Saturday, July 15, 2017

How Global Warming Will Kill You

Blogging is frustrating, because no matter what the post is about, most of the clicks come from having an exciting title. Last week’s post ("The Destruction of the American Cuisine") had more reads in two days than my last 3 “On Secession” posts combined. This is something I should have learned back when I wrote “Everything Wrong with College”. On Secession will remain on hiatus until I can figure out how to rebrand it. So, this week’s post is another entry in the Cassandra series, inspired by personal experience in the American southwest.

Previous Cassandra posts: A.I. — Global Warming — Antibiotics — Pandemic — Virtual Reality — Monocultures  

This is how it starts
Let’s start with some basic, uncontroversial biology: human beings can exist only at specific temperatures. The reason for this is chemical; each enzyme in the body has a temperature range that it can function in. Some ranges are wider than others, but all have hard-stop temperatures whereby enzymatic activity will cease.

A normal Enzymatic curve
There are a lot of different enzymes, and some of them have surprisingly complex interactions — but detailed knowledge of them isn’t necessary (not even to get through medical school). To put it simply, enzymes are biological catalysts, and almost every biological process relies on them. They are extraordinarily sensitive, and evolution has gone to great lengths to optimize the reaction rates (see: reasons for external genitalia in human males). Without functioning enzymes, life becomes impossible.

This is exactly why the hypothalamus raises body temperature in response to infection (i.e. fever). While the primary purpose is somewhat contested, one of the reasons is that fever inhibits the growth of many infectious agents. Viruses and bacteria suffer for the same reason that we do, they are less able to function when their temperature is outside of their ideal range. Raised temperatures also cause white blood cells to function better, making it easier for your body to fight off infection (that it is almost impossible for people to do anything besides lie down and wish for death is considered a positive side effect, albeit an unpleasant one).

As we can see, the temperature range compatible with life is extremely narrow:
Phyrexia Pyrexia is another word for fever
Less than 2 degrees Celsius (4°F) separates hypothermia from fever. 2 degrees is a very coincidental and auspicious number, and I’ll come back to it later, but first let us consider certain morbid implications: what is the temperature at which people die?

This is a difficult question to answer, not just because we can’t exactly test it, but because animals experience temperature differently. The short answer is that the same temperature feels hotter when it’s humid. But to explain in a little more detail, we have to talk about “wet-bulb temperature”.

As anyone who has spent time on both US coasts will attest, 90 degrees Fahrenheit feels very different when the air is dry, compared to when it is humid. Wet-bulb temperature is the attempt to reconcile the two, defined as the lowest temperature that can be reached by evaporating water into the air (often measured by sticking a thermometer in a wet sock and swinging it around. No, that’s not a joke.)
They look really stupid and you'll feel dumb swinging it around
The wet-bulb temperature is always lower than the “dry bulb” temperature because it’s measuring how much it’s possible to cool down (i.e. the difference between standing outside [dry] and standing outside in front of a fan while being misted with water [wet]). The two temperatures approach the same number as the relative humidity of the air increases. When the humidity of the air is 100%, no additional water can evaporate, and the two temperatures are identical. The reason the wet-bulb temperature is always lower is because evaporating liquids create a cooling effect. Since humans are much more like wet socks than pieces of glass or metal [citation needed?], the wet-bulb temperature provides a good approximation of the subjective temperature experienced. Therefore, we can use it to determine the temperature at which people die.

Don’t act surprised! Obviously, there is such a temperature, we already know that all the necessary enzymes shut off outside of their (narrow) ranges, and we know that the main way that human bodies cool themselves is by sweating profusely, taking advantage of the evaporative cooling effect. At some point, the body is no longer able to prevent itself from heating up, and will rapidly go into hyperthermia and die. This chain of events is why heat stroke is so dangerous; a common, real-life example of the phenomenon. Using the wet-bulb reading, we can isolate important temperatures, including the onset of heat stroke, and the temperature above which is death is certain. That temperature is approximately 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius).

