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    • The Technology of Violence and its effect on prosperity and freedom
        Prosperity is two things: 1) How much you can produce with your technology and social organization; 2) Who gets how much.   The second is determined by a number of factors, but the simplest is the structure of violence.  Those who aren’t good at fighting, don’t get as much of the surplus created by [...]
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Nick Kristof is shocked, SHOCKED!

Nicholas Kristof  writes in The Compassion Gap about the nasty responses he got from a lot of his readers to the plight of a woman he profiled recently.  Says Kristoff:

SOME readers collectively hissed after I wrote a week ago about the need for early-childhood interventions to broaden opportunity in America. I focused on a 3-year-old boy in West Virginia named Johnny Weethee whose hearing impairment had gone undetected, leading him to suffer speech and development problems that may dog him for the rest of his life.

A photo of Johnny and his mom, Truffles Weethee, accompanied the column and readers honed in on Truffles’ tattoos and weight.

“You show a photograph of a fat woman with tons of tattoos all over that she paid for,” one caller said. “And then we — boohoo — have to worry about the fact that her children aren’t cared for properly?”

On Twitter, Amy was more polite: “My heart breaks for Johnny. I have to wonder if the $$ mom spent on tattoos could have been put to better use.”

“This is typical of the left,” Pancho scolded on my Facebook page. “It’s not anyone’s fault. Responsibility is somebody else’s problem.”

To me, such outrage at a doting mom based on her appearance suggests the myopic tendency in our country to blame poverty on the poor, to confuse economic difficulties with moral failures, to muddle financial lapses with ethical ones.

Apparently, Nick Kristoff doesn’t read his own paper.  A few years ago, I noticed something extremely unsettling about the way the NYTimes was portraying the unemployed.  There were a number of articles for the front page that made the unemployed look like trailer trash, slovenly and asleep at their computers.  I don’t know what message that was supposed to send but it didn’t match ANY of the unemployed I knew, who consisted of R&D professionals with multiple degrees, publications and patents to their name.  There were hundreds of thousands of those people who certainly deserved compassion who didn’t get it.  And now those same hard working professionals have a very hard time finding jobs because for some reason, employers have this image in their heads that they’re obese, lazy, slovenly and depressing to be around.

Get your head out of your ass, Nick, and you will see that you are sitting in the middle of the source of the lack of compassion. The NY Times is a world leader when it comes to inducing stereotypical and harsh Pavlovian responses to people who have fallen from middle class grace.

NYTimes Science Reporting Epic FAIL

Here’s a sciencey article I found in the NYTimes this morning. It’s about a clever repackaging of metals used in catalytic reactions.  This bit sort of explains where we’re going:

Despite the cost and relative scarcity of precious metals — iridium, platinum, rhodium — we rely on them to manufacture products from denim to beer, pharmaceuticals to fuel cells. The elements are used as catalysts, substances that kick off or enable chemical reactions.

But right afterwards, there’s a hint that something isn’t quite right:

Dr. Chirik’s work involves dissolved catalysts, which are mixed into the end product. The molecules of the catalyst dissipate during the reaction. For instance, a solution containing platinum is used to make silicone emulsifiers, compounds that in turn feed products like makeup, cookware and glue. Tiny amounts of the expensive metal are scattered in all these things; your jeans, for instance, contain unrecoverable particles of platinum.

“We’re not about to run out of platinum,” said Matthew Hartings, a chemist at American University in Washington, “but this process spends that platinum in a nonsustainable way.”

Something about the first two sentences seem weird.  Maybe I’ve just been out of the lab too long.  Is the writer saying that the platinum is dispersed or that there is a catalyst containing platinum that is dispersed or that the catalyst *is* the platinum?  Any of the three possibilities could be right.

Ahh, here it comes:

Dr. Chirik’s chemistry essentially wraps an iron molecule in another, organic molecule called a ligand. The ligand alters the number of electrons available to form bonds. It also serves as a scaffold, giving the molecule shape. “Geometry is really important in chemistry,” Dr. Hartings said. Dr. Chirik’s “ligands help the iron to be in the right geometry to help these reactions along.”

Ok, you can’t wrap anything around an iron molecule.   Iron is an element and in this context, it should consist of single atoms. Molecules are constructed in the following way:

protons + neutrons + electrons => an atom

atoms + atoms => molecules

In the above paragraph, the reporter makes it sound like a single egg can make a cake all on its own.  Then in the next sentence, that egg is wrapped up in some Pillsbury crescent.  The writer also suggests that iron molecule is wrapped inside *another* organic molecule called a ligand.  Wait, are the iron and ligand both organic? Unlikely.  Iron is an inorganic metal.  The ligand may be organic.

