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Technology, science, and math

The digital divide

Online learning is great, if you can get online.

The lack of access to technology among students — commonly referred to as the “digital divide” — has come into sharper focus in recent weeks as school districts across Houston transition to online-based learning amid widespread school shutdowns.

Districts throughout the region are scrambling to equip tens of thousands of children with computers and internet access, jockeying with each other to secure coveted devices in high demand during the pandemic. In the meantime, many districts are providing those students with rudimentary paper materials, asking families to return completed coursework to their schools or take pictures of completed worksheets and send them to teachers.

“This has been on the education docket for, gosh, probably at least 20 years,” said Alice Owen, executive director of the Texas K-12 CTO Council, an association that supports school district chief technology officers. “It’s been a struggle for people to realize that this is an important piece of learning for students if we want to keep them competitive on a global scale.”

Educators and advocates long have warned about the digital divide facing American children, with the nation’s most impoverished children suffering most. The ubiquity and declining cost of computers and internet access has helped shrink the gap, but stark disparities remain.

In the Houston area’s 10 largest school districts, about 9 percent of households — nearly 142,650 — do not have a computer, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates. Nearly twice that number — about 267,250 households — lack broadband internet access.

Three of the region’s largest and most impoverished districts — Alief, Aldine and Houston ISDs — face the greatest shortages, according to Census data and estimates from district leaders.

[…]

Despite extensive warnings about the digital divide, state and federal legislators have not allocated nearly enough funding to schools to cover costs associated with providing laptops, wireless internet devices and broadband services to all students at home.

Districts can obtain some technology and internet access at steep discounts through a federal program known as E-Rate, but the benefit does not extend to take-home computers or wireless hotspots for students.

“If we want our kids to be competitive and stay up-to-date with tech, we need to be investing in our students for the future,” Owen said. “We’ve got to get over the way school used to be run, and we need to think about the ways that schools are run in the future.”

In a letter sent last week to the top four ranking members of Congress, 35 Democratic senators called for providing $2 billion in E-Rate funds that would allow schools and libraries to deliver wireless internet devices to students without connectivity at home.

“Children without connectivity are at risk of not only being unable to complete their homework during this pandemic, but being unable to continue their overall education,” the senators wrote. “Congress must address this issue by providing financial support specifically dedicated to expanding home Internet access in the next emergency relief package so that no child falls behind in their education.”

Maybe addressing this could be part of Infrastructure Week, or maybe it can be its own item. As the story notes, HISD and some other districts issue laptops to high school students – my daughter has one – which helps with those students, but obviously only goes so far. Charters are not exempt – KIPP reports a similar issue with its students. This is, plain and simple, an issue of poverty. If fixing the underlying issue is too hard, then maybe we can agree that all students need to have the equipment required for an education, and provide them all with laptops and Internet access. The choice is ours – are we going to learn from this crisis, or are we going to face the same problems the next time, without the excuse that we didn’t know any better?

We are doing a good job of keeping our distance

That’s what our phone say, anyway.

Harris County residents are doing a good job keeping their distance, according to location data culled from smartphones, earning an “A” on a nationwide scoreboard.

The Social Distancing Scoreboard is a creation of Unacast, a Norway-based company that provides location data for business clients. The tool tracks the decrease of movement by people in a location over time to determine whether they are staying at home and assigns a letter grade, drilling down to the county level. The grade is tracked against the number of COVID-19 cases in each location.

It does not track whether people are staying six feet apart from each other — yet.

[…]

Overall, the United States scores a “B,” with the District of Columbia doing the best job of social distancing, followed by Alaska. Texas gets an A overall, as does Harris County.

Schleicher County, south of San Angelo, gets the highest score in Texas; Oldham County, west of Amarillo, has the worst.

You can fool around with the Social Distancing Scoreboard here. It gets its data from various smartphone apps – thank you for turning on location services, by the way – though it doesn’t specify which apps, per the Washington Post. The data for Texas was last updated on March 21, prior to all of the stay-at-home directives, so one would expect the mobility levels to drop further. It’s a good start, at least.

Preserving Texas’ film history

Cool story.

Click play on the grainy, black-and-white image titled simply “Houston Time Service” on the website of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image and you’re treated to a 110-second Houston love story.

The film, from the 1940s, is about a phone number Houstonians could call to get the correct time. Ruth McClain Graham owned the service, according to an Oct. 24, 1947, Houston Chronicle story. Two years earlier she had married Shadrack E. “Shad” Graham, an itinerant filmmaker, who, apparently taken with the proprietor, produced the film promoting the business.

But film, like love, can be short-lived, and that’s what has driven Caroline Frick’s race against time. The role of film preservationists like Frick, an associate professor of film at the University of Texas’ Moody College of Communication in Austin, becomes ever more crucial as moving images depicting life and history become unplayable.

As the years play on, the decay of aging motion picture film accelerates, as does the quality of magnetic tape on which video is recorded. Video projectors and old-format tape machines break, are not repaired and discarded. The race to get these recordings into a digital format – also unlikely to survive forever – becomes more crucial with each passing year.

“This is what we are trying to prevent,” says Frick, who founded and is executive director of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image, or TAMI, in 2003, opening a plastic bag filled with what looks at first glance to be beef jerky. It’s actually decomposing celluloid, curled and blackened. The smell from the bag is a pungent, vinegary rot, and in TAMI’s crowded offices near downtown Austin, you can catch a whiff if you stand next to stacks of boxes filled with 8-, 16- and 35-millimeter film.

Another threat is in the shrinking universe of ways to watch these historic movies, a dwindling number of obsolete devices available for playback. Frick points to a Sony reel-to-reel videotape machine on the floor that once was the pride of a television station editing room. It was designed to work with a now-abandoned, 1-inch tape format.

“We were able to play something once on that after we got it, and then it broke,” she says, sighing. “We’re still looking for parts.”

A staff of five — all part-timers — are in the office on this chilly January day. Some work on physical restoration of film, others scan it into computers for digitization. Another crew catalogs and curates, putting context to the images that, ultimately, stream across the internet to computers, phones and tablets.

It is a daunting task, hampered by a lack of funding — TAMI’s annual budget is in the $300,000 range — and made overwhelming by the sheer amount of content that flows in. So far, TAMI has digitized about 58 terabytes of film and video, but only 10 percent of that is available for viewing at its website, texasarchive.org.

“The number one reason for the disconnect between what we have digitized vs. what is streaming is budget – the human labor of researching and contextualizing the content,” Frick says. “Everyone is excited about what AI will be able to do some day (for automated curation) but, as of yet, nothing is as reliable or useful as the human eye and brain.”

I’m old enough to remember calling a phone number to get the correct time. Crazy to think about now, but here we are. In any event, preserving old film is a much more challenging task than preserving old books because of the technological barriers. Look at it this way: Most of us have obsolete technology from recent years that has information on it that is now unreadable to us, like various forms of portable storage from computers. The TAMI folks have to deal with machines from decades ago, where there may literally be nothing else like them in existence. Once these old films are gone, that’s it, they’re completely lost to history. Whatever the value of any individual piece of celluloid may be, it sure is a shame to lose something like that. Read the rest of the story and check out the Texas Archive of the Moving Image. Maybe you have something that would interest them.

Calendar reform

Well, this is an interesting idea.

Feb. 29ths, like the one tacked to the end of [last] month, exist because Earth’s orbit and human calendars are slightly out of sync. The planet completes its 584-million-mile loop around the sun in 365 days — plus 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds. Leap days are designed to compensate for the excess time.

But, if two Johns Hopkins University professors had their way, this leap year would be the last of its kind.

They would replace the calendar with a new version. Theirs, the Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar, is 364 days long. It is consistent: The year always begins on a Monday. Your birthday always falls on the same day of the week.

“The calendar will be exactly the same, every year,” said Richard Conn Henry, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University and one of the calendar’s designers.

February would always have 30 days, as would January, April, May, July, August, October and November. The other four months would have 31 days. There would be no February leap days. Instead, “every five or six years,” Henry said, “we’ll have an extra week at the end when you can party.”

[…]

“The Gregorian calendar was set up by astronomers, people who knew what they were doing, and it is very accurate,” Henry said. “That’s the problem. We don’t need a terribly accurate calendar. What we need is a calendar that is suitable for human beings to order their lives by.”

Henry enlisted his colleague at Johns Hopkins, economist Steve H. Hanke, to help. “Dick brought this up and basically gave me an assignment: ‘Hanke, find out the economic implications of this thing,’ ” Hanke said.

Hanke estimates the upfront costs would be less than the Year 2000 adjustment, which, in the United States, was about $100 billion.

“The benefits, from just not having to reproduce calendars every year, physical calendars, would pay for the thing right away,” he said.

Having the date fall on the same day of the week every year eliminates inefficiencies with planning and scheduling that the “herky-jerky” Gregorian calendar has, Henry said.

