Let’s Make a Better World

Frolicking is fun!
Frolicking is fun!

Before we get started here today I thought I’d take a moment to point out how important communication is. The people who create The Flash comic book were so impressed by the success of the TV series that, as an homage, they changed the character’s costume to reflect the one on the show. Simultaneously, as it turns out, the creators of the TV show were so impressed with the direction the comic book was taking that they changed the costume of their character to match the comic book. Since both are well into production that state of affairs is going to remain for a bit. I’m sure that, sooner rather than later, someone will buy someone else a beer and they’ll pick one. But, for now, that’s kind of funny.

Since we’re on the subject of communication and since books provide an oasis in a desert of ignorance and conformity, let’s talk about a book you can drink.

No, I’m not drunk.

Thomas Mukoya has the story.

Teri Dankovich, from Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, who has been leading the research on what she calls “the drinkable book” said in one trial, they tested a ditch contaminated with sewage that contained millions of bacteria. “Even with highly contaminated water sources like that one, we can achieve 99.9% purity with our silver-and copper-nanoparticle paper, bringing bacteria levels comparable to those of US drinking water,” she said.

Each page is embedded with silver and copper nano-particles. The pages contain instructions in English and the local language; water is poured and filtered through the pages themselves. One page can purify up to 100 liters (about 26 gallons) of water and one book can supply one person’s drinking water needs for about four years, the researchers said.

That is also good news for drought ravaged areas (HI CALIFORNIA!) and for areas where infrastructure is a rumor (HI MISSISSIPPI!). You may think I’m kidding but I’m not. There are growing sections of the United States which, for a variety of intertwined religious and political reasons, are drifting back into the Middle Ages. In Kentucky, for example, roads and access to medical care are so scant that supplies have to be regularly airlifted in to some villages or people will die.

Ironically, the reasons cited by the residents of these blighted areas for refusing to accept access to modern conveniences are EXACTLY the same as the ones spouted by ISIS and their ilk. Well, it’s ironic to us. I’m not sure they know what the word means.

And part of that growing ignorance is a return to hex signs and herbalists. Emma Smith, over at I Fucking Love Science, takes a look at the proven risks.

Many treatments for cancer and other diseases were originally derived from naturally-occurring substances. The chemotherapy drug Taxol, created from a compound found in yew leaves, is a prime example.

Conversely, some of the most poisonous substances in the world – ricin, cyanide, arsenic, hemlock, snake venoms and mercury to name but a few – are all entirely natural.

Furthermore, alternative ‘natural’ therapies are not guaranteed to be safe. Examples include a serious risk of cyanide poisoning from laetrile, permanent scarring or disfigurement from cancer salves, and bowel damage, blood salt imbalances or even life-threatening septicaemia caused by coffee enemas.

– A N D –

Cancer is a complex disease, and without access to detailed medical records – which are confidential – it is impossible to paint a fully accurate picture of an individual’s cancer journey and whether alternative therapies played any role in their recovery.

More worryingly, there are some cases where evidence points towards a murkier interpretation of ‘truth’ and fact.

For example, Australian blogger Belle Gibson built a large media profile and business around the story of having apparently ‘healed herself’ of a brain tumour through diet and lifestyle changes, but has now admitted that she never actually had cancer at all.

People pushing alternative therapies frequently wheel out stories from ‘survivors’ who are apparently alive due to their treatments, yet without providing solid evidence to prove it is true. This raises false hope and unrealistic expectations that there is a hidden miracle cure that can be unlocked for the right price, or by eating exactly the right foods.

Steve Jobs believed cancer could be cured using the methods above. Had he simply gotten traditional treatments the odds are greatly in favor of him still being alive. Instead he’s very dead and never going to get better.

This is not to say that all natural remedies are bad. They most certainly are not. This is to say they need to be rigorously tested before being foisted on the general public. One such wonderful example is a mixture of cow puke and garlic that can cure styes and severe skin infections.

Clare Wilson, over at New Scientist, fills us in.

The project was born when Freya Harrison, a microbiologist at the University of Nottingham, UK, got talking to Christina Lee, an Anglo-Saxon scholar. They decided to test a recipe from an Old English medical compendium called Bald’s Leechbook, housed in the British Library.

