Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Technology, science, and math

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.

Plague vaccines

Cool.

More than six centuries after the Black Death wiped out more than a third of the population of Europe, a University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston team has shown that in experiments with rodents, their three vaccines effectively protected against the infection that causes the disease. Just as important, they did not cause side effects.

“If this research is borne out, a vaccine like this could negate future epidemics and pandemics,” said Ashok Chopra, a UTMB professor of microbiology and immunology and the study’s principal investigator. “Given the increasing threat, the optimal strategy for protecting people is through vaccination.”

The plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, can be cured with antibiotics if drugs are started soon after infection. Without prompt treatment – initial symptoms can resemble the flu – it is nearly always fatal.

In an online paper last month in the journal NPJ Vaccines, Chopra’s team reported on the vaccines’ use against pneumonic plague, the most virulent type of the disease and the one that spreads through airborne transmission. Chopra said they also work against bubonic plague, the type most associated with the 14th century pandemic that killed an estimated 50 million people.

A copy of the study is here. The good news is that the plague is relatively rare – only a few thousand cases worldwide per year – but it’s very nasty and fatal if untreated in time. It’s also the case that a resistant strain of this bacteria can be weaponized, so yeah, an effective vaccine would be nice. Keep up the good work, y’all.

The coming measles outbreak

I hope we’re wrong about this.

Peter Hotez used to worry mostly about vaccines for children in far-away places. An infectious diseases researcher at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, Hotez is developing shots against diseases in poorer countries such as hookworm and schistosomiasis.

But now, Hotez is anxious about children much closer to home. The number of schoolchildren not vaccinated against childhood diseases in Texas is growing rapidly, which means that the state may see its first measles outbreaks in the winter or spring of 2018, Hotez predicted in a recent article in PLOS Medicine. Disgraced antivaccine physician Andrew Wakefield has set up shop in the Texan capital, Austin, and a political action committee (PAC) is putting pressure on legislators facing a slew of vaccine-related bills.

“Texas is now the center of the antivaxxer movement,” Hotez says. “There is a big fight coming,” adds Anna Dragsbaek of The Immunization Partnership, a nonprofit organization in Houston that advocates for vaccinations.

Texas still has one of the highest vaccination rates for childhood diseases overall, 97.4%, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the number of children not vaccinated because of their parents’ “personal beliefs”—as opposed to medical reasons—has risen from 2300 in 2003, when such exemptions were introduced, to more than 44,000 so far this year, according to numbers prepared by The Immunization Partnership based on Texas Department of State Health Services data. The actual number may be much higher because an estimated 300,000 Texan children are schooled at home, says Susan Wootton, an infectious disease pediatrician at the University of Texas in Houston; though the law requires these kids to be immunized too, parents don’t need to submit proof of vaccination.

Measles is an extremely contagious pathogen and often the first one to spread when vaccination rates dip below about 95%. The risk of outbreaks is even greater because unvaccinated children aren’t randomly distributed. In Gaines county in western Texas, for instance, the exemption rate is already 4.8%, and at one school in Austin, it’s 40%. “I would describe Texas as sitting on a ticking time bomb,” Wootton says.

[…]

Meanwhile, a PAC named Texans for Vaccine Choice has sprung up after state Representative Jason Villalba, a Republican lawyer from Dallas, proposed scrapping nonmedical exemptions last year. (The Texas House of Representatives voted down the bill.) “While they do not have a whole lot of money, they have a lot of people that they can deploy to interfere in primary campaigns,” Dragsbaek says. “They made Villalba’s primary campaign very, very difficult.” Rebecca Hardy, director of state policies at Texans for Vaccine Choice, says the group is not trying to convince parents that vaccines are dangerous, but fighting for their right not to immunize their children. (It’s also helping them apply for exemptions.)

Though almost all U.S. states allow religious exemptions from vaccination, only 18 permit exemptions based on personal beliefs; with 27 million residents, Texas is the most populous one. Another hotbed of resistance to vaccines, California, stopped allowing “philosophical exemptions”—which covered religious and personal beliefs—this year, after a measles outbreak that sickened more than a hundred people. The change in legislation led some Californians opposing vaccines to move to Texas, Hotez says.

The Texas legislature is now pondering several bills that would help shore up vaccination. One would make it compulsory for parents to complete an online course before refusing vaccination; another would require them to discuss their decision with a doctor. The bill with the best chances may be one that would allow parents to know the immunization rates at their child’s school. “This does not infringe on anyone’s right to have an exemption, it simply allows parents who need to protect their children to have adequate information to do so,” Dragsbaek says. But Hardy says her PAC is opposed to even this bill: “If it’s truly about a parent’s right to know the health status of a campus, then why are we not proposing bills that would give the rates of HIV-positive kids on campus, or hepatitis B-positive kids?” she asks.

The problem, as I’ve noted before, is that the anti-vax forces are vocal and organized, which gives them a disproportionate amount of influence in the Lege. If you’re still mad about the November election (and you should be!) and you’re looking to Do Something to make our state a better place, organizing in favor of pro-vaccination candidates and officeholders, in all levels of government, would be a good way to channel that energy. Note this does not have to be strictly partisan – Rep. Villalba, who drew the wrath of the anti-vaxxers in 2015, is a Republican. But until there’s a countervailing force against the likes of Texans for Vaccine Choice, they’re going to gain all the ground. You can’t fight something with nothing, and the pro-vaccine forces have nothing right now.

We’re going to be fighting about vaccinations for a while

I wish it weren’t so, but it is.

Texas is one of 18 states that allow non-medical exemptions to the vaccines required for school attendance. California had a similar law allowing non-medical exemptions, until last year when it enacted a law that has one of the strictest requirements in the country after a 2014 outbreak of measles traced to the Disneyland theme park infected more than 100 people around the country.

Many of the parents opting out of the immunizations, which are widely recommended by doctors, say they fear a link between the vaccines and health problems such as autism. But studies that they cite have been widely debunked by public health officials.

“Year after year we’ve seen a steady increase in the number of students with a conscientious exemption from vaccination in Texas,” said Christine Mann, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services. “But overall, the numbers are small.”

