A Stock Tip For The Science-minded

Last Sunday I saw a new CBS 60 Minutes segment about how the Earth’s supply of fresh water is being rapidly depleted. This might seem to be a non-problem, but it isn’t. Then, today I read on a blog by a science teacher of the latest data showing the rapid advance of CO2 levels in the atmosphere, the primary greenhouse gas that is promoting climate change. (How’s that polar vortex working for you?)

The two trends are related in that they are new, they threaten life as we know it on this planet, and they both are being caused by us, homo-sapiens. Crops, like other growing things, absorb CO2 and they need fresh water. Jim in Iowa, the author of the science blog, posted in a reply to a commenter (me) a startling graphic showing how small is the amount of fresh water available to the world’s burgeoning population, so I am shamelessly stealing and re-posting it for you here.  The larger bubble is all water, including the oceans.  The small bubble is what is in all the lakes, rivers and aquifers.

Global Water Volume, from the USGS

Global Water Volume, from the USGS

Manned space flight is an exciting thing and the thought of sending people to Mars captures the imagination of most people, but in the grand scheme of things it is what space science offers to teach us about our home planet that ought to really motivate us. The data on CO2 and on fresh water are, in each case, being confirmed on a global basis by satellites. Interestingly, and I hadn’t known this, tracking the gravitational behavior of special satellites can detect and measure the fresh water in aquifers. The data correlate very well with actual tape measurements in wells. In the great Central Valley of California where a quarter of all our vegetables and fruits are grown, so much water has been pumped out of the ground for irrigation that the elevation of the ground has dropped about 6 feet in the last few decades. The pumping has only increased with the drought and nobody knows how much is left.  When the aquifers begin to run dry, the quantity of crops will diminish and that will exacerbate the CO2 situation.  Or maybe weeds will make up the difference, who knows?

The practical reader right now is probably thinking that the drought will end soon and rain will fix the problem. Alas, that won’t discernibly help because the population of the world is projected to continue upward for the foreseeable future, and it is a population that is learning to like meat, even as the oceans are dying and sea-life moving toward extinction from over fishing. And why, you might ask, is that particularly problematic? It turns out that it takes far more water to produce a pound of meat than it does a pound of vegetables. Chickens and cows eat a lot of growing stuff, so they not only drink but they consume stuff that in turn requires a lot of water.  As noted in the 60 Minutes segment, farm production is keeping up only because we are drawing on a freshwater savings account that is receiving few deposits.

There’s a USGS web page on the subject of just how much fresh water is required to produce different things, including meat. The numbers are estimates because the requirement varies depending on methods, but this is nevertheless good data for comparisons. The data are in the form of a quiz, but I’ll give you a cheat sheet.

One ounce of bread: 10 gallons of fresh water.
One pound of chicken meat: 500 gallons.
1 chicken egg: 50 gallons.
One pound of hamburger: 4,000 – 18,000 gallons. (not a misprint)

People are clearly confused about politics right now, hence our badly-divided government. For the first time since WW II, real wages adjusted for inflation are declining for the American middle class. One party is calling for more drilling (drill, baby, drill) and for the export of dirty oil-sands oil to China and elsewhere in the

Japanese silky tofu - credit, Wikipedia

Japanese silky tofu – credit, Wikipedia

developing world while the other wants to conserve energy and limit pollution. When the data are clearly saying we are in such environmental trouble, it is beyond me why the public can’t see what is at stake. Even as it is, our descendants are unlikely ever again to see a standard of living as high as what we have become accustomed to.

Want a stock tip? Invest in tofu.

Posted in Science / Engineering | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments


Germs. They’re everywhere.  When you think about it, they are probably densest and most problematic on surfaces like toilet doors and handles, shopping cart handles/toddler seats, and, think about this one:  salt shakers and condiment containers in restaurants.  Anyone want to guess how often those are wiped down with antiseptic?

A-CHOO! photo credit:  canada.com

photo credit: canada.com

Germs come in two basic varieties, bacteria and viruses.  What should people be doing to protect themselves from them, and especially from viruses, given the current fear of ebola sweeping the world? What should one use to disinfect surfaces and hands, and importantly, is there one product that protects best from both?