It’s bizarre.  Can someone at the NYTimes get a journalist who actually understands basic science?  Nevermind, just look at the pictures.

This article could have been interesting.  It has all the right words like “ligand”, “scaffold” and “geometry”.  But like the famous Chomsky sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously“, those words lose their meaning in the hands of this writer.  This sentence makes sense: ““Geometry is really important in chemistry,” Dr. Hartings said. Dr. Chirik’s “ligands help the iron to be in the right geometry to help these reactions along.””, but only because the reporter seems to have written down the words as they were spoken.  I still have no idea what this article is about or why Dr. Chirik’s catalytic ligands are important or better in the manufacturing process.  What the article seems to be saying, based on the pictures, is that the more expensive metal catalysts containing platinum, for example, can be substituted with less expensive catalysts containing iron.  In the new  iron containing catalysts, the organic molecule that surrounds the iron atom is synthesized to be a ligand of a certain shape.  That shape constrains the possible coordination bonds of the metal atom in geometries that are specific for certain catalytic reactions that mimic the catalytic reactions of the more expensive platinum atom.

What has any of this to do with turning iron into gold?

Jeez, I’ll just look up the paper.

**************************************

Update: Katiebird provides this helpful site for women called “Academic Men Explain Things To Me“.  This is also called “mansplaining”.  You know how it is, some guy always has to tell you exactly how things work because you may not understand it.

I think we’ve all seen variations on this theme in the last four years.  After all, wasn’t that what the Obama phenomenon was all about?  A bunch of male graduate student types who patiently explained why electing Obama was more important that electing Hillary and if we were as smart as they were, the reason would be obvious.  Then they refused to admit they were wrong about that, like men who don’t listen to you in the car when you tell them they’ve taken a wrong turn and then go 100 miles out of their way before they finally stop and ask directions.

I had a guy in a paint store tell me the other day that if I knew anything about paint, I would know that it was impossible to get the shade of palladian blue I wanted with the correct mixture of white added to it to match my walls even though I reminded him that it was his paint shop that mixed the original custom shade and that it should be on file in his database under my name.  But, no, I had to listen to this blowhard go on at length about how finding the right formula to match my color would be impossible and I should just face up to the fact that the whole room would need to be repainted in the palladian blue color he had and he wasn’t going to mix me a custom shade like he did before and I would NEVER be able to match what was already on the walls.

So, I left and bought the paint from a different Benjamin Moore dealer who was a woman.  Happens all the time.

On those days, I dream of a world where women are equipped with telepathic powers that would deliver Milgramian corrective shocks to men until they stopped doing that.  That would be wrong but it is, after all, only a dream.

This caught my eye…

I’m a bit busy in Philly today.  Will probably be here for another hour.  Eyes are burning but in spite of the pain, this weird New York Times article caught one of them.  Take a look and see if it looks “off” to you too.  It’s about a hair braider in Utah who can’t practice because she doesn’t have a license in cosmetology and doesn’t want to spend $16,000 to get one.  Here’s the money quote:

This isn’t just a random Utah law. There are more than 1,000 licensed professions in the United States, partly a result of more than a century of legal work. As the country industrialized, state governments wanted to protect their citizens and create standards not just for lawyers and doctors but also for basic services. It didn’t take long for professional groups to find that they also stood to benefit from the regulations. Over the years, more and more started to lobby for licensing rules, often grand­fathering in existing professionals while putting up high barriers to new competitors. In fact, businesses contorting regulation to their own benefit is so common that economists have a special name for it: regulatory capture. “Everyone assumes that private interests fight like crazy not to be regulated,” says Charles Wheelan, who teaches public policy at the University of Chicago. “But often, for businesses, regulation is your friend.”

What?  Do you ever get the feeling that our feudal overlords will just not be satisfied until there are no labor or professional protections standing between them and us??

Up until now, we political junkies have always thought of regulatory capture as something really big an powerful financial institutions do to the agencies that regulate them, like making sure someone friendly to you gets to run one or making sure that YOU can pick the agency that regulates you or throwing out a potential offer of employment down the road (kinda sorta).  We really haven’t seen it apply to little people.  And, I’m sorry, I understand that all this woman does is braid hair but all that some manicurists do is paint nails and they have to get a license so that we know they are trained in safety and hygiene standards.  It’s not too much to ask.  If you don’t want to go through all of the training and licensing, don’t advertise to the world.

