Science stories of 2022 Part 2: Mendel’s corpse to Molecules to Star catching

  1. Mendel resurrected. When I read about Gregor Mendel being dug up and his genes sequenced, I considered finding a job as a soothsayer.

In my first and now out of print novel, monks and Mendel play a small role. The novel is set in 1872 a time when the field of biology was exploding with perception changing information. You see, before Czech botanist and friar Gregor Mendel showed that both male and female pea plants contributed equally to the offspring, people thought that the male contributed more. They even thought that a tiny person was inside sperm. Yes, men were the seed and women were the dirt. But Mendel’s experiments contradicted this. Although he didn’t achieve fame during his lifetime, when his studies were found, they supported the popular and controversial theory of evolution. Darwin said that sexual selection and survival determined the fate of a species and that diversity helped a species survive. Mendel showed how the diversity comes about—through sexual selection and genetic recombination. This is one thing people didn’t like about Darwin back in the day. People are equal and diversity is good? It made them feel too guilty about exploitation.

Adding to the connections with my writing, my most recent novel revolved around Isaac Newton being dug up and “reconstituted.”  

Right up my alley, the story about raiding Mendel’s casket for DNA is one of my top stories. The whole article is worth a click, especially if your knowledge genetics history is a little rusty. One interesting finding was that Mendel may have had epilepsy. He carried the genes for it. Mendel was a big guy with a huge brain. Like Newton, he suffered from bouts of “nerves.”  I’m not sure if there is a sexy Mendel novel in my future but his “resurrection” supports the notion that diversity contributes to the survival and richness of a species.

2. Molecule of the year. I admit, I’ve always found fluorine a little scary. Maybe it’s the atomic symbol F. Or the fact that F2 makes bleach look like a baby lotion. Or maybe it’s because no kind of birth control worked for the researcher I knew doing fluoride chemistry. It’s kind of a surprise that F8Cwon a molecule of the year beauty contest. It beat out some new magnetic materials for the prize (of bragging rights.) It can capture electrons so might have a use someday but right now, it’s kind of quirky—a characteristic that attracts chemists like catnip.

3. How cool is fusion? We’ve all seen a fusion reaction. It’s what’s happening on our sun. The lovely, clear light of the stars are also fusion. So, what is it exactly?

It’s a nuclear reaction which right off the bat makes it special. Most day to day chemical reactions are not nuclear reactions. They involve the outside of the atom, the electrons. Electrons make up most of the space of an atom. They are fairly easily removed with energy. Static electricity and its dramatic counter part, lightning, are example of electrons being moved by rubbing, not liking where they are, and shockingly returning to their place around atoms.

We’ve all seen fanciful atomic images where the electrons swirl around in shells or favored paths. Most chemical reactions involve those electrons hopping about or sharing their spaces to make bond. When this happens, the heart of the atom, the nucleus, remains intact. The nucleus is what gives an atom, an element, its identity. When the nucleus is changed, the atom becomes a completely new element. The energy that holds the nucleus together is tremendous and this is released in a nuclear reaction.

Most types of atoms are far too stable, too held together with energy, to do anything like this. Electrons are flighty. They’ll move. Change the nucleus? Most elements say no thanks. I like who I am. Elements in the middle of the periodic table are most likely to refuse to participate in nuclear reactions. Take a look if you want. There’s good old iron right in the center. But iron rusts you might say. It does but rusting is an electron reaction, not a nuclear reaction. It’s more of a hook-up between iron and oxygen than a change in identity for either element. An iron nuclear bomb or reaction would be in the realm of the unbelievable. Also unbelievably devistating.

Nuclear reactions as we know them occur with the extreme elements–the very small or the very large. Fusion squeezes together the smallest of the elements, hydrogen, and makes helium, the last massive inert gas. It takes much less energy to hold together the helium than the two hydrogens. The reaction releases so much energy that of course, we’ve made bombs from the process. They are ignited with a fission bomb. But to make a non-bomb and get the energy out is much more difficult.