This is a counterintuitively low number, but it is important to remember that our bodies are constantly generating heat. Hence it is easy to feel overheated at 80°F (27°C), even though a similar internal temperature would be fatal hypothermia; controlled dissipation of heat is necessary to prevent overheating. There are many online calculators available to convert dry-bulb readings to wet-bulb readings (most depend on atmospheric pressure, which influences the percent humidity), a decent dry-bulb estimate of a 95°F wet-bulb reading is around 110-120°F (43-49°C). (Desert climates have lower humidity, so sometimes the 95°F wet-bulb temperature is not reached until over 120°F.)

For context, let’s look at some maps:
Here we have the Average Summer Temperatures (which are always measured in dry-bulb unless otherwise stated), including the average highs…
and lows…
 Based on NOAA data. Maps from
But as we know, this is not the whole picture. Because it’s the hottest days that matter, even if they are statistical outliers. So here is a map of the average highest temperature recorded in a typical summer:
Some places in that white patch are hotter than 118, but they've got to cap it somewhere
As we can see, vast swaths of the United States have day(s) during the summer that are incompatible with human life. Literally “so hot you could die”, and people do so with great regularity. And, of course, anomolous record-high heats can occur almost everywhere:
"Come to Lake Havasu, the hottest place in Arizona! Don't go outside!"
It’s not news that people die during heat waves, but what should be a sobering thought is the degree to which we are dependent on functioning air conditioning in order to literally not die. The excuse of “well we have air conditioning” isn’t especially reassuring, because our power system is not designed to provide continual power to every single person on the grid. Excessive use caused, say, by a massive heat wave, quickly overwhelms ordinary power grids. And while worrying about it now is definitely a little silly, over the long term, you actually do have to deal with extraordinary events. You have to worry about things like earthquakes, hundred-year waves, and other rare but predictable events. The longer you plan on living, the more likely it is that you run into something out of the ordinary.

I would not be harping on this if it was merely an American problem:
Although they are, perhaps, disproportionally represented in comment sections, the number of people who insist the world is not warming (despite all the easily accessible evidence to the contrary) is extremely small. Even those who deny that the warming is caused by human activity rarely go that far. The bigger issue is that as the temperature increases, more and more of the world will become uninhabitable.

That angry dark red splotch that goes through Africa and the Middle East? That’s desert. There are two ways to make a desert and the first is obvious — no rain. The second is less so — heat. Plants have enzymes, same as we do. Get them too hot, and they can’t grow. Heat also reduces the amount of precipitation, but this is fiddly and missing the point — the real problems come much sooner. I cannot be explict enough, our fatal temperature from earlier is assumes people are doing nothing but trying to stay cool. Heat stress, whether due to working outside, walking around, or just standing still in the sunlight, effects humans, plants, and animals alike. Some species are more sensitive than others, and there are small variations due to age and health. But, again, the fatal temperature is a hard stop. It’s not something you can fight, something you can just “power through”. It’s not even fighting biology, it’s fighting chemistry. And I can tell you exactly what happens when you fight chemistry: chemistry wins.

I mentioned our temperature range from earlier: 2°C. This is also the number that the Paris Climate Accord is intended to ensure, though the goal of the accord is to prevent the world from warming more than 2°C. Currently, no one believes that keeping to that number is possible, most estimates put the amount of warming at at least 3°C, though if and when the permafrost melts, it’s anyone’s guess what happens next. Optimistic low-ball estimates come in at around 7°C, meaning a 15°F average worldwide temperature increase (though of course cities will heat up much faster). For a sense of what that might entail, look at our heat maps from earlier, but this time add 10 or 15 degrees onto it. We’re looking at the entire country being as hot as the hottest part of an Arizona summer, and that doesn’t even begin to cover what the rest of the world will look like. Buckle your seatbelts folks, because this is going to get rough.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Destruction of the American Cuisine

Alright, I’ve (finally) fallen behind schedule. My lack of knowledge of political philosophy, coupled with some “IRL” concerns, means I will not be delivering Part V of On Secession on time. And, since my other back-burner ideas are equally unwieldy, I’m short on options. Consider this one a filler post.

I have another interest, which has not appeared on this blog until now: Food. I’ve been cooking quite a bit recently, though by “cooking” I mostly mean preparing food (there’s relatively little heat applied). And somewhere between making bread, salad dressing, sushi, ice cream, and lox, I’ve realized something a little disturbing: we’ve been suckered.

