geese growing on trees?

People have been fascinated by reproduction since the dawn of time. However, fascination does not equal understanding.

As late as the 19th Century many people believed in spontaneous generation. That is, that life arose spontaneously, from non-living materials, in certain circumstances. Aristotle thought that many insects, eels, frogs, and some types of fish all originated spontaneously if the conditions were right. Why not, after all? Tadpoles show up in mud puddles, rotten meat nearly always produces maggots and even fish can appear suddenly in a pond.

We can, perhaps, perhaps understand people in Aristotle’s day believing such things, but the idea lasted for centuries. In the 17th Century Flemish scientist Jan Baptista van Helmont (1580-1644), went so far as to propose a “recipe” for mice: leave a dirty shirt and some wheat in a corner for a few weeks and presto – mice. He also noted that a good mix for making scorpions was to put basil between two bricks and leave it in the sun. It worked. What better proof that life can arise from non-living substances?

The belief in spontaneous generation led to some interesting ideas, including birds that grew on trees.

Barnacle Geese breed in the Arctic, thus their chicks weren’t seen in Europe. This led to an alternate explanation of their conception; namely the barnacle tree.

As the bishop Gerald of Wales (c 1146- c 1223) said: “There are here many birds that are called “Barnacles” [barnacoe] which … are born at first like pieces of gum on logs of timber washed by the waves. Then enclosed in shells of a free form they hang by their beaks as if from the moss clinging to the wood and so at length in process of time obtaining a sure covering of feathers, they either dive off into the waters or fly away into free air. . .”

Today we separate these creatures into two (unrelated) species which retain the myth in their names: the goose barnacle and the barnacle goose. I suppose if you squint it’s possible to see a resemblance of sorts. However, Gerald took it a step further. He said this wonderful process was irrefutable evidence of virgin birth and thus undeniable proof for the Virgin birth (not a particularly flattering analogy to my mind.)

For Gerald, this particular spontaneous generation also meant (handily enough) that Christians could eat goose during Lent because geese were considered fish not fowl. “Wherefore in certain parts of Ireland bishops and religious men in times of fast are used to eat these birds as not flesh nor being born of the flesh. . .^

It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that the idea of spontaneous generation died a natural death, when Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) did an experiment proving that sterilizing broth prevented the growth of microorganisms. While his work didn’t totally kill the theory of spontaneous generation it was further evidence against it and the theory eventually faded (although I still think that rotten bananas are fruit fly seeds.)


^Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hiberniae, v. 47, ed. Joseph Jacobs, The Jews of Angevin England: Documents and Records (London, 1893), p. 92-93. Scanned by Elka Klein. [retrieved 1/21/20]

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Thanks for reading,


The Hippocratic Oath

The original Hippocratic oath is lost to history. The oldest surviving fragments are from c 275 CE while oldest full text is from the 10-11th Centuries CE. A translation from the Greek reads:

I swear by Apollo Physician, by Asclepius, by Hygieia, by Panacea, and by all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will carry out, according to my ability and judgment, this oath and this indenture.

To hold my teacher in this art equal to my own parents; to make him partner in my livelihood; when he is in need of money to share mine with him; to consider his family as my own brothers, and to teach them this art, if they want to learn it, without fee or indenture; to impart precept, oral instruction, and all other instruction to my own sons, the sons of my teacher, and to indentured pupils who have taken the physician’s oath, but to nobody else.

I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course. Similarly I will not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion. But I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art. I will not use the knife, not even, verily, on sufferers from stone, but I will give place to such as are craftsmen therein.

Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free. And whatsoever I shall see or hear in the course of my profession, as well as outside my profession in my intercourse with men, if it be what should not be published abroad, I will never divulge, holding such things to be holy secrets.

Now if I carry out this oath, and break it not, may I gain for ever reputation among all men for my life and for my art; but if I break it and forswear myself, may the opposite befall me.
(English translation of 1923 Loeb edition by W.H.S. Jones.)

Over time various versions of the oath have been written making changes to bring it up to date with the times. In 1964 a version was written to remove the beginning prayer (which had previously been changed to reflect monotheism.) In 2019 the oath was changed again to add protection of the environment. That version reads:

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of over treatment and therapeutic nihilism.
I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.
I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.
I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know.
Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.
I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.
I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.
I will protect the environment which sustains us, in the knowledge that the continuing health of ourselves and our societies is dependent on a healthy planet.
I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.

It is interesting to note how different versions deal with issues ranging from abortion and euthanasia -once forbidden, but now accepted as long as one doesn’t “play God,”- to surgery -okay now that we have anesthesia – and earning money from teaching -we are capitalists after all. However, the overall feel is similar, be humble and do good where possible.

