McKibben, for example.  His calculations are usually sound.  You'll notice that article is from 2009, though.  Anybody in your neighborhood doing it? Selling, making, buying?  That will be a 99% "no" answer.

Biochar is "hanging fire"; so to speak; older vernacular for "failure to launch".  Lots of new research underway - many dozens of "NewBiochar Center!" announcements- all doing- research.

The Badgersett folks think the research already done (like this one from just a few days ago, that says "Hey, it works!" - again)- plus the 3,000 year old evidence from the Native American made soils in the Amazon- show quite adequately; the benefits are real- and faster and last longer than anything else we've got on the list of "maybes".  It's time to get real-world, practical tools into the hands of - the farmers.  So- they've got the design; and they need the money to support the labor to make and test the prototypes.  Designed by farmers; for farmers. Via Kickstarter.

BadgerChar Mobile.

I'm asking; as favor to me- please take a look at that; and please- make a donation; even a tiny one is hugely helpful.  The more backers, even at $1-$10, the more likely other folks will support it too.

Why is the use of biochar failing to take hold?  We think it's because almost all the research is done by - biochar enthusiasts; for biochar enthusiasts.  They want to know exactly how it works, and they want to be sure they can maximize and optimize everything.

Sorry- but- you're not ever going to sell that to my neighbors.  They don't know much about it; and none of them are interested in becoming optimized biochar producers; they're corn, bean, and beef farmers.  In Iowa right now, you can in fact buy truckloads of biochar - at $500 to $1,000 per ton; an insanely high cost.

Now- if you can give them a tool that A) they can afford, B) they can use without learning new difficult skills. C) will improve their soils and crops.  D) will make a product they can sell if they want to. and E) will make it easier to manage the odd corners of their crop lands and farms, and improve their timber lots (less work, not more) - That, they will do.

And that is exactly what the BadgerChar Mobile system is designed to provide.  My neighbors don't really care if it's the fastest, etc; only that it can actually fit into their operation.  This will; and could result in thousands of farmers making and using biochar in just a couple of years; and many more after that.  With, maybe, real progress on removing carbon dioxide from the air.  For 3,000 years.  (Compost only removes some carbon for 10-100 years).

So - please- become a Backer; and then share your pledge on your own networks and email lists etc, etc,, and help get the word out.  Only 20 days left!  And a long way to go yet.

It's a very small action- but one that can have a very large impact, if we make the project fly.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Ebola 4

So - more people are getting scared about it.  Including the BBC; which  to my amazement has this as their top headline right now: Ebola crisis: Liberia 'faces huge surge' says WHO.  Not the #1 Most Read article on the Washington Post right now; New Royal Baby!!

The BBC goes on to say "Ebola is spreading exponentially in Liberia, with thousands of new cases expected in the next three weeks, the World Health Organization (WHO) says."

I'm still not quite buying the "exponentially"; but yes, this sounds more serious.  As SquashPractice pointed out in a comment on the previous post here, Wikipedia Ebola page now does have the graph I've been looking for (new deaths and new cases / day); and it does have an "up curve", which, yes, is more scary - there are two unrelated phenomena which could account for that, without meaning Ebola is actually becoming more aggressive.  Which is not to say it's not; you understand.

The two factors; A) The reporting of new cases has possibly/likely increased dramatically in the past weeks. B) The disease is expanding- think of an ever increasing circle as it moves into the population. There will be many more infections on the circumference of the larger circle.   That's to be expected; and to me is not any more threatening than previously.

It was always expected the cases would expand, and accelerate; no mutations required.

So; bad, but not OMG we're all going to die.  The "thousands of new cases", however, do mean the risk to spread to distant cities will go up rapidly in the near future.  Keep paying attention.

So, now the bad Ebola news.  What they're not telling us.

One factor, reported in Wikipedia and nowhere else at all, so far as I can tell; the small, unrelated outbreak in the DR Congo?  Is less small; and not unrelated.

"On 20 August, several people, including four health care workers, were reported to have died of Ebola-like symptoms in the remote northern Équateur province, a province that lies about 750 miles north of the capital Kinshasa.[102] By 21 August, 13 people were reported to have died with similar symptoms."   So - at least 20 dead in DR Congo, including 4 health workers, not the 13 the WHO reports.

