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Technology, science, and math

New fronts in the war on mosquitoes

Science marches on.

In the center of Anita Schiller’s dragonfly-ring-clad hand, a dragonfly nymph is scooting around.

The dedicated naturalist and entomologist is explaining how the insect (which is a water-dwelling dragonfly with gills before it grows wings) expels water from its posterior in a squirting fashion. She laughed and called it “fart propulsion.”

Schiller is leading a team of four from the Harris County Precinct 4’s Biological Control Initiative through a man-made flood control site at the corner of Spring Cypress Road and Telge Road. They are releasing dragonfly and damselfly nymphs into the water, along with carnivorous plants, to help reduce the infectious mosquito population.

“What we’re bringing in will help stack the deck against mosquitoes,” Schiller, director of the initiative, says. “Mosquito suppression is built into the design of the project.”

The Biological Control Initiative started in 2012 with a mission to “find native agents to benefit from the locally adapted phenotype” to counter the mosquito population.

So, what exactly does that mean?

The agency rears human-friendly biological agents, such as dragonflies, damselflies and carnivorous plants, in a lab to be released into the wild to control the blood-sucking and potentially diseased mosquitoes that afflict Southeast Texas year round.

Dragonflies are robust, while damselflies are more dainty-looking. But both are ferocious eaters as adults and gleaning eaters as nymphs.

Introducing native and naturally flood-resistant plants into wetlands and areas of unavoidable standing water gives a larger return-on-investment than just a pesticide approach, Schiller says. The plants also don’t require regular maintenance.

The initiative has also garnered attention for its introduction of “mosquito assassins” in the Houston area. These mosquitoes, which are typically larger than other native species, do not feed off humans and instead work to eliminate the dangerous mosquitoes, such as Asian tiger (Aedes albopictus), southern house (Culex quinquefasciatus) and yellow fever (Aedes aegypti) mosquito larvae.

As the story notes, Harris County is also using mosquito traps and mutant mosquitoes to control our skeeter population. It’s a big deal, because mosquitoes mean Zika, and standing water means mosquitoes. Do your part to combat the buzzing menace by emptying out whatever pots or containers you have in your yard that fill up with rainwater after a storm. The BCI will take it from there.

Our measles risk

Do I spend too much time worrying about stuff like this, or do I not spend enough time on it?

Harris County is one of the nation’s most vulnerable counties to a measles outbreak, according to a new study based on international travel and the prevalence of non-medical vaccine exemptions.

The study, published Thursday in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases, ranks Harris County as the county 9th most at risk of having clusters of people contract measles, the highly contagious, potentially fatal virus that has re-emerged as a public health threat after having been largely eradicated at the turn of the century. Tarrant and Travis counties also are at high risk of an outbreak, according to the study.

“Texas’ showing is on par with the other 16 states that allow vaccine exemptions for conscientious or personal reasons,” said Sahotra Sarkar, a University of Texas Austin professor and the study’s lead author. “You can expect the state, like other parts of the nation, to see more cases.”

Sarkar said Harris County’s vulnerability is mostly the result of its considerable international travel. The county’s number of non-medical vaccine exemptions was not among the state’s highest in a Texas health department report released earlier this week.

[…]

The new study was conducted by Sarkar and a Johns Hopkins University researcher using risk assessment models similar to one they used to correctly predict that Zika, the mosquito-born virus that can cause serious birth defects, would first affect Texas and Florida after it began spreading from the Southern Hemisphere midway through this decade. It also correctly predicted areas already experiencing measles outbreaks, such as Washington, Oregon and New York.

The authors didn’t consider the locations of measles cases already recorded. Instead, they looked at non-medical vaccine exemptions, international air travel and the incidence of measles in countries from which people came to the United States, particularly India, China, Mexico, Japan, Ukraine, Philippines and Thailand. In all, some 112,000 people have been diagnosed with measles outside the U.S. this year, according to the World Health Organization.

Peter Hotez, a Baylor College of Medicine professor of infectious disease and vaccine advocate, called the new study an advance over research he published last year that identified “15 hotspots” of vaccine exemptions among a subset of states. Harris County ranked seventh on that list.

“I think this is a nice refinement on our first attempt,” said Hotez. “It confirms the high risk of Texas counties to measles, something that we’ll need to consider seriously when planning for epidemics.”

It’s not clear what if anything can be done to mitigate this particular risk, so I’m back to wondering how much I should worry about it. Keep working to close the gap in vaccination rates, I guess. It annoys the crap out of me that we have to worry about this sort of thing in 2019, but here we are.

The “Texas Serengeti”

How cool is this?

During the Great Depression, some unemployed Texans were put to work as fossil hunters. The workers retrieved tens of thousands of specimens that have been studied in small bits and pieces while stored in the state collections of The University of Texas at Austin for the past 80 years.

Now, decades after they were first collected, a UT researcher has studied and identified an extensive collection of fossils from dig sites near Beeville, Texas, and found that the fauna make up a veritable “Texas Serengeti” – with specimens including elephant-like animals, rhinos, alligators, antelopes, camels, 12 types of horses and several species of carnivores. In total, the fossil trove contains nearly 4,000 specimens representing 50 animal species, all of which roamed the Texas Gulf Coast 11 million to 12 million years ago.

A paper describing these fossils, their collection history and geologic setting was published April 11 in the journal Palaeontologia Electronica.

“It’s the most representative collection of life from this time period of Earth history along the Texas Coastal Plain,” said Steven May, the research associate at the UT Jackson School of Geosciences who studied the fossils and authored the paper.

In addition to shedding light on the inhabitants of an ancient Texas ecosystem, the collection is also valuable because of its fossil firsts. They include a new genus of gomphothere, an extinct relative of elephants with a shovel-like lower jaw, and the oldest fossils of the American alligator and an extinct relative of modern dogs.

The fossils came into the university’s collection as part of the State-Wide Paleontologic-Mineralogic Survey that was funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal agency that provided work to millions of Americans during the Great Depression. From 1939 to 1941, the agency partnered with the UT Bureau of Economic Geology, which supervised the work and organized field units for collecting fossils and minerals across the state.

Despite lasting only three years, the survey found and excavated thousands of fossils from across Texas including four dig sites in Bee and Live Oak counties, with the majority of their finds housed in what is now the Texas Vertebrate Paleontology Collections at the Jackson School Museum of Earth History. Over the years, a number of scientific papers have been published on select groups of WPA specimens. But May’s paper is the first to study the entire fauna.

You can see the paper here, though it’s pretty dense. One of the things May realized in studying the bones is that the fossil hunters of eighty years ago mostly collected big specimens. So, he went back to the original sites in Bee and Live Oak Counties and did some more detailed work, finding a bunch of remains from smaller animals. That helped fill in the gaps, and there are still a bunch more specimens from the original finds yet to be studied. And all of this was part of a public works project designed to provide jobs for people still unemployed from the Great Depression. Like I said, how cool is that? Link via Gizmodo.

Senior stoners

Makes a lot of sense, really.

Most states now have legal medical marijuana, and 10 of them, including California, allow anyone 21 or older to use pot recreationally. The federal government still outlaws the drug even as acceptance increases. The 2018 General Social Survey, an annual sampling of Americans’ views, found a record 61 percent back legalization, and those 65 and older are increasingly supportive.

Indeed, many industry officials say the fastest-growing segment of their customer base is people like Atkin — aging baby boomers or even those a little older who are seeking to treat the aches and sleeplessness and other maladies of old age with the same herb that many of them once passed around at parties.

“I would say the average age of our customers is around 60, maybe even a little older,” said Kelty Richardson, a registered nurse with the Halos Health clinic in Boulder, Colorado, which provides medical examinations and sells physician-recommended cannabis through its online store.

Its medical director, Dr. Joseph Cohen, conducts “Cannabis 101” seminars at the nearby Balfour Senior Living community for residents who want to know which strains are best for easing arthritic pain or improving sleep.

Relatively little scientific study has verified the benefits of marijuana for specific problems. There’s evidence pot can relieve chronic pain in adults, according to a 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, but the study also concluded that the lack of scientific information poses a risk to public health.

[…]

People Lee’s age — 65 and over — are the fastest-growing segment of the marijuana-using population, said Dr. Gary Small, professor of psychiatry and aging at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He believes more studies on the drug’s effects on older people are needed. And while it may improve quality of life by relieving pain, anxiety and other problems, he said, careless, unsupervised use can cause trouble.

“We know that cannabis can cause side effects, particularly in older people,” he said. “They can get dizzy. It can even impair memory if the dose is too high or new ingredients are wrong. And dizziness can lead to falls, which can be quite serious.”

Richardson said Colorado saw an uptick in hospital visits by older users soon after the state legalized cannabis in 2012. The problem, he said, was often caused by novices downing too many edibles.

