Friday, May 07, 2021

How to recycle an old house

Here's an idea I like: British Columbia company Nickel Bros literally picks up and moves old houses with architectural value to new locations, saving them from demolition and apparently also saving the buyers a substantial amount of money in the process. Recycling at its (biggest and) best.

The article focuses on how BC bureaucracy and regulations are making such a move increasingly fraught and difficult. But I found myself wondering about the practical logistics of moving a house. I mean, you can't just scoop it up and stick it on a truck. Can you?

Well, the truth is way more complicated than that, of course, but in essence that's pretty much what happens. A video on the company's website gives a pretty good idea of how it all works, although it does still gloss over the initial lifting part, which was the part that I could least imagine.

Fascinating stuff.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Why a Belgian farmer moved the French border stone is the least of the questions raised

The story about a Belgian farmer accidentally (or was it?) moving a stone on his property that happened to mark the border with France has been reported by many news outlets. I guess it is seen as a fun little break with the grinding bad news of the pandemic.

The farmer in question moved the 200-year old stone marker because he was fed up of it getting in the way of his ploughing, and in the process he moved the Belgian border 2.2 metres further into French territory. His actions were outed, even though this was in "a really isolated spot" where "almost no-one passes by", and apparently he was told to move it back.

Setting aside that it seems very unlikely to me that, in this digital day and age, the stone is actually the legal marker of the border, what struck me was the fact that there is "a sharp-eyed group of Frenchmen, who for the past few years have wandered the countryside of their local area in northern France, following the border and checking each marker they encountered against a map showing the stones' original locations".

Say, what? Who are these shadowy individuals? And why do they have nothing better to do than to check the locations of stones against a map? That and the fact that someone actually cares that the border is two metres wrong.

How did we ever outsource visa processing to the Chinese?

As more and more comes out about how first Canada, and now New Zealand (as well as Britain, Ireland and apparently several other otherwise sensible countries), have outsourced their visa and passport processing to the Chinese mob (sorry, let's be serious here, a Chinese company owned by the Chinese state police, and therefore by the Communist Party of China), the more one has to stop and wonder.

Why would Canada, or any country for that matter, do that? Surely, if there is any one thing that should be done in-country, it is visas and passports, or indeed anything to do with citizenship and national security. Why would you choose a country with a known human rights problem and pretensions to world domination to look after sensitive national information like that? Hell, I'm not even sure I would trust Bangladesh or the USA or even New Zealand with that kind of job. I certainly wouldn't trust China as far as I can throw it.

The answer, of course, is almost certainly money, cost-saving. Sure, China can do pretty much anything cheaper than Canada, because they pay their workers a pittance and allow them next-to-no workers' rights. But it's one thing buying electronics and plastic knick-knacks from them, and entirely another buying sensitive consular services.

We have the technology and the expertise to do this work right here in Canada. Yes, it would cost a bit more, but how much more? How many visa and passort applications are proessed each year? A couple of million? I've no idea, to be honest, but the cost savings as a fraction of government spending would be miniscule.

It really beggars belief thay we (and New Zealand) are in this position.

Climate change study sea level rise prediction is not going to worry anyone

A new climate change study has concluded that global warming of 3°C (5.4°F) - which is about what we are currently on target for, despite the Paris climate agreement target of 1.5°C - 2°C - could lead to a "catastrophic" sea level rise of 0.2 inches per year 2060, as the Antarctic ice fields melt.

Which made me stop and think: "catastrophic"? 0.2 inches (about half a centimetre, if you prefer) is about half the thickness of the cellphone I am currently holding. It's really not a lot. Yes, I understand that this is each year and the effect is cumulative, and I understand that there are potential positive feeedback loops involved here. But, even so, it's a little hard to get excited about 0.2 inches. After all, tides vary by up to several METRES each day (as do rivers each year).

Now, I do have plenty of faith in climate scientitsts who are trying to lead us through this potentially ruinous climate trajectory we are on (for what it's worth, this report comes from the Earth System Science and Policy Lab at Rutgers University, and I have no reason to suspect that this is a dubious outfit), and if they say it is catastrophic then I have to believe them. 