Every so often, in the Gregorian calendar, companies add a week to their fiscal quarters. Apple did so in the first quarter of 2012, and reported “very good, strong earnings,” Hanke said. “Of course, they had an extra week of revenues coming in.”

A year later, Apple’s first quarter of 2013 appeared comparatively weak — because it lacked the benefit of an extra week, Hanke said — and the company’s stock dropped.

“Our calendar fixes that problem,” Hanke said, because business would consistently operate on 91-day quarters.

Holidays and your birthday would fall on the same day of the week every year, which if nothing else simplifies things. The story doesn’t delve into the mechanics of that “bonus week”, which would seemingly be every six years. Would it actually be a national week off, or just another work week? What would we call it? And if you think being a Leap Day baby is weird, imagine being a kid born during Bonus Week.

Hanke and Henry think their calendar could be implemented via presidential executive order. I have a hard time imagining that would actually happen. The rest of the world would adjust if the US did something as eccentric as this – they would have to, in the same way everyone adjusts to Daylight Savings Time, which occurs at different times around the globe – but I doubt they would follow suit, and having to deal with two different business calendars might just eat into the cost savings these guys envision. It’s an interesting idea, and if we were designing a new global system from scratch I’d like it, but as things stand I’m fine with the status quo.

The robot nurse

We are living in the future, for better and for worse.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B01H56Fn8_0/

A friendly one-armed, bright-eyed robot is roving the hallways of Medical City Dallas’ Heart and Spine hospitals, helping nurses with routine tasks that previously took time away from patient care.

Nicknamed Moxi and regarded as one of the staff, the robot is equipped with sensors to help it navigate, and even anticipate people’s movements, as it travels across hospital floors. Medical City Dallas partnered last fall with Austin-based artificial intelligence firm Diligent Robotics Inc. to become the first North Texas hospital to employ a robot full time in a clinical setting.

“When we were opening up the hospital back in October, one of the things we wanted to really focus on was being an innovation center and bringing new technology to the health care setting,” Medical City Chief Operating Officer Josh Kemph told The Dallas Morning News.

When a nurse is interacting with it in a way that would normally trigger an error message, Moxi instead emits pleasant beeps and chirps to notify them. Some patients even have their own names for the assistant, which has its own Instagram account run by Diligent.

But Moxi is so much more than just a pretty face.

Texas will face a shortage of more than 71,000 nurses by 2030, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. And with the demand for nurses expected to only continue increasing, Medical City Dallas director of surgical and procedural services Stefanie Beavers says she hopes it will also make it easier for the hospital’s existing workforce to optimize their day-to-day work.

“This really offers health care facilities an opportunity for the nursing workforce to focus on patient care and be directly at the bedside versus taking them away, and allowing their time to be truly dedicated to patient care tasks,” Beavers said.

It never crosses the threshold into patient care, instead delivering things like blood samples back and forth to a lab and updating patients’ medical records instantaneously for hospital staff.

“She’s really meant to be a team member that’s supporting you in the background,” Beavers said.

For now, at least, Moxie is a modern version of the FBI mail robot, which does simple drudge work like delivering specimens and allowing the human nurses to do more important things. It’s also a lot cheaper to employ than human nurses, or human nurses’ aides, and in the way of driverless cars, it’s just a matter of time before they have the capability to cross that threshold into patient care. That may be 20 or 30 years down the line, but it’s out there somewhere. I just hope we can have a productive conversation about what that will mean for the rest of us before it happens.

How Nuro is mapping Houston

Really interesting story.

On the muggy streets of suburban Houston, amid McMansions, bright green lawns and stately oak trees, a futuristic race is quietly afoot.

The contestants are not people but late-model Toyota Priuses outfitted with an array of sophisticated sensors. Despite fierce competition and unending pressure to perform, the nearly silent electric vehicles do not speed. They move cautiously, rigorously following traffic laws and never topping 25 mph.

Their goal is not an easily discerned finish line but to map large swaths of the nation’s fourth-largest metropolis, a sprawling patchwork of neighborhoods, mini-cities, strip malls, gridlocked superhighways and mazelike gated communities – an area so prodigious in size it easily could swallow Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island whole.

The vehicles are owned by Nuro, a Silicon Valley robotics company with an ambitious goal – to become the world’s preeminent autonomous delivery service, allowing millions of people to have groceries and other goods delivered by robots instead of making trips to the store, potentially reducing traffic and kicking off a new chapter in our relationship with machines. For months now, Nuro’s robotically piloted vehicles have been successfully, if quietly, delivering groceries to restaurants and homes around Houston, the vehicles’ sensors mapping the city as they go.

The faster Nuro’s vehicles map Houston’s notoriously chaotic roadways, the faster the company can refine its software and export its business model elsewhere. But time is in short supply.

Like Nuro, companies such as Amazon, Alphabet-owned Waymo, Robomart, General Motors’ Cruise division, Ford-affiliated Argo AI, Starship Technologies and many others are also rushing to deploy high-functioning autonomous vehicles for delivery and passenger transport, with some companies attracting major deals and billions in funding. Their goal is to earn public trust and offer real-life convenience, experts say, heightening their chances of securing a valuable foothold in a new era defined by autonomous transportation.

To get there, they will first have to run their autonomous vehicles, or AVs, through millions of miles of driving tests in cities such as Houston until they are glitch-free and unquestionably safe.

“The pressure is real,” said David Syverud, head of robot operations at Nuro. “And to be clear, it is a race in the AV space to deploy quickly and be the first to really get there.”

It goes from there, and it’s worth your time to read, even if it’s a few weeks old at this point. We’ve met Nuro before, and I see their cars around; I’ve seen a couple in and around my neighborhood. Like most stories written about Houston by people not in Texas, this one is both a window into how others view us, and how they can get confused about certain basic things we understand. Like, for example, how you have to distinguish between the city of Houston and the greater Houston area. This is what I mean:

Company officials say they were also drawn to Houston for the complexity of its metropolitan environment, a puzzle of independent communities, each with its own road conditions, zoning ordinances, parking rules and traffic laws. Some area neighborhoods offer wide lanes and little traffic, others are narrow and perpetually hectic – providing the company’s robotic software a massive variety of testing conditions.

As the country’s most ethnically diverse large city – and with a foreign-born population of 1.4 million – Houston also is a place where Nuro officials could probe fundamental questions about its business model.

“The big question for us is: Who is going to use this service, and how often will they do it?” said Sola Lawal, a Nuro product operations manager based in Houston who formerly worked for Uber. “Our robots don’t care who they’re delivering to, but we want to understand how different demographics interact with and feel about the robots. Houston allows for this broad swath of experience in one city.”

That’s all well and good, and it’s easy to see why Houston would be an attractive testing ground, but come on. The city of Houston has a population of about 2.3 million. I assure you, the population of the city of Houston is not three-fifths foreign-born. The greater Houston metropolitan area has a population of about seven million, and I daresay that’s what they meant when they dropped that statistic in the story. But please, let us be precise about these things.

Anyway, despite such glitches, the story is worth reading, so go check it out. We occasionally use grocery delivery, via Whole Foods and Amazon Prime. They leave the goods in a cooler we put out on the porch, and however successful this Nuro project is I don’t see that part of the task being robot-ified any time soon. There’s a lot of money being bet on this business expanding rapidly. I’m usually skeptical about this sort of thing, but what do I know?

“Coordinated cyberattack” on several Texas cities

That doesn’t sound good.

Twenty-three Texas towns have been struck by a “coordinated” ransomware attack, according to the state’s Department of Information Resources.

Ransomware is a type of malicious software, often delivered via email, that locks up an organization’s systems until a ransom is paid or files are recovered by other means. In many cases, ransomware significantly damages computer hardware and linked machinery and leads to days or weeks with systems offline, which is why it can be so costly to cities.

According to a weekend update by the Texas DIR, the attacks started Friday morning and though the locations aren’t named, “the majority of these entities were smaller local governments.”

Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered a “Level 2 Escalated Response” on Friday following the incident, according to a statement from Governor’s Office deputy press secretary Nan Tolson. This response level, determined by the state’s Department of Emergency Management, is part of a four-step response protocol, and is one step below the highest level of alert, level 1 or “emergency.”

According to state emergency management planning guide, this means “the scope of the emergency has expanded beyond that which can be handled by local responders. Normal state and local government operations may be impaired.”

In addition to the state and local agencies assisting with the response, “Governor Abbott is also deploying cybersecurity experts to affected areas in order to assess damage and help bring local government entities back online,” Tolson said.

This NPR story has more details.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and state cybersecurity experts are examining the ongoing breach, which began Friday morning and has affected mostly smaller local governments. Officials have not disclosed which specific places are affected.

Investigators have also not yet identified who or what is behind the attack that took the systems offline, but the Texas Department of Information Resources says the evidence so far points to “one single threat actor.”

Elliott Sprehe, a spokesman for the department, said he was “not aware” of any of the cities having paid the undisclosed ransom sought by hackers. He said the areas impacted are predominantly rural. The department initially put the number of cities attacked at 23.