Fusion reactors have to essentially put the sun in a jar. The payoff is massive energy that has simple by-products: helium and an energetic neutron. But is it all it’s promoted to be? Atomic scientists have doubts. But this year scientists in California created a non-bomb reaction that made some energy without blowing the container to smithereens. It’s progress towards a clean energy future. Unlike Mendel being dug up, this story was perhaps bigger than it needed to be. But I couldn’t resist giving a lesson in chemistry, and being not too tall, I like it when small things get a big reaction, so thanks for reading!

Science stories 2022 from the quirky to the personal. Part one: private items

Every science journal is rolling out a list of the top science advances of 2022. I’m going to review my favorites.

  1. Male birth control. Humans are a complicated hormonal mixture. Female birth control pills work by mimicking pregnancy hormones and prevent the release of an egg. Giving males hormones has been a bust—the men gain weight, get depressed, and have elevated bad cholesterol. Now, a non-hormonal male pill is on the horizon. It works by messing up vitamin A, which plays a role in cell growth. Apparently, a little damage to Vitamin A sensitive proteins stops sperm production. Congratulations to the University of Minnesota for this pioneering work.  
  2. Being an anti-prude, sex studies top my list and finding out that snakes have clitorises was a breakthrough.  Long standing prejudices against female animals is as old as the Bible. One of these biases is that female animals don’t need to enjoy sex. It was believed that female snakes and birds have “lost” their clitorises in an evolutionary sense.  This lead to the idea that sexual coercion or even rape was natural in the animal world. Finding that female snakes have two clitorises to match the two penises seen in male snakes shows that both male and female snakes evolved together and have mutual attraction. It would be nice to drive a stake through the Mars vs Venus idea and support the many factors, including female choice and pleasure, are at play in sexual selection which has been so successful in promoting diversity in species.
  3. Playing defense. Plan B is not an abortion. No matter how you slice it, some people have been driven mad by the thought that somewhere out there could be a homeless fertilized egg. At last, scientists are getting ahead of the game and releasing what everyone should know, but doesn’t want to. Plan B prevents ovulation. It’s isn’t causing a none of your business abortion.
  4. In another defensive move, American Medical Association called out the Supreme Court.   The AMA and more than two dozen leading medical organizations believe abortion is “safe medical care that is a decision to be made between the patient and the physician, subject to the physician’s clinical judgment, and the patient’s informed consent.” They said the “Supreme Court’s opinion would lead to government interference in the patient-physician relationship, dangerous intrusion into the practice of medicine, and potentially criminalizing care.” We all know that invasion of privacy is in the realm of authoritarian dictatorships.  The Supreme Court has been shoved upon us by the Federalists. They are not a scientific organization.
  5. When it comes to health, Iowans are not too savvy. Our covid death rate remained high and our vaccination rate was low compared to many other states.
  6. Cooking and cleaning are bad for you. These activities release airborne toxins. Frying is particularly dangerous, which makes me feel better about my short stint (was it one month or two?) as a fry cook when young. This might seem like bad news but hey, give yourself permission to skip the New Years scrubbing and frying and enjoy yourself!
  7. Feminine hygiene and hair products demystified. The life expectancy for US women is decreasing. There are many theories as to why but one thing is true—female products & their chemical content haven’t been carefully studied. One example of this is hair products, used for decades. These have been found to be a culprit in inducing some breast cancers.Another long-used product category finally getting some attention is period products. A vagina is a sensitive area as you probably know. It’s highly permeable. This means, what goes in is bound to have an effect both locally and on the reproductive system as a whole. You might think these female hygiene items are simply natural cotton but they contain thin layers of plastic  (which can release microplastics) and sometimes dyes and colorants. Some such as cups are plastic and might be dyed. Many of these are not proven to be safe. Neither of these studies were new in 2022, I wrote about one here but they are finally getting attention. This year.  the state of New York has ruled that the composition of period products must be put on labels. With increased scrutiny, manufacturers might be more careful about the health effects of their products. Now, consumers can make choices which are more informed.

Taylor Swift Vs a Robot. Where do you side?