Some of the ingredients, such as copper from the brass vessel, kill bacteria grown in a dish – but it was unknown if they would work on a real infection or how they would combine.

Sourcing authentic ingredients was a major challenge, says Harrison. They had to hope for the best with the leeks and garlic because modern crop varieties are likely to be quite different to ancient ones – even those branded as heritage. For the wine they used an organic vintage from a historic English vineyard.

As “brass vessels” would be hard to sterilise – and expensive – they used glass bottles with squares of brass sheet immersed in the mixture. Bullocks gall was easy, though, as cow’s bile salts are sold as a supplement for people who have had their gall bladders removed.

After nine days of stewing, the potion had killed all the soil bacteria introduced by the leek and garlic. “It was self-sterilising,” says Harrison. “That was the first inkling that this crazy idea just might have some use.”

A side effect was that it made the lab smell of garlic. “It was not unpleasant,” says Harrison. “It’s all edible stuff. Everyone thought we were making lunch.”

The potion was tested on scraps of skin taken from mice infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. This is an antibiotic-resistant version of the bacteria that causes styes, more commonly known as the hospital superbug MRSA. The potion killed 90 per cent of the bacteria. Vancomycin, the antibiotic generally used for MRSA, killed about the same proportion when it was added to the skin scraps.

You’ll note that she mentions “sourcing the ingredients.” That’s because foods that existed 100 or 200 years ago are now almost all gone forever. As Megan Kelly reported, a variety of economic and aesthetic reasons have led to the demise of thousands of fruits and vegetables.

Some were too big or small for commercial sale so farmers stopped growing them.

Still, back in May of this year, I wrote about a tree that can grow 40 or more types of fruit at once. And it can do so with just a single sapling from a forgotten plant. There are many people who keep one form or another on their home properties (actual heirloom fruits) and scientists have been hunting them down. It’s not Frankenfood, it’s organic splicing and it’s saving many fruits you otherwise would have never been allowed to taste.

And because it’s organic – really, all you need is a sharp knife, tape, access to a variety of saplings and a lot of patience – this technique can be used to diversify the fruit supply in blighted regions. Also, as a bonus, different fruits bloom at different times so the tree produces year round. Extra bonus? One tree uses far less water than an orchard and can still feed quite a few people.

Okay, I’m boring you. You need your share of excitement or you’ll wander off to the midget porn carnival on Vimeo. Okay, I understand.

So here’s an article from Caroline Reid about a robot drone that shoots trees into the ground.

BioCarbon Engineering, the brainchild of former NASA engineer Lauren Fletcher, has proposed a solution: Industrial reforestation with robot drones. Could reforestation get any more awesome?

The drones would plant an estimated 1 billion trees a year, saving people from having to do it by hand. This would make reforestation quicker and cheaper. However, Fletcher doesn’t say that this new method of reforestation is necessarily better than planting trees by hand, just cheaper. If put into full effect, the drone method of planting trees could cut the price of traditional practices down to 15% of the original cost.

The drones won’t indiscriminately fire seeds anywhere they happen to fly over. Instead, the machines will first gather terrain data and information on the local fauna, reporting back on the region’s “restoration potential.”

When the restoration potential is approved, and the region is ready to support new seeds, a planting route is mapped for the drones to follow. The drones then fire the ground with germinated seed pellets at a rate of 10 seeds per minute.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that deforestation is so bad on our planet that we need a method to plant a billion trees a year quickly. Another problem is that old growth trees, like Oak and Redwood, take too long to grow so they are being eliminated in favor of faster growing trees like birch and pine.

Another problem facing us, as noted above, is drought. One solution – that works but creates mountains fo dry salt which pollutes the ground – is desalination. Tony Perry, from the LA Times, says those worries may be a thing of the past.

Thousands of desalination and water recycling plants have been built around the world, with some of the biggest in the Middle East, North Africa and the Caribbean. The Carlsbad plant, set to begin operation by Thanksgiving, is making its debut just as drought has become a crisis across California and the West.

