Sunday, May 31, 2015

1866. Pachamama Esta de Fiesta

By Kamran Nayeri, May 31, 2015

A Tito La Rosa concert

Last night I attended a Tito La Rosa concert which was a fund raiser for the Ayni Projects to build schools in Peru.  La Rosa, a descendent of Quechua Indians of the Peruvian Andes, has spent more than a decade recovering and preserving, studying, and intuiting the ancestral music of Peru. Tito is a Curandero de Sonido (sound healer). The program was introduced as "a shamanic sound journey into our deep self, to the places beyond our normal consciousness, to the places that are our sources of joy and deep feeling, to the terrain of our ancestral memories and to the sacred place within us that connects us to the divine." Tito was accompanied by Rene Jenkins and Ian Degole, highly talented and masters of their own right.  It was an enchanting experience that I wish everyone could share. 

The concert was dedicated to Quechua water ceremonies as the title of the program suggested: Pachamama Este de Fiesta.” It cumulated in the following song (original Spanish verses are followed by English translations):

Desde kunyak viene                      from the kunyak (where rivers join) come
Agūita serpenteando                     beloved waters weaving their way
por las acequias                              through the canals
hacia nuestras vidas                      into our lives

De cantar Hualinas                       To sing Hualians (water songs)
y a la vez llorando                          and all the while proclaiming
toditas mis penas                           Every single one of my sorrows
se acabaron                                     is finished/over/complete
Pacamama esta de fiesta

Una estrellita                                  A little star told me
que alegre me decía                       joyfully told me
canta cantorcita                             sing minstrel
a la agüita                                        to the beloved water
agüita madre kunyak                    beloved water mother kunyak 

De cantar Hualinas
y a la vez llorando
toditas mis penas
se acabaron
Pachamama esta de fiesta 

The program sheet explains:

"This song comes from a farming community in the highlands of Peru. each year the community has a fiesta to celebrate water when they create new songs, just for the festival.  This song is a celebration of their traditions, culture and ways of living. Fujimori--the former president of Peru--wanted to give the people PVC pipes to replace the canals because canals needed to be re-dug every year.  With PVC pipes they would not need to remake the canals every year.  They people said 'no' to the PVC pipes because the addition of the pipes would mean losing tradition--culture.  As the people dig the canals they make songs, sing and treasure their lives."  

Saturday, May 30, 2015

1865. California's Central valley's Second Coming

By Chris Clarke, Beacon, May 28, 2015
The hundreds of miles of soil that surround the lives of Valley dwellers should not be confused with land. What was once land has become dirt, overworked dirt, overirrigated dirt, injected with deadly doses of chemicals and violated by every manner of ground- and back-breaking machinery. The people that worked the dirt do not call what was once the land their enemy. They remember what land used to be and await its second coming.  — Cherrie Moraga, Heroes and Saints
It is two hundred fifty miles between Grant Line Road in Tracy and Beale Road in Arvin. It is also two hundred fifty miles back the other way. I have made each drive perhaps a hundred times. Perhaps more.  Southbound Interstate 5 flirts with the San Joaquin Valley until Coalinga, sticks to the base of the Coast Ranges as if hesitant to commit itself fully to the Valley’s preternatural flatness. 
Just south of Coalinga, after the low grasslands of the Kettleman Hills, those mountains recede to the west, a bay drawn down before the tsunami of the Grapevine. The road has no choice but to plunge across the flat from Kettleman City to Wheeler Ridge, where it can climb at long last into the Tehachapis, heading toward the sky and Los Angeles .
Travelers who do not intend to stay — in whose number I usually count myself, but not always — curse the flat. The speed limit  is posted as 70 but traffic generally moves at 15 or 20 miles above the limit, as if pursued by demons. Perhaps it is. In more than thirty years of traversing the Valley I have at times fallen prey to that haste, the desire to exit the Valley as soon as possible after entering it.
At length, though, the Valley itself beguiled me, local two-lanes heading eastward toward one small town or another, miles of arrow-straight pavement punctuated every so often by a block or two of shade trees and vacant storefronts. At first I was traveling through, passing along the streets of Escalon or Wasco on my way to Yosemite or Los Angeles or, increasingly, Tehachapi, the fastest route into the Mojave Desert from my former Bay Area home. Then I stopped traveling through and just started traveling.
California’s Central Valley is actually three distinct valleys, or four, depending on who’s counting. In the north, the Sacramento Valley cradles its namesake river for about 150 miles. The Sacramento River is the West Coast’s second largest in terms of volume after the Columbia, and its valley is consequently better watered than much of the rest of the state. Immediately south is the Delta, where the Sacramento and San Joaquin conjoin to flow out into San Francisco Bay. About 50 miles north to south, the Delta has some of the richest soil in California. South of the Delta the San Joaquin Valley stretches southward for about 250 miles, becoming more arid, more desert-like with each mile.
The fourth Valley is contained within the third: The Tulare Basin, occupying the southern third or so of the San Joaquin Valley, separated from the rest of the valley by a low rise around Visalia. 
It was a wilderness once, and a garden. Some of each. A chain of seasonal wetlands ran up and down the spine of the 450-mile Central Valley. Sometimes those wet seasons lasted longer than others. A record wet winter in 1861-2 filled the valley with a lake 300 miles long and about 20 wide.