I don’t often blog about stories from other states, but with the Lege in session and efforts continuing to expand marijuana legalization here, this seemed useful to note. I’ll say this much, the people described in this story – mostly white people over the age of 60 – is a pretty good representation of the Republican Party base here in Texas (and elsewhere, to be honest). Given that the single biggest impediment to loosening the marijuana laws in Texas is Dan Patrick, any real progress in the short term is going to have to come from his voters telling him they want to see progress on this front. Longer term, we can try to use this issue (among many others) to boot him out of office in 2022, but between now and then is at least one more legislative session. If you want better pot laws in this state, get your old relatives to call Dan Patrick’s office and tell him that’s what they want, too.

Instagram in space!

Far out. Like, literally.

Internet service can sometimes be spotty here on Earth. Just imagine checking email from the moon or searching Google from Mars.

A Houston satellite and artificial intelligence company wants to make that possible through an “interplanetary internet” that someday could connect Earth to mining companies on the moon and human colonies on Mars and other planets. It ultimately would require a network of satellites stretching for hundreds of millions of miles and technology compensating for the movement of planets to prevent the interruption of data streaming at the speed of light.

But you’ve got to start somewhere.

“I fundamentally believe that we will be an interplanetary species,” Ben Lamm, chief executive of the parent company of Hypergiant Galactic Systems, the Houston firm aiming to build out the worlds-wide-web. “We need to start building the core infrastructure for the interplanetary internet now.”

Hypergiant Galactic, a subsidiary of Hypergiant Industries of Austin, is launching its effort as NASA talks about returning to the moon and sending humans to Mars. Hypergiant Galactic expects to begin building the outer-space internet next year by launching a series of small satellites that would be positioned at different points in space to create a network to relay signals from Earth until reaching the end destination, such as the moon, another planet or a space ship. (Kirk to Enterprise?)

Phase one, which includes connecting Earth to the moon and Mars over the next decade, would cost tens of millions of dollars, according to Hypergiant. Once the project moves beyond Mars, costs vault into the hundreds of millions.

The satellites also would store a 30-million page archive of human knowledge that will act as a scaled-down version of the internet so, for example, colonists on Mars could access it quickly, without having to wait long periods for pages to load as signals move from Mars to Earth and back. The archive would be updated frequently, and ultimately built out into a more robust subset of the internet.

The archive also aims to preserve and protect the legacy of the human race by placing it in off-world storage should cataclysm strike the planet. The archive, assembled by the nonprofit Arch Mission Foundation and stored on long-lasting metal disks as a backup to the version that can be updated from Earth, includes everything from Wikipedia to the Harry Potter series to the world’s many languages and mathematical equations.

I don’t really have anything to add to this. It caught my eye and I thought it was cool. Plus, it gave me a reason to embed this video:

Give the aliens all our best, Janet.

The red wolves of Galveston County

Very cool.

Photo from the linked article

The coyotes Ron Wooten spotted on Galveston Island’s west end had eye-catching dark, reddish fur and long, slender builds. In the golden dusk of that July evening in 2013, about a dozen of the animals rested in what appeared to be a wetland dried by a seasonal drought.

These canids — mammals of the dog family — looked different. Most coyotes that inhabit this region have gray or pale-brown fur. And while coyotes typically scavenge alone or in pairs, these appeared to be traveling and interacting as a pack.

Wooten had a hunch he had stumbled onto something more important than satisfying his hobby as a wildlife photographer.

“They didn’t look like coyotes at all. I thought they actually looked like a big Great Dane or something like that,” Wooten said. “I looked at some images of red wolves and it kind of looked like they might have been leaning more towards red wolves than coyotes, so that’s when I started pursuing somebody to take a look at these animals.”

Nearly six years later, Wooten learned that his photographs played a significant role in a groundbreaking genetic study released in December by a group of scientists led by biologists from Princeton University. The study suggests that canids native to Galveston Island carry DNA elements of the red wolf, an animal declared extinct in the wild nearly 40 years ago but whose ancestry has endured in parts of the eastern United States and Gulf Coast, including southern Texas and Louisiana.

Red wolves inhabited the southeastern United States before being declared extinct in the wild in 1980 due to habitat loss, predator control programs, disease, and, ironically, interbreeding with coyotes. A captive breeding program developed in the 1970s helped stave off total extinction, with 14 red wolves able to reproduce.

[…]

Several months after spotting the pack of coyotes in Galveston, Wooten, a regulatory specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, spotted two dead coyotes with similar reddish fur on his commute along FM 3005. Intrigued, Wooten scooped up the remains, hoping the carcasses might pique the interest of someone who studied wolves and coyotes professionally. He preserved the tissue samples the only way he knew how — in his freezer.

“Of course, my wife loved that,” Wooten said.

Several wildlife agencies rebuffed Wooten before he finally connected with a group of wolf biologists who put him in touch with Bridgett vonHoldt, a biologist at Princeton University. VonHoldt had been studying genetics shared between North American canids for a number of years, and Wooten’s tissue samples and photos presented possible evidence of “ghost alleles” — surviving red wolf genes different from those of the red wolves in zoos or those in the wild in North Carolina.

VonHoldt, in an interview conducted via email, said it was “phenomenal” that Wooten had both pictures and tissue samples of the canids found in Galveston. The eye-catching photos he took of the pack of coyotes with reddish fur caught her her interest.

“Coyotes have a wide range of variation in colors and markings,” vonHoldt said. “But the photo from Ron just somehow caught my interest as being unique in a very specific way.”

VonHoldt and her team extracted and processed the DNA from Wooten’s samples and compared it to each of the legally recognized wild canid species in North America, including samples from 29 coyotes from Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas; 10 gray wolves from Yellowstone National Park; 10 eastern wolves from Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario; and 11 red wolves from the captive breeding program.

They found that the Galveston Island animals were more similar to captive red wolves than to typical southeastern coyotes — one of Wooten’s samples was 70 percent red wolf, while the other was 40 percent red wolf.

The study is here if you want to know more. I don’t have anything to add, I just love stories like this.

Measles comes back to Houston

We all vaccinated our kids, right?

Five cases of measles have been confirmed in the greater Houston area, a regional cluster that makes Texas the eleventh state this year to report the highly contagious disease until recently thought virtually eliminated in the U.S.

The cases, all announced Monday, include three in Harris County, one in Galveston County and one in Montgomery County. They involve four children, all under 2 years of age, and a woman between the ages of 25 and 35. All are doing well now.

“This is a reminder for people to be on guard and be up to date on their vaccinations,” said Dr. Umair A. Shah, executive director for Harris County Public Health. “Measles, a serious disease, is in our community.”

Measles, caused by an airborne virus, is particularly dangerous, capable of causing serious neurological disorders and death in infants and the developing fetus in pregnant women. It is spread through direct contact with discharge through the nose and mouth as well as coughing and sneezing.

Shah said it was too early to say whether the five cases might be the start of a local outbreak. The counties are monitoring anyone exposed to the measles patients while they were contagious to see if they develop symptoms. None has so far.

Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease specialist at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, said he’s concerned because in the pre-vaccine era, measles typically peaked in the late winner and early spring. He said “a perfect storm could be coming.”

[…]

It was unclear Monday if a lack of vaccination played a role in any of the Houston-area cases. All four children had received the first of the two shots — the second is given between the ages of 4 and 6 — and the woman said she’d been vaccinated, though the county is still working to confirm that through records.

Shah noted that the first dose of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine is fully protective in 85 percent of those who get it, but there’s no way of knowing if a child is in that group or the 15 percent who need the second shot to receive full protection.

Shah also noted that the person or persons who originally transmitted the virus may have been unvaccinated, he said.

The good news is that this outbreak is limited. This story said that Houston’s vaccination rate is above the national average, while this other story says just the opposite; I’m not sure what to make of that. It’s still a lot of cases at one time, and we’re already close to the nine cases total in Houston from last year. It could be worse, as the people in the greater Portland area can attest, but there’s no reason at all why it should be. You can listen to a short but timely interview with Dr. Hotez about the resurgence of measles here, and Texas Monthly has more.

Ebola treatment progress

This is encouraging.

Texas scientists who developed an effective vaccine for the deadly Ebola virus are now reporting promising results with new medication to better treat full-blown cases of the disease.

In a laboratory study published this week, researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston showed a single injection of two antibodies successfully treated monkeys infected with all strains of the virus, a significant advance on current treatment options which only cover one strain and require multiple injections.

“This medication would give doctors an advantage in situations where we don’t know which strain of Ebola is going to pop up next,” said Thomas Geisbert, a UTMB professor of microbiology and immunology and the study’s primary investigator. “The fear now, with all our eggs in one basket, is we’ll get burned with the outbreak of a strain there’s no protection against.”

Geisbert said the study results, published Wednesday in Cell Host & Microbe, suggest the medication would be effective even if Ebola viruses evolve over time, and Larry Zeitlin, president of Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc., the drug manufacturer, said it should “reduce the burden on health-care workers in the field during outbreaks.”

