Sunday, May 3, 2015

Language and Fire

"As homo entered into settlements and tribal societies around 200,000 years ago, our brain growth stopped. Since the last ice age, the average size of the human brain compared to our body has shrunk by 3 or 4 percent"

Language and fire. Darwin considered these the two most significant human distinctions.

As winter passes into spring, we are making biochar from bamboo again. Amended with locally adapted beneficial microbes, it will be our principal soil amendment for the summer and fall gardens. We thin the groves before the annual shoots emerge, taking out the old and dead culms and making more room for new growth. We trim the culms and cut them to one meter lengths. The trimmings are used to build chinampas in our wetlands (from the Nahuatl word meaning "squares of cane") and later we heap dredgings and manures on those islands to help form new soil and produce food islands in the cool aquatic microclimate. The remaining canes feed our kiln.

We build the fire in a wok-shaped earthen pit until it spins a torroidal flame front. By continuously adding bamboo we keep the flame high over the pile, watching secondary ignitions of the gases. We allow no oxygen to penetrate down to the lower zones of the pile where we are making charcoal. The 40-degree slope on the sides of the pit provides the precise fluid dynamic. As the cellulose gives up its volatile elements, they escape as gases, leaving behind a hard, crystalline matrix of carbon: biochar. The biochar will be crushed, mineralized, charged with hungry microbes from our compost piles, and sent to gardens and orchards to perform its thousand-year-long ecological restoration work. We heal our damaged atmosphere, deserts and oceans by giving safe and durable shelter to the microbial soil food web.

Every animal on earth has to budget the energy its draws from food. A human allocates roughly one-fifth of acquired calories to its brain, regardless of whether that brain is doing anything useful or just sleeping. The increase in hominid brain size, beginning around 2 million years ago, had to be paid for with added calories either taken in (with a paleo diet) or diverted from some other function in the body.

One way we found to acquire more calories was with fire. Cooked food, like fermented food, is predigested, or broken into simpler protein chains. For the same amount of calories ingested, a body gets 30 to 80 percent more energy from cooked foods than from raw. As raw foodies know, today that usually shows up as food stored around the belly. But as our ancestors switched to cooked food, with their more vigorous lifestyle, they acquired bigger brains by shrinking their guts. Barrel-shaped apes perambulating on four limbs morphed into narrow-waisted Homo sapiens that ran down game on two. 

Charred bone and primitive stone tools in a cave in South Africa confirm the use of fire for cooking one million years ago. Still, most scientists believe fire was mastered much earlier, around the time of Homo erectus, roughly 1.8 million years ago. 

The evolution of multicellular animals from single celled amoebae depended on cells being able to sense and cooperate with other cells. They did this by generating an electrical potential across membranes, by pumping out ions. We now know this function in both plants and animals is often carried out by symbiots – tiny, semiautonomous parts of our microbiome. Many of the components needed to transmit electrical signals, and to release and detect chemical signals, are found in single-celled organisms known as choanoflagellates. Our partnership with choanoflagellates extends back around 850 million years.

By 360 million years ago, our reptilian ancestors crawled up onto land, eventually birthing our first mammalian ancestors, about 200 million years ago. These creatures already had extra layers of neural tissue on the surface of the brain. Some of these neocortices were quite large. There were flying reptiles that had both large brains and brain-to-mass ratios larger than ours today.

After the dinosaurs went extinct from sudden climate change 65 million years ago, our primate ancestors took to the trees. Good eyesight helped us catch insects and birds, which led to an expansion of the visual part of our neocortex and better hand-eye coordination. Perhaps that was one of things that attracted us to fire, gave us cooked food, and sent more calories up to our crania. Besides increasing in size, our brains developed more input and output points, synaptic nodes modulated by other sympathetic microbes in our microbiome.

All of which equipped us with an extraordinary ability to integrate and process information and perform deliberative reasoning. We began to identify and search for overarching patterns. We took a step away from our animal ancestors and looked beyond the physical objects in front of our eyes. Among other manipulations of our physical world, we mastered fire.

As homo entered into settlements and tribal societies around 200,000 years ago, our brain stopped growing. Since the last ice age, the average size of the human brain compared to our body has shrunk by 3 or 4 percent. Some think our brain's wiring is more efficient now than it was in the past, but that is far from proven.
More likely this shrinkage marks a gradual decline in our mental abilities. David Geary at the University of Missouri-Columbia theorizes that once complex societies developed, the less able could survive on the backs of their smarter peers, whereas in the past, they would have died  or at least failed to procreate. We also know that the more intelligent people are, the fewer children they tend to have. That would gradually augur a decline of about 0.8 IQ points per generation in wealthy societies, which may also be occurring. It certainly would help explain why most US politicians today cannot fathom the philosophical debates of  Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams and Franklin about the limits to state power. These were men who lacked Google but more than made up for it by reading the classics in original Latin, French or Greek. 

Today it takes 10 calories of fossil energy to produce one calorie of food. We are rapidly losing that fossil energy supply and that suggests we can anticipate a significant drop in available food supply unless we radically change how we acquire food.

We could, for instance, harness the wonders of fire to make biochar, rejuvenate soil fertility with our microscopic allies, and build healthy inner ecologies to make ourselves, and our planet, better prepared for the ever-changing future. Whether we shall, with our diminished brain capacity, remains to be seen.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Yellowcake Blues

"Without Russian weapons uranium to downblend, and even with a continuing supply from Uranium One’s holdings in Wyoming, Khazakstan and Canada underwritten by the Clinton Foundation, the United States will be faced with a stark choice."

  In a post for Peak Prosperity on Friday, Chris Martenson observed:

In the past ten years police in the UK have been involved in 23 total police shooting fatalities.  In the US in 2013 alone there were a minimum of 458 'justifiable homicides' by firearms, committed by US police.  I say 'a minimum' because the FBI statistics are woefully incomplete because there is no mandate that police forces report their killings to the FBI so the database is certainly inaccurate on the low side…. Adjusting for population, US police officers are killing citizens at roughly 40 times the rate of UK police.
* * *

[T]he recent cases of police brutality are simply a symptom of a much larger problem. Society in the US is breaking down, civility has been lost, and the country is rapidly becoming uncivilized.