Like his later admirers, John Muir visited the Valley on his way somewhere else; it was an obstacle, especially to the traveler on foot, especially in the foot-slogging wet parts. But he paid it admiring attention, seeming hardly to mind the miles of wet  socks between him and the foothills of his beloved Sierra Nevada, in a passage about an 1868 journey now more famous for what came after he looked upward from the Valley floor:
Looking eastward from the summit of Pacheco Pass one shining morning, a landscape was displayed that after all my wanderings still appears as the most beautiful I have ever beheld. At my feet lay the Great Central Valley of California, level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine … And from the eastern boundary of this vast golden flower-bed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city…. Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. ” — from The Yosemite (1912) 
The pre-development Central Valley wasn’t just covered by the little yellow daisies — goldfields — and California poppies that provoked Muir’s comparison of the Valley’s floor to the face of the sun. Much of the Valley’s 22,500 square miles was taken up by what ecologists call “Central Valley grassland,” a mix of prairie and savanna that was actually a mix of bunchgrasses and annual and perennial flowering herbs. Muir tarried for two weeks to do some botanizing, as he wrote 14 years later about his descent from Pacheco Pass:
“Descending the eastern slopes of the coast range, through beds of gilias and lupines, and around many a breezy hillock and bush-crowned headland, I at length waded out into the midst of the glorious field of gold. All the ground was covered, not with grass and green leaves, but with radiant corollas, about ankle-deep next to the foothills, knee-deep or more five or six miles out. Here were bahia, madia, madaria, burrielia, chrysopsis, corethrogyne, grindelia, etc., growing in close social congregations of various shades of yellow, blending finely with the purples of clarkia, orthocarpus, and oenothera, whose delicate petals were drinking the vital sunbeams without giving back any sparkling glow. Because so long a period of extreme drought succeeds the rainy season, most of the vegetation is composed of annuals, which spring up simultaneously, and bloom together at about the same height above the ground, the general surface being but slightly ruffled by the taller phacelias, penstemons, and groups of Salvia carduacea, the king of the annuals.”  — The Bee-Pastures of California, 1882 

Clarkia unguiculata off Panoche Road Creative Commons photo by Eric in SF:

In low-lying spots where the soil became waterlogged in winter, specialized ecosystems called vernal pools held unique populations of endemic plants and animals, including fairy shrimp. Hundreds of miles of forest flanked the Valley’s rivers, the Sacramento and San Joaquin and their tributaries, with impenetrable tangles of elder and grapevine, box elder and willow and mulefat, sycamore and cottonwood. Inexpressibly fertile soil made from decayed leaf litter sprouted morels and amanitas.
On the rivers’ higher banks, close enough to be well watered but not so close as to drown their roots too often, were parklike savannas of valley oak, Quercus lobata. The largest oak species in North America, valley oaks are big.  The tallest known valley oak now living is in excess of 150 feet in height; one that grew in Chico, California until 1977, when it fell over, had a trunk 29 feet in circumference eight feet about the ground.
A description of the Santa Clara Valley by 18th Century explorer George Vancouver could stand in for a description of the Central Valley’s oak savanna:
“For about twenty miles it could only be compared to a park which had originally been closely planted with the true old English oak; the underwood, that had probably attended its early growth, had the appearance of having been cleared away and left the stately lords of the forest in complete possession of the soil which was covered with luxuriant foliage.”

Valley Oak in the Stanislaus County hills above the Central ValleyCreative Commons photo by Allie Caulfield

In the low foothills ringing the valley on the east and west, valley oaks grew in even greater profusion.
And then there was the jewel of the Valley.

