Monthly Archives: February 2013

More on river blindness and related diseases

We were talking about River Blindness.

Trigger Warning: The video below is not for general consumption. Having said that you may want to watch it. The first part depicts the reactions of a handful of celebrities watching a series of shots depicting seven different related tropical diseases, and I must say, having seen all of these diseases in person (and having treated some of them, and had mild versions of a couple myself) that these particular videos show the worst side of it. But still, a very large number of people (according to the source of the video, about a billion) have some form of these diseases, mainly in Africa but also in Central and South America and Asia. The celebrities are: Emily Blunt (“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” “Devil Wears Prada”); Eddie Redmayne (“Les Miserables,” “My Week with Marilyn”); Tom Felton (“Harry Potter” series); Yvonne Chaka Chaka (South African pop star); Tom Hollander (“Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Pride and Prejudice”); and Priyanka Chopra (leading Bollywood actress and international recording artist).

The last part of the video is the same celebs giving a pitch for you to pitch in and donate some money and spread some awareness.

The project that produced this video is called End7, a reference to ending all seven diseases. What they say is mostly true: You can treat these diseases very inexpensively. At present, the pharmaceuticals are well known and inexpensive. However, people with advanced stages of some of these parasitic infections can’t be treated easily if at all because the treatment may involve causing effects that result in very severe immune system responses. The idea is to treat children, more or less prophylactically, so they don’t develop the advanced versions.

The disease are:

<ul>
  • Elephantiasis
  • <li>Roundworm</li>
    
    <li>Hookworm</li>
    
    <li>Whipworm</li>
    
    <li>Trachoma</li>
    
    <li>River Blindness</li>
    
    <li>Snail Fever</li></ul>
    

    King Leopold’s Soliloquy

    I first became aware of, and read, King Leopold’s Soliloquy, which is not his soliloquy but a parody of what he might say according to Samuel Clemens, while doing fieldwork in the ex-Belgian Congo. That is where the real story that inspired the essay took place. I lived in an area that at one time had a few a plantations, but the plantations only existed briefly and are now long gone. The “road” through this area was passable only with a very tenacious four wheel drive vehicle (we had a Land Rover) and grew worse every year. But the road at one time was excellent.

    I knew a guy, an older Efe Pygmy man, with one leg. When I first arrived in the Ituri Forest I was shown by my colleague an abandoned camp that a group of Efe Pygmies has only recently been living in, and told “everyone in this group lived here but the old man and his wife … he’s a bit contentious and there was an argument.” Having read all the literature written in English about Pygmies, I was aware of the fact that these foraging people, who moved frequently — perhaps ten times a year or more — would often change the composition of their residence groups to reflect forming and breaking alliances among people who often, but not always, lived together. After hanging out in the camp long enough for my colleague to collect some data, we went back to the road via a different path and passed the old man, Kobou (pronounced “Ko-bo-oo”), and his wife in a small clearing in a freshly cut garden. “Strange,” I thought, “They live in a square hut. Everyone else lives in a dome-shaped hut. I guess some Efe live in square huts.”

    But no. Kobou is the only Efe I ever came across to always build square huts. Maybe somewhere else in the Central African Rain Forest, but not around these parts.

    Thin, old, bearded, fierce eyes contagious laugh and one leg. Kobou1 was the father of one of my main informants. Kobou would come by the research base camp whenever I was there, more or less daily. He’d sit in a chair and chill for a while, then we might chat about one thing or another. Then he’d say “I’ve come to get my plantains” or “I’ve come to get my mohogo” or “I’ve come to get my [fill in the blank with something to eat that we had growing in our fields]”. The base camp did have a rather large garden, and the main purpose of the garden was so that Kobou and a handful of other Efe could come by now and then and claim some of the food.

    “You’d better cut your plantains, then,” I’d say.

