Weekly Journal

Here's a compilation of everyday thoughts and articles I've written. Many have been published as part of my recurring columns in the News Messenger, the twice-weekly paper in Montgomery County, Virginia.

Tuesday
Oct312017

* * David Schmale tracks what's in the air

Run outside for a moment and take a huge breath of air. You’ve just inhaled thousands of microorganisms: fungi, bacteria, and viruses. Virginia Tech plant pathology professor David Schmale wants to know where they come from.

Dr. Schmale did a presentation I attended a couple of months ago, and I was fascinated by his work. The sexy part of what he does is the specialized equipment he uses to collect his samples, things like unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – what we call drones – and other unmanned systems such as boats and underwater vehicles. But what I found fascinating is the science itself and how the invisible, ancient source of energy, the wind, is an endless conduit for all manner of infinitesimally little things. So I invited myself to visit with him in his office in Latham Hall to learn more.

He was hired as a plant pathologist (“Pathology” means disease.), but now, “I really am an aerobiologist. Aerobiology is the study of the flow of life in the atmosphere.”

David is a big, strong man who looks more like an NFL linebacker than a science professor (He likes to lift heavy things and can bench press 365 pounds.). “Some of the microorganisms are dead; some are living. ‘Micro’ means it’s microscopic. ‘Organism’ implies that it is a living agent, or was. These microorganisms fly along what we like to call ‘highways in the sky.’”

He said that plants of all sizes can serve as sources of microorganisms and microscopic propagules. For example, flowers and trees can produce pollen. Pollen is an agent whereby a plant is able to relocate elsewhere and reproduce. And bacteria and fungal spores can hitch a ride on the pollen grains.

“We are interested in the transport of microorganisms from one place to the next. We think about plant diseases and causal agents of plant diseases that can move through the atmosphere over some distance from infected plants. Much of our foundational work is understanding this transport.

“Consider a grower of some agricultural crop. You may be worried about a disease that you know has infected neighboring fields. Perhaps your neighboring farmer has incurred a loss due to a devastating pathogen or an infection of his crop. You want to plan for its arrival. By understanding when and how the pathogen might be traveling to your crop, you can make informed decisions about how to manage the disease, such as the appropriate timing of chemical treatments such as fungicides.”

He said the movement of stuff in the air is partly controlled by weather and wind. Major atmospheric phenomena like hurricanes shuffle things in the air over long distances. The higher things are lifted, typically the farther they will be transported. On the other hand, microorganisms that get transported at higher altitudes often don’t survive due to UV radiation and dessication (drying out).

During storms, dust particles, fine sand and similar inert particulates, are entrained into winds and taken aloft. “During the hurricane season, dust from Africa can even make it to Virginia.”

I asked how he came to develop his interest in science. He said his parents were both teachers, and he gravitated towards academics and learning. The kind of guy who seems like he’s good at almost anything he tried, he was a singer and dancer as child and considered going to college to on a vocal scholarship. He ultimately enrolled at the University of California in Davis to study pre-med, thinking he’d become a medical doctor. He took a course in what then was called botany. “I was so intrigued that plants could get sick.”

He got his doctorate at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York and was hired at Tech where his wife was also hired as a mathematics professor. He teaches, does scientific studies, and obtains research funding. “I see my role here at Virginia Tech is to create opportunities for others. In doing so, we create opportunities together for really great science. My career has been in attracting talent and having the talent frame where the program should go: the tools, techniques, and questions we need to be addressing.”

Tech’s media office often focuses on high-impact, high-visibility research. He has enjoyed this press for many of his multimillion dollar federal grants. But he also maintains a focus on the smaller grants that can still produce significant scientific breakthroughs. “There are many smaller, less publicized, success stories. They deserve some press, too!”

He acknowledges the potential for terrible things to happen, either naturally or by bio-terrorism. But he remains optimistic about the future. “We are moving into a technologically savvy world where sensors are monitoring our daily lives, things like watches that will monitor our heart rate and remind us to take our medicines. It’s an exciting time when sensing modalities can improve our quality of life.”

