The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Three cheers for a friendly fungus

As this 2017 article from National Geographic explains, humans and yeast have had a tremendously successful relationship for the last 9,000 years or so:

From our modern point of view, ethanol has one very compelling property: It makes us feel good. Ethanol helps release serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins in the brain, chemicals that make us happy and less anxious.

To our fruit-eating primate ancestors swinging through the trees, however, the ethanol in rotting fruit would have had three other appealing characteristics. First, it has a strong, distinctive smell that makes the fruit easy to locate. Second, it’s easier to digest, allowing animals to get more of a commodity that was precious back then: calories. Third, its antiseptic qualities repel microbes that might sicken a primate. Millions of years ago one of them developed a taste for fruit that had fallen from the tree. “Our ape ancestors started eating fermented fruits on the forest floor, and that made all the difference,” says Nathaniel Dominy, a biological anthropologist at Dartmouth College. “We’re preadapted for consuming alcohol.”

Flash forward millions of years to a parched plateau in southeastern Turkey, not far from the Syrian border. Archaeologists there are exploring another momentous transition in human prehistory, and a tantalizing possibility: Did alcohol lubricate the Neolithic revolution? Did beer help persuade Stone Age hunter-gatherers to give up their nomadic ways, settle down, and begin to farm?

The idea that’s gaining support...was first proposed more than half a century ago: Beer, rather than bread, may have been the inspiration for our hunter-gatherer ancestors to domesticate grains. Eventually, simply harvesting wild grasses to brew into beer wouldn’t have been enough. Demand for reliable supplies pushed humans first to plant the wild grasses and then over time to selectively breed them into the high-yielding barley, wheat, and other grains we know today.

Alcohol may afford psychic pleasures and spiritual insight, but that’s not enough to explain its universality in the ancient world. People drank the stuff for the same reason primates ate fermented fruit: because it was good for them. Yeasts produce ethanol as a form of chemical warfare—it’s toxic to other microbes that compete with them for sugar inside a fruit. That antimicrobial effect benefits the drinker. It explains why beer, wine, and other fermented beverages were, at least until the rise of modern sanitation, often healthier to drink than water.

Alas, the SARS-Cov-2 virus has made it nearly impossible to continue the Brews and Choos Project, which celebrates the ingenuity of yeast and the single-mindedness of humans.

Speaking of the B&CP, I may cautiously resume the project this coming Friday. Or tomorrow. It depends on the weather, because regardless of the state's official relaxation of distancing rules, I don't think going into a restaurant or brewpub makes a lot of sense until I can confirm my own immunity to and inability to transmit the virus. I have no idea when that will be, in large part because of the Trump Administration's endemic incompetence. But many brewpubs have outdoor patio space, and on a warm sunny day, risks seem to be lower.

Ah, the company we keep

If I have to go more than a year without visiting Europe because my fellow Americans are too individualistic to stop the spread of Covid-19, I might have to move there permanently when able:

In case you wondered what President Trump’s glorious triumph over coronavirus looks like to the rest of the world, the news that the European Union may bar Americans from entry due to our spiking cases provides a sobering reality check.

If this goes through, it would mark a continuation of a prohibition that had been in place on travelers from the United States and elsewhere since mid-March. Only now it would be extended through the E.U.’s official reopening in July.

But I want to focus on this remarkable explanation of why this may happen:

Trump, as well as his Russian and Brazilian counterparts, Vladimir V. Putin and Jair Bolsonaro, has followed what critics call a comparable path in their pandemic response that leaves all three countries in a similarly bad spot: they were dismissive at the outset of the crisis, slow to respond to scientific advice and saw a boom of domestic cases as other parts of the world, notably in Europe and Asia, were slowly managing to get their outbreaks under control.

And so, in this, we are parting ways with our Western allies, while being quite similar to Russia and Brazil, whose responses were similarly tangled in their leadership’s disdain for empiricism and science.

I am heartened, however, that the president's declining approval ratings suggest that people have gotten tired of the reality TV show now that reality has intruded.

Yesterday I posted the following on Facebook in response to an acquaintance posting the questionable statement that the ADA allows people to ignore mask regulations:

I don't know if your state has executed legislation requiring you to wear a mask in public. And I don't care.