How much of what you are reading and absorbing hasn’t been written by a person? Content can now be created by artificial intelligence. Everything from novels to political speeches, blogs and journal articles, advertising to social media posts, memes, and business reports is being created by A I programs. (How do you think those politicians get identical tweets which sometimes make no sense?)

Perhaps people are coming to like the AI style of repeated words and phrases and short sentences. But writing to create a human connection and stimulate the brain requires more work.

Expressions not meant to be taken literally–figures of speech –add illumination to the written and spoken word. They bring a mind picture by connecting familiar things in an unfamiliar way. Reading a good book is metal gymnastics. Reading and writing from an early age is linked to higher income and better cognitive function and a reduced chance of mental decline during aging.. Good reading material provides these connections. Humans, especially English speakers, use figures of speech to connect the seemingly unconnected and use these to connect with each other.

My students used to recite Taylor Swift lyrics to me and now it seems she is a modern example of someone who is gushing with figurative language.

For those of you seeking a lesson, examples of figures of speech include:

Metonymy—one thing is represented by another thing associated with it ex) the crowns of the Realm

Synecdoche-a part stands for a whole ex) all hands on deck

Personification-bestows human characteristics on something non-human ex) snow waved its white flag over everything (Billy Collins)

Metaphor—a comparison ex) my love is a rose

Simile-comparison using word “like: ex) my love is like a rose

Metaphor and simile bring intensity to the imagery because the reader is asked to equate two things. They challenge the mind and provide satisfaction when the connection is made.

Hyperbole-extreme exaggeration ex-I was quaking from head to foot and could have hung my hat on my eyes, they stuck out so far. (Mark Twain)

Oxymoron two contradictory words joined-jumbo shrimp

Pun exploits to meanings to a word ex—tomorrow, you will find me a grave man

One difference between a writer and an author is that an author is expected to have a unique and personal voice.

“Finding your own voice as a writer is in some ways like the tricky business of becoming an adult…you try on other people’s personalities for size and you fall in love” A. Alvarez

Voice is diction. Vocabulary (words chosen) and syntax (the order in which they are used) help define you as a writer.

Rich vocabulary illuminates while a limited one conceals. In fact, AI has a distinctly limited vocabulary with repeated words.

Run your writing through a word cloud program. Do you see a wide variety of words? Favorite words?

Another thing to do to be as expressive as Taylor Swift is to watch out for cliches and idioms.

A cliché is a word, phrase or figure of speech that is overly familiar or predictable. An Idiom is a cliché so familiar it is part of the language ex) nose to the grindstone, runs for office

Ex) eyes like pools, dark as night

Instead: Try to  create figures of speech that both surprise and illuminate. Pull out a kaleidoscope of heartbeats (TS).

Here are even more!

Reading a good book is mental gymnastics. Reading and writing from an early age is linked to higher income and better cognitive function and a reduced chance of mental decline during aging. Figures of speech help with these gymnastics.

By the way, an AI title generator suggested the two titles for this blog

1

What’s in your reading, and writing, isn’t written by humans?

and

What you’re reading, writing, and broadcasting – it’s all artificial intelligence

One advantage of AI is that it is supposed to generate more searchable headlines and more engagement. What do you think?

What’s your logline?

I got my royalty check recently and I was pleased to see it was over $20! You thought maybe I was getting rich with my stories–think again.

It can take upwards of twenty novels before an author has a chance to make a living from books alone. Some are even turning to AI to help generate books as fast as one a month. I’m pretty sure I’ve encountered some student papers written or at least helped by AI and paraphrase generators. My reaction was to suspect the students had schizophrenia. Not only is critical thinking missing, the lack of figurative language gives it away as being not fully human. I nearly called the mental health councilors until a friend sent me an AI generated short story. Besides having some shorting comings, AI generated content is considered plagiarism

Needless to say, I enjoy writing for other reasons beyond making a living–at least for now. I want to entertain and in a way, teach. As you may recall, fiction is a sort of mental dress rehearsal for bad things that might happen, and if enough people read fiction, perhaps the bad things won’t happen. Reading can give you things the school of hard knocks won’t–such as critical thinking skills and other mental habits. Readers even live longer. As I see it, we are all different and therefore, need a diverse set of authors with a myriad of experiences to help us humans survive.

