June 3, 2021

Posted by orrinj at 10:31 AM


U.K. Could Become Net Power Exporter to Europe in Five Years (Rachel Morison, Jun. 3rd, 2021, Bloomberg)

Britain could become a net exporter of electricity to Europe as soon as 2026, according to S&P Global Platts.

The U.K. imports about 7% of its electricity from Europe now, but that's set to reverse, in part due to new cables that will boost links with the continent. With Britain aiming to quadruple offshore wind capacity this decade, it could have excess power to send through those lines.

Posted by orrinj at 7:58 AM


We Can End Lead Poisoning During This Lifetime: It may be time to envision a Clean Soil Act, like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts mobilized in the 1960s and 70s. (JENNY BOWER 06.03.2021, UnDark)

NOT TOO LONG AGO, as a graduate student, I took a crash course in lead. I moved to Vermont from the Midwest to study the geochemistry of lead in soil, and because I needed samples for my project, my professor and I decided to test a 100-year-old house his family had bought. Houses of that age are poisonous onions; peel back the outer layers and you are likely to find leaded paint, which the federal government didn't ban for residential use until 1978. Decades of wind and rain had scattered paint chips around the outside of the house. We twisted augers into the ground and came up with ten bags of soil while his wife painted the living room and his 6-year-old son played in his bedroom.

Back in the lab, I ground up a few tablespoons from a sample and analyzed the powder with an X-ray gun. The lead concentration was more than 25 times the limit the Environmental Protection Agency deems hazardous in soil. The proportion of lead-to-soil was near the proportion of chili powder in a good chili.

It was a scary reminder that despite all the protective behaviors we might knowingly adopt -- be mindful when renovating an old home; wear a respirator at the firing range -- lead is invisible and all around us. I was stunned to learn that lead arsenate, a pesticide that was applied for nearly a hundred years in American apple orchards, was likely contaminating soil in abandoned farm fields where I hoped to find tasty morels. Preliminary data suggest that the mushrooms sometimes absorb soil lead at levels that exceed the Food and Drug Administration's limit for safe consumption.

Unfortunately, the last presidential administration missed an opportunity to meaningfully strengthen the out-of-date standards for contaminants like lead, and even loosened some restrictions. This is despite a steady stream of science linking lead to terrible health outcomes, especially for children, and gut-wrenching news items identifying more and more exposure pathways, such as the recent report of a House oversight subcommittee that found elevated lead in many common baby foods (even in some organic brands). 

While some petroleum-based contaminants decay over time, lead does not biodegrade to become less harmful, meaning it tends to stay in place. Despite our best intentions, removing lead-contaminated soil around each lead-painted home in the U.S. would involve landfilling valuable soil, costing nearly $10,000 per home. With 38 million homes estimated to harbor lead-based paint as of 2002 -- a figure that is likely lower today, due to demolitions -- getting rid of all lead-contaminated soil around houses would be an impossible task. And landfilling lead-contaminated soil doesn't really end the problem. It just shifts the burden to a different area within range of a hazardous waste dump. Removing the topsoil where lead tends to accumulate also displaces a highly biodiverse part of the soil ecosystem. Although it gradually sinks deeper into the soil over time, if it doesn't hitch a ride on a SpaceX rocket, lead is here to stay.

The most sustainable clean-up solutions for lead-contaminated soil involve simply planting shrubbery, so the soil is less likely to move -- or be eaten by a two-year-old. Another alternative is to manipulate the behavior of the element by adding phosphate, which binds tightly to lead and makes it less likely to be absorbed by humans and other organisms.

Posted by orrinj at 7:40 AM


The Economic Recovery Is Here. It's Unlike Anything You've Seen. (Gwynn Guilford and Sarah Chaney Cambon, June 2, 2021, WSJ)

The U.S. economic recovery is unlike any in recent history, powered by consumers with trillions in extra savings, businesses eager to hire and enormous policy support. Businesses and workers are poised to emerge from the downturn with far less permanent damage than occurred after recent recessions, particularly the 2007-09 downturn.

New businesses are popping up at the fastest pace on record. The rate at which workers quit their jobs--a proxy for confidence in the labor market--matches the highest going back at least to 2000. American household debt-service burdens, as a share of after-tax income, are near their lowest levels since 1980, when records began. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is up nearly 18% from its pre-pandemic peak in February 2020. Home prices nationwide are nearly 14% higher since that time.

The speed of the rebound is also triggering turmoil. The shortages of goods, raw materials and labor that typically emerge toward the end of an expansion are cropping up much sooner. Many economists, along with the Federal Reserve, expect the jump in inflation to be temporary, but others worry it could persist even once reopening is complete.

"We've never had anything like it--a collapse and then a boom-like pickup," said Allen Sinai, chief global economist and strategist at Decision Economics, Inc. "It is without historical parallel."