This extends within and across all of the most important institutions. Congress is known to work for corporations first and foremost. Democracy itself is bought and sold by the highest bidders. The Federal Reserve protects big banks from the costs of their misdeeds and enriches the already stupidly rich as a side benefit.

DEA agents are caught in Columbia having sex parties with underage girls and drugs, and the worst punishment handed out is a 10-day suspension without pay.  Nobody is even fired, let alone jailed.  

"Crime, once exposed, has no refuge but in audacity".
~ Tacitus, Annals, Book XI Ch. 26

The FBI has just admitted that they had been consistently (and certainly knowingly) overstating forensic lab analysis in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95% of cases over a period of several decades.  The cases included 32 that resulted in death sentences.  Many people were wrongly convicted, but nobody from the FBI will face any charges and many of the states involved have (so far) decided they won’t be looking into any of the cases to right the wrongs.  The wrongful convictions will stand, an injustice that is incompatible with the concept of being civilized.

The Department of Justice has utterly failed to hold any banks or bankers criminally responsible for any acts despite levying a few billions in fines for crimes that probably netted the banks tens of billions in profits.  For some, crime does pay.

I could go on, but why bother? The pattern is easy enough to see.

The US has lost its way. Fairness, justice, and knowing right from wrong seem to all be lost concepts and the trend has only gotten worse over the past several years.  Without moral bearings, what’s left?

Last week in this space we remarked how Congress has been pursuing the Russian cable news network, RT-America, calling it a propaganda tool because it takes a distinctly different view towards world affairs and US foreign policy than does the US State Department. Three days ago The New York Times ran a front page story that Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Jo Becker and Times reporter Mike McIntire borrowed heavily from former Hoover Center scholar and Government Accountability Institute President Peter Schweizer's new bombshell book, Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Made Bill and Hillary Rich. Schweizer is a three-time New York Times bestselling author.

The story exposes how the Clinton Foundation pedaled the influence of former President Bill Clinton and would-be-President Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, to wrest control of more than 20% of the world's uranium fuel supplies for Russian oligarchs in exchange for $250 million or more in donations.

As the Russians gradually assumed control of Uranium One in three separate transactions from 2009 to 2013, Canadian records show, a flow of cash made its way to the Clinton Foundation. … Those contributions were not publicly disclosed by the Clintons, despite an agreement Mrs. Clinton had struck with the Obama White House to publicly identify all donors.

In our view, while this is consistent with the corruption at the top from which every sector of US society takes its queues about moral behavior (viewing torture and wars of aggression as okay in popular television shows and movies, training domestic police as if they were occupying armies, and allowing a tenth of the population to abscond with nearly all the wealth, tax-free, while beggaring college students, medically needy, veterans, single moms and homeless people), the Times buried the lead.

Interred deep in the story we read:

The national security issue at stake in the Uranium One deal was not primarily about nuclear weapons proliferation; the United States and Russia had for years cooperated on that front, with Russia sending enriched fuel from decommissioned warheads to be used in American nuclear power plants in return for raw uranium.  
Instead, it concerned American dependence on foreign uranium sources. While the United States gets one-fifth of its electrical power from nuclear plants, it produces only around 20 percent of the uranium it needs, and most plants have only 18 to 36 months of reserves, according to Marin Katusa, author of The Colder War: How the Global Energy Trade Slipped From America’s Grasp. 
“The Russians are easily winning the uranium war, and nobody’s talking about it,” said Mr. Katusa, who explores the implications of the Uranium One deal in his book. “It’s not just a domestic issue but a foreign policy issue, too.”

The 440 operating nuclear reactors in the world require the equivalent of about 68000 tons of natural uranium ore every year. Yet, over the past 20 years, no more than 40–50000 tons of new uranium ore have been produced annually and that number is rapidly declining. We are now decades past peak and uranium cannot be fracked (despite attempts to do so, using injected hydrochloric acid, under sacred land in the Black Hills).

So how are we keeping US power plants running? Simple. By beating swords into plowshares.
The USA and Russia together have 6267 on-the-books (March 2015) nuclear warheads. Using a rough estimate that each nuclear warhead contains about 100 kg of fissionable U235 enriched to about 95%, one finds an equivalent of about 10 tons of natural uranium in each warhead, or 62000 tons all together (a 3-year supply for US reactors). Since the New START treaty was inked on April 8, 2010, both sides have been under legal obligation to reduce their operational stockpiles to 1500. As of this writing, Russia has cut theirs down to 2987 and the US stands at 3280. At the start of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the total was more than 65,000 — some 25,000 in the US and 40,000 in the Former Soviet Union.

Russia has been selling its decommissioned warheads to the US. Recycling weapons-grade uranium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel means downblending enrichment from 95% to 3–4% U235 content, which is proceeding apace at Oak Ridge. This is a huge waste of energy at the margin, making the fuel absurdly expensive, but that cost is picked up by taxpayers, not electric ratepayers, so it goes unnoticed, particularly in nuke industry PR claims about cheap power.

Russia has been decommissioning warheads faster than the United States (in fact, the US has slowed decommissioning its warheads and now reconditions them using fresh tritium illegally produced in TVA power reactors, before sending the reconditioned warheads back into "service."

Every year, the USA has been importing about 10000 tons of natural uranium equivalent nuclear fuel from decommissioned Russian warheads (about 1000 warheads-worth, but that has now slowed). Russia's sales of used weapons uranium, the gift of good relations with Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama's ability to push START through Senate ratification, has been the only thing that allows the US nuclear power program to continue to operate, since, as The Times pointed out, the US produces "only around 20 percent of the uranium it needs" and the global market grows steadily tighter. 