Two cities so far have come forward to say their computer systems were affected. Officials in Borger in the Texas Panhandle, said the attack has affected city business and financial operations. Birth and death certificates are not available online, and the city can’t accept utility payments from any of its 13,25o residents. “Responders have not yet established a time-frame for when full, normal operations will be restored,” city officials said.

[…]

Experts say that while government agencies have increasingly been hit by cyberattacks, simultaneously targeting nearly two dozen cities represents a new kind of cyberassault.

“What’s unique about this attack and something we hadn’t seen before is how coordinated attack this attack is,” said threat intelligence analyst Allan Liska. “It does present a new front in the ransomware attack,” he said. “It absolutely is the largest coordinated attack we’ve seen.”

Liska’s research firm, Recorded Future, has found that ransomware attacks aimed at state and local government have been on the rise, finding at least 169 examples of hackers breaking into government computer systems since 2013. There have been more than 60 already this year, he said.

The city of Keene, near Fort Worth, was also hit, and their Mayor said the attack came via their IT provider, as these small towns outsource that task since they don’t have sufficient resources to do it themselves. This is a real problem that’s going to keep happening, and we really should put more money and effort into fighting against it at a state and national level. Good luck to all involved in cleaning up the mess. A more recent statement from the Texas DIR is here, and the Star-Telegram, the Chron, and the Trib have more.

Big Bend yields a new dinosaur species

Cool.

A new, more primitive species of dinosaur was discovered at Big Bend National Park this week.

The fossil of the new specials, Aquilarhinus palimentus, was unearthed in the 1980s by Texas Tech University Professor Tom Lehman. But because the bones were so “badly weathered and stuck together,” it was not until recently that researchers could analyze it, according to a release from the park.

Earlier research concluded the fossil was related to the Gryposaurus genus, or duck-billed dinosaurs. New research shows the fossil is linked to a more primitive species that is helping researchers draw conclusions about how this species of dinosaurs evolved over time, according to the release.

“Its existence adds another piece of evidence to the growing hypothesis, still up in the air, that the group began in the southwestern area of the U.S.,” lead author Dr. Albert Prieto-Márquez from the Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont, near Barcelona, said in the release.

The full report is here, with a more readable summary here and here. As we know, Texas is a rich source of fossils, from various paleontological eras. May it ever serve as a fruitful source of discovery.

Perspective on the anti-vaxx situation

Maybe it’s not as bad as we think.

It’s certainly true that pockets of vaccine refusal persist in this country, as they have for many years. If those pockets are now experiencing greater numbers of measles cases, it may be on account of dire trends in far-off places.

This global explanation only kicks the can a little farther down the road, however. Measles cases are spreading here because they’re spreading overseas—OK, fine. But why is measles spreading overseas?

[…]

Are vaccination rates really on a downward trajectory? Once again, the actual data complicate this narrative. Global immunizations against measles, like those in the U.S., are at or near an all-time high. Since the start of this century, the proportion of people around the world who have received at least one dose of the measles vaccine has increased by almost one-fifth. Meanwhile, the use of a second dose of the vaccine (which makes it more effective) has more than quadrupled on the global scale. In 2000, just 15 percent of people were getting both shots. Now, that number is up to 67 percent and still rising.

The salutary effects of all this work could not be more apparent. The global number of people who contract measles and the global number of people who die from it have each gone down by about 80 percent since 2000. As recently as 1980, more than 4 million cases of measles were reported every year. Despite massive population growth since then—an uptick of several billion people, worldwide—the annual number of measles cases has dropped to about one-fiftieth of what it used to be, to a few hundred thousand cases per year.

Given all this recent progress, the global measles crisis that’s underway seems somewhat paradoxical.

Basically, the argument is that outbreaks like we’ve seen with measles tend to burn quickly through the susceptible population, then run out of steam, and that the biggest cause of not being vaccinated in the US is not anti-vax foolishness but lack of access to medical care. The author argues that the full picture of the data is often not represented or mis-represented in media stories, which has caused some level of overreaction among vaccine proponents. There’s a lot of detail, so read it all and see what you think.

Do we still want to go to Mars?

Hot take: I dunno.

Before the U.S. put the first man on the moon, before the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, people thought aliens lived on Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor.

The belief sparked fear in some — and outright panic when Orson Welles broadcast reports in 1938 of a Martian invasion drawn from the novel “The War of the Worlds.”

But it inspired others to question: Are we alone in the universe?

“Perhaps the single, most consuming scientific question of the space program is: ‘Does extraterrestrial life exist in our solar system?’” rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun wrote in a 1969 proposal to send humans to Mars.

In the decades since, even after scientists concluded the aliens of science-fiction fame do not live on Mars, the Red Planet has captivated the world’s imagination unlike any other.

It’s been the subject of countless movies, books and TV shows. It’s been an inspiration for folklore. And it’s been a desired destination for dreamers — a barren, dusty terrain that could offer scientists a look at what may lie ahead for Earth.

But a human mission to the Red Planet was out of reach in the 1960s. And it remains elusive today.

Top NASA officials have tentatively aimed for a human mission to Mars in 2033, but even they admit that timeline is aggressive. NASA still needs to develop a spacecraft capable of transporting humans to Mars; a method of propulsion to cover the distance more quickly; and a surface-landing vehicle that can handle the Martian climate.

Can NASA get it done in 14 years?

“I don’t know,” replied Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

“It’s a function of how much (progress) the program can make,” he told the Houston Chronicle in April. “The technology and the hardware is reasonable, but can we get the budget? That I don’t know.”

Some question going at all. The U.S. already has successfully landed eight robotic missions on the Red Planet.

“It’s kind of questionable about what there is to be gained,” Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham told the Chronicle. “You have to find some rationalization and justification in order to spend what it costs to go to Mars.

“I think that’s a long shot right now.”

On the one hand, I think there’s a lot to be learned by planning and executing a manned flight to Mars. I feel like as much as private firms are now in the space business, the public sector needs to continue to have a strong presence, if only to ensure that the knowledge gained by space travel remains in the public sphere. On a strictly parochial level, someone is eventually going to do this, and I’d rather it be the US than China or Russia.

Against that, it’s fair to question the value of the knowledge we’d get from a manned flight versus an unmanned flight. This would cost a ton of money at a time when there are higher priorities. It’s far from clear that this is something the public wants, and this is one of those times when having the President get behind it would not help at all. (I felt a little queasy just typing that out.) The idealist in me would love to see this happen. The pragmatist is far from convinced.

Bankrolling the anti-vaxxers

This is why we can’t have nice things.

A wealthy Manhattan couple has emerged as significant financiers of the anti-vaccine movement, contributing more than $3 million in recent years to groups that stoke fears about immunizations online and at live events – including two forums this year at the epicenter of measles outbreaks in New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

Hedge fund manager and philanthropist Bernard Selz and his wife, Lisa, have long donated to organizations focused on the arts, culture, education and the environment. But seven years ago, their private foundation embraced a very different cause: groups that question the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

How the Selzes came to support anti-vaccine ideas is unknown, but their financial impact has been enormous. Their money has gone to a handful of determined individuals who have played an outsize role in spreading doubt and misinformation about vaccines and the diseases they prevent. The groups’ false claims linking vaccines to autism and other ailments, while downplaying the risks of measles, have led growing numbers of parents to shun the shots. As a result, health officials have said, the potentially deadly disease has surged to at least 1,044 cases this year, the highest number in nearly three decades.

The Selz Foundation provides roughly three-fourths of the funding for the Informed Consent Action Network, a three-year-old charity that describes its mission as promoting drug and vaccine safety and parental choice in vaccine decisions.

Lisa Selz serves as the group’s president, but its public face and chief executive is Del Bigtree, a former daytime television show producer who draws big crowds to public events. Bigtree has no medical credentials but holds himself out as an expert on vaccine safety and promotes the idea that government officials have colluded with the pharmaceutical industry to cover up grievous harms from the drugs. In recent weeks, Bigtree has headlined forums in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Rockland County, New York, both areas confronting large measles outbreaks.

“They should be allowed to have the measles if they want the measles,” Bigtree told reporters outside the Brooklyn meeting on June 4. “It’s crazy that there’s this level of intensity around a trivial childhood illness.”

It’s like Margaret Mead said: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtless, super-wealthy citizens can change the world for the worse; indeed, it’s the main thing that does.

New fronts in the war on mosquitoes

Science marches on.

In the center of Anita Schiller’s dragonfly-ring-clad hand, a dragonfly nymph is scooting around.

The dedicated naturalist and entomologist is explaining how the insect (which is a water-dwelling dragonfly with gills before it grows wings) expels water from its posterior in a squirting fashion. She laughed and called it “fart propulsion.”

