Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Blowout on the Bosphorus

Turkey used to be on everybody's bucket list. Particularly Istanbul. Straddling Europe and Asia, terminus of the Orient Express, former seat of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul for years has been among the world's top tourist destinations.

And it doesn't disappoint. The first impression upon disembarking a cruise ship is not to be forgotten -- a skyline silhouetted with massive mosques, a dream scene particularly at dawn or dusk. There is no other sight like it in the world.

Istanbul has the Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market, Galata Bridge, wonderful Ortakoy, Leander's Tower, trips on the Bosphorus and the Hagia Sophia, where kings were crowned for centuries.

Istanbul has it all. It's big and prosperous and vibrant. And it's self destructing.

It's no longer safe to travel there. Between terrorist attacks and abortive coups, it's simply not worth the risk. Always expensive, Istanbul now require you bring body armor along with lots of money. A random bomb could go off anywhere.

In the past nine months, there have been four separate terrorist attacks at sites my wife and I had previously visited. It's a chilling feeling. "We were there, right there, just a few months ago!"

Istiklal Caddesi, the heavily traveled pedestrian street. A staging area near the iconic Blue Mosque. The university neighborhood where a rogue taxi driver unceremoniously dumped us after a dispute about the fare. And Istanbul International Airport, one of the busiest in Europe.

With enemies on all sides, Istanbul has become a bulls-eye for terrorist groups -- the Kurds, the Syrians and all sorts of surrogates for the Russians.

But the greatest enemy is not from another country or from a terrorist group, but from within Turkey itself. The real battle is between the Turks who want a secular country (think Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey) and Turks who support the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his quest for a full return to Islam. Erdogan and a good many of his followers want a rebirth of the Ottoman Empire. It's a bitter push-pull, and Erdogan is winning.

We saw the change first-hand. On our first visit there in 2009, the dress was largely Western. On our second visit, in 2015, there were hijabs everywhere and many women were completely covered, a striking turnabout.

The move toward Islam reached a climax -- or at least a climatic milestone -- when a splinter military group attempted a coup in July. It was a gift to Erdogan. The failed coup gave him the excuse (a situation not unlike the 1930s turmoil in Germany) to turn a repressive regime into a de facto dictatorship.

Even before the coup attempt, dissent was not tolerated. There were said to be more journalists imprisoned in Turkey than in China. Dissidents who questioned government policies were jailed or killed. After the abortive coup, things got even worse.

  • Some 20,000 public school teachers were fired and thousands of government officials were jailed.
  • The media, already heavily censored, was completely suborned.
  • Hundreds of military dissenters were killed, and thousands more were held for trial.
Erdogan saw subversives everywhere, and the legislature gave him free rein to crush them, declaring a three-month state of emergency during which all democratic constraints were removed. He wasted little time. In a chilling development, Erdogan purged universities throughout Turkey, firing 27,000 teachers and staff and forcing all deans to resign. -- the first step in an open campaign to muzzle the intellectuals or simply drive them out of the country.

Right now there's little to stop Turkey from becoming a full-fledged Islamic dictatorship, another in a long line of failed democracies in the Middle East.

The take-home message? There are actually two. First, unless you like living dangerously, don't travel to Istanbul, and be careful everywhere else in Turkey. Second, hold out hope that this magnificent country with its rich heritage does not succumb to totalitarianism. It would be a terrible waste and a huge loss for all concerned. And it's almost certainly going to happen. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

Here's to the Olympics, Warts and All

The Rio Olympics are over and everyone, it seems, is doing a postmortem. Some extol. Some complain. A few even make useful suggestions.

As an old Olympic observer and sometime attendee (the operable word is old), I draw on my shaky credentials and offer the following thoughts.

First off, the Rio Olympics were a smashing success for the United States. We led in total medals -- 121, the most ever -- as well as in golds, silvers and bronzes. The games showcased our swimming supremacy, our international power in basketball (we invented the game, after all) and, despite the Jamaicans, our continuing dominance in track & field (more on that later).

Our women athletes were marvelous. From shooting and cycling to gymnastics and boxing, the U.S. ladies were the belles of the ball. And for the UConn fans among us, there was nothing better than seeing Taurasi and Moore and Bird and Charles -- some of the greatest ever to play the game -- on the court at the same time. Basketball will never look better.