As mapped in 1873.

Abundant runoff from the Sierra Nevada’s snow pack ran down the range’s west side rivers, finding low spots in the  Tulare Basin. In the driest years, the Tulare Basin’s uplands nearly qualified as desert, as did the adjacent Carrizo Plain: alkali flats and arid grasslands dotted with Atriplex (saltbush). But the floor of the Basin was verdant, with marshes of tule and cattail surrounding three freshwater lakes: Kern, Buena Vista, and the greatest of them all,  Tulare. 
Up to 750 square miles in extent in wet seasons, about two thirds that in drier years, Tulare Lake was in the 18th and 19th centuries the largest freshwater lake east of the Great Lakes. (Lake Cahuilla had previously held the title, but it dried up  some time in the early 1700s.) Fed by four wild rivers draining the highest and snowiest parts of the Sierra Nevada, Tulare Lake was so productive that about 70,000 members of the Yokuts tribe lived near its shores, one of the highest densities of population anywhere in California before European settlers arrived.
I drove across the bed of Tulare Lake in early May, cursing the thick, wind-whipped dust blowing off its furrowed fields. Its feeder rivers diverted into irrigation ditches, the lake died in the early 20th Century.

Utica Avenue near Kettleman City, looking east across the northern end of Tulare LakeVia Google Street View

California’s Central Valley has been called the world’s most intensively altered landscape. Compared to, say, Manhattan Island, that may seem a bit of hyperbole: the last time I visited Times Square, for instance, there was very little in the way of red maple bog to be seen in the vicinity.  But the sheer extent of the alteration counts for something. You could fit 666 Manhattans into the Central Valley and have enough room left over for a spare Roosevelt Island. The Valley is an almost wholly reengineered landscape larger than Croatia, nearly the size of Norway, and though fragments of the original landscape remain here and there, about 99 percent of the original valley has been lost. It has been diked, drained, plowed under and paved, usually for private profit, often at public expense.
We took the rivers that fed the Valley’s riparian forests, that roared in spring flood and slackened in summer, and we cut off their heads. The Central Valley’s chinook salmon runs were once the largest  in the world. Now, like the agricultural corporations using much of their water, the Valley’s chinook would go extinct without assistance from the government, their numbers boosted in hatcheries and their fry trucked around dry sections of river on their way to the ocean.
The vernal pools that once dotted the Valley have been plowed up, the riparian forests cut down, the valley oaks preserved and revered in a few old urban parks but otherwise replaced with cotton, and then tomatoes, and then alfalfa and almonds. Square mile after square mile of wild habitat for wild things was replaced by fields whose stewards smoothed them out with laser levels, the better to channel that diverted Sierra snowmelt to their row crops.
Even in the heart of the Valley, the Delta where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers conjoin and flow into San Francisco Bay, even in that wettest and least tractable part of the 450-mile vale running nearly the length of California, we could not resist tampering. Giant pumps reverse the flow of Delta rivers, pull salt water deep into the heart of the land. Irrigators have even tapped rivers outside the Valley, the Trinity and Klamath.
And now, in the face of the worst drought to hit California since we started measuring droughts, the irrigators are turning up the speed on their groundwater pumps, tapping hydrological wealth laid down millennia ago. Few experts think the San Joaquin Valley will have any groundwater left by the end of this century, unless something changes. 
In 1999, I walked across a patch of Moraga’s “dirt” near the Stanislaus County town of Hills Ferry, not sure whether I was trespassing. My destination was a copse of box elder draped with wild grape a hundred yards or so across the barrens.  I walked past plastic bags and motor oil bottles, unidentifiable bits of plastic spindrift and old barbed wire spools. The woods, when I reached them, were not much relief: a vegetative understory of discarded alternators and buckshot televisions, mattresses decomposed as far as they ever would, and a bit of Russian thistle interspersed between the jetsam.
At the bottom of a sharp slope, the Merced River flowed in lazy meanders to my left. To my right, it flowed into the sluggish, viscid San Joaquin. I stood at the confluence of two rivers that rose in the high Sierra Nevada, the Merced on the back slopes of Half Dome and the San Joaquin off the melting snows on the Minarets, their headwaters within a few miles of each other in the back country of Yosemite National Park, then diverging in a wide arc surrounding a huge chunk of the state, and, I thought, look where they end up. Flowing out of the sublime and into the profane, out of Ansel Adams’ photos and into Dorothea Lange’s. The rivers deserved a better confluence than this, I thought.