Adding in the need to pay attention to the environment is a reflection of a major change in perspective. It shifts the view of our world as a place to conquer and use for human ends to an acknowledgment of interdependence.

Not all medical students take the oath, although many do. There are some schools that even stick close to the original. However, most modern oaths are more similar to the 2019 version than that of 275 CE.

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January 20, 2020

Healing in the Middle Ages

In ancient times, for the most part, people were cared for at home. Both men and women were healers and valued for their knowledge. Midwives, know as wise women, played an important role in child birth, but cared for the ill as well. Remedies included prayers, chants and incantations as well as charms and herbs. This “folk magic” was practiced from well before the Middle Ages, including by priests and monks.

In the Middle Ages Christianity began to crack down on heretics and the idea of “magic” began to shift in public perception. Christian prayers, ritual and sacraments were allowed, but other religions were either disparaged or made illegal. Remember, this is a time when miracles were thought to occur with some frequency. Gods and devils were seen to be at work in the world in a literal way. Traveling to a shrine to pray before the finger bone of a (Christian) saint was considered a legitimate way to fight what we now call disease.

Monasteries and nunneries often included an infirmary and accompanying herb garden and villagers began to turn to monks and nuns for aid. In Europe hospitals were originally charity houses, often attached to a monastery. Similar to earlier pagan shrines, they would take in those who were ill, but also the poor and destitute. The emphasis was on Christian charity rather than healing it and the common denominator was often poverty rather than health. Prayer was essential and beds were often placed with a view of a central shrine or alter, with an eye to saving the soul if not the body.

Domenico di Bartolo, Care of the Sick, Public Domain.

Hospitals eventually developed into more medically inclined institutions, but without knowledge of germ theory or contagion they were not conducive to health. They were often filthy and crowded, with a high mortality rate. During epidemics it was common to have multiple patients in a single bed laid out head to foot. Care consisted mainly of food and a place to sleep. Since the emphasis was on care the work often fell to women, hence the “invention” of nursing. While monks and lay brothers would work in the gardens the women would work directly with the patients – or inmates as they were sometimes called.

In the 12th Century the French Council of Bishops began instituting a policy of requiring an oath of chastity, poverty and obedience for nurses working in hospitals. While being chaste, obedient and poor the women worked long, hard hours. As well as feeding, bathing, praying and otherwise caring for the sick, nurses were also responsible for cleaning and, since many hospitals were also orphanages, for child care. Needless to say, it was not a great place to be a child. Or a nurse, or a patient, for that matter.

Given the options, however, it wasn’t the worst place to be (well, maybe for the patients.) Nurses often had responsibility for everything from choosing which patients to accept and when to send them home, to inventorying supplies. It was a thankless job. Laundry alone was was a brutal and never ending chore. Forget about the the spin cycle and imagine instead breaking ice on the river in the winter and hauling around bundles of wet laundry. The work was worse before the invention of bedpans, since nurses then had to escort patients to and from a common latrine. It was bad enough during the day, but at night ….

The absence of lamps … made the journey [to the latrine chamber] a precarious one; the weak, confused, and incontinent were prone to accidents, whose consequences the sisters were expected to remove.”^1

While women were struggling to keep their patients alive doctors were starting to receive official training. Unfortunately for women, as medicine became more respected and training more prominent women were left behind. Not only were they not allowed to attend school, but healers outside the Christian hospital setting started to change from being respected healers into witches.



^1 Minkowski, W L. “Women healers of the middle ages: selected aspects of their history.” American journal of public health vol. 82,2 (1992): 288-95. doi:10.2105/ajph.82.2.288


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Vaccinations: History of a Controversy


Vaccinations have been viewed with suspicion since they were first developed.


This has not been helped by mistakes along the way as science in general and lab work in particular has evolved. The worst incident in the US was in 1955 when the polio vaccination was introduced. Cutter Laboratories mistakenly created a vaccine using live polio virus rather than dead virus. This mistake caused tens of thousands of cases of polio and is thought to be responsible for 10 deaths and more than 200 cases of paralysis.

The History of Vaccination

That is horrendous and inexcusable. However, it pales when looked at against the average yearly death due to polio, which at the time was around 2000 deaths each year. Of course that doesn’t help if your child was oDSC_4800ne of the people killed or paralyzed by a preventable error.

The Cutter Incident, as it came to be known, was a disaster. But even so the death rate for polio has dropped to zero in the US due to an ambitious and ultimately successful vaccination program. As a society we need to decide if the risk was worth the reward.