For most of history, everyone* cooked. All the time, every meal. Food was life and death, especially in America, which was an unforgiving frontier for the initial settlers (the colonies had horrific survival rates). Much of the cultural culinary knowledge brought with them from Europe was insufficient, and even the most saccharine stories of Thanksgiving acknowledge the fact that the Mayflower settlers were far up shit creek until the Native Americans helped them out.
*not literally everyone
I'm not seeing the Three Sisters here, but you get the point
Skipping forward a bit, we’ve got a rich American cuisine developing, with people eating indigenous animals like passenger pigeons, all sorts of gourds and corn, and fruits like cranberries and pawpaws. People are curing meats, making cheese, and canning fruit to last through the winter, as well as developing the regional cuisines and iconic dishes that everyone loves so much. Regular infusions of foods from other cultures and new immigrants meant that the American culinary landscape never stood still for too long.

So… What happened? If that rich American cuisine describes your current eating/cooking habits, please tell me where you forage for food. But it's not that way now, and it's not even close. 
Seriously, who thought this was a good idea?
It’s obvious what happened, ad agencies happened. Frozen food was the food of the future, and it was very cool. And one thing led to another, and now you can buy pre-packaged balsamic vinaigrette in the supermarket. The basic advertising idea that prepackaged food is a labor and time saver is going strong, but the other big piece of the puzzle is convincing people that cooking is more difficult than it is. By separating us from the creation of our food, things that cost pennies to make at home can be sold for whatever it is they’re charging you at Whole Foods. I know I grew up with canned whipped cream, even though that is literally just cream and sugar, whipped together. It’s not hard, it doesn’t take a significant amount of time, and it tastes hundreds of times better than the canned stuff.

Obviously, the entire fault can’t be laid at the feet of the ad agencies — it was also the fault of the supermarkets. Until the 1950s, a weekly shop would involve a trip to the butcher, the greengrocer, the bakery, and the dry goods store. The milk, of course, was delivered.
I prefer Wegmans, but it's the same concept
But local “mom and pop” shops were inexorably squeezed out by national chains that could benefit from economics of scale, and factory farms began feeding citizens across the country. Until finally, the notion that you could go to the store in New York and buy something that you couldn’t get in California seems archaic and quaint.

So, in effect, we’ve been removed from our food twice. First from the food itself, and second from the knowledgeable people who provided what we could no longer provide ourselves. Ask anyone whose parents were adults before 1950 whether they ever bought meat from a butcher they didn’t know. This change was in living memory.

And even speaking strictly as a public health concern, this change has not been positive. I’ve written about our problems with antibiotics before, but one of the major contributing factors is the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed. Which is necessary if you’re going to cram hundreds of animals together in a small space, and is necessary if you’re going to provide cheap meat to supermarkets around the country. Likewise, similar issues crop up on the vegetable side (see “On Monocultures”). The mass production of food has given us calories and salt in abundance, and homogeny and malnutrition. But even if these problems were solved, we would still have others. Consider French cheeses:
Hint: the best one is Époisses
This is by no means a comprehensive list, nor are the regional differences limited to cheese. In every place, individual communities developed their own cuisines. And of course, it’s not just France. Every place around the world had things that made that region, town, or village unique, something that was theirs and theirs alone. It’s not limited to food, but since that’s what we’re talking about now, let’s stay on topic. Look at this map:
There are 4 distinct types of barbeque sauce in South Carolina, to say nothing of the individual variations between each type (it’s not like all mustard BBQ sauces are the same). And this is in a place 1/8th the size of France, without the advantage of a thousand years of tiny isolated villages working, living, growing, and cooking. The number of regional dishes in America was enormous… and most of them no longer exist.

That’s what we’ve lost. Because while the occasional dish rises out of local kitchens, the majority don’t. Everything is homogenized and flattened. Pawpaws don’t keep, and can’t be shipped fresh, so you can’t get them in the supermarket. And there’s no reason to make your own ketchup — Heinz is fine, that can be your sauce base. The basic principles of Newspeak apply: you don’t miss what you don’t know. Thus, “American cuisine” came to be little more than hamburgers and hot dogs, with only the strangest and most hardy surviving to the present day. Our rich cultural legacy exchanged for frozen pizza.