First, private property owners can deny entrance to anyone on a rational, non-discriminatory basis, particularly when following official guidance. Meaning, if I own a shop, and I make a rule you have to wear a nose-and-mouth covering in my shop, that's property rights. (NB: If I let Karen in without a mask and I make Jim wait outside even though he has a mask, that's discriminatory and illegal under the Civil Rights Act. Fight me.)

Second, the ENTIRE POINT right now is that we are agreeing to waive certain rights in exchange for NOT DYING OR KILLING PEOPLE. I know "civilization" is a new concept on the Internet, but, hey, humans have a million-year tradition of cooperating that I'd like to continue. But, sure, argue in favor of...uh, cytokene storms, I guess, and the rest of us will continue to protect those who can't protect themselves.

Because, ultimately, that's the argument. "Don't tell me what I can and can't do" is the cry of a 5-year-old, not a fully-formed human. We're asking you to do the right thing. And if you refuse, and your refusal puts people at risk of DEATH, then yes, we (your neighbors, friends, and people you voted for to govern shit you didn't have the mental space to govern yourself) will tell you no, we're doing this, because your convenience is less important than your neighbor's kid's life.

So far I have 23 Likes and 6 Loves for that. (My post on Parker's birthday has over 100 Likes, so clearly people have their priorities.)

Afternoon news roundup

My inbox does not respect the fact that I had meetings between my debugging sessions all day. So this all piled up:

Finally, conferencing app Zoom will roll out true end-to-end encryption in July.

Today in the weird

It's day 88 of my exile from the office, but I recently found out I may get to go in for a day soon. Will this happen before the 24th (day 100)? Who's got the over/under on that?

Meanwhile, outside my bubble:

And just in case you're not scared of everything on earth, here's a list of things in the cosmos that can help you feel even more scared.

The only appropriate response is laughter

Someone threw a widdle tantwum this morning:

President Donald Trump's campaign is demanding CNN retract and apologize for a recent poll that showed him well behind presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

The demand, coming in the form of a cease and desist letter to CNN President Jeff Zucker that contained numerous incorrect and misleading claims, was immediately rejected by the network.

The CNN poll conducted by SSRS and released on Monday shows Trump trailing the former vice president by 14 points, 55%-41%, among registered voters. It also finds the President's approval rating at 38% -- his worst mark since January 2019, and roughly on par with approval ratings for one-term Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush at this point in their reelection years -- and his disapproval rating at 57%.

David Vigilante, CNN's executive vice president and general counsel, told the campaign that its "allegations and demands are rejected in their entirety."

"To my knowledge, this is the first time in its 40-year history that CNN had been threatened with legal action because an American politician or campaign did not like CNN's polling results," Vigilante wrote in his response. "To the extent we have received legal threats from political leaders in the past, they have typically come from countries like Venezuela or other regimes where there is little or no respect for a free and independent media."

We knew he wouldn't go quietly. So let's just keep laughing at him so that he goes ignominiously.

Did someone call "lunch?"

I think today is Tuesday, the first day of my 10th week working from home. That would make today...March 80th? April 49th? Who knows.

It is, however, just past lunchtime, and today I had shawarma and mixed news:

Earlier, I mentioned that the state's unemployment office accidentally revealed thousands of records in an own goal. Turns out, Deloitte Consulting did the work, so I am no longer surprised. Note to anyone who needs software written: don't hire a big consulting firm. They don't attract the best developers because they use manager-driven development patterns that irritate the hell out of anyone with talent.

Another time people ignored dire warnings

On 18 May 1980, forty years ago today, the Washington-state volcano Mt St Helens exploded, killing dozens of people who had been warned to evacuate days earlier:

I was 150 miles away on May 18, 1980, when Mount St. Helens blew, but my bed shook and the windows on my Oregon A-frame rattled.

I rushed to my radio station and its clacking Associated Press wire machine, and pulled up a pile of wire copy from the floor. The reports coming in from southwest Washington state were hard to believe....

Despite two months of earthquakes, ashfall, and a growing bulge on the north side of the mountain, the night before was quiet. That morning was tranquil. The cone-shaped mountain had a white mantle of snow.

U.S. Geological Survey geologist David Johnston was [10 km from the mountain]. He had a car and camper and was calling in reports to the USGS command post in Vancouver, Wash. The day before, he convinced visitors from the University of Washington to leave. They wanted to camp with him overnight. "It's too dangerous," he told them.

