Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Painfully Helpful?

October 5, 2020

For those who have a hard time thinking the Genesis account of creation and humanity being descended from one single set of parents could be true, I think this is an interesting and relevant article. Being neither a geneticist or a genealogist, it’s possible I’m not understanding it correctly. But the main gist is we’re more closely interconnected than we (and evolutionary theory) tend to think we are.

Though scientists are quick to discount that a single couple – married to each other, actually – could be the source of all our genetic linkages, if I’m understanding this correctly there’s not a scientific reason we couldn’t be, other than that it would too closely sound like Genesis and we can’t have that.

Curious and open to better explanations or applications of this article if you’ve got them!

Isaiah 55:12

September 17, 2020

Conventional wisdom divides material into animal, vegetable and mineral. Helpful at one level but perhaps damaging at another, as we tend to ascribe certain characteristics to one group more than the others, characteristics of thought, motion, feeling, etc. Frankly we’ve often relegated these things just to the narrow category of humans within the larger animal classification, though that’s finally beginning to change as we come to understand other animal life better.

But perhaps this is only the first small step in a much wider understanding of the world around us, one that might see trees and other plants viewed in a whole new light that necessitates a whole new acknowledgement of relationship between us and them.

Maybe Scripture isn’t simply using anthropmorphisms, and trees and other vegetable classifications are far more complex than we’ve assumed. Science will take credit for discovering this but Scripture has used that kind of language for a lot, lot longer.

Makes me wonder if maybe, along a similar line of reasoning, our understandings of Isaiah 55:12 and the mineral world have room to grow as well!

Coronavirus Roundup

July 23, 2020

A few miscellaneous items related to the COVID-19 pandemic, mostly in the United States but also around the world as well. After all, who can escape the daily headlines with staggering infection counts and updated fatality tallies? And if these things are being reported so loudly and often, they must be important, right?

Certainly they are important. It’s not as though Coronavirus appears to be fictional. The question becomes what sort of important are they, and how do we make sense of them with other important things?

For instance, we’re being quoted daily the number of new fatalities linked to COVID-19. Certainly we don’t get daily death tallies for other illnesses, diseases, or accidents. Surely the death figures for COVID-19 must be devastatingly abnormal? Surely far more people are dying in 2020 – and primarily related to COVID-19 – than in other years?

What if that doesn’t appear to be the case? What if death rates aren’t massively higher than in other recent years? Could that tell us anything about Coronavirus or how it’s being treated or reported?

More and more I hear different industry experts and commentators talking about how they don’t anticipate any change in how things are being done right now until a safe and effective vaccine is developed. Considering vaccines aren’t necessarily discoverable on demand, this seems like a problematic place to lodge your hope. Add to that how effective or safe is defined with no long-term studies and things get further complicated. And add to that the possibility that antibodies may not last, or may not act like other antibodies and it gets even more complicated. After all it would be pretty frustrating to push (or demand) everyone get vaccinated only to find it didn’t offer long-lasting protection.

And protection is what we’re after, right? We want to know we’re being protected. That’s what our governments are there to help do, right? Protect us?

Or maybe just some of us?

Evidently some people aren’t as deserving of protection as other folks, which is disturbing to say the least. But this is an issue European nations find far less disturbing now than they did when, say, the Nazis were deciding which people merited living and which ones didn’t. At least this is Great Britain we’re talking about, rather than America.

Oh, whoops. Perhaps the problem isn’t as distant from the land of the free as we’d like to imagine.

So this COVID-19 thing has a lot of dimensions to it. But in the midst of it, don’t think that while your businesses and schools and churches might be shut down, that your legislators have stopped working on their pet projects.

AB 2218 was introduced into the California Legislature back in February of this year. In other words, a lifetime ago in Coronavirus terms. I’m sure it didn’t seem so unusual back then, wanting to take money from the general fund to specially fund and provide for transgender individuals and their very specific needs. Whatever those are, as defined by special interest groups where the president/CEO is transgender and 75% of the employees are transgender (Section 2.f.2.A-C). Doesn’t sound like a very diverse workplace, frankly.

Back then in February, it was apparently suggested that a specific amount of money be appropriated from the General Fund for these very vague purposes. Fifteen million dollars ($15,000,000). However despite the pandemic raging and society crumbling and all that, this bill was amended in Assembly not once but twice (May and June). Somewhere in those amendments the dollar amount was eliminated. Meaning there is theoretically – or literally – no limit to how much money from the General Fund could be appropriated for these purposes. After all, this Bill clearly defines the huge need. It asserts at least 218,400 Californians identify as transgender. That’s a huge number. But considering California has an estimated 40,000,000 residents (and that’s probably a low figure given our very hospitable attitude towards unregistered folks), the figure comes out somewhere in the neighborhood of .00546 percent of our overall population.