Schiller is leading a team of four from the Harris County Precinct 4’s Biological Control Initiative through a man-made flood control site at the corner of Spring Cypress Road and Telge Road. They are releasing dragonfly and damselfly nymphs into the water, along with carnivorous plants, to help reduce the infectious mosquito population.

“What we’re bringing in will help stack the deck against mosquitoes,” Schiller, director of the initiative, says. “Mosquito suppression is built into the design of the project.”

The Biological Control Initiative started in 2012 with a mission to “find native agents to benefit from the locally adapted phenotype” to counter the mosquito population.

So, what exactly does that mean?

The agency rears human-friendly biological agents, such as dragonflies, damselflies and carnivorous plants, in a lab to be released into the wild to control the blood-sucking and potentially diseased mosquitoes that afflict Southeast Texas year round.

Dragonflies are robust, while damselflies are more dainty-looking. But both are ferocious eaters as adults and gleaning eaters as nymphs.

Introducing native and naturally flood-resistant plants into wetlands and areas of unavoidable standing water gives a larger return-on-investment than just a pesticide approach, Schiller says. The plants also don’t require regular maintenance.

The initiative has also garnered attention for its introduction of “mosquito assassins” in the Houston area. These mosquitoes, which are typically larger than other native species, do not feed off humans and instead work to eliminate the dangerous mosquitoes, such as Asian tiger (Aedes albopictus), southern house (Culex quinquefasciatus) and yellow fever (Aedes aegypti) mosquito larvae.

As the story notes, Harris County is also using mosquito traps and mutant mosquitoes to control our skeeter population. It’s a big deal, because mosquitoes mean Zika, and standing water means mosquitoes. Do your part to combat the buzzing menace by emptying out whatever pots or containers you have in your yard that fill up with rainwater after a storm. The BCI will take it from there.

Our measles risk

Do I spend too much time worrying about stuff like this, or do I not spend enough time on it?

Harris County is one of the nation’s most vulnerable counties to a measles outbreak, according to a new study based on international travel and the prevalence of non-medical vaccine exemptions.

The study, published Thursday in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases, ranks Harris County as the county 9th most at risk of having clusters of people contract measles, the highly contagious, potentially fatal virus that has re-emerged as a public health threat after having been largely eradicated at the turn of the century. Tarrant and Travis counties also are at high risk of an outbreak, according to the study.

“Texas’ showing is on par with the other 16 states that allow vaccine exemptions for conscientious or personal reasons,” said Sahotra Sarkar, a University of Texas Austin professor and the study’s lead author. “You can expect the state, like other parts of the nation, to see more cases.”

Sarkar said Harris County’s vulnerability is mostly the result of its considerable international travel. The county’s number of non-medical vaccine exemptions was not among the state’s highest in a Texas health department report released earlier this week.

[…]

The new study was conducted by Sarkar and a Johns Hopkins University researcher using risk assessment models similar to one they used to correctly predict that Zika, the mosquito-born virus that can cause serious birth defects, would first affect Texas and Florida after it began spreading from the Southern Hemisphere midway through this decade. It also correctly predicted areas already experiencing measles outbreaks, such as Washington, Oregon and New York.

The authors didn’t consider the locations of measles cases already recorded. Instead, they looked at non-medical vaccine exemptions, international air travel and the incidence of measles in countries from which people came to the United States, particularly India, China, Mexico, Japan, Ukraine, Philippines and Thailand. In all, some 112,000 people have been diagnosed with measles outside the U.S. this year, according to the World Health Organization.

Peter Hotez, a Baylor College of Medicine professor of infectious disease and vaccine advocate, called the new study an advance over research he published last year that identified “15 hotspots” of vaccine exemptions among a subset of states. Harris County ranked seventh on that list.

“I think this is a nice refinement on our first attempt,” said Hotez. “It confirms the high risk of Texas counties to measles, something that we’ll need to consider seriously when planning for epidemics.”

It’s not clear what if anything can be done to mitigate this particular risk, so I’m back to wondering how much I should worry about it. Keep working to close the gap in vaccination rates, I guess. It annoys the crap out of me that we have to worry about this sort of thing in 2019, but here we are.

The “Texas Serengeti”

How cool is this?

During the Great Depression, some unemployed Texans were put to work as fossil hunters. The workers retrieved tens of thousands of specimens that have been studied in small bits and pieces while stored in the state collections of The University of Texas at Austin for the past 80 years.

Now, decades after they were first collected, a UT researcher has studied and identified an extensive collection of fossils from dig sites near Beeville, Texas, and found that the fauna make up a veritable “Texas Serengeti” – with specimens including elephant-like animals, rhinos, alligators, antelopes, camels, 12 types of horses and several species of carnivores. In total, the fossil trove contains nearly 4,000 specimens representing 50 animal species, all of which roamed the Texas Gulf Coast 11 million to 12 million years ago.

A paper describing these fossils, their collection history and geologic setting was published April 11 in the journal Palaeontologia Electronica.

“It’s the most representative collection of life from this time period of Earth history along the Texas Coastal Plain,” said Steven May, the research associate at the UT Jackson School of Geosciences who studied the fossils and authored the paper.

In addition to shedding light on the inhabitants of an ancient Texas ecosystem, the collection is also valuable because of its fossil firsts. They include a new genus of gomphothere, an extinct relative of elephants with a shovel-like lower jaw, and the oldest fossils of the American alligator and an extinct relative of modern dogs.

The fossils came into the university’s collection as part of the State-Wide Paleontologic-Mineralogic Survey that was funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal agency that provided work to millions of Americans during the Great Depression. From 1939 to 1941, the agency partnered with the UT Bureau of Economic Geology, which supervised the work and organized field units for collecting fossils and minerals across the state.

Despite lasting only three years, the survey found and excavated thousands of fossils from across Texas including four dig sites in Bee and Live Oak counties, with the majority of their finds housed in what is now the Texas Vertebrate Paleontology Collections at the Jackson School Museum of Earth History. Over the years, a number of scientific papers have been published on select groups of WPA specimens. But May’s paper is the first to study the entire fauna.

You can see the paper here, though it’s pretty dense. One of the things May realized in studying the bones is that the fossil hunters of eighty years ago mostly collected big specimens. So, he went back to the original sites in Bee and Live Oak Counties and did some more detailed work, finding a bunch of remains from smaller animals. That helped fill in the gaps, and there are still a bunch more specimens from the original finds yet to be studied. And all of this was part of a public works project designed to provide jobs for people still unemployed from the Great Depression. Like I said, how cool is that? Link via Gizmodo.

Senior stoners

Makes a lot of sense, really.

Most states now have legal medical marijuana, and 10 of them, including California, allow anyone 21 or older to use pot recreationally. The federal government still outlaws the drug even as acceptance increases. The 2018 General Social Survey, an annual sampling of Americans’ views, found a record 61 percent back legalization, and those 65 and older are increasingly supportive.

Indeed, many industry officials say the fastest-growing segment of their customer base is people like Atkin — aging baby boomers or even those a little older who are seeking to treat the aches and sleeplessness and other maladies of old age with the same herb that many of them once passed around at parties.

“I would say the average age of our customers is around 60, maybe even a little older,” said Kelty Richardson, a registered nurse with the Halos Health clinic in Boulder, Colorado, which provides medical examinations and sells physician-recommended cannabis through its online store.

Its medical director, Dr. Joseph Cohen, conducts “Cannabis 101” seminars at the nearby Balfour Senior Living community for residents who want to know which strains are best for easing arthritic pain or improving sleep.

Relatively little scientific study has verified the benefits of marijuana for specific problems. There’s evidence pot can relieve chronic pain in adults, according to a 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, but the study also concluded that the lack of scientific information poses a risk to public health.

[…]

People Lee’s age — 65 and over — are the fastest-growing segment of the marijuana-using population, said Dr. Gary Small, professor of psychiatry and aging at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He believes more studies on the drug’s effects on older people are needed. And while it may improve quality of life by relieving pain, anxiety and other problems, he said, careless, unsupervised use can cause trouble.

“We know that cannabis can cause side effects, particularly in older people,” he said. “They can get dizzy. It can even impair memory if the dose is too high or new ingredients are wrong. And dizziness can lead to falls, which can be quite serious.”

Richardson said Colorado saw an uptick in hospital visits by older users soon after the state legalized cannabis in 2012. The problem, he said, was often caused by novices downing too many edibles.

I don’t often blog about stories from other states, but with the Lege in session and efforts continuing to expand marijuana legalization here, this seemed useful to note. I’ll say this much, the people described in this story – mostly white people over the age of 60 – is a pretty good representation of the Republican Party base here in Texas (and elsewhere, to be honest). Given that the single biggest impediment to loosening the marijuana laws in Texas is Dan Patrick, any real progress in the short term is going to have to come from his voters telling him they want to see progress on this front. Longer term, we can try to use this issue (among many others) to boot him out of office in 2022, but between now and then is at least one more legislative session. If you want better pot laws in this state, get your old relatives to call Dan Patrick’s office and tell him that’s what they want, too.