But I can't help but think that it may have been better to keep quiet about this particular conclusion. It sounds so underwhelming to the average Joe in the street, and can only serve to make people even more complacent.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Why your veins look blue

I was in for a blood test this morning, so I got to idly wondering - as you do - why do veins look blue when blood is most definitely red? Well, of course I'm not the first person to wonder that, and the answer was not hard to find, in various different formulations.

It turns out it's all to do with how we perceive colours and how deep under our skin our veins are. The first thing to know is that we see colours when light of that colour hits (either directly or as a reflection) our eyes, and that things of different colours absorb those parts of the spectrum making up white light from the sun or electric lighting, and reflect back the rest. 

You probably already know that different colours of light have different wavelengths, and you may also know that the red end of the visible spectrum has a higher wavelength and the blue end shorter. Red light, therefore, with its longer distances between peaks and troughs, is less likely to be deflected and scattered by the materials it travels through (including skin), and it can easily penetrate the 5-10mm to where our larger veins are located. There it is largely absorbed by the red veins it encounters (technically, by the hemoglobin, the protein that makes our blood red). The shorter-wavelength blue part of the spectrum, on the other hand, is much more easily deflected and does not penetrate as far (and is therefore mostly reflected back).

Pulling all this together, when light hits your skin, a mixture of colours will be reflected back, but where there are veins under the skin, relatively little red light is reflected back (because it has been absorbed by the red veins), and your veins appear blue compared to the rest of your skin.

At this point, you are probably regretting even expressing an interest, because some of this stuff, although quite logical when you think about it, does seem a bit counter-intuitive. But the bottom line is that, although your veins are in fact red (being filled with blood and all), they appear blue when seen through the skin because of the relative wavelenths of the colours, and the extent to which the different wavelenths are absorbed or reflected back. Got that?

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Is S-2L the future of viruses?

This is kind of fascinating, in a geeky kind of way.

You may (or may not) know that pretty much all life on Earth employs the same four nucleotides in its DNA: adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C) and guanine (G), and all the genes that make life as we know it tick are made up of long strings of these organic molecules. This creates the familiar (or maybe not so familiar) genetic alphabet ATCG.

I say "pretty much all life on Earth" advisedly, because, since 1977, scientists have been aware of a specific bacteriophage (a virus that attacks bacteria), with the unassuming monicker S-2L, that turns this rule on its head. This DNA virus cyanophage has evolved to substitute all instances of adenine with 2-aminoadenine (also known as 2,6-diaminopurine), which has been given the alphabetic label Z for some reason, yielding a ZTCG genetic alphabet.

Why this originally developed is not certain, but is thought that it is just a new tactic in the ongoing war between viruses and bacteria, effectively taking the arms race to a new level. The Z base forms a triple bond to the opposite T base on the "rungs" of the DNA ladder (as opposed to the double bonds in the usual ACTG-type DNA), making it stronger and more difficult for the bacteria to prise apart and destroy.

S-2L was long thought to be an anomaly, just one of those random things that nature throws at us from time to time, like duck-billed platypuses, octopuses and black holes. But turns out that it is not so unusual after all. Three separate studes from France and China have shown that there are actually a whole army of Z-genome bacteriophages out there, and identified the proteins and enzymes involved in their assembly.

Of course, we are only beginning to speculate on what it might all mean for us and the living world that we know. I just hope that COVID-19 doesn't find out about it; otherwise we are cooked!

Saturday, May 01, 2021

The PROs and CONs of vaccine passports

There was a fascinating exhange about vaccine passports on CBC today (the audio is here, skip to minute 32:50 for the relevant section). I knew that the issue was controversial, but this debate, between a Dalhousie University philosophy prof and bioethicist (who warns against vaccination passports) and an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Toronto (who is for them), brings home just how messy the whole issue really is.