Now there are roughly double the number of Coronavirus infections (remember Coronavirus? That’s where we started this post!) in California as transgendered people. I think it’s safe to say that the Coronavirus case numbers will grow much more rapidly than the transgendered numbers. And currently most of the counties in this state are under some sort of restrictions or lockdowns due to inadequate medical facilities to handle the potential surge in need for hospital beds and ICUs and qualified medical staff.

So why in the world would our lawmakers decide that right now, in the middle of a pandemic when California is reporting more cases of COVID-19 than any other state in the country, right now we should free up unlimited funds for the support of transgender folks? Why aren’t they figuring out how to direct more funds to those areas areas with the least medical support or the highest rates of hospitalizations? Or at least I’d think they’d be working tirelessly to direct any available funding towards relief of from the Coronavirus, and providing support services for people and families who have lost their jobs and businesses and savings.

So yeah, curious times to be sure. Good to keep your eyes and ears open. You never know what you might learn.

Which Numbers?

July 14, 2020

Numbers are interesting things. Or more accurately, what numbers are cited and how they’re cited are interesting things.

Here in the US we’ve been dealing on a large scale with the Coronavirus since early March. Early on as lockdowns were put in place around the country the reports I remember were of massive death rates in Italy as well as sporadic reports of huge fatality levels in New York City. Articles with pictures of bodies stacked on the sidewalk because hospitals and mortuaries were unable to deal with the rapid spike in deaths related to COVID-19. Most everyone was pretty willing at that point to go along with demands to shelter-in-place and shut down non-essential businesses. The goal was not to eliminate infections necessarily, but to bend the curve, reduce the steep rate of new infections so hospitals would not be overwhelmed with dealing with incoming patients.

Here we are four months later and lockdowns are being reissued after a month and a half of eased restrictions. There is fearful talk about rising infection rates (as opposed to fatalities). But the talk now is not about fatalities any longer but infection rates. We’re told about how many new cases of COVID-19 are being discovered. Presumably with wider testing. This is of course concerning. Or is it?

Assuming the Coronavirus is as contagious as we’re told it shouldn’t surprise us that as testing rates go up so will the number of cases reported. Especially if, as sporadic articles maintain, the virus is airborne and can remain in the air for longer periods of time as opposed to mainly being spread from speaking, coughing, etc. in close proximity to one another. In which case, infection rates have likely been much higher than reported all along (something I’ve maintained since March), when testing was non-existent and then at lower rates than it presumably is now.

This is of course bad news. Anything that makes people sick is cause for some level of concern. Every year we know the flu is going make the rounds and a lot of people will get sick (far more than are reported to be infected with the Coronavirus, so far) and many will even die from it. But because we’re used to it, we don’t really take many precautions other than the flu shots that are now aggressively pushed each year despite offering questionable protection.

The Coronavirus is new and therefore we’re much more nervous about it as information is difficult to sift through to determine the real risk it poses. So far what we’re told is that it’s the greatest risk to the elderly and those with underlying health conditions that weaken their ability to fight infections in general. I don’t doubt this is true – my question is how serious the risk is.

Consider this collection of data from the CDC.

The first chart is a week-by-week breakdown of fatalities associated with the Coronavirus either alone or in combination with other illnesses. The first column is just deaths attributed in some way to COVID-19. Note how the numbers increase rapidly from the first reported cases in February. They peak the week of April 18, 2020 when there were nearly 17,000 deaths associated with COVID-19 in the United States. Then look how those numbers decline just as precipitously to under 200 as of the week of July 11, 2020. There are some disclaimers to note, such as the data (particularly the most recent data I would presume) is not necessarily fully accurate due to discrepancies in timing as to when data is received by the CDC. But in any case, it’s clear that COVID-19 related fatalities are nowhere near where they were in April at the height of our fear and worry. The disease is killing fewer people than it used to, despite shocking rises in reported numbers of infections in recent weeks.