Instagram in space!

Far out. Like, literally.

Internet service can sometimes be spotty here on Earth. Just imagine checking email from the moon or searching Google from Mars.

A Houston satellite and artificial intelligence company wants to make that possible through an “interplanetary internet” that someday could connect Earth to mining companies on the moon and human colonies on Mars and other planets. It ultimately would require a network of satellites stretching for hundreds of millions of miles and technology compensating for the movement of planets to prevent the interruption of data streaming at the speed of light.

But you’ve got to start somewhere.

“I fundamentally believe that we will be an interplanetary species,” Ben Lamm, chief executive of the parent company of Hypergiant Galactic Systems, the Houston firm aiming to build out the worlds-wide-web. “We need to start building the core infrastructure for the interplanetary internet now.”

Hypergiant Galactic, a subsidiary of Hypergiant Industries of Austin, is launching its effort as NASA talks about returning to the moon and sending humans to Mars. Hypergiant Galactic expects to begin building the outer-space internet next year by launching a series of small satellites that would be positioned at different points in space to create a network to relay signals from Earth until reaching the end destination, such as the moon, another planet or a space ship. (Kirk to Enterprise?)

Phase one, which includes connecting Earth to the moon and Mars over the next decade, would cost tens of millions of dollars, according to Hypergiant. Once the project moves beyond Mars, costs vault into the hundreds of millions.

The satellites also would store a 30-million page archive of human knowledge that will act as a scaled-down version of the internet so, for example, colonists on Mars could access it quickly, without having to wait long periods for pages to load as signals move from Mars to Earth and back. The archive would be updated frequently, and ultimately built out into a more robust subset of the internet.

The archive also aims to preserve and protect the legacy of the human race by placing it in off-world storage should cataclysm strike the planet. The archive, assembled by the nonprofit Arch Mission Foundation and stored on long-lasting metal disks as a backup to the version that can be updated from Earth, includes everything from Wikipedia to the Harry Potter series to the world’s many languages and mathematical equations.

I don’t really have anything to add to this. It caught my eye and I thought it was cool. Plus, it gave me a reason to embed this video:

Give the aliens all our best, Janet.

The red wolves of Galveston County

Very cool.

Photo from the linked article

The coyotes Ron Wooten spotted on Galveston Island’s west end had eye-catching dark, reddish fur and long, slender builds. In the golden dusk of that July evening in 2013, about a dozen of the animals rested in what appeared to be a wetland dried by a seasonal drought.

These canids — mammals of the dog family — looked different. Most coyotes that inhabit this region have gray or pale-brown fur. And while coyotes typically scavenge alone or in pairs, these appeared to be traveling and interacting as a pack.

Wooten had a hunch he had stumbled onto something more important than satisfying his hobby as a wildlife photographer.

“They didn’t look like coyotes at all. I thought they actually looked like a big Great Dane or something like that,” Wooten said. “I looked at some images of red wolves and it kind of looked like they might have been leaning more towards red wolves than coyotes, so that’s when I started pursuing somebody to take a look at these animals.”

Nearly six years later, Wooten learned that his photographs played a significant role in a groundbreaking genetic study released in December by a group of scientists led by biologists from Princeton University. The study suggests that canids native to Galveston Island carry DNA elements of the red wolf, an animal declared extinct in the wild nearly 40 years ago but whose ancestry has endured in parts of the eastern United States and Gulf Coast, including southern Texas and Louisiana.

Red wolves inhabited the southeastern United States before being declared extinct in the wild in 1980 due to habitat loss, predator control programs, disease, and, ironically, interbreeding with coyotes. A captive breeding program developed in the 1970s helped stave off total extinction, with 14 red wolves able to reproduce.

[…]

Several months after spotting the pack of coyotes in Galveston, Wooten, a regulatory specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, spotted two dead coyotes with similar reddish fur on his commute along FM 3005. Intrigued, Wooten scooped up the remains, hoping the carcasses might pique the interest of someone who studied wolves and coyotes professionally. He preserved the tissue samples the only way he knew how — in his freezer.

“Of course, my wife loved that,” Wooten said.

Several wildlife agencies rebuffed Wooten before he finally connected with a group of wolf biologists who put him in touch with Bridgett vonHoldt, a biologist at Princeton University. VonHoldt had been studying genetics shared between North American canids for a number of years, and Wooten’s tissue samples and photos presented possible evidence of “ghost alleles” — surviving red wolf genes different from those of the red wolves in zoos or those in the wild in North Carolina.

VonHoldt, in an interview conducted via email, said it was “phenomenal” that Wooten had both pictures and tissue samples of the canids found in Galveston. The eye-catching photos he took of the pack of coyotes with reddish fur caught her her interest.

“Coyotes have a wide range of variation in colors and markings,” vonHoldt said. “But the photo from Ron just somehow caught my interest as being unique in a very specific way.”

VonHoldt and her team extracted and processed the DNA from Wooten’s samples and compared it to each of the legally recognized wild canid species in North America, including samples from 29 coyotes from Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas; 10 gray wolves from Yellowstone National Park; 10 eastern wolves from Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario; and 11 red wolves from the captive breeding program.

They found that the Galveston Island animals were more similar to captive red wolves than to typical southeastern coyotes — one of Wooten’s samples was 70 percent red wolf, while the other was 40 percent red wolf.

The study is here if you want to know more. I don’t have anything to add, I just love stories like this.

Measles comes back to Houston

We all vaccinated our kids, right?

Five cases of measles have been confirmed in the greater Houston area, a regional cluster that makes Texas the eleventh state this year to report the highly contagious disease until recently thought virtually eliminated in the U.S.

The cases, all announced Monday, include three in Harris County, one in Galveston County and one in Montgomery County. They involve four children, all under 2 years of age, and a woman between the ages of 25 and 35. All are doing well now.

“This is a reminder for people to be on guard and be up to date on their vaccinations,” said Dr. Umair A. Shah, executive director for Harris County Public Health. “Measles, a serious disease, is in our community.”

Measles, caused by an airborne virus, is particularly dangerous, capable of causing serious neurological disorders and death in infants and the developing fetus in pregnant women. It is spread through direct contact with discharge through the nose and mouth as well as coughing and sneezing.

Shah said it was too early to say whether the five cases might be the start of a local outbreak. The counties are monitoring anyone exposed to the measles patients while they were contagious to see if they develop symptoms. None has so far.

Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease specialist at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, said he’s concerned because in the pre-vaccine era, measles typically peaked in the late winner and early spring. He said “a perfect storm could be coming.”

[…]

It was unclear Monday if a lack of vaccination played a role in any of the Houston-area cases. All four children had received the first of the two shots — the second is given between the ages of 4 and 6 — and the woman said she’d been vaccinated, though the county is still working to confirm that through records.

Shah noted that the first dose of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine is fully protective in 85 percent of those who get it, but there’s no way of knowing if a child is in that group or the 15 percent who need the second shot to receive full protection.

Shah also noted that the person or persons who originally transmitted the virus may have been unvaccinated, he said.

The good news is that this outbreak is limited. This story said that Houston’s vaccination rate is above the national average, while this other story says just the opposite; I’m not sure what to make of that. It’s still a lot of cases at one time, and we’re already close to the nine cases total in Houston from last year. It could be worse, as the people in the greater Portland area can attest, but there’s no reason at all why it should be. You can listen to a short but timely interview with Dr. Hotez about the resurgence of measles here, and Texas Monthly has more.

Ebola treatment progress

This is encouraging.

Texas scientists who developed an effective vaccine for the deadly Ebola virus are now reporting promising results with new medication to better treat full-blown cases of the disease.

In a laboratory study published this week, researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston showed a single injection of two antibodies successfully treated monkeys infected with all strains of the virus, a significant advance on current treatment options which only cover one strain and require multiple injections.

“This medication would give doctors an advantage in situations where we don’t know which strain of Ebola is going to pop up next,” said Thomas Geisbert, a UTMB professor of microbiology and immunology and the study’s primary investigator. “The fear now, with all our eggs in one basket, is we’ll get burned with the outbreak of a strain there’s no protection against.”

Geisbert said the study results, published Wednesday in Cell Host & Microbe, suggest the medication would be effective even if Ebola viruses evolve over time, and Larry Zeitlin, president of Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc., the drug manufacturer, said it should “reduce the burden on health-care workers in the field during outbreaks.”

[…]

New medications are increasingly being used in the Congo to treat Ebola, most notably ZMapp, which was initially deployed late in the first outbreak. But those medications work only against the Zaire strain and require multiple injections, a challenge in Third World settings. ZMapp, for instance, must be given three times, each a few days apart, and by infusion which takes up to five hours. The single infusion of MBP134 only takes minutes.

“That’s a huge advantage in chaotic outbreaks or reactive settings where it’s often difficult to track down and identify patients to give them a second dose,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, founding dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital.