Indeed, if Iran goes forward with its nuclear program, as envisioned by the Kerry deal, one wonders where the fuel for that program will come from. China’s plan to build hundreds of reactors? Fuggettaboudit.

Thirty years ago, the USA produced about 16000 tons of uranium ore annually; today, production has declined to less than 2000 tons (of much lower grade ore), whereas its power plants require about 20000 tons. France, now 80% nuclear and seeing the shortfall looming, is rapidly denuclearizing. The bombastic US, which can't seem to tie its own shoelaces if foreign policy is involved, continues to impose sanctions on Russia, blaming it for the NATO false flag neo-Nazi skinhead chaos of Ukraine and US false flag downing of a Dutch airliner. Should Putin ever decide he has had enough, ending uranium exports would provide a quick coup de
grâce to one-fifth of the United States' electric supply.

That death may come anyway, as the START treaty goals approach. Without Russian weapons uranium to downblend, and even with a continuing supply from Uranium One’s holdings in Wyoming, Khazakstan and Canada underwritten by the Clinton Foundation, the United States will be faced with a stark choice – eliminate its own nuclear weapons triad or close its power reactors. That choice, ironically, may fall to the next President Clinton, should she withstand the firestorm whipped up by the Times and its beltway echo chamber.

Realistically, it is difficult to blame Hillary Clinton since she is merely following the new rules of the game. The Koch Brothers have announced plans to bestow a 1-billion-dollar campaign war chest on the man they will select to be the next Republican presidential candidate. Only the Clintons are capable of raising the kind of cash to turn the race for the next Presidency into a serious contest. The people's choice is between money from two brothers willing to sacrifice the planet to climate change in order to deregulate their coal and oil interests and a handful of Russian oligarchs willing to dig up all the remaining uranium and poison the planet that way. Or USAnians could make the Quixotic dismount of voting for a Bernie Sanders or a Ran Paul.

Without any moral compass to guide her, who can say which way Hillary Clinton may go to save her nuclear donors' investment in atomic power? One thing’s for certain — she will not ask Israel to pony up any of its secret warheads to make fuel. Instead, if we have to hazard a guess, whomever the next President is, the can will be kicked down the road until, one by one, nukes start shutting down and the lights go out on Broadway.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Bend a Knee and Live

"Since 1950 the USA has attacked more than 50 countries. It has bombed 30. It has made more than 50 assassination attempts and succeeded in more than 20 regime changes. The behavioral metaprogram: Be afraid. Be very afraid. Be grateful we have brave men and women in uniform to protect us."

The glare of broadcast lights were exactly what Chairman Foghorn Leghorn, R-CA, had most wanted.  With the solemnity of a hanging judge, he leaned forward and read his prepared remarks.

"Boy, I say, boy, you know Russia has deployed an information army inside television. I say an information army. Some doing the Kremlin’s bidding are given explicit guidelines to obscure the truth by spreading conspiracies that Dick Cheney or the CIA is responsible for everything from 9/11 and anthrax to the downing of Malaysia flight MH17 over Ukraine. Others, like that Larry King fella, are simply paid more than we can pay them, for demonizing the West."

He handed the ball off to to his counterpart in the minority party, Tweety J. Bird, D-OA, who stuffed the ball into his mouth and echoed the words of the distinguished Chairman.

Then the first show trial witness, a "Russian Expert" from a right wing think tank, leaned in and set the context:

"This is not merely an ‘information war’, in other words, but a ‘war on information.' If the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate."

The Chairman opined, "Boy, I say, Boy, you are about to exceed the limit of my medications. But you are right. Their rational arguments are about as sharp as a bowling ball. About as sharp as a bag of wet mice, I'd say."

The second witness, from the Heritage Foundation, told the committee:

"Russian propaganda is corrosive to the image of the United States and to our values. Or as Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Victoria Nuland described it before this committee on March 4th, “the Kremlin's pervasive propaganda campaign, where is [sic] truth is no obstacle.”

"And Russian propaganda is being spread aggressively around the world as we have not seen it since Soviet days. This is not just in Central Asia, and Eastern and Central Europe, but even here in the West. The daily content and commentary from RT and others is often polished and slickly-produced. And it's not like old-fashioned propaganda, aimed solely at making Putin and Russia look good. It's a new kind of propaganda, aimed at sowing doubt about anything having to do with the U.S. and the West, and in a number of countries, unsophisticated audiences are eating it up.

"The unfortunate fact is that the United States government became complacent in the battle for “hearts and minds” in Russia and its neighboring countries after the end of the Cold War. For Instance, the administration’s budget request for 2016 is $751,436 million [$751 billion] for U.S. International Broadcasting. Reportedly, RT has a budget alone of $400 million for its Washington bureau."

The statements lambasting RT [a rebranding of "Russia Today"] from Hillary Clinton and John Kerry are a matter of public record. There were no witnesses called from RT or its viewers and admirers.

We admit to being among those admirers. In that vast desert of content that is television medium, RT offers a fresh perspective. Last week, we loved seeing Richard Heinberg on BoomBust and Steve Keen on the Keiser Report.

For comparison's sake we watched the Friday morning news line up for all the official US propaganda channels, CNN, FOX, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, and ABC. They all seemed to be saying the same thing, using the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, the conviction of the Boston Marathon bomber, the death of a Saddam Hussein confidant, or some other pretext to paint a gloomy picture of Orwellian internal and external threats. The behavioral metaprogram: "Be afraid. Be very afraid. Be grateful we have brave men and women in uniform to protect us. Just do what the authorities tell you and all will be well. Move along, nothing to see here."

No mention is made that one of our glorious, laureled veterans kills him or herself every 22 minutes.

Former reporter Liz Wahl, who resigned RT on camera with a newsy flair, told Congress that she quit because the network was spinning the news to match their political viewpoint.