And: "Blood samples were sent for testing and on 24 August it was reported that the samples were positive for Ebola; one tested positive for the Sudan ebolavirus, which is a different species of ebolavirus than the one responsible for the West African outbreak; the other tested positive for a mixture of the Sudanese and Zaire species, the species that is responsible for the present outbreak in West Africa.[104][105]"

Italics mine.  Ok, that's scary, from the evolutionary standpoint.  2 virus strains are mixing (I don't use the word "species" here, I don't think it's correct.)  That means- lots more chances to evolve, now.

And one more; this is my own guess, unsupported by any official statements; I think the WHO knows, and is not telling- that the Ebola virus has already mutated to become more transmissible.

Take a look at the photos in the BBC article.  The health workers are wearing isolation outfits designed to prevent breathing in contaminants.  Which, they tell us officially, does not happen.

And also from that article: "Transmission of the virus in Liberia was "already intense", and taxis being used to transport infected patients appeared to be "a hot source of potential virus transmission", the WHO said."

Taxis?  Also - not a big source of "direct contact with body fluids".  But; if the virus can now survive in dried sweat or sneeze droplets?  That would do it; and I do think - it has already happened.

Keep paying attention.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Ebola 3

Roz just made this comment on the previous post:

          hey Greenpa - is this chart a little like what you were looking for? It's a bit scary, it is.

         BBC- Ebola-How bad can it get?


  Good catch, Roz; I was just getting ready to make a post here about that exact article.

The graph is not what I want to see; but this is the presentation that made "that other guy" go all wacky and start saying "OMG, Ebola has gone asymptotic!"

This looks so scary because they are adding all deaths in the epidemic together to make the next point on the graph.  That's not an entirely illegitimate way to look at the numbers; but from the epidemiology standpoint, it is not as informative as a graph tracking "number of new cases this week" or "number of new deaths this week" would be.  

Those graphs give an appearance that is much less accessible to the general public - they're very jagged, and the "trend" is harder to see; and most of the jaggedness is purely accidental; caused by differences in reporting, not differences in actual infection/mortality.

Last I really looked at the numbers, the data for "new cases" looked something like "43, 17, 30, 59, 28, 37, 19, 67"  etc.   The question is "is the disease accelerating",  not "totals".  Still have not seen the data presented that way.  There are standard ways to draw a line for "best fit" that evens out the jags.  If you have a straight, but up-slanted line; that means the epidemic is still speeding up, and that's not great.  It's when that  line goes asymptotic- that it's time to be very, very scared.  Not happening yet, I think.  The WHO was reporting "new" cases in mid August; but they're not, now.  Not sure why.

That BBC article - is notable for 3 things; basically all good, actually.

 1)   It's the first "scary" article in the major press I've seen - telling the truth about the epidemic.  Yes, it's potentially dangerous, to the entire world.

  2) The author did a good job of talking to researchers, and translating for the public.  That's been very uncommon on the BBC in the past few years, and getting worse; but this one is excellent.

  3)  Some of the researchers raised good points I had not thought of in particular, which could easily lead to epidemic outcomes that are less than apocalyptic.  That would be nice.  In particular, the scenario where the virus mutates to "more transmissible"; which could then lead to evolving to "less lethal" more quickly than if it stays as it is.  Reaching a point where it never goes away, but subsides to normal "bad disease" status, where it is all around the world; it still makes people very sick during outbreaks, but maybe only 5% of infected people die.  

That's actually a fairly high probability in the evolution of pathogens scenarios.  I was focusing on the vastly increased chances for it to become easier to catch; now that there are uncountably more virions available for evolution to act on.  That's very scary.  But yes; the next evolutionary tactic is usually to: stop killing your host.

I recommend folks read that article.  Twice; once today, and again in a couple days.  Lots of information to absorb there, and it's far more honest than other stuff still being circulated.

There are several other hopeful developments too; like the preliminary finding that there may be many people in the region who are already immune to Ebola; for reasons they're guessing at.  Fewer susceptible people would be a huge help.  And; those fighting the disease think they may be able to use blood from those who managed to survive the infection to treat active patients.  That would sure help.

