The Whole World’s Your Oyster Unless You’re In Apalachicola

The end of 2020 approaches. Hallelujah! How about celebrating the demise of this dreadful year with a decadent treat? You could slurp down oysters on the half shell or, if you are more refined, dine on oysters Rockefeller. Whatever your pleasure, you won’t be eating any oysters from the oyster capital of the world because harvesting of wild oysters from Apalachicola Bay has been shut down through 2025. Add yet another black mark to the list of what has transpired in 2020.

So oysters cannot be harvested from one particular location. What’s the big deal? Well, it is a big deal. In the first place, Apalachicola (familiarly “Apalach” to locals) has historically produced 90% of Florida’s oysters and 10% of the nation’s supply. The annual harvest dropped from 3 million pounds in 2009, worth around $9 million, to less than 21,000 pounds in 2019. The supply of oysters in Apalachicola Bay is dwindling. Bye, bye bivalves! Needless to say the economy of Apalachicola, a small town with a population around 2,300, has taken a huge hit and the lives of many of the residents dependent on that industry have been devastated.

But it isn’t just people who have been impacted. The lack of oysters is a troubling sign for the environment. The loss of Apalachicola Bay as an oyster source is evidence that the capacity to produce oysters naturally is waning. The oysters harvested from this area are from some of the last commercially worked wild oyster beds in the country. Almost all the other oysters produced are farmed. Wild, naturally produced oysters are more appealing to me that ones that are artificially farmed. Of course, those of you who are grossed out by the yuk factor of oysters (they look slimy but taste delicious) could care less how they come to be on your plate.

Even worse, oysters are what is called an indicator species which tells about the overall health of an estuary. A drastic reduction in the oyster population does not bode well for the environment in which they grow. In 2013 the federal government declared Apalachicola Bay a disaster area. The environmental situation is so dire that the State of Florida is utilizing a $20 million grant to help restore the bay. That’s right. We need money to mend the mollusk milieu.

The mollusk milieu, Apalachicola Bay, is an estuary in north Florida where freshwater rivers meet the Gulf of Mexico. One of those rivers is the Apalachicola River which is named for the indigenous people who used to live along it; this water body is Florida’s largest river by volume. The resulting water combination when the river meets the Gulf is a brackish, or slightly salty, mix ideal for growing plump, salty oysters. Mmm, mmm.

A number of factors have contributed to the decline of the health of Apalachicola Bay. These factors include the BP oil disaster, droughts, Hurricane Michael, and the lack of freshwater from upstream. Droughts have left the bay lethally salty for the oysters who thrive in brackish water. An increase in salt in the water also increases the presence of oyster predators, which include fish and birds. Apparently humans are not the only ones who enjoy slurping down the mollusks.

On top of years of drought which have devastated the wild oyster beds, Apalachicola Bay has been receiving less freshwater from upstream. Blame the northerners! In this case, the northerners are the residents of the Atlanta metropolitan area.

Hotlanta uses water upstream as a water supply for several million people and has been drawing more and more water. Less freshwater means increased salinity in Apalachicola Bay, a threat to its oysters beds’ vitality. A three decades-long water war in the courts has been waged between the states of Georgia and Florida regarding the upstream water use. As the states slugged it out in the courtroom, back at the bay the oysters were dying off.

COVID-19 may be killing off humans, but by their actions humans are killing their environment and the oysters naturally produced in Apalachicola Bay. The moratorium on harvesting wild oysters in the Bay offers an opportunity to turn the situation around. The five year closure imposed by Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee this month gives wild oyster reefs time to regenerate. The ban could be lifted prior to the elapse of five years if the oyster populations rebound.

Failure of the oyster population to make a come back would be a sad historical event. Humans have enjoyed oysters, which are packed with nutrients, for thousands of years. These saltwater bivalve mollusks which typically range in size from 3″ to 14,” (14 inches? Egad!) even rated a mention in Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” The bard’s play contains the line “the world’s mine oyster.”

Although most of us don’t go around quoting Shakespeare, we’ve probably all heard someone say in conversation, “The world’s your (or my) oyster,” meaning there is the opportunity to achieve great success. Unfortunately, the world literally is the human race’s oyster. Far from achieving success, it appears that we have driven our habitat to the brink of environmental disaster with the wild oyster beds in Apalachicola Bay on the frontline of casualties. With no oysters available, understanding lines from Shakespeare is going to be even more difficult.