The starting point here is that the EU, which is already establishing a Digital Green Certificate system for travel within the bloc, has just announced that Americans who have been fully vaccinated will soon be able to travel to Europe with a comparable vaccine passport for a vaccine that is recognized in the EU (sorry, China, Russia), and Canada may be able to join that exclusive club later.

CON: Because some people have been vaccinated and some not (mainly poorer people in more marginalized areas), the very idea of vaccine passports automatically introduces systemic discrimination, depending on people's access to vaccinations.

PRO: Digital vaccination passports are coming, and indeed are already here in some places, so we have little choice but to get on board. As of now, the passport system only accomodates the global North (EU and North America), but the situation is constantly changing and updating.

CON: There is still much uncertainty about the extent to which vaccines will stop transmission of the virus, how long the vaccines will be effective, the effectiveness of different vaccines (should there be different classes of passport/certificate?), how effective different vaccines are against different variants (e.g. it is thought that AstraZeneva may be quite ineffective against the South African variant), etc.

PRO: If we want to open up international travel, it is still safer to have a system of certification than not. Also, people from India, for example, who are currently completely blocked from travelling to many countries, would at least be allowed to travel insofar as they are completely vaccinated.

CON: It is unfair to only allow certification for those vaccines that the EU happens to have approved (Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Janssen/Johnson & Johnson). It builds up barriers based on science, but also based on politics.

PRO: This is nothing new: we already have a system for requiring yellow fever vaccinations, for example, for countries where that disease is a problem.

CON: Yellow fever is very different from COVID in many ways: yellow fever certification is issued and managed by WHO (which has not, so far, approved COVID vaccine certificates); the yellow fever vaccine has been around since 1938, is single dose, life-long, and nearly 100% effective; there is just a single type of yellow fever vaccine, as opposed to the many different COVID-19  vaccines; the yellow fever vaccine is about protecting the traveller, not the country being travelled to.

PRO: Vaccine passports act as an incentive for people who might otherwise be hesitant to receive it, getting us closer to herd immunity.

CON: On the contrary, it is actually a kind of subtle coersion that might make vaccine-hesitant people and anti-vaxxers resentful and suspicious, and possibly even less likely to be vaccinated. And most poor, marginalized and racialized people, who are more likely to be vaccine hesitant, are not in a position to travel abroad anyway, and so will not be inventivized.

On balance, the PRO arguments here may be vaguer and more defensive, so the CON arguments may have won this particular exchange. But, speaking as someone who wants to get back to travelling, rational arguments are not the only things at play here. Tricky stuff!

Florida votes that school can indeed ban vaccinated teachers

Here's a good example of just how topsy-turvy, how downright WEIRD, life in the pandemic has become.

You may have read recently about a private Florida elementary school that ruled that teachers who have been vaccinated cannot have any contact with students, on pains of dismissal. Yes, you read that right, I wrote "vaccinated" not "unvaccinated". Not bothering to quote any studies (possibly because none exist), the school's owners maintain that the COVID-19 vaccination is dangerous, and can in some way interfere with a woman's menstrual cycles and reproductive systems. The school's children have been warned not to hug their parents and grandparents for more than five seconds due to the danger. 

The school owner admits that her views are "new and yet to be researched", but dismisses Florida Health Department's warnings that her policy puts workers, students and communities at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. The school, which luxuriaties in the rather high-flown name of The Centner Academy, making it sound like a specialist college or a think tank or something, is run by a couple who have made substantial donations to the Republican Party. Go figure.

Well, many people to the left of rabid, conspiracy theory-prone hyper-conservatives thought this was ridiculous, and brought in a state bill that would prevent schools (and other businesses and government entities) from banning vaccinated people from entering or recieving services, and the bill was - get this! - promptly defeated. (To be fair, the final vote was 19-19, and some Republicans did cross the floor to vote for it, but the bottom line is that the bill did not receive enough votes to pass.)

So, in Florida, people who have not been vaccinated end up with more rights than people who have been vaccinated. What a world!