How odd that is for journalism. See this 748th edition of the Keiser Report for a discussion of Wikileaks revelations of "State sponsorship" of the news from ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and other US television consortia.
"In the ensuing media blitz, Wahl gave interviews to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, and ABC’s Barbara Walters, among others. Stories about her resignation appeared in news outlets around the world. The New York Daily News credited her with breaking through “the Iron Curtain.” She wrote a feature for Politico entitled “I Was Putin’s Pawn.”

At that same moment, across the continent former RT reporter Abby Martin was sitting in a radio studio telling podcaster Joe Rogan that she had not been controlled or manipulated and that what had attracted her to work at RT was that they were the only ones sending crews to cover Occupy.

Today they are among the very few US news organizations with camera crews on the ground in Doniesk and Gaza, interviewing protestors last week in front of WalMarts, speaking with homeless people in Jeb Bush's Florida, and decoding the financial meltdown in Greece and what it means for the euro.

RT's Lee Camp, a stand-up Bay Area comedian Abby Martin recruited to replace her (she did not like living in Washington), takes no prisoners when criticizing the US government and its media culture. Like Martin, Camp brings in rising comics and artists to underscore RT's theme ‑ we are nobody's patsy. Friday's show linked the familiar face on the twenty dollar bill to the Trail of Tears.

Another point raised in that RT show, which we watched to help us prepare this essay, was that the reason the United States left the World Court in 1986 was because the Court ruled it to be a state sponsor of terrorism. It is why the US refuses to join the World Criminal Court that prosecutes war crimes.

This is not disinformation. Just in the past few years the US backed the "popular" uprising in Egypt and Ukraine and attempted unpopular coups in Venezuela and Ecuador. It destroyed the governments of Iraq, Syria and Libya and has overwhelmed Jordan with refugees. Its surrogate Saudi Arabia is, as you read this, bombing refugee camps and residential districts in Yemen with US-supplied war planes and AWACs, precipitating a human rights disaster.

Since 1950 the USA has attacked more than 50 countries. It has bombed 30. It has made more than 50 assassination attempts and succeeded in more than 20 regime changes.

The US ranks 46th in freedom of the press, just below Romania ‑ one notch above Haiti and 2 notches above Niger.

That, we suppose, is what makes the USA special. If you agree, bend a knee. Putin is wrong. This country is exceptional.

On April 7th we lost one of the great iconoclastic voices of our time, Stan Freberg. Here, in a short tribute, is a radio clip of Freberg, as Ben Franklin, reluctant to sign Thomas Jefferson's petition to the King: FranklinFreberg.mp3


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Mercury Madness

"Sadly, many people with mercury toxicity consult physicians who fail to identify the real cause of their illness and suffering."

  How does one explain the utter insanity of world governments, especially the United States, England, Australia, Japan, and China? Each in their own way seem irreversibly bent on destroying the habitability of Earth as rapidly as possible, generally out of willingness to accept an insane economic logic that places soul-crushing cubicle jobs, fossil fuel extraction and weapons manufacture not just on a par with, but above, real indicators of wealth -- such as soil fertility, water reserves, climate, biodiversity and health.

Surely there are plenty of advisers that tell world leaders that what has been defined as security is nothing remotely resembling real security and that what they seem determined to pursue will take us all over the cliff's edge and plunge first civilization and then humanity into extinction.

Why the confusion?

In 1983, Jerome Nriagu, a geochemist, wrote a book linking lead poisoning to the decline of the Roman empire. He described a syrup called defrutum or sapa, made and kept in lead pots, that was used to sweeten wine and food. He described drinking and bathing water carried in lead pipes and lead used for makeup and jewelry. He calculated the level of lead that wealthy Romans consumed and linked the findings to levels of the metal found in preserved bones. A 2014 follow-up study concluded that Roman tap water had 100 times the lead of nearby natural sources.

Lead is toxic to many organs and tissues, including the brain, heart, bones and kidneys. Symptoms include confusion, headaches, and irritability. Does this explain the fall of the Roman Empire? Probably not entirely, but brain poisoning may have contributed.

Since Nriagu's book, precautions have been taken to remove lead pipes from old water systems and to ban lead additives from paints and gasoline, but lead is not alone in posing these kinds of threats. We live in a soup of manufactured chemicals, few of which have been studied for their long-term public health consequences, especially in combinations. 

Recently, while in Belize, we happened to watch a film documentary on the life of Weston A.V. Price, an early 20th century dentist known primarily for his theories on the relationship between nutrition, dental health, and physical health. Price concluded nearly a century ago that aspects of a modern Western diet (particularly flour, sugar, and modern processed vegetable fats) lead to nutritional deficiencies that are a cause of many health problems.

Price is best known today for lending his name to the Weston A. Price Foundation, co-founded in 1999 by Sally Fallon and nutritionist Mary G. Enig to disseminate this vein of research and a libertarian agenda of promoting farm sales of raw milk and discouraging soy and corn processed foods. Little is mentioned of Price's campaign to ban the use of mercury in dentistry.

If you were to Google "mercury dental amalgam" as we recently did, among the top results would be a link to an official looking website for the National Council Against Health Fraud
(119 Foster Street, Bldg. R, 2nd Floor, Peabody, MA 01960 and its oft-read "Position Paper on Amalgam Fillings."

"The National Council Against Health Fraud believes that amalgam fillings are safe, that anti-amalgam activities endanger public welfare, and that so-called “mercury-free dentistry” is substandard practice."

To Consumers

• There is no logical reason to worry about the safety of amalgam fillings.
• Anyone told that a urine mercury level produced after taking DMPS represents a toxic state is being misled.
• Avoid health professionals who advise you that amalgam fillings cause disease or should be removed as a “preventive measure.”
• Report any such advice to the practitioner’s state licensing board.