Tuesday
Oct312017

* * Our corporations are killing us

 

Last week I went to Richmond to do three presentations about my books. I was hosted by my cousin Louis Adams, who attended the first presentation. Driving in, I passed the corporate headquarters of Altria, renamed from Philip Morris a dozen years ago. They make cigarettes, cigars, and other tobacco products, things that frequently prematurely kill their own customers. I said something to that effect in my presentation, wondering aloud about working for a company like that. Louis told me later that a man near him grumbled that he’d worked there for 35 years and wasn’t happy with my quip. Hey, it is what it is.

Tobacco’s cultivation and use have been major contributors to Virginia’s economy almost since white people arrived. It didn’t take long for its addictive properties to assert themselves, as 17th Century physicians, unhesitatingly willing to do autopsies, found black, oleaginous goo coating the lung cavities of deceased smokers. And yet for another couple of centuries, the tobacco industry continued to downplay the risks. Only when public interest changed in the 1960s did legislatures insist on sweeping changes, including the ubiquitous warning labels on cigarette packs and removal of advertising from television and other media.

Nevertheless, Altria continues to be one of the country’s most active financiers of political lobbying, spending millions each year to affect public policy. Altria funds The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition which lobbied against the scientific consensus on climate change. Altria, it seems, is deeply involved in the denial of science.

Speaking of climate change, Altria is not the only corporation that doesn’t want the public to know or understand the risks. Energy giant Exxon Mobil has been studying this for decades. Recently released documents show that it has long deliberately misled the public about the state of climate science and its implications. Evidence shows a systematic, measurable discrepancy between what Exxon Mobil’s scientists and executives discussed in internal communications and what it presented to the public. Presumably Exxon reasoned if we knew the truth it would damage their business.

Blatant disregard for the health and safety of the public and even their own customers is not merely the realm of these two corporations. Chemical giant Monsanto has developed and or produced a laundry list of harmful products, including now banned PCBs, dioxin, and DDT, as well as questionable products like bovine growth hormone, Aspartame and Saccharin.

Perhaps worst of all, Monsanto has been able to fully dominate and control our seeds and food supply by developing and marketing GMO crops, which have been linked to obesity, infertility, and autism, and even cancer.

To be fair, my guess is that many of the people inventing these harmful products were unaware of the risks, at least at the beginning, and were just working to make their employers more successful. Consider the case of one Thomas Midgley Jr. (1889-1944), often credited with inventing more destructive and ultimately banned products than anyone who has ever lived.

Midgley’s first blockbuster was tetraethyl-lead, an additive to gasoline that made engines run smoother, released in 1921. Due to its irrefutably pernicious effects, the EPA finally banned lead in gasoline twenty years ago, but the legacy is so pervasive that we still buy “unleaded” gas. Next, genius Midgley invented the chlorofluorocarbon “Freon,” the refrigerant that coursed through air conditioners, freezers, and refrigerators for decades until it was banned for damaging the earth’s protective ozone layer.

Ultimately Midgley contracted polio and strangled to death, entangled by the ropes of a device he’d invented to help others lift him from his bed. Some things you can’t make up.

It’s sad but undeniable that many corporations place their profits over the well-being of humanity. Here’s the one that is particularly depressing to me.

Pharmaceutical companies, ostensibly in the business of alleviating human pain and suffering, are now killing massive numbers of our neighbors throughout Appalachia. Opiod drugs, extensively and deceptively marketed by the drug industry, kill 90 people every day. Manufacturers and distributors have aggressively worked to convince doctors to overprescribe prescription medications that turn users into zombified addicts.

Opioids are a drug class of painkillers based on opium. Heroin, introduced in 1898, was rigidly controlled and prescribed under only the direst circumstances. Nowadays, synthetic painkillers like fentanyl and oxycodone (brand name: Oxycontin) have flooded the market. These painkillers are among the most addictive substances known. Oxycontin is so addictive it can create physical dependency in weeks, leaving users miserable if they can’t get their fix.

OxyContin’s maker Purdue, in 2007, pleaded guilty in federal court here in Virginia to misleading doctors and patients about its risks. The $600 million fine was substantial, but a drop in the bucket compared with the $35 billion it made from Oxycontin sales between 1995 and 2015.

