The Price Is Right for Somebody

 

And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?”
— Genesis 4:9, from the King James Version of the Bible.

Imagine a television game show in which the announcer calls four contestants from the studio audience to the foot of the stage, a stage that is a mock up of a pharmacy, with a counter behind which stands the host, looking like a pharmacist in a white smock. The host directs everyone’s attention to one side of the stage, where an assistant – also in a white smock – presents a year’s worth of a popular prescription drug, let’s say insulin. The host then asks the four contestants to guess the price of the insulin without going over the amount, and the contestant with the closest guess gets to come up on stage for the opportunity to win prizes.


A skeletal figure surveying three doctors around a cauldron, Wellcome V0010898
A lithograph promoting James Morison’s alternative medicines, showing a skeletal figure surveying three doctors around a cauldron in a parody of Macbeth and the three witches. From the Wellcome Collection gallery, London, England.

The remaining contestants try again on the next round, and some of them go home empty handed. Almost all the studio audience in attendance go home without even having been invited to participate. The few winners in each episode get to take home expensive prizes such as the year’s worth of insulin, valued at thousands of dollars, but the majority of those attending a taping of the game show go home with nothing or with a cheap consolation prize, such as a bottle of gummy vitamins. This game show analogy is not far off how Americans seem to prefer having their health care system operate, particularly drug pricing.

If you’re lucky, if you win the lottery (another gamed system Americans seem to prefer over taxing the rich), then you’re good as gold. The majority, however, may run into problems and tough choices, such as paying the rent or buying insulin; paying utility bills or buying any of the number of the life preserving medications people depend on, particularly as they get older. Prescription drugs are every bit as crucial to survival for some people as food and shelter, and yet Americans seem to prefer to let the drug industry operate like any other capitalist endeavor. Profits for drug manufacturers are more important than a decent life for an unfortunate number of citizens who can’t afford the high prices those manufacturers demand simply because they can, and the people principally to blame for this awful situation are some cretins in Congress.

“Someday Never Comes”, by Creedence Clearwater Revival from their 1972 album Mardi Gras.

Who are the people responsible for putting those cretins in Congress and in positions where they can run cover for the drug companies? Why, they are in large part the same people who struggle to buy overpriced prescription drugs. Why do they do this to themselves? Ah, that is the question bedeviling America’s sickness today. The unfortunate part is that while some voters are caught up in Congressional posturing and not paying attention to substance, there are many voters who don’t share their ignorant love of machismo and capitalist lotteries and yet are forced to share the results of the bad policies ensuing from all that greed and childishness. They have to scramble for the scraps left over from the game, while a few wealthy grifters laugh at how they have duped enough voters to go along with their rigged game to keep it going, dangling prizes before the willing saps. Instead of gambling on a rigged capitalist lottery, sensible adults take measures, even – horrors! – socialist measures, to ensure decent results everyday for everybody when it comes to matters of survival like food, shelter, education, and medical care, including drugs.
— Ed.

 

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Everyone Has an Opinion

 

The measles outbreak in Clark County, in the southwestern corner of the state of Washington, across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon, has brought national attention to the beliefs of people who do not get some or all vaccinations for one reason or another, because vaccination rates in Clark County are far below the national average. The term many have come to apply to these people is “anti-vaxxer”, though it unfairly lumps everyone together, including people who are less against vaccines as they are for personal liberty, or who object on religious grounds. Since vaccination is a public health issue, however, the reasons for not getting vaccinated do not matter as much as the effects.

 

The history of the differing reasons for vaccine opposition goes back to the introduction of the smallpox vaccine, primarily by Edward Jenner, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in England. The idea that to combat a disease a person should voluntarily introduce a weakened form of it into his or her body ran counter to reason. Vaccination methods of the time were far cruder than today, and since sterilization of wounds and bandages were little understood, infection often followed upon vaccination. The alternative was death or disfigurement from a full force smallpox infestation, and some religious folks actually expressed preference for that because it was “God’s will.”