When I read this this morning, I immediately flashed back to a couple of years ago when the NYTimes was featuring long term unemployed people but only the brassy blonde, grossly overweight women asleep at their monitors or living in a seedy motel rooms were ever pictured.  It’s almost like the Times *wanted* us to be unsympathetic.  This article feels like a sleight of hand, making the generall public feel like they are the potential victims of regulatory capture if they want to start their own businesses.  Oh, sure, it seems like an unfair inconvenience now until someone gets hurt because they stuck their hands in a warm tubful of infectious cuticle softener or have their kitchens ruined by a plumber who didn’t know how to compress a fitting.  There is a reason for regulation.  Maybe we need to evaluate, update and streamline them but small business people shouldn’t be put on the same level as big financials.  It sounds like another death tax meme.

I don’t like it when the media starts making the news, or making news up, instead of just reporting it.  The NYTimes has been guilty of so much misdirection in the past couple of decades and never held accountable. Who are they taking orders from?  It’s getting to be embarrassing.

I only read if for the Krugman.

**********************

Poll of the day:

Brooke asked me this last night.  According to her logic, I got it wrong.

And that affects me HOW exactly?

The New York Times is all aghast that the Republicans are about to roll out a ginormous, humongous Super PAC ad campaign against Obama using all kinds of nasty wasty buzz words and meanspiritedness.

{{Yawn}}

Are we talking about the same Obama who bumped a whole generation of adult women down to “sweetie” status, brushed Hillary’s dirt off his shoulders and connived with conman extraordinaire John Edwards to monkeywrench the Democratic primary process in Michigan?  Surely, SURELY, he has nothing to fear from some well funded ad campaigns because his record of “accomplishments” will speak for itself.  And anyway, a guy this callous, ruthless and insensitive to the way his behavior will set a precedent for the actions of others won’t stay up at night worrying about whether people are calling him names.

At least a front group calling itself Citizens United Not Timid (oh, how droll their abbreviation is.  Jocularity! Jocularity!) didn’t produce a documentary about him.  Well, not yet anyway.  Still, nothing to worry about as long as unemployment is back to pre-2008 levels and GDP rises to a crisp 3% per anum, right?

Anyway, the only people who are going to believe that crap in the ads are the religious nutcases- er, that Obama seems to be dumping his base for…

Whatever.  Not my problem.

*************************

BTW all you Democratic blogger activists carrying Obama’s water, did you know that Robert Kennedy once broke a beer bottle over the head of one of his Harvard classmates who had the audacity to celebrate his birthday in the same bar that Bobby chose for his own birthday celebration?  Yep, true story.  Turns out the guy was an arrogant prick when he was young.  Most people grow out of it.

Not that we like Mitt but to those of us out of jobs with dwindling savings and 401Ks that are about to be swallowed by some bad bets on a European debt crisis, what Mitt did as a kid is just not very important to us.  It’s what the people in charge did as adults that makes the difference.  If we were going to judge character by youthful and college age behavior, you guys would be kissing the ground the Clintons’ walked.  They were the very models of responsibility and maturity.

A little consistency please.

************************

Hey, Bernie, why don’t you run?

***********************

My dream vacation:  Lake Powell, Arizona.

bliss.

Over 1000 comments on the NYTimes article on science majors dropping out

Typical lab stuff.

This goes back to the article posted in the Times yesterday about Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (it’s just so darn hard). Typical of the Times, the editor has chosen to highlight a lot of educator comments that go something like, “Well, of course it’s hard.  You have to study and stop whining and then you will get a BIG reward with a generous salary!!”

The *reader* recommend comments prefer comments like this one from someone I probably know (she lists her location as NJ.  No, it isn’t me):

To be a scientist, one has to have an employer. For many reasons, it’s not possible to do science out of your garage or house.

There aren’t a lot of openings for scientist. Or in other language, there aren’t enough jobs for scientists, compared to the people who have science degrees and wish to be employed.

It’s hard for these students who get through the STEM program and realize they won’t get a job in science, because there really aren’t a lot of jobs. They have degrees in science, but no jobs.

I’m saying this many ways because while it’s a simple concept, the people who publish articles like this one don’t seem to understand the simple concept.

No jobs in science. No jobs (or very few) for for people who want to be scientists.