These are not new questions and an internet search reveals that the matter is fairly well understood, albeit not completely. I checked the NIH web site and was surprised to find not much there, but most other sites of recognizable authority are consistent in that regular hand washing with plain soap is the best agent and method. That was determined in the 1990’s and hasn’t changed. What is new is why the most common chemical used in hand wipes, soaps and gels, triclosan, has some serious drawbacks to its general use.

For disinfecting surfaces, I read that household bleach is being used around people currently infected with ebola. But what I really wanted to know was whether we should be doing something special to protect the rest of us in public places. I certainly don’t want my house or car smelling like Clorox.  I did find that isopropyl alcohol and ethanol, at 60% to 70% strength, is effective against both bacteria and viruses.

Turns out, there was a very good common-sense blog article on the whole germ matter that was published in Scientific American. I recommend it because, although not wholly definitive, it nicely consolidates everything I was able to find, from Web MD to Wikipedia (antiseptics) and beyond.  Here’s the SA link.

Posted in Medicine, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Who Knew?

Future 30 Meter Telescope credit:  www.ctvnews.ca

Future 30 Meter Telescope To Be Built Atop Mauna Kea
credit: http://www.ctvnews.ca

Astronomy is the purest of science that I can think of.  Shown above is an artist’s rendition of what is to be, at least briefly, the world’s largest telescope in Hawaii.  It has a segmented mirror system and will be 9 times more powerful than anything before it.  It gives me hope for our species that despite all our failings, we have somehow found the will to spend a billion dollars just to seek the meaning of it all.

I have just seen a marvelous video clip on astronomy that I’d like to share with you. It shows in beautiful motion something that would have been unimaginable only one lifetime ago, the structure of the universe and how it moves.  Words fail me, but the clip says it all.

It was only 85 years ago that Edwin Hubble postulated his Hubble constant and confirmed that the universe was expanding, but at that time no one dreamed that space was anywhere as vast as we now know it is.  At that time it was thought that the Milky Way constituted all the stars and that nebulae were clouds of gas, not other galaxies and systems of galaxies.  Now we know, not only of those galaxies but that clusters of them have structure.  This is only 4 beautiful minutes long.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Faith-based Politics

credit:  humanevents.com

credit: humanevents.com

Dang. I know it’s not polite to brag, I told you so, but I just can’t help it. For most of the last four years I’ve been blogging, progressives (a group I admit having joined in the process) have been arguing with conservative bloggers about the “financial cliff”. With an historically high national debt and the immense burden of the Great Recession, two wasteful wars, nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a dysfunctional, money-based

healthcare system (all of which president Obama inherited), we were told that we must embrace a financial policy of austerity.  Otherwise, the government would collapse and our children and grandchildren would be doomed to poverty. The Tea Party actually shut down the government over this issue. Fortunately, we had a president at the helm who quietly did what was necessary, including TARP, Stimulus policies, cash for clunkers, unemployment benefits extensions, Wall Street reform, and the auto bail-out. Well, guess who was right? You won’t hear it on Fox News.

Paul Waldman of the Washington Post reports

Today the Congressional Budget Office released its latest economic and fiscal projections, and guess what: The news is pretty good. In fact, all the “deficit hawks” out there who are deeply concerned about too much borrowing and the terrible choices our grandchildren will confront might want to write a letter of thanks to one Barack Hussein Obama.

To start things off, the CBO says the deficit this year will be $506 billion, or 2.9 percent of GDP. In 2013 it was $680 billion, so that’s a pretty steep drop. And in terms of GDP, not only is that slightly lower than the average deficit of the last 40 years (3.1 percent), it’s also a 70 percent decline from Obama’s first year in office, where because of the Great Recession, which brought both the need for more spending and a plunge in tax revenues, the deficit peaked at 9.8 percent of GDP.

He also reports that there has actually been a slowdown in Medicare spending (gasp). He says,

Like the program itself, the reasons for the slowdown in Medicare spending are complicated. But a big part of it is — you guessed it — the Affordable Care Act. The ACA has found direct savings in Medicare with things like cuts to some provider payments. More importantly, it has tried to achieve longer-term savings through means like encouraging hospitals to reduce readmissions (where a patient gets treated and released, then winds up back in the hospital a week later) and rolling out payment systems that promote more holistic care instead of just piling on expensive tests and procedures. It also has provisions that probably haven’t reduced spending yet but likely will eventually, like spurring the shift to electronic records.