[…]

New medications are increasingly being used in the Congo to treat Ebola, most notably ZMapp, which was initially deployed late in the first outbreak. But those medications work only against the Zaire strain and require multiple injections, a challenge in Third World settings. ZMapp, for instance, must be given three times, each a few days apart, and by infusion which takes up to five hours. The single infusion of MBP134 only takes minutes.

“That’s a huge advantage in chaotic outbreaks or reactive settings where it’s often difficult to track down and identify patients to give them a second dose,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, founding dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital.

Hotez added that “of course, all of this needs to be confirmed in human clinical trials.” He said the current outbreak in the Congo “looks like a good time for such an evaluation.”

See here and here for some background. I don’t have anything to add here, I just thought we could all use a bit of positive news.

HPD and Ring

We don’t have a Ring doorbell so this doesn’t affect me, but I do find it quite interesting.

The Houston Police Department announced Monday that it is joining Ring’s mobile app, Neighbors, in a move officials hope will reduce crime and improve safety in neighborhoods across the city, even as department officials complain of low staffing levels.

The HPD partnership with Ring, a rapidly growing home surveillance company that sells video doorbells and similar products, would help the police department communicate more effectively in real time with residents as crimes occur, Houston Police Burglary and Theft Division Commander Glenn Yorek said.

“HPD will be able to send alerts to neighbors of crime and safety incidents in real time, request information about local crime and safety from neighbors who opt in to sharing for a particular request, and work with the local community to build trust and to make the community safer,” Yorek said, announcing the partnership at the department’s downtown headquarters Monday morning.

The joint venture is the latest for Ring, a seven-year-old tech startup purchased by Amazon for more than $1 billion in February that has grown exponentially in recent years even as it has weathered criticism over its privacy practices and disputes over claims that its products reduce crime.

[…]

An article in MIT Technology Review reviewed Ring’s findings in the Los Angeles neighborhood and found that burglaries in subsequent years rose to levels higher than in any of the previous seven years.

And In West Valley City, Utah, officials performed a test in two neighborhoods of similar size and levels of crime. Both neighborhoods saw a drop in crime, according to the MIT Technology Review story, but the results were surprising: the neighborhood without the devices saw a more significant drop.

Maria Cuellar, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, said there is not sufficient evidence to say whether Ring devices really reduce crime.

Ring’s study in Los Angeles was problematic because it relied on small sample sizes, Cuellar said, adding that a properly designed study, or more data and analysis, is needed to tell if Ring cameras are really effective at reducing crime.

I think the question about whether smart doorbell/home security systems like Ring have an effect on crime or not will never be settled. The sample sizes are small, there are likely to be regional variations, and so many factors affect crime that isolating one of them is nearly impossible. There still isn’t a consensus answer to the question of why violent crime has declined so precipitously since the mid-90’s; the lead hypothesis has a lot of evidence behind it, but plenty of people remain skeptical, and even its proponents don’t claim it’s the sole reason. As for the privacy concerns, that’s going to be up to everyone’s individual appetite for that kind of risk. I think if I were the type of person to install a Ring, I’d also want to have my local police department be a part of its Neighbors app. I’m not that kind of person, at least not at this time, so my response to this is mostly to shrug. Your mileage may vary.

Another look at the state of recycling

One part supply, one part demand.

ScruggsImage3_ThreeWasteBins

Reducing contamination is largely considered the starting point for creating a more stable U.S. recycling market. And that means teaching consumers what they can and cannot put in recycling bins.

For example, a triangle with a number on the bottom of a plastic container does not automatically mean it’s recyclable. Nos. 1, 2 and 5 are widely accepted in recycling programs across the country. Garden hoses and plastic bags, which can get tangled in sorting equipment, are always prohibited. Food-stained cardboard boxes are considered contamination, too.

“If our customers are saying, ‘Hey, how can I help out the economics of my current program?’ The No. 1 thing they can do is get the contamination rate down lower,” Bell said.

Waste Management is investing in machinery to better reduce contamination. Optical sorters, for instance, can identify a specific material and then use gusts of air to separate that material from the pack.

[…]

Once the sorting process is improved, the materials will need more places to go.

Large household brands are helping create these markets. PepsiCo, for instance, announced in October that it’s seeking to use 25 percent recycled content in its plastic packaging by 2025. This goal builds upon previously announced goals such as designing 100 percent of its packaging to be recyclable, compostable or biodegradable.

Such policies pressure suppliers to incorporate recycled materials if they want to keep or win that company’s business. But more brands need to take similar steps if the United States is to find uses for all the materials recycled by neighborhoods, job sites and businesses.

“There is a lot of supply and there’s not a lot of demand for the material,” said Bell of Waste Management. “We’ve got to make sure the materials that people intend to recycle every day, that we’ve got a demand for that.”

The demand for plastic pellets made from recycled materials already is robust, said Robin Waters, director of plastics planning and analysis for the research firm IHS Markit. But equipment for collecting and sorting waste needs extensive upgrades to provide the high-quality used plastic fit for making plastic resins.

Other countries are addressing this, in part, with a policy called Extended Producer Responsibility. This policy requires companies creating consumer products to pay fees for the plastic products and packaging they produce. The money collected from companies goes toward things such as upgrading recycling equipment and processing plants.

Ultimately, the fees provide incentives for companies to use less plastic, different materials or more recycled materials.

“It’s a concept that hasn’t really hit the U.S.,” Waters said, “but it will be here in five to 10 years.”

See here for some background. We need to do a lot more to reduce the amount of waste plastic. It’s going to take investment in public education and recycling infrastructure. Should have done this a long time ago, but given that we haven’t we better get started on it now.

The recycling recession

Not good.

ScruggsImage3_ThreeWasteBins

A joint report by the trade groups American Chemistry Council and Association of Plastic Recyclers estimated that plastic bottle recycling decreased 3.6 percent last year, dipping to 2.8 billion pounds in 2017. The decrease is partially due to containers becoming lighter weight, but also because the rate of bottle recycling hasn’t grown significantly in recent years.

In “an exceedingly difficult year for plastic bottle recycling,” the report said, about 29.3 percent of plastic bottles were recycled in 2017, down about a half percentage point from a year earlier. Over the past five years, the rate of plastic bottle recycling has remained essentially flat.

“Americans are continuing to recycle and recycling behavior continues to grow, however there is also more material continuing to go into waste stream and plastics are growing,” said Steve Russell, vice president of the plastics division of American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical and plastic makers.

The report is here. A big part of the problem is China scaling way back on the recyclable materials it accepts, which has created an oversupply problem even as the recycling rate has stagnated. There needs to be more capacity for recycling in the US to deal with this. Getting people to do recycling properly – basic things like not throwing trash in recycling bins, for example – would also help. It’s a big deal, because there’s already way too much plastic waste in the environment, and that has all kinds of bad effects. We need to figure this out.

El Nino 2018

Here it comes.

Houstonians can expect more rain than usual — and possibly street flooding — this winter, thanks to El Niño.

The National Weather Service forecasts an 80 percent chance for a weak to moderate El Niño this winter, starting around Christmas and lasting through February. In Houston, El Niño means a warmer and wetter winter that could have more severe storms and a higher risk of localized flooding.

Last week’s storm, which brought high winds and street flooding to the region, is indicative of an El Niño storm, said Ken Prochazka, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Houston.

“After our wet fall, the ground out there is saturated,” Prochazka said. “When we don’t get a chance to dry out, we’re more likely to have runoff and street flooding.”

El Niño occurs when the temperature of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America is warmer than usual. The warm Pacific water affects the atmosphere and causes changes in weather patterns around the world.

In the U.S., El Niño accelerates the North American jet stream, pushing storms from the Pacific across the the country at a faster speed. Storms can move across Texas every three to four days during El Niño, dropping more rain than usual.

Houston typically sees 3.6 inches of rain in January. El Niño can bring more rain than that, Prochazka said.

[…]

Houston last saw El Niño-related storms between 2014 and 2016. The city saw particularly strong El Niño storms in 1997 and 1998. El Niño, which occurs unpredictably, can last for a couple of years, Prochazka said.

It is what it is. All we can do is try to be ready for it.

Is there a better way to predict flooding?

This startup thinks so.

An artificial intelligence startup now says it can provide that warning. The company, One Concern, has announced that it can predict whether your block will flood — and if so, by how much — five days in advance of an incoming storm.

Founded by Stanford University graduates, the startup has launched a flood forecasting product called Flood Concern meant to give leaders hyperlocal predictions of where flooding will occur, allowing them to swiftly prepare and respond. High on its roster of potential clients is the Houston area, which lost over a hundred lives and suffered billions in damage last year during Hurricane Harvey.

The startup has begun approaching city officials and leaders in Houston’s private sector about bringing the technology to the region.

“They’re interested in multiple use cases, all the way from planning to responding,” One Concern CEO Ahmed Wani said of the discussions. Texas A&M University has already partnered with One Concern in anticipation of the potential benefits for the region.