And yet, ome people still do not understand what she is trying to say for some reason. To be fair, the top comment for both highlight lists is this one from a person who has obviously been there:

Even when students do stick with science degrees, what are their career opportunities? I have a PhD in biology, I’m working on my third post-doc, and i have multiple publications in high profile journals. I’m currently on the job market for tenure-track professor positions, and the situation is bleak! This is a horrible job market, and it is made worse by the compression of leftover PhD’s who couldn’t find jobs during their last 1-4 years of searching. At this rate, the US is going to lose a large chunk of an entire generation of scientists. And I’m not talking about undergrads, I’m talking about highly trained scientists with PhD’s! For the most part, our training has been paid for by US tax dollars, which are going to waste when these scientists drop out of science and choose other careers. When state governments slash education funding in response to the current economic climate, this has a huge ripple effect throughout academia. In addition, NSF funding has been stagnate for years, which further reduces levels of science hiring at Universities. While I agree with the goals/aims of STEM, these programs are diverting NSF money away from research, which only makes the problem worse. I think that the biggest issue isn’t a lack of students ‘sticking with’ science degrees, but the lousy job prospects available when they graduate

Yup, pretty much.  That one has 837 recommendations.

I love the ones from people who have apparently never had to get a job by giving a 45 minute presentation on their entire life’s work  that say that scientists should stop focussing so much on money.  We should just do it for the love of it.

What’s love got to do with it?  Sure, we love it.  We were the ones who stuck it out didn’t we?  But most of us didn’t sign up for anorexia and the life of a monk on some barren skellig.  We have to eat and prefer a family life.  When was the last time we told an accountant to prepare tax returns and balance company accounts for the love of it?  Or how about teaching?  Yes, you say you love teaching and developing little minds and everything.  But if you don’t do it for below poverty wages and give up any hope of providing for your own children, how can we really evaluate your commitment?   See how that works?  Take what ever your profession is and ask yourself if you would do it for a temporary post doc salary for 3 or 4 years after your 5-7 years in graduate school.  Would you do your work for $37,000/year if you had a PhD in your subject?  For how long?  Now add three years of calculus, two semesters of calculus based physics, molecular biology, organic chemistry, microbiology, biolchemistry and hours and hours of labs where failure is the norm, not the exception.

Didn’t think so.

That’s what it’s like for the science major right now.  And those are the ones who are lucky enough to get jobs.  The ones who have the years of experience it takes to actually do the research are getting laid off in droves.  It’s really bad in the Northeast because scientists tend to gravitate to other scientists as spouses and when both parents are getting laid off…

Did you ever get the feeling that there is a small evil group to which no one we know belongs who is sitting on a giant mountain of money and would rather strangle innovation in its infancy rather than spend even one shilling more than they think the whiny peons in the labs are worth?  The money for research in both industry and academia has dried up so thoroughly that it can’t possibly be an accident or coincidence.  There is plenty of work to do on some very challenging and difficult projects.  And there are plenty of people who would be more than willing to do them.  The problem is that there is no money.  Anywhere.  Why is that and why is the Obama administration letting them get away with that?  It’s not like when the spigots get turned back on that everyone will suddenly be able to catch up really quickly with the work.  Biology and nature doesn’t work like that.  A cessation in research means a real gap in the flow, one that can’t be made up quickly.  And by the time the money comes back in, the more experienced among us will have learned our lesson, downsized, and gotten new jobs making a lot less money in another field while the new scientists who come after will have to reinvent the wheels and work for a lot less money in a field that no one appreciates.

{{sigh}}

The only thing worse is not having an opportunity to do what you love.  In the 21st century, we have reverted back to the days when only the wealthy and self-funded can afford to dabble in science.  The joy of discovery for those of us who are not independently wealthy is becoming a dream:

Yes, it really can be this fun.  S%^&, maybe the problem is we’re not supposed to be having fun at work.  It should be dreary, miserable and for low pay or it’s not the American way.

*****************

Speaking of Occupy events, what is it about the midwest that makes them have the cleverest stunts?  These guys really go out of their way to piss people off.  Chicago is particularly good at this.  Is it because they don’t really have a place to hang out that they have turned to infiltration?  It would make a good research topic.  What makes occupier stunts successful?  Is it leadership or invention born of necessity?  Anyway, if you haven’t seen this one yet, check it out (H/T Susie Madrak):

**************

Atrios points to a Reuters articles that  reports that Corzine’s brokerage firm, MF Global, sent out snail mail checks to depositors who requested their money when they heard rumors that the firm was in trouble.  The checks went out after MF Global went into bankruptcy.  Anyone want to guess why the checks were mailed instead of wired?  Anyone want to guess what the “MF” in MF Global really stands for?