For Poseidon Water, the Boston company building the plant — and for the international desalination industry — it presents an opportunity to try to disprove the criticism that dogs such projects: that they are exorbitantly expensive, hog energy and damage the environment.

“Carlsbad is going to change the way we see water in California for decades,” said Peter MacLaggan, a Poseidon Water vice president. “It’s not a silver bullet to solve all our water problems, but it’s going to be another tool in the toolbox.”

Though it might be lost on some of this summer’s convention-goers, San Diego has a long history with desalination.

The region took it as a clarion call when, in 1961, President Kennedy declared: “If we could ever, competitively, at a cheap rate, get fresh water from saltwater that would be in the long-range interests of humanity [and] really dwarf any other scientific accomplishments.”

The federal government built a plant for the Navy on Point Loma. (It was dismantled in 1964 and taken to the Guantanamo Bay naval base when Fidel Castro threatened to cut off its water supply. It operated well into the 1980s.)

General Atomics in La Jolla did pioneering work on developing the membrane technology that cleans salt and other impurities from seawater through a process called reverse osmosis. One of the pioneers, Don Bray, spun off his own company.

It was the beginning of making San Diego County what industry veteran Doug Eisberg calls “the Silicon Valley of desalination.” Dozens of companies employ 3,000 workers to provide the delicate, complex membranes needed for the world’s plants that specialize in desalination and water reuse.

Of course if the water’s too polluted in the first place none of this matters. Which is why Renee Lewis over at Al Jazeera is so excited to tell about a new way to clean up, literally, oceans’ worth of trash.

The world’s first system designed to rid the oceans of plastic pollution will be deployed near Japan in 2016, with the aim of eventually capturing half of the plastic found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a large concentration of marine debris located between Hawaii and California.

Boyan Slat, the 20-year-old Dutch CEO of The Ocean Cleanup, an organization dedicated to cleaning the world’s oceans, designed the system dubbed The Ocean Cleanup Array.

“I’ve always been interested in technology, and I was launching rockets at 12 years old,” Slat said. “Eventually I started studying aerospace engineering, but I dropped out to try to develop this ocean clean up idea.”

He said his inspiration for the organization came after a diving holiday in Greece where he realized he was coming across more plastic bags than fish.

“I wondered, ‘Why can’t we clean this up?’” Slat said.

Plastic debris, most of it in the form of tiny beads known as microplastics, can be found on up to 88 percent of the surface of all five oceans, according to a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Because of swirling ocean currents, known as gyres, this plastic pollution has become concentrated in certain areas.

In other cases, ocean currents send plastic pollution toward certain islands or coastal areas in greater concentration than others. One such area is the Japanese island of Tsushima.

“The reason we picked that location is because the current and wave conditions are very favorable for our tests, and there really is a lot of plastic,” Slat said. “The island where we performed the test sees 30,000 cubic meters of trash wash ashore per year.”

30,000 cubic meters is over 1,000,000 cubic feet. Or, to simplify, over 333,333 feet wide (i.e., 3,333 or so football fields) and the same amount long and high.

That’s a lot of fucking trash and that’s just one island. Where does all that shit come from? Cruise ships, airliners, and you.

All is not lost. 3D printers are being modified to use natural materials like dirt and trash to create modern living facilities. I mean the kind wherein you can have electric and plumbing, not just some glorified Adobe structure. Wind farms are moving to using turbine styled systems instead of blades so they take up less space, can create more power, and don’t kill birds. Several wind collectors also can collect water from the air and save it into cisterns which people can easily access. In impoverished parts of South America these are already in use. Maglev (Magnetic Levitation) trains and vehicles are now faster, safer, and cheaper to operate than the traditional rail system we have here. That means that commerce and travel are both cheaper in areas where infrastructure has been updated.

In other words it can be done, it can be beneficial and it doesn’t require hex signs.

If you want to help take a moment to talk quietly, and without recrimination, to those who eschew progress and explain to them that the world is progressing anyway. And it is doing so for the better. All of this means that people can be healthier, live longer and more productive lives and not be a drain on others. Those are all good things.

It all starts with roads and doctors but it does have to get started soon or this country will be no better than a third world country of 20 years ago. I specify since there are now countries in Africa and Asia that are surpassing us in many ways.


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