The full WP article is here.

Will president Obama get any credit for this? The next two elections will tell the story, but if the folks who get all their news from Fox News and conservative talk-radio have their way, he won’t. They will point out, rightly, that the national debt continues to grow and that there is much more to be done.  They will also point out, wrongly, that their way would have been better.  That’s the way faith-based politics works.

Posted in Economics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments


credit:  m.theepochtimes.com

credit: m.theepochtimes.com

President Barack Obama is getting flak for being on vacation and playing golf while the world is, seemingly, going to hell in a hand basket. It’s predictable. I can recall the same complaints about every president in my lifetime. Such petty sniping is par for the course in politics. I was going to expound further on this, but I found an article from the Washington Post that says it better than I could. Link at the end of this post.

I will however add a postscript from my own observations. Taking time off from a normal busy activities has proven valuable, even in little bits. I’ve had some of my best ideas while shaving in the mornings, letting my mind range over things like finances, travel and relationships. I usually end with inhaling the shaving soap fragrance through the towel at the end while letting my mind go blank, a sort of aroma therapy. (Am I nuts, or do other people do this?)

Listening to pod-casts while at our daily workouts at the Y exercises the mind. And a little nap in the afternoon is wonderfully refreshing. The presidency is a pressure-cooker, wherever he goes, and if he can clear his mind on the golf course, I say good for him.  Scott Farris of the Washington Post would agree.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

What’s Wrong With Obama?

Bashing president Obama is a popular pastime these days. On the Erstwhile Conservative’s blog, commenter Anson Burlingame recently blamed him personally for the current political divide in the Congress and in the country as a whole. One short paragraph summed it up neatly:

Obama has only promoted a rather extreme (for a President) left wing agenda for America, constantly dividing the nation between have’s and have not’s. I don’t believe he is capable of healing such a divide but only perpetuating it.

credit:  Wall Street Journal  WSJ Presidential Approval Ratings

credit: Wall Street Journal
WSJ Presidential Approval Ratings

There you have it. It’s personal, a matter, somehow of a lack of “leadership” I suppose. I was thereby motivated to look further into it: What influences a president’s job approval rating, and how have such polls varied in modern times? There’s plenty of data, including from the Wall Street Journal which has a good interactive site for exploring the matter.

Presidential track records have some similarities. They generally start out high and then decline toward the end of their terms in office. But when they deviate from this pattern, I find I can usually identify the reason by the date. In the case of George W. Bush, for example, there is a remarkable (and fairly short-lived) spike upward right after 9/11. After that, however, it was a steady plunge downward to a level shared with Nixon’s Watergate disgrace, Jimmy Carter’s energy crisis, and Harry Truman’s labor woes. George H. W. Bush’s popularity soared with the “shock and awe” success of the first Gulf War, but dropped off the cliff after he raised taxes after promising not to. Bill Clinton’s rating record is unusual. It starts fairly low and then rises to above 60%. I can only think of one reason: “It’s the economy, stupid” (Please don’t take it personally, dear reader.) Interestingly, Obama’s curve, so far, is not unlike Reagan’s after the Iran-Contra scandal, both in magnitude and slope.

The bottom line here, for me at least, is that the job approval ratings reflect the body politic’s opinion about the short-term state of things and are virtually useless regarding how history will eventually judge the quality of a president’s performance. It is events that govern, and to expect a president to move them in the short term, with the exception of war, is naive and irrational. Yet, that is the clear implication of such polls. I think wise presidents will try to ignore them and keep their eye on the future, and I think Obama is trying to do so. But that’s not the nature of politics, is it? It’s tough.

Interstate_SystemI think the most successful presidents have been those who have been both selfless and disingenuous. Eisenhower fits that description. He had high ratings consistently and even finished near 60%, a remarkable standout. Yet despite his aura of successful Generalship it was commonly held among his critics at the time that he was a plodding bureaucrat who was unsure of strategy – they were wrong about that. The WSJ interactive poll record doesn’t go back to FDR, but it wouldn’t help much if it did. WW II was a special case because, in war, real war in which the nation’s fate actually hangs in the balance, winning is everything and the only thing, as the football guy said. But, FDR also fits the “selfless but disingenuous” mold.