There were two real surprises. Unhappily, the U.S. women's soccer team, defending Olympic and World Cup champions, didn't look champion-like at all and got knocked out early. The sad truth is they are not very good, at least not any more. A happy surprise was the U.S. track performance in the middle and long distances -- an area of perennial weakness. Matt Centrowicz won the 1,500 meters (the first U.S. gold in the metric mile since 1908!), Galen Rupp was third in the marathon and Paul Chelimo took a silver in the 5,000 meters. But here's the real shocker: In the steeplechase, where we usually finish behind two dozen Africans, both a man, Evan Jager, and a women, Emma Coburn, won medals for the U.S.

There were also downsides. The big one, doping, is like the uninvited uncle who won't go away. Most  Russian athletes were banned from Rio because of widespread doping, and all of the Jamaican sprinters, many of them medalists, are suspect. Jamaica has no independent random testing, and this tiny island country unaccountably turns out sprint champions in production-line fashion. If that sounds implausible, it's because it is. So don't celebrate Usain Bolt just yet -- not until drug tests catch up with steroid and growth hormone innovations. Urine samples from Rio will be saved and  subjected to increasingly sensitive testing over the next four years, and the cheaters will be stripped of medals.

It's noteworthy that random retesting of samples from the 2012 London Olympics turned up 45 times more positives in 2016 than were originally found! The cheaters will eventually be caught. Consider the medals on loan until then.

But even that's not enough. We will never have clean competition until unannounced sampling by independent officials is allowed in all countries anytime during the year. Most doping is done during training to boost endurance and speed recovery from injury. Cheating athletes rely on drugs clearing their systems before the actual competition when everyone is tested.

What about countries that refuse year-around random testing (there will be others besides Russia and Jamaica that claim their national sovereignty is being violated)? Simple. Ban them from the Olympics.

Of course, that won't happen. It won't happen because the Olympics depend on money from major countries like Russia. It won't happen because the politically correct want all countries to compete -- a kumbaya gathering. It won't happen because NBC and its major sponsors want to pump sunshine and sell products. It won't happen because the anti-U.S. crowd, including most of the media, would rather savage Ryan Lochte than talk about the real issues of doping, poverty, pollution and crime.

And that leads to the second downside -- rotating the games among cities that have no business hosting them in the first place. Why in the world did the International Olympic Committee insist on luring nearly bankrupt Athens and impoverished Rio de Janeiro into bidding for the games? Montreal took a huge hit in 1976. Costs are already spiraling out of sight in Toyko for 2020. The quaint notion that hosting the Olympics boosts national pride and pumps tourism has long been discredited. Facilities built are never fully utilized after the games. The Olympic Stadium in Athens sits unused among weeds. In Atlanta, the 1996 stadium, first converted for use by the Braves, is now being demolished.

A better plan -- really a no-brainer -- is to have permanent facilities for both the summer and winter games. Think about it. Beautiful state-of-the-art tracks, pools, ranges, courts for the summer games -- paid for and maintained by participating countries, all of whom would save a bundle by not hosting the games themselves. And for the winter Olympics, first-rate ski jumps, skating tracks and downhill and cross-country skiing venues. Three-star accommodations for athletes, media and the public. Good restaurants. Dedicated security.

Where would the permanent site be? My vote would be Switzerland, a clean, prosperous, neutral country that could accommodate the summer games in the flats and the winter games in the mountains. And Switzerland is a great place to visit, picturesque and safe, with excellent transportation.

Those who want variety, who want to sample different cultures, try different cuisines would be free to do so, unfettered by the crowds, turmoil and staggering cost of the Olympics. (My wife and I returned to Barcelona in 2014, a relaxing visit compared to the frantic Olympics there in 1992.)

It's logical and makes financial sense. Moreover, a permanent site would do away with the bribes and kickbacks seemingly required to land the games. But it would also gut the IOC and weaken federations for the individual sports. It would endanger bureaucracies and threaten jobs. A change of this magnitude would require vision and real leadership, and it almost certainly won't happen.