Two columns over the Percent of Expected Deaths is also fascinating. This column compares the weekly data to historical data from 2017-2019 and shows how the 2020 fatality data compared to those previous years. In other words, did more people die in these weeks in 2020 than died in previous years in the same weeks when Coronavirus wasn’t in the picture? These figures peak in the same week – the week of April 18 – with a 40% increase in fatalities compared to previous, non-COVID-19 years. And then the percentage begins dropping so that by mid-June overall numbers of deaths are roughly equivalent to previous years. Although data is likely incomplete after mid-June as per the disclaimer notes, again the trend is clear that the virus is not as fatal as it was initially. I’m curious as to why that would be.

In the second table, I find it interesting that while California gets a lot of news play, our infection levels are rather low compared with other places and our fatality levels are essentially identical to previous, non-COVID-19 years. Unlike, say, Massachusetts, which I never hear about in the news! They have roughly 2000 more cases of COVID-19 than California despite a population 1/6th the size of ours. Fascinating.

It’s good to be cautious here. We have an odd habit in our country of emphasizing death counts that is misleading in terms of the real damage done. This is true in terms of our reporting of wars and other international engagements. You hear how many of our soldiers are killed, but never additional information on how many are severely wounded, as in limbs blown off or life-long paralysis or blindness or other severe, life-altering injuries. Likewise, with COVID-19 there are people who do get seriously ill but don’t die from the disease. So just looking at death statistics certainly doesn’t convey the full impact of the virus.

But it does make me wary about the heavy push for a vaccine as an answer to this situation. I’ve never thought it reasonable to assume we could produce a vaccine for this on demand. Vaccines aren’t that simple – otherwise we’d have a vaccine for the common cold! I worry more that if and when a vaccine is developed, there will be a push to make it mandatory – a push based on maintaining fear levels of Coronavirus into next year.

At least as I interpret the data, it seems more reasonable to say (as I did months ago) that likely infection rates are far higher than reported because of inadequate testing capabilities, so the apparent increase in infection levels now that testing is more pervasive is not really an increase in the percentage of people getting the virus, just a rise in the number of them detected. All of which means the virus is far less lethal than widely reported, even if it does still pose a risk to certain at-risk populations who would also be equally at risk from the flu and other more common and known viral strains.

Instead of emphasizing vaccines as the hope for moving past this, it seems far more reasonable to rely on herd-immunity since the vast majority of people who get the virus are only mildly affected and make full recovery. Assuming this process of infection and recovery leaves people with life-long antigens that make repeat infection impossible, within a few years the Coronavirus will no longer be much of a threat, and will be a decreasing threat to people as they age and develop other complicating health issues since they likely will have already had COVID-19 and won’t get it again when they’re weaker and less able to fight it off.

I’m happy for someone to explain how or why my analysis and conclusions are wrong. Data is time-consuming to sift through and there are a lot of anecdotal articles (or more accurately editorials) out there to complicate things further.

Apples & Oranges

June 29, 2020

I am not qualified to assess whether the US infection levels of Coronavirus are increasing as is commonly reported, staying the same, or perhaps decreasing. Variables in terms of reporting methodologies, the number of people being tested, and probably dozens of others I’m not even aware of are more than I’m willing or able to quantify. I’ll assume our infection levels are increasing somewhat after we bent the curve in April.

However article leaders like the ones in this news report are not helpful.

The US is compared unfavorably with New Zealand, South Korea and Singapore in our rising infection levels. The first thing I went and did was check on the populations of these countries. All of them are substantially smaller than the United States in terms of population. South Korean is roughly 1/6 of our population at 50 million people, while New Zealand and Singapore have approximately 5 million, or 15% of the US population level of roughly 330 million people.

Now maybe the article takes this into account and is comparing infection levels adjusted for population. It doesn’t indicate it, however. It seems to at least acknowledge that the geographical size of the US and therefore the reality that infections can surge in one area and then another is something different from the other countries it cites. So there’s that.

So be careful out there, but also pay attention. As I was crunching some local numbers I realized that for our particular county, infection rates are at less than 1% of the population. Of course, that’s just the cases that are tested or confirmed somehow, but still. It’s a much smaller number of people than you would think given the unrelenting news coverage.

Palimpsests

October 10, 2019

In the generally cool category, this article describes the discovery of some surprising things written on parchments, then erased so something else could be written on them instead.  And, we also get a new vocabulary word to describe these parchments – palimpsests!

The idea is that an isolated monastery in Egypt at one point was not able to easily procure fresh parchment, and turned to erasing some existing manuscripts to provide parchment for new copying.  A variety of previous texts have been discovered through the use of specialized cameras and lighting, and some of those texts were previously unknown or written in languages we have few extant examples of.