Even though statewide levels of vaccinations remain high, at over 98 percent, what concerns public health officials are the growing clusters of geographic areas with high rates of unvaccinated children. Texas went from just 2,314 “conscientious exemptions” in 2003 to 44,716 this year, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Some parents are pressing state officials to let them know how many of their children’s peers are unvaccinated. Jinny Suh, who has a 4-year-old son, is helping spearhead a petition drive asking legislators to change state law so that the number of school exemptions is public. Currently, exemption rates are available for individual private and charter schools, but only district-wide for public schools.

State Rep. César Blanco, a Democrat from El Paso, introduced a bill during the last legislative session that would have required schools to notify parents about vaccination rates at the school level, but the bill was stalled in committee.

“As a parent, there are lots of things that people get very passionate about,” Suh said, “but for some reason, in my experience, vaccinations remains an almost taboo topic besides a few passionate people.”

Yes, the anti-vaxxers are a minority, but they are a vocal and organized minority, which is a recipe for political success. Unfortunately, the end result of that political success is a growing public health problem, which is compounded by a lack of leadership in our state government. Honestly, what we need here is for an organized pushback against the anti-vaxxers, a pro-vaccine Moms Demand Action kind of thing. The main difference here isn’t that there is an anti-vaccination legislative faction that needs to be countered. I doubt there are that many legislators who are truly anti-vaccination, though there are a decent number who are in favor of “conscience” objections to some extent. It’s more that there isn’t a vocal and active pro-vaccination legislative force that can advance the cause and/or defend against attempts to weaken vaccination requirements. People who want to see more kids get vaccinated and fewer kids get exempted from vaccinations need to elect a few of their own. Until that happens, we’re going to see more stories like this one.

Who wants to go to Mars?

I imagine that sounds like a pretty good option to a lot of people right about now.

Wealthy business leaders like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are creating buzz around and making progress toward the exploration of deep space, experts said Wednesday during SpaceCom in downtown Houston.

“I think we’re entering an era of philanthropic private funding of grand visions in space that start with our own solar system and eventually lead to humanity going to the stars,” said Pete Worden, chairman of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation and former director of NASA Ames Research Center.

Worden and other panelists discussed going to Mars and beyond during their presentations at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Such exploration, Worden said, will require public-private partnerships between international businesses and governments.

His enthusiasm lies with exploring the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. To do this, Worden discussed the Breakthrough Starshot project. This involves small, ultra-light nanocraft – miniature space probes attached to lightweight sails – that will be pushed up to 100 million mph by a ground-based light beamer, according to the project’s website.

“I’m hoping sometime here later this century, maybe in 2076, hopefully sooner, we will fly by the nearest star,” Worden said.

Other panelists focused on human space flight to Mars. NASA wants to get people to Mars in the 2030s.

“Why send humans to Mars? It is the closest habitable planet,” said Brian Duffy, vice president and program manager at Orbital ATK. “And if the human race is ever going to be anywhere else in the universe, then Mars makes the most sense.”

2076 is a little out of my reach, and I’d be too old in the 2030s for it to be practical. But even if I’ll never get to do it I support space travel, and often I think it will be necessary for the future viability of the civilization we have now. I just hope we can get the engineering problems solved in time. If you’re sorry you missed out on SpaceCom, don’t worry – it will be back next year, in December.

As long as we’re talking about improving our voting machines

Then this is what we should be talking about.

Dana DeBeauvoir

[Travis] County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir called Rice University computer science professor Dan Wallach, who has been poking holes in voting-machine security for years. He’s testified before Congress on the subject.

Now DeBeauvoir wanted him to design a new one.

“Wow,” he says. “That doesn’t happen very often.”

The last time voting technology went through a major design change was after the disastrous Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election. Confusion over badly designed and incompletely punched paper ballots threw the results into chaos.

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, committing $4 billion to help localities buy new electronic voting machines.

“All of these machines, we understand now, are wildly insecure,” Wallach says. “Even though the vendors made claims that they were great, those claims have turned out to be false. And we’re now dealing with that problem.”

But replacing them costs money that many localities don’t have, and it’s not clear that Congress will pony up again.

So Wallach’s new system would have to be cheaper than what’s on the market now.

[…]

The system that the team of cybersecurity and usability experts came up with is called STAR-Vote, for secure, transparent, auditable and reliable.

It has two parts: A kiosk containing an off-the-shelf tablet computer and a standard inkjet printer, plus a metal ballot box with a built-in scanner.

Off-the-shelf parts keep the cost down and can be easily sourced and replaced. Wallach says the metal box costs more than all the electronic components inside it. The whole system should cost half or less what current machines do, which cost about $3,000 each.

Voters make their selections on the touchscreen tablet, which is kept off the internet and stripped of all software (and potential vulnerabilities) except the voting application.

State-of-the-art cryptography protects the integrity of the vote. But it’s not the only safeguard. Hard copy remains one of the most secure ways to cast a ballot.

“The crypto can do some really great tricks,” Wallach says. “But if you don’t trust the cryptography, that’s OK. Because we also have printed paper ballots that go into a box.”

Voters can see who the computer says they chose. The vote is only cast when the voter puts it in the ballot box.

And if there is any question about the electronic votes, the paper ballots are the backup.

This is nothing new – I wrote about it in July of 2014, and Wallach’s team made a presentation about STAR-Vote in August of 2013. The point is that this system, which is both more secure than what we have now while also being less expensive, could be in place for the 2018 election if we really wanted it to be. Given the lip service some Republicans like Greg Abbott are giving to election integrity, this is totally doable. You will know by what happens in the 2017 legislative session whether Abbott et al meant any of it or not.

(Disclaimer: As noted before, Dan Wallach is a friend of mine.)

Texas versus the feds: A Series Of Tubes edition

Ken Paxton will never run out of reasons to sue the Obama administration.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is jumping into Ted Cruz’s fight to stop what the U.S. senator calls President Barack Obama’s illegal internet “giveaway.”