So where does that leave us? We're left with pervasive doping and PR-driven ballyhoo -- scandals and hokum that will venture from city to city every four years.

And we're left with the greatest sports entertainment on earth. Warts and all, there's nothing like the Olympic Games. On TV or in person, wherever they're held, I wouldn't miss them for anything!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

What's New in Solar Power

The sun is the gift that keeps on giving. It showers the earth with more energy in one hour than all energy consumed globally in an entire year.

It's there, it's free and it's non-polluting. The question is how to capture it economically and store it efficiently.

Solar is of particular interest to Florida, "The Sunshine State," where we have not one, but two constitutional amendments on the ballot this year that provide incentives for using photovoltaic power.

Despite the potential and billions of dollars poured into the technology, solar has made scant inroads in the U.S. market. The Energy Information Administration estimates only 0.6% of U.S. electricity comes from solar. (In Florida, the number is only slightly higher.)

Overall, coal provides about one-third of our electricity, natural gas another third, with the remainder coming from renewables -- mostly nuclear and hydroelectric. Renewables are expected to supply 50% of new energy capacity by 2040.

How much of that will be solar remains to be seen, but there are reasons to be optimistic.

  • The Feds agreed to extend the 30% investment credit for solar, a massive subsidy that will keep marginal operations afloat.
  • Congress plans to pump more money into solar research and battery storage technology through 2020.
  • Huge advances in the science are being made, both in universities and in the private sector -- not just in the U.S., but literally around the world.
But will it be enough to propel an industry now largely confined to rooftop units and hampered by pushback from communities opposed to massive solar farms that blight the landscape. (Supplying all of Florida's electricity needs today, experts say, would require solar farms that would cover 25-30% of the state's surface.)

The challenges for solar are essentially three-fold: (1) Reduce cost to allow free-market competition. (2) Increase efficiency of converting sun to electricity, in turn reducing the surface area required for energy generation. (3) Improve efficiency of batteries to store energy when the sun isn't shining.

Advances are being made on all fronts. Here is where things stand today.

The vast majority of solar power, some 90%, comes from workhorse silicon panels, a mature technology whose cost has been driven down by volume-produced cells from China. Conventional panels are thick, heavy, inflexible and dependent on direct exposure to sunlight. Sun-to-electricity conversions are 20-25%.

The next generation of panels will be thin, lightweight, flexible and potentially lower in cost. Efficiencies may also be lower, currently ranging from 10-20%. All will require multiple layers, but will have the capability of being fabricated into thin sheets by conventional milling.

Dye-sensitized solar cells, pursued in Switzerland, South Korea, Wales and the U.S., utilize photo-absorbing dyes that create charge separation in electrolytic solutions. Unlike silicon cells, they can operate in diffuse light, even indoors. Current uses include fabrication in windowpanes to provide electricity in adjoining rooms and continuous powering of small electronic devices, e.g., computers. Rooftop use or mass generation of electricity is many years away, if possible at all.

Organic photovoltaics rely on light-sensitive polymers to drive charge separation in a mini-particle mix. Like dye-sentized cells, the organics are used where flexibility or thin films are important -- windowpanes, backpacks, phone chargers. Start-ups in Denmark and Germany plan to begin production in 2018. As with dye-sensitized cells, the organics would require major breakthroughs to go beyond niche uses.

Perovskite cells are the rock stars, the sexy contenders for the future. With 22% efficiency already booked, they have the potential for eventually replacing silicon. Based on organolead halide minerals, the perovskites are cheap to produce, but are inherently unstable, a shortcoming receiving much attention in start-up companies in England and Poland. Perovskites may initially be paired with silicon cells, a tandem arrangement that would capture a larger portion of the sun's spectrum, jacking efficiency and cutting cost. But don't expect any commercial use before 2019 at the earliest.

Other things are happening as well. In a big attention-grabber, an aircraft powered solely by the sun just completed a one-year around-the-world trip. Swiss-engineered, the plane used over 17,000 solar cells and ran on lithium batteries at night. It's cruising speed topped out at 56 mph.

