Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Naked Mole Rats Rule!

credit: ALAMY
Undoubtably one of Natures ugliest creatures, the naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber) is also a master of longevity. The species has been inhabiting Earth since the early Pliocene and individuals have life spans as long as 31 years. That is unusually long for a rodent when, for example, similar sized mice live four years at the most. A protein known to science as HSP25 appears to be responsible for the mole's long life span.  It functions as quality control for protein production, eliminating damaged proteins from the body before they can cause a problem like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's  disease in humans. Many neurodegenerative diseases like these are caused by build-ups of defective proteins called aggregates. Scientists at the University of Texas positively correlated the amount of HSP25 and an animal's maximum life span. Increasing the human version of HSP25 could be a potential treatment for these diseases.

The naked mole rat is unique in several ways. It is the only mammal that is cold blooded and has a very low metabolic and respiratory rate. It's naked skin does not have any pain transmitters, a useful feature for an animal that spends it life underground. It is eusocial or the has the highest level of animal social behavior such as those possessed by bees, ants and wasps. Mole rat colonies castes or specialized behavior groups, raise their young collectively, and have a queen responsible for breeding. Workers are sterile. Mole rats appear spry and healthy well into old age. They have a resistance to cancer apparently because of the abundant production of a natural sugary substance known as hyaluronan. Finally, although mole rats eat primarily tubers, they are known to be coprophaglc. Because of these achievements, Science named the mole rat, 2013 "Vertebrate of the Year".

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

COTW: Wage Slavery

That is what Marx called it and that is what exists in the United States because as this chart shows the current minimum wage is well below that which was enjoyed by workers for four decades after World War II:

The current minimum wage is the purple line just above $7.00.  From 1948 to 1983 the federal minimum wage exceeded $7.25/hr and approached $11/hr. in 2013 dollars, almost a living wage.  After another vacation the rich men's club known as the US Senate will consider raising the slave wage to $10.10/hr, but do not spend it yet because undoubtably the 60-vote hurdle to get pass the bourbons will not be reached. In 2013, CEOs made 774 times the pay of minimum wage workers.  Of course raising the minimum wage makes economic sense because raising pay would cut the government's food stamp expense by $4.6bn over the next 10 years.  The US economy is still consumer driven, so raising the wage of 28 million workers would increase consumer spending and give the GPD a boost of about $22bn.  The fact is the United States has one of the lowest minimum wages in the developed world:

Yet US corporations still export jobs overseas to even lower pay "developing" nations!

Monday, April 28, 2014

Big Dams Are Bust

A new study from Oxford University says that policymakers have systematically underestimated the costs and completion time of large dam projects. Calculations from the Bruno Manser Fund show the costs of large dams are 96% more than estimated and implementation takes 44% longer than scheduled. The new information came in time for ASEAN's Renewable Energy Week, and is similar to the optimistic estimates once used by the nuclear power industry to justify building more nuclear power plants. The study sampled 245 large hydropower dams built in 65 different countries between 1934 and 2007, the largest comprehensive economic analysis ever undertaken of large dams defined as a wall height in excess of 15 meters (49ft). The researchers conclude there are two reasons for the errors in cost and time: excess optimism by experts and laypersons, and project promoters deceive policymakers and the public with strategic misrepresentations.

The ASEAN economic cooperation organization was meeting in Kuala Lumpur last week to discuss future energy strategy. Malaysia recently completed one of Asia's largest hydro projects [photo], the controversial Bakun Dam, whose overruns were worse than average. It was supposed to cost RM2.5 bn but the total is expected to be RM15.3 bn; completion was scheduled for 2003 but all eight turbines are not operational yet. Malaysians are paying for the 200-500% cost overrun because the dam was financed by the federal government using pension funds.

the Hornbill is the state bird
Malaysia's state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo is also considering building a series of giagantic dams as part of the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE). One of the proposed structures, the Baram Dam is budgeted at RM3bn but is likely to cost more than RM5bn. Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley have proposed an alternative scenario to the SCORE project to extend rural energy access, a key to reducing poverty in Sarawak, not to mention preserving valuable wild habitat [photo]. The Bakun dam demonstrates that a huge civil engineering project does not translate directly into easily available energy. Most of the Bakun energy goes to urban areas and large industries. Villages near the new dam are still without power. However, a decentralized mix of small-scale hydroelectric installations, biomass generators, and batteries is the most cost effective by 20% over diesel generators and can be accomplished without large scale destruction of a natural river basin. The two Berkeley scientists presented their findings to the ASEAN conference. Big projects have a significant advantage over small, local, sustainable energy developments that the researchers probably did not consider: politicians often score big bucks off a big project's sponsors.