Paxton and three other attorneys general filed a lawsuit Wednesday night aiming to halt the Obama administration’s plan to cede oversight of the internet domain-name system to an international body. Critics claim the transition, which is set to go into effect within days, could open up the Internet to censorship by countries like China and Russia.

“Trusting authoritarian regimes to ensure the continued freedom of the internet is lunacy,” Paxton said in a statement. “The president does not have the authority to simply give away America’s pioneering role in ensuring that the internet remains a place where free expression can flourish.”

The lawsuit argues that the transfer, among other things, violates the property clause of the U.S. Constitution by letting go of government property without Congress’ approval. It also says the plan will have a negative impact on Americans’ free-speech rights under the First Amendment.

Yeah, this is as dumb as it sounds. Let Ars Technica, which compares the hysteria over this to the Y2K scare, explain:

Overall opposition to the transition appears to be largely political. Many GOP lawmakers (and the Trump campaign) are seemingly arguing that without US oversight, foreign governments or hacking groups from the Internet’s dark corners might take over, control the Internet, and censor it dramatically. What’s more, these critics suggest that without US oversight, the Internet’s infrastructure might crumble entirely. The World Wide Web would be left in a state of anarchy.

That simply isn’t true. Ask other US officials, tech companies, or even Internet architects who helped build the current system, and they’ll say the US government’s oversight role of the Internet is too small for such doomsday scenarios to occur. In fact, these proponents of the transition even say that leaving the root zone under US control could cause more harm than good in the long run.

Regardless of who’s right or wrong in the ICANN changeover debate, one thing nobody can deny is that the United States will continue exercising a powerful hold over a great swath of the Internet—even under the transition. That’s because the companies that oversee the world’s most popular top-level domains (.com, .org, and .net) are based in the United States. These organizations must follow US law and abide by US court orders, and they have to remove websites from the global Internet when ordered to do so.

To date, these court orders are how the US government has seized thousands of websites it has declared to be breaking laws about intellectual property, drugs, gambling, and you name it. Kim Dotcom’s Megaupload file-sharing site fell because of this in 2012. The Bodog online sports wagering site was shuttered by the US that same year even though that .com domain was purchased with a Canadian register.

What’s more, even when a domain is registered under a handle that is outside of the United States’ official jurisdiction, the US government has international cooperation agreements with many countries that require foreign registries to abide by US directives. The most high-profile case of this kind was this summer’s shuttering of one of the world’s most notorious file-sharing sites—KAT.cr, or the KickassTorrents website. While the site had been playing a game of Internet domain Whac-a-mole to retain a leg up on global intellectual property authorities, it was registered with the .cr domain by the Costa Rican register called NIC when it was shuttered at the request of the US. The site’s alleged operator was arrested in July in Poland and charged by US authorities with varying criminal copyright infringement counts.

The US often leaves a landing page on shuttered sites notifying Web surfers that sites were “seized pursuant to an order issued by a US District Court.” Whether you call it censorship or just following the law, countries across the globe have similar domain-seizing powers that won’t be disturbed by the ICANN changeover.

The fact that .com, .net, and .org sites are run by US-based companies isn’t trivial, either. Verisign, of Virginia, maintains the global DNS Internet root zone system at the center of the ICANN transition debate, and the company has an indefinite contractual right from ICANN to manage the globe’s .com and .net domains. About 127 million of the world’s 334 million top-level domain name registrations worldwide are .com, according to Verisign. The .net domain comes in fifth place worldwide, and .org is sixth place. The .org domain is operated by the Public Interest Registry, also of Virginia.

There’s a lot more, so go read it all. This lawsuit is basically a confluence of stupidity, xenophobia, and Obama derangement. It deserves a quick and unceremonious death, and thankfully, it received one.

U.S. District Judge George C. Hanks Jr. turned down the request by Paxton and attorneys general from Arizona, Oklahoma and Nevada, saying they had relied on “hearsay” about possible repercussions of the contract’s expiration. The case, he ruled, lacked enough evidence to convince the court that harm would come from giving up oversight of the nonprofit.

[…]

During the hearing, Hanks said he was concerned whether his court has jurisdiction over the matter, and whether there was enough evidence of negative consequences that would result from the ending contract.

Attorneys representing Texas argued there is no getting control and oversight on the internet address book once the contract ends.

Lawyers representing the federal government contend the plaintiffs have “not one scintilla of evidence” something adverse would happen to the governments’ websites.

Thank goodness for sanity. The fact that you are able to read this post, or anything else on the Internet today, is proof that Paxton and Cruz were full of it. The Press and Politico have more.

Rice prof wins MacArthur grant

Awesome!

Dr. Rebecca Richards-Kortum

Dr. Rebecca Richards-Kortum

Babies were dying in the Malawi hospital and there was little Rebecca Richards-Kortum could do about it.

For Richards-Kortum, a bioengineering professor at Rice University, it was a heartbreaking realization, one that haunted her as she toured the modest health care facility more than a decade ago.

But her despair was quickly replaced by hope, when she noticed a room full of broken medical equipment – donated machines rendered useless by the African country’s unreliable power supply.

“I’m an engineer,” Richards-Kortum recalled saying to herself as she surveyed the equipment. “I can do something about this. I can fix this.”

Engineers are good at fixing problems, and Richards-Kortum is an exceptional engineer, so good the MacArthur Foundation on Thursday named her a 2016 MacArthur Fellow. More commonly known as a genius grant, the prestigious MacArthur fellowship comes with $625,000 paid over five years.

The MacArthur Foundation considers the no-strings-attached grants as investments in the future of recipients, usually a hodgepodge from among the nation’s best artists, historians, scientists and activists.

For Richards-Kortum, it’s a nod to the global work she’s done to deliver low-cost medical technology to Third World countries. That includes a piece of machinery she helped develop that assists babies who struggle to breathe and has significantly decreased mortality rates in countries using it.

That piece of machinery was a CPAP machine, which I blogged about here and which contributed to a 46% reduction in the infant mortality rate in one neonatal unit. She and fellow Rice engineer Maria Oden have since developed other low-cost life-saving devices, which ultimately led to this award. Congratulations, Dr. Richards-Kortum, and may the inspiration continue to flow.