Just WONDER-ing:

Do you eat oysters? If so, what’s your favorite way to eat them? How alarming is it to you that the ability to produce wild oysters is dwindling? Were you aware that the phrase “the world’s my oyster” has it origin in a Shakespeare play?

COVID-19: The Grinch Trying To Steal Christmas 2020

A plot is afoot to steal Christmas, but the usual suspect isn’t the culprit. There’s a new grinch in town here in 2020, one that wasn’t created by the beloved Dr. Seuss. But just like the Grinch who targeted Whoville, this grinch also wants to stop Christmas from coming. The strategy is similar, however, with the trappings of Christmas being eliminated. Who is the mastermind of this evil plot? It’s not a who, it’s a what. It’s COVID-19.

The coronavirus has altered life as we know it during this calendar year. Schools went virtual, sports teams played in bubbles, and people worked remotely. Holidays were affected as well with gatherings at Thanksgiving discouraged. Up next in the crosshairs is Christmas. All we should want for Christmas is to actually have one because what we will get won’t be what we are accustomed to or even want.

Deaths from COVID-19 have now exceeded 300,000. That’s the equivalent of the entire population of St. Louis or Pittsburgh being wiped out. This context is hardly the backdrop for celebrating “the most wonderful time of the year.” But, regardless of what is going on in the world, December 25 remains on the calendar.

Getting together with family will make it feel like Christmas, right? Well, it might if you could do that. Good luck with achieving that Christmas tradition. The Centers For Disease Control (“CDC”) believes that the safest way to celebrate is to stay home with the people with whom you live. Oh, joy to the world–not. Our immediate family members are likely already on our last nerve from quarantine, lockdowns, and social distancing, right?

In particular, things aren’t looking very golden in the Golden State for the holiday gatherings. Gov. Gavin Newsom issued regional stay at home orders on December 3rd, and most of the state is under those restrictive orders. Stores are limiting the number of people allowed inside at one time; retail stores can have a maximum of 20% capacity. Wineries are among the numerous businesses required to close, nonessential travel is banned, and private gatherings of ANY size are off limits. No dine in eating is allowed; thus, you have to get your Who hash to go. Oh what fun it won’t be for Californians….

How about a lively Christmas party to inspire some cheer? That plan is doomed to crash and burn. Michael Osterholm, newly appointed by President-elect Biden to his coronavirus advisory board, has flat out stated: “There is not a safe Christmas party in this country right now.” Realizing how popular his comment would be, Osterholm went on to remark,”I don’t care if I am accused of being the Grinch that stole Christmas.” Sorry, Mr. Osterholm, COVID-19 has already laid claim to that title.

Well, never mind about the gatherings and parties, there are still gifts to be received to make Christmas merry and bright. But exactly what gifts might you be receiving? You thought that getting socks or underwear for Christmas was bad, huh? How about getting a shot? In response to the pandemic, the U.S. has begun its most ambitious vaccination campaign ever.

This attempt to combat COVID-19 has also succeeded in compounding the stress of Christmas shipping of gifts. With millions of doses of vaccine clogging the supply pipes, distribution of Christmas gifts has been bogged down and delayed; many will likely not timely receive their Christmas gifts. But it’s a good news/bad news situation. The bad news is that there’s a delay in gift receipt; the good news is that the gift will probably be received in 2021–which is only good because it will no longer be 2020.

How can tiny doses of a vaccine be such a strain on the shipping infrastructure? It’s because those Pfizer doses need VERY special handling. They must be kept in ultracold temperatures. Yup, I’d say -94 degrees Fahrenheit is ULTRAcold.

Adding to the typical stress of the holiday season is more bad news on the COVID-19 front. A mutant strain has reared its ugly head in the U.K. This new variant of the virus may be up to 70% more transmissible and is “getting out of control” per their Health Secretary Matt Hancock. As a result, a tier 4 lockdown, the most restrictive lockdown, was imposed there on Sunday. Meetings with ANYONE outside one’s household are off limits. In addition, flights from the U.K. have been banned by over 40 countries, including Spain, Russia, and Canada. Will Santa be forced to avoid jolly old England when he takes flight on Christmas Eve?

All these COVID consequences point to the modern coronavirus being a grinch like the well-known Dr. Seuss character. The fictional character was a grumpy old creature who attempted to put an end to Christmas by stealing the trappings of the holiday from the Whos in Whoville. The Grinch stole presents, decorations, Christmas trees, and even (GASP!) the roast beast.