Friday, May 29, 2015

1864. On Animal Rights in Cuba

By Yenisel Rodríguez Pérez, Havana Times, May 28, 2015

HAVANA TIMES – I recall how, back in primary school, we used to shower white herons with rocks while heading back home from school. Poor things, they’ve never been anything but “worthless” to common people in Cuba.

I also remember the death-squads made up of little boys and girls from my block. They took the whole thing very seriously.

They took to the street with a mental inventory of potential victims: reptiles, insects, mammals, plants and even someone’s younger brother. A child guerrilla at war with nature. What were the adults doing in the meantime?

Well, they were preparing snacks and telling the kids to do their homework, indifferent to the “bio-technology lab” the little ones had set up in front of their homes.
Then, there’s the question as to the media, schools, NGOs and other social institutions that deal with the issue. Very little of what these institutions do actually reach primary schoolers.

Speeches alone do not change people’s behavior. Rather, they tend to define positions and give what people have already defined in their imaginaries a name or a path to follow. Sensitivity towards animal life usually exists prior to receiving an educational message about this, and such empathy towards animals is painfully missing in Cuba.
The point of departure must be the individual’s life-world. Society must take part in this, but it must do so from the daily life of people, from the notions these people have of their surroundings.

Much is said about progress made by First World countries in the area of animal protection, but it all basically boils down to obeying the law.

The point is that fulfilling the law does not necessarily entail any sense of the dignity of animals, a central tenet of ecological thinking. It rather works as a preventive measure or expresses the fear of being punished by the authorities.

This isn’t to say that an animal protection law wouldn’t help make the situation of animal rights on the island less precarious, but it wouldn’t be a solution to the problem, particularly when we bear in mind that any implementation of such norms would leave a lot to be desired in terms of the efficiency of control mechanisms.

Something needs to be set in motion in our country; we must start somewhere – by supporting the work that animal protection organizations (such as ANIPLANT) have been doing for quite some time, for instance.

We shouldn’t continue to accept violence against animals by people of any age.
We must put an end to those terrible scenes of extreme violence, and we must also eliminate this other form of concealed violence, such as those armies of children who attack pigeons at parks and squares with the consent of adults.

If these are the boys and girls who represent the world’s hope, then we can only hope for a future world that is profoundly cruel towards animal life. Let us then pray for the white herons.

1863. Torrential Rains and Flooding in Texas Takes 19 Lives

By John Schwartz, The New York Times, May 27, 2015
Flood in Houston, Texas
Torrential rains and widespread flooding in Texas have brought relief from a yearslong drought to many parts of the state. Such unpredictable and heavy rains are a big part of what climate scientists say that many Texans can expect in years to come.

The relief has come at a great cost. The death toll from storms across the state and Oklahoma has reached at least 19, by some estimates, and the property damage is so extensive that Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas has declared some 40 counties disaster areas.
It was not long ago that the state was dealing with a searing drought. In 2011, the drought was so pronounced that the governor then, Rick Perry, proclaimed three days in April “days of prayer for rain in Texas.” Parts of the state began to see the drought ease by 2012, but much of it has remained parched.

Now, Texans are more likely to be asking for divine intervention to provide a little sunshine. Reservoirs that had reached historically low levels are brimming, or at least rising fast. The water level at Lake Travis near Austin rose nearly 24 feet in the last week. It was just 34.2 percent full a year ago; today it is 65.5 percent full. Across the state, reservoirs have collected about eight million acre feet of water, rising to 82 percent full from 73 percent full in a month, according to the Texas Water Development Board.

Texans are no strangers to extreme weather, said Katharine Hayhoe, a climate change researcher at Texas Tech University and an author of the 2014 United States National Climate Assessment. “It’s famous for floods and drought, hurricanes and tornadoes, dust storms and ice storms,” she said. “Climate change is not causing these events — they’ve always happened naturally. But climate change is exacerbating these events.”
She noted that the enormous building boom that Texas has enjoyed in recent decades has led to greater problems with water runoff and higher costs of storm damage. “The choices we’re making today are actually increasing our risk,” she added.

Trying to link individual weather events to climate change can invite criticism.
Bill Nye, a popularizer of science and a climate activist, came under attack this week for talking about the rains as a climate-change event; some pointed out that in 2012, he suggested that the Western drought “is absolutely consistent with the mathematical models and predictions associated with climate change.”