Too many kids are not getting vaccinated

We let this happen, thanks to the fervor of a vocal minority.

The number of Texans who exempt their children from vaccination for non-medical reasons rose nearly 9 percent last school year, continuing a now 12-year-long trend that public health officials worry could eventually leave communities vulnerable to outbreaks of preventable diseases.

The new numbers represent a 19-fold increase since 2003, the first year that Texas law allowed parents to decline state immunization requirements for “reasons of conscience.” The number of such exemptions are still small, a little under 45,000 of the state’s roughly 5.5 million schoolchildren, but they’ve spiked from less than 3,000 that first year, according to the new state data.

“The trend is going in the wrong direction,” said Anna C. Dragsbaek, president and CEO of The Immunization Partnership, a pro-vaccine group. “It’s time for the community to step up and take action on this very troubling trend.”

Concern has picked up in recent years amid the re-emergence of diseases such as measles and whooping cough. A large measles outbreak last year, linked to an initial exposure at Disneyland in California, sparked particular distress.

Texas is one of 18 states that allows waivers of school vaccine requirements based on parents’ conscience or personal beliefs. Only two states – Mississippi and West Virginia – don’t grant exemptions from immunization requirements on religious grounds, and all states allow exemptions for medical conditions, such as a compromised immune system.

[…]

Pushed by the Immunization Partnership, the 2015 Legislature considered a bill that would have required the Texas Department of State Health Services to post the exemption numbers of every school on its website.

Under the current law, the department is only required to post aggregate numbers for each school district.

The bill passed the House but died in the Senate. Dragsbaek, impressed at the traction the legislation got, said the partnership will push hard on behalf of any such bill again in 2017.

The bill to require school-specific information called for the inclusion of delinquency numbers, also a big problem. At HISD, for instance, more than 3 percent of children in 2015-2016 – who hadn’t obtained a conscientious exemption – had not received at least one of each vaccine by the district’s age-specified deadline. Enforcement of such deadlines is up to the principal.

“Eleven percent of HISD’s prekindergarten students hadn’t received their first dose of measles vaccine 90 days into the school year,” said Dr. Susan Wootton, a pediatrician at University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston who is leading an HISD task force on immunization delinquency. “That needs to be fixed. Nepal does better than that.”

Harris County’s overall conscientious exemption rate is still relatively low, just 0.62 percent, but it’s doubled in the last five years. So has Montgomery County’s, now 1.73 percent. Brazoria County has gone from 0.30 to 0.80. Gaines County in West Texas has the state’s highest conscientious exemption rate, nearly 5 percent.

That would be a worthwhile bill, but the real goal needs to be to eliminate the “personal belief” exemptions, which are an increasing threat to public health. Unfortunately, the pushback on that last session was ferocious, and that has emboldened the anti-vaxxers. I don’t know how much optimism I have about the school-specific information bill as a result. There are plenty of people who would like to see better vaccination laws, but the energy and organization is on the other side. It would help to get some leadership from, say, the Governor’s office, but he has none to offer, so the rest of us are on our own.

Want to know how close you live to a polluter?

There’s an app for that.

More than two million Texans live within a half-mile of an oil and gas facility, putting them at risk of exposure to toxic fumes, according to a new app released Wednesday by national environmental groups. The online tool — which includes a searchable map — places about a fifth of the state’s area, and more than 900 Texas schools and 75 medical facilities, in the half-mile range.

The app, created by Earthworks, Clean Air Task Force and FracTracker Alliance, is searchable by address and overlays the locations of oil and gas facilities and vulnerable populations with cancer and respiratory health risk information. An analysis published with the map also estimates that by 2017, 82 counties in Texas with a population of 4.1 million or more will face an elevated cancer risk.

“This [app] is so important in Texas is because of the political situation,” said Earthworks’ communications director, Alan Septoff. “The state has vowed never to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and there’s no chance the state of Texas is going to act.”

[…]

In June, about a month after the Obama administration announced plans to regulate methane leaks from new oil and gas facilities, the Texas Railroad Commission urged the state’s attorney general to sue the Environmental Protection Agency over the rules. Texas Railroad Commissioner David Porter has previously said the methane regulations “kill the jobs Texans rely on to support their families” and are “unnecessary” and “over-burdensome.”

Septoff said his group hopes both that the tool will be a resource to help folks living close to oil and gas activity understand the health risks they may be facing, as well as a push for the Obama administration to adopt methane regulations for facilities already in operation.

Here’s what the map for Texas looks like. There’s a ton of information on the webpage, with videos to help you use and understand the data. However you feel about regulations, you’re better off having full information available to you. Check it out.

If we can’t ban it, we’ll BS about it

The “it” in question is of course abortion, with the state of Texas lying to women about its effects and risks.

Death and infertility were just two of the risks a doctor described to Kryston Skinner when she chose to have an abortion last year.

The 23-year-old knew it wasn’t the right time for her to become a mother, though Skinner dreamed of children in the future. The thought of not living to see that day, or becoming infertile, terrified her.

But some of the information she was given was misleading or medically wrong, contained in a long, controversial booklet that state lawmakers require doctors to give women at least 24 hours before an abortion procedure.

Medical experts have long denounced the booklet, saying important sections — such as those connecting abortions to the likelihood of breast cancer and infertility — are wrong.

Now, the Department of State Health Services is planning an update of the booklet, called A Woman’s Right to Know. The new draft doubles down on information highly contested by medical experts and the pro-abortion rights community, stoking the flames of a debate going back more than a decade.

The booklet was mandated by a 2003 anti-abortion law intended to guarantee informed consent from women seeking abortions. It contains information on the developmental stages of a fetus, risks of abortion and other options for pregnant women.

The state is supposed to consult with medical organizations to provide “objective,” “nonjudgmental” and “accurate scientific information” in the booklet. DSHS spokeswoman Carrie Williams said the original booklet was written by a group of agency officials, legislators and public health and medical professionals.