As a kid, I always asked “what if..”It’s a good skill for both a scientist and an author and much safer in the hands of an author. Being an author has taught me as well. In a way, it’s like putting together a puzzle. The first part is a bit of a slog but when it all comes together, it’s extremely satisfying. It fills my need to be creative and feed my curiosity. Some books can take a huge amount of research in order to be accurate, even if they are a work of imagination.

You might not aspire to write a whole novel but a fun exercise is to write a fictional log line. Or maybe you want to sum up your 2022 by writing a logline for the year.

A log line is like the blurb that tempts you to watch a movie or perhaps a show on Netflix– sentence or two with main characters and what there is to gain or lose (the stakes as we call them in writer lingo)

There are two predominant styles for writing these short, enticing summaries.

Inciting incident + protagonist + action + antagonist

and

Protagonist + action + antagonist + goal + stake

These are the loglines for books in my series:

Book 1 Mixed In

Catrina uses her scientific know-how to help bartender Ulysses expand his black-market condom business while playing it cool with the authoritarian Vice Patrol, who’d love see her deported and Ulysses executed.

Book 2 Lost in Waste

If she wants to see her genetically modified lover again, Callie must devise a way for a giant lagoon full of hog shit to turn a profit while keeping lecherous authority figures pacified.

Book 3 Wrinkles in Spacetime

Stella helps a resurrected version of Sir Isaac Newton create a homunculus for the authoritarian Cochton brothers, risking her neck to pull off the impossible task. It becomes even more dangerous when she unwittingly uses germplasm from a killer vine to fashion a make-believe baby for each brother.

(I had to get a little advertising in here. I was asked to start a blog by a former publisher and the book is out of print but the blog persists.)

I’ll take a stab at writing a logline for my 2022

Seeking adventure, protagonist leaves the stability of her job, but will $20 be enough to live on?

One thing I like about loglines is the way they condense the essence. Think of them like a game. It should come as no surprise that AI can generate book blurbs and loglines. But let’s not go there. So far, I’m living on the stipend I got for quitting my job so I’m not planning to AI soon. Besides, I want to keep my mind sharp.

If you wrote a logline for 2022, what would it be?

Warm wishes, cheers, and may you be the hero of your tale in 2023!

Sneak Peak at Air Pollution Today

Pollution and I have a long-standing grudge match. Pollution is a form of chemical assault. Anyone and everyone should be angry about pollution. So what if it helps the economy? You know what else helps the economy? Innovation.

Many studies have connected sickness and hospitalization for respiratory problems with air pollution.  For example, COVID and other viral respiratory diseases are harder to fight when the air around those affected contains particulates and chemical pollutants. Particulates are a pervasive form of air pollution here in Iowa.  The most hazardous of particles are the very fine ones known as PM2.5.  These tiny particles can clog your lungs and accumulate.  You can never cough them out.  Once your lungs are coated with them, you either need a lung transplant, or you will die. They come from combustion.  Gas and diesel engines, home heating,  power plants, fires, and cigarettes all contribute to these damaging particles.  Chemical reactions such as those associated with farming and industry are other contributors. 

Coarse particles known as PM10 will cause respiratory illness.  They come from such things as grinding and crushing rocks along with dust from unpaved roads.  Course particles can aggravate existing conditions, cause shortness of breath that could result in a hospital visit, create susceptibility to respiratory infections like pneumonia and bronchitis, and cause excess strain on heart muscles. 

Particulates, both large and small, can change the weather by “invigorating clouds” and causing more rain to fall. Smoke and other tiny particles can affect the upper atmosphere and cause more and stronger tornados far from the source of the smoke.

            Recently, I got an air particle monitor as a gift. It uses a laser to count the small PM 2.5 particles. I connected it to a sensor network and you can follow the Monitor here.

Here’s what it looks like when displayed:

An air pollution station in Pella Iowa tells all.