Posted by orrinj at 7:21 AM


U.S. to detail global distribution plan for 80 mln vaccine doses (Humeyra Pamuk, 6/02/21, Reuters)

The United States will announce in the next two weeks how it plans to distribute 80 million COVID-19 vaccine doses it has pledged globally, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Tuesday.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado, Blinken said the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden would focus on equitable distribution of the vaccines and not tie political strings to the process, a criticism at times directed at China.

"Sometime in the next week to two weeks - we will be announcing the process by which we will distribute those vaccines, what the criteria are, how we will do it," Blinken said during his first trip as secretary of state to Latin America, which is fighting to contain COVID-19.

"We will distribute vaccines without political requirements of those receiving them."

Posted by orrinj at 7:19 AM


Eric Swalwell forced to hire private investigators because Rep. Mo Brooks is so scared of his subpoena (Sarah K. Burris, June 02, 2021, Raw Story)

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) is so terrified of the lawsuit by Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) that he has been hiding from process servers for almost a month, just to avoid being subpoenaed.

Brooks was among many Republicans who spoke at the Jan. 6 "Stop the Steal" rally that led to the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

"Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass," proclaimed Brooks moments ahead of the crowd attacking Capitol Police and D.C. Metro cops. Brooks is even bragging about his involvement in the Jan. 6 attacks, using it in several Facebook ads for his campaign. But when asked to stand up for his speech and defend his involvement, Brooks is running scared and hiding.

Posted by orrinj at 7:09 AM


How 'socially responsible' investing could distort markets and harm the planet (Bill Blain, 6/03/21, cAPx)

Markets are about psychology. If you can set a trend, then everyone will jump on board. The latest trend to seize institutional market's attention is for Environmental, Social and Governance investing (ESG), resulting in $2bn per day flowing into sustainable funds this year, according to Morningstar. Corporates are responding in the time-honoured way - peppering annual reports with copious mentions of sustainability, diversity awareness, corporate social responsibility, and how ESG "powers" everything decision they take. [...]

Last week saw extraordinary events in the oil market, as successful climate change protests shook the industry to its very core. Exxon had to give seats on its board to a tiny activist investor which won support from other holders concerned about the wobbly oil giant's "strategic direction" in terms of reducing emissions. Chevron submitted to investor demands that it takes climate change seriously. Shell was ordered to slash emissions by cutting production by millions of barrels per day, on the basis of "unlawful endangerment" after being dragged to court by Friends of the Earth's Dutch chapter. Total faced a similar challenge in France, but scraped by.

On the surface this looks like a victory for the planet, but the unintended consequences could be severe. If oil producers scale back on capacity or production to meet climate activist demands - the potential is to push the price of oil higher until declining demand from oil finds a new equilibrium. 

Making oil so expensive as to speed the transition to renewables is an ideal use of market mechanisms. 

Posted by orrinj at 7:01 AM


NFL to stop controversial use of 'race-norming' in brain trauma settlements (Associated Press, 2 Jun 2021)

The NFL on Wednesday pledged to halt the use of "race-norming" which assumed Black players started out with lower cognitive function in the $1bn settlement of brain injury claims and review past scores for any potential race bias.

The practice made it harder for Black retirees to show a deficit and qualify for an award. The standards were created in the 1990s in hopes of offering more appropriate treatment to dementia patients, but critics faulted the way they were used to determine payouts in the NFL concussion case.

Posted by orrinj at 6:54 AM


The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months (Rutger Bregman, 9 May 2020, The Guardian)

Peter went to work for his father's company, yet the sea still beckoned, and whenever he could he went to Tasmania, where he kept his own fishing fleet. It was this that brought him to Tonga in the winter of 1966. On the way home he took a little detour and that's when he saw it: a minuscule island in the azure sea, 'Ata. The island had been inhabited once, until one dark day in 1863, when a slave ship appeared on the horizon and sailed off with the natives. Since then, 'Ata had been deserted - cursed and forgotten.

But Peter noticed something odd. Peering through his binoculars, he saw burned patches on the green cliffs. "In the tropics it's unusual for fires to start spontaneously," he told us, a half century later. Then he saw a boy. Naked. Hair down to his shoulders. This wild creature leaped from the cliffside and plunged into the water. Suddenly more boys followed, screaming at the top of their lungs. It didn't take long for the first boy to reach the boat. "My name is Stephen," he cried in perfect English. "There are six of us and we reckon we've been here 15 months."

The boys, once aboard, claimed they were students at a boarding school in Nuku'alofa, the Tongan capital. Sick of school meals, they had decided to take a fishing boat out one day, only to get caught in a storm. Likely story, Peter thought. Using his two-way radio, he called in to Nuku'alofa. "I've got six kids here," he told the operator. "Stand by," came the response. Twenty minutes ticked by. (As Peter tells this part of the story, he gets a little misty-eyed.) Finally, a very tearful operator came on the radio, and said: "You found them! These boys have been given up for dead. Funerals have been held. If it's them, this is a miracle!"