Yet different parts of the country, and different parts of the country-size state of Texas, can expect different kinds of weather extremes. Severe rainstorms are consistent with the physics of a warming world, with plenty of moisture evaporating off the oceans, Professor Hayhoe noted — especially in the eastern part of the state near the Gulf of Mexico, where things tend to be wet and getting wetter. But the western part of the state is more like the American Southwest, and drier.

John W. Nielsen-Gammon, Texas’ state climatologist and a professor at Texas A & M University, said that Texas weather was heavily influenced by long-term weather phenomena, including El Niño and natural variations of temperatures in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

For now, he said, the slight rise in sea surface temperatures may have added 4 or 5 percent to the recent rainfall, but the longer-term trends for much of the state call for “a decrease of a few percent” in rainfall. It could take many decades, he said, before the effects of warming become a more important factor in the state’s weather than the natural variability.

Andrew E. Dessler, a climate researcher at Texas A & M, compared the question of climate change and weather to trying to figure out which of Barry Bonds’s home runs were caused by his steroid use.

“You know statistically some of them were, but you don’t know which ones,” he said. “Almost certainly, it would have rained a lot even without climate change — but it’s possible climate change juiced it, added a little bit.”

Thursday, May 28, 2015

1862. What We Know About Cuba’s Economy

By Drew Desilver, Pew Research Center, May 28, 2015

Two-thirds of Americans favor an end to the decades-long U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, a January Pew Research Center study found, and the two nations reportedly are making progress on re-establishing diplomatic relations. As the communist government continues to slowly reform Cuba’s economy, American businesses – from airlines to law firms – are exploring commercial opportunities on the island nation. But even if the embargo were to be lifted, it’s not clear just what sort of Cuban economy those businesses would find.
Getting a handle on even basic information about Cuba’s economy is difficult, for a number of reasons. The government still dominates economic activity on the island, both directly and through heavily subsidized state-owned enterprises. National statistics are not always complete or reliable. And Cuba’s system of two parallel currencies – one peso for everyday transactions among ordinary Cubans, and a “convertible peso” for the tourism industry, foreign trade and the private sector – combined with multiple exchange rates complicates any international comparisons or discussions about the relative size of different parts of the economy.
According to a survey conducted in March and published in The Washington Post, 79% of Cubans said they were dissatisfied with the country’s economic system; 70% said they wanted to start their own business. Nearly two-thirds of Cubans (64%) said normalizing relations with the U.S. would change the economic system, though only 37% thought the political system would change.
With so much change in the air, we decided to work our way as best we could through the data difficulties to put together a primer on what we know, and don’t know, about the Cuban economy.
1Despite the embargo, the U.S. does do business with Cuba. Last year, according to the Census Bureau, the U.S. exported nearly $300 million worth of products to Cuba; nearly all (96.2%) of that was in the form of meat and poultry, soybeans, corn, animal feed and other foodstuffs. The exports are permitted under a 2000 law that modified, but did not repeal, the U.S. embargo; under it, Cuba can buy certain agricultural products, medicines and medical devices from the U.S., but must pay in cash.
Cuba;s GDP slows
2Growth has slowed sharply in recent years. According to Cuba’s national statistical agency, the country’s gross domestic product in 2013 was 77.2 billion pesos – which, depending on which exchange rate one uses, could equate to anything from $77.2 billion (at the official rate of 1 convertible peso to $1) to $3.2 billion (at the internal rate of 24 regular pesos to 1 convertible peso). But either way, growth has slowed dramatically from the mid-2000s: The CIA estimates that Cuba’s GDP grew just 1.3% last year in real (inflation-adjusted) terms – 177th out of 222 countries ranked. One big reason: With global oil prices still well below their pre-recession highs, the heavily discounted oil that Venezuela sends Cuba – some of which Cuba re-exports – is less valuable.
Cuban GDP by sector3Despite economic reforms, the state still dominates. In a paper published last year by the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, former International Monetary Fund economist Ernesto Hernandez-Cata estimated that Cuba’s private and cooperative sector generated 25.3% of GDP in 2012, compared with just 5% in 1989. But the government, both directly and through state-owned enterprises, was still the source of more than three-quarters of Cuba’s economic activity. Government investment represented just 9.1% of GDP in 2012, versus 14.2% in 1989, which Hernandez-Cata said “reveals one of the most disturbing aspects of Cuba’s recent economic history: the weakness of capital formation.” (Official government figures put economy-wide fixed capital investment, from all sources, at 8.3% of GDP in 2013, considered low by international standards.)
Despite Reforms, Most Cubans Still Work for the State4More Cubans are working for themselves. In 2013, according to state figures, more than 424,000 Cubans (8.6% of all workers) were classified as self-employed; as recently as 2009, fewer than 144,000 Cubans (2.8%) were.
The “microenterprise” sector may be even bigger due to the hiring of unregistered full- and part-time workers. Ted Henken and Archibald Ritter, researchers at Baruch College and Carleton University, respectively, estimate that as many as half of small enterprises employ at least one unregistered worker.
5Cuban imports and exportsCuba mostly imports goods and exports services. Getting a clear read on Cuban trade is especially tricky, not least because exports and imports are effectively valued using different exchange rates. As The Economist recently explained, state-owned firms and foreign joint ventures value each ordinary peso at one convertible peso – that is, at $1: “The massively overvalued rate … creates huge distortions in the economy, allowing importers to buy a dollar’s-worth of goods for one peso.” While most of Cuba’s exports are in the form of services (such as doctors and teacher working overseas), nearly all of its imports are goods (petroleum, foodstuffs, machinery and equipment, and chemicals).