To Dental Organizations
• Issue clear and forceful guidelines indicating that unnecessary amalgam removal is unethical and unprofessional and that the diagnosis of mercury toxicity is outside the proper scope of dentistry.
• Issue a position statement about dubious mercury testing

To Dental Licensing Boards

• Practice standards should be based solely on scientifically gathered objective evidence.
• Classify as unprofessional conduct any advice that amalgam fillings are dangerous and therefore should be avoided or removed.
• Ban the use of hair analysis and chelating agents by dentists.
• Ban any advertising of “mercury-free dentistry” which falsely implies that amalgam fillings are dangerous and should therefore be avoided or removed.

Further investigation reveals NCAHF is an astroturf outfit often at odds with Weston Price, and also fond of attacking the chiropractic profession and anyone associated with herbal, holistic or traditional approaches to healing.

Consumer Advocate Tim Bolen writes:

The NCAHF is operating out of a cardboard box in the back room of Bobbie Baratz's Braintree, MA hair removal salon, and has so little money, that Baratz begged members for cash, offering a picture of me (Tim Bolen) as an incentive for contribution.

Court documents show that Baratz and Barrett had set up this case (against chiropracters) to generate  "expert witness" fees for themselves.  Baratz is the current President of the NCAHF.  Barrett is a failed MD who operates the dubious website out of his basement in Allentown. PA.

Turning to actual science, we see that the subject of mercury poisoning from dental fillings (most commonly referred to as "silver fillings") is a very well-researched area, and the results are unsettling. 

Silver-mercury amalgam has been used as a filling material for 160 years and has enjoyed the reputation of being an inexpensive, long lasting solution to tooth decay, although the average life span of a silver-mercury amalgam filling is only around five years.

Amalgam literally means mixed with mercury and in the dental sense that is true. Powdered metals and metal compounds consisting of silver, copper, tin and zinc are mixed with about an equal weight of liquid mercury. Three different types of chemical reactions take place within this mixture and the resultant silver-mercury amalgam will set at room temperature and, most importantly, within a few minutes.

Up until recently, it was felt that the mercury stayed within the filling. Now it is known that mercury leaches out every minute of the day. Over the first two years after placement, amalgams release about 34 micrograms of mercury per square centimeter of filling exposed, per day.

A study by Richardson, et al, published in Science of The Total Environment revealed:

Dental amalgam is 50% metallic mercury (Hg) by weight and Hg vapour continuously evolves from in-place dental amalgam, causing increased Hg content with increasing amalgam load in urine, faeces, exhaled breath, saliva, blood, and various organs and tissues including the kidney, pituitary gland, liver, and brain. The Hg content also increases with maternal amalgam load in amniotic fluid, placenta, cord blood, meconium, various foetal tissues including liver, kidney and brain, in colostrum and breast milk. Based on 2001 to 2004 population statistics, 181.1 million Americans carry a grand total of 1.46 billion restored teeth. Children as young as 26 months were recorded as having restored teeth. Past dental practice and recently available data indicate that the majority of these restorations are composed of dental amalgam. Employing recent US population-based statistics on body weight and the frequency of dentally restored tooth surfaces, and recent research on the incremental increase in urinary Hg concentration per amalgam-filled tooth surface, estimates of Hg exposure from amalgam fillings were determined for 5 age groups of the US population. Three specific exposure scenarios were considered, each scenario incrementally reducing the number of tooth surfaces assumed to be restored with amalgam. Based on the least conservative of the scenarios evaluated, it was estimated that some 67.2 million Americans would exceed the Hg dose associated with the reference exposure level (REL) of 0.3 μg/m(3) established by the US Environmental Protection Agency; and 122.3 million Americans would exceed the dose associated with the REL of 0.03 μg/m(3) established by the California Environmental Protection Agency. Exposure estimates are consistent with previous estimates presented by Health Canada in 1995, and amount to 0.2 to 0.4 μg/day per amalgam-filled tooth surface, or 0.5 to 1 μg/day/amalgam-filled tooth, depending on age and other factors.

Chewing foods increases the emissions, dramatically. Every time you chew, mercury vapor is released and quickly finds its way into your bloodstream, where it causes oxidative processes in your tissues. Hot liquids, like coffee, increase the release by thousands of percent, but only for 10 or 15 minutes. Abrasion from chewing gum increases the release of mercury by 150 times.

Dr. Joseph Mercola, a fellow at the American College of Nutrition and member of the International Academy Biological Dentistry and Medicine, explains how mercury affects the body:
"Oxidation is one of the main reasons you develop disease, as well as the primary reason you age. Oxidation in your body leads to inflammation, including inflammation of the lining of your blood vessels. When this occurs, your LDL levels increase as your body attempts to "patch" those damaged vessel walls with cholesterol. LDL is a carrier of cholesterol. This is why people with mercury toxicity have damaged blood vessels, and elevated cholesterol and LDL levels.

"However, oxidation and toxicity can lead to much more than just elevated lipid levels. Mercury in your body can result in a variety of serious neurological, immunological, and endocrinological problems. Mercury not only fuels the flames of inflammation, it also hampers your body's ability to detoxify itself, which makes you even sicker. Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and other neurological diseases have been linked to mercury exposure. Research shows that traces of mercury can cause the type of nerve damage you usually see in Alzheimer's disease.

"Science is now telling us that mercury may very well be a significant factor underlying much chronic disease, and one about which the majority of physicians are completely unaware. It doesn't take much mercury to cause significant stresses in your body.

"Sadly, many people with mercury toxicity consult physicians who fail to identify the real cause of their illness and suffering. They are given bottle after bottle of pills, which merely mask some of the symptoms (at best) and create new imbalances within their bodies, without ever addressing the underlying cause of the problem. Not surprisingly, they fail to get better."

Mercury seen from NASA’s Messenger
spacecraft. Several times a year,
the planet appears to move
backward in the sky, though
it’s just an optical illusion:
Mercury in retrograde.
Half of all dentists in North America have broken away from the pack and stopped using amalgam, but the other half still resist, and will even try to dissuade you if you ask to have your fillings removed. They really don't understand that what they're doing is harmful. They don't question whether the training they worked so hard to get is wrong, and harming their patients.