You’d think it would be a questionable business strategy for a corporation to kill its own customers. Clearly, many don’t care. Beware!

Tuesday
Oct312017

* * Arrivederci Italy!

I’m just back from vacation in Italy, one of the world’s truly fascinating, beautiful places. Let me tell you about it.

I went first, before my wife and daughter, and spent nine days hiking the Dolomites, the Italian Alps. I’d always wanted to go there, and I wasn’t disappointed. Not the Alps’ highest peaks, the Dolomites are among the most scenic. I hiked with a touring company called Alpine Hikers, headquartered in Arizona. I’d hiked with them twice before, in 1999 and 2006, so this was my third trip. They provided a guide who walked the entire journey with me and two other hikers.

We averaged around 7-9 miles each day, and it was seldom flat. Cumulative climbing was typically 2000 to 3000 vertical feet, and it was a strenuous six to eight hour walk each day. But gosh it was worth it!

One morning stands above the others. The day before, day three, we’d done our longest hike, around 12 miles, ending atop a mountain called Lagazuoi. The Refugio, or mountain hotel, is situated at 9300 feet of elevation. The morning after our arrival was one of the most breathtaking in my life, with the sun rising over craggy peaks to the east, the full moon setting over newly illuminated mountains to the west, and in the foreground below, fog swirling up and down over minor ridges. Wow!

At the conclusion of my hiking trip, I took the train (Italy has extensive public transportation throughout the country) southward to Venice, where I met my wife and daughter. We stayed on the eastern, less developed part of the island, and explored on foot and boats each day. The canals are the best known feature, but I loved that there are no cars whatsoever. The entire city is traveled on foot and boats. It was bizarre to see everyday items such as fruits and vegetables, sofas and washing machines, delivered by boat.

We took the bullet train to Florence, where the digital display in the car indicated our car was going an amazing 300kph (186mph) and toured the museum that houses Michelangelo’s David, perhaps the world’s most famous and revered granite statue.

We toured the medieval Tuscan cities and towns of Pisa (with its iconic leaning tower), Lucca, San Gimignano (with its 14 towers), Montepulciano, Monteriggioni, Borgo a Mozzano, Siena, and Cortona. Each had its own distinctive geography, architecture, and history. We benefited in having a private tour guide, a man named Federico Ciavattone whom we met in August when he attended a conference at Tech and happened upon our bookseller’s booth at Steppin’ Out. The best meal of the trip was prepared by his mother at their two-bedroom flat in Pisa.

We then stayed in La Spezia from where we drove to the Mediterranean coast at Portovenere. I watched and took photos of a thunderstorm crashing over the mountainous shoreline. We took the train to each of the five villages in magnificent Cinque Terre National Park. Our final lodging was a mountain retreat in Brosso near Torino where my daughter and I climbed a 4700 foot mountain while watching paragliders launch towards the valley below.

Observations?

The Italians are warm, friendly people, eager to connect with travelers. But oh my gosh!, put them behind the wheel of a car and they turn into maniacs! I’ve never seen such antics; particularly frightening was the double-line passing on blind corners. We only saw one accident, however, as the Italian drivers are totally attentive; nobody is on their cell phone.

And they love their wheels! Some of the iconic names on the road, in bicycling (Colnago, Bianchi, Campagnolo, and Cinelli), motorcycling (Ducati, Moto Guzzi, MV Augusta, and Benelli), and cars (Lamborghini, Maserati, and Ferrari) hail from Italy.

The roads are in generally good shape, with ample warning signs when under construction. The default interchange is the roundabout, and they work great, always keeping traffic moving. We should emulate that! My daughter navigated using Google Maps on her cell phone and we never took a wrong turn.

There are fees for many things we get for free, like public toilets, parking, and highway tolls. On our longest day on the road, the cost for the autostrada (equivalent to our Interstates) was 26.50 Euro (around $31).

Italians are proud people with a fascinating heritage in food (especially wine, cheese, and olive oil in the region we visited), culture, religion, science, fashion, art, and music. Sculptor Michelangelo, inventor Leonardo da Vinci, explorer Christopher Columbus, astronomer Galileo Galalei, luthier Antonio Stradivari, painter Raphael, philosopher Cicero, explorer Amerigo Vespucci (who America was named after), singer Luciano Pavarotti, scientist Enrico Fermi, and many others are household names. Their culture is ancient and monuments, relics, and art keep the culture alive.