Polio has no cure. It leads to paralysis in around 1 in 200 cases and of those 10-20 people will die when their breathing muscles become paralyzed. In 1916 a polio outbreak killed 2,400 people in New York City alone.

The recent fear of vaccinations began in 1998

when a man named Andrew Wakefield (b. 1957) published a paper in The Lancet, a well respected British medical journal. In the article he claimed to find a correlation between a new disease he called autistic enterocolitis, and the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella.)

This article wasn’t the first the world had heard of Wakefield. He had previously done controversial work suggesting a possible link between Crohn’s disease (a disease of the intestinal tract) and the measles vaccination. He was working on this when he was approached by Rosemary Kessick, the parent of an autistic child and head of a group called Allergy induced Autism. She later said in an interview:

“What people fail to realize is that Andrew Wakefield did not go looking for us. We parents went looking for him.”^1

Soon Wakefield had been approached by several parents who thought their children’s bowel and behavioral problems were caused by vaccinations. Using 12 children from this self selecting group Wakefield was able to find the correlation he sought. As he wrote in the study:

“Onset of behavioural symptoms was associated, by the parents, with measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination in eight of the 12 children, with measles infection in one child, and otitis media [a type of ear infection] in another.” ^2

Wakefield’s own interpretation of the study was mild enough.

“We identified associated gastrointestinal disease and developmental regression in a group of previously normal children, which was generally associated in time with possible environmental triggers. ^3

“…generally associated in time with possible environmental triggers.” In other words, symptoms showed up around the same time as the vaccinations. Not particularly surprising considering he chose to work with with children whose parents thought the symptoms showed up around the same time as the vaccinations.

Unfortunately, despite the mild tone of the finding, in an interview following the study Wakefield said that he was convinced that the MMR vaccine caused autism. The press grabbed the headline and people with autistic kids started counting back from when they first noticed the symptoms.

Hopefully, you have noticed a few issues with the study. Wakefield didn’t use a random sample, had no control group, used a tiny study size. The findings were a correlation and did not show causation. But those were the small problems.

A correlation means two things happen together. Causation means one makes the other happen. We light our wood stove in the winter. There is a strong correlation between having a fire and wintertime. However, winter doesn’t cause fires and wood fires don’t cause winter. None-the-less they happen together. I could even say that a wood fire is generally associated in time with possible environmental triggers.

It was later determined that Wakefield was being funded by lawyers who wanted to sue vaccine manufactures. Beyond all that, Wakefield faked the data. When this came out he was stripped of his medical license and the Lancet retracted his study. But the damage was done.

William is one of 10 children taking part in a pilot study … investigating possible links between the measles vaccine with the bowel disorder Crohn’s Disease, and with autism. The study is being organized by Norfolk solicitors Dawbarns, one of two firms awarded a contract … to co-ordinate claims resulting from the MMR vaccine.^4

Today anti-vaccine activists have several fears about vaccines.


I don’t want to discount those fears. Vaccinations do cause harm is some rare cases (not autism.) However, the benefits of vaccination highly outweigh the risks in the majority of cases.

There are several different types of vaccines. Live attenuated vaccines are ones which use a weakened form of the disease for the inoculation. Common diseases which react well to attenuated vaccines are measles, mumps and rubella (MMR combined vaccine,) as well as chickenpox and some of the flu vaccines.

Some diseases are simply too virulent to allow any amount of live culture into the patient. These diseases require inactivated vaccines. In these cases the bacteria or virus is killed using heat or chemicals and the dead disease cells are introduced into the body. These vaccines include polio, rabies and hepatitis A. These vaccines aren’t as strong as the live attenuated, so may require several shots or boosters.

A few other types of vaccines are made which either use only a part of the disease cells or treat the cells to change them chemically, prior to adding to the vaccination. New types if vaccines are also in the works which will act on DNA either directly or indirectly.

Here are some of the common fears and the medical and scientific communities’ response:

1) Vaccinations cause autism.
I have already showed how Wakefield’s study was flawed. Furthermore, attempts to replicate his findings have failed over and over again. There have been no studies that have found that vaccine causes or increases any risk for autism. The timing can be similar in that vaccines are administered to young children and autism can take a while to develop. However, using the same logic you could claim that autism causes some parents to vaccinate their children.

2) The chemicals used in the vaccines either to kill the virus/bacteria or added to prevent spoilage are dangerous.
It is true that high levels of some of the chemicals are indeed dangerous. However, the CDC, NIH and other national health organizations point out that the most dangerous chemicals are no longer used and the levels of those chemicals that remain are below danger levels – in some cases are lower than what occurs naturally in human bodies.