In the months that followed I tried to reconstruct as precisely as possible what had happened on 'Ata. Peter's memory turned out to be excellent. Even at the age of 90, everything he recounted was consistent with my foremost other source, Mano, 15 years old at the time and now pushing 70, who lived just a few hours' drive from him. The real Lord of the Flies, Mano told us, began in June 1965. The protagonists were six boys - Sione, Stephen, Kolo, David, Luke and Mano - all pupils at a strict Catholic boarding school in Nuku'alofa. The oldest was 16, the youngest 13, and they had one main thing in common: they were bored witless. So they came up with a plan to escape: to Fiji, some 500 miles away, or even all the way to New Zealand.

There was only one obstacle. None of them owned a boat, so they decided to "borrow" one from Mr Taniela Uhila, a fisherman they all disliked. The boys took little time to prepare for the voyage. Two sacks of bananas, a few coconuts and a small gas burner were all the supplies they packed. It didn't occur to any of them to bring a map, let alone a compass.

The boys had set up a commune with food garden, gym, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire
No one noticed the small craft leaving the harbour that evening. Skies were fair; only a mild breeze ruffled the calm sea. But that night the boys made a grave error. They fell asleep. A few hours later they awoke to water crashing down over their heads. It was dark. They hoisted the sail, which the wind promptly tore to shreds. Next to break was the rudder. "We drifted for eight days," Mano told me. "Without food. Without water." The boys tried catching fish. They managed to collect some rainwater in hollowed-out coconut shells and shared it equally between them, each taking a sip in the morning and another in the evening.

Then, on the eighth day, they spied a miracle on the horizon. A small island, to be precise. Not a tropical paradise with waving palm trees and sandy beaches, but a hulking mass of rock, jutting up more than a thousand feet out of the ocean. These days, 'Ata is considered uninhabitable. But "by the time we arrived," Captain Warner wrote in his memoirs, "the boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination." While the boys in Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in this real-life version tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year.

The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer. Kolo fashioned a makeshift guitar from a piece of driftwood, half a coconut shell and six steel wires salvaged from their wrecked boat - an instrument Peter has kept all these years - and played it to help lift their spirits. And their spirits needed lifting. All summer long it hardly rained, driving the boys frantic with thirst. They tried constructing a raft in order to leave the island, but it fell apart in the crashing surf.

Worst of all, Stephen slipped one day, fell off a cliff and broke his leg. The other boys picked their way down after him and then helped him back up to the top. They set his leg using sticks and leaves. "Don't worry," Sione joked. "We'll do your work, while you lie there like King Taufa'ahau Tupou himself!"

They survived initially on fish, coconuts, tame birds (they drank the blood as well as eating the meat); seabird eggs were sucked dry. Later, when they got to the top of the island, they found an ancient volcanic crater, where people had lived a century before. There the boys discovered wild taro, bananas and chickens (which had been reproducing for the 100 years since the last Tongans had left).

They were finally rescued on Sunday 11 September 1966. The local physician later expressed astonishment at their muscled physiques and Stephen's perfectly healed leg. But this wasn't the end of the boys' little adventure, because, when they arrived back in Nuku'alofa police boarded Peter's boat, arrested the boys and threw them in jail. Mr Taniela Uhila, whose sailing boat the boys had "borrowed" 15 months earlier, was still furious, and he'd decided to press charges.

Posted by orrinj at 6:40 AM


Science Chief Wants Next Pandemic Vaccine Ready in 100 Days (Associated Press, June 03, 2021)

"It was amazing at one level that we were able to produce highly effective vaccines in less than a year, but from another point of view you'd say, 'Boy, a year's a long time,'" even though in the past it would take three years or four years, Lander said. "To really make a difference we want to get this done in 100 days. And so a lot of us have been talking about a 100-day target from the recognition from a virus with pandemic potential." 

"It would mean that we would have had a vaccine in early April if that had happened this time, early April of 2020," Lander said. "It makes you gulp for a second, but it's totally feasible to do that." 

Scientists were working on so-called all-purpose ready-to-go platform technologies for vaccines long before the pandemic. They're considered "plug-and-play." Instead of using the germ itself to make a vaccine, they use messenger RNA and add the genetic code for the germ. That's what happened with the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 shots. 

Beyond being optimistic about confronting future pandemics, Lander wonders about the implications for preventing cancer. 

"Maybe the same sort of experience about moving so much faster than we thought is applicable to cancer," said Lander, who during the Obama administration was co-chair of the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. A company already has been working on that. 

For that matter, the pandemic and telehealth brought the doctor to patients in some ways. Lander said he is reimagining "a world where we rearrange a lot of things" to get more patient-centered health care, including community health workers checking up every few weeks on people about their blood pressure, blood sugar and other chronic problems. 

We've also learned the efficacy of distancing, masks and lockdown that East Asia tried teaching us.