The recent revisions were made “after reviewing medical research and information from experts in the field.” The process included consulting the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, she said.

But the group said the state has not incorporated any of its recommendations, which included removing scientifically unsupported language that suggests getting an abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, and that women who have abortions are more likely to become depressed or suicidal.

Here’s the draft of the new booklet, the current booklet, and a letter from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists telling the state that the draft booklet full is of BS. It’s another egregious example of doctors and scientists saying one thing, and a bunch of anti-abortion activists claiming they’re wrong because they want them to be wrong. Remember how much whining there was about Obamacare interfering with the doctor-patient relationship? This is what actual interference with that relationship looks like, since no doctor who isn’t a quack would ever choose to give this booklet to patients. Perhaps this would make a good legal test of the new standard for abortion restrictions. The Austin Chronicle has more.

Another bad year for Kemp’s ridley turtles

This does not look good.

The nesting season for the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is ending with zero nests found on either Galveston Island or the Bolivar Peninsula for the first time in at least a decade, although the number rose for the entire coast.

The decline in nesting on the Upper Texas Gulf Coast comes as a recent study shows that the nest numbers for Texas’ official sea turtle, whose primary nesting grounds are in Texas and Mexico, are at less than one-tenth of their historic levels.

Only five Kemp’s ridley nests were found on the upper Texas coast – four at Surfside and one at Quintana Beach – during the nesting season that runs from April until the middle of July, although there are always a few late nesters.

“We’ve had some extremely high tides and a lot of flooding this year, and many times the ocean was right up to the base of the dune,” which could have discouraged turtles from digging nests, said Christopher Marshall, lead turtle researcher at Texas A&M University at Galveston.

Nesting numbers were up for the entire Texas Gulf Coast and at the main nesting grounds in Tamaulipas, Mexico, near the Texas border. But scientists and conservationists remain concerned that the increases are far below those prior to the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

“We’ve got two years of increases, however it’s discouraging that we have not gotten back to the numbers we were at in 2009,” said Donna Shaver, chief of the division of sea turtle science and recovery at Padre Island National Seashore.

So far this season, 185 Kemp’s ridley nests have been found on the Texas Coast, said Shaver, who tallies every discovered nest and oversees a turtle egg incubation program on Padre Island. The real indicator of the health of the Kemp’s ridley is the number of nests at the main nesting grounds in Rancho Nuevo, Tamaulipas. The count this year is 17,000 nests, up from 14,000 last year but still far short of the record 22,000 in 2012. The record that year was barely higher than the 2009 number and far less than what scientists expected.

“It came up, but it didn’t come up anywhere close to what we hoped it would if it had grown at the same rate as in 2009 and it didn’t keep going,” said Thane Wibbles, a biologist at the University of Alabama. Wibbles said there should have been more than 30,000 nests in 2012.

“It’s still not back to its historical levels where we were seeing a 12 to 15 percent increase every year,” said Pat Burchfield, who heads the U.S. contingent of the Binational Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Recovery Project and is director of the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville.

[…]

Most scientists speculate that either the oil spill caused a temporary pause in Kemp’s ridley reproduction and that it will rebound, or that conditions in the Gulf have become inhospitable for the turtle’s historic population size, Wibbles said.

“It may be that the carrying capacity of the Gulf of Mexico may not be what it used to be,” Wibbles said. “I would say in five years if it hasn’t got on an exponential recovery trend then we have to look at the possibility that the Gulf of Mexico is not allowing them to come back.”

If the Gulf can’t support as many Kemp’s ridleys as it once did, he said, then the Gulf may be in trouble. Said Wibbles, “The ridley could be considered a metaphoric canary in the coal mine.”

See here for some background. I sure hope things start to look up, but it’s getting harder to feel optimistic. I don’t care how much that oil spill cost BP. It wasn’t enough.

First baby affected by Zika born in Texas

Won’t be the last, unfortunately.

A baby boy born with microcephaly in Harris County is the first Zika-affected infant in Texas, the Texas Department of State Health Services announced Wednesday.

The baby’s mother contracted Zika in Colombia, and the baby was infected in the womb, according Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health. The baby was born a few weeks ago in Harris County outside of Houston, and tests confirmed that he had Zika on Monday, Shah said.

In the state health department news release, State Health Services Commissioner John Hellerstedt called the news “heartbreaking.”

“This underscores the damage Zika can have on unborn babies,” Hellerstedt said. “Our state’s work against Zika has never been more vital.”

[…]

Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor University, predicted that the baby born with microcephaly in Harris County represents the start of a wave of such births in Texas, as pregnant women who contracted the virus in Latin America deliver children with an elevated risk of birth defects.

If transmission of Zika begins on the Gulf Coast, Hotez said, there could be a second wave of Zika-affected births months from now.

“There’s a good chance that the transmission of Zika has already started in Texas,” Hotez said. “But without federal funds, it’s hard to have the resources to look for it, diagnose it, and do the mosquito control.”

Let’s be clear about why Congress hasn’t acted on Zika funding. A functional Congress would simply appropriate some money for the problem and be done with it. Our Republican-led Congress sees an opportunity to attack Planned Parenthood and promote the Confederate flag. And so here we are. Let’s hope that count of Zika-infected babies doesn’t go up too much while they’re on vacation.

Building a better mosquito trap

I love this story.

Microsoft Mosquito Drone

Harris County officials are teaming up with tech-giant Microsoft to find and research mosquitoes that could carry the Zika virus or other mosquito-borne diseases, the county public health department said Tuesday.

As part of “Project Premonition,” 10 traps will be placed across Harris County. Each trap can transmit data on when the mosquito was trapped, the temperature, barometric pressure and humidity during capture, according to a statement from the public health department.

Drones could then be used to help detect mosquito hot spots and to set and collect traps, according to the news release. The data collected could be used to predict when and where certain mosquito-borne diseases occur, ideally before they occur.