Bracing for a short, sharp jab
In Merawi, Ethiopia, a mother holds her nine month old child in preparation for a measles vaccination. One in ten children across Ethiopia do not live to see their fifth birthday, with many dying of preventable diseases like measles, pneumonia, malaria, and diarrhea. British aid has helped double immunization rates across Ethiopia in recent years by funding medicines, equipment, and training for doctors and nurses. Photo by Pete Lewis for the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID).

Measles world map-Deaths per million persons-WHO2012
World Health Organization (WHO) 2012 estimated deaths due to measles per million persons, with bright yellow at 0, dark red at 74-850, and shades of ocher from light to dark ranging from 1-73. Gray areas indicate statistics not available. Map by Chris55.

Those who didn’t object to vaccination on grounds of cutting into a healthy body and introducing a light case of the disease or a bad case of infection, or of meddling in God’s will, objected to the perceived unnaturalness of the procedure since the vaccine ultimately came from cows infected with cowpox. To those people, introduction into the human body of something from an animal was unwholesome, even dangerous. Never mind that people do the same thing all the time when they eat meat, presumably from animals and not from other people, without the ill effects these folks foresaw, such as taking on the traits of animal whose parts were introduced directly into human flesh. On the other hand, perhaps they were taking the dictum “you are what you eat” to a logical extreme somehow unimpeded by the process of digestion.


It is probably best not to overload these viewpoints with the rigors of logic. People have their opinions, and they often do not bother to make the distinction between opinions and facts. The fact is that through vaccination programs, smallpox has been eradicated worldwide since the middle of the twentieth century, roughly 150 years after introduction of the vaccine. Similarly, measles in the United States disappeared around the turn of this century after nearly 50 years of vaccinations. About the time measles was going away in this country, in 1998 a doctor in England, Andrew Wakefield, published a report in the English medical journal The Lancet linking the MMR (Measles, Mumps, and Rubella) vaccine to autism and bowel disorders, and though the findings in the report and Dr. Wakefield himself were soon repudiated by the majority of other medical professionals, some anti-vaxxers latched onto the link with autism and have been running with it ever since, regardless of the lack of evidence to support the link.

 

Measles US 1944-2007 inset
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics on U.S. measles cases (not deaths). Chart by 2over0.

The problem with anti-vaxxers of one stripe or another running with opinions mistaken for their own version of the facts is that vaccinations are needed most by vulnerable populations such as the very young, the very old, and people with suppressed immune systems. Infants cannot be vaccinated against measles at all. Many of these vulnerable people are in the position of having decisions made for them by responsible adults. In the case of children, that would be their parents, who of course have the best interest of their children at heart. The difficult point to get across to those parents is that in a public health issue involving communicable diseases, their decision not to vaccinate their children affects not only their children, but those other most vulnerable members of the greater society as well. Public health is a commons, shared by all, like clean water and clean air, and the tragedy of the commons is that a relatively few people making selfish decisions based on ill-informed opinions can have a ripple effect on everyone else. Personal liberty is a fine and noble ideal, but when it leads to poisoning of the commons then quarantine is the only option, either self-imposed or involuntary.
— Vita

 

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No Water for Them

 

Is there any substance more essential to life than water? More precisely, clean and plentiful water for drinking? A person can survive weeks, and even months, without food; without water, a person can live at most a week. Water is so essential that in 2010 the United Nations (UN) passed a resolution recognizing access to a clean and plentiful supply as a basic human right. There were not any “no” votes, because after all what nation wants to go on record as being indifferent to the plight of poor children without access to wholesome drinking water? There were, however, 41 nations abstaining, taking the coward’s way out, and among them was the United States.