Friday, April 25, 2014

'Toontime: Unleash the Kraken!

credit: Michael Ramirez, Investors Business Daily
Wackydoodle sez:  His next trick is gettin' his head out!
According to President Putin the Ukrainian crackdown has not yet reached "the acute stage" despite five pro-Russian separatists killed in gun battles with Ukrainian government forces at Sloviansk. The key point is that Moscow does not recognize the Kiev government as legitimate, so anything it does to restore order using the army is in Moscow's opinion, criminal. US economic sanctions, which are only lukewarmly supported by western Europe, are not going to stop Mr. Putin at the border if he thinks ethnic Russians are facing a pogrom of sorts at the hands of the corporatist-infiltrated Kiev government. Foreign Minister Lavrov made it clear during an English interview with FT that Moscow expects the Kiev leadership to clear out buildings in Maidan Square still held by fascist extremists, not just those held by Russian separatists in the east which he maintained Russia does not control. Of course the US propaganda campaign accuses President Putin of engaging in "fantasy" over who is responsible for destabilizing eastern Ukraine. The only fantasy involved in this ideological confrontation is the denial of US responsibility for encouraging corporatists in Kiev. Continued support of the separatists could get expensive for Russian elites however. The Micex Index has fallen 10% since the crisis began.
credit: Mark Streeter, Savannah Morning News
'BC' Idonwanna sez: Russian bear poops where it can and then drinks de wine!

What worries US Person more than the war of words is the potential for use of nuclear weapons if the situation escalates and gets truly out of control. Both sides maintain tactical nuclear weapons in the region. The US has about 200 non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe and Russia about 2,000 non-strategic nuclear weapons in its active arsenal. According to the RAND Corporation which is paid handsomely to know these things, Russian military doctrine relies on the option of using tactical nuclear weapons to offset the western advantage in modern conventional weaponry. Russian doctrine also envisions using nuclear weapons to de-escalate a European conflict. Sizable deployment of conventional US forces in the Baltic, Poland, or even western Ukraine in response to a Russian incursion in the east could provoke an unintended and disastrous response from Moscow. During the Cuban Crisis a blockading US Navy warship was almost fired upon by a Russian submarine with a nuclear tipped torpedo. Fortunately for the rest of the world the Russian captain's order was countermanded by the vessel's political officer who awaited directives from the Kremlin that never came. Destruction of the US ship would have certainly triggered a nuclear holocaust. It appears that the Current Occupant is making the same mistake interpreting Russian resolve to protect what President Putin views as legitimate security interests that the previous administration made when it encouraged Georgian officials to crackdown on separatists in South Ossetia. The bear's teeth are no fantasy.

The Passing of the Passenger Pigeon

Lousi Agassiz Fuertes, male (L)
Once the most populous bird species in North America, the passenger pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius went extinct 100 years ago. The last bird of its kind, named Martha, lived in the Cincinnati Zoo until the age of 29 when she died in September, 1914.[photo below] She never laid a fertile egg in her entire life. Once migrating flocks in the 19th century were of tremendous size and often described as darkening the sky and sounding like distant thunder. Nevertheless the passenger pigeon was unequivocally hunted to extinction within recorded history by humans. Unlike dodos, pigeons were somewhat attractive but they were noisy, voracious eaters of acorns and beechnuts, and formidable excreters of waste. Anyone familiar with urban pigeons can understand the potential hazards of gargantuan flocks of pigeons that could take over entire woodlands or require an hour or more to pass overhead. To a protein scarce nation, the huge flocks were a natural and free target of opportunity. After a winter of near starvation on the frontier, the passenger pigeon's spring migration was manna from heaven and a lot better tasting. However, it was not subsistence hunting that killed off the super-abundant pigeon. After the Civil War commercial pigeon hunting began aided by the technology of telegraph and railroad. Commercial hunters and trappers could follow the flocks around the country using not only guns and nets, but whatever methods they could lay their hands on including poison and dynamite. The pigeons' natural survival strategy to travel in flocks--safety in numbers--was their undoing. In 1878 hunters reported killed a billion pigeons from a single nesting site forty miles long and 3 to 10 miles wide. Native Americans could only shake their heads in wonderment of the white man's wanton destruction of "the most beautiful flowers of the animal creation in North America." Even as pigeon numbers crashed, there was no effective effort to save them from doom. A select committee reporting on a bill in the 1857 Ohio legislature to protect the bird concluded, "The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced." The slaughter intensified until the very end in emulation of a Biblical ban. A Pike County, Ohio boy shot what proved to be the last known wild pigeon in March, 1900.

There is much debate at this time about the possibility of bringing some extinct species back to life through genetic engineering. Two species are mentioned most frequently: the mammoth and the passenger pigeon. While human predation undoubtably affected both species, the role human predation played in the extinction of the passenger pigeon is without doubt while the mastodon may have gone extinct through a combination of climate change and hunting. If species revitalization has an ethical basis it would be to correct a environmental wrong committed by man. The case for the passenger pigeon is stronger on this point as well as from the standpoint of caring for an animal without living kin or prospect of natural reproduction.

In 2012 Stewart Brand, known for creating The Whole Earth Catalogue and a genetics entrepreneur, Ryan Phelan, founded a company whose express purpose is the recreation of extinct species and the passenger pigeon is their flagship project. Of course their creature, if any, will be a hybrid since passenger pigeon genetic material will have to be cloned onto the existing genome of a closely related pigeon. The banded pigeon is slated to be the subject of their experimentation. The company admits their passenger pigeon will thus be "artificial" but defies geneticists to tell the difference between their artificial hybrid and the real, extinct bird. Biologists are not sanguine about an effort to reintroduce an artificial species into the current wild. Ecosystems have moved on and not always in a good way. Reintroducing a species from the past would, they argue, be similar to introducing an exotic species into a native ecosystem that could have negative repercussions.