The death toll reached 57 and included ham radio operator Gerry Martin and USGS geologist David Johnston. All but three of those killed were outside the "red zone" established by Washington Gov. Dixy Lee Ray. Geologists had pushed for a larger area with mandatory evacuations. But pressure to shrink the danger zone was intense from cabin owners, campers and hikers, and logging companies, including Weyerhaeuser, the timber giant that owned private forests in the area.

National Geographic explains what we've learned since then:

The volcano’s defiant position out of line perches it atop a zone of rock too cold to produce the magma necessary to feed its furious blasts.

“There shouldn’t be a volcano where Mount St. Helens is,” says Seth Moran, scientist-in-charge at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington.

Four decades after Mount St. Helens’ eruption, scientists finally are unearthing some clues to its curious position. In one of the most comprehensive efforts to trace a volcano’s roots, the Imaging Magma Under St. Helens project, or iMUSH for short, used a slew of analyses to bring these subterranean secrets to light. Overall, the volcano doesn’t follow the textbook picture of a peak sitting above a chamber of molten rock. Instead, it seems, a diffuse cloud of partially molten blobs lingers deep below the surface, offset to the east of the edifice, toward the neighboring Mount Adams.

Most of the Cascade volcanoes—and others around the world—take shape above the spots where the plunging slab descends to roughly 62 miles deep, where temperatures get high enough for magma to form. But the situation is different at Mount St. Helens. Standing tens of miles to the west of other volcanoes, the infamous peak perches a mere 42 miles above the subducting plate.

Mt St Helens remains active, having erupted most recently in 2008.

Today's...uh, yesterday's articles

My day kept getting longer as it went on in a way that people living through the pandemic will understand. So I didn't have time to read any of these yesterday:

Finally, Jon Oliver has put out a line of Last Week Tonight stamps to help support the US Postal Service. So naturally I bought some.

Self-absorption

I suppose, given how long I've lived in the United States, the inability of my fellow Americans to understand anything not happening directly to them should no longer surprise me. And yet it does.

Even as Illinois passes 10,000 known cases of Covid-19 (1,453 new ones just yesterday), with 300,000 cases nationwide, the president cares only about his TV ratings. People in rural areas are dying too, but not yet in the same proportions of population we're seeing in cities.

I had a conversation yesterday with someone who echoed what right-wing propaganda has said for a while. He thinks that we're over-reacting. Essentially, he thinks the damage to the economy from our "medically-induced coma" outweighs the few thousand deaths likely from the coronavirus. To these folks, because no one they know has gotten sick or died, it can't be that bad. Or it's no worse than (pick one) the 34,200 influenza deaths we had in 2019, or the 38,800 deaths from car accidents. Of course, those 72,000 deaths happened a few here and a few there, not all at once, and not all in the same place.

People seem not to understand is how contagion and incubation works. With a 5-to-9 day period between infection and symptoms, a single person could infect dozens of others before coughing even once. Or at all, since we know that this virus sometimes doesn't cause any symptoms at all. We can also demonstrate to some degree how many deaths we have prevented by stopping the economy for a couple of weeks. Had we done nothing, we may have had 2 million deaths. As it looks now, we might get out of this with only 200,000 deaths. And that's only from Covid-19; other diseases are still killing people. Hospitals in some places have maxed out, so many people can't get the medical attention they need.

But yes, in Chicago, with everyone working from home, with the curve flattening (despite the 1,453 new cases yesterday), it looks like the cure is worse than the disease. Just like amputating a gangrenous foot might seem worse than dying of septicemia. ("But I never had septicemia! It was just a gangrenous foot, so why did you cut it off? Now I have no foot!")

Meanwhile, even though the CDC have recommended everyone wear masks outside for a few weeks, President Trump—whose malignant narcissism makes him incapable of understanding anything beyond his own interests—said he won't wear one. Good. Let that go to its logical conclusion.

Your apocalypse today

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker extended the state's stay-at-home order through April 30th, which came as absolutely no surprise, as the state nears 6,000 total COVID-19 cases. Rush Hospitals predict 19,000 total cases in Illinois a week from now—far less than the 147,000 they predict would have shown up without the stay-at-home order.

In other news:

Oh, and the stock market suffered its worst first quarter. Ever.