    Kobou and I hanging around in the Harvard Ituri Project base camp.
    Kobou and I hanging around in the Harvard Ituri Project base camp.
    More often than not he’d reply, “I did already,” pointing with his bearded chin to some big bunch of plantains at the edge of the clearing. Then he’d speak to a child or other handy person in KiLese (the local language) and that person would drag the food over to Kobou. Kobou would then pull out some vines he always seemed to have handy and create a tumpline strap or other carrying device incorporating the plantains or other food item, stand up on his one leg, grab one of his hand-fashioned canes, attach the food to himself, and grabbing the other cane head off to his camp. Unless his wife was with him, then Mrs. Kobou would carry the food.

    Kobou had lost his leg to a snake. He had been bitten by a full grown Gabon Viper. The Gabon Viper is one of the scariest of snakes. It’s head is huge, it’s body very stout, and it’s venom is the richest venom known in a snake, both neurotoxic and haemotoxic.

    When my friend was bitten by the snake, he was driven by someone from a nearby plantation to a hospital, to have is leg cut off, which was the only way to save his life. In the days I lived there, this drive required many many hours (or a day or two), and would beat the hell out of the truck. But in those days, they were able to drive him there in a few hours. At 120 kpm, it would have been a two or three hour drive.

    But the reason that the road was so good is because of the sort of policy satirized in King Leopold’s Soliloquy. In those days, a Belgian Colonial Administrator would drive a vehicle at 100 kilometers per hour down this road with a glass of water on his dashboard. Wherever water spilled form his full glass, he would stop, and his agents would beat and/or maim the nearest villagers. This encouraged the villagers to keep the dirt road in perfect condition by constant attention to any rivulets or potholes, using hand labor and simple tools.

    Eventually, the revolution came, in it’s own way, and the Belgians, guilty of a decades-long holocaust, got their due. They were burned to death in the buildings they hid in, they were shot, strangled, and drowned, and a few got away.

    At a later time, I stayed in one of King Leopold’s mansions. Well, not really. We kept some of our stuff in the mansion. The mansion had no roof, and was filled with birds and bats, and their guano. It was better to stay in a tent, outside, even though one would risk being trampled by a hippo or hassled by a hyena. This was Ishango, known locally as “The Most Beautiful Place on the Earth.” It is. But they should really tear down those old mansions (Two stood there side by side) and neaten the place up just a little. Leopold had mansions here and there across his Congo, though he never actually visited the place.

    I have ruled the Congo State not as a trustee of the Powers, an agent, a subordinate, a foreman, but as a sovereign — sovereign over a fruitful domain four times as large as the German Empire — sovereign absolute, irresponsible, above all law; trampling the Berlin-made Congo charter under foot; barring out all foreign traders but myself; restricting commerce to myself, through concessionaires who are my creatures and confederates; seizing and holding the State as my personal property, the whole of its vast revenues as my private “swag” — mine, solely mine — claiming and holding its millions of people as my private property, my serfs, my slaves; their labor mine, with or without wage; the food they raise not their property but mine; the rubber, the ivory and all the other riches of the land mine — mine solely — and gathered for me by the men, the women and the little children under compulsion of lash and bullet, fire, starvation, mutilation and the halter.

    Leopold did not say that. Clemens puts those words in his mouth as a political and social parody. But it is absolutely accurate; had Leopold said those word he would have been speaking the truth.


    1Here and elsewhere, when I write about people in the Congo, I use fake names. There are reasons.

    Arctic Ice Loss

    You all know that the Arctic Ice melts more each summer than ever before. In a few years, the Arctic will be ice free during the summer. The rate of annual melting is greater than expected even just a few years ago. Please note that the increasing melt of Arctic sea ice does not bode well for the associated Greenland Ice Sheet which is also showing signs of melting at a higher rate than expected. The melting of Arctic sea ice has a number of important environmental implications, but the melting of the Greenland Glacier has that plus more; it will contribute significantly to sea level rise.

    Several days ago the National Environment Research Council of the UK put out some new information from the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 satellite program:

    Arctic sea ice volume has declined by 36 per cent in the autumn and 9 per cent in the winter between 2003 and 2012, a UK-led team of scientists has discovered.