You can see that currently, Pella’s air pollution isn’t too bad. It was pleasantly low during Thanksgiving week-end. You can see a spike on the left -hand side of the top graph when someone smoked a cigarette near the monitor. Smoking puts out a small, dangerous cloud of particulates—enough to register as hazardous. There are ebbs during quiet times and after the rain shower, followed by rises corresponding to traffic, when neighbors were using leaf blowers, and when smoke from a wood stove or bon fire drifted on the breeze. The thing about pollution, especially air pollution, is that it doesn’t stay put. No doubt you remember from chemistry class that gases have a lot of kinetic energy. They move.

Iowa’s own aged Senator, Charles Grassley, has been blowing the anti-environmental dog whistle for decades, and I’ve written about it. There is no excuse for him to pretend he doesn’t know about the harmful effects of air pollution. He simply doesn’t want to do anything about it because agriculture is one of the largest contributors to air pollution. This is worse when farms are combined with other industrial processes (such as manufacturing).

For now, we are in an air pollution lull. It’s early in the week and industries haven’t gotten into full swing. The fields are dormant after harvest. What can we expect in the future? No doubt air pollution will rise this spring.

Fertilizer itself is a pollutant, resulting in significant air pollution and particulate emission. Because of its demand for fertilizer, corn is one of the dirtiest, most polluting of crops. Fertilizer manufacturing is in itself polluting.(Note the higher air pollution levels near the Mississippi which is the site of numerous fertilizer plants.) You might be grumbling about the coming winter but for today, go out and enjoy the air.

The Slow, Deliberate Erosion in Education

As a scientist, it took me a while to grasp why Iowa’s governor stood fast against mask wearing during a respiratory pandemic. Not only did she and her cohorts not support mask mandates, they banned them and made those who wore them pariahs. The net result was more covid deaths, but even worse than this, the college where I worked supported her.  We briefly had a mask mandate, following a student petition, but for the most part, this is what we signaled.

The message was: you can wear a mask if you want, you poor, weak thing instead of stressing the science: masks work to slow the spread of covid by at least 40%. In a place where people sit close and windows won’t open, this would have gone a long way to keeping covid out of the classroom. 

It took a while for me to process it was one more academic microaggression—Second Class Citizen status in a place of higher education. There was no need to protect the professors. If you wanted to protect yourself it was up to you to be the outsider. It was also expected that if we got covid, we had to carry on someway somehow.

The response of my college and my state to covid gave me a moral crisis. It’s been widely documented that the Trump administration played down covid and withheld supplies to blue states because he wanted to punish the governors. My son was doing his emergency room residency in Detroit when the pandemic nit. The struggles he had to get supplies and the deaths he saw, especially among public workers and CNA aids, were real. Our family had grown to love Detroit and to read about their helplessness in the face of the Trump administration gave me a deep loathing. Fortunately, assisted by the auto industry and the governor, it fought back. To see my supposedly educated employer somewhat shrugging off the dangers of covid hit me hard. Students even said some coaches told them not to get the vaccine! Ironically, I never got covid in the classroom.

As I had long suspected, this view is handed down from above and intentional. Rich donors hostile to academic knowledge are transforming colleges and universities in order to make them less like places where you think and more where you get some job training—including training how to knuckle under and put up with dangers. They’ve donated to anti-intellectual politicians, started their own programs, appointed their people to boards, and even gone the way of the “businessman college president.”  It’s no different than any oligarch buying the silence of their critics.

The bottom line is, I retired from a job thought I’d take to the grave with me or at least work at until age 70. As an educator from a family of public school teachers, college administrators, and librarians, being a professor was a familiar fit for me. The stimulation of new ideas, research, and writing was a dream come true.

This isn’t to say there weren’t snakes in the garden, such as the visit from the governor devoid of passion. As a chemistry professor, I became aware of the desire of legislators to both praise, harness, and censor scientists. It quickly became apparent that the powers that rule in Iowa didn’t want our opinions on climate change, pollution, or saving the wetlands. If we couldn’t produce some engineers, preferably conservative in outlook, what good were we?