“The use of artificial intelligence is potentially a game changer,” said Tony Knap, associate director of A&M’s Superfund Research Center. “It’s a different way of looking at things.”

Artificial intelligence allows computers to look for patterns from past events to predict what will happen in the future. Predictions become more accurate as the system collects more data — the Superfund Research Center is contributing data about hazardous chemicals so that a flood analysis can also understand potential health concerns.

“The aim is to get the prediction correct,” Knap said. “And artificial intelligence is something that we don’t use and they do. So if that can inform the model … it’s good for Houston.”

[…]

Eric Berger, a meteorologist whose forecasts on the Space City Weather website drew 1 million page views a day during Hurricane Harvey, said he could imagine artificial intelligence providing realistic worst-case scenarios for incoming storm systems. But he is skeptical of One Concern’s claim that it can predict flooding on a block-by-block basis.

To illustrate his point, he described a storm he was tracking that Tuesday afternoon that would hit Southeast Texas Friday night. Most of the region would likely see 2 to 4 inches of rain, but certain pockets could receive up to 8 — and those pockets would have a chance of flooding.

But where would they be?

“Three days before this heavy rainfall event, we can say this area is ripe for rain,” Berger said. “We could say that Harris County is at a greater risk than Galveston County. But to specify it even on a city-by-city basis is not possible. … There’s not the underlying meteorological data to support it.”

Here’s One Concern’s press release. As the story notes, Google is working in this space as well, though their claims aren’t as bold. I tend to agree with Berger that the data isn’t there for predictions this granular, but I like the direction they’re going, and I hope they can provide some value now, even if it’s not quite what they hope to achieve.

Look out for lionfish

Hey, it’s another destructive invasive species, aided and abetted by climate change.

Scientists battling coral reef deaths caused by warming ocean waters 100 miles off the coast of Galveston might now have another climate change problem to fight in coming decades: a proliferation of zebra-striped lionfish.

Lionfish — brought to the U.S. from their Indo-Pacific home to stock aquariums and later dumped by owners unable to care for the constantly hungry vertebrate — have no known North American predators to stop their spread. As a result, they’ve been decimating reef populations from New York to Florida since the 1980s, arriving at the Gulf of Mexico’s Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in 2011.

And a recent study published in the Wilderness & Environmental Medicine journal suggests that venomous creatures like lionfish will become more prevalent as the oceans warm.

”They are the cockroaches of the sea,” said Michelle Johnston, a sanctuary research biologist. “They reproduce every four days and every four days they can release up to 50,000 eggs. Plus, nothing really eats them, they have venomous spines and the native fish are terrified of them.”

[…]

Between 2011 and 2017, researchers have recorded nearly 3,500 lionfish in the [federal Stetson Bank] sanctuary, NOAA stated, though experts believe that number is low.

And just as the lionfish did in household aquariums, they started eating everything in sight. A single lionfish can eat up to 5,000 fish per year, Johnston said.

In the Indo-Pacific, lionfish predators include sharks, grouper, frogfish, large eels and scorpionfish, according to Lionfish Hunters, a group that promotes the removal of lionfish from the Western Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf.

But fish native to the Flower Garden Banks don’t know lionfish are predators, Johnston said, which makes the venomous fish’s food gathering that much easier.

“The lionfish are virtually unchecked” in Flower Gardens, Johnston said. “The ones we’ve collected are extremely large, they’re obese, and some of them have fatty liver disease. They’re eating themselves into oblivion.”

Here’s the NOAA page on lionfish. The Chron article is long and detailed, and one we’ve heard before for other species. Scientists are looking for solutions to control the population so as to minimize the damage these invaders cause. (Turning them into human food is another idea.) In the meantime, if you or someone you know owns an aquarium, don’t add a lionfish to your collection, and if you do then for crying out loud don’t just dump it somewhere if you decide you’re done with it. Let’s at least not add to the problem.

Our poor old voting machines

They really do need to be retired.

A national spotlight fell on Texas’ voting equipment last week after some voters complained that their votes on electronic voting machines had changed.

State election officials chalked it up to user error.

Critics alleged malfeasance or a software bug.

The Austin-based company behind the machines says an important piece of context is missing from this debate: these machines are 16 years old.

“It’s very much like someone calling Apple and asking for support on their iPhone 1,” said Steven Sockwell, vice president of marketing at Hart InterCivic.

Most Texas counties last upgraded their electronic voting machines well over a decade ago, tapping billions in funds Congress approved to upgrade voting equipment around the country following election irregularities during the 2000 presidential election. Dozens of Texas counties purchased Hart’s eSlate machines.

[…]

While Sockwell said that the eSlate machines “have not been performing any differently” than they have in previous elections, he said it is time for municipalities to upgrade to Hart’s newer voter system, which is called Verity. The eSlate machines generally have a lifespan of between 10 and 15 years, he said, though he added that they do not stop working after 15 years.

[Rice computer science professor Dan] Wallach said that he is surprised that Texas’ eSlate machines have lasted as long as they have.

“We’ve got eSlates that are over 10 years old and in some cases approaching 20 years,” Wallach said. “Normally, computers don’t last that long.”

See here for the background. For the record, the first iPhones came out in 2007, so these machines are mostly at least five years older than that. However you view their utility and security today, the day is coming – likely soon – when we will have no choice but to replace these machines. At some point, they’re just not going to work anymore.

Cyber insurance

Seems like a good idea.

Houston City Council on Wednesday unanimously agreed to spend $471,000 on cyber insurance, becoming the latest Texas municipality trying to bolster its response to growing technological risks.

The insurance can cover up to $30 million in expenses related to security breaches in the city’s network, including crisis response, recovery of losses and answers to legal claims stemming from cyberattacks.

While some data breaches are preventable, the prevalence of cybersecurity threats against city governments nationwide prompted Houston to take steps to insure itself, said At-large Councilman David Robinson, chairman of council’s Transportation, Technology and Infrastructure committee.

“There are those things that are just beyond the reach or scope of expected due diligence and preparation,” Robinson said. “You need to be prepared for the unknown.”

In the event of a cyberattack, such as hacking or phishing, in which people pose as trustworthy sources to obtain money or information, the insurance coverage could pay for crisis management resources, computer forensics, credit monitoring and call center services.

After a security threat is detected, the new policy could cover any loss of income or expense from the interruption of computer systems, according to council background materials outlining the insurance. It could be used to pay the cost of restoring or recollecting data affected by a cyberattack, as well the cost of investigating threats. The insurance policy also can be used for liability claims made against the city for failing to protect data or prevent access to confidential information.

This makes sense. Of course, as an organization you want to do everything you can to prevent an incident, but as we say in the business, it’s not a matter of if you’ll get hacked, it’s a matter of when. Like what happened to Harris County earlier this year. All of your vendors and suppliers and business partners are potential avenues for compromise, too. While I hope we’ll never need to use it, this is a smart investment.

Typhus in Galveston

An infectious disease update for you.

Typhus fever, a disease carried by fleas and once thought to be eradicated, is rearing its head in Galveston County, county health officials said on Monday.

The Galveston County Health District reported that 18 cases of typhus fever have been reported so far in 2018, up from 17 reported for all of 2017. The disease has rebounded in other parts of Texas in the last decade.

“I believe we are seeing an increase in reported cases because physicians now know what symptoms to look for,” said Randy Valcin, Galveston County Health District’s director of epidemiology and public health preparedness, in a written statement. “Typhus has been around for a number of years, but physicians are testing more and we’re seeing those results.”

Typhus symptoms, which include fever, headache, muscle pain, anorexia, rash, nausea and vomiting, are often confused with a number of viral ailments. People become infected when they come in contact with infected flea feces through open wounds, scratching and even breathing in the infected feces. Symptoms usually present about 7 to 14 days after exposure to the virus.

Murine typhus is a flea-borne illness, now believed to be carried mostly by opossums and other backyard mammals that spread them to cats and dogs, which then bring them indoors. Historically, typhus was carried by rats, before aggressive use of DDT, a pesticide, in the mid-1940s largely eliminated the problem in most U.S. areas. Before the use of DDT, typhus fever peaked in the United States with 5,400 reported cases. By 1956, there were less than 100 reported cases. The use of DDT has since been banned.

The disease is often mild, and treatable with antibiotics. But left untreated, severe illness can cause damage to one or more organs, including the liver, kidneys, heart, lungs and brain.

Over the last 15 years, typhus has been making a comeback in Texas. In 2017, the Chronicle reported the number of Texas cases rose from 30 in 2003 to 364 in 2016, and the number of Harris County cases from zero to 32. Eight Texas deaths have been attributed to the infection since 2003, with more than a quarter of cases reported to the state health department involve children from 6 to 15 years old.

See here for some background. Like Zika, typhus is a tropical disease, and one reason we’re seeing it here now is because of climate change. Basically, the conditions under which these diseases, and the insects that carry them, now exist in a much broader and less-equatorial range. We can accept that as the new normal or we can try to maybe do something about that, I dunno. Just a thought.