What a cool use of technology, proving that while we in the digital, Internet age know that nothing really disappears online, it might be true to a certain degree for people 1400 years ago as well.  Fortunately, it appears to all be textual and no compromising, hand-drawn selfies of monks.

Whew.

The article also provides a link to a site where photographs of the overlaid texts can be viewed, which is also very cool.  If my Greek was better, it might be tempting to try some translations of my own, but I’ll leave that to more competent folks!

Say What?

October 1, 2019

I know, I’m no scientist.  It’s been a long time since I sat through a biology class.  So this article caught my attention.  Three sexes?  What does that mean?

I read the article the one above was referencing and it provided no further elaboration of this.  It does, however, mention the discover of one species of nematode with three sexes more prominently/earlier in the press release than the article above.  I’m assuming what they’re referring to is this species has three chromosomal sexes – not just the XY of male or XX of female.  According to this site, there can be chromosomal variations on these two typical genetic sexes.  This site does a better job of a more in-depth explanation of what variations in chromosomal sex means.

What the original articles don’t clarify is whether or not all the studied samples of this one species of nematode have three sexes, or they happened to notice it in one of the samples.  Since some of the variations on XY or XX chromosomal sexes mentioned in the Quora article lead to diminished physical, intellectual, or reproductive capabilities, are these similar situations in other species?

Lots of questions without many good answers yet, which makes it all the more curious that the three-sexes issue takes top billing in the headlines.  At the very least, it says something about what catches people’s eyes these days.  I’m sure a headline heralding Eight New Nematode Species Discovered! wouldn’t garner much attention!

 

What’s Good For You

September 17, 2019

A lovely article about politics in the great state of California.

Reasons cited for parental reticence on vaccinations include complacency, the inconvenience of accessing vaccines and a lack of confidence in vaccines’ effectiveness.

I would be interested in knowing how the World Health Organization gets the statistic of 2-3 million lives saved via vaccines.  I’ll also point out how it’s a bit misleading to quote a global vaccination statistic rather than a national one, or even a state one.  I wonder if those are accessible, and if so, why they weren’t cited instead?  I’m assuming the numbers are lower (logically) and not as compelling.

I’m not anti-vaccinations per se, but I am deeply suspicious of global and national documentation regarding them.  I’m suspicious of a field that seems intent on criminalizing or delegitimizing any opposition or concern over vaccinations.  And I’m very opposed to the idea of the government forcing me or my children to have things injected into our bodies without being given the right of refusal or even the right to say which vaccinations we do or don’t want.  The State of California passed vaccination legislation a few years ago to make vaccinations mandatory, but provided  no opportunity or mechanism for public awareness or education about what vaccinations were being mandated.  A list was published at the time of the currently mandated vaccines, but it was  also clear that  list could  be amended by a committee at their discretion, and no mention was made about consulting constituents for their agreement.

That’s a recipe for potential disaster on a scale far exceeding a measles outbreak – which was the non-lethal illness that prompted the forcing through of  mandatory vaccination laws and now laws excluding religious  and philosophical objections and actively trying to cull or investigate doctors that might have some good reasons for providing medical exemptions.

I’m grateful for the benefits of health science, but vary wary of the government insisting I partake of the alleged benefits.  I’d prefer that to be listed as a reason as well, rather than lumping people with vaccination concerns together with the  woman throwing used feminine hygiene products at our lawmakers.  Questioning authority is not necessarily crazy.

Good Time Outs?

September 14, 2019

For those of you out there agonizing over whether or not you are – or have, or did – traumatize your child irreconcilably through the use of the dreaded time out method of punishment, you can breathe a sigh of relief.  Maybe.  The University of Michigan has released the results of a study that says, done properly, the time out method of discipline should not cause any lasting harm to children.  Maybe.

While this article doesn’t address or acknowledge whether long-term studies were done on the effects of spanking as a disciplinary methods, I find it curious that the list of criteria for making time out an effective form of discipline pretty much match corporal punishment’s ideal criteria as well:

  • calmness
  • consistency
  • positive environment
  • planning the process beforehand
  • making both parents and child understand it
  • avoid shouting

 

 

Life As We Know It

September 13, 2019

Another epic announcement this week about a potentially habitable planet discovered in a far off galaxy.  These come out every now and then and disappear pretty much just as quickly.  But I love this take on such announcements, which helps put them in perspective as to their usefulness.

Go ahead, click.  It’s fun.