 

Besides moral cowardice, that abstention reflects the undue influence of enormous corporations such as Nestlé, which wants to corner the market on potable water for profit. People the world over do have to pay for food, though complete private ownership of all the world’s drinkable water goes too far, a plan the UN resolution attempted to forestall. Into this dispute about the human right to water stepped an organization called No More Deaths which has been dispatching volunteers into the Arizona desert to deposit supplies of water and non-perishable food for Hispanic immigrants crossing into this country.

Water drop 001
A water drop. Photo by José Manuel Suárez.

Four young women volunteers for No More Deaths were found guilty on January 18 by a federal magistrate for the misdemeanors of doing just that in the summer of 2017. They appeared before a federal magistrate because they committed their offenses in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. Federal authorities charged them with littering, entering the refuge without a permit, and operation of a motor vehicle within the wilderness area. They did these things in the interest of supplying humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, during the current partial federal government shutdown, vandals are tearing up national parks solely for their own twisted sense of fun and getting away with it.

Are the Hispanic immigrants crossing into this country illegally? Yes, they are. Did the volunteers for No More Deaths enter Cabeza Prieta without a permit, riding in a motor vehicle, and then leave behind items? By all accounts, yes, they did. In the larger picture those points disappear before the undeniable fact the immigrants are human beings in need of water for survival as they cross a desert, and the survival beacons maintained for them by the United States Border Patrol are either inadequate or suspected by the immigrants of being traps. Humanitarian organizations stepped in to provide aid when they saw the deadly effects for the immigrants.

In this scene from the 1959 film Ben-Hur, directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston in the title role, a chain gang of criminals overseen by Roman soldiers pauses in Nazareth on their way to a seaport, where presumably all the criminals, like Ben-Hur, will be put to hard labor at the oars of ships. The fellow who mercifully gave Ben-Hur water was fortunate not to be clapped in irons for His transgression. No doubt the authorities caught up with Him eventually.

As part of the current presidential administration’s callous disregard for human rights, Border Patrol employees in uniform have been pouring out onto the desert the water from the jugs they find left behind by humanitarian groups. It’s difficult to say which officially sanctioned action is more inhumane – depriving desperate people of water or wrenching children away from their parents. What sort of people are we? More precisely, how much can decent people tolerate the brutality of indecent people who claim to be doing righteous things? And whether the brutes are true believers or disingenuous opportunists matters not one bit to those who suffer at their hands.
— Izzy

 

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Straining to See

 

Many folks may remember that as children they were admonished by their elders not to sit too close to the television because they would strain their eyes. If a child was a reader, a parent or other elder would express concern that the reading light wasn’t bright enough. If a child read in bed after lights out, then a concerned elder would issue a warning of punishment for staying up too late, in addition to concern about eye strain. Of course, this scenario is dated because children today may be reading from a backlit screen instead of a paper book. New technology, same worries about eye strain.

Looking at computer and phone (Unsplash)
View from a street in Toronto, Canada, into a building where a woman looks at her laptop computer and smartphone. Photo by Tim Gouw.

Asthenopia is the medical term for eye strain, and in a chronic case the condition can be a concern worthy of a visit to a doctor. With the prevalence of computer, tablet, and smartphone use now, adults are as apt to have asthenopia as children who don’t heed their parents’ warnings. Few people admit to reading from their smartphone or tablet in bed after dark, but most probably do it, because for one thing it’s an easy way to read without disrupting a partner’s sleep, even if it may disrupt their own sleep habits. Looking for hours at a time into a relatively bright light from a foot or two away, or perhaps mere inches, is a sure path to eye strain.

Other than changing behavior, the solution starts with turning down the brightness on all those screens, including the television. Most devices now come with sensors that detect room brightness and adjust the device brightness accordingly. A darkened room will require less brightness from the device in order for the user to comfortably view the screen. Find that control and use it. Next, devices made specifically for reading at close range, such as smartphones and tablets, may have a “Reader” mode in the display settings. Find that and turn it on. Some internet browsers also come equipped with a “Reader” mode.