Perhaps as a limited lab experiment a re-creation could be justified. Satisfying
a Frankenstein impulse seems hardly a good enough reason for ethically fraught experimentation, and commercial exploitation of a re-creation is as immoral as the original extinction. The passenger pigeon's passing does contain a lesson for the modern world: nothing in Nature is too vast not to be wrecked by man. Human folly can be just as vast as Nature.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Czech Deer have Memory of Iron Curtain

The iron curtain once stretched along the German-Checkoslavkia border, in some places marring the landscape with three parallel and electrified fences, guarded by armed men. Five hundred people lost their lives trying to escape to the West, and undoubtably many deer died crossing too. Scientists have made an amazing discovery after following the movements of Czech and German red deer with GPS collars. The curtain came down twenty-five years ago, only recreations exist to remind people what it once was--a monstrous and dangerous monument to human intolerance [photo credit: AP]. Red deer have a normal life span of only fifteen years, so none of the deer alive now have encountered the barrier. Yet the iron curtain still plays a role in their lives, separating two populations that avoid the barricade's former location. Research in the Czech Republic's Sumava National Park shows deer stick to traditional life patterns, returning every year to the same places. Fawns follow their mothers and learn where to go to find safety, water, and food. They teach their offspring well. The memory of man's dangerous electric barrier which killed many of their ancestors has been ingrained in the deer living now.

COTW: What Russia Wants

Still More: US Person was hopeful that the recent Geneva agreement between the sides would bring at least bring a peaceful standoff in Ukraine so negotiations could get underway on the shape of a new government. But recent violent developments there--essentially revenge killings--has shredded that tentative agreement to negotiate. A local pro-west politician Vladimir Ryback and a member of the same party as the current Ukraine president was killed, and three people were killed by "fascists" at a roadblock in eastern Ukraine. Armed Russian-speaking separatists, whether directly aided by Moscow or not*, have refused to give up their positions in at least nine eastern towns. The Kiev government decided to relaunch military efforts to dislodge "the terrorists" after a visit by Vice-President and Cold War veteran, Joe Biden. Both these actions violate the accord reached in Geneva. Ukraine is spiraling into a civil war and the Kremlin has announced it will support ethnic Russian separatists as it did in Georgia. Undoubtably the United States bears some responsibility for the destabilization of Ukraine, but Ukraine suffers from a tragic past with violent legacies. Both the political right and left in the country have extremist elements willing to exert force. What is needed now before the shooting starts in earnest is an impartial monitor on the ground to aid interested parties hoping to prevent a return to the Cold War to separate fact from propaganda. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is in the Ukraine, but it only has 150 personnel. They have been blocked from entering buildings in east Ukraine by armed militia. Enlarging OSCE's profile in Ukraine could be way to stabilize the volatile situation. If the two major powers are really interested in settling the Ukraine crisis instead of getting their own way, they could begin by helping the OSCE increase its presence to at least 500 international monitors. Both Russia and the United States committed to appointing representatives to the monitoring group at Geneva.
*the Kiev government has been circulating photographs of armed men it claims are identified as Russian special forces. One of these "green men" sports a full beard and supposedly was also identified in Georgia during the 2008 Russian incursion. The White House has endorsed the photographs as evidence of Russian involvement in the separatist movement as part of the propaganda war against the Kremlin. No photographs of CIA personnel in Kiev have surfaced yet. US paratroops have arrived in Poland, and US naval forces are conducting firing exercises in the Black Sea, however. More US troops are scheduled to arrive in Baltic countries soon. The other factor that is clear thanks to reporting by JP Sottile of is that the US has major business deals underway in Ukraine.  Agriculture giant Cargill recently purchased a $200 million stake in UkrLand Farming, the worlds 8th largest cultivator, and is heavily invested in building a Black Sea grain port. Chevron has invested $10bn in Ukraine shale gas. The familiar unholy tag team of corporatist America and Washington's military-security establishment is at play in Ukraine through organizations like Freedom House and the US-Ukraine Business Council. Just ask 'Kinda Sleezy' Rice former member of the Chevron board and former national security advisor! The "breadbasket of Russia" is at risk, so it is no surprise Russia is not backing down under the threat of western economic sanctions, especially when they have the tactical military advantage on the ground.  

Further: {17.04.14}The Current Occupant again hypocritically accused the Russians of fomenting insurrection in eastern Ukraine during a corporate media interview. Of course, in the propaganda war between East and West, he overlooked the $5bn US State Department and others have spent on influence peddling in that fragile country according to a former MI5 analyst. The US miscalculated again the depths of attachment hard-line, Russian-speaking Ukrainians feel for the Motherland. Fortunately for both sides and Ukraine which is caught in the middle of the ideological struggle agreed today to de-escalate the volatile situation tittering on civil war. Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov agreed in Geneva that all irregular military formations must be dissolved and that occupied government buildings must be evacuated. Amnesty will be given to anti-government protestors who lay down their arms. Mr. Lavrov said there must be long-term constitutional reforms in Ukraine, but that the current crisis "needs to be regulated by the Ukrainians themselves." Kiev seems to be willing to consider further de-centralization as a solution to unrest in its Russian-speaking eastern region. Undoubtably there will be further negotiations on what form these organic changes will take. In US Person's opinion a truly democratic Ukraine that fairly represents all of it's ethnicities has a future role as a bridge nation between the EU and Russia both economically and politically.