In their 2014 study, published in journal PNAS, the scientists who studied lead residues in Roman water systems found eerie links in historic concentrations that corresponded to major events in Rome’s history, such as the Gothic Wars in 535CE, Byzantine repairs to Roman aqueducts, and the ninth century Arab sack of Rome. They concluded:

"The Pb [lead] isotope record shows that the discontinuities in the pollution of the Tiber by lead are intimately entwined with the major issues affecting Late Antique Rome and its water distribution system."

Are USAnian empire hawks crazier than their Roman counterparts, or is it just their teeth talking?
mercury dental filling
<img src="" alt="mercury dental filling" border="0" style="max-width:100%; min-width:300px; margin: 0 auto 20px auto; 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Sewchar Surfers

-->   On a recent visit to the Caribbean we happened to ask our waiter, who, as it turned out, was the owner of the small outdoor restaurant where we sipped our coffee, what local hotels did with their sewage. We were in a developing country and the regulatory framework for enforcement of such things as wastewater management had not kept up with tourism development. 
"Well," he said, pausing as if to consider how much to share with us, "the wealthier hotels may hire trucks to haul it away but that is very expensive. Most just put in a pipe." He pointed to the ocean.

It does not escape his notice, or ours, that the more tourists arrive, the more sewage will find its way onto the white sandy beaches where we can see surfers waxing their boards. That won't be good for tourism. The more surfers return home with intestinal infections or skin rashes, the less likely they will be putting raves up on Trip Advisor or WannaSurf. The lack of sewage enforcement is killing the tourism the local government desperately wants.

We have a permaculture solution  take that sewage and pyrolyze it. For remote  power, a good pyrolysis kit plus installation runs about 20 percent of the cost solar cells or wind turbines. In a place where the standard source of electricity is stand-alone or regional diesel electric generators, sewage-to-biochar serves two problems at the same time: surplus wastes and shortage of electricity.

Actually, it solves many more, because the biochar being produced can then cascade through a sequence of solutions as it moves through water filtration, silage conditioning, feed supplements that eliminate the genesis of disastrous, antibiotic-resistant-bacteria through overuse of pharmaceutical supplements for livestock, and finally  on exiting the back end of the livestock – sweeten compost and rejuvenate soils.

But how permacultural is it to turn a nutrient rich asset like humanure into biochar instead of composting it directly? To answer that question we looked to a study published in the peer-reviewed journal, Biology and Fertility of Soils [Soil biochemical activities and the geometric mean of enzyme activities after application of sewage sludge and sewage sludge biochar to soil, Biol Fertil Soils (2012) 48:511-517; DOI 10.1007/s00374-011-0644-3]. 

The authors, J. Paz-Ferreiro, G. Gascó, B. Gutiérrez, and A. Méndez are in the ag and mining schools of Comunidad de Madrid-Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM Madrid). They first wondered whether pyrolyzing the waste would eliminate the problem of heavy metals, which is one of the things that makes sewage problematic as a soil fertilizer. In 2005 Mendoz and Gascó showed that turning raw sewage into biochar indeed arrested the solubility of heavy metals. It also reduced the cost associated with transportation of sewage sludge.

Paz-Ferreiro brought the team new expertise in measuring key microbial reactions involved in soil nutrient cycling. Rather than focus on soil chemistry, the team wanted to know how sewage and biochared sewage contribute to soil fertility, and that meant understanding soil biology.
Biochar from sewage and raw sewage sludges were added to soil at a rate of 4% and 8%. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that "the application of high doses of sewage sludge is harmful for the soil microorganisms resulting in a decrease in soil quality," but "sewage sludge biochar has the potential to improve several soil physical and chemical properties (organic matter content and available water content), while decreasing the solubilization of heavy metals from soil."

What is not answered is our original question: what is the comparison of composted sludge versus pyrolyzed sludge? It seems likely to us that while composted sludge would retain many useful nutrients that are volatized when sewage is pyrolyzed – and unless captured by elaborate gas-scrubbers – the benefit of those nutrients to the soil may be outweighed by the heavy metals that are toxic to the soil microbiota and have the potential to move up the food chain to become toxic to us, as well. Moreover, on a large scale such as municipal treatment, composting has to be a major undertaking, involving energy imports for transportation and large processing facilities. If the same end result of soil fertility enhancement can be qualitatively achieved without composting, the pyrolytic loss of some nitrogen and other elements might be forgiven.

Paz-Ferreiro's group showed the potential to use pyrolysis to transform sewage sludge into a material that can enhance soil biochemical activities without simultaneously spreading dangerous pollutants. That is yet another biochar solution. For hotels and restaurants going into places that have neither sewage plants nor power grids, it is potentially a huge blessing. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Biochar Moment

photo by Doug Clayton
We are meeting with government officials of X country. X has a serious dilemma, one which is not uncommon in this era, and which will become the norm for most countries very soon. X is throwing vast sums — 60 billion this year — into finding oil.

It does not consider the dilemma of what happens if it finds the oil and then cannot drill and sell it because to do so would be counterproductive to survival of life on the planet. It does not consider what might happen if it were extraordinarily lucky in its exploration and happened upon such great wealth that it attracted the interest of militarily powerful and ambitious neighbors. It does not consider the potential downside of a boom and bust cycle a favorable discovery of any size would augur, or the destruction of indigenous culture, endangered species or fragile habitats. It just wants the oil, for its own sake. It is like the truck driver on a long distance haul across Texas after midnight. It is locked into the white stripe, in the groove, doing whatever comes next, without much thought or planning.

We tell the government officials that we can provide more power than they need, at a tenth of the cost of the oil, and we can do it from feedstocks they consider wastes, and we can use processes that net sequester greenhouse gases at each step, with a lifecycle cost that is high in the black, low capital outlay and quick return on investment. Oh, and it arrests global warming, deepens soils, saves water and increases biodiversity.