“We believe autonomous systems and cloud computing have enormous potential to improve monitoring and prediction,” said Microsoft lead researcher and project lead Ethan Jackson in the statement. “This partnership with Harris County’s state-of-the-art mosquito control program creates a unique opportunity to apply and shape next-generation technologies together with public health leaders.”

The computerized traps can filter out other flies and insects that aren’t being targeted. County officials emphasized that mosquitoes carrying Zika had not yet been detected in Harris County.

Follow that link in the story for the techie details behind this. Why not study mosquitoes to see where they are most prevalent, and base your response on that rather than spraying indiscriminately? Makes sense to me. Just please don’t anyone take a potshot at one of the drones if you see one in your neighborhood. It’s a bad idea on many levels.

Our bioscience future

Looking bright.

Biotechnology continues to grow in Texas, contributing to the state’s overall economy by adding jobs, making strides in research and innovation and last year attracting $1 billion in federal funding for research, a new report on business development from a biotechnology trade association found.

As the Texas economy struggles under the weight of an oil and gas industry downturn, the biosciences of medical research, treatment innovation and pharmaceutical development are seen as a bright light that stands to soon glow brighter.

The Texas bioscience industry reported 81,000 jobs in 2014 across 4,865 businesses, which translates to 1 percent growth since 2012, according to a report released [recently] by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, the national trade association, which compiled the study along with Teconomy Partners to measure growth over previous years.

The findings were made public in San Francisco at the organization’s annual convention, which attracts 15,000 biotechnology and pharmaceutical professionals from around the world.

“Texas is one of the top-tier states in the size of its bioscience and biomedical research and innovation base,” the report concluded.

[…]

In that time the state has set its sights on becoming a true competitor with the more established institutions of research and pharmaceuticals on the East and West coasts. “The third coast” has become a popular rallying cry for those working to turn Texas in general and Houston in particular into a bio-science destination.

“Houston is becoming a major player not just from a research perspective but also in its clinical prowess,” said Melinda Richter, head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation JLABS.

JLABS opened a state-of-the-art, 34,000-square-foot business incubator not far from the Texas Medical Center’s main campus in March. The project offers laboratory space, equipment and guidance for biotechnology and life science startups in their march toward commercialization.

The luring of a JLABS facility was seen as a coup not only for the innovation expected to blossom there but also for bragging rights.

“That is huge,” Kowalski said of the opening of JLABS @ TMC. “They don’t just go anywhere.”

Nationally, biotechnology exploded in the early 2000s but slowed during the recession years. The report says the industry is now regaining lost ground.

In 2014, the industry employed 1.66 million people at more than 77,000 businesses across the country, the report found. Wages continue to be robust with a $95,000 average annual salary.

You can find a copy of the report here. This is all to the good, though we’re a ways away from being able to mitigate the effects of the energy industry slowdown. Imagine how much better things could be if our state leadership wasn’t so relentlessly hostile to science, too. Until that time, we’ll take the growth we can get.

Remembering Buckyballs and the Nobel Prize they won

Twenty years ago, two Rice University chemists won the Nobel Prize for a revolutionary idea about carbon molecules.

The discovery of Buckyballs, a new form of carbon that ushered in the era of nanotechnology and won a Nobel Prize, happened largely by accident.

In 1985, Rice University chemists Robert Curl and Richard Smalley hosted British chemist Harry Kroto for a series of experiments in Houston. Kroto had a theory about how long carbon chains were formed in the atmospheres of carbon-rich giant stars, and Smalley had built a laser beam apparatus that could vaporize molecules and test the theory.

Over 10 days, the three professors and three graduate students conducted tests in which they vaporized carbon molecules with Smalley’s laser beam apparatus and then measured how the carbon atoms clustered together. To their surprise, in addition to the long chain molecules they were seeking, they found a high number of clusters consisting of 60 carbon atoms.

The professors tasked their graduate students with finding ways of changing the parameters of the experiment to increase the number of C60 molecules and tried to theorize what their structure would look like. They knew the structure had to be something more stable, like a sphere, that would protect the bonds between the carbon atoms from being easily broken.

“What was the chemical structure?” Curl recalled in his Rice office earlier this month. “How can you put 60 carbon atoms together and come up with something really stable?”

Kroto remembered he had built with his children a paper star dome that consisted of both pentagons and hexagons. He wanted to call his wife in England to have her find the construction.

“But it was getting late, and it seemed highly improbable that he had done this,” Curl said.

Instead, that night, Smalley fiddled with paper, scissors and scotch tape, creating a paper sphere made up of 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons with 60 corners. It fit all the parameters for a stable form of carbon with 60 atoms.

The structure resembled the geodesic domes that American architect Buckminster Fuller designed for the 1967 Montreal World Exhibition. They decided to name the structure buckminsterfullerene in his honor. They called the spheres Buckyballs for short because they resembled soccer balls.

The trio was excited about what they came up with, but it was only a theory. They had no proof other than the high number of C60 molecules they were seeing in their experiments.

“That didn’t deter us,” Curl said.

Read the rest, it’s worth your time. Smalley passed away in 2005; Curl is now an emeritus professor. They didn’t have to win the Nobel for this research – there was another team that had made a similar discovery. Buckyballs themselves were never of much practical use, but the discovery led to the field of nanotechnology and the creation of nanotubes, among other things. It’s fair to say we live in a different world today because of Robert Curl and Richard Smalley.

Use of abortion pill rises

Until the Lege reconvenes, anyway.

Misoprostol

There’s been a sharp increase in the number of Texas women who are using the abortion pill to end their pregnancies now that federal officials have eased restrictions on the drug, according to officials at Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas.

Until recently, the number of women seeking medically induced abortions at Texas’ Planned Parenthood facilities had dipped to about 1 percent because of stringent guidelines put in place by state lawmakers, officials say.

That changed in late March, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration relaxed guidelinesfor women taking mifepristone, a pill geared to induce abortion early in a pregnancy.

“We have seen a fourfold increase in the number of our patients choosing medication abortion since the FDA updated its protocol,” said Sarah J. Wheat, chief external affairs officer at Planned Parenthood. “From our perspective, it’s restoring options for women.