Houston to get 5G service

Nice.

Verizon will soon launch 5G technology in Houston, though its initial focus won’t be on improving the performance of mobile devices.

Rather, the wireless provider is positioning itself to compete with Comcast and AT&T for streaming television, playing video games or telling Alexa to turn on the lights.

Verizon officials said Tuesday that they will introduce residential 5G broadband starting in the second half of this year, using radio signals, rather than copper or fiber cables, to provide internet and phone services to the home. Houston is the third city announced as part of a four-market plan that also includes Sacramento and Los Angeles, Calif.

“It really comes down to not wanting to be left out of the loop, and 5G is what allows them to not get cut off,” Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Anshel Sag said.

People spend much of their days on their smartphones, but once they get home they connect to Wi-Fi rather than use their data plan. The new 5G technology provides a cheaper opportunity for wireless providers to enter that broadband market.

Theoretically, 5G will be able to achieve speeds of tens of gigabits per second, though most companies talk initially about 1 Gbps to 2 Gbps speeds. While variables from weather to terrain to buildings can affect 5G performance, the new technology is still expected to be much faster than current cell service — LTE speeds are typically in the 10-to-150 megabits per second range — and could potentially outstrip even the fastest home broadband currently available.

Dwight Silverman goes into more detail about what this means for end users, the tl;dr version of which is more options for home broadband beyond AT&T and Comcast. Potentially, anyway, and starting sometime in 2019, as this is all still more or less vaporware. But it’s coming, it’s better than what we’ve got now, and it should give you more choices in the marketplace.

Where the anti-vaxxers are

A lot of them are right here.

Four Texas cities, including Houston, rank among the 15 metropolitan “hotspots” of vaccine exemptions, more than any other state, according to a new study.

The study found Austin, Fort Worth and Plano also are among the nation’s cities with the highest number of kindergartners not getting vaccinated for non-medical reasons. Since 2009, the proportion of children opting out of such recommended vaccines increased in Texas and 11 other states, the study showed.

“There are some scary trends we were able to identify,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, a Houston vaccine scientist and one of the study authors. “They’re a sign that anti-vaccine groups, such as Texans for Vaccine Choice, have been very successful at lobbying efforts – both of the Texas legislature and through social media and other advocacy — to convince parents not to vaccinate their kids.”

[…]

The overall number of people invoking non-medical exemptions isn’t yet high enough to threaten herd immunity, the idea that vaccination of most of the population provides protection for those individuals without immunity to a contagious disease. But public health officials fear clusters of “anti-vaxxers” could leave some children vulnerable.

Texas’ increasing exemptions have been well documented. Though the number is still small, they have spiked from less than 3,000 in 2003 to more than 45,000 of the state’s roughly 5.5 million schoolchildren today, a 19-fold increase.

Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital said he undertook the study because of the Texas increase. He said wanted to look at whether it was a phenomenon unique to the state or mirrored elsewhere. National vaccination rates haven’t changed much in recent years.

You can see the study here. Dr. Hotez is correct to identify the political problem as being a key aspect to this. One clear pathway to getting more kids vaccinated is to take away or at least tighten up the so-called “conscience” objections to vaccines. If the law says you have to vaccinate your kids, the odds are pretty good that you will. But first you have to pass such a law, and right now we have a legislature that’s not inclined to do that.

MS Houston

Meet our new technical overlords.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Microsoft will provide STEM education at schools, teach computer literacy skills to adults and transform Houston into a “Smart City” as part of a new partnership announced Friday.

“These sort of efforts become infectious and contagious,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner. “Because of their presence, and the strength of their presence … I would venture to say that others will be motivated to do the same.”

Microsoft’s educational efforts will help boost the existing workforce while fostering the next generation of technology innovators. The Smart Cities element will look at improving city functions by adding sensors, collecting data and finding more efficient solutions.

Sensors, for instance, could be used to track buses and find more optimal routes that would have less congestion while being convenient for more people. It could also be used to determine if a bus is being driven too aggressively and consuming more gasoline than it otherwise would, said Cameron Carr, director of Internet of Things and Solutions for Microsoft.

After events like Hurricane Harvey, drones could be used to find people needing assistance or to determine areas that are flooded and impassible.

“We are right on the edge of creating this bold new world,” Carr said.

The Microsoft announcement is the latest in a string of technology developments as Houston seeks to become a hub for high-tech startups and venture capital.

Here’s the Mayor’s press release, which contains a few more details. It’s a little hard to say what this means right now – more specifically, it’s a little hard to say how long it will take for much of this to get rolled out – but I’m sure we’ll be seeing announcements soon. Putting my professional hat on for a moment, I hope this agreement includes security monitoring and incident response for all these IoT devices. Dwight Silverman has more.

Thunderstorms are going to get worse

Just FYI.

Summer thunderstorms in North America will likely be larger, wetter and more frequent in a warmer world, dumping 80 percent more rain in some areas and worsening flooding, a new study says.

Future storms will also be wilder, soaking entire cities and huge portions of states, according to a federally-funded study released Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The U.S. in recent years has experienced prolonged drenchings that have doused Nashville in 2010, West Virginia and Louisiana in 2016 and Houston this year. The disasters cost about $20 billion a year in damage.

By the end of century if emissions aren’t curbed, these gully washers will be much worse because they will get bigger, said Andreas Prein, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, who led the study.

Prein and colleagues used high-resolution computer simulations to see how global warming will likely change the large thunderstorms that are already daily summer events in North America. Previous studies projected more frequent and wetter storms, but this is the first research to show they likely will be more widespread, covering an entire city instead of just half of it, Prein said.

“We see increases that are beyond our expectations … far beyond our expectations,” Prein said. “It looks everything that can go wrong does go wrong concerning flooding.”

Awesome, huh? We can build more reservoirs and update our development codes and all those other things, but if we’re not taking every action we can to curb climate change, we’re just spinning our wheels. Maybe elect more people who take that threat seriously? Just a thought.

More Harveys

Thanks, climate change.

The extreme rains that inundated the Houston area during Hurricane Harvey were made more likely by climate change, a new study suggests, adding that such extreme flooding events will only become more frequent as the globe continues to warm.

“I guess what I was hoping to achieve was a little bit of a public service,” said MIT hurricane expert Kerry Emanuel, who published the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday. “There are folks down in Texas who are having to rebuild infrastructure, and I think they need to have some idea of what kind of event they’re building for.”

In the wake of Harvey, many researchers pointed out that a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor and that, as a result, a warmer planet should see more extreme rains. But Emanuel’s study goes beyond this general statement to support the idea that the specific risk of such an extreme rain event is already rising because of how humans have changed the planet.

Via climate modeling, Emanuel generated 3,700 computerized storms for each of three separate models that situated the storms in the climates of the years from 1980 to 2016. All of the storms were in the vicinity of Houston or other Texas areas. He examined how often, in his models, there would be about 20 inches of rain in one of these events.

Harvey produced closer to 33 inches over Houston. But in the tests under the 1980 to 2016 conditions, getting 20 inches of rain was rare in the extreme.

“By the standards of the average climate during 1981-2000, Harvey’s rainfall in Houston was ‘biblical’ in the sense that it likely occurred around once since the Old Testament was written,” wrote Emanuel, adding that in the much larger area of Texas, such rains did occur once every 100 years.

Then Emanuel performed a similar analysis, this time in the projected climates of the years 2080 to 2100, assuming the climate changes in some of the more severe ways scientists suggest it could.

The odds, accordingly, shifted toward a much greater likelihood of such events by 2100. Harvey’s rains in Houston became a once-in-100-years event (rather than a once-in-2,000-years event), and for Texas as a whole, the odds increased from once in 100 years to once every 5½.

This also meant, Emanuel calculated, that Harvey was probably more likely in 2017 than in the era from 1981 to 2000. In 2017, Harvey would be a once-in-325-years event. For Texas as a whole, in 2017 it would be a once-in-16-years event.

You can see the study here. This is the first study of its kind, so more research is needed to better understand what this means, but this is the world we live in. We can take steps to try to mitigate the damage, or we can live with the consequences. The MIT press release is here, and Ars Technica, the Atlantic, and the Associated Press have more.

That sinking feeling

We’re a little lower to the ground these days. Or maybe it’s just that the ground itself is lower.


Chris Milliner, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, used observations from the Nevada Geodetic Laboratory and the University Nevada-Reno statistics department to determine that the Houston metro area was two centimeters lower because of the load of the widespread floodwaters on the Earth’s crust.

The simple explanation? Water is heavy. About a ton per cubic meter.

“GPS data show that (the flood) was so large it flexed Earth’s crust, pushing Houston down,” Milliner said Monday via Twitter.

Elaborating on Tuesday, Milliner said there’s no reason to worry. It should be a passing thing.