1861. Sweltering Heat Kills More Than 1,300 in India

By Nida Najar, The New York Times, May 27, 2015

NEW DELHI — Large swaths of India were baking again on Wednesday under intense heat that has killed more than 1,300 people and left the government scrambling to warn an often unheeding population about the dangers of stepping outside in the blazing midday sun.

Temperatures surpassed 116 degrees in some places in recent days, and were higher than normal even in coastal districts that are typically cooled by easterly winds.

Most of the deaths were reported in southern India, in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, with more than 1,000 people killed in Andhra Pradesh alone since May 18, said Pusuli Rani, an official with the state’s Disaster Management Department.

May is typically one of the hottest months of the year in India, with the heat building before the onset of the cooling monsoon season. Yet every year the heat seems to catch residents and the government by surprise.

The high temperatures are the result of hot winds blowing in from the west, leading one local news channel to call the phenomenon a “heat bomb” from Pakistan. B. P. Yadav, of the India Meteorological Department, said the winds had made things worse this year, and contributed to delaying much needed rains in the south. New Delhi, he said, will cool down over the coming days, but heat up again by the end of the month.

The government in Telangana was working with local nongovernmental organizations to provide buttermilk and drinking water to residents through village councils. In Andhra Pradesh, government warnings were broadcast on television and radio urging people to stay inside, especially between noon and 4 p.m.

“It has been quite unbearable,” said L. V. Subramanyam, the special chief secretary of Andhra Pradesh, adding that most of the deaths were among the elderly, laborers and the homeless.

“We cannot restrict people’s movements over a month,” Mr. Subramanyam said.
In Delhi, which has suffered days of unrelenting heat, with temperatures reaching a high of 113 degrees on Monday, people clutched well-worn plastic juice bottles, refilled at public drinking fountains in temples and mosques. A vendor splashed water from a construction site on his tower of fresh coconut pieces; a beggar bathed his leathery forearms in water from a plastic bottle; and vegetable sellers smothered their stock in wet gunny sacks, doused every 15 minutes.

At the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, one of Delhi’s largest public hospitals, families arrived with patients from villages all over the country, waiting for appointments inside the gate. Respite from the heat became a cat-and-mouse game with elusive shade. Kamla Prashad Ahirwal, who rolls crude cigarettes, called beedis, said the worst came at night, when the hospital cut off access to the water fountain and he was forced to gulp down progressively hotter water.

“Even as I’m drinking the water, I can’t feel it,” he said. “I’m still thirsty.”

Dr. Gaurav Muvalia, a resident in the hospital’s emergency room, said patients suffering from heatstroke typically came in with fevers and delirium. “They’re not in their right mind; they don’t know what they’re saying,” he said.

Hospital staff members wrap the patients in wet sheets to bring down their body temperatures, Dr. Muvalia said. In a previous summer, one cycle rickshaw driver, he recalled, came in with a fever of 104. He was wiped down with cold sponges and given intravenous fluids.

Many people built their own defenses against the inescapable weather. A group of unemployed day laborers in south Delhi were bathing three times a day in a leaking pipe that sprayed a fountain of cold water.