I was only accused falsely by a student once, thankfully. It had to do with the Vagina Monologues, which my school no longer performs. This was around the time purity culture was rampant. Students even fell victim to the No Dating Movement, a form of benevolent sexism. The student was most certainly pushed to be angry with me by outside forces.

There were a few uncomfortable moments with the staff –unimpressed with the egghead professors–as well. When the science building, of which I was once dubbed the czarina, underwent renovation, I made my request to keep the humidity down in one room. It contained equipment which measured infrared (heat) absorption of molecules. In simple terms, substances can be held together by a plus-minus attraction as found in salt. They can be held together in a restless sea of their outer electronic charge as with metals. Or as with everything from water to oil, they can hold together by sharing their outer coating of electrons in clearly understood patterns. This equipment measured the later. But since the detectors were looking for shared electrons, the optics had to be made of substances in which electrons were not shared in order to make them transparent to what was being measured. Some of this was salt crystals. Predictably, my pleas were ignored, the salt in the instrument took on water, and the equipment needed costly repairs.

My past includes a long list of things I tried to shrug off.  Poor ventilation in my office—enough to give OSHA concern. My lab roof leaked. A student had terrible allergies whenever he walked into the room. Years later, a plastic bucket filled with collected rainwater that had been hidden in the ceiling burst with a shower of gunk and mold. I became so afraid the fume hoods would break down, as they were known to do, that I came up with a whole book of labs that didn’t need them. Here’s the thing—I was often chastised for bringing up these valid concerns as if I was a naughty, out of control pest instead of an employee worried about health and safety.

I’ve been given emerita status and can return any time to use the new equipment the college bought after I left. The people who ignored my demands for lab and office quality control have long since retired. Although I’d intended to, I don’t go back. I’m not sure why.

Across the nation, teachers suffer from poor salaries and lack of time for professional development. Want to know a lack of time example? I was grading papers beside her bedside when my mom died! It seemed perfectly normal to both of us.

Meanwhile, our governor has the luxury to pardon turkeys remotely to help stop the spread of disease. Turkeys are more important than teachers and students, who by the way, are spreading flu and RSV, but never mind, mask mandates are banned.

I’m writing this to bear witness. What we had in the way of education—supported and encouraged educators passionate about their subject matter and their students—is eroding faster than an Iowa field. Here in Iowa, few care to do anything about erosion. It’s too darn bad. We had a good thing.

Don’t let John Birch do your taxes

You probably heard all the latest news about the IRS. My spouse is an accountant so I hear about taxes no matter if I want to or not but since it’s near an election, politicians are talking about taxes. Some of what you hear is good news, in fact, on the federal level much of it is. A lot of it is just plain BS-scare tactics meant to keep the rich richer and fund political ambitions.

The announcement from Biden is that the income categories are going to be adjusted for inflation, meaning, you will probably be paying less in federal taxes.

Earned income credits are used for low income people and can add back some credit to the refund for “working poor.”. This bracket will go up too,meaning those raises from $7 dollars and hour $10 an hour will not be a burden, helping those low income workers and according to my spouse, “makes taxes more fair.” But if our taxes are going down, how will the government make ends meet without being stingy when it comes to the average citizen?

You probably also heard about the added IRS agents. This is needed to put the Service back in IRS. Taxes are the way we get money to run our country. To ignore tax cheating and not do all we can to collect what is legally owed is like shooting the family breadwinner. My husband calls it “malfeasance” which has been visited upon our country since the 80s.

Adding new agents will help honest people and make doing taxes and getting a refund much easier. By the way, here are some ways NOT to cheat on your taxes. Be aware, itemized deductions are pretty much going away in the new Trump massaged tax plan.

Additionally, the IRS will be able to update their technology. As this article explain, they have computers that still use windows XP!