Finally, if those native adjustments are insufficient to tone down the blue part of the spectrum, which is the part most responsible for causing eye strain, then seek out a third party application for computers, smartphones, and tablets that will shift the color temperature from blue to red, with many degrees in between. Such applications have timers built in order to shift the color temperature gradually as day moves to night, and vice versa. They take some getting used to, but after a day or two the warmer color temperature will feel natural and less noticeable. Your eyes will sense the difference, though, since they will no longer be asthenopic, a word which is such a strain to pronounce it’s just as well you no longer have to deal with it.
— Techly

 

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A Purple Haze of Legal Uncertainty

 

Cannabidiol (CBD) oil has been showing up on the shelves of pharmacies, grocery stores, and health food outlets around the country over the past few years, and yet there remains some confusion about the legality of the product. CBD oil is derived from the Cannabis sativa plant, the same plant that produces hemp and hemp-derived products, as well as marijuana and all its psychoactive derivatives. The difference between hemp and marijuana is in the strain, or variety, with plants bred for hemp production being much lower in the psychoactive property of marijuana known as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). CBD oil is typically very low in THC, often less than 0.03%, sometimes 0%, and the easiest way for manufacturers to keep THC content low in their CBD oil is to produce it from hemp plants, which are naturally deficient in THC but flush with cannabidiol.

Cannabis sativa 001
Cannabis sativa plants growing in the Botanical Garden at Karlsruhe, Germany, in August 2009. Photo by H. Zell.

 

Many users and manufacturers have been touting the benefits of CBD oil for treating epileptic seizures, inflammation, and arthritic conditions, among other conditions. People are eager to use the product, but the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has been holding up progress because they classify anything even remotely connected with marijuana as a controlled substance, and therefore illegal. The DEA has rules defining what is marijuana and what is not which are byzantine in their complexity and which can conveniently be applied at their discretion. Meanwhile, states have been passing laws, not just rules, related to marijuana and hemp products, and some of those laws contradict DEA rules. Do the mere guidelines of a federal agency supersede state laws? In a manner of speaking, that’s no way to run a railroad.

Congress needs to pass legislation restricting the reach of the DEA so that it is not constantly in conflict with state laws and causing confusion among the citizenry. Like any bureaucratic agency, the DEA will fight to maintain its budget and its relevance. Congress must drastically curtail the DEA’s mission, however, because the agency has long overstayed its welcome as society has moved on. Over the long term, the DEA and the regulations it enforces have had the same deleterious effect on society as Prohibition and Prohibition agents in the early twentieth century. The peculiar thing about the foggy legal status of CBD oil caused by the DEA standing in the way of progress the states are trying to make is that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is having a difficult time regulating the CBD oil market because of its status in limbo. Any policy that continues on the books after it has lost the support of the populace needs to be eliminated before it becomes subject to abuse by an irrelevant agency seeking to hold onto power using selective enforcement on behalf of its own entrenched bureaucratic interests and those of powerful pharmaceutical companies.
— Izzy

Cannabis sativa 002
Male flowers of a Cannabis sativa plant growing in the Botanical Garden at Karlsruhe, Germany, in August 2009. Photo by H. Zell.

 

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It Grows without Spraying

 

A jury at San Francisco’s Superior Court of California has awarded school groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson $289 million in damages in his lawsuit against Monsanto, maker of the glyphosate herbicide Roundup. Mr. Johnson has a form of cancer known as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and it was his contention that the herbicides he used in the course of his groundskeeping work caused his illness, which his doctors have claimed will likely kill him by 2020. Hundreds of potential litigants around the country have been awaiting the verdict in this case against Monsanto, and now it promises to be the first of many cases.

