Leonard Cohen, “You Got Me Singing”, off his brand new album Popular Problems.

Well, Leonard, I don’t call what you’re doing singing. More croaking, actually. Still. Most 80 year olds celebrate their 80th birthday by rocking a little harder in the nursing home. Leonard Cohen, on the other hand, celebrates his 80th birthday by dropping a new album. I don’t care that he’s not actually singing. He’s still f’ing awesome.

- Badtux the Music Penguin

It’s common to criticize biofuels with the seemingly damning statement, “it takes more energy to grow the crops than you get back as fuel.” The problem is that making such a statement misses the point entirely.

Look: we have readily available, relatively inexpensive energy sources that are renewable or will last longer than humanity: solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, and nuclear. The problem is that what these energy sources create is electricity. And right now, we have only two ways of transporting electricity: wires, and batteries.

The problem with wires is that they’re fine for fixed installations, but they’re lousy for anything that has to move. You end up with catenaries and third rails — fine for large vehicles like trollies and trains driving fixed routes, not so fine for small individual vehicles that need flexibility for destinations.

Batteries are a bit more portable — but barely. Batteries have extremely low energy density compared to biofuels — biodiesel contains 37.8MJ/kg, while the very best lithium-ion batteries we have today are around 0.95 MJ/kg. Furthermore, they’re *bulky*. 1kg of biodiesel is roughly a quart of biodiesel, a large jar of the stuff. The 37kg of lithium-ion batteries needed to hold the exact same amount of energy as that quart jar of biodiesel is around 17 liters of batteries with the best batteries we have today — or, to have the equivalent energy of 10 gallons of biodiesel (that’s 20 liters of biodiesel for you metric mavens), you’d need around 340 liters of batteries, or, roughly, the entire luggage compartment of a Ford Fiesta plus the space currently used for the fuel tank of a Ford Fiesta. And furthermore, it takes HOURS to charge lithium-ion batteries, as versus five minutes to refill the biodiesel tank on a biodiesel-powered Ford Fiesta (available in other countries, not, alas, available in the United States).

So neither wires nor batteries really are any competition with hydrocarbons when it comes as a method of transporting energy. If you view biodiesel as a method of transporting energy, rather than as a source of energy, then it doesn’t matter that it takes more energy to create biodiesel than you get out of it. It takes more energy to charge a battery than you get out of it too. *All* methods of transporting energy have losses. This doesn’t mean biodiesel is the answer to our energy problems — that rests in the renewable or long-term energy sources like solar and nuclear. It *does* mean that we can’t rule out biodiesel merely because it takes more energy to create biodiesel than we get out of biodiesel, because in the end, biodiesel is a method of transporting energy — not necessarily a method of gathering solar energy.

- Badtux the Energy Penguin

Slacker hangover

Courtney Barnett, “Don’t Apply Compression Gently”, off her 2013 album The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. Australian slacker songs for a slacker generation.

- Badtux the Music Penguin

The mind boggles

Okay, so yesterday someone said that the anti-vaxxers were after vitamin K. Specifically, that vitamin K injections should not be given to newborns, a practice which has been standard since the mid 1960’s to prevent bleeding into the brain due to the trauma of the baby going through the birth canal. And my response was, “WTF?” Because it makes no sense.

First of all, what’s vitamin K? It turns out that vitamin K is a fairly innocuous substance. Basically, it’s chemically inert until it binds with a specific protein that is used for platelet production. It is so innocuous that there is no toxicity limit available in the literature — basically the only way you can die from vitamin K is if you drown in it. If you give someone too much vitamin K, it gets stored in body fat (it’s a fat soluble vitamin) until it’s needed, it doesn’t cause blood clots or anything like that. Once your body has produced as many platelets as its systems think it needs, vitamin K is simply ignored by the body.

So anyhow, most vitamin K is produced by the bacteria in our guts digesting leafy greens. Since newborn infants have a sterile gut and don’t eat leafy greens, and since vitamin K doesn’t pass through the placental barrier and is scarce in mothers’ milk, they have a shortage of the stuff. In about 3% of births prior to the introduction of vitamin K shots this caused bleeding problems during the first few weeks of life, the most serious of which was bleeding into the brain. Given the myriad of other things that killed newborn infants in the era before modern medicine this problem never had a chance to be evolved out of the species. Let’s face it, when ten out of every thirteen births died before age ten, a 3% chance of bleeding problems ranked down there with hangnails.

So, what are the arguments used by anti-vaxxers?

  1. It’s not natural. Uhm, no, it’s not. Neither is the majority of human infants surviving infancy. “Natural” is a lot of little dead bodies in the family cemetery outnumbering the living by a huge factor.
  2. The vitamin K injected is artificial. Well, probably. But you can also request natural vitamin K if that bothers you. Chemically, except for the K3 formulation (which is no longer sold here in America due to possible liver toxicity), they’re all equivalent.
  3. Needles HURT and this one single shot will forever traumatize poor little Buffy or Tad! Uhm, for realz? WTF? (Yes, this is an actual argument made by anti-vaxxers!).
  4. And, last but not least, they trot out this little jewel of innumeracy: The vitamin K shot causes leukemia in 1 out of every 100 infants who get it!