3) Young children’s immune systems are vulnerable to receiving many vaccines at one time.
Fortunately, children (and adults) have large numbers of antibodies in their blood allowing them to face numerous immune challenges daily. It’s not as if the immune system deals with one issue then moves on to the next. Rather different cells deal with different invaders, both the dangerous and the benign.

The immune system doesn’t “run out” of antibodies because the cells are constantly replenishing themselves. Introducing a large number of pathogens means a large number of antibodies are created. That’s a good thing because children are exposed to new “bugs,” daily. Every time you take a child to the grocery store, or day care you are exposing that child to more germs than they will get in any number of carefully prepared vaccinations.

Finally, the vaccines are now safer and easier on the immune system than ever before, so getting a number of vaccinations at one time is even safer than ever. According to the Children’s Hospital of Chicago:

“Studies… indicate that the immune system has the capacity to respond to extremely large numbers of immunologically distinct regions of viruses and bacteria…. one would predict that if 11 vaccines were given to infants at one time, then about 0.1 percent of the immune system would be “used up.” …

However, because B cells and other lymphocytes are constantly replenished, a vaccine never really “uses up” a fraction of the immune system. For example, the immune system has the ability to replenish about 2 billion lymphocytes each day. This replacement activity illustrates the enormous capacity of the immune system to generate lymphocytes as needed. ^5

4) Getting the disease naturally gives a greater immunity than receiving the vaccination.
This is often true. However, that doesn’t make it safe to get the disease. If your child is exposed to someone with the measles it’s possible that they will not get a bad case and will be immune for life. However, measles can be deadly. Is it worth the risk when your child can get the immunity without getting the disease? Also, in a few cases (tetanus for instance) the vaccination actually gives stronger immunity than getting the disease itself.

5) Big Pharma is just after your money.
There is no doubt that money is a big motivating factor in the drug business. However, making a product which consistently causes health problems is a bad business decision. If vaccines were as dangerous as some people claim the companies would quickly go out of business.

6) People also give religious reasons for not wanting to get their children vaccinated.
I can’t speak to those beliefs since they are faith based.

Now for the reasons the medical community gives in favor of vaccination.


1) The risk of the disease is greater than the risk of vaccination.
If the opposite were true there would be no reason to vaccinate anyone. There are vaccination disasters caused by human error, misjudgment or outright dishonesty, such as the Cutter Incident, but even given those accidents the numbers of lives saved is greater than those due to being vaccinated. If you go by the numbers your child is safer getting vaccinated.

2) Vaccination safely prevents disease in the vast majority of cases.
Most children and adults will have little to no response to vaccinations. Some vaccinations cause bruising or soreness at the site of the vaccination. Some people may feel mild fatigue or illness for a day or two after certain vaccinations. Some vaccinations may not be appropriate for people with compromised immune systems. Severe reactions do occur but rarely.

3) “Herd immunity” helps those who are unable to be vaccinated and prevents the spread of disease.
Herd immunity refers to the situation where enough people are vaccinated that even if the disease does occur it won’t spread through the population. If you have an unvaccinated population and your kid catches the flu at school and them comes home and gives it to you and you go to work and give it to your boss who … soon the flu is endemic. However, anyone who is vaccinated is essentially a cut-off point. The flu stops with them. If enough people have been vaccinated the flu remains contained.

4) It is possible to eradicate disease through vaccination.
So far this is only true for smallpox, but that one instance proves it can be done with a concerted effort. In the US and other wealthy countries other diseases have also been either eliminated or cut way back.

The top 10 health dangers for 2019 according to the WHO:
– Air pollution and climate change.
– Noncommunicable diseases (eg diabetes)
– Global influenza pandemic (preparing for the inevitable)
– Fragile and vulnerable settings (eg war zones, poverty)
– Antimicrobial resistance (overuse of antibiotics)
– Ebola and other high-threat pathogens
– Weak primary health care
– Vaccine hesitancy (defined as both refusal and delayed vaccination due to distrust or confusion)
–  Dengue
^6 (my emphasis)

Look at the facts as well as the fears to help you make an informed decision.

And don’t forget to chat with your doctor.
Thanks for reading.

^1 article dated 02 Dec 2001. [retrieved 11/20/19.]

^2 The Lancet 1998; 351: 637–41.

^3 Ibid.

^4 Grania Langdon-Down. The Independent Law, p 25. November 27 1996

^5 [retrieved 11/14/2019.]