Some lucky Delhi residents had air coolers — a downscale variety consisting of a metal box, wet straw, and a fan.

Privthi Raj, 50, a day laborer, said he would not return to work until the monsoons come, which could be a while. At night, he said, he sleeps under a gazebo in a public park.

“I only think about sleeping next to a cooler,” he said. “If somehow I could get a cooler, I could get some relief.”

1860. Psychedelic Drugs Should Be Legally Reclassified as They May Benefit Patients, Experts Say

By Science Daily, May 26, 2015

James Rucker, a psychiatrist and honorary lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King's College London, describes how these drugs "were extensively used and researched in clinical psychiatry" before their prohibition in 1967.

He explains that many trials of psychedelics published before prohibition, in the 1950s and 1960s, suggested "beneficial change in many psychiatric disorders.”

However, research ended after 1967. In the UK psychedelic drugs were legally classified as schedule 1 class A drugs -- that is, as having "no accepted medical use and the greatest potential for harm, despite the research evidence to the contrary," he writes.

Rucker points out that psychedelics remain more legally restricted than heroin and cocaine. "But no evidence indicates that psychedelic drugs are habit forming; little evidence indicates that they are harmful in controlled settings; and much historical evidence shows that they could have use in common psychiatric disorders.”

In fact, recent studies indicate that psychedelics have "clinical efficacy in anxiety associated with advanced cancer, obsessive compulsive disorder, tobacco and alcohol addiction, and cluster headaches," he writes.

And he explains that, at present, larger clinical studies on psychedelics are made "almost impossible by the practical, financial and bureaucratic obstacles" imposed by their schedule 1 classification. Currently, only one manufacturer in the world produces psilocybin for trial purposes, he says, at a "prohibitive" cost of £100,000 for 1 g (50 doses).

In the UK, to hold a schedule 1 drug, institutions require a license, which costs about £5,000, he adds. Only four hospitals currently hold such licenses, which come with regular police or home office inspections and onerous rules on storage and transport.

This, he argues, "means that clinical research using psychedelics costs 5-10 times that of research into less restricted (but more harmful) drugs such as heroin."

As a result, "almost all grant funders are uncomfortable funding research into psychedelics," writes Rucker, while prohibition as a condition of UN membership is "arguably causing more harm than it prevents."

He concludes that psychedelics are neither harmful nor addictive compared with other controlled substances, and he calls on the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, "to recommend that psychedelics be reclassified as schedule 2 compounds to enable a comprehensive, evidence based assessment of their therapeutic potential."

Journal Reference:

1 J. J. H. Rucker. Psychedelic drugs should be legally reclassified so that researchers can investigate their therapeutic potential. BMJ, 2015; 350 (may26 20): h2902 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.h2902

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

1859. Bird Flu Kills Millions of Chickens and Turkeys in the United States

By Donald G. McNeil Jr., The New York Times, May 5, 2015

Mass grave of chickens and turkeys killed by bird flu

Although much of the country has barely noticed, avian influenza — a version of the virus that generated “Killer Bird Flu!” headlines a decade ago — is now sweeping the Midwest.

More than 20 million turkeys and chickens have died or been culled; Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin have declared states of emergency; and teams of experts are trying to figure out how the new virus is spreading.

No humans have caught this flu, but health officials fear they might. They are requiring that cullers and barn-cleaners wear the kind of protective gear that Ebola workers do. Officials have also advised that everyone who was recently in contact with affected poultry operations — workers, truckers, veterinarians and so on — take Tamiflu, a flu preventive.

This is not the Asian H5N1 flu virus, which has killed 440 of the 826 people known to have gotten it since 2003. But the three avian flus found in this country since December are related to it — each produced, scientists believe, when the Asian H5N1, an efficient killer of birds and people, mixed with less dangerous avian strains.

No one knows how lethal any of the new viruses might be to humans. But because the virus spreading in the Midwest can wipe out most of a flock in two days, all are assumed to be dangerous.

The authorities are preparing for the panic that may ensue if someone catches one of these viruses and dies. Still, officials, say, most Americans are in little danger. The overall risks pale compared with those posed by well-known mortal threats that elicit no panic: car crashes, bee stings, bathroom falls and so on.

“We deem this a low human health risk — low, but not zero,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “So far, we don’t have worrisome signs. But we don’t want to be overly reassuring, because with influenza, we always take events quite seriously.”

The three flu viruses found recently in American birds are an H5N8, an H5N2 and a new H5N1.