“This should be a temporary drop,” he said in an e-mail. “Once floodwaters recede, we should expect a similar, but opposite elastic response of the crust, i.e., uplift. Similar to if you were to jump on-and-off your mattress.”

Milliner referred to the phenomenon as local elastic subsidence. He said it is seen in most areas that experience significant seasonal changes in water or ice.

So we’ll probably bounce back, in the literal sense, which is nice. I recommend you click on the tweet link and read through the discussion. We all knew we got a crap-ton of rain, but holy mackeral is it amazing to be confronted with an illustration like this of just how much rain we got.

The Texas Infectious Disease Readiness Task Force

We have such a thing, and at a time like this that’s good to know.

Most Texans don’t regularly concern themselves with infectious diseases such as typhus, Ebola, Zika, or the plague. But in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, public health experts worry that tetanus and MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant skin infection, could become more prevalent.

Thanks to the establishment of the Texas Infectious Disease Readiness (TX IDR) task force, citizens now have access to online courses and other resources geared at increasing the public’s knowledge of a variety of infectious diseases.

The program was launched in late 2014 when then-Gov. Rick Perry signed an executive order establishing the Task Force on Infectious Disease Readiness and Response due to an increase in infectious disease cases in Texas.

Typhus, which is transmitted by fleas and potentially fatal, infected only 27 Texans in 2003. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention In 2016, the state saw 364 cases, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. With so few cases in the past, typhus’ symptoms – chills, muscle aches, a rash, and vomiting – were likely mistaken for something else.

Described by some as a “Texas-specific CDC,” the task force gathers information from many sources and adapts it to Texas’ needs. In addition to sharing information on current cases, the TX IDR designs online courses specific to the diseases seen in Texas, explaining how the diseases are transmitted, who is at risk, and how to control their spread.

The need for such an initiative became evident after the first cases of Ebola were diagnosed in the United States.

[…]

In addition to educating traditional health care professionals, the program also targets first responders, who typically have limited access to resources about infectious diseases, [Dr. Jan E. Patterson, chair of TX IDR] said. With the establishment of the TX IDR website, they can now learn about infectious disease readiness and potentially avoid contracting a deadly virus.

We know about typhus. As one of those Texans that don’t regularly concern themselves with infectious diseases, I’m glad to know someone does.

Typhus in Texas

One more thing to worry about, in case you needed it.

Strickland spent four days in a hospital receiving treatment and needed about a year to fully recover from the potentially fatal disease transmitted by fleas believed nowadays to be carried most abundantly by opossums and other backyard mammals that spread them to cats and dogs.

Between 2003 and 2013, typhus increased tenfold in Texas and spread from nine counties to 41, according to Baylor College of Medicine researchers

The numbers have increased since then.

Harris County, which reported no cases before 2007, had 32 cases in 2016, double the previous years’ numbers.

Researchers do not know why the numbers are increasing.

In any case, the infection is severe enough that 60 percent of people who contracted the infection during the 10-year period had to be hospitalized. Four died, one in Houston.

“We can now add typhus to the growing list of tropical infections striking Texas,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, founding dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor and Texas Children’s Hospital, “Chagas, dengue fever, Zika, chikungunya and now typhus – tropical diseases have become the new normal in south and southeast Texas.”

[…]

It was Strickland’s bout with the disease, in 2009, that first got the attention of Dr. Kristy Murray, a Baylor associate professor of infectious disease who had taught about typhus in the Valley but had not heard of it in modern-day urban centers, despite a focus on the tropical diseases that have emerged in Texas in recent times.

In the ensuing years, Murray heard enough anecdotal evidence of an increase in cases from local doctors that she decided to look at state data, combing through case histories to document the numbers and spot trends.

Murray was struck by the results, published recently in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, which showed 222 cases in Texas in 2013, many in Houston, Austin and San Antonio. That was up from just 30 reported cases in 2003, all in the southern part of the state, in counties such as Hidalgo and Nueces where the disease has remained an issue over the decades.

Unlike many tropical diseases, which predominate in poor areas, the new cases of typhus were just as likely to be reported in more affluent areas, such as Bellaire and West University.

The highest rate of attack was in kids, 5 to 19 years old.

In 2016, according to the most recent state data, the number of Texas cases had risen to 364.

The study in question is here. Typhus, it should be noted, is not the same as typhoid fever, of Typhoid Mary fame. The study in question was published a couple of months ago, and there were a few stories on the same topic at the time. Country musician Bruce Robison had to cancel a few shows recently after he came down with typhus. It can be spread by fleas, so make sure your pets are getting treated. Common symptoms include fever, headache, and a rash, so be aware and take care.

Hacking voting machines

I’m just going to leave this here.

Google and Apple invite hackers to find flaws in their code and offer hefty rewards to those who find them. It’s a common practice in the industry. The government’s done it too, with programs like “Hack the Pentagon.”

But opportunities to test how secure our voting machines are from hackers have been rare. Manufacturers like to keep the details of voting machines secret. And they don’t often provide machines for people to test.

That’s why hackers swarmed to the Voter Hacking Village at Defcon in Las Vegas. The massive hacker convention is split into “villages” based on themes such as lock picking, encryption, social engineering and, for the first time, voter machine hacking.

Defcon received more than 30 voting machines to play with, providing a rare opportunity for hackers to find the flaws in our democracy’s technology. (The organizers didn’t specify how many models the 30 units represented.) Voting technology was elevated into the political spotlight in 2016 as lawmakers raised concerns about Russian hacking and President Donald Trump’s road to the White House.

To be clear, there’s no evidence any votes were hacked during the 2016 presidential election. But there hasn’t been much research on the voting machines to see if it’s possible.

“The exposure of those devices to the people who do bug bounties or actually look at these kind of devices has been fairly limited,” said Brian Knopf, an internet of things security researcher for Neustar, a security analysis company. “And so Defcon is a great opportunity for those of us who hack hardware and firmware to look to these kind of devices and really answer that question, ‘Are they hackable?'”

After just about an hour and a half, the answer was an emphatic “yes.”

I don’t want to be alarmist. The one specific voting machine mentioned in the story is one that has been out of use since 2015, so it’s hard to say how real-world and prevalent some of this is. The problem is that there’s a lot of secrecy around voting machine technology, so while there are no known examples of systems being compromised, we mostly just have the assurances of the people in charge that there’s nothing to see here. There’s a lot of room to improve standards and transparency, in the name of promoting faith in the security of the system.

More birth control by mail options

Good to see.

“We want women to see us and say, ‘These are people who believe that if you want birth control you should have it,'” said Hans Ganeskar, co-founder and CEO of Nurx, a California-based site founded in 2015 that can both dispense and prescribe by way of computer or app.

Nurx (pronounced New RX) became available to Texas women in June, bringing the total number of states it serves to 17.

Women answer a series of health questions or in some cases undergo video consultation, and then their prescriptions are written by a state-licensed doctor affiliated with the company. The prescription is then sent to a local pharmacy to handle delivery. With insurance, the cost is generally free; without, it is $15 for a one-month supply of pills.

A similar company, The Pill Club, entered the Texas market in early July. It, too, is a California-based startup touting the same message of accessibility and inclusiveness.

The Pill Club differs from Nurx in that it provides all prescriptions and products in-house, without involving local pharmacies.

While it is possible to get an online exam and first-time prescription in some states through The Pill Club, founder Nick Chang said the exam service is not yet available to Texas women. In states where it is unavailable, women upload an existing prescription. The cost is typically covered by insurance.

Chang, a Stanford Law School graduate who also attended medical school, said his company takes its cues from the many personalized niche shopping sites such as Birch Box with its makeup or the Dollar Shave Club.

“All of these things are being delivered, but not birth control. There’s something wrong with that,” he thought as far back as 2014, although his company did not officially launch until last year. It is now in 13 states.

Contraceptives have been available through online pharmacies long before these new, more hip entrants, but Chang said for reasons not entirely clear many women were not taking advantages of them.

[…]

At Prjkt Ruby (note the text message spelling), contraception comes paired with social conscience. Also launched in 2015, the service arrived in Texas earlier this year, chief marketing officer Daniel Snyder said.

It also offers its own in-house mail-order pharmacy and prescription services. In Texas, those come after a video consultation. But the company does not accept insurance, instead charging the $20-per-cycle prescription services by cash or credit card.

For every order of a three-month cycle, the company donates 75 cents to Population Services International, a nonprofit organization that supports access for birth control to women in developing nations.

“We’re like the TOMS Shoes of birth control,” said Snyder, referring to the shoe seller that donates either a pair of shoes or a portion of the profits from other items to those in need.

Despite the white-hot political glow that surrounds all things reproductive these days, online contraceptive marketing has mostly flown under the radar, even as they also fill the controversial morning-after pills, said Dr. Kristyn Brandi, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Los Angeles and an advocacy fellow for the Physicians for Reproductive Health.

Despite some initial reservations, she said, the potential boost to access outweighs potential safety concerns in misdiagnosis.