WEEDING SUGAR BEETS NEAR FORT COLLINS. (FROM THE SITES EXHIBITION. FOR OTHER IMAGES IN THIS ASSIGNMENT, SEE FICHE... - NARA - 553879 (cropped)
Migrant laborers weeding sugar beets near Fort Collins, Colorado, in 1972. Photo by Bill Gillette for the EPA is currently in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. Chemical herbicides other than Roundup were in use at that time, though all presented health problems to farm workers and to consumers. Roundup quickly overtook the chemical alternatives because Monsanto represented it, whether honestly or dishonestly, as the least toxic of all the herbicides, and it overtook manual and mechanical means of weeding because of its relative cheapness and because it reduced the need for backbreaking drudgery.

 

Monsanto has long been playing fast and loose with scientific findings about the possible carcinogenic effects of glyphosate, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently sides with Monsanto in its claim that there is no conclusive evidence about the herbicide’s potential to cause cancer. In Europe, where Monsanto has exerted slightly less influence than in the United States, scientific papers have come out in the last ten years establishing the link between glyphosate and cancer. Since Bayer, a German company, acquired Monsanto in 2016 it remains to be seen if European scientists will be muzzled and co-opted like some of their American colleagues.

 

Empty Glyphosate (Herbolex) container discarded in Corfu olive grove
The intensive use of glyphosate herbicide to remove all ground vegetation in olive groves on Corfu, a Greek island in the Ionian Sea, is evidenced by the large number of discarded chemical containers in its countryside. Photo by Parkywiki.

The scope of global agribusiness sales and practices that is put at risk by the verdict in Johnson v. Monsanto is enormous. From the discovery of glyphosate in 1970 by Monsanto chemist John E. Franz to today, the use of the herbicide has grown to the preeminent place in the chemical arsenal of farmers around the world and has spawned the research into genetically modified, or Roundup Ready, crops such as corn, cotton, and soybeans. There are trillions of dollars at stake, and Monsanto and its parent company, Bayer, will certainly use all their vast resources of money and lawyers to fight the lawsuits to come.

Because scientists have found traces of glyphosate in the bodies of most people they have examined in America for the chemical over the past 20 years as foods from Roundup Ready corn and soybeans spread throughout the marketplace, they have inferred it’s presence is probably widespread in the general population. That means there are potentially thousands of lawsuits in the works. Like the tobacco companies before them and the fossil fuel industry currently, agribusiness giants will no doubt fight adverse scientific findings about their products no matter how overwhelming the evidence against them, sowing doubt among the populace and working the referees in the government.
— Izzy

 

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Rock-a-Bye

 

Ahhh, wundaful west and wewaxation, as Elmer Fudd might have said, referring to wonderful rest and relaxation. As the weather warms, there can be few finer ways to gain satisfying rest and relaxation than lying in a hammock. Scientists have not studied a great deal the quality of sleep we get while in a hammock, but what little they have gleaned is that the rocking motion of a hammock along with the lack of pressure points on the sleeper’s body promotes deeper, more restful sleep than average.

 

Fidschi 222 rw
Ahhh, living the dream! A hammock on Kuata of the Yasawa Group of islands in the Western Division of Fiji. Photo by Isderion.

Hammocks are not sophisticated technology, though there are options available now with some technology such as lights built into them. A hammock in its basic form without a stand, the kind meant to be strung between two trees or posts, is sleep technology going back centuries and invented in the New World. A net of ropes, sometimes with a length of fabric woven in and sometimes using spreader bars at both ends for the ropes, is suspended from two supports like a sling for the sleeper or napper. It is the sling suspension that does away with pressure points. There is not a lot of hard scientific evidence to support the claim, but people with joint problems such as arthritis do often report the lack of pressure points helps them sleep more comfortably. Judge for yourself if and when you have the opportunity to doze off in a hammock.

How is it that after all the years of technological expertise and research spent on improving conventional beds, the simple hammock remains a more comfortable way to rest yet has never seen widespread adoption for every night sleeping except among sailors on old sailing ships or campers staying in the woods? The portability and light weight of hammocks has worked to their advantage for both sailors and campers, but for people in homes that hasn’t mattered as much as permanence and ease of entry and exit for old people and invalids. It is also pretty nigh impossible to engineer a hammock for comfortable long term use by two people at once. In the home, therefore, the hammock has been relegated to the same niche of peculiarity as the bean bag chair, more so really, since the great majority of folks consider hammocks suitable for outdoor lounging only.