Naturally, they are incredulous.

Surely we are trying to sell them snake oil, what we propose is illegal, or there is some neglected externality in our calculus that makes our proposal fall apart once exposed to serious scrutiny.

We say, no, actually. We have already vetted all these steps we propose. They follow a simple formula that has no secrets, no privacy, no confidentiality contracts, and anyone could replicate them in whole or part if they so desire. We list our tool kit: biochar, ecovillage design, permaculture, holistic management, keyline water systems, native agroforestry, alley cropping cell divisions, constructed wetlands and chinampas, leaf protein extraction, bioenergy crops that first produce food, and productive, satisfying and fun things for people to be doing together.

We say that if we do this, and others do also, we can stop destructive climate change without worrying about the outcome of the Paris climate talks in December, the obstructionist control of legislators, or the collapse of global Ponzinomic finance. It is justified solely by energy 5 times cheaper than solar cells and better, nutrient dense food, produced without all the costs of pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and fertilizers. It solves so many seemingly intractable problems simultaneously that once set in motion it will never be arrested. It will create a garden planet.

The officials are both non-plused and unwaivering. They use all the standard cop-outs: buck-passing to higher authority, decrying the state of the legal system, urging we wait for a more politically attuned administration and perhaps spend that interim working for its election; and suggesting the need for further study.

No matter, whether the Paris outcome is fair or foul; whether the price of oil goes up north of $100 again or south to new lows below $25; whether governments come or governments go. Weather drives this market. The wise will look towards shelter. Once this package is readily available, and the expense is more than justified by immediate returns, the product will sell. Little, short of catastrophic economic collapse, can stop it.

Sunday, March 22, 2015


"Virtual solutions can seem very virtuous when a metaproblem is resource depletion."

In our previous post we delved into the Socratic dialog known as The Laches, as told by Plato. The Laches ends in aporia, or an unresolved bit of logic.

While we can give Socrates his point — that to predict the future you need to observe and analyze the patterns of the past — we concluded that courage as a virtue has more to do with choices you make or don't make in the present, since you have no chance of changing the past and have only hope or fear to guide you in changing the future. We concluded that both hope and fear have appropriate roles.

There is a logical fallacy that arises in all of this, one we are heir to simply because of how our brains work. In logic, the fallacy is known as  positive recency, because people tend to predict the same outcome as the last similar event. We know the sun rises every day so we assume it will rise again tomorrow. But there are also Black Swan events. If a large enough asteroid were to strike the Earth today, the sun would not rise tomorrow. It would still be there, but none of us would be able to observe it. Night would continue.

This is what happened when the 6-mile-wide Chicxulub asteroid struck Earth 66 million years ago.  The dinosaurs did not see it coming.

It occurs to us that a great many very intelligent people who normally do quite well — one could even say spectacularly well — at predicting trends in culture, business, and science, fail to observe the rare rogue event coming their way that will change everything. Silicon Valley in particular, but equally New York, London, Davos and Dubai are populated with such people. Many are the early adopters — the ones whose Tesla Model S P85D can already drive itself.  Insofar as a few are "trendsetters" or determiners of whom shall occupy high seats in government and commerce, this blind spot augurs ill.

Take, for instance, Peter Diamandis. His book with Steven Kotler, Abundance, rocketed to the top of bestseller lists in 2012 when it drew together many technology trends and predicted we will soon be able to meet and exceed the basic needs of every man, woman and child on the planet. Abundance for all is within our grasp. The authors picked four forces — exponential technologies, the DIY innovator, technophilanthropy and crowdsourcing — as coming together in the next decade to solve our biggest problems of water, food, energy, healthcare, education, and freedom.

Diamandis and Kotler have teamed up again on a new book, Bold, that takes this a step farther, showing how 3D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics, networks and sensors, and synthetic biology will bring into reality the fantastical future dreamed by humans since the dawn of the industrial era.

Starting in the real world with just $15,000, Diamandis leverged new internet power to launch 15 companies, including Singularity University, XPRIZE, Space Adventures Ltd., and Human Longevity, Inc. He has since become known as the prime technophilanthropist. He is worth billions of dollars, much of it thanks to his knack for crowd-sourced audacious enterprises (perk: a Selfie from space with the Earth as backdrop).

According to Diamandis, humans are destined, very shortly, to solve every major challenge that faces us, simply by virtue of Moore's Law and the exponential growth of our capacity to affect the world around us.

Diamandis correctly saw the internet as a Black Swan, and jumped on it. Now he is drunk with its power. So much so, he cannot see the next Swan.

The Black Swan he would have seen coming had he paused to read The Party's Over or Limits to Growth, is peak oil, and with it, peak finance, peak civilization, peak population, and peak technophilanthropy.

Many of the technologies that Diamandis is relying upon to leapfrog over government and business inertia and put billions of people into unprecedented security and prosperity are virtual. That can seem very virtuous when a metaproblem is resource depletion. If we can simply dispense with hardcover magazines, newspapers and books, for instance, we can save forests of paper and acres of ink.

The neglected externalities were internalized in Limits to Growth in 1971, however: energy and pollution. To go all-digital requires electricity. Data centers consume 1 to 2% of the world’s electricity already, most of that powered by coal and fracked gas. Currently, every GB of wireless data passing through a smart phone burns through 19 kWh of electricity. The average iPhone uses 388 kWh per year, slightly more than EPA’s top rated Energy Star refrigerator. There are 6 to 8 billion smart phones, doubling every couple of years. Each desktop console annually uses roughly the energy it takes a 25-mile-per-gallon car to travel more than 4,500 miles. There are 2 billion of those, and they are multiplying a lot faster than automobiles and refrigerators.

The good news is that smart devices are not just becoming smarter; they are becoming more efficient — less wasteful of energy in both manufacture (embodied cost) and use. The bad news is the Khazzoom–Brookes postulate to Jevons' Paradox – the more efficient energy use becomes, the more energy we consume.