Because of the immense popularity of the Seuss story, “grinch” is now included in dictionaries as an informal noun meaning a killjoy or spoilsport. COVID-19 has certainly put a damper on Christmas by stealing people’s ability to gather with others, travel to be with family, get presents shipped in a timely manner, and have asense of peace and well-being. Yes, we’d have to call the coronavirus a grinch.

But in the classic story, Christmas came without the items stolen by the Grinch anyway, and the Whos rejoiced on Christmas even in their absence. Dr. Seuss, who drove a car with a license plate that read “GRINCH,” used this story to criticize the commercialization of Christmas. In the end, his Grinch came to the realization Christmas “perhaps, means a little bit more” than just presents and feasting.

Are we as insightful as Seuss’ Grinch and realize that Christmas is about more than the trappings surrounding it? Think we’re are smart as the Whos? Will we be able to experience the joy of the real meaning of Christmas–the love of God expressed through the birth of his son in a humble stable? Let’s not allow the grinchy COVID-19 to rob us of Christmas–the real one.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Are decorations, ornaments, gifts, and trees essential in order to experience Christmas? Do you need material things to bring you joy during Christmas? Can you be grateful about what the Grinch and COVID-19 teach us about the real meaning of Christmas?

Twinkle,Twinkle Christmas Star–The Great Conjunction of 2020

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel here in 2020. That light is not simply the figurative conclusion of a year consisting of an unending series of unfortunate events. A literal light awaits as 2020 draws to a close–the Great Conjunction of 2020.

For writers and literal types like I am, you may be confused. What’s so great about but, since, though, unless, and since? No, it’s not that type of conjunction. A conjunction is also a term used by astronomers; it describes what occurs when planets appear incredibly close to each other in the sky because they are lined up with Earth in their respective orbits. During a conjunction both planets can be seen in the same field of view in a telescope. Later this month Jupiter and Saturn, the two largest planets in our solar system, will align for the viewing pleasure of us Earthlings.

Conjunctions themselves are not that rare. Why, there are numerous conjunctions appearing in this blog post alone; but I digress. Astronomical conjunctions happen every 20 years. In fact, Jupiter and Saturn last had a conjunction in May 2000. So why is their conjunction, which is slated to appear low in the southwestern sky on December 21st, deemed “Great”?

In the first place (always a good place to start), a meeting of Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky is referred to as a “great conjunction” because it happens less often than the conjunction of other planets. Their upcoming conjunction really is a HUGE deal. The last observable conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn appeared in the night sky four centuries ago–just before dawn on March 4, 1226. That was a bit before my time, so I’ll have to take the astronomers’ word for the occurrence of that event. To put the timeframe for the last observable conjunction in perspective, Genghis Khan was alive and attempting to conquer the known world then. While a great conjunction also occurred in 1623, it was not visible on Earth; the alignment was too close to the sun thus obscuring its visibility.

This type of heavenly event will not be repeated any time soon either. NASA indicates the next great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn will not occur until March 15, 2080–likely after my time. Thus, it is now or never for me and many others to see a conjunction between these two planets.

Now that we are all excited about this momentous astronomical event, exactly when can we see it? Mark your calendars for the last solstice of 2020 which will occur on December 21st. In case you’ve forgotten what you learned in science way back in elementary school, this approaching solstice is when winter officially begins. December 21st will be the longest night of 2020 in the northern hemisphere. So, the Great Conjunction of 2020 will brighten the darkest day of the year for us northern hemisphere dwellers.

But it is not just the date would be observers of the Great Conjunction of 2020 need to know. This planetary alignment can only be seen right after sunset. It will appear low on the horizon, so locations with buildings could block a view of the horizon. Plans must be made as to when and where you should be for successful viewing. Dinnertime may have to be pushed back to accommodate this gazing activity.

Assuming you are at a good location at the right time on the evening of December 21st, what will you see? Astronomers indicate the alignment will look like a double planet. While Jupiter and Saturn will appear to be physically close, just 0.1 degree apart viewed through a telescope, in reality they are nowhere near each other. The two gas giants are actually hundreds of millions of miles apart.

During the Great Conjunction of 2020, there will be a bright light in the sky because Jupiter shines brighter than any star above. However, Jupiter is not as bright as the moon. Experts indicate the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn might produce a Christmas star as the lights of these two planets merge and appear like a single point of reflected light to the naked eye.

Speaking of a Christmas star, legendary German astronomer Johannes Kepler proposed that the Star of Bethlehem, a prominent element in the Christmas story, was really a planetary alignment. He pointed to a rare triple convergence of the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus. According to Kepler, then, it wasn’t the stars that aligned at the time of Jesus’ birth but the planets.