^6″Ten health issues WHO will tackle this year”. Who International. My emphasis. [Retrieved 11/ 25/19.]


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The History of Vaccination

Imagine getting a letter from a dear friend inviting you to party where you would be exposed to smallpox.

This is how the history of vaccinations began in the West.

Smallpox was greatly feared as it was often deadly and left many survivors blind and / or badly disfigured. However, it was also known that once you had the disease you were immune from future infections. In many parts of the world people were deliberately infected by someone with a mild case of smallpox in the hope that it would also give the receiving individual a mild case and with it immunity from future potentially deadly infection. This worked often enough that many people were willing to take the risk. Hence smallpox parties.

In 1713 a woman named Mary Wortley Montage (1689-1762) was living in Turkey when she encountered the procedure. She described it to a friend in a letter home:

The small-pox, so fatal, and so generally amongst us, is here entirely harmless by the invention of ingrafting, which is the term they give it. There is a set of old women who make it their business to perform the operation every autumn, … People send to one another to know if any of their family has a mind to have the small-pox: they make parties for this purpose, and when they are met …, the old woman comes with a nut-shell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what veins you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer [sic] to her with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch), and puts into the vein as much venom as can lie upon the head of her needle, and after binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell; and in this manner opens four or five veins….The children, or young patients, play together all the rest of the day, and are in perfect health to the eighth. Then the fever begins to seize them, and they keep their beds two days, very seldom three. They have rarely about twenty or thirty [pox] in their faces, which never mark; and in eight days’ time they are as well as before their illness.”

The Letters and Works of Lady Mary Wortley Montigue, ed Lord Wharncliffe. 3rd edition, Henry G Bohn, London. 1840. p. 308.

Montigue herself had been disfigured by smallpox and her brother had died of the disease. She became an advocate for the procedure had her own children engrafted. (The boy was engrafted last Tuesday, and is at this time singing and playing, and very impatient for his supper.  The Letters and Works of Lady Mary Wortley Montigue, ed Lord Wharncliffe (great grandson), 3rd edition, Henry G Bohn, London. 1840. p 352-353. )

Montigue’s information spread to the royal family who gave permission to test the procedure on a handful of prisoners and later on several orphans. Fortunately for the test subjects (the word volunteer does not seem appropriate) the engrafting worked and the process began to catch on.

helicopter rideThen an English doctor named Edward Jenner (1749-1823) became interested in the fact  that people who were regularly exposed to cowpox tended to be immune to smallpox. Cowpox was a similar although milder disease spread by cows. Jenner decided to substitute cowpox for the engrafting. He tested it on an 8 year old boy (one wonders about informed consent) and found it worked. Vacca is the Latin word for cow, so Jenner named the procedure vaccination.
This process was the state of the art when Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) entered the scene in the mid 1800s. His contribution was to make the process less of a matter of luck and more one of science. He did this by artificially creating a weakened version of the disease to engraft his patients. In another of the delightful ironies of science he made his discover by chance – actually by an over eager assistant.

Pasteur had succeeded in isolated the bacteria responsible for chicken cholera, a disease that was decimating the chicken population. Following Jenner’s example he was infecting the chickens with a culture of the cholera in hopes that a controlled infection would prevent a deadly one. However, many of the chickens died from the procedure. He was working on this problem and asked an assistant to inject the chickens with a fresh culture of the cholera. Fortunately for science, the assistant was eager for his vacathelicopter rideion and left without doing the work. When he returned from vacation a month later he used the month old culture to inject the birds.
Surprisingly, the birds only showed mild signs of the cholera. When
The science is clear. Vaccinations are good for individuals and necessary for public health. Pasteur injected them with fresh culture they remained healthy. Pasteur assumed the old culture had been weakened by sitting for a month, yet still retained its ability to protect the chickens. This was the beginning of manipulating disease culture prior to injection. Pasteur called the resulting culture a vaccine in Jenner’s honor.
We now know that disease is caused by microorganisms that invade the body (plant or animal.) The invaders trigger an immune response causing the body to producing cells that (hopefully) make the germs harmless. Sometimes the immune cells simply engulf the invaders, other times chemicals between the two interact causing changes which render the invaders harmless.

helicopter ride
Clearly, the more destructive the cells the more dangerous the disease. Therefore the goal is to strengthen the immune response so it reacts faster than the microorganisms can reproduce. By introducing a small amount of the disease into the body it “teaches” the immune cells to respond. Then, if the host is exposed to a larger amount of the disease the immune system can react more quickly than the disease can reproduce.