That last one requires a special place in the Hall of Fame of Stupid all by itself. There are roughly 3.9 million babies born in the United States each year. Figure 3.8 million of them get the vitamin K shot. So that’s 38,000 kids with leukemia, according to these people. Except: What is the actual number of children age 0-4 who suffer from childhood leukemia? Urm… roughly 1400 per year at the current incidence rate of 8.8 per 100,000 for ages 1-4. And a significant number of those occur in places like Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” (the row of refineries south of Baton Rouge) where children are subjected to large quantities of known carcinogens both pre-natal and post-natal. After that, the incidence rate is close to zero until after age 40, which is where most leukemia happens. There are roughly 52,000 new cases of leukemia per year, but the vast majority are in people over age 40.

So let’s get this straight: A shot that is given at 1 hour old causes leukemia 40 years later? For realz? And these people expect me to take them seriously when they spew lunacy like that?!

But hey, I’m talking about those eeeevil “fact” thingies, and everybody knows that “facts” don’t matter anymore… Sigh. The stupid, it burns, it burns!

- Badtux the Annoyed Penguin

What she saw

The Walkabouts, “Thin of the Air”, off their brilliant 2011 album Travels in the Dustlands.

- Badtux the Music Penguin

In the hills of northwest Louisiana there is a graveyard behind a church. My family on my mother’s side donated the land for that church as well as land for a public school next to the church (long gone now, but I’ve seen the photos, it was your typical four-room schoolhouse of the era with two grades per room), and as a consequence was granted use of a portion of that church-owned land for a family graveyard in the early 1870’s. Most of her family has been buried there ever since.

I walk through the old section of that graveyard, the section under the largest of the old oak trees, and I wonder at the number of tiny little graves. They outnumber the big long adult graves, sometimes by a factor of five to one. Some of them just say “Baby X” (where X is the family name), with a date of birth and a date of death a few weeks later. This is because it was so common for children to die young that families didn’t bother naming them until they were big and robust enough that it was likely they’d survive.

Walking through this old section is like walking through a chamber of horrors. Reading the headstones, women had babies from late teens until menopause, often fourteen or fifteen babies in all, in hopes that two or three would survive to adulthood and continue the family. Women did nothing but breed, continually, in hopes of out-breeding the disease and adversity that killed so many children young. Until after WW1, most children died before reaching adulthood. It was not until my grandmother and grandfather’s generation, starting after WW1, that the majority of children survived to adulthood, and not until after WW2 that the child mortality rate dropped to what we consider modern levels.

There were two things that ended this horror show of disease and death: antibiotics, and vaccination. The first one, vaccination, is what happened after WW1 — effective vaccines for smallpox, whooping cough, diphtheria, etc. had been developed, and most states had passed laws requiring vaccination prior to enrollment in schools, as well as mandatory education laws requiring all children to attend school. The US Supreme Court said such laws were constitutional in 1922. The end result was that significant herd immunity started to develop as the old childhood killers lost the spread mechanism of children attending school.

The second one, antibiotics, is what happened after WW2. That, and an effective polio vaccination. When I walk through the modern section of the graveyard, the children’s graves that I see primarily died due to childhood accidents, not disease.

So anyhow, anti-vaccinators say “how do you explain the fact that humanity survived all these centuries without vaccines?” as their argument. But the old section of the family graveyard is pretty clear: most of humanity didn’t survive all these years without vaccines. And the human race itself survived only by turning women into breeding animals that spent their entire lives from late teens to mid forties barefoot and pregnant desperately attempting to out-breed the childhood diseases that killed ten out of every twelve children born. When you look in the eyes of those women in old photographs, the exhaustion and desperation in those eyes almost reaches out and suffocates you. Yes, humanity did survive — but at horrific cost. Horrific cost that the anti-vaccinators apparently are wanting to see happen again, because it was not their anti-healthcare rhetoric that ended that flood of tiny corpses, it was modern medicine with its vaccines and antibiotics.

Except all the anti-vaxxers do, when I mention this fact, is claim that the family graveyard is a lie and that I (a highly paid computer software engineer) am a shill for drug companies.

I do not know what to say to that. The graveyard is what it is, and even if I had ever worked for a drug company (which I have not), that does not change the reality of the family graveyard. It is there, still, on the side of that hill in rural Northwest Louisiana. Those tiny little bodies still rest in tiny little graves underneath the old live oak trees. People who would deny this need only walk themselves to any such family graveyard in their own locale and see the same thing. But that, I suppose, would require some attachment to actual physical reality and a willingness to test their views against said actual physical reality. It would require, in short, a scientific mindset — exactly what the anti-vaxxers reject in favor of woo-woo and hand waving.

We live in the age of unreason
where nothing is valid
nothing is true
lies are the currency
and death is our due.

- Badtux the History Penguin

Jason Isbell won Artist of the Year, Album of the Year, and Song of the year at the 2014 Americana Awards for his album Southeastern and this song, “Cover Me Up”. Sometimes the good guys *do* win…

- Badtux the Music Penguin


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