*************

If you haven’t had a chance to read it, check out Nate Silver’s recent deconstruction of the 2012 election using some updated models.  The bottom line is that if Romney is the nominee for the GOP, Obama looks like toast.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise because next year looks like another change election.  Since there isn’t much difference between Romney and Obama, it’s not that hard to change presidential parties while sending a message to the Democrats that voters expect more from them.  Keeping that in mind, the Democrats *could* get out in front of voter sentiment for change and Change! their own nominee.  Oh sure, it seems unthinkable now (although the rest of the electorate has been thinking it for about a year now) but give them a couple of months and a nice double dip to the recession and they may think that Obama doesn’t look nearly as shiny as he once did.

**************

Moving on…

Speaking of MoveOn, I am going to delete any comment that directs readers to a petition.  It has come to my attention recently that if you sign petitions like the one I did for an occupy event lately, you may start getting a lot of annoying spam email from MoveOn.  If you want spam from MoveOn, I assume you already know how to get on their mailing list.  I don’t like the idea that they are using petitions regarding occupy events to get your email address.  I’ll be paying close attention to the people who are doing this because it feels devious to me and I don’t like it.  If you’re using my blog as an email address collection bot, you will be moderated.

Touchy, Touchy

I'm sorry, what was the question again?

I’m resurfacing a bit after the Big Basement Cleanup.  Still waiting for the claims adjuster to take a look around and tell me the damage.  AND, since the countertop was installed yesterday, I get to hook up my faucet, garbage disposal and dishwasher.  I know what you’re thinking.  The DIYer who installs her own dishwasher has a fool for a plumber.  But I have no choice.  It’s either this or cha-ching!

I noticed that the left blogosphere is still reverberating over the Momentous Job Package Announcement Scheduling Crisis from a couple of days ago.  Markos is starting to sound hysterical and tenderly refers to us as an “idiot fringe”* ,  ThereIsNoSpoon is analytical, as usual, and I’ve even had a twitter follower drop me over a couple comments I made when technically I agreed with him.  Oh, well, I’ve been losing friends since 2008.  I’m getting used to it.

But it looks like the unravelling of the Obama presidency is happening so rapidly that his former supporters have not had time to adjust.  For the record, I don’t think the scheduling thing was that big a deal.  It happens all of the time at work.  You check their outlook calendar and send an appointment, the recipient ignores it and you have to send another.  By this time, the date has been booked and you have to negotiate another.  No biggy.

What *is* a big deal is the way the media is handling this.  This is what I think is throwing the Obama contingent.  Up to pretty recently, the media wasn’t nit-picking.  It’s the harping on the minutiae that brings down a politician.  The constant fault finding, the mountains out of molehills, the inability to let it go.  God forbid there’s a scandal waiting in the wings.  It might be a reappearance of Tony Rezko or an agreement between the administration and some hated industry or maybe the media will finally get around to covering the 2008 Democratic primary and convention.  But, whatever, the media has turned on Obama and not just the conservative nutcases on Fox.

The Obama contingent could tolerate the Clintonistas as long as the media was still sort of on Obama’s side.  As long as he wasn’t getting the Hillary or Al Gore treatment from the NYTimes, he had a fighting chance.  Without that little bit of protection, every move he makes will be amplified.  When the media starts making your guy look like a loser, he’s in trouble. You know how it goes. You can’t pick out the color of your clothing without calculating the impact it will have on the Sensitive New Age voter.   You say that someone has been telling a fairy tale and suddenly you’re accused of being a racist.  Or you say something about Bobby Kennedy not clinching the nomination until late in the primary season and everybody goes nuts accusing you of threatening to off your opponent.   Crazy s%^& like that.  Every move, every syllable, every action is scrutinized for malevolence and dark meaning.  It’s all packaged up to make the politician look as bad, weak, imcompetent, spoiled, shallow and stupid as possible.  And if that’s what’s happening, then we very well may be looking at President Perry in 2012.  Am I right, guys?

It is disturbing, isn’t it?  The guy just looks vulnerable, doesn’t he?  He can’t catch his breath.  Yes, now he’s going to have to run a real campaign and he won’t have the media picking him up ever so gently and carrying him over the finish line.  You can blame the “horse race” tactics and insider journalism that Jay Rosen has been railing against lately.  Maybe the NYTimes wants a genuine fight to the finish.  The rest of us want jobs but red meat competition is what we’re going to get.