In this 1964 episode from the first season of the popular TV show Gilligan’s Island, Gilligan and The Skipper, played by Bob Denver and Alan Hale Jr. respectively, have trouble adjusting to hammocks in their new circumstance of being marooned.

What a shame then that the better quality sleep and more comfortable lounging afforded by hammocks is experienced by many only on summer days in their backyard or on vacations to warm resorts. Though a soothing experience, it’s not entirely idyllic. Going to sleep outdoors under the stars makes for a good snooze until the small hours, when it often gets chilly and dewy. For those lucky enough to have a deep, covered porch on their house, the six to eight foot deep kind that is styled more properly a veranda, and is rarely built even on expensive houses anymore since the general adoption of air conditioning, those lucky folks can sling hammocks outdoors under the eaves, which help to keep the dew from settling on them as they snooze happily away, perhaps pulling a light blanket closer around them to ward off the chill before dawn. A comfortable hammock, a book printed on paper, and a tall, cool drink make summer heat bearable, and all three can be a respite from the technological world we inhabit now.
— Techly

 

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The Pause That Refreshes

 

Editor’s note: There was no post on this website last Friday, April 27, because it is healthy to take a break and go fishing once in a while.

 

“The pause that refreshes” was a slogan coined in 1929 by Coca-Cola marketers, and nearly a century later it remains one of the most memorable advertising slogans for Coke, or for any other product. It was also in the 1920s that Henry Ford instituted a new policy at his automobile manufacturing plant to shorten workers’ shifts to eight hours and their work week to 40 hours, a model that soon became the standard throughout American industry. In 1938, the federal government established with the Fair Labor Standards Act a minimum wage and rules for most workers to receive time and a half payment for hours worked over 40 in a week.


Niels Frederik Schiøttz-Jensen An afternoon's rest
An Afternoon’s Rest, an 1885 painting by Niels Frederik Schiøttz-Jensen (1855-1941).

It’s still up to the states to regulate breaks and lunch time off for workers, and many do so in a minimal way, if at all. It may come as a surprise to some workers that their breaks often come solely at the discretion of their employer or, if they are with a union, because breaks are written into the contract between the union and management. Even bathroom breaks can be a source of contention between labor and management. It is a wonder then to consider how much conditions for workers have generally improved since the early years of the industrial revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when 12 and 16 hour days were not uncommon and workers’ welfare and safety were entirely their own lookout.

What changed things was when workers started to organize and bargain collectively in the late nineteenth century. It is a misconception to think the worker holiday of May Day started in communist countries, because it actually began in the United States, and has come to commemorate the Haymarket affair in Chicago, Illinois, in May of 1886 when workers on strike and demonstrating for an eight hour workday ended up in deadly confrontations with the police over the course of two days. Unionization continued wringing concessions from management through the first half of the twentieth century, and from 1945 to 1975 the percentage of the non-farm workforce belonging to a union peaked at over 30 percent. In the years since, union membership has declined to less than half that, and the remaining unions, many of them organizations formed for the benefit of state employees such as teachers, are under attack from Republican controlled state governments.

A discussion of ways of coping in life from the 1964 film of The Night of the Iguana, based on the play by Tennessee Williams, directed by John Huston, and starring Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, and Richard Burton as the defrocked Reverend Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon.