And in a big advance for battery design, Missouri academics used atomic-layer-deposition techniques to upgrade the charge capacity and operating voltage of lithium batteries. If verified in scale-up, it could cut costs for storing solar energy and powering electric cars. 

What's the bottom line? There's a lot going on. Challenges are being met, and new applications are emerging. Rooftop solar and niche uses will continue to grow. But large-scale electricity generation from the sun is still many years or even decades away. 

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Battle for Marijuana

With important issues facing Florida, you'd think legalizing marijuana wouldn't cause much of a stir. But that's not the case. It's just as inflammatory and polarizing as it was two years ago when a constitutional amendment barely failed to get the 60% vote needed to pass.

A lot has happened since then.

The legislature passed two bills -- one legalizing non-euphoric pot, so-called Charlotte's Web, for severe forms of epilepsy, muscle spasms and cancer, and the other allowing use of full-strength marijuana for terminally ill patients.

Both bills are highly restrictive, requiring all makers and users to register with the state. Both bills forbid smoking pot, which can be dispensed only in capsules, oils or vaporizing cartridges. And both allow localities to regulate dispensaries where weed is sold.

Despite these limitations, the bills caused a stampede by growers seeking approval from the state. At this writing, two of the six approved nurseries have produced and packaged pot, making Florida the 30th state to offer marijuana for at least restricted medical use. But so far only 15 doctors have signed up, and no patients are registered on a statewide database of Floridians eligible for the drug.

What's the problem? For medical purposes, it makes sense to go with a form of cannabis that doesn't give you a high. But Charlotte's Web, pot enriched in cannabidiol, the ingredient thought to treat symptoms and reduce pain, may simply not work. Tests on epileptic children in Colorado found it was beneficial in 33% of the cases, but actually worsened symptoms in 44%. Brain-wave tests showed it had little effect.

Despite that, interest remains high. Clinical tests have begun in Ohio on an ultra-pure CBD extract, and parents of epileptic children are clambering for supplies. And clinical testing of full-strength pot is underway in several states.

The FDA remains skeptical. Spokesman Michael Felberbaum said the FDA has yet to find any botanical form of marijuana to be safe or effective to treat any disease or condition. That's a powerful indictment. Two synthetic cannabinoids, Marinol and Casamet, have been approved.

But science aside, increasing numbers have come to believe in marijuana's healing powers, or at least they say they do. The proof is mostly anecdotal. ("It did wonders for my Aunt Nettie.") And with growing public support, proponents are plunging ahead.

There's certainly big money to be made. Experts say wide-open medical use would create a $3-4 billion market in Florida. And Amendment 2, which will appear on the November ballot, will provide that wide-open use.

Amendment 2 is the big kahuna. Bankrolled largely by Orlando attorney John Morgan, the amendment would steamroll the timid laws now in effect. Here are some of the provisions.

  • The amendment would allow use of all forms of weed for "debilitating medical conditions" as determined by a licensed Florida physician.
  • Those conditions include a litany of diseases plus "other debilitating medical conditions of the same kind or class or comparable to those enumerated and for which a physician believes the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient." In other words, just about anything.
  • It would exempt doctors (who act with "reasonable care"), growers, dispensers and caregivers from liability.
  • Caregivers must be at least 21 and have an ID issued by the state. That's it. No special training is needed. 
  • Unlike laws now in effect, there are no provisions for localities regulating pot shops. It would be open season. California, here we come.
To backers the amendment is, in basketball parlance, a three-point play.
(1) It will boost turnout of young voters, mostly Democrats, in November -- possibly tipping the scales in a close election.
(2) It will tee up investment for growing and packaging all forms of weed dispensed in all kinds of ways -- in food, reefers, pipes, bongs, the whole lot.
(3) It will set the stage for marijuana malpractice lawsuits (those unfortunate doctors who didn't act with "reasonable care"), a lucrative new market for tort lawyers.

Not everybody loves Amendment 2. Enforcement would be next to impossible. Illegal certifications (think Florida pill mills) are a near certainty, opening the door to street use. Law enforcement sees impaired drivers and criminal behavior. Employers see impaired workers. The health care community sees a gateway to hard drugs.