Bryan Walsh, writing for Time in 2013 said:
In 1995, you might have had a desktop computer and perhaps a game system. In 2000, maybe you had a laptop and a basic cell phone. By 2009, you had a laptop and a wireless-connected smartphone. Today you may well have a laptop, a smartphone, a tablet and a streaming device for your digital TV. The even more connected might be wearing a Fitbit tracker, writing notes with a wi-fi-enabled Livescribe pen and tracking their runs with a GPS watch.

But users of the wireless cloud are likely to grow from 42.8 million people in 2008 to nearly 1 billion in 2014 — and that’s just the beginning, as smartphones spread from the developed to the developing world. We already have a gigantic digital cloud, and it’s only going to get bigger.

Primavera De Filippi is a technophile of the Diamondis generation. As we all shapeshift, at dazzling speed by evolutionary norms, into cyberverse amphibians, what will become of our orphaned social structures and our cherished notions of laws, national identity and earning an honest living by the sweat of one's brow? At a conference on Internet and Society last April, De Filippi described the architecture of the Ethereum:
What is Ethereum? Can this technology actually support the establishment of a utopian, free, and decentralized society? Or could it instead promote a more dystopian vision of society – or even a Skynet?

Well, if Bitcoin is a decentralized cryptocurrency, Ethereum is the platform upon which a decentralized cryptocurrency can be built. Some have defined it as “cryptocurrency 2.0”, but actually, it is much more than that.

Just like Bitcoin, Ethereum implements a decentralized database, a system of digital tokens, and an encryption scheme. But it also implements a Turing-complete scripting language, which makes it possible for anyone to deploy an application directly on the blockchain. So, instead of adding new features to the Bitcoin protocol, Ethereum took a step back and actually removed all features from the blockchain, in order to make it easier for users to build their own applications by implementing only the features they need as an extra layer on top of the blockchain.

Therefore, just as Bitcoin marked the establishment of a decentralized cryptocurrency that subsists independently of any government or financial institution, Ethereum could potentially lead to the deployment of decentralized applications that operate autonomously on the blockchain.

In fact, Ethereum not only makes it very easy to deploy alternative cryptocurrencies, but also to set up decentralized communications systems (like BitMessage), alternative social media (like Twister), or online storage (like Dropbox) in a completely decentralized way, therefore not controlled by any third party. Given that there is no centralized third party to interact with, the interactions between applications and users are regulated by the code of these applications.


This leads to the most interesting aspect of Ethereum, which is the concept of Decentralized Autonomous Organizations. Basically, these are a more sophisticated kind of smart contract, with a constitution that stipulates the rules of governance for the organization, and with a system of equity allowing users to invest in the organization by purchasing shares.


First of all, they are autonomous in the sense that once they’ve been created on the blockchain, they no longer need their creators, nor are they under any obligation to respond to, or be responsible of any requests made by them.

Secondly, they are self-sufficient in that they charge users for the services they provide in order to pay others for the resources they need (such as bandwidth and processing power).

Finally, they are decentralized, since they do not subsist on a specific server, but instead are encoded into the blockchain (which is distributed to the entire network), and their code is executed in a decentralized manner by every node of the network.

These characteristics make them extremely difficult to regulate because there is no single entity which has control over them. In addition, given the self-enforcing properties of their code, they might actually challenge some of the most basic principles of our legal system.


Perhaps the Distributed Autonomous Organization itself should be held liable for its own actions. But then we encounter an ever bigger problem in terms of law enforcement. It is virtually impossible to recover damages or to obtain an injunction unless these measures have been specifically encoded into the contract/constitution of the organization.

So, we find ourselves in a state of legal limbo, as we cannot rely on traditional legal means to regulate the code of this technology. The question is: do we actually need to?

The supporters of Ethereum would argue that we don’t. In fact, if Bitcoin was designed as a decentralized alternative to counteract the corruption and inefficiency of the financial system, then Ethereum constitutes a decentralized alternative to the legal system as a whole! This refers to the somewhat anarchic idea of decentralized law, where everyone is free to implement their own rules within their own contracts, creating an interconnected system of rules interacting with each other in a reliably predictable way and not dependent on trust between parties.

Of course, the flipside is that Ethereum could potentially be taken over by big corporations, financial institutions, or even by the State, in an attempt to recreate the same economic system and political order that we have today – except that this time, it would be much more difficult to escape from that system.  This could lead to the establishment of a totalitarian society that is (almost exclusively) regulated by self-enforcing contracts, which establish the rules that everyone must abide by, without any constitutional constraints.

Sigh. And yes, this is precisely what we see when the Drone King, liege of Lockheed, gives robots an order to cause harm to nonspecific humans at a wedding party or funeral in Pakistan. It violates Asimov's First Law. It sets a dangerous precedent. As robot AI becomes more powerful, this bit of bad code has been grandfathered in. Do robots have legal rights, the way corporations do? De Filippi says, yes — if not already than soon; and not just human rights, but superhuman rights, such as the code to kill with impunity.

In commercial atomic reactors in the Tennessee Valley, generating electric power to feed our appetite for consumer electronics, robots are today fabricating components of nuclear weapons. They were expressly commanded to do that by the Drone King, in violation of Eisenhower's entire Atoms for Peace program, to say nothing of a half-century's accumulated international accords on nonproliferation. Robots with the knowledge of how to make such weapons are dangerous, are they not? In another software generation, or two, they could become Decentralized Autonomous Organizations. What then?

While the technoutopians do not see the swans of peak energy gliding in from the bulrushes, the people who put trust in and give power to machines of evil design also do not foresee what kind of coded evolutions are being unleashed.

We can only hope that Swan #2 (peak everything) takes out Swan #1 (Moore's Law) — browning out those distributed data centers, before it is too late. Call it retrofuturism, or neoLuddism, we are there. Good advice: don't put all your BitCoins in that basket.




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