“It’s putting decisions back in the hands of women instead of politicians at the Capitol.”

No firm numbers are available yet, but Texas researchers and abortion providers say they see the increase and hope to have better estimates in the coming months.

[…]

Planned Parenthood continues to run clinics statewide, including the Southwest Fort Worth Health Center, a privately funded $6.5 million licensed ambulatory surgical center that opened in 2013.

A medical abortion has remained an option for patients at these facilities, but fewer women have used it because Texas law required them to visit the clinic four times for it, said Daniel Grossman, an investigator with the Texas Policy Evaluation Project and a professor at the University of California, San Francisco.

“In the six months after HB 2 went into effect, there was a 70 percent decline in medication abortions performed statewide,” said Grossman, who is working with researchers at the University of Texas at Austin to determine the impact of legislation on abortions. “Interviews with women … [showed they were] incredibly frustrated when they had a preference for medication abortion” and couldn’t get it.

Wheat said some women have had to travel 100 miles or more to reach a Planned Parenthood clinic, which put a hardship on them for multiple visits.

“That requirement alone created huge barriers for our patients,” she said.

Now that the FDA change has loosened restrictions in Texas — requiring a lower dose, 200 milligrams instead of 600 milligrams; fewer doctor visits; and allowing the medication up to 10 weeks in a pregnancy instead of seven weeks — more women are choosing the medical abortion option, Wheat and Grossman say.

Exact numbers won’t be available for weeks or months, but “many of the independent abortion providers who have already started using the new FDA regimen are saying their numbers are back up,” Grossman said. “Many women have a preference and prefer this.”

[…]

Now the question is whether Texas lawmakers will weigh in on the issue when they return to work in January.

Planned Parenthood officials say they hope not.

“The restrictions the Legislature put in place were not based in science,” Wheat said. “The FDA is the national expert in how medications are provided, and they approved these updates.

See here for the background. I’d laugh at the futility of hoping that science and rationality would prevail if it weren’t so painful. The best hope as I see it is for HB2 to be sufficiently gutted by the Supreme Court. That will surely only slow down the zealots, but it’s probably the best we can expect until we start electing different leaders.

Here come the drones

Look! Up in the sky!

Companies in Austin and Addison on Wednesday became the first two firms to become officially credentialed to operate unmanned aircraft systems under a new training and safety program that officials said promises to boost Texas’ place in the emerging drone market.

At a statewide conference hosted by the Texas A&M University System’s Corpus Christi campus and its engineering extension service, officials presented HUVRdata, of Austin, and Aviation Unmanned, of Addison, with their certificates, among the first granted in the nation since the Federal Aviation Administration announced new rules governing the use of drones.

The new program, though voluntary, provides a way for drone operators who register with the Federal Aviation Administration to become certified in safety and operational procedures, a step advocates say will be key to expanding the commercial applications of low-level unmanned aircraft without endangering commercial air traffic or clogging airspace since drone use mushroomed in recent years.

Under current FAA rules, “it’s like getting a tag for your car but not having to get a driver’s license,” said Joe Henry, director of outreach and commercialization at the Lone Star UAS Center for Excellence and Innovation, which is part of new program. “This certification is the driver’s license.”

“Through this credentialing program that will ensure the safety of operations for unmanned aircraft systems, Texas is in a position to be a leader in this emerging industry,” he said.

With the new credentials, which the A&M center and similar programs in five other states have been approved to grant, conference officials said operations safety can be assured, a step that will allow the drone industry to grow as more companies find ways to utilize the technology, and perhaps slow a surge of new state laws aimed at privacy and safety issues.

[…]

In Texas, drones already are used by the wind-power, oil and gas and transportation industries to provide aerial inspections and mapping, and for port and border security and coastline monitoring. As a business hub for many of those concerns, as well as home to the NASA’s Johnson Space Center, which is developing unmanned craft to explore Mars, Houston stands to be a center for the growing industry.

“If you have a public company that’s trying to integrate this new technology into their operations, they want to make sure that whomever they hire to do that work is qualified to it properly and safely,” said Bob Baughman, CEO and founder of HUVRdata. “This credentialing program is important because it’s an industry partnership with the FAA to make sure that operators know the FAA rules, know how to safely operate their UAS, and so companies know who is certified and qualified when they hire them. As this technology develops, as UAS isused more, credentialing will become even more important.”

Drones have also been used by, among other things, environmental scientists to track bird habitats and invasive species, and S&R groups like Texas EquuSearch, which had to fight for their right to employ them. They’re employed for movie and TV filming as well, as the Mythbusters can attest. The drone has flown, so it’s a matter of how we regulate them now. I won’t be surprised to see this issue come up in the 2017 Legislature.

Anti-vaxxers gain ground in Texas

There’s a lesson in here that we need to learn.

On a Friday night little over a year ago, a Texas mother of three was attending a school dance when she got a text message that stopped her cold.

A state lawmaker from Dallas had filed legislation taking aim at a provision in state law that allows parents to opt their children out of school immunization requirements.

“I looked at that text and I just kind of was like, ‘Oh no he didn’t,’” said Jackie Schlegel-Polvado, who lives near Bastrop. “This is Texas. We believe in parental rights in Texas. Like, that is just a fundamental belief that most Texans have that parents make decisions for their children, not the state.”

It was an issue that directly affected Schlegel-Polvado and her family. Since 2007, she has been one of a small but growing number of parents in Texas who obtain “conscientious exemptions” from state vaccine requirements.

What was several worried parents exchanging text messages over the next few days turned into a Facebook group that within two weeks had more than 1,300 members, and then, ultimately, a political action committee.

Texans For Vaccine Choice’s mission, according to Schlegel-Polvado, is to guard parents’ rights to opt out of vaccine requirements — whether that means targeting legislators who seek to close non-medical exemptions or pushing for policies that otherwise protect parents who choose not to vaccinate, like preventing physicians from excluding them from their practices.

In this year’s primary elections, that meant going after state Rep. Jason Villalba, the Dallas Republican who filed the bill.