Hotez added that “of course, all of this needs to be confirmed in human clinical trials.” He said the current outbreak in the Congo “looks like a good time for such an evaluation.”

See here and here for some background. I don’t have anything to add here, I just thought we could all use a bit of positive news.

HPD and Ring

We don’t have a Ring doorbell so this doesn’t affect me, but I do find it quite interesting.

The Houston Police Department announced Monday that it is joining Ring’s mobile app, Neighbors, in a move officials hope will reduce crime and improve safety in neighborhoods across the city, even as department officials complain of low staffing levels.

The HPD partnership with Ring, a rapidly growing home surveillance company that sells video doorbells and similar products, would help the police department communicate more effectively in real time with residents as crimes occur, Houston Police Burglary and Theft Division Commander Glenn Yorek said.

“HPD will be able to send alerts to neighbors of crime and safety incidents in real time, request information about local crime and safety from neighbors who opt in to sharing for a particular request, and work with the local community to build trust and to make the community safer,” Yorek said, announcing the partnership at the department’s downtown headquarters Monday morning.

The joint venture is the latest for Ring, a seven-year-old tech startup purchased by Amazon for more than $1 billion in February that has grown exponentially in recent years even as it has weathered criticism over its privacy practices and disputes over claims that its products reduce crime.

[…]

An article in MIT Technology Review reviewed Ring’s findings in the Los Angeles neighborhood and found that burglaries in subsequent years rose to levels higher than in any of the previous seven years.

And In West Valley City, Utah, officials performed a test in two neighborhoods of similar size and levels of crime. Both neighborhoods saw a drop in crime, according to the MIT Technology Review story, but the results were surprising: the neighborhood without the devices saw a more significant drop.

Maria Cuellar, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, said there is not sufficient evidence to say whether Ring devices really reduce crime.

Ring’s study in Los Angeles was problematic because it relied on small sample sizes, Cuellar said, adding that a properly designed study, or more data and analysis, is needed to tell if Ring cameras are really effective at reducing crime.

I think the question about whether smart doorbell/home security systems like Ring have an effect on crime or not will never be settled. The sample sizes are small, there are likely to be regional variations, and so many factors affect crime that isolating one of them is nearly impossible. There still isn’t a consensus answer to the question of why violent crime has declined so precipitously since the mid-90’s; the lead hypothesis has a lot of evidence behind it, but plenty of people remain skeptical, and even its proponents don’t claim it’s the sole reason. As for the privacy concerns, that’s going to be up to everyone’s individual appetite for that kind of risk. I think if I were the type of person to install a Ring, I’d also want to have my local police department be a part of its Neighbors app. I’m not that kind of person, at least not at this time, so my response to this is mostly to shrug. Your mileage may vary.

Another look at the state of recycling

One part supply, one part demand.

ScruggsImage3_ThreeWasteBins

Reducing contamination is largely considered the starting point for creating a more stable U.S. recycling market. And that means teaching consumers what they can and cannot put in recycling bins.

For example, a triangle with a number on the bottom of a plastic container does not automatically mean it’s recyclable. Nos. 1, 2 and 5 are widely accepted in recycling programs across the country. Garden hoses and plastic bags, which can get tangled in sorting equipment, are always prohibited. Food-stained cardboard boxes are considered contamination, too.

“If our customers are saying, ‘Hey, how can I help out the economics of my current program?’ The No. 1 thing they can do is get the contamination rate down lower,” Bell said.

Waste Management is investing in machinery to better reduce contamination. Optical sorters, for instance, can identify a specific material and then use gusts of air to separate that material from the pack.

[…]

Once the sorting process is improved, the materials will need more places to go.

Large household brands are helping create these markets. PepsiCo, for instance, announced in October that it’s seeking to use 25 percent recycled content in its plastic packaging by 2025. This goal builds upon previously announced goals such as designing 100 percent of its packaging to be recyclable, compostable or biodegradable.

Such policies pressure suppliers to incorporate recycled materials if they want to keep or win that company’s business. But more brands need to take similar steps if the United States is to find uses for all the materials recycled by neighborhoods, job sites and businesses.

“There is a lot of supply and there’s not a lot of demand for the material,” said Bell of Waste Management. “We’ve got to make sure the materials that people intend to recycle every day, that we’ve got a demand for that.”

The demand for plastic pellets made from recycled materials already is robust, said Robin Waters, director of plastics planning and analysis for the research firm IHS Markit. But equipment for collecting and sorting waste needs extensive upgrades to provide the high-quality used plastic fit for making plastic resins.

Other countries are addressing this, in part, with a policy called Extended Producer Responsibility. This policy requires companies creating consumer products to pay fees for the plastic products and packaging they produce. The money collected from companies goes toward things such as upgrading recycling equipment and processing plants.

Ultimately, the fees provide incentives for companies to use less plastic, different materials or more recycled materials.

“It’s a concept that hasn’t really hit the U.S.,” Waters said, “but it will be here in five to 10 years.”

See here for some background. We need to do a lot more to reduce the amount of waste plastic. It’s going to take investment in public education and recycling infrastructure. Should have done this a long time ago, but given that we haven’t we better get started on it now.

The recycling recession

Not good.

ScruggsImage3_ThreeWasteBins

A joint report by the trade groups American Chemistry Council and Association of Plastic Recyclers estimated that plastic bottle recycling decreased 3.6 percent last year, dipping to 2.8 billion pounds in 2017. The decrease is partially due to containers becoming lighter weight, but also because the rate of bottle recycling hasn’t grown significantly in recent years.

In “an exceedingly difficult year for plastic bottle recycling,” the report said, about 29.3 percent of plastic bottles were recycled in 2017, down about a half percentage point from a year earlier. Over the past five years, the rate of plastic bottle recycling has remained essentially flat.

“Americans are continuing to recycle and recycling behavior continues to grow, however there is also more material continuing to go into waste stream and plastics are growing,” said Steve Russell, vice president of the plastics division of American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical and plastic makers.

The report is here. A big part of the problem is China scaling way back on the recyclable materials it accepts, which has created an oversupply problem even as the recycling rate has stagnated. There needs to be more capacity for recycling in the US to deal with this. Getting people to do recycling properly – basic things like not throwing trash in recycling bins, for example – would also help. It’s a big deal, because there’s already way too much plastic waste in the environment, and that has all kinds of bad effects. We need to figure this out.

El Nino 2018

Here it comes.

Houstonians can expect more rain than usual — and possibly street flooding — this winter, thanks to El Niño.

The National Weather Service forecasts an 80 percent chance for a weak to moderate El Niño this winter, starting around Christmas and lasting through February. In Houston, El Niño means a warmer and wetter winter that could have more severe storms and a higher risk of localized flooding.

Last week’s storm, which brought high winds and street flooding to the region, is indicative of an El Niño storm, said Ken Prochazka, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Houston.

“After our wet fall, the ground out there is saturated,” Prochazka said. “When we don’t get a chance to dry out, we’re more likely to have runoff and street flooding.”

El Niño occurs when the temperature of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America is warmer than usual. The warm Pacific water affects the atmosphere and causes changes in weather patterns around the world.

In the U.S., El Niño accelerates the North American jet stream, pushing storms from the Pacific across the the country at a faster speed. Storms can move across Texas every three to four days during El Niño, dropping more rain than usual.

Houston typically sees 3.6 inches of rain in January. El Niño can bring more rain than that, Prochazka said.

[…]

Houston last saw El Niño-related storms between 2014 and 2016. The city saw particularly strong El Niño storms in 1997 and 1998. El Niño, which occurs unpredictably, can last for a couple of years, Prochazka said.

It is what it is. All we can do is try to be ready for it.

Is there a better way to predict flooding?

This startup thinks so.

An artificial intelligence startup now says it can provide that warning. The company, One Concern, has announced that it can predict whether your block will flood — and if so, by how much — five days in advance of an incoming storm.

Founded by Stanford University graduates, the startup has launched a flood forecasting product called Flood Concern meant to give leaders hyperlocal predictions of where flooding will occur, allowing them to swiftly prepare and respond. High on its roster of potential clients is the Houston area, which lost over a hundred lives and suffered billions in damage last year during Hurricane Harvey.

The startup has begun approaching city officials and leaders in Houston’s private sector about bringing the technology to the region.

“They’re interested in multiple use cases, all the way from planning to responding,” One Concern CEO Ahmed Wani said of the discussions. Texas A&M University has already partnered with One Concern in anticipation of the potential benefits for the region.

“The use of artificial intelligence is potentially a game changer,” said Tony Knap, associate director of A&M’s Superfund Research Center. “It’s a different way of looking at things.”

Artificial intelligence allows computers to look for patterns from past events to predict what will happen in the future. Predictions become more accurate as the system collects more data — the Superfund Research Center is contributing data about hazardous chemicals so that a flood analysis can also understand potential health concerns.

“The aim is to get the prediction correct,” Knap said. “And artificial intelligence is something that we don’t use and they do. So if that can inform the model … it’s good for Houston.”