    Researchers used new data from the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 satellite spanning 2010 to 2012, and data from NASA’s ICESat satellite from 2003 to 2008 to estimate the volume of sea ice in the Arctic.

    They found that from 2003 to 2008, autumn volumes of ice averaged 11,900 km3. But from 2010 to 2012, the average volume had dropped to 7,600 km3 – a decline of 4,300 km3. The average ice volume in the winter from 2003 to 2008 was 16,300 km3, dropping to 14,800 km3 between 2010 and 2012 – a difference of 1,500 km3.

    The most important thing here is the decrease in volume, which really means a decrease in thickness, of the sea ice. The ice in the Arctic partially melts every year, then refreezes. Much of the ice, in the past, never melted, and served as the base for new winter ice every year as we cycle through the seasons. But over the last few years, this “old ice” has been disappearing. This results in changes to sea temperatures, reflection of sunlight, and air temperatures which, in turn, change the nature of the northern end of the overall system of global air currents. The result of his has been a change in the relationship between more southerly air currents that are part of the process of moving heat from the equator (where the effects of the sun are stronger) towards the poles. The result of this has been a change in the nature, distribution, and typical movement patterns of cold air masses, warm air masses, and storm. Thus, extreme cold snaps in the northerly range of where people live in the Northern Hemisphere, and heat waves to the south of this, the formation of more severe northerly storm, and, apparently, the higher chance of severe North Atlantic storms slamming into highly populated areas of North America.

    Here’s a video explaining one important aspect of the new findings, from Climate Nexus (Hat tip MNM)

    The video is not entirely accurate. We should not forget Polar Bears! And, scientists are less hapless in their understanding of the implications of ice melt than the video suggests (see commentary above).

    How Do You Get Sexual Orientation and Gender in Humans?

    Humans appear to have a great deal of variation in sexual orientation, in what is often referred to as “gender” and in adult behavior generally. When convenient, people will point to “genes” as the “cause” of any particular subset of this diversity (or all of it). When convenient, people will point to “culture” as the “cause” of … whatever. The “real” story is more complicated, less clear, and very interesting. And, starting now, I promise to stop using so many “scare” quotes.

    Continue reading How Do You Get Sexual Orientation and Gender in Humans?

    City of Angels Will Dump Coal by 2025

    Last February 17th, there was a big rally at the Los Angeles City Hall where people demanded action on climate change and an end to our reliance on fossil fuel. The city of Los Angeles gets 39% of its electricity from coal fired plants, so that would be hard.

    But today, we’ve learned that “…Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will be “signing papers” in the coming weeks that will wean L.A. from coal-fired power within 12 years.”

    Apparently, the mayor made this announcement at a UCLA event discussing related issues, and it was a real jaw dropper, truly unexpected. This will require shutting down two coal plants.


    Photo Credit: Alex E. Proimos via Compfight cc

    How the US Navy is Leading the Charge on Clean Energy and Climate Change

    There will be a discussion on Climate Desk Live about this topic tomorrow, Feb 27th. Details and access to the event are HERE.

    Increasingly, the US Navy is leading the charge towards clean energy, which can in turn impact national security an even climate change. Through investments in biofuels, construction of a more energy-efficient fleet, forward thinking about issues like rising sea levels and a melting Arctic, and commitments to reduce consumption and reliance on foreign oil, the Navy is leading the charge of a vast energy reform effort to “change the way the US military sails, flies, marches, and thinks.”

    And here’s a fun, related video:

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    The Bloggies

    Why does the science community shun the Bloggies?

    I was shocked to discover that @bloggies is unaware of the reason that science blogs no longer participate in the contest. @bloggies noted: Prominent climate skeptic blogs tend to campaign for nominations, while other science blogs don’t seem to mention the Bloggies.