All in all; keep paying attention.  But total imminent world collapse is looking a little less likely - from Ebola, anyway.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ebola 2.

The Ebola news is not great.  I'm a little more worried than previously; enough that I have added the WHO reports URL to my news menu bar, and check it daily.  This is where most of the press get their update information; and if you look at this one from yesterday, you'll see that - the press is not passing on the news: Ebola now in Congo; different strain.

Also; the Washington Post is reporting research from Harvard that the mutation rate in the main outbreak is "very high".

And the BBC reports that the WHO expects 20,000 cases before they can bring the outbreak "under control".  We're a little under 3,000 cases right now.  That's a big expansion.

All that adds up to significantly increased risks that the virus may become more transmissible; and also that the virus may escape much further away from current sites.  Maybe into a big city.

The fact that the press is not putting all this together, and passing it all on quickly - indicates official actions to suppress news, and decrease panic potential - so you can't believe what they're telling you.

So; as before; pay attention.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


I've been hit hard by the loss of Robin Williams.  Many of us have.

Here is something I first saw years ago, that I want to share with you.  This is an "unlisted" YouTube video; you only get the link if you're looking at Koko's site.  If it runs slow or fuzzy- try again, it's actually good quality video.  And you'll see Robin.  An exceptional human.

A little more, on Koko's site..

Me too.

Friday, August 8, 2014

It's just all a bit much. And, Ebola.

Hi Guys.

According to Blogger- you're all still here, tuned in.  I'm honored.

The reasons I've been quiet are still the same; massive overloads In Real Life - and a lack of anything genuinely useful to say about current world insanities.

Today, though; I do have something useful to tell you; out of my particular Biology/Evolution/Etc. background.

We're experiencing the largest outbreak seen of the Ebola virus.  Should you worry?  Or not?

You need to pay attention, is what you need to do.  (Not to me.  To what's going on.)

So far I have seen a great many of the disasters, problems, conundrums that are known to occur during "plague" outbreaks; already happening.  We have history to look at; I recommend it.  People can be harmed in epidemics by many things other than the bug itself.

Here is a list of "Already here" bad things, that do not help:

Politicians lying about the extent of the epidemic.
Politicians telling you :"There's no risk to us!"  then- 'There's almost no risk to us!"  And I've already seen "We'll probably get a case or 2 inside the US, but we can handle it."
Press printing any blathering nonsense they can find.
Finger-pointing between nations and agencies.
New committees.
An experimental "cure" - with a tiny supply; and fights about who gets it.
Con men selling fake cures to desperate people.  (saw an ad on Facebook already)
Wall Street types jockeying to capture the profits.
Military roadblocks going up - and cities sealed off - too late.
Desperate people sneaking through roadblocks, and bribing their way.
Soothsayers announcing "This is IT!  Run!"

All of those are happening now; and will likely get worse.

Here's my "no bull" advice.

Don't panic.  It doesn't help.  Is this virus dangerous - to you and your family?  Yes, it is; but we don't know how it's going to turn out.  Disease organisms follow the "rules of Epidemiology" - when you can average 1,000 different viruses and bacteria together.  Individually - they do not have to follow anyone's rules.  It could mutate to be more infectious; or less.  Or both, on different expansion fronts.

This scenario is possible: You live in Denver?  Far from everything.  But; the incubation period for Ebola is stated as "between 2 and 21 days."  That's really dangerous.  An infected person, at day 15 of his infection; gets on a plane.  Yes, he might be shedding virus by then.  Gets off the plane in Cairo, Egypt, 2 hours later, having transmitted it to 2 other people; the steward, and the lady in the next seat.

He stays in Cairo, vanishes into the countryside and is never recognized as dying of Ebola.  The steward flies next to Paris, becomes symptomatic and infectious 17 days later, infecting an entire flight crew...  and on; until an infected but not yet symptomatic person gets off the plane in Denver... goes to a rock concert/ all night rave-revival party - throws up...

"It's not likely!"  No, it's not; but the bigger the epidemic gets, the more chances; and there's really no way to prevent that kind of scenario - short of shutting international air traffic; off.