Or maybe the editorial boards have realized they installed the wrong guy.  You have to wonder what was going through the mind of the journalist who just a few days ago asked the press secretary if he thought Hillary was going to primary Obama.  *I* didn’t ask it.  After all, I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that it is crazy, insane, and a fantasy.  And I’m sure that the left blogosphere was able to happily ignore me until this last round of bad optics.  But now that it looks like he’s vulnerable, I’m suddenly more irritating than I was before?

Does the concept of Hillary joining the race make the Obama contingent uncomfortable?  Or are they going to hold the nomination hostage and scream “Mine! Mine! Mine!” until we put them in time out? Are they starting to think that they need an alternative and Hillary *does* look like the most likely candidate after all?  Have they figured out that a primary would be good for the party by forcing it to reconnect with it’s more liberal and New Deal base?  Can they swallow the bitter bile of their over-the-top vehemence towards her in 2008 and learn to live with her limitations in exchange for a more skillful and principled Democrat?  Nahhhhh.

I can’t get inside the head of an Obama supporter and I’m happy about that because if I could, I suspect it would be a very scary place where the AntiChrist looks something like Michelle Bachmann.  They’ll never change until they feel personally betrayed and disillusioned by Obama.  Right now, they seem to be really angry and are lashing out at the people they kicked three years ago.  If it makes them feel better, so be it.  We’re used to the abuse.  But it won’t fix the problem and it’s not going to make us give Obama our votes.  He’s still in the White House, the Democrats are charging towards a cliff with us chained to him and the media is going to assist in any way it can.

Feeling better?

* Ah, Markos, sounding just like a party loyalist, always ready to insult the regular voters and ignore their, you know, votes.  Because, after all, we can’t let the “idiot fringe” have a primary.  Obama might lose and someone like Hillary might win and that would be a really, really bad thing because, because… it is written!  So, there, you stupid primary fantasists.  Yep, according to Markos, Obama *must* be re-elected to four more years as a lame duck president because, presumably, Obama is the absolute best candidate the Democrats have.  It simply does not get any better than Obama and, by golly, even if there *was* someone more appealing that voters wanted more, the party is not going to let you have him or her because Obama simply is the creme de la creme of the Democratic party and he is entitled to your vote so get in line.  Yes, that is a winning campaign message.

More stuff:

On Virtually Speaking Susie on Tuesday, Susie suggested that the reason the Democrats are backing Obama in 2012 is because they need the African-American vote.  I don’t know if that’s true or not but the Democrats are having problems with women this go around.  And women are a much bigger contingent of the party than African Americans are.  So, I’m predicting that they have a more complex problem on their hands in 2012 than they would like to admit and the only reason they continue with Obama at this point is because they don’t want the Republicans to see them sweat.  Hillary as VP will not help the Democrats.  As long as Obama’s guys are still running the party, she would be deep sixed as VP and every woman in the country will know it.  Biden who?

So, Wall Street is having a bad day because of the jobs report.  Normally, Wall Street LOVES it when there are layoffs.  But at some point, those fund managers must be wondering who’s going to be depositing the funds they are supposed to be managing or buy the stuff made by the companies they invested in.

Weird Irene Side Effects:  I lost my apple modem in the Great Basement Deluge so I went to the local mall to buy another one at the apple store.  But when I got there, half of the mall had no power.  No, literally half.  One side of the mall was going about its business, every store lit up.  The other exact half on the other side of the main promenade was completely dark.  Same building, different halves.  It would be having power in only the right side of your house but not the left and no switch flipping at the fuse box would fix it.

So, we have to wait until tonight to get a new modem, if we can only get to the mall.  It seems like only one side of the road to it is working as well.  Funny lookin’.

Saturday: round up

What else was in the air over Joplin?

Thank you all who were concerned with my big purple toe.  It’s still swollen but I can walk on it now without wincing so I think it will be OK.

This post contains random stories collected from around the web that provoke me.  Forget that.  There’s only one story that got my attention this morning and made me cranky.

I am not an epidemiologist but this story in the NYTimes about the fungal infections popping up in Joplin, MO post tornado leaves something to be desired.

Several people who were injured when a tornado devastated Joplin, Mo., last month have become sickened by an uncommon, deadlyfungal infection and at least three have died, although public health officials said Friday that a link between the infection and the deaths was not certain.

Also on Friday, the death toll from the tornado was raised to 151.