“A lot of the trouble with contraception is getting it,” she said.

Snyder agreed, adding it’s impossible to extract the current political climate from what it happening with his company. In the days after the November election, he said they experienced a noticeable surge in business.

“People were panicking,” he said.

Indeed they were. I noted the existence of Nurx after its appearance in Texas. I think there’s a lot to be said for this business model, but I continue to be worried that it’s just a matter of time before it’s in the crosshairs of the the anti-abortion fanatics. It hasn’t happened yet – several more ridiculous anti-abortion items were on the agenda for this special session, so perhaps Greg Abbott hasn’t been informed about birth control by mail – but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time. Until then, if this is something that might be good for you or someone you know, check it out.

Let’s use mutant mosquitoes to fight Zika

What could possibly go wrong?

The Bayou City’s teeming mosquito population spawns in dark, wet nooks and carries a slew of deadly tropical diseases that could ravage the region.

So Houston is pondering a sneak attack, something akin to a Trojan Horse. Harris County officials are negotiating with a British biotech company, Oxitec, to create and release mutant mosquitoes genetically engineered so that after they’re set loose in the wild, offspring die, and the mosquito population dwindles.

Deric Nimmo, principal scientist at Oxitec, said it is a paradigm shift – “the release of mosquitoes to control mosquitoes.”

If an agreement is finalized, Harris County could become one of the first locations in the United States to use the mosquitoes, going far beyond the chemicals and public-awareness campaigns the county has long relied upon.

[…]

Oxitec spun off from Oxford University 15 years ago to commercialize proprietary strains of insects, namely mosquitoes. The hope is that they can help reduce populations of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which carry the Zika virus, dengue fever and chikungunya, among other deadly illnesses. The mosquitoes are common in the Houston region.

Oxitec inserts a “self-limiting gene” into a male mosquito and releases several into the environment. Those mosquitoes then mate with females – Oxitec claims their special males out-compete normal males – and the resulting offspring die before they become adults. Over time, the overall population of the Aedes mosquito declines.

Male mosquitoes do not bite and can’t spread disease.

The company has conducted field trials in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands and says it has reduced the Aedes mosquito populations by up to 90 percent in each location.

“It looks like we’re going to do or plan to do some sort of trial initially to test out the system,” Nimmo said.

Oxitec has yet to try out its technology in the U.S.

[…]

According to the FDA, if Oxitec wanted to conduct a field trial in Harris County, the company would have to submit an environmental assessment to the agency.

Another complication: Regulatory authority over Oxitec’s mosquitoes would then likely shift to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mustapha Debboun, director of the Harris County Mosquito Control Division, said working with Oxitec could provide another tool in the fight against Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses.

“We’re not abandoning the tried-and-true” approaches, said Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who has been leading the efforts. “We’re willing to see – What can we add to the tried-and-true that can make this better, especially considering that the tried-and-true has some flaws?”

Unseasonably warm weather has prompted the division to boost staff during winter months. It has seven investigators now, compared to four, and two additional public education staffers, Debboun said.

In August, officials nearly doubled the number of Aedes mosquito traps across the county to 134. Harris County also continues to partner with Microsoft to develop high-tech traps that will sense and nab only certain species of mosquitoes, like those that carry Zika or dengue, and eventually hopes to utilize drones to find and target hot spots.

After receiving a federal grant, the county hopes by May to start research on whether mosquitoes in the region that could carry Zika are developing resistance to certain pesticides. The county also will use that money to test more mosquitoes for Zika, Debboun said.

“The crucial part of all this is to find out if the mosquito has the virus in it,” he said.

Yes, remember the Microsoft Mosquito Drone story? Nice to hear about it again, even if there isn’t much to report yet. As far as Oxitec goes, their approach is one I’ve heard about as a possible way to limit the growth of the A. aegypti population and the many diseases it helps propagate. Maybe it will work without serious unanticipated side effects, but we would be the US pioneers for such a test. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but as the consequences of doing too little are West Nile and Zika, I’m not sure how wishy washy one can be about this. What do you think?

To the moon!

If this is on your bucket list, you may be in luck.

SpaceX, the ambitious rocket company headed by Elon Musk, wants to send a couple of tourists around the moon and back to Earth before the end of next year. If they manage that feat, the passengers would be the first humans to venture that far into space in more than 40 years.

Mr. Musk made the announcement on Monday in a telephone news conference. He said two private individuals approached the company to see if SpaceX would be willing to send them on a weeklong cruise, which would fly past the surface of the moon — but not land — and continue outward before gravity turned the spacecraft around and brought it back to Earth for a landing.

“This would do a long loop around the moon,” Mr. Musk said. The company is aiming to launch this moon mission in late 2018.

The two people would spend about a week inside one of SpaceX’s Dragon 2 capsules, launched on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. The spacecraft would be automated, but the travelers would undergo training for emergencies.

Mr. Musk did not say how much the travelers would pay for the ride. “A little bit more than the cost of a crewed mission to the space station would be,” he said.

The Falcon Heavy itself has a list price of $90 million.

While the trip appears to be within the technical capabilities of SpaceX, industry experts wondered whether the company could pull it off as quickly as Mr. Musk indicated. “Dates are not SpaceX’s strong suit,” said Mary Lynne Dittmar, executive director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, a space advocacy group consisting of aerospace companies. The Dragon 2 and Falcon Heavy are years behind schedule and have yet to fly.

“It strikes me as risky,” Dr. Dittmar said, adding that autonomous systems are not infallible. “I find it extraordinary that these sorts of announcements are being made when SpaceX has yet to get crew from the ground to low-Earth orbit.”

[…]

Seven space tourists have paid tens of millions of dollars to fly on Russian Soyuz rockets to visit the International Space Station, which is about 200 miles above the Earth’s surface. This would be a much more distant trip. The moon is about a quarter million miles away, and the trajectory would take the capsule 300,000 to 400,000 miles from Earth.

My advice is to start saving up for it now. I don’t know if travel insurance will be an option, but stuff can happen, so be prepared for contingencies. In the meantime, I leave you with a song:

If they don’t play that on the launch date, someone needs to be held accountable.

Still talking vaccines and measles

Because it keeps needing to be talked about.

Earlier this month, Dr. Peter J. Hotez, a pediatrician at Baylor College of Medicine and director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, detailed a disturbing prediction for 2017 in an op-ed for the New York Times: the country could be facing a measles outbreak, and the Lone Star State could among the earliest casualties. “Texas, where I live and work,” Hotez wrote, “may be the first state to once again experience serious measles outbreaks.”

[…]

The spread of measles—one of the most contagious and deadliest diseases—could be stopped by the Eighty-fifth Texas Legislature, where there are currently pending bills that take aim at correcting the anti-vaccination trend. In December, State Representative Donna Howard, a Democrat representing Austin, filed a bill that would require parents and students who choose not to be vaccinated to indicate that they will “opt-out,” as opposed to the current system in which people must “opt-in” in order to be vaccinated. The bill would also require education for parents and students before they choose to opt-out. A similar bill filed by Representative Sarah Davis, a Republican from Houston, would require parents to complete an online educational course to inform them about the dangers of opting out of vaccination.

But anti-vaxxers make up a strong political bloc, and they’ve successfully thwarted pro-vaccination efforts in the Lege before. In 2015, state Representative Jason Villalba of Dallas tried to pass a law that would have entirely removed the exemption protection for parents who claimed to have a “conscientious objection” to vaccinations. His proposal was promptly torn to pieces by a few thousand members of a Facebook group for Texas anti-vaxxers, which formed a PAC, Texans for Vaccine Choice, that ultimately killed Villalba’s bill.  “These people, they literally said it to my face—they hate me,” Villalba told the Texas Tribune in April 2016, after his bill flopped. “This is a group that is very dedicated, very organized; this issue is very important to them.” Even after the bill failed, the PAC kept on Villalba. Jackie Schlegel, the PAC’s creator, told KUT in January that PAC members “knocked on nearly 10,000 doors for his challenger.” Villalba narrowly avoided defeat. Villalba told KUT that he supports Representative Davis’s bill, but it seems unlikely he’ll try to revive his own. “I’m not interested in a suicide mission on this issue,” Villalba told the Tribune last April.

Texas remains one of only seventeen states that allow parents to exempt their children from receiving vaccinations due to philosophical objections. None of the currently pending bills in the Lege would change that. Still, the Texans for Vaccine Choice PAC has already started to push back against the pro-vaccine billse. The anti-vax crowd is active on social media, and let Davis know that they were upset about her bill. In several exchanges with these folks on Twitter in late January, Davis shot down claims that vaccines cause autism by calling such assertions “alternative facts.