Money is pouring in to defeat the amendment: $1 million from St. Petersburg developer Mel Sembler, $800,000 from Publix heiress Carol Bennett. Medical groups, sheriff's associations, chambers of commerce are joining hands in opposition. Drug Free Florida is girding for battle.

But it's probably a lost cause. Passage seems all but certain. Polls show 80% favoring the amendment, with most looking for legal recreational pot within four years.

And why not? Let's all be happy. These are stressful times. In fact, I feel a debilitating medical condition coming on.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Doing Battle with the Zika Mosquito

There's some good news on Zika.

Thanks to the foresight of the Collier Mosquito Control District, much of Southwest Florida is ready and able to fight the mosquito that carries the Zika virus. And not just Zika. CMCD has the capability  to detect and control other emerging threats from mosquitos -- like Dengue, Chikungunya and even a reemergence of Yellow Fever.

Here are some of CMCD's tools:

  • Special monitoring traps for Aedes aegypti, the Zika mosquito.
  • Analytical capabilities, including viral RNA testing.
  • Effective insecticides for both adult mosquitos and larvae.
  • Unique spraying devices on helicopters that create tiny-droplet aerosols, minimizing the amount of insecticide needed for effective treatment.
  • A first-of-a-kind ground-level blower to distribute larvicide granules over infected areas.
Dr. Mark Clifton, a CMCD Research Entomologist and national expert on Aedes aegypti, explains that all mosquitos are not the same. Most encountered in Southwest Florida are so-called "wild mosquitos" -- carriers of West Nile virus, St. Louis encephalitis, Eastern Equine encephalitis. When the number of mosquitos exceeds statutory limits in traps scattered about the area, the infected section is patterned-sprayed by fixed-wing aircraft. (CMCD has three such planes.)

Aedes aegypti, on the other hand, is generally not found over wide areas. It's an "urban pest." It's found tucked around homes and businesses. Treatment of Aedes aegypti is tight and surgical -- spray from low-flying helicopters and even from the ground.

Here's how CMCD would go after mosquitos carrying the Zika virus. If a person was diagnosed with the virus, special traps would be placed in the vicinity of that person's home or business. Aedes aegypti caught in those traps would be tested for Zika. If infected mosquitos were found, people would be notified, and the area would be sprayed with an adult-kill insecticide and, optionally, with a larvicide. Then the area would be monitored to ensure the treatment was effective.

The challenge is finding the infected mosquitos. (At this writing, none have been found in the Miami area where the first locally contracted Zika cases were reported.) In Southwest Florida and elsewhere, Zika-infected mosquitos must be found before eradication can begin.

What about transmission of the virus? Clifton explains that Aedes aegypti mosquitos travel less than 100 meters. So Zika will be spread, not by infected mosquitos, but by infected people traveling and being bitten by mosquitos in other parts of the state. Those mosquitos, in turn, can multiply, bite other people and continue the cycle.

CMCD points out the best defense is not to be bitten in the first place. There are a number of sensible precautions.
  • Eliminate sources for Aedes aegypti -- standing water in places like waste tires, cans, birdbaths, buckets, gutters, flowerpots and saucers. Swab out bromeliad cups. Seal septic tanks.
  • When outdoors, especially at dawn and dusk, wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts.
  • Apply an EPA-approved mosquito repellent, e.g., one containing DEET.
If infected mosquitos are found, do we have the chemicals to knock them out without harming people? Yes. Sprayed from aircraft, available insecticides typically have a kill rate of 80-90%; that's considered effective control. The chemicals are oldies, workhorses approved long ago by the EPA. Naled and Malathion are organophosphates, effective against adult mosquitos. Methoprene is an unsaturated fatty acid ester, used to treat larvae.

The problem, Clifton says, is not with the existing products, which do fine. The problem is there are few, if any, back-ups available in the event Aedes aegypti develops resistance to the current insecticides. But that's a concern for the future.

For now we're in good shape. Dave Farmer, a CMCD commissioner, says, "Between our state-of-the-art DNA testing capabilities and our professional staff, we are well prepared to fight Zika. Mosquito control has never been more important."

CMCD has a new smart phone app that provides information about mosquitos, including spraying schedules. The app can be downloaded for free. See www.CMCD.org for details.