Latest: {10.4.14}Its déja vu again in eastern Ukraine as both sides accuse the other of inserting covert operatives into the standoff between pro-Russian protestors and Ukrainian authorities in the cities of Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk. Secretary of State Kerry testified before Congress Tuesday that Russian special forces are orchestrating an uprising in order to justify a Russian incursion. He called the attempts "as ham-handed as they are transparent". But hold on their comrade, the Russian foreign ministry claims the private mercenary firm of Greystone is working with Ukrainian troops to prepare to dislodge the protestors occupying official buildings. The State Department did not deny the allegation. Translation: company representatives are in the country and the company was once affliated with the infamous Blackwater (now named Xe Services) private security firm as stated by the Russians. (The company denies its presence in Ukraine.) As readers may recall that company's mercenaries were responsible for a 2007 slaughter of civilians at Baghdad's Nisour Square in the name of security. How the latest round of accusations will affect a summit between the US, Russia, EU, and Ukraine is not apparent yet. Foreign Minister Lavrov said he is prepared to talk about Ukraine but he needs to understand the format and agenda of the meeting first. No date for a meeting as been set.

More: {7.04.14}According to a leading intelligence analyst, Stratfor, the United States has told Russia it has no intention of expanding NATO into Ukraine especially since it would directly antagonize forces with nuclear capabilities. Russia has told the United States that it does not intend to invade eastern Ukraine. So what is the problem? The warnings and counter-warnings are part of the ongoing negotiation process over the future of Ukraine. Most of that process is taking place over the head of the Kiev usurpers. Add mutual distrust to the process and it is easier to understand the Cold War style tension the Ukrainian crisis is causing. The Russians think that once the fractious, socialist Ukrainians get a taste of capitalist "economic austerity' as a condition of financial aid there will be political backlash against the West which they can exploit to shape the new Ukrainian government. Just ask the Greeks or the Cypriots. The US obviously has fewer levers to pull in the region. That was demonstrated by its inability to halt the Crimean annexation other than to foam at the mouth over legalisms. The US has insufficient manpower and equipment in Europe to successfully oppose an all-out Russian invasion of Ukraine. A subsequent allied invasion of the motherland in retaliation is only a lunatic hallucination or a suicidal death wish.

Germany as well as the United States was involved in the political turmoil that led to the Ukrainian government's downfall. Berlin publicly supported a rival leader, former boxer Vitali Klitschko, but he has withdrawn from the campaign for presidency. Since the Russians used a show of force in Crimea, Germany has fallen silent on the subject of Ukraine's future. They cannot afford to antagonize Russia too much. The Germans buy 30% of the natural gas they consume from Russia. They also have their hands full keeping the EU from falling apart economically. Moreover, Germany does not speak authoritatively for the EU when it comes to power pollitics. So Russia and the US have to speak to each other calmly and work a solution acceptable to both sides. And US Person thinks that is how it should be in a world that has changed, but not all that much.

{7.04.14}Crimea is clearly a different case from Ukraine and probably explains why Russian troops will not invade eastern Ukraine with it large population of ethnic Russians despite the ardent wishes of rioting partisans.  Almost certainly Russian forces massed on the Ukraine border would face a formidable insurrection by ethnic Ukrainians after defeating the armed forces. The United States realizes the bloodless Crimean take over is merely an opening move in the larger game. The latest Kerry-Lavrov communique does not even mention Crimea. President Putin wants a federal system established in Ukraine in which regions of different ethnic composition would have greater political independence. A weakened Kiev would be responsible for common defense and foreign policy, primarily. In such an arrangement, Moscow could exert the influence it wants over Ukraine's eastern provinces which speak Russian and are culturally Russian [chart below]. It will not, however, deal with the Kiev rump government that has the support of the West, but which it views is an illegitimate result of a coup d'état staged by fascist elements and supported by western intrigue. A referendum on the idea of a federal state should take place before any presidential election in Moscow's view. 

source: BBC

COTW: California Drought Continues

The severe California drought shown on this map from the US Drought Monitor has ramifications for the rest of country. The state grows a nearly half of the nation's fruit, nuts and vegetables.  The 20th century was a wet anomaly;  California's climate is due to turn 15% drier in coming decades as the region returns to its long-term norm for precipitation.

Once again as in the early thirties the panhandle of Texas and Oklahoma is severely parched.  This time there is something different: anthropomorphic climate change.  New research published in Geophysical Research Letters, says evidence has been found "that can trace the amplification of the dipole [western high pressure and eastern deep low pressure] to human influences."This dipole pattern is expected to intensify in the future, and historical data shows the dipole intensifying since the late 1970s. Researchers funded by NASA accurately simulated dipole conditions using a computer model that includes atmospheric greenhouse gases as a factor. When only natural variations are used such as the El Niño/La Niña event, only a weakening dipole is observed. American agricultural practices will have to adapt to the new environment as water resources are already stretched thin in California.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Myth at the Heart of Physics?