Eight tornado victims have fallen ill from the mysterious infection, and each had “multiple injuries and secondary wound infections,” said Jacqueline Lapine, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. Citing confidentiality rules, officials declined to discuss the treatment or condition of the patients.

The fungus that causes the infection, which is believed to be mucormycosis, is most commonly found in soil and wood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is studying samples from the eight Joplin patients. “It is a very aggressive and severe infection,” said Dr. Benjamin Park, chief of the epidemiology team in the C.D.C.’s Mycotic Diseases Branch. “It is also very rare.”

Mucormycosis enters the body either via a puncture wound or when a victim breathes in its mold spores, officials said. Those who have weakened immune systems have a mortality rate as high as 90 percent. Other people at risk include those with diabetes or cancer and burn victims.

Mucormycosis is a rare fungal infection that makes death by any other method look like a cakewalk.  Normally, hospitals see only one or two cases a year.  The cluster in Joplin is very disturbing.  When I read the Times article, I got the impression that these infections were the modern day equivalent of the bubonic plague.  No one knows the source of the infection.  It’s a horrible way to die.  Very unsettling.  It’s yet another mystery disease that popped up in the couple of weeks.  Earlier, we heard about the antibiotic resistant ecoli infections in Europe.  Diseases and random acts of microbes, out of control.  OMG, we’re all going to die!  Why so many scary biological stories lately without the cause, effect and perspective?

The Times reporter suggests that the cluster of fungal infections was caused by the incomplete disinfection of wounds at emergency triage centers that we erected immediately after the storm passed through Joplin.  You may recall that one of Joplin’s hospitals was destroyed during the tornado so makeshift medical treatment facilities had to be erected quickly.

Ok, let’s back up for a minute.  When I read this story, I suddenly remembered a pseudo-science cable channel medical voyeur special about a man without a face (cue the Billy Idol).  From what I can remember, Mark Tatum starting experiencing severe headaches, which his doctors determined was caused by a massive mucormycosis fungal infection in his sinuses and behind his eyes.  The infection is 90% fatal.  The only way to save his life was to treat him with anti-fungal medications and to cut out the infection.  That meant removing his eyes, nose and upper jaw.  Imagine having that conversation with your doctor.  Once you decide, there’s no going back.

Anyway, back to Joplin.  What I find so unsatisfying about this story of the mucormycosal infection cluster in Joplin is that there are so many moving parts that could have made it more informative and interesting.  Isn’t this what the paywall is supposed to promote?  For example, I read recently that meteorologists are studying this year’s severity of the tornados and locations with interest because they are working on a theory about dry soils and moist soils and the generation of tornadic activity.  Oddly enough, there is a new article about this theory in earthzine that was posted today, and speculation, not yet proven, that the shift in location and severity of this year’s tornados could be the result of global climate change.  From the article, Seasonal Predictability of Tornadic Activity Using Antecedent Soil Moisture Conditions:

If Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) [1] projections are accurate, the frequency and severity of extreme water cycle events (e.g. droughts, floods) will increase as a consequence of climate change. The IPCC notes that hydrological extremes such as flooding and drought occurrence have increased markedly in the last three decades, with more intense and longer episodes. Large variability in the atmospheric component of the water cycle is directly linked to terrestrial soil moisture distributions. The consensus on soil moisture-atmospheric feedbacks is that surface heat fluxes and moisture gradients can influence convective development (e.g., [2],[3], [4], [5], [6], [7], [8], [9], [10], [11], [12]).

These studies and others have discussed the following connections between soil moisture and convective storm development: (1) Partitioning of surface energy into latent and sensible heating, which in turn affects the atmospheric boundary layer and regional convergence through moisture and energy exchanges; (2) Higher evaporative fraction; (3) High concentrations of entropy (or moist static energy) in the lower atmosphere; and (4) Development of mesoscale (e.g., sea breeze-like) circulations.

However, there is a lack of literature on the extension of soil moisture-atmospheric feedbacks to extreme hazards like tornadoes. At the same time, there is convergence of hydroclimate processes scales and weather-climate model resolutions, such that explicit feedbacks and connectivity between soil moisture and the atmosphere should be resolved [13]. Further, seasonal predictability of tornados has clear societal implications for safety, insurance companies, the construction industry, and even retailers like Home Depot or Lowes.