There have been efforts to walk it back, with “eat local” campaigns, but the worst of the damage is already done. Much like folklore, once the stories are lost, they’re gone. Why would your grandma (or her grandma) bother to write down the recipe of that dish she made when she just threw together what was handy? You kids sure loved it, though.

I’ve said enough for one day. While I’m nowhere near the level of DIY fanaticism of some, I’m trying a little harder not to buy things that can be made easily at home (and I’m not especially handy). For all those who want to play along, here are three easy recipes.
"One can make all kinds of interesting things, using simple household items"

Vanilla Gelato: This calls for whole milk, eggs, and sugar. I used a vanilla bean extract that had been sitting in the back of my cupboard for years, instead of vanilla bean, but other flavors work fine. The step involving an ice cream maker can be replaced by taking the bowl of ice cream base out of the freezer every 10-20 minutes and stirring (this keeps the ice crystals from getting too big).

Carbonara Pasta: Pasta (which is also easy to make), egg, parmesan cheese (or American imitator), pepper, and garlic or onion if you have it. Substitute Bacon for Panchetta, because it tastes better and is cheaper.

Crispy Skin Salmon: This one you’ll have to buy a piece of fish for, try your local fishmonger if you have one. Do what Gordon says in the video, you just need olive oil, salt, and pepper. I add lemon juice afterwards, and a little bit of honey during. Serve with whatever, I usually do either broccoli or a salad.

Next week, we’re back to normal (fingers crossed).

Monday, July 3, 2017

On Secession Part IV: Killing and Carnage

On Secession (Part I, Part II, Part III)

One of the more annoying things about writing about current or semi-current events is that the world doesn’t hold still long enough. Things change. I’m a couple weeks “ahead” here (writing this the week of June 19th), so reactions to current events and responses to critiques are delayed. I say this because, by the time you read this, the fact that Sheriff David Clarke is no longer being considered for a spot in the Department of Homeland Security will be old news. Instead, he’ll be returning home to serve the good people of Milwaukee County. Which is as good of a segue as any.

Last time, we talked about the state of law enforcement in America, specifically emphasizing the slavery inspired origins of the American prison system. In this part, I want to focus on the appalling conditions of the prisons under Clarke’s care (this is probably one of the last times we’ll focus on him so intently, especially since Clarke himself is rapidly fading into obsolescence).
We'll get to this soon enough
But Clarke’s political power and influence was only ever a side effect of the bigger issues this series is intended to address, so let’s start with an incontrovertible fact: news from Milwaukee County is not good. Think headlines like: “Unanswered Questions Surround Deaths in Detention in Milwaukee County” and “More Than Two Months Later, Family of Inmate Who Died in Milwaukee County Jail Has No Answers”. The local paper counts 18 deaths in custody during the years of 2007-2012, though judging by their most recent high profile case (of a mentally ill prisoner in solitary confinement dying after being deprived of water for days), I would expect the previous few years to have similar death rates, since 10 of the 18 deaths were people with documented medical or psychiatric conditions.

But this 18 are just deaths in jail, this number doesn’t include people who have been shot by the police (of which a quick google search turns up several, with the most recent one on June 11th). That each of the people killed were black should come as no surprise to anyone at this point, as we just covered the Jim Crow era-basis of our modern criminal justice system in Part III of this series.

When I planned this entry, I thought that it would be enough to triumphantly shine a light on all the terrible abuses perpetrated by Sheriff Clarke’s office, but now I find myself wondering: What’s the point? Stories like the ones I’ve mentioned earlier are common as dirt, and with the current justice department actively stepping back from police accountability, my indignant flailing isn’t going to accomplish much. And the “four independent agencies” that have investigated police misconduct in Milwaukee have not done much besides providing a smokescreen for the officers to hide behind. As usual, nothing changes — too many people benefit from the current system. Correcting the problem on a national scale requires the kind of sweeping changes that occurred in the last half of the 19th century, and are extremely unlikely to happen in the current political climate.