Most people spoke some or fluent English, although the signs (other than “STOP”) were in Italian. I learned a few words and had fun using them.

Like most vacations, we had a few minor mishaps. But overall, it was a wonderful experience to a beautiful place. I returned wanting to do more things, go more places, and experience more of the world. I hope to do a trip of a lifetime every year!

Arrivederci Italy!

Tuesday
Oct312017

* * Electric cars are here

The next transportation revolution is underway now, and it’s going to be awesome!

I’m looking at two photographs of busy traffic from street scenes in New York, one from 1903, the other from 1913, ten years a part. The former is crowded with horse-drawn carts. The latter is completely populated with cars. In a mere decade, Henry Ford’s model T changed the landscape completely in the wink of a proverbial eye. Since then, almost exclusively, cars have been powered by internal combustion engines, fueled by liquid petrochemicals. That’s about to change.

Blacksburg’s David Roper is on the leading edge. An octogenarian and self-described geek, he sees electric cars as our future and has devoted considerable time and resources towards pursuing them. He made the grave mistake the other day letting me drive his new Chevrolet Bolt, a fully electric car.

Dave is a retired Virginia Tech physics professor, and he’s obsessed with graphs and mathematics. He’s convinced that within a decade, over half the cars on the road will be electric. The ramifications will ripple through the economy. I’ll tell you more about predictions he and I discussed in a moment, but let me describe the ride.

The Bolt is a small hatchback, with comfortable seating for four. The first thing you notice behind the wheel is that the two “dashboards,” the one in front of you and the one at the center of the car, are entirely digital, in effect computer screens. There is no key; it “starts” with a push-button. More than “quiet,” the car is utterly soundless, other than the radio and the ventilation system’s fan. Perimeter cameras give a 360-degree view of the surroundings, assisting with maneuvering out the garage. Once underway, the car responds briskly to the “throttle,” and accelerates quickly and seemingly effortlessly, from 0 to 60mph in 6.3 seconds. As we whoosh onto a busy city street, Dave tells me that the car’s required maintenance is to change the cabin air filter annually and rotate the tires. That’s it!

“Gasoline cars are inefficient, around 25-30%. Electric cars around 95% efficient,” he told me. “The miles-per-gallon equivalency for this car, the way I drive around Blacksburg, is around 138 mpg. I can drive 220-300 miles between charges. So gasoline cars really can’t compete.”

Knowing that the car is hyper-efficient, I floored the throttle, feeling none of the guilt associated with a joy-ride in a typical vehicle.

Electric cars cost more up-front, but their reduced fuel and maintenance costs help them become competitive. And with ongoing advancements and price reductions, the balance will soon shift entirely towards electric cars, maybe only in 3-4 years.

David said he was less motivated by return on investment than pure desire. “I bought this car because it was what I wanted. Nobody buys a Cadillac because of ROI.” He has also invested in solar panels, which cover much of his south-facing roof, to “fuel” his car and home. His motivation was not purely economical, but to help save the world from the myriad maladies of fossil fuel use.

So what will change when most of the cars on the road are electric? Who will be the winners and losers? It’s anybody’s guess how the future will play out, but these are likely:

  • ·      
  • ·       No more poisoned air and water with ozone and particulate pollution
  • ·       No more destroyed coal-bearing mountains
  • ·       No more devastating oil spills
  • ·       No more tyrannical petro-states and no more oil wars in the Middle East or elsewhere

 

New electric vehicles are equipped to handle the upcoming software advances that will enable cars to drive themselves. Frankly, 15 years ago I was convinced that self-driving cars would never happen in my lifetime; now I’m equally convinced they are inevitable. Then what happens?