A relative who has since passed away was a member of the John Birch Society and was taught to hate income taxes so much that he told my husband he was working for the enemy by being a tax preparer. The John Birch Society was once considered a fringe wing of the Republicans and mostly ignored. It’s back now with its demonizing of many facets of civil society. Politicians such as Ted Cruz seem to be doing its bidding. I recently heard one running for office in my area say in a debate that getting rid of the IRS updates was her top priority. Here she is at my grocery store for those who recognize her.

Those who demonize income taxes and say they cut taxes fail to mention one important tidbit of information. There are all types of taxes besides income taxes and states use these types of taxes and income taxes to fill their coffers for things such as public schools, roads (and plowing them), recreation areas, and law enforcement, which is aided by the federal government. They can also make up for income tax cuts by reducing services. For example, my state cut back on restaurant inspections.

I have been traveling and all across the country, the same politicians who brag about cutting taxes accuse the OTHER side of defunding police when it is those taxes which are paying for the law. None of it makes sense which is why I hate political ads. You can’t explain an issue in a soundbite, especially when the ads are handed down from outside groups like the John Birch Society But guess what, the same people associated with the John Birch Society are paying for those ads.

Progressive income taxes are used by states who want those who can to pay more in taxes. For those who want the rich to keep what they have (and possibly donate it to politicians), other taxes and fees are added to make up the difference. States vary in what they tax more, income or the add-ons and consumption taxes such as sales taxes. A popular way to add on a tax is to have a “sin tax” on things such as gambling, liquor, and tobacco products. Marijuana is a new and lucrative taxable substance for some states, luring people from out of state to fill their coffers. Take a look at your phone bill. Mine includes over $11 worth of tax and fees. Those are NOT income taxes. They are making up for the high income people getting a tax break, recouping losses for “tax cuts.”

My state, Iowa has a flat tax, which people see as simple and fair, but which shifts the tax burden onto lower income people more harshly than the upper echelon. It often means lost revenue for the state which means other taxes and fees must be added, or services must be cut. Personally, I probably won’t see much benefit and I would love the richer people to pay more taxes so they fund fewer political ads.

When it comes to taxes, unless you are very rich, there isn’t really such a thing as a tax cut. You might lose services and benefits or get charged more of another tax. Iowa for example, has gone from a 2.5 % sales tax to a 6% sales tax plus local option taxes. We also have an internet commerce tax. The basic idea is that if you have lower income taxes, you will attract more high rollers to your state and they will spend money buying things. One thing they will buy is political advertisements. They also are more likely to be tax cheats so those IRS agents are going to earn their keep.

One modern lesson we’ve learned is that tax cuts at the top are bad for a country. Look at Great Britain today. History shows this as well. The Mayan Empire is an example, as cited in the book Collapse.

In any case, be aware of what it means to “cut taxes” and if a politician talks about scary IRS agents, they are not going to work for you–they are John Birch Society performance artists. Be mindful and cast an informed vote.

Diagram of taxes

Oil’s long, dirty, and highly useful fingers

Do you think most acetic acid comes from fermented apples? Think again.

Saudi Arabia is going to cut oil production and although they say they are not doing it for political reasons, we can see our politicians here vocalizing what could be their wishes such as finishing the Keystone pipeline which would bring crude to their refinery in Texas. It’s hard to imagine that some US pols even speak against electric cars made in the USA. Or maybe not. If we all switched immediately to electric vehicles powered by wind and solar energy, would we still need oil? The answer is, yes.

Fuel oil and gas are not the only petroleum based products. The paving and roofing material asphalt is a complicated mixture of large hydrocarbons and plenty of sulfur, vanadium, and nickel impurities and is petroleum baed. Tar can be made from coal or found naturally, as in the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles where fossils of mammoths and dire wolves have been found. But tar and asphalt are not the only additional uses for petroleum.

Petroleum is the starting material for most of our plastics and synthetic materials, everything from fibers to pharmaceuticals, starts out as a form of oil.

Hydrocarbons can be chains or rings, and are distinguished by their composition-molecules made from just two elements, carbon and hydrogen. These materials can be light and flammable like naptha and gasoline or heavier as with asphalt and tar. Although they are useful in their own right, organic chemistry can step in and add elements to the hydrocarbons to make them into entirely new compounds. But they are the necessary beginning–the feed stock so to speak.