If that happens?  You'll know it's getting serious; and that it's too late to be effective, and the next step is martial law.  In Denver?  Yes.

This kind of thing has happened repeatedly, historically, in plague events, going back to Rome, at least.  But they didn't have air traffic; or the Mexico City slums - etc.

This virus is not capable of suddenly mutating into a disease that can blow in the air from somewhere miles away.  An epidemic in Africa is not a threat to you - today.  One case in NYC - is not much threat even to NYC.  If, however, we wake up one day and there are 2,000 new cases in NYC today- that's a threat.  Neither hospitals nor police will be able to control things.

Think about what you can do, if you have to.  I would say start thinking now.

And the statistic I would watch is the daily CHANGE in death rate and infection rate.  That was a  lot of the reason I decided to write this; I've already seen one "seer" shrieking "It's gone asymptotic!!"  My respect for that source dropped through the floor; not that it was all that high.  Just as pure statistics; that's crap.  Yes, there's a jog up in deaths and new cases - in the past 2 days.  It could very easily be a pure fluke; better reporting yesterday, for example.  The probability of "fluke" is much higher than "asymptotic!"

If the rate of change keeps climbing up for a week- yes, I'd start to worry.  If the rate of increase keeps going up for 2 weeks, with no break; I would have to predict that a great many people will die before it's over; but we still cannot know when, or where, it could suddenly shift into a trivial virus.

Like everything else in our future now; we do not know what will happen next.

Keep an eye on the Wikipedia "ebola" page.  Seriously.  I know, that used to be a joke line; but it's not anymore.  It is the only source of information on the technical knowledge of the virus that just says this; right up front: "Transmission: It is not entirely clear how Ebola is spread."  That's from a CDC document; not one I could find, but its cited here.  The WHO at the moment is putting out the official line that "ebola is very hard to catch, and requires direct 'bodily fluids' contact".  The Russian weapons experts are saying "maybe not."

 The great majority of sources will have some "agenda" they want you to swallow.  Wikipedia now has dozens of actual experts monitoring the information changes - and if you put something up that anyone can criticize as "not true" - down it comes. 

Don't panic.  Pay attention.

And find a copy of Sinclair Lewis's "Arrowsmith" - a novel about exactly this situation; from the viewpoint of the medical researcher.  They gave him the Pulitzer Prize for that novel; and he refused it. His insights into human behavior during a plague - are... well, Pulitzer material.

The entire text is online; here; Arrowsmith text   Public domain, pretty sure.

UPDATE: 8/14 - I managed to find the WHO current statistics page.  They report new totals for deaths and new cases, every 2-3 days.  There are lots of ups and downs in the numbers- imagine the difficulties of "counting", and reporting, in the middle of it all.  It's clearly horrific for those caught in it. Overall, it does appear that new cases and numbers of new deaths are increasing; but it's a long way from "asymptotic."  Somebody out there - could use these data to produce a good graph.  I'd rather see a graph of new cases and new deaths than total cases and total deaths, and I haven't seen one.  I'd do it; but- several people would kill me if I stole that time.  :-)

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Not dead yet!

Hi, guys.  I haven't forgotten you.  Just busy; and boy is it hard to find non-depressing stuff to write about these days.  Which, since we are bombarded with new depressing stuff daily, I'd rather not add to.

I am still active in various ways, when I see something I can tackle; and I thought you'd be interested in seeing this one.  Which is; actually, about someone special who is NOT not dead yet.

You may remember that I had the top comment on the NYT when Norman Borlaug passed away- another huge scientist just passed, and the NYT gave him top coverage; for hours, he was the top feature on the paper, front page, center, "above the fold", or above the scroll, these days.  But unlike Borlaug, who thousands knew of; almost no one knew of Dr. Snow.  But he was so important; and a shining light for anyone hoping to be a good human being.

Here's my comment.  Read his obit; it's worth it.  And how very odd this post should come right after one about bones.  Ever watch "Bones" on TV?  Or any of the dozen like it- or read any of the novels on forensic anthropologists?  With maybe 2 others, he created the entire field.  And, he was a good man; a good human.  I have vague fantasies that someone might read my comment- and be moved to act on it.  Not impossible, right?

Hang in there.  Keep your sleeves rolled up.