None of that changes the need of people concentrating on their work to take a break from it every once in a while throughout the day, and for weeks or more at a time throughout the year. Robots have no need of breaks, but for the time being there are still jobs robots cannot do and those jobs will require the talents of fallible, sometimes frail humans. Enlightened management can choose to view breaks for workers as beneficial to both parties, since a more rested worker can be more productive in the long run than one who is run ragged. Less enlightened management may consider the burnout of workers as the cost of doing business, believing they are easily replaceable cogs in management’s profit making machine. That mindset prevailed over a hundred years ago, before Henry Ford, who was by no means enlightened in all areas, nonetheless saw that his workers and people like them were the buyers of his automobiles, and raised their wages and improved their conditions in the interest of maintaining a kind of partnership with them, rather than treating them wholly as chattel, as cogs in the gears of production.
— Vita

 

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No One Gets Out Alive

 

There’s a wonderful feeling that comes with stepping outside into the cool of the evening after a hot day. There are a lot of little things that go toward making life pleasant if a person has been lucky in their circumstances. Living past middle age into one’s sixties and seventies is a great blessing, and while there may be pain associated with such longevity, most people would accept the trade-off. Asking for more life is almost too much. There are others waiting.

Into the Jaws of Death 23-0455M edit
“Into the Jaws of Death”. United States soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division wade ashore on Omaha Beach, France, on the morning of June 6, 1944. During the initial landings on D-Day, as many as two thirds of the soldiers in some infantry companies became casualties. Photo by Coast Guard Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent.


In the Native American cultures of North America, everything is living and everything eventually returns into the cycle of life when it dies, including people. In Old World cultures, and particularly those of Europe and the Mediterranean Basin, almost everything is regarded as dead or inert, and when people die their passing has finality. No one in either culture knows for certain what happens after death, but it seems evident to some people that in a living world where a person is one part joining a river flowing to the sea, there is less terror in death, and more an acceptance of it as a metamorphosis into another part of life.
— Izzy

 

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It’s a Dirty Job

 

“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
— Genesis 3:19, from the King James Version of the Bible.

Scientists working at Rockefeller University in New York City have isolated a soil bacterium which shows the ability to destroy illness causing bacteria that have developed resistance to other antibiotics, notably the type known as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). MRSA has been the scourge of nursing homes and hospitals for decades now, where opportunistic infections kill patients weakened by age and other illnesses, and treatment with antibiotics has become ineffective. The discovery of the new antibiotic, called Malacidin, is a major development in the fight against bacterial infections and diseases, which has seen little progress over the last 30 years.


Sir Alexander Fleming, Frs, the Discoverer of Penicillin Art.IWMARTLD4217
A 1944 illustration from the British Imperial War Museum depicting Sir Alexander Fleming at work in his laboratory 16 years after his discovery of the first antibiotic, Penicillin, in 1928.

The breakthrough is the result of an alternative approach to the standard tedious practice of testing antibiotics one at a time against various illnesses, and instead used computers to look at vast numbers of soil microbes for certain antibiotic characteristics and then narrowed down the search progressively. To cast this wide net, the Rockefeller University scientists requested the help of volunteers from around the country in submitting soil samples. The scientists particularly requested soil samples from out of the way places, reasoning that they were more likely to find microbes there for which illness causing bacteria like MRSA had not developed resistance. Places like agricultural fields are more apt to have the usual microbial soil life that has already been tested and tried because it has been in the human food chain for generations.

All of this serves as a reminder that the humble soil beneath our feet is the start and the end of everything. Food, disease and the medicine to fight disease, the foundations of our dwellings, all of it starts and cycles through the soil. Taking care of the soil is taking care of ourselves. Showing no concern for the long term health of the soil and the life inhabiting it by dumping salt producing fertilizers on it year after year in a short term effort to boost crop yields ultimately destroys ourselves because such practices destroy the life in the soil. It becomes sterile, reliant solely on a chemical stew of fertilizer that offers no substantive nutrition. It becomes like the Petri dishes that scientists struggled for years to get soil microbes to grow in, largely unsuccessfully. Now scientists are trying new methods that work within healthy soils, and they are achieving greater success. It’s a continuing battle against newly resistant bacterial strains, but without a reservoir of healthy soil to draw antibiotic reinforcements from the war would already be lost.
— Izzy

 

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