LHC: Two photon event @ ATLAS
Scientific theories are only as useful as their explanatory and predictive power. Thomas Khun in his "Structure of Scientific Revolutions" said widely accepted theories such as evolution by natural selection and the standard model of physics, are paradigms. Theories become paradigms of scientific thought through repeated testing of their predictions about the nature of reality. Repeated positive confirmations of a theory's fit with observation and experimentation increase its acceptability among scientists to the point the theory becomes reality. When a paradigm is an unreliable predictor of empirical results, new theories are developed to replace it. This is what happened to "luminiferous ether" when Einstein produced his theory of special relativity in 1905. Philosopher Karl Popper rejected logical positivism altogether by saying in his work "The Logic of Scientific Discovery",no amount of positive experimental confirmation can make a theory true. Only when a theory can be shown to be false is it scientific. Then, when it is shown to be false it should be discarded in the selection of theories more generally applicable to reality. Theories that cannot be definitively falsified are what he termed "research programs" or even myths. Because evolution by natural selection cannot be definitively falsified, he classified it as metaphysics. He also refused to assign scientific status to psychoanalysis and Marxist economics because the theories are not falsifiable. Popper's logical asymmetry between verification and falsifiablity lies at the base of his philosophy of critical rationalism.

To use Popperian terms, there may be myth at the heart of particle physics. Physicists use the Standard Model to describe the cosmos. In US Person's day that model consisted basically of the atom composed of its subatomic parts, the proton, neutron, electron, and the forces of gravity, electromagnetism and nuclear forces. Further research and development of quantum mechanics at the beginning of the 20th century greatly expanded the number of particles required to explain what scientists were seeing in their equations. For example the proton became composed of three quarks and gluons. Now there is veritable zoo of particles out there including ones that are only virtual. Today scientists say that matter is fundamentally made up of fermions held together by bosons. What the Standard Model does not explain is why the universe is this way. Why are there only three leptons? Why does the electron have the mass it has? Physicists developed another theory, supersymmetry, or SUSY (pronounced "Suzy") as it is nicknamed, to explain these and more unanswered questions. There are other theoretical explanations offered such as string theory, extra dimensions, and multiple universes, but a supersymmetric Standard Model is the physical paradigm. The first realistic version of a supersymetric Standard Model was developed by 1981. It predicted the existence of yet more particles, superpartners of existing particles or "sparticles". The theory implies that every boson should have a fermion superpartner and vice-versa. The hunt began for evidence of supersymmetry. According to the most powerful versions of supersymmetry, sparticles should not be much heavier than a Higgs boson, one of which was measured in 2012 at CERN using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The existence of supersymmetry in nature would explain the missing dark matter expected to account for 25% of the 95% unaccounted for matter and energy in the universe.

NOT--experiments at the LHC have so far ruled out the existence of supersymmetry in its most accepted versions. Experimental observations confirmed the decay of a very rare B meson decaying into two muons that confirms the Standard Model prediction but is a blow to supersymmetry adherents. Supersymmetry also predicts a lower mass for the Higgs boson than was recently measured by the LHC at about 120 GeV. Scientists hope to find evidence of supersymmetry at higher energy collisions slated for 2015, but some theoritical physicists appear to be so wedded to supersymmetry theory that they are willing to contort it to conform to experimental results, or put the existence of superpartners beyond experimental confirmation. According to Popper's view, supersymmetry is then no longer a scientific theory that accurately describes the universe, but enters the realm of myth.

1 proton→26 particles @ Fermilab circa 1960's
What physicists know now is that the cosmos is finely tuned: the Higgs boson wobbles on the quantum edge of stablility in a metastable state, meaning the weirdness of quantum effects could push the Higgs boson into a lower energy state, taking the known universe with it because according to the paradigm the Higgs boson is what gives elementary particles in this universe mass. Supersymmetry explains why this does not happen and without it physicists are at a loss to explain why not since there is nothing in quantum theory to prevent such a shift in energy state. According to Genesis, God thought, "Let there be light." Physicists call this beginning the "Big Bang". Because photons exist (light) humans can observe and conjecture about this universe. What "initial conditions" existed before photons began perhaps only God can know, but there also is found the beginning of man's belief.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Activists Rescue Bears in China

Another horrendous and almost incomprehensible practice of Chinese "folk medicine" is the extraction of bile from bears for human medicinal use.  It is believed that over 10,000 bears imprisoned in tiny cages are tortured daily for the extremely painful extraction of bile juices.  Now an activist organization, Animals Asia, is rescuing 130 bears from a bile factory after the manager of "Flower World", a state owned business, appealed for help. The sickest bears will be convoyed beginning May 5th to an existing sanctuary in Chengdu for urgent veterinary care. After that Animals Asia will begin the two year process of converting the Nanning bear farm into a sanctuary.