If climbing in the polls were his main objective the most expedient thing president Obama could do would be something spectacular. Maybe start an air war in Syria, or maybe bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities (“. . . bomb, bomb, bomb Iran”, to quote a recent presidential candidate). But no, his eyes are on his legacy, and, in my opinion, the long-term welfare of his country. (Note to critics: not Kenya.) But to blame no-drama Obama for the partisan divide in the House is absurd. I can’t think of a single thing he could do that would please the Tea Party. He could shut down every woman’s health clinic in the country and disavow Rowe v. Wade and they would probably label it an ObamaCare plot. With them, it’s personal.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

I Was Just Following Orders, Judge

credit:  joseantoniovargas.com

credit: joseantoniovargas.com

Immigration is one of the prime issues of our time and has only been made more prominent by the humanitarian crisis of foreign children, many unaccompanied, pouring over our southern border in the last few years. I have been struck by the frankly ugly passions evoked by this crisis. My blogging colleague, Pied Type, recently posted on the matter and expressed outrage that the avowed undocumented Jose Vargas, a Pulitzer prizewinning journalist at the Washington Post, has been able to “flaunt” his illegal status for years without being shipped back to the Philippines, which is where he was before his parents brought him here at age 12. She feels he should be made an example of as a lesson to other lawbreakers.

The United States is a nation of laws and I too believe in enforcing those laws, but the fact that Vargas declared his illegal status in Time Magazine’s cover story two years ago and still hasn’t been prosecuted is symptomatic of the political divide over the issue. In general it seems that conservatives, even the George W. Bush compassionate kind, favor strict adherence to the law, regardless of mitigating circumstances such as whether a child has legal relatives here or, as in Vargas’ case, whether they have proved themselves to worthy and valuable citizens. Progressives generally seem to believe that such mitigation is proper. One thing I hope we can all agree on is that the immigration law as it stands needs serious revision. Such a revised law was passed in the Senate with a bipartisan 68 – 32 vote, but it has languished in the GOP controlled House where the leadership has refused to bring it up for a vote, ostensibly because its approval would be considered a Democrat victory.

I submit that it is facile to dismiss Vargas’ case as one of simple illegality. I consider myself a law-abiding citizen but in cases like this I believe the law can and should be bent on the side of national self-interest, if not humanity. Does that make me a criminal? I don’t think so. The laws of the land are always subject to interpretation, there has always been wiggle-room. Prosecutors have always had broad latitude in bringing charges, for example, and also to interpret those laws in novel ways, as they have in combatting organized crime. To do otherwise would be a mistake – laws don’t come down from God etched in stone tablets, but from lawmakers who are human and who often don’t even read everything their staffs add to the fine print. The law is a process, one that involves human beings (judges) and, well, judgement.  (In researching this post I did come across an article that does mention prosecutorial discretion on the part of ICE in deportations, something I hadn’t known.  Somebody on some congressional staff must have had a good day to think of that.  The link is at the end of the post.)

Another example of reason over strict legality is, strangely enough, to be found in the organization and management of the United States’ military. While an enlisted person’s oath includes a promise to obey the orders of those appointed over them, an officer’s oath of office omits that expression and instead avows to “support and defend” the Constitution of the United States. Why the difference? It can only be that leaders are expected to place judgement, within context, above blind adherence to orders. In fact, one could make a good case that this nation was founded by a cadre of lawbreakers who placed principle above (King George’s) written word. One might also consider how many crimes agains humanity have been justified by the need to “follow orders”?

Jose Vargas is an immigration activist. He was detained when he visited the Texas border and was ordered to attend a future hearing on his citizenship status. It will be interesting to see if we will deport this exceptionally talented man who has never known another country since the age of 12. It seems stupid, but if the courts do, maybe it will help move the GOP in the House to do what’s right and pass an immigration reform bill. But if Vargas is deported, it ought not be a cause for celebration by any citizen. I personally will be embarrassed for our country.

Posted in Immigration | Tagged , , , | 17 Comments