[…]

Eric Berger, a meteorologist whose forecasts on the Space City Weather website drew 1 million page views a day during Hurricane Harvey, said he could imagine artificial intelligence providing realistic worst-case scenarios for incoming storm systems. But he is skeptical of One Concern’s claim that it can predict flooding on a block-by-block basis.

To illustrate his point, he described a storm he was tracking that Tuesday afternoon that would hit Southeast Texas Friday night. Most of the region would likely see 2 to 4 inches of rain, but certain pockets could receive up to 8 — and those pockets would have a chance of flooding.

But where would they be?

“Three days before this heavy rainfall event, we can say this area is ripe for rain,” Berger said. “We could say that Harris County is at a greater risk than Galveston County. But to specify it even on a city-by-city basis is not possible. … There’s not the underlying meteorological data to support it.”

Here’s One Concern’s press release. As the story notes, Google is working in this space as well, though their claims aren’t as bold. I tend to agree with Berger that the data isn’t there for predictions this granular, but I like the direction they’re going, and I hope they can provide some value now, even if it’s not quite what they hope to achieve.

Look out for lionfish

Hey, it’s another destructive invasive species, aided and abetted by climate change.

Scientists battling coral reef deaths caused by warming ocean waters 100 miles off the coast of Galveston might now have another climate change problem to fight in coming decades: a proliferation of zebra-striped lionfish.

Lionfish — brought to the U.S. from their Indo-Pacific home to stock aquariums and later dumped by owners unable to care for the constantly hungry vertebrate — have no known North American predators to stop their spread. As a result, they’ve been decimating reef populations from New York to Florida since the 1980s, arriving at the Gulf of Mexico’s Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in 2011.

And a recent study published in the Wilderness & Environmental Medicine journal suggests that venomous creatures like lionfish will become more prevalent as the oceans warm.

”They are the cockroaches of the sea,” said Michelle Johnston, a sanctuary research biologist. “They reproduce every four days and every four days they can release up to 50,000 eggs. Plus, nothing really eats them, they have venomous spines and the native fish are terrified of them.”

[…]

Between 2011 and 2017, researchers have recorded nearly 3,500 lionfish in the [federal Stetson Bank] sanctuary, NOAA stated, though experts believe that number is low.

And just as the lionfish did in household aquariums, they started eating everything in sight. A single lionfish can eat up to 5,000 fish per year, Johnston said.

In the Indo-Pacific, lionfish predators include sharks, grouper, frogfish, large eels and scorpionfish, according to Lionfish Hunters, a group that promotes the removal of lionfish from the Western Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf.

But fish native to the Flower Garden Banks don’t know lionfish are predators, Johnston said, which makes the venomous fish’s food gathering that much easier.

“The lionfish are virtually unchecked” in Flower Gardens, Johnston said. “The ones we’ve collected are extremely large, they’re obese, and some of them have fatty liver disease. They’re eating themselves into oblivion.”

Here’s the NOAA page on lionfish. The Chron article is long and detailed, and one we’ve heard before for other species. Scientists are looking for solutions to control the population so as to minimize the damage these invaders cause. (Turning them into human food is another idea.) In the meantime, if you or someone you know owns an aquarium, don’t add a lionfish to your collection, and if you do then for crying out loud don’t just dump it somewhere if you decide you’re done with it. Let’s at least not add to the problem.

Our poor old voting machines

They really do need to be retired.

A national spotlight fell on Texas’ voting equipment last week after some voters complained that their votes on electronic voting machines had changed.

State election officials chalked it up to user error.

Critics alleged malfeasance or a software bug.

The Austin-based company behind the machines says an important piece of context is missing from this debate: these machines are 16 years old.

“It’s very much like someone calling Apple and asking for support on their iPhone 1,” said Steven Sockwell, vice president of marketing at Hart InterCivic.

Most Texas counties last upgraded their electronic voting machines well over a decade ago, tapping billions in funds Congress approved to upgrade voting equipment around the country following election irregularities during the 2000 presidential election. Dozens of Texas counties purchased Hart’s eSlate machines.

[…]

While Sockwell said that the eSlate machines “have not been performing any differently” than they have in previous elections, he said it is time for municipalities to upgrade to Hart’s newer voter system, which is called Verity. The eSlate machines generally have a lifespan of between 10 and 15 years, he said, though he added that they do not stop working after 15 years.

[Rice computer science professor Dan] Wallach said that he is surprised that Texas’ eSlate machines have lasted as long as they have.

“We’ve got eSlates that are over 10 years old and in some cases approaching 20 years,” Wallach said. “Normally, computers don’t last that long.”

See here for the background. For the record, the first iPhones came out in 2007, so these machines are mostly at least five years older than that. However you view their utility and security today, the day is coming – likely soon – when we will have no choice but to replace these machines. At some point, they’re just not going to work anymore.

Cyber insurance

Seems like a good idea.

Houston City Council on Wednesday unanimously agreed to spend $471,000 on cyber insurance, becoming the latest Texas municipality trying to bolster its response to growing technological risks.

The insurance can cover up to $30 million in expenses related to security breaches in the city’s network, including crisis response, recovery of losses and answers to legal claims stemming from cyberattacks.

While some data breaches are preventable, the prevalence of cybersecurity threats against city governments nationwide prompted Houston to take steps to insure itself, said At-large Councilman David Robinson, chairman of council’s Transportation, Technology and Infrastructure committee.

“There are those things that are just beyond the reach or scope of expected due diligence and preparation,” Robinson said. “You need to be prepared for the unknown.”

In the event of a cyberattack, such as hacking or phishing, in which people pose as trustworthy sources to obtain money or information, the insurance coverage could pay for crisis management resources, computer forensics, credit monitoring and call center services.

After a security threat is detected, the new policy could cover any loss of income or expense from the interruption of computer systems, according to council background materials outlining the insurance. It could be used to pay the cost of restoring or recollecting data affected by a cyberattack, as well the cost of investigating threats. The insurance policy also can be used for liability claims made against the city for failing to protect data or prevent access to confidential information.

This makes sense. Of course, as an organization you want to do everything you can to prevent an incident, but as we say in the business, it’s not a matter of if you’ll get hacked, it’s a matter of when. Like what happened to Harris County earlier this year. All of your vendors and suppliers and business partners are potential avenues for compromise, too. While I hope we’ll never need to use it, this is a smart investment.

Typhus in Galveston

An infectious disease update for you.

Typhus fever, a disease carried by fleas and once thought to be eradicated, is rearing its head in Galveston County, county health officials said on Monday.

The Galveston County Health District reported that 18 cases of typhus fever have been reported so far in 2018, up from 17 reported for all of 2017. The disease has rebounded in other parts of Texas in the last decade.

“I believe we are seeing an increase in reported cases because physicians now know what symptoms to look for,” said Randy Valcin, Galveston County Health District’s director of epidemiology and public health preparedness, in a written statement. “Typhus has been around for a number of years, but physicians are testing more and we’re seeing those results.”

Typhus symptoms, which include fever, headache, muscle pain, anorexia, rash, nausea and vomiting, are often confused with a number of viral ailments. People become infected when they come in contact with infected flea feces through open wounds, scratching and even breathing in the infected feces. Symptoms usually present about 7 to 14 days after exposure to the virus.

Murine typhus is a flea-borne illness, now believed to be carried mostly by opossums and other backyard mammals that spread them to cats and dogs, which then bring them indoors. Historically, typhus was carried by rats, before aggressive use of DDT, a pesticide, in the mid-1940s largely eliminated the problem in most U.S. areas. Before the use of DDT, typhus fever peaked in the United States with 5,400 reported cases. By 1956, there were less than 100 reported cases. The use of DDT has since been banned.

The disease is often mild, and treatable with antibiotics. But left untreated, severe illness can cause damage to one or more organs, including the liver, kidneys, heart, lungs and brain.

Over the last 15 years, typhus has been making a comeback in Texas. In 2017, the Chronicle reported the number of Texas cases rose from 30 in 2003 to 364 in 2016, and the number of Harris County cases from zero to 32. Eight Texas deaths have been attributed to the infection since 2003, with more than a quarter of cases reported to the state health department involve children from 6 to 15 years old.

See here for some background. Like Zika, typhus is a tropical disease, and one reason we’re seeing it here now is because of climate change. Basically, the conditions under which these diseases, and the insects that carry them, now exist in a much broader and less-equatorial range. We can accept that as the new normal or we can try to maybe do something about that, I dunno. Just a thought.

Houston to get 5G service

Nice.

Verizon will soon launch 5G technology in Houston, though its initial focus won’t be on improving the performance of mobile devices.

Rather, the wireless provider is positioning itself to compete with Comcast and AT&T for streaming television, playing video games or telling Alexa to turn on the lights.