The industry exists because it is profitable despite a strong majority of Chinese against it.  Official corruption also plays a role in the continued existence of a morally corrupt enterprise.  The Nanning manager said discussions took two years among Flower World's management team before it was decided to approach their state overseers with the idea of converting the farm into a sanctuary for bears rather than selling them off to other farms.  Thankfully, the state approved. The Nanning bears have not had their bile extracted during those two years of procrastination, but many suffer health problems from earlier procedures, continuous cramped confinement, poor diets, and lack of veterinarian care. Perhaps this rescue will be the beginning of hope for so many bears who live in abject misery because of man's ignorance and greed. WARNING: This video from Animals Asia is disturbing, but it documents the conditions which these bears endure:

'Toontime: 8 Million is Hardly Enough

[credit Kevin Siers, Charlotte Observer
Wackydoodle sez: Congratulations Mr. Siers, 2014 Pulitzer winner!

The Current Occupant is boasting about the Affordable Health Care Act signing up 8 million Americans, or 1 million more than projected after a botched roll-out of the new law. That number is hardly enough to make a difference in the trajectory of health costs in the nation, but then it is the only game in town. Thirty-four states declined to set-up insurance exchanges, so the federal government set exchanges in their place. Because of the law's complexity most experts say it is too early to tell whether the law is working, but the predicted explosion in health care premiums--the so-called 'death spiral'--because people previously denied insurance would flood the market has not occurred. The Society of Actuaries projects insurance premiums will rise about 7% next year, or in line with previous years' increases. About 28% of the sign-ups were from young adults under 35, and most came just before the March 31st deadline and its two-week extension. That demographic is critical to the plan's success since these generally healthy types have to carry the burden of older, sicker insureds if there is any hope of holding down premiums. Here is how enrollments are graphed by the Washington Post:

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Shale Gas Boom Releases More Methane

credit: LA Times
Carbon dioxide is bad enough but methane is a 20-30 times more potent greenhouse gas.  Scientists are worried about the huge amounts of methane that could be released to the atmosphere from melting permafrost in the Arctic region; yet there is a methane source closer to home over which we have some control that is widely underestimated.  New research of natural gas operations in Pennsylvania shows that monitored wells are released 100 to 1,000 times the amount of methane into the air than the EPA previously estimated. The study of seven well pads in the booming Marcellus shale region was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. On average each well site emitted 34 grams of methane per second based on airborne measurements compared to the EPA's current estimate of 0.04 to 0.30 grams per second. The study adds to a growing body of scientific evidence that indicates shale gas operations are polluting the air as well groundwater. Methane is about 9% of the US greenhouse gas emissions greenhouse gas.

The Pennsylvania shale gas boom is in a coal region and many of the wells there penetrate coal beds containing methane which flows to the surface because drillers use negative pressure in the well bore to capture valuable supplies of ethane and butane. The disparity between the latest airborne readings and EPA's estimates shows the shortcomings of regulators who rely on energy companies for data. Researchers at prestigious universities estimated last year that actual emissions of methane may be as much as 50% greater than official estimates. EPA has been ordered to come up with ways to cut methane emissions from oil and gas operations. The agency is set to release its own analysis of the problem soon. Colorado, also experiencing a shale gas boom, became the first state to regulate methane emissions from the oil and gas industry requiring a capture rate of 95% in February. One of the justifications for switching from coal to natural gas as a fuel has been its lower carbon footprint. But high methane leakage rates may make natural gas less of a "clean" alternative. A leakage rate of just 1.7% cancels benefits of gas over diesel, however a leakage rate beyond 7.4% would be necessary to put natural gas at a disadvantage to coal. EPA's current leakage estimate for natural gas operations--one increasingly viewed as too small--is 1.5%

True America: Snowden Asks Putin

Note: President Putin, who speaks some English, cleverly frames his reply to Snowden in "professional terms" after obtaining a loose English translation from the moderator, who's facial response after his President's reply speaks volumes about it's accuracy.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Rep. DeFazio Leads 73 Members Urging Wolf Protections

Long time Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee has gotten 73 colleagues from both parties to sign a letter urging the Secretary of Interior to continue protecting the gray wolf. The letter was sent after a peer review concluded the US Fish & Wildlife Service failed to use 'best available science" when it drafted a proposed rule removing the gray wolf from protection in the lower 48 states. In fact, the agency ignored evidence that contradicted its preferred conclusions. The letter signers said the proposed rule would undermine wolf recovery when wolves have yet to recover in many parts of the country and is only just beginning to recover in the Pacific Northwest. There, Idaho is doing its dead level best to eradicate the grey wolf within its boundaries because it interferes with elk trophy hunting. The Idaho governor recently signed the so-called "Wolf Control Board' bill that has as its goal the reduction of Idaho wolves to 150 and 15 breeding pairs, the minimum to keep them from begin re-listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. The board will be overseen by the governor's office and be comprised entirely of members appointed by the governor. That is a license to kill an "Apolosauris" if US Person ever saw one.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

COTW: A Few Docs Get Big Bucks

US Person has advocated expanding Medicare instead of supporting the disastrous mess that is Obamaromneycare. Although it is a single payer system which is unacceptable to the insurance industry has successfully controlled some health costs, it is still a fee for service system. Consequently it can be manipulated and abused by the unscrupulous. The top 1% of medical service providers accounted for 14% of the $77bn recorded billings in 2012. Most of the top paid doctors are opthamalogists, followed by oncologists as shown in this chart from the WSJ:

Ophthalmologists see a high proportion of over 65 patients using Medicare to pay their bill. Certain procedures are particularly expensive such as intensity-modulate radiation therapy, used to treat tumors. The thirty-seven highest paid radiation oncologists received $63 million for delivering these treatments. The release of doctor specific information was delayed for forty years by litigation over privacy issues raised by the AMA after the Carter administration released a list of doctors receiving over $100,000 in Medicare reimbursements. No surprise here.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Mali Elephants Protected by the People

One of the most offered reasons for the horrific loss of elephant populations is many of the range countries are too poor to do anything effective to stop the slaughter. Mali, a very poor sub-saharan country is managing to protect the most northern elephant herd in Africa. Communities have done the job despite poverty, war, and environmental degradation. The Mali Elephant Project (supported in part by the US Fish & Wildlife Service) began studying the migration of Mali's desert elephants, but that study evolved into a sometimes desperate effort to keep the herds of over 500 individuals alive. Increasing human populations equally desperate to raise food cleared increasing large areas for cultivation, cutting elephants off from critical water supplies and forage. Large herds of cattle were drinking seasonal lakes dry and compacting soils. Migrating elephants use all the passes through a range of hills between them and their wet season range in the 1970s. By 2003 they were using only a single pass without human habitation. Increasingly elephants relied on Lake Banzena for water. Humans and their animals were also increasing use of the lake. In 2009 Lake Banzena dried up. 96% of the cattle using the lake belong to urban elites who amass herds as a sign of prestige.

Local communities were contacted to determine their attitudes towards such large resource competitors [photo above]. Surprisingly, locals responded favorably towards elephants since they realize their extinction would mean an unhealthy ecosystem for man too. They know that elephants are important as seed dispersers, helping to regenerate woodlands. Elephants knock down inaccessible fruits and seeds which are gathered by human foragers and eaten by their livestock. Even elephant dung is valued to combat conjunctivitis. Local people are in awe of elephants' obvious intelligence and emotions: they report elephants covering their dead with branches and soil. The diligent care of elephant offspring is legendary. Joy is vocalized when elephant clans meet after a long separation.  To the local people elephants are baraka, a blessing. Mali elephants benefited from local management committees, enforcement patrols [photo left] as well as from large land areas set aside for their use.

photos courtesy Mail Elephant Project
Then the war started. Elephants became the target of jihadists and bandits who sell elephant ivory for food, guns and ammunition. The Project paid young men only in kind to monitor elephant families, report suspicious activity, and elephant deaths. These men consider their work noble and did not join the fighting groups*. Only eight Mali elephants have been killed since January 2012. Over 20,000 elephants were killed in Africa that year. The way forward in Mali will not be easy as government instability and general poverty inhibit conservation measures. Education and local involvement with real benefits for local communities will help fill needs money from abroad cannot always meet.

*Mali like Indonesia is a Muslim country. Recently the Council of Ulema issued the first ever fatwa or religious edict against poaching in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim state.

Friday, April 11, 2014

'Toontime: Putin Preeminence

[credit: Steve Kelly, Times-Picayune]
Wackydoodle sez; I'ma holdin' out for "Yer Eminence"!
This week President Putin scared the Europeans by warning that there could be natural gas shortages. As US pointed out previously, Russia is a major supplier of natural gas to Europe (15%), especially Germany and Italy. Ukraine has a $2bn unpaid gas bill. Putin said Moscow could shut the tap if Ukraine does not settle its debt. Speaking to a gathering in the Kremlin, President Putin said the annexation of Crimea was only done after a private canvas of opinion on the peninsula supported a Russian take-over. The referendum conducted by Crimean officials resulted in a 96.77% vote for annexation. Even a UN report critical of Russian influence and misinformation in Crimea admits that the absence of such activities would have not changed the outcome of the vote.

[Steve Breen, San Diego Union-Tribune]
'BC' Idonwanna: Nor his natural resources!

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Chile Helps Owls to Help Humans

barn owl
Chile's government turns to a novel approach to combat the deadly Hanta virus spreading through the country. This year 15 deaths attributed to Hanta infection occurred out of 36 cases. The infection's flu like symptoms are hardest on the weak and young. Hanta spreads from rodents' feces to the air where humans may inhale the virus. Extensive forest fires may have pushed rodents into urban areas increasing the risk of human exposure. Chile's park and forest ministry is encouraging the breeding of owls whose primary prey are rodents by building breeding boxes for them in natural areas. Owls such as Tyto alba (barn owl) and Bubo magellanicus (Magellenic horned owl) are responding to the care with greater number of chicks. Valparaíso prison has expressed interest in owl boxes to help reduce its rodent population. Owls face a problem in Chile beyond the usual causes of population decline: superstition holds that owls are bad luck. A hooting owl near a house means someone will die there. Perhaps the death will be caused by the Hanta virus.