I’ve underlined the last line because it doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility to me that the dry soil/moist soil theory might also be applied to the outbreak of mucormycosis in Joplin.  Is there a connection?  Let’s start with the fungus and disease that it causes.  Mucormycosis is spread by spores, presumably airborne.  The deadliest of these fungal infections is the rhinocerebral variety involving the nasal cavity, behind the eyes and in the maxilla, or upper jaw.  The infection is most commonly found in people with compromised immune systems and in diabetics but the wiki on mucormycosis says that “traumatic innoculation” is also a possible route to infection.  But even though the Times srticle doesn’t go into detail, the number of cases in Joplin suggests that the epidemiology of the disease there is unusual and doesn’t follow the normal rules.  Maybe the people affected are not immunocompromised.

So, here’s my hypothesis: the dry soil/moist soil theory says that tornados form along the boundary between dry soil conditions and moist ones.  We know that parts of the midwest and southwest have been suffering from droughts this year.  If spores are airborne, would dry soil/moist soil boundary areas have a greater number airborne spores?  Think weaponized anthrax.

Ok, so along comes this massive tornado packing walloping winds and in a place like Joplin, there aren’t many places to hide.  The nature of the fatal infections suggests that it gets into the body through the respiratory tract.  The nose and sinus cavities seem to be the primary location of the “fungal ball”.  Is it possible that the route of infection was through the nasal cavity from exposure to tornadic winds or their aftermath?

How might we test this hypothesis?  Here are some of the questions I might have asked if I were the Times reporter:

Were any of the victims immunocompromised?  Did any of them have diabetes?  Is the infection the rhinocerebral variety, suggesting that the spores were inhaled, or are the infections somewhere else?  The mortality rate due to mucormycosis in Joplin suggests inhalation rather than skin infection.  Presumably, you can remove parts of skin without killing the patient.  It’s not so easy to remove sinuses and, potentially, parts of the brain.  Where did the survivors ride out the storm?  Does their location and level of exposure to disturbed air currents correlate to the level of infection?  Were they in an enclosed area during the storm or was the wind in their faces?  If wind wasn’t forced up their noses, that might suggest that the spores remained airborne after the tornado passed through the area. If we look at the region where tornados occurred this year, are there additional cases of mucormycosis?  If we plot these cases on a map, is there a pattern?  Does it correlate with the dates of tornados?  For example, is there an increased number of cases of mucormycosis in Alabama?  How about further east?  Does the rate of mucormycosis increase directionally?  If the infection is caused by airborne spores that are inhaled, does it seem correct to place the blame for the infections on emergency workers who tended to skin wounds and not nasal cavities?  If we discover that the number of mucormycosis infections increase after tornados in general, what course of emergency treatment would be appropriate?  Saline rinses?  An immediate course of anti-fungal medication?

I only ask.  Call me a ‘satiable Elephant’s Child and spank me but the NYTimes article could have presented us with a grim but fascinating medical mystery that might be linked to climate change.  Instead, we get the equivalent of an inexplicable horror story.  Maybe a different information provider, like  Chris Smith and the other NakedScientists, could do a better job of exploring this story.  Chris??

The reason this story bugs me is that the reporter seems so incurious.  The story and investigation goes nowhere.  It’s just a big question mark.  There are so many unanswered questions, some of them due to confidentiality rules, that I might not have put it on the front page.  It makes me irritated that there are so many stories like this that reporters fail to explore.  Journalists are notoriously bad at explaining science and frequently let their biases show.  The reporting on the reactors in Japan after the earthquakes and tsunamis was particularly egregious.  Yes, radiation readings a million times greater than normal are indeed disturbing- until you consider how many zeros follow the decimal point in a normal reading.  That doesn’t mean the situation wasn’t serious or that every nuclear regulatory agency in the world shouldn’t be studying Fukushima very carefully.  It’s just that the level of panic generated by the media was disproportional to the risk to the target audience of that breathless reporting.

I guess I’m just disappointed at what passes for expertise in any field these days.  How many journalists, or members of any profession for that matter, get their jobs through patronage instead of merit?  What is the energy penalty that we pay for this kind of selection process?  Is sensationalism more important than investigation and does that affect how journalists are hired? Do we as a society value loyalty and conformity to our master’s point of view more than independence, diligence and curiosity?  And what does this tell us about the future prospects of Americans without a network, or what Jane Austen would call “connexions”?  How would Edison do in this environment, with a homeschool education and lacking a degree from a prestigious university?  Is there a connection between the lackluster reportage and our stratified society or am I just rambling?  I’m rambling, aren’t I?

Ok, I’m done now.

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