It’s a matter of which cells can reproduce more quickly, those of the immune system or those of the disease. That is what makes rapidly evolving bacteria and viruses so dangerous. If the disease can evolve quickly it is harder for the body to keep up. The need for a flu vaccine every year is because the virus responsible for the flu mutates so rapidly your body’s immune system may well not recognize this year’s flu even if you are immune to last year’s variety.

Since Pasteur’s time vaccines have been found for many other diseases and the public has benefited greatly. Polio has been mostly eradicated from the US. Measles has been greatly reduced, but it’s the eradication of smallpox that has been the greatest success story. In the mid 20th Century a massive effort went into controlling smallpox through world wide vaccination. Smallpox went from killing up to 30% of those infected to full eradication of the disease. Smallpox hasn’t been seen “in the wild” since the 1980’s and is thought to be gone from the world entirely, except for two labs which retain samples for study.

Unfortunately, the fear of vaccinations is on the rise and with it the dangers of infectious diseases. My next post will discuss some of those fears and the science behind them.


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Dog Language – Play Groups

I often take my puppy and my camera to a play group. I took this series of photos on a sunny afternoon not long ago. Let me introduce the cast of characters:

Olive, a Golden Retriever, is a puppy and submissive to everyone. She is timid but loves to play. Beta, a white Shepard is 6 or 7 years old and tends to be aloof. She will occasionally deign to play, but it takes her a while to warm up to other dogs. When she is nervous she acts fierce – she likes to raise her lips in a ferocious looking snarl.

Beatle (my dog) is the black Shepard. She’s almost 7 months old and has recently started acting like the teenager that she is. The final member of this group is Charlie a friendly, cannon ball of an English lab. He loves to play, loves people, loves bowling over dogs, loves life.


In the first photo, above, Olive and Beta are being introduced. Olive is terrified of Beta. How do I know she is terrified? Notice the stiffness in her front legs and the worried expression in her eyes. Also, the tongue lick is a sign of anxiety and she has lowered her ears in puppy appeasement language.

She is probably worried because Beta is also uncomfortable. Notice Beta’s ruff and the way she is leaning in for the sniff. She doesn’t want to get too close. She is evaluating the situation. Also note the loose leash on Beta. Her person is ready to intervene if necessary, but a tight leash increases the tension so it’s better to leave it loose. Olive is free, so if she needs to retreat she can.


Next Beatle noses her way in-between them. Beta’s ruff is still up and the puppy Olive still looks worried. She is looking away from both Beta and Beatle. Beatle is coming in low, another submissive gesture and her ears are down. She is look straight at Beta which can be aggressive and rude between dogs. Perhaps this is why she is coming in low. She and Beta are friends. Beatle ignores Beta’s raised rough and snarls. She will lick Beta’s lip even as Beta snarls or growls. I don’t know if Beatle wanted to break up the tension between Olive and Beta or if she just wanted Beta’s attention. Same thing I guess.

Charlie, the lab in back, is the group peacemaker. He is totally relaxed. Whenever there are squabbles he runs between whoever is making a ruckus. It’s pretty amazing to see. He will deliberately push his was in between the two dogs. The first couple times I saw it I thought it was a coincidence, but it has happened often enough I’m sure it is deliberate.


Now, Olive and Beta are making progress. Beta still looks unsure, but Olive is looking much more relaxed. She still has her ears down and her head is lower than Beta’s, but her mouth is relaxed and her tongue is out in a smile. Beta, on the other hand, is looking at Olive from the corner of her eye and her mouth is tense in a way Olive’s isn’t. Still, they are making progress.

More time passed. Now look at them.

In the this photo they both look relaxed and happy, tongues are out in happy grins. Olive is still looking submissive which is probably reassuring to Beta. Its clear from both their postures that they are now easy with each other.

You probably also noticed all the leashes dragging and all the people close by. This is a structured puppy play group. A couple of the dogs, ok, just mine, Beatle, gets overexcited sometimes and I have to step in and have her take a break. Sometimes its easier to catch whoever she is chasing instead of Beatle. So we leave leashes on. Most of them are slippery non-tangle leashes.

In the above photo it’s about time to intervene.When Beatle gets this intense she needs a time-out, although Olive doesn’t seem to care. Olive looks loose and relaxed and her tongue is out in a smile. (Compare this tongue with the one in the first photo.)

Notice how relaxed Olive is, then look at Beatle’s ears which are upright. In itself that’s not a big deal, but her head is low and her whole manner is focused intently on Olive. I wouldn’t worry, except I saw her once go into prey drive. She didn’t hurt the other dog, but her demeanor was scary-intense and the other dog was terrified. So, I keep a close eye on her. This is a new behavior for her. I’m hoping its a short stage.