The new H5N1 virus has been found only in three wild birds in Washington State. The H5N8 virus, moving south from Canada in December, infected a few poultry farms in California and Idaho but has not been reported recently.

The H5N2 virus, however, is spreading rapidly in Midwest poultry operations and is the largest such outbreak in North American history.

The lethal ancestor of all three viruses, the Asian H5N1, was first identified in 1997 when it killed six people in Hong Kong. To stop it, every chicken in the territory was slaughtered, and poultry imports from China were banned.

The virus disappeared, although experts assume it circulated in China without being reported. It re-emerged in Hong Kong in 2003 and has spread to Asia, Europe and Africa.

It has killed people in Indonesia, Egypt, Vietnam, Cambodia, China and elsewhere — most of whom had contact with live poultry, often in backyard flocks. A few infections appear to have been transmitted within families after one member nursed another.

That Asian virus has never been found in the Western Hemisphere. But the flu viruses spreading here now contain some of its genes, including those for the H — for hemagglutinin — “spike” it uses to attach to cells.

The H5N8 virus is thought to have emerged before 2014, when Asian H5N1 mixed with a milder duck flu in China with a different “N” gene. (“N” stands for neuraminidase, the protein “helicopter blade” that chops away receptors on a cell’s surface so virus particles can escape. There are 18 H shapes and 11 N shapes, and each virus has six other genes that also determine its lethality.)
That H5N8 spread to Japan, Russia and Europe before turning up in Canada.

The H5N2 and the new H5N1 have some North American genes and so clearly emerged on this continent more recently — presumably when the H5N8 virus finally arrived and crossed with North American strains.

That may have happened last summer. Migratory ducks, geese and swans from around the world share ponds in the Arctic in summer. New flu gene mixes emerge and move south along the various migratory paths taken by the birds.

Whatever the mix of genes, dose size is also important in determining spread of the virus, said Dr. Peter Palese, a flu expert at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Human flus can infect people who inhale only one to 10 virus particles, he said, but it takes 100,000 to 1 million particles of an H5 bird flu to infect a human.

“That’s why people who sleep under their chickens in markets in Asia get it, and we don’t get it on Fifth Avenue,” Dr. Palese said.
In birds, flu is primarily an intestinal disease rather than a respiratory one, so cullers and cleaners are told to wear coveralls, face masks and goggles to prevent any barn dust — much of which is powdered feces — from entering their noses, mouths or eyes.

Dr. Palese says he believes they should wear the full hoods with battery-powered air filters used in biosafety Level 3 laboratories.
Officials, he said, should also consider giving them the vaccines developed years ago against H5N1. Although it would not be a perfect match, it might provide some protection.

Several million doses of an experimental vaccine are in the National Strategic Stockpile, said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

It was created in the early days of panic over the Asian H5N1.
Blood samples from people who received the experimental vaccine years ago are now being tested to see if they contain antibodies that help protect against the new flus, a C.D.C. official said.

The agency has also begun work on a vaccine against the new H5N8 virus, Dr. Schuchat said, and can make one against H5N2 virus, as well. But producing it in large quantities can take months or even a year.

To cull birds, farm operators normally cover them with a suffocating carbon dioxide foam. As they decompose, said Henry L. Niman, a biochemist in Pittsburgh who tracks genetic changes in flus, the heat generated kills the virus and the carcasses can be used as compost.

But that stops poultry production in the barn for weeks.
Other methods include incineration in portable kilns, and burial, though each have drawbacks. With burial, rotting birds could end up in the water table; with incineration, infectious feathers or other particles could blow up the stack and into the wind.

Because the virus lives in dried feces and feathers that could blow off trucks, the risks to humans could increase drastically, Dr. Niman warned, if dead birds are removed from the barns prematurely.

“I’m worried that this is getting so big that they may cut corners,” he said.

State health officials in the 16 affected states are monitoring all exposed people for 10 days, said Lenee Blanton, a C.D.C. epidemiologist.

Those with diabetes, compromised immune systems or any other conditions that would make flu complications more serious should be prescribed antiviral medicines like Tamiflu or Relenza even if they have no symptoms.

In Asia, Dr. Niman said, even dogs that ate carcasses of culled birds caught the H5N1 flu.

“It’s like Ebola — it’s only going to take one person who dies, and they aren’t going to believe the C.D.C. saying ‘low risk, no risk.’” he said. ”People will panic.”