Here is an example of making something simple, acetic acid, as found in vinegar. Acetic acid contains oxygen in addition to hydrogen and carbon. It can be produced by fermentation as in this reaction where the acetic acid is bolded.

2 CO2 + 4 H2 → CH3COOH + 2 H2O.

It can also be made from alcohol, something you don’t want happening to your wine, for example, in this reaction starting with ethanol (as in wine) and adding oxygen naturally. It’s why you need to carefully control the amount of oxygen when wine making.

C2H5OH + O2 → CH3COOH + H2O

With the proper catalysts, acetic acid can easily be made from oil, for example as in this reaction:

2 C4H10 + 5 O2 → 4 CH3CO2H + 2 H2O

Why would anyone do this when acetic acid can be made from fermentation? We need a lot of it. Non-food acetic acid has been produced industrially since the 1960s and accounts for 90% of the usage world-wide. Over 5 million tons are produced each year. It’s a high demand chemical used to make coatings, paints, inks, and plastics such as PET. It’s one example of how we use chemical feed stock petroleum to make products we use every day.

Twenty percent of each barrel of oil is used as a chemical feed stock and when oil goes up in price, so does anything made from oil.

There are biological ways to make synthetic materials as discussed here and in my novel Lost in Waste. But as long as there is plenty of oil available, it has a long history of being used as a fuel and a feed stock and this isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Kicking the world’s oil addiction won’t be easy, unless we want to go back to life as it was 100 years ago. And we all know how some politicians love plastic bags. Fortunately, crude oil prices are still much lower than their highest point in 2008 so don’t despair. We will have plenty of low cost cigarette butts other plastics in the near future.

Okoboji Writers’ Retreat & the world’s largest popcorn ball 2022

I ventured out of my niche here in SE Iowa to partake in the second annual Okoboji Writers’ Retreat on the opposite corner of the state. This area contains glacier carved lakes and the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory, the location of the conference.

I didn’t take nearly enough photos of the beautiful Lakeside Labs.
Here’s what the trip there & back looked like.

I went with my sister, a journalist. We are both freelancers now as we embarked on the four hour drive across mostly rural Iowa.

The retreat was both fun and inspirational. I got ideas about new projects and for better or worse, encouragement to keep using social media. I learned how to make my sex scenes more sensual and met great people, including the owner of this farm and BNB.

Here’s more about the retreat.

And more.

Fortunately, the camera didn’t capture me in the links above, maybe because I was sneaking off to buy beer.

No, I didn’t get a sticker. Oh so uncomfortable!

After getting much information and meeting people who enriched my life, we headed back to Pella and made a few stops along the way.

How often do you have a chance to see the world’s largest popcorn ball in Sac City, Iowa?

It’s right along highway 20 and you can glimpse it from the road. We stopped and parked behind it. The signage was confusing but it looked as if we were in a little park.

A tiny village is tucked away behind the popcorn ball.
I wasn’t sure what this park was about, town’s history maybe, but there was a long list of donors who contributed to the popcorn ball and the shed where it is displayed.
The ball is covered by a blue tarp inside of a roadside stand.

The popcorn ball was made all in one day–June 18, 2016. It weighs 9,370 pounds. This includes 2300 lbs of popcorn. It’s 12 feet in diameter.

We continued on our journey, stopping for mums.

My crooked mumkin–the mum and its pot in an old ceramic jack o’ lantern. Crooked mum, crooked mumkin.

And watermelon.

fresh from the farm

Not willing to let the experience go, I made popcorn balls. It was messy and required vinyl gloves.

Hot and sticky
Tasty, but I’ll leave the world’s record to the pros in Sac City.

In case you were wondering, besides popcorn, a popcorn ball is made from confectioners sugar, corn syrup, marshmallows (optional), butter or margarine, and a small bit of water. I used around 2-3 cups of unpopped corn, weighing maybe half a pound (I’m rounding up to avoid having to use scientific notation or decimals). Think about it before you attempt to outdo Sac City.