See here and here for some background, then go read Rep. Davis’ Twitter battle with the anti-vaxxers. I’ve never been a big fan of hers, but my respect for her is higher than ever after seeing that. Despite the fact that the anti-vaxxers have a friend in the White House, I do believe we can get one or both of Rep. Davis and Rep. Howard’s bills passed. The anti-vaxxers are as we know an organized and vocal minority, but in the end they are still a minority. We do have them outnumbered, and we need to remember that. If you’ve gotten yourself in the habit of calling your legislators about this and that these days, please add these two bills to your list of things you ask them to support.

Trump and the anti-vaxxers

In case you needed another reason to dislike Donald Trump.

President Trump’s embrace of discredited theories linking vaccines to autism has energized the anti-vaccine movement. Once fringe, the movement is becoming more popular, raising doubts about basic childhood health care among politically and geographically diverse groups.

Public health experts warn that this growing movement is threatening one of the most successful medical innovations of modern times. Globally, vaccines prevent the deaths of about 2.5 million children every year, but deadly diseases such as measles and whooping cough still circulate in populations where enough people are unvaccinated.

Here in San Antonio, 80 miles southwest of the state capital, Texans for Vaccine Choice convened a happy hour to encourage attendees to get more involved politically. The event was among dozens of outreach events the group has hosted across the state. The relatively new group has boosted its profile, aided by a savvy social-media strategy, and now leads a contentious fight over vaccines that is gearing up in the current legislative session.

The battle comes at a time when increasing numbers of Texas parents are choosing not to immunize their children because of “personal beliefs.” Measles was eliminated in the United States more than 15 years ago, but the highly contagious disease has made a return in recent years, including in Texas, in part because of parents refusing to vaccinate their children. A 2013 outbreak in Texas infected 21 people, many of them unvaccinated children.

The modern anti-vaccine movement is based on a fraud. A study published almost 20 years ago purported to show a link between childhood vaccines and autism. The data was later found to be falsified, and the study was retracted.

[…]

Peter Hotez, director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, predicts that 2017 could be the year the anti-vaccination movement gains ascendancy in the United States. Texas could lead the way, he said, because some public schools are dangerously close to the threshold at which measles outbreaks can be expected. A third of students at some private schools are unvaccinated.

“We’re losing the battle,” Hotez said.

Although the anti-vaccine movement has been strong in other states, including California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, experts say the effort in Texas is among the most organized and politically active.

“It’s a great example of an issue that has a targeted, small minority but an intense minority who are willing to mobilize and engage in direct action,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

We’ve discussed this plenty of times before, and as you know I agree with Mark Jones. There’s no reasoning with these people. There’s only organizing, and making it so that being anti-vaccination – and let’s be clear, that’s what allowing broad parental-choice exemptions for vaccinating children is – is a disqualifier for public office. Either we vote these enablers out, or we suffer the consequences.

Some things never evolve

The SBOE, for instance.

The Texas State Board of Education on Wednesday voted preliminarily for science standards that would keep in language that some say opens the door to creationism.

The votes came a day after the board heard from scientists begging them to remove the language. Board members are set to hold a second public hearing and take final votes on the changes to the science standards in April.

The process began in July, when the board convened a teacher committee that recommended the deletion of several high school science standards, including four controversial biology standards they said would be too complex for students to understand. In their recommendation for deleting a clause requiring students examine explanations on the “sudden appearance” of organism groups in the fossil record, they included the note, “Not enough time for students to master concept. Cognitively inappropriate for 9th grade students.”

Republican board member Barbara Cargill led the charge Wednesday to keep three of those four standards in some form — arguing that they would actually help students better understand the science and keep teachers away from creationist ideas.

[…]

At Tuesday’s public hearing, former Texas science teacher Joni Ashbrook told the board that specific language is included in creationist arguments that a supernatural agent explains a burst of new forms in the fossil record.

But Cargill said her addition allows students to fully comprehend the ebbs and flows in the number of organism forms over time. “Something obviously happened in the environment, and they’re gone and the fossil record flatlines and we don’t see them anymore,” she said.

I did not follow this closely, so let me point you to the Texas Freedom Network, which is as always on top of it. If you’re looking for a place to channel some excess activist energy in between calls to Cruz and Cornyn’s offices, contacting your SBOE member and asking them to support the change to this language would be helpful. If you want to bone up on creationist talking points and the scientific responses to them, the delightfully old school Talk Origins FAQ secion is a good resource. The Chron has more.

More on the STAR Voting System

The Chron updates us on the latest in modern voting technology.

The drumbeat of election rigging and foreign hacking of voting machines have energized ongoing efforts to develop a new model of digital election equipment designed to produce instantly verifiable results and dual records for security.

Election experts say this emerging system, one of three publicly funded voting machine projects across the country, shows potential to help restore confidence in the country’s election infrastructure, most of which hasn’t been updated in more than a decade.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s taken years and years to get it done,” said Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk and leader of the voting machine project. “Now that we’ve had this election, there’s renewed interest.”

A prototype of the system, dubbed STAR Vote, sits in an engineering lab at Rice University, and bidding is open for manufacturers who want to produce it wholesale. Similar efforts to innovate voting systems are in the works in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“County clerks in these jurisdictions are the rock stars of running elections,” said Joe Kiniry, CEO of Free & Fair, an election systems supplier currently bidding on contracts to manufacture the designs of both Travis and Los Angeles counties. “If they have success in what they do, it will have, in my opinion, a massive impact on the whole U.S.”

Like any aging digital device, the voting machines are eventually bound to stumble, said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. He pointed to Detroit, where the number of votes counted didn’t match the number of voters who signed in. And he noted that reports of machines flipping votes more likely result from aged touch screens than a conspiracy to rig the election.

Yet there is seldom space in county budgets to replace the machines, which cost usually between $3,000 and $5,000 each. The vast majority of electronic voting equipment was purchased with federal funds from the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Most money reached the states by 2004, and there’s no foreseeable second wave of federal aid.

“This is really an oncoming crisis,” said Norden, who interviewed more than 100 election officials for a 2015 report about aging voting equipment published by the Brennan center. “A lot of election officials have been unhappy with the choices that the major vendors are providing.”

[…]

STAR Vote runs automatic audits, comparing a statistical sample of the paper ballots with the digital records to verify results.

“The savings are just enormous over doing a recount,” Stark said.

While other systems allow for comparison of precinct-level data, STAR Vote can compare paper ballots with individual voters’ digital ballots, which are encrypted and posted online.

Officials could take a small sample of printed ballots and compare them with digital results to conclude with high confidence that election results were correct.

The system itself is also inexpensive, built with off-the-shelf tablet computers and printers, which Wallach said will cut the price down to half of the current norm. Advanced software makes up for the cheap hardware, designers said, and they plan to make the software open-source, meaning it is free to use and, unlike current systems, can be serviced by any provider without exclusive long-term contracts.

I’ve written about this before, and while I love the design of the STAR machine, I don’t have much hope of getting to vote on one any time soon. The political climate just doesn’t seem conducive to any effort to improve the voting experience, and the lip service we got from Greg Abbott back during the peak Trump-whining-about-rigged-elections period has surely gone down the memory hole. The one possible way in that I can see for these devices is their lower cost. At some point, enough of the current voting machines will become sufficiently inoperable that replacement will be needed, and a cheaper device ought to have an advantage. Let’s hope the process of getting a manufacturer in place goes smoothly.

(NB: “Wallach” is Rice professor Dan Wallach, who as I have noted before is a friend of mine.)

Fire ant-killing robots

Let’s just luxuriate in the glory of that headline for a moment, shall we?

Harley Myler is working on a “war of the worlds.”

That’s what the Lamar Electrical Engineering Department chair calls his latest project: a walking robot that incinerates red fire ants.

The idea is to use a camera to identify the species the same way computers and sites like Facebook can recognize faces, and then fire at them with a blue laser taken from inside a DVD burner, he said.

Sophomore Qiuyi Ma, who recently received an undergraduate research grant to work on the project with Myler, said they just got the materials for the robot at the end of November. She expects to be working on the project through May.

The ants, which can attack and sting humans and animals, are not native to the United States and, according to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, displace native ant species.

Myler first proposed the project several years ago, but only recently received funding. He’s spent the last year working on another invasive species-targeting robot, which will help control the lionfish population in the Gulf of Mexico.

Though he originally envisioned an underwater vehicle shooting darts at the fish, which has venomous spines and preys on native species, other scientists worried about collateral damage and quickly put a stop to that.

“The marine biologists were [saying], ‘no, no, no, we can’t have a robot swimming around on reefs shooting darts at a lionfish,'” he said. Instead, the goal now is to make it easier and more efficient for humans to capture them, “just like a hunter has a trained dog,” he said.

I just want to say three things. One, Harley Myler is now my favorite scientist ever. Two, the only way this project could be any better is if the ant-killing laser-firing robots were built to resemble Star Wars AT-AT walkers. I mean, it’s obvious, right? And three, for the love of God please don’t let the Defense Department or the NSA give this guy a grant. I can’t wait till May to see what the prototype looks like, but until then if you want some more practical advice about fire ants, here’s the A&M fire ant page for you to peruse. You’re welcome.