That Sheriff Clarke has almost no chance of winning reelection is a small positive sign, and a recent poll of Milwaukee voters showed that over 65% believed Clarke had a negative impact on their county’s reputation. Which makes me more curious about the rest, because about a third of the voters still approve of him, and are more than happy to circle the wagons and proudly proclaim that “Blue Lives Matter”. Instead, I’ll approach from a different angle, and try to understand the work of David Grossman.
This is the face of a guy who is really into killing
The inventor of “killology”, Grossman has spent decades traveling the country, giving seminars to police officers and teaching them to think like warriors. No, I’m not kidding. The goal is to ensure that police are mentally prepared to kill at any moment. This coincided nicely with the militarization of the police forces in the early 2000s — billions of dollars and army surplus supplied has ensured that even the smallest of America’s towns can have their very own SWAT team and armored Humvees. And as their ability to wage war grew, so did their warrior mindset. This excerpt from his website makes it clear:
I’m a sheepdog. I live to protect the flock and confront the wolf.” Or, as a sign in one California law enforcement agency put it, “We intimidate those who intimidate others.”

If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath--a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.
Literally just an excuse for me to look for goofy dog pictures
Truly Heroic and Noble. Special and Extraordinary. All the hallmarks of classic bullshit. People are never so dangerous as when they believe themselves to be acting for the greater good. It’s an important part of the secret sauce that made Jeronimo Yanez a (unfortunately acquitted) murderer. If you’re fighting a war, then any citizen could be the enemy — you’re constantly on edge, waiting for the next attack (some people like to call this Vigilance). And before you ask, yes, Yanez did attend such a seminar.
The idea of an urban warzone is popular on the right, and nearly incomprehensible to everyone else — witness the bewilderment over the term “American Carnage” in Trump’s inaugural address. To those not mired in the current police culture, it is clear that other options exist. But within the current institutions, the idea that police would act primarily as guardians is scoffed at as the kind of politically correct nonsense that gets officers killed. And so, we have situations like this one, where a cop enters the scene with gun drawn (metaphorically, if not literally). With this mindset, lethal violence is to be expected; they’re fighting a war after all.

“Late Friday [6/18/17], Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke Jr. formally notified Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly that he had rescinded his acceptance of the agency’s offer to join DHS as an assistant secretary," said Craig Peterson, an adviser to Clarke. "Sheriff Clarke is 100 percent committed to the success of President Trump and believes his skills could be better utilized to promote the president’s agenda in a more aggressive role." This, coming from the man who worries that Black Lives Matter will join forces with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to take down America. Yes, really. And why not? If you’ve got a hammer, you’re always looking for the next nail.
Except, you know, with guns
But seriously, I’m not trying to make a bunch of hay over nothing — this ridiculous example is a side effect of their belief system. If you are this ready to de-humanize people and view them as your enemies (Clarke: “[BLM] is black slime and it needs to be eradicated from the American society and the American culture.”), it’s easy to lump them all together. Certainly much easier than trying to understand them.

I’ll throw a quick bone to the people who want to argue in the comments: I think police should be more willing to sacrifice their lives. I think the system might be better if they only shot at “bad guys”, and would rather risk being shot than accidentally shooting someone innocent. I think that part of the social contract between society and its designated doers of violence is to use it responsibly, and it should be up to society to determine what that means — and not to the police officers. And while this is very similar to how it works now, clearly it’s not enough, as police continue to routinely murder innocent people (for what must seem like very good reasons at the time). There is no war and no enemy soldiers, there’s only the people they’ve sworn to protect. There must be greater responsibility — part of defending society means defending justice, and the other ideological intangibles. Every senseless killing erodes them. If the police are willing to lay down their lives to protect this country, I’d like to see a little more of it. While it’s clearly very sad to see stories like “police officer killed at traffic stop”, it’s nothing like hearing that an innocent man has been shot in front of his family by the cop who swore to protect him. And while it’s certainly easy for me to say, sitting comfortable in my apartment, that’s the job they signed up for. Do your job, or quit.
Clearly, the idea that government is tyrannical and imposing on civil liberties doesn't apply to blacks or liberals  
Anyway, there are still a number of loose threads, but I haven’t given up. Next week, we’ll dive back into political philosophy before returning our attention to the confederacy, and those who still support their cause. We’re not done yet.

EDIT: The NRA released another advertisement a few days ago. And a "response". This supports my narrative here quite a bit more than I'm comfortable with.