This is how she usually is:


That’s the word in dog land.
Thanks for reading,

July 14, 2018

Check out Beatle as a pup (ignore the name changes. It took a while to settle on the spelling)

New Puppy!

Other dog posts:
Puppy Socialization

Crate Training your Dog
Three things you Must Have Before Getting a Puppy
Cat Show – wait – that’s not about dogs

neither are these:

Freezing Frogs: Survival of the Coldest
Beautiful Objects in the Sky
A Case for Curiosity

Shellac – the Details

Shellac has a long history. It was known as far back as the Vedic period in India around 3,000 years ago when it was used as a medicine as well as a dye. In later years it became a popular finish known for its durability and ease of use. In the West it was used as a finish as early as the mid 17th Century.

photos and boxes by Kate Taylor Creative Woodworking

Shellac has many uses beyond the familiar wood finish. It can be bleached or further refined into aleuritic acid which is used in the perfume industry. It is used as a binder in many products, including matches and ammunition, hairspray and shampoo. It is a coating for spark plugs and used as a hat stiffening agent (both leather and felt). You can also find shellac in India ink and of course you probably had some shellac with your breakfast since it is used as a coating for coffee beans, DSC_0007 2 as well as on candy, processed food and pharmaceuticals. (If you are using shellac as a finish don’t drink it. It is dissolved in denatured alcohol. Once dried it is again non-toxic.)


All this usefulness comes from a tiny bug. Shellac is made from the resinous secretion of microscopic bugs collectively known as lac bugs. (For those entomologists among us, lac bugs are from the coccoidea family and include Laccifer lacca, Carteria lacca and Tachardia lacca.) The process of making shellac starts with these microscopic creatures.

It begins when huge numbers of lac bugs colonize branches of host trees. Lac bugs are most common in India and Thailand where many different types of trees host the bug. Those trees include members of the soapberry, pea, buckthorn and mulberry families. It takes about 100,000 lac bugs to make 500 g of shellac flakes. In fact, the word “lac” comes from the Sanskrit word “lakh” which means 100,000.

The lac bugs feed on the tree, sucking sap into their proboscis and then secreting the resinous lac. The males fertilize the females and then fly away, while the females never develop wings. Instead they lay around 1000 eggs each and continue eating and secreting lac until they die. During this process the lac builds up on the branches, ultimately covering both the female bugs and the eggs.

lac bug - public domain
Tachardia Lacca, lac bug – public domain

The secreted lac hardens, protecting the eggs from predators. Unfortunately for the lac bug, it attracts humans. Once the branches are thick with resin the branches are harvested as sticklac.

Sticklac refers to the entire branch that is coated with the resin of the lac bug. Workers cut the resin coated branches then crush and sift the sticklac to remove dirt and bug parts. It is then washed to further remove impurities. From this point the lac is called seedlac.

Seedlac comes in a variety of colors depending on the type of host tree as well as the species of lac bug. The color of the lac can be dissolved away in water. It is removed and used as dye or left in the seedlac to give color to the final product. After repeated washings the seedlac is laid out to dry. To turn the seedlac into shellac it is treated with either heat or solvent.

stick lac JeffreyWLotzFADept of
photo by Jeffery W. Lotz

Traditionally the lac is heated in cloth tubes which can be as long as 40’. The tubes are held over a fire in sections to heat the seedlac. As it melts a worker twists the cloth tube which acts as a sieve, further cleaning and purifying the lac as it passes through the fabric. If the worker wants to make button lac then the hot lac is scraped from the cloth and dropped onto a hard surface where it forms into little puddles of button lac. These can be stamped with a makers mark and left to harden.

If shellac flakes are preferred the shellac is stretched into thin sheets while still warm. Then the sheet is cooled until brittle. When made by hand a worker molds the sheet and then stands in front of a fire while the shellac dries. The dried sheet is then broken into small pieces.


photo from Tolaram Overseas Corporation.

The same process can also be done using steam and hydraulic presses. The heating process keeps the wax in the shellac. To make de-waxed shellac such as that used by woodworkers, the lac is dissolved in a solution (usually industrial alcohol) and then filtered. The alcohol is evaporated and recovered and the shellac is pressed into sheets and then broken into flakes. This process allows the manufacturer to control the amount of wax in the shellac. The wax itself can then be reclaimed from the process and used for polishing.

Shellac and de-waxed shellac can both be used as a finish. If the shellac is being used as a sealer, it’s best to use the de-waxed shellac as some finishes don’t adhere well to the wax. If the shellac is going to be the final finish either will do. In either case it makes for a beautiful finish.