    Storified by Greg Laden· Tue, Feb 26 2013 10:47:37

    @gregladen I don’t know what the reason is myself.The Weblog Awards
    .@Bloggies Maybe I’ll write a blog post about it and send you the link if you really don’t know. But really, you must know.Greg Laden
    @gregladen Do you mean the reason that climate skeptics are attracted to the Bloggies, or the reason that other science blogs aren’t?The Weblog Awards
    @Bloggies Both It isn’t just a matter of attraction or interest, but purpose and intent. Also, "other" is not the right word there.Greg Laden
    @gregladen Prior winner history is the only reason I know. I don’t know why no sci bloggers mentioned the category when it was made in 2011.The Weblog Awards
    .@Bloggies The science blogging community is fully aware of the situation and there has been commentary on it.Greg Laden
    @Bloggies "Another year, another weblog contest duped" http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2011/02/18/207555/bizarro-world-bloggies-finalist-for-best-science-blog-is-anti-science-website-wattsupwiththat/Greg Laden
    . @Bloggies "..the death of Science in America..the five candidates on the shortlist.. one rabid anti-science blog http://www.easterbrook.ca/steve/2012/02/another-sign-of-the-death-of-science-in-america/Greg Laden
    .@Bloggies "Bizarro world ‘Bloggies’ finalist for Best Science Blog is … anti-science website" http://sierraactivist.org/2011/02/18/bizarro-world-%E2%80%98bloggies%E2%80%99-finalist-for-best-science-blog-is-%E2%80%A6-anti-science-website-wattsupwiththat/Greg Laden
    .@Bloggies "Those that rouse or manufacture enough support, can engineer a win in the submitted category… 1/2Greg Laden
    ..resulting in awards for a blog that routinely misinforms on scientific subjects and even slanders scientists.” 2/2
    .@Bloggies last two tweets from this source: http://climatecrocks.com/2012/01/25/climate-denial-and-manufacturing-legitimacy/Greg Laden
    .@Bloggies "… I’d say this has gotten political." http://whateveresque.com/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=13&t=484Greg Laden
    .@Bloggies You run a blog award w/a science category. Anti science activists took it over. No legit science bloggers want any part of it.Greg Laden
    The Bloggies no longer serves the science blogging community.  If there intent was to do so, they need to change how they do things.  I would like to suggest the addition of a new category: Climate Skepticism. Put the climate science denialist blogs in that category and only valid science blogs in the science category.  That is the only way to regain interest from the science community short of simply banning the fake science blogs. 

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    Graphene: Big promise for new solar technologies

    A big step in improving the efficiency of photovoltaic cells in on the horizon. A paper published over the weekend in Nature Physics describes the ability of a substance called Graphene to convert a high percentage of the energy from sunlight into electricity. Graphene uses more of each photon’s energy, and a wider range of photons of different energy levels (using a broad spectrum of the Sun’s energy), compared to existing solar cells. From the abstract of the paper:

    The conversion of light into free electron–hole pairs constitutes the key process in the fields of photodetection and photovoltaics. The efficiency of this process depends on the competition of different relaxation pathways and can be greatly enhanced when photoexcited carriers do not lose energy as heat, but instead transfer their excess energy into the production of additional electron–hole pairs through carrier–carrier scattering processes. Here we use optical pump–terahertz probe measurements to probe different pathways contributing to the ultrafast energy relaxation of photoexcited carriers. Our results indicate that carrier–carrier scattering is highly efficient, prevailing over optical-phonon emission in a wide range of photon wavelengths and leading to the production of secondary hot electrons originating from the conduction band. As hot electrons in graphene can drive currents, multiple hot-carrier generation makes graphene a promising material for highly efficient broadband extraction of light energy into electronic degrees of freedom, enabling high-efficiency optoelectronic applications.

    Peter Sinclair has summarized the info on Graphene and has links to various sources here.

    K. J. Tielrooij,J. C. W. Song, S. A. Jensen, A. Centeno, A. Pesquera, A. Zurutuza Elorza, M. Bonn, L. S. Levitov & F. H. L. Koppens. Photoexcitation cascade and multiple hot-carrier generation in graphene. Nature Physics (2013) doi:10.1038/nphys2564. Source


    Photo of solar cells credit: bkusler via Compfight cc