Verizon officials said Tuesday that they will introduce residential 5G broadband starting in the second half of this year, using radio signals, rather than copper or fiber cables, to provide internet and phone services to the home. Houston is the third city announced as part of a four-market plan that also includes Sacramento and Los Angeles, Calif.

“It really comes down to not wanting to be left out of the loop, and 5G is what allows them to not get cut off,” Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Anshel Sag said.

People spend much of their days on their smartphones, but once they get home they connect to Wi-Fi rather than use their data plan. The new 5G technology provides a cheaper opportunity for wireless providers to enter that broadband market.

Theoretically, 5G will be able to achieve speeds of tens of gigabits per second, though most companies talk initially about 1 Gbps to 2 Gbps speeds. While variables from weather to terrain to buildings can affect 5G performance, the new technology is still expected to be much faster than current cell service — LTE speeds are typically in the 10-to-150 megabits per second range — and could potentially outstrip even the fastest home broadband currently available.

Dwight Silverman goes into more detail about what this means for end users, the tl;dr version of which is more options for home broadband beyond AT&T and Comcast. Potentially, anyway, and starting sometime in 2019, as this is all still more or less vaporware. But it’s coming, it’s better than what we’ve got now, and it should give you more choices in the marketplace.

Where the anti-vaxxers are

A lot of them are right here.

Four Texas cities, including Houston, rank among the 15 metropolitan “hotspots” of vaccine exemptions, more than any other state, according to a new study.

The study found Austin, Fort Worth and Plano also are among the nation’s cities with the highest number of kindergartners not getting vaccinated for non-medical reasons. Since 2009, the proportion of children opting out of such recommended vaccines increased in Texas and 11 other states, the study showed.

“There are some scary trends we were able to identify,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, a Houston vaccine scientist and one of the study authors. “They’re a sign that anti-vaccine groups, such as Texans for Vaccine Choice, have been very successful at lobbying efforts – both of the Texas legislature and through social media and other advocacy — to convince parents not to vaccinate their kids.”

[…]

The overall number of people invoking non-medical exemptions isn’t yet high enough to threaten herd immunity, the idea that vaccination of most of the population provides protection for those individuals without immunity to a contagious disease. But public health officials fear clusters of “anti-vaxxers” could leave some children vulnerable.

Texas’ increasing exemptions have been well documented. Though the number is still small, they have spiked from less than 3,000 in 2003 to more than 45,000 of the state’s roughly 5.5 million schoolchildren today, a 19-fold increase.

Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital said he undertook the study because of the Texas increase. He said wanted to look at whether it was a phenomenon unique to the state or mirrored elsewhere. National vaccination rates haven’t changed much in recent years.

You can see the study here. Dr. Hotez is correct to identify the political problem as being a key aspect to this. One clear pathway to getting more kids vaccinated is to take away or at least tighten up the so-called “conscience” objections to vaccines. If the law says you have to vaccinate your kids, the odds are pretty good that you will. But first you have to pass such a law, and right now we have a legislature that’s not inclined to do that.

MS Houston

Meet our new technical overlords.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Microsoft will provide STEM education at schools, teach computer literacy skills to adults and transform Houston into a “Smart City” as part of a new partnership announced Friday.

“These sort of efforts become infectious and contagious,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner. “Because of their presence, and the strength of their presence … I would venture to say that others will be motivated to do the same.”

Microsoft’s educational efforts will help boost the existing workforce while fostering the next generation of technology innovators. The Smart Cities element will look at improving city functions by adding sensors, collecting data and finding more efficient solutions.

Sensors, for instance, could be used to track buses and find more optimal routes that would have less congestion while being convenient for more people. It could also be used to determine if a bus is being driven too aggressively and consuming more gasoline than it otherwise would, said Cameron Carr, director of Internet of Things and Solutions for Microsoft.

After events like Hurricane Harvey, drones could be used to find people needing assistance or to determine areas that are flooded and impassible.

“We are right on the edge of creating this bold new world,” Carr said.

The Microsoft announcement is the latest in a string of technology developments as Houston seeks to become a hub for high-tech startups and venture capital.

Here’s the Mayor’s press release, which contains a few more details. It’s a little hard to say what this means right now – more specifically, it’s a little hard to say how long it will take for much of this to get rolled out – but I’m sure we’ll be seeing announcements soon. Putting my professional hat on for a moment, I hope this agreement includes security monitoring and incident response for all these IoT devices. Dwight Silverman has more.

Thunderstorms are going to get worse

Just FYI.

Summer thunderstorms in North America will likely be larger, wetter and more frequent in a warmer world, dumping 80 percent more rain in some areas and worsening flooding, a new study says.

Future storms will also be wilder, soaking entire cities and huge portions of states, according to a federally-funded study released Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The U.S. in recent years has experienced prolonged drenchings that have doused Nashville in 2010, West Virginia and Louisiana in 2016 and Houston this year. The disasters cost about $20 billion a year in damage.

By the end of century if emissions aren’t curbed, these gully washers will be much worse because they will get bigger, said Andreas Prein, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, who led the study.

Prein and colleagues used high-resolution computer simulations to see how global warming will likely change the large thunderstorms that are already daily summer events in North America. Previous studies projected more frequent and wetter storms, but this is the first research to show they likely will be more widespread, covering an entire city instead of just half of it, Prein said.

“We see increases that are beyond our expectations … far beyond our expectations,” Prein said. “It looks everything that can go wrong does go wrong concerning flooding.”

Awesome, huh? We can build more reservoirs and update our development codes and all those other things, but if we’re not taking every action we can to curb climate change, we’re just spinning our wheels. Maybe elect more people who take that threat seriously? Just a thought.

More Harveys

Thanks, climate change.

The extreme rains that inundated the Houston area during Hurricane Harvey were made more likely by climate change, a new study suggests, adding that such extreme flooding events will only become more frequent as the globe continues to warm.

“I guess what I was hoping to achieve was a little bit of a public service,” said MIT hurricane expert Kerry Emanuel, who published the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday. “There are folks down in Texas who are having to rebuild infrastructure, and I think they need to have some idea of what kind of event they’re building for.”

In the wake of Harvey, many researchers pointed out that a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor and that, as a result, a warmer planet should see more extreme rains. But Emanuel’s study goes beyond this general statement to support the idea that the specific risk of such an extreme rain event is already rising because of how humans have changed the planet.

Via climate modeling, Emanuel generated 3,700 computerized storms for each of three separate models that situated the storms in the climates of the years from 1980 to 2016. All of the storms were in the vicinity of Houston or other Texas areas. He examined how often, in his models, there would be about 20 inches of rain in one of these events.

Harvey produced closer to 33 inches over Houston. But in the tests under the 1980 to 2016 conditions, getting 20 inches of rain was rare in the extreme.

“By the standards of the average climate during 1981-2000, Harvey’s rainfall in Houston was ‘biblical’ in the sense that it likely occurred around once since the Old Testament was written,” wrote Emanuel, adding that in the much larger area of Texas, such rains did occur once every 100 years.

Then Emanuel performed a similar analysis, this time in the projected climates of the years 2080 to 2100, assuming the climate changes in some of the more severe ways scientists suggest it could.

The odds, accordingly, shifted toward a much greater likelihood of such events by 2100. Harvey’s rains in Houston became a once-in-100-years event (rather than a once-in-2,000-years event), and for Texas as a whole, the odds increased from once in 100 years to once every 5½.

This also meant, Emanuel calculated, that Harvey was probably more likely in 2017 than in the era from 1981 to 2000. In 2017, Harvey would be a once-in-325-years event. For Texas as a whole, in 2017 it would be a once-in-16-years event.

You can see the study here. This is the first study of its kind, so more research is needed to better understand what this means, but this is the world we live in. We can take steps to try to mitigate the damage, or we can live with the consequences. The MIT press release is here, and Ars Technica, the Atlantic, and the Associated Press have more.

That sinking feeling

We’re a little lower to the ground these days. Or maybe it’s just that the ground itself is lower.


Chris Milliner, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, used observations from the Nevada Geodetic Laboratory and the University Nevada-Reno statistics department to determine that the Houston metro area was two centimeters lower because of the load of the widespread floodwaters on the Earth’s crust.

The simple explanation? Water is heavy. About a ton per cubic meter.

“GPS data show that (the flood) was so large it flexed Earth’s crust, pushing Houston down,” Milliner said Monday via Twitter.

Elaborating on Tuesday, Milliner said there’s no reason to worry. It should be a passing thing.

“This should be a temporary drop,” he said in an e-mail. “Once floodwaters recede, we should expect a similar, but opposite elastic response of the crust, i.e., uplift. Similar to if you were to jump on-and-off your mattress.”

Milliner referred to the phenomenon as local elastic subsidence. He said it is seen in most areas that experience significant seasonal changes in water or ice.

So we’ll probably bounce back, in the literal sense, which is nice. I recommend you click on the tweet link and read through the discussion. We all knew we got a crap-ton of rain, but holy mackeral is it amazing to be confronted with an illustration like this of just how much rain we got.