Thanks for reading,

June 27, 2018

If you enjoyed this post check out my woodworking website at

or yoiu might like my photography at






What’s CRISPR?

Genetic modification is easy. Perhaps you’ve done it yourself. Are you a gardener? Do you save seeds? If you chose seeds only from the best plants you are modifying the genetics of succeeding generations. This sort of selective breeding has been going on for centuries. It takes generations, but over time plants and animals can be radically changed. Those changes, if they are hereditary, occur in the genes.

Oh, that hardly counts, you might be thinking. It’s slow and is a natural process. I’ll grant you slow, but not natural. Look at teacup puppies and black roses. Think about racing horses whose legs are so thin they break. Natural selection favors those who survive. Artificial selection ignores survivability, in favor of traits that please humans.


Still, that’s generally not what people mean when they talk of GMOs. In popular usage GMO stands for organisms whose genetics have been modified through introduction of genes from a different species. In this sense wolf – dog hybrids are GMOs. But that still isn’t what people usually mean. Rather they mean laboratory introduced genetics.

For example, a gene from a specific species of fish might be added to a tomato plant to make the tomato more cold tolerant. This raises images of fishy tomatoes, but lets think about what a gene is, starting with DNA.

DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is a long thin molecule shaped in the famous double helix. The helix is made of base pairs of nucleotides held together by hydrogen atoms. The order of those pairs determines how they interact with surrounding molecules. A certain sequence will make a particular type of protein which in turn interacts with certain molecules to create a specific effect.


A segment of base pairs with a specific purpose is a gene. That’s all it is. It can be a section of DNA with a few base pairs up to hundreds of pairs. It’s as if a long piece of string was divided into different colors. Each color segment has a purpose. If you can figure out what the purpose is, you can, in theory, manipulate it.

You will not find a “cold tolerant gene.” What you will find is a section of base pairs which interact with other molecules to create a specific protein. That protein in turn interacts with other molecules in some way which results in greater tolerance for cold. Perhaps it helps in the creation of fat. Or maybe it strengthens cell walls to protect against freezing. In any event, it all starts with the gene and it’s ability to create a specific protein.

The scientist will pluck a specific segment from the fish DNA and introduce it into the tomato. Rather than having a tomato with little fish swimming inside it, you have a tomato with the ability to create a new protein.

GMOs have been around for decades and the research has shown no indication of any related health problems. However, politically and economically I worry about monopolies by giant companies who patent food (look into Monsanto, for instance). But that’s a topic for another post.

This brings us to the newest tool in the GMO business called CRISPR. CRISPR is a revolutionary method which allows for specific gene targeting. Previously, creating GMOs was a comparatively clumsy process. For example, a harmless bacteria might be altered with the addition of a chosen gene, then that bacteria would infect the plant, carrying with it the new gene.

CRISPR makes it possible to literally cut and paste specific genes. A section of DNA can be cut out and / or replaced with a new section. The technique is comparatively easy and cheap. Although it’s only been around for a few years, CRISPR is already being widely used, including on humans.

China was the first, beginning with non-viable human embryos. More recently studies have begun on cancer patients. Although it is too early to know what the results will be, this clearly marks a change in our ability to manipulate our own genetics.

On the one hand, it could be possible to cure genetic diseases, on the other hand, it’s equally possible to create “designer babies.” The question is: are we as a species wise enough to take evolution into our own hands?


Thanks for reading,
June 12, 2018

If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy this selection:

Polar Vortex
Introducing the Glorious, Golden, Phi
fresh air anyone?
An Introduction to Clouds
Crate Training your Dog


More Chickens


Chickens are wonderful animals. I don’t know why. They wander around muttering and scratching in the grass looking for bugs. They usually flock together but sometimes someone (usually Big Red, top of the pecking order) heads off on her own.DSC_0065

I used to let them out to wander the property. But, I have a puppy now.DSC_4400

So they stay in.


I decided to clip their wings to keep them in their coop area. It seemed the safest thing to do. I was afraid it would be hard, but it is much easier than trimming Beatle’s toenails.

The hardest part was catching the birds (that and remembering who I had done.) All you do is spread out their wing and trim the flight feathers. The chickens don’t seem to care (or notice for that matter once the indignity of being held is over) and now I can watch them worry free.

Chicken sunbathing, ah, nice stretch.

Happy chickens. Happy me. (Disappointed Beatle).




If you enjoyed this post check out:

Beautiful Storm

How Do You Know? A Look at Knowledge

Freezing Frogs: Survival of the Coldest