“The animus that was leveled against me for that was very surprising to me,” said Villalba, who ultimately won his race. “These people, they literally said it to my face — they hate me. That was troubling. Because I get it, they care about their children — but I care about my children too, and the children of the community.”

[…]

State law requires that children at all public and private schools have 10 different immunizations, including for tetanus, measles and pertussis, the bacterial disease known as whooping cough. Generally, children must receive those vaccines by the time they are in kindergarten, though they receive others, like for hepatitis B, in later grades.

If parents wish to opt out of school immunization requirements, they must file a what’s known as a “conscientious exemption” form with their child’s school at the start of the year. All but two states — West Virginia and Mississippi — grant exemptions from school immunization requirements on religious grounds. Texas is among 18 that also waive requirements because of personal beliefs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Under Villalba’s initial measure, Texas would have only allowed students to receive exemptions for medical reasons, such as an allergic reaction or in instances where a weakened immune system could cause health complications.

Pediatricians — many of whom have watched with dismay as the number of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children has climbed — widely support the elimination of non-medical exemptions to immunization requirements.

[…]

During the 2015 legislative session, Villalba said he quickly became acquainted with the passion of the anti-vaccine movement’s supporters, many of whom believe the undue influence of pharmaceutical companies has led to an overabundance of immunization requirements that come at the expense of children’s health.

“This is a group that is very dedicated, very organized; this issue is very important to them,” he said.

[…]

For now, the new organization’s strength appears to lie in its mobilizing abilities. A February campaign finance report showed just over $1,000 in contributions. And while its members made their presence felt in Villalba’s race, he still managed to win with 55 percent of the vote.

But Villalba said that without the engagement of the group, he would have expected his margin of victory to be larger.

It also may have accomplished a broader goal. The lawmaker said that for the 2017 legislative session, he does not plan to re-file his bill narrowing exemptions to the state’s vaccine requirements.

“I’m not interested in a suicide mission on this issue,” he said. “I sense — and this is unfortunate — the only way a bill like this gets any traction is an even worse large-scale outbreak, between now and session. Short of that I just don’t think there is going to be the appetite to do this bill.”

See here for some background. The lesson here is that intensity matters. A group of people that care passionately about a single issue and organizes around it can often get what they want in our political system, even if they’re a distinct minority. These anti-vaxxers are but one example; I’m sure you can think of many others. The number of unvaccinated children in Texas schools is still fairly small, less than one percent of the total, but it’s grown by more than ten times since 2004. This kind of idiocy is the reason why measles has made a big comeback in the US and around the world after being declared eradicated. I can’t blame Rep. Villalba, who was left hanging by Greg Abbott, for not wanting to deal with this crap next session. If the rest of us want someone else to pick up the ball on this, we’re going to need to make at least as much noise about it as these dangerous fanatics have done. Complaining about them is easy. Doing something about it is hard. It’s up to us.

Find those leaks

I don’t care how.

A pair of state and federal government inspectors spent two weeks traveling around northern Colorado’s oil and gas fields in early 2012, filming with an infrared camera.

Air pollution was rising in the region, and attention was turning to the rapid increase in drilling activity. The inspectors focused on Houston-based Noble Energy, one of the state’s largest drillers with about 7,000 wells in the suburbs and countryside north of Denver.

With the naked eye, there was nothing to see at the nearly hundred sites they visited. But when observed through the infrared camera, again and again they saw plumes of gas radiating from the top of storage tanks near the wells.

“The infrared camera does not quantify emissions, but you can say that’s a small leak versus a big leak. And these were big leaks,” said one of the inspectors, Cindy Beeler, an energy adviser at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s offices in Colorado. “When we showed our findings to Noble, they were surprised.”

As the Obama administration accelerates its campaign to blunt the effects of climate change, federal regulators are turning to infrared technology to seek out emissions leaks in the country’s oil and gas fields. With state agencies, including the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and environmental groups embracing the technology, drillers are increasingly finding themselves staring down the lenses of infrared cameras.

Beyond government inspections, many companies are worried they soon will be required to do their own infrared scans and make what they fear will be unnecessary repairs across the country’s more than 1 million oil and gas wells. Industry lobbyists are already challenging the devices’ effectiveness.

“Part of our concern is that it really locks us in to this technology at a point in time the understanding of these fugitive emissions is really in its childhood,” said Lee Fuller, executive vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. “The presumptive starting point for the EPA is requiring infrared.”

[…]

For decades, companies and government inspectors relied on hand-held sensors to tell them if gas was leaking. But without a means to see the emissions, one was left to guess where to hold the sensor on a drilling site that can run the size of a football field – “like trying to pin the tail on the donkey,” Beeler jokes.

Then in 2011, the EPA decided to try infrared technology, which uses variations in temperature and other environmental measures to form images – capturing everything from a mouse on the ground to escaping gas.

At the time, the primary mission was reducing the release of volatile organic compounds, a key contributor to smog, which has long been linked to asthma and lung disease in humans. But federal attention is now turning to methane, which makes up about 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and has an impact on global warming 25 times that of carbon dioxide.

The oil and gas industry is pressuring the EPA to look away from infrared at other cheaper technologies, like methane sensors, that would automatically detect leaks as they occur but are still in development. In a memo to EPA in December, the IPAA raised several issues about the infrared devices, including concerns about whether smaller companies could handle the cost – $100,000 each – and whether they were reliable.

“The results of the camera, the ‘pictures,’ are difficult to interpret and subject to misinterpretation, e.g., what appears to be a leak could simply be a heat plume,” the memo stated.

EPA officials countered that infrared is one of a variety of tools for gathering evidence in emissions cases that often was supported by data from the companies themselves.

“Infrared allows us to see hydrocarbons,” said Apple Chapman, associate director of EPA’s air enforcement division. “It’s a faster screening tool and a faster investigative tool.”

I don’t care what technology gets used, as long as something gets used that can reliably detect these leaks. I doubt I have to explain why some kind of voluntary compliance program is worthless. If the industry has a viable alternative to infrared that they don’t mind being required to use, then fine. If not, then infrared it is. Whatever gets the job done.