Creature Feature: Retired Russian War Dolphins Help Children

Both sides trained and equipped dolphins for war. The US Navy recently retired its last war dolphins. Russia has its dolphin veterans too, but they are earning their keep helping children with health problems. Patients are charged about $800 to swim with the dolphins. The Russian scientist overseeing the project says the high frequency emissions dophins make apparently have a beneficial effect on some human conditions. This video by Australia's Journeyman Pictures shows how innocent animals trained for war by man are making a more important contribution now by just being themselves:

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Creature Feature: Waggle Dance Decoded

Honeybees are unique in the animal kingdom outside of humans and some other primates because they have a symbolic form of communication. The waggle dance performed by a worker  that has found a good source of pollen informs her sisters of the distance and direction of the source. Sussex University researchers spent two years decoded the dance of thousands of honeybees and their results are published in the journal PloS One. Summer is the most challenging season for honeybees because most flowers and fruits have bloomed already, there is competition from other nectar eaters and intensive farming has decimated later blooming wildflowers. In summer they cover 15.2km² compared to 0.8km² in spring. This video is from the LASI laboratory at the University of Sussex:

Saturday, April 05, 2014

English Badger Cull Posponed

After a failing its own test for humane treatment of a protected indigenous mammal, the UK government postponed extended a badger cull to 10 other counties in England. However, culling will continue in Somerset and Gloucestershire. The experimental culls there also failed the government's effectiveness test since both culls failed to reach reduced goals of lethality. The head of the Badger Trust called on the government to abandon culling altogether and concentrate on vaccination programs. One commentator said the Tory government's continued investment in a culling policy is motivated by the European Commission's financial support of the UK's bovine TB programs. Besides the financial consideration, there is a mind set among rural interests that badgers should be exterminated regardless of humane considerations typified by Princess Anne. She is expected to say on the BBC's Countryfile program that she supports gassing badgers as a method of extermination. Her suggestion is even worse than shooting as a humane methodology. The Executive Director of the UK's Humane Society said gassing experiments carried out in the early 80's were abandoned because of the "appalling levels of suffering to which the badgers were exposed". He also said that HRH "should be better informed before making public statements on such controversial and divisive issues." In Wales the reintroduction of annual cattle testing and other bovine control measures resulted in a 48% reduction in the number of cows slaughtered because of bovine TB in a four year period. British animal advocates say badger culling is ineffective, expensive and according the government own data, not necessary to control the spread of the disease.

Friday, April 04, 2014

'Toontime: The First Wildlife Advocate

The new movie about the biblical hero has inspired editorial cartoonists:
[credit: Patrick Chappatte, Le Temps]

The latest climate report from the UN is not encouraging. The IPCC report has clearly shifted its emphasis from mitigating catastrophic climate change to surviving it. Climate change is an ongoing phenomenon and humans as well as wildlife will need to adapt, if possible. Reports from a two decades ago barely mention climate change adaptation, but adaptation as a strategy made its appearance in the 2001 report. Now there are four chapters on adaptation including charts.
[credit: John Darkow, Columbia Daily Tribune]

Thursday, April 03, 2014

The Hague Orders Japan to Stop Whaling

dead minke courtesy Institute of Cetacean Research
The UN's International Court of Justice concludes that Japan's commercial whaling in the Southern Ocean is not scientific research and therefore violates the International Convention for Regulation of Whaling. The suit brought by Australia in May 2010 and joined by New Zealand should end Japan's annual whale hunt that up until now has only been actively opposed by the Sea Shepherd organization. The American branch was enjoined from harassing Japanese whaling vessels on the high seas and labeled "pirates" by a Ninth Circuit judge. Defense operations were handed over to the Australians. The ruling handed down on Monday should give the Australian government a legal basis for taking action against the government subsidized Institute of Cetacean Research. Japan's chief cabinet secretary said that Tokyo would comply with the decision. The international high court ordered all existing permits revoked and no new permits will be issued under the Antarctic research program known as JARPA II.

live humpbacks courtesy Greenpeace
In a 12 to 4 decision the court found that Japan violates three provisions of the whaling treaty: the moratorium on commercial whaling; the factory ship moratorium; and the prohibition against whaling in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary declared in 1994. Japan had been authorizing taking as many as 935 minke whales, 50 humpback and 50 fin whales annually, all in the name of "research". Whale meat was documented reaching seafood markets for sale in Japan where it is considered a delicacy. Since the moratorium on whaling began Japan has killed more than 14,000 whales in the name of science, a cynical evasion that took decades of campaigning and active intervention to end.  It is only an act of God that human defenders were not lost at sea. Conservation organizations including Sea Shepherds and Greenpeace praised the court's final decision. Sea Shepherds founder Captain Paul Watson said he hoped Japan would honor the ruling and leave the "gentle giants"* in their safe haven at peace. US Person is sure that if the whales could talk to humans they would say, "thank you for peace at last"!

*Science now knows that humpback males will fight to the death to defend mating females.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

COTW: The Economy on FIRE

No, not a real recovery but the ersatz economy created by the financial thieves on Wall Street which depends on finance, insurance, and real estate as substitutes for actual production of goods and services.  The FIRE sector now accounts for about 22% of the nation's output:

You won't hear any complaints about this jobless economy in the corporate mass media of course, because it is part of the apparatus and designed to motivate participants in the low-interest casino from which the insiders can reap obscene profits in exchange for very little value. For consuming units with bad attitudes do not play at the tables. Perpetual mortgage refiance is just one example of the financial "churn" that produces little except syphon fees from underwater mortgagees into the pockets of the real estate brokers, appraisers, and title companies. Gone are the days when a homeowner bought a home with a fixed rate thirty-year mortgage, lived in it, and paid off the mortgage before he died.