Most of us use taxis sparingly because they’re expensive. Most of the money we pay for a taxi goes to paying the driver. If there’s no driver, the cost will plummet. If you have two family cars now, you may go to one. If you have one, you may go without. Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft will proliferate, and they’ll buy cars in bulk, likely directly from the manufacturer, killing the traditional dealership model. Whenever you need to go, you’ll summon a car on your smart phone and one will appear to take you. So you won’t need a garage, driveway, or car insurance. Repair shops will wither and die, as will insurance companies. There will be no parking lot at your office, factory, school, or church. Crashes will diminish, because computers frankly are better drivers than we are.

The forces that benefit from the current system will resist mightily. But there will be no turning back, just as there was no turning back to horse-drawn carts in 1910. And David Roper will be seen as a visionary.

Tuesday
Oct312017

* * Marie March sees a way to better nutrition for our children

Marie March is a visionary. Or perhaps just back to the future.

She sees that our children aren’t being well fed in school and she’d like to help fix that.

“My kids have gone to public schools; my oldest just graduated. They have always complained about school lunches. They say the food looks horrible, tastes horrible, and it isn’t healthy.”

Marie is in a position to know, because she’s in the food business, the founder of two Christiansburg restaurants, Due South BBQ and Fatback Soul Shack.

“The kids have tons of carb(ohydrate) options, but little protein on the menu. I’m sure the menus comply with the American guidelines and the Food Pyramid. My husband is a doctor and both of us feel the options aren’t that great.”

They go to Hillsville every week to buy fresh produce and then can it. They meet the local farmers at the produce market. “I started thinking how great it would be if we could incorporate fresh, local food into the school menus,” she said. “We could get higher quality, fresher food from local farmers.”

At her restaurants, she buys local. She procures cornmeal and flour from Big Spring Mill in Elliston. She sources sea-food from the Chesapeake Bay distributors. And she’s working to find a supplier of beef and pork from local farms.

Her impression was that most of the school lunch food was sent to the cafeterias already cooked and highly processed. For example, corn would arrive in gallon cans. It may have been grown in the Midwest or even Mexico. It may have been processed with artificial sugars and preservatives. The industrial canning process cooks out many of the nutrients, and the can itself has a coating that seeps into the food. And the corn may be GMO, or Genetically Modified Organism, thought by many to pose a risk to humans. The corn has little of the original flavor and the kids hate it.

“I believe the better way is eating your local foods, supporting your local economy, the same tax base that provides the money for those school systems to begin with. If this money is being extracted from the (residents and businesses) of this community, wherever possible it should be spent back here. I am big on that in every aspect of my business life. We always support the folks we know.

“Our tabletops were made in Floyd. Our T-shirts were sourced locally. We use reclaimed and salvaged materials for all our store decorating. And of course, our restaurants are in old buildings that had sat vacant for years. My whole world is salvaged!

“We’ve been successful because we support local companies. People who work at Big Spring Mill, for example, eat with us because we know we’re supporting them.

“My husband Jared and I feel so grateful to be here. The community has been so accepting of us. We’ve been here 12 years. The community has helped us. People are so kind.

“What I envision is an overhaul of the school lunch programs. They have to be interested in and willing to make changes and to admit that school lunches suck. That’s the first step to recovery; you’ve got to acknowledge the problem. It’s not that hard (to fix). You get the farmers together with the processors and distributors and you commit to a system of local procurement. You start a pilot program at one school. The kids would need to buy into eating it and the parents would need to buy into supporting it.”

I asked if she thought each lunch would cost more to the students. She wasn’t sure. But she was convinced the cost would be worth it. Noting that schools are for teaching and learning, she said that we teach our children about nutrition, but we don’t honor that education by feeding them well.

I noted that for many of the poorer kids in our communities, the school lunch is their best meal of the day. And then it’s not as nutritious as it should be.

She said, “I think these epidemics of diabetes, hypertension, and obesity are all from the food we eat. We offer the best food we can to our customers. Why are we feeding our children so poorly? I would be willing to donate some of my time and expertise to get this going.”

We noted that in bygone days, school lunches were sourced nearby and cooked fresh. Only with the advent of industrialized food production did that so dramatically change. It was all farm to table; that was all there was. Maybe it’s time to go back.

“We are indoctrinating our children at a young age that nutrition doesn’t matter,” Marie claimed. “And that’s terrible.”