While I’m no scientist like Kepler, I do love to gaze up at the twinkling stars and bright planets and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation. I’ll be outside on the evening of December 21st taking in some history–the Great Conjunction of 2020. How fitting that at the end of the most difficult year most of us have endured, God is giving those who will be viewing the alignment a reminder that there is a light for this dark world. The Star of Bethlehem led the wise men to find Jesus, and perhaps the Great Conjunction of 2020 will lead some modern men (and women) to do the same.

Just WONDER-ing:

Do you enjoy stargazing? Have you ever heard of a conjunction–the astronomical kind, that is? Does it make any difference to the Christmas story whether the Star of Bethlehem was actually a star or planets aligning? Is the timing of the Great Conjunction of 2020, a year of such pain and struggle, coincidental?

Cultured Chicken–Which Came First, The Chicken Or The Cell?

Even though I was raised in the city, I thought I had a good grasp of how a chicken nugget ends up on my plate. The chicken comes from an egg, and the nugget is made from the chicken, right? Maybe not. The San Francisco based U.S. startup Eat Just has developed “cultured chicken.” This achievement does not mean the chickens are opera fans; it means that Eat Just is aiming to sell a lab grown meat product with chicken nuggets as their first offering. Say what?

Add to the list of weird things occurring in 2020 the regulatory approval of Eat Just’s cultured chicken by food safety officials in Singapore. The American company’s product is real chicken made from animal cells grown in a controlled environment. The chicken is actual meat and not a plant-based alternative. Sounds like the lesser of two evils to me. Do I want to order fake chicken nuggets made from a plant or cultured chicken nuggets made in the lab of a clearly mad scientist? I mean really–it has to take someone a bit off to think about growing chicken in your lab.

Thankfully, I am not currently faced with this no win choice between plant-produced and lab-produced chicken nuggets. The lab-grown meat is still in the early stages of development and is not yet sold in the United States. Such meat is not expected to be widely available for at least five years.

Even if that product was currently available in this country, I couldn’t afford to buy one chicken nugget, much less a serving of six. Due to production costs, Eat Just has indicated chicken nuggets would run about $50 EACH. Apparently the Whopper is not only a burger but the cost of your lunch bill for cultured chicken nuggets. Admittedly, high production costs are a barrier to sales at this point.

Don’t think you want to know how sausage is made? How about how cultured chicken is made? Lab-grown meat is bottom line cell-based meat. Cultured chicken is grown in the lab from animal muscle cells. Stem cells from the muscle of the chicken are placed in a culture medium that feeds the cells allowing them to grow. The meat is grown in a bioreactor in a fluid of amino acids, sugar, and salt. The product is harvested from a bioreactor after enough density is achieved. Is your mouth-watering yet or has the gag reflex been activated?

On the bright side, the cultured chicken comes from a clean, controlled lab environment. Eat Just likens their meat-production process to operating a brewery. Real chicken, on the other hand, comes from chickens who’ve been hanging out in a stinky chicken coop.

Why in the world would someone seek to develop lab-grown meat? Actually, there are several good reasons for this course of action. Demand for alternatives to regular meat has soared due to consumer concerns about health, animal welfare, and the environment. Cell-based meat has the potential to use much less land and water, produce less carbon dioxide, and to fight food contamination. The meat is produced efficiently as well because only the part of the animal which will be eaten is made in the lab; nothing goes to waste.

Eat Just aims to provide meat in a sustainable and ethically produced way. The fact that the meat is a slaughter-free product is a big selling point. No animals are killed to enable you to have cultured chicken nuggets on your plate. Of course, the chickens will have to undergo the removal of some of their muscle cells. If a needle is used, that might sting a bit, but at least the chicken is still alive to squawk about the indignity inflicted.

Health benefits are derived from cultured chicken too. No antibiotics are used to produce the meat, and Eat Just’s cultured chicken has a high protein count. The product is actually 70% lab-grown chicken with the remaining 30% being bean protein and other ingredients. Mmm, mmm. [Warning: Sarcasm font in use.] Safety tests have show the cultured chicken meets the same safety standards as traditional poultry with “extremely low and significantly cleaner microbiological content” than conventional chicken.

The reality is that it’s just a matter of time before lab-grown meats will be a real option for U.S. consumers. The Bill Gates-backed Memphis Meats is hard at work on entering this market with affordable and tasty lab-grown meats. Yes, please make the cultured meat tasty if you want people to buy it.

Eat Just has its eye on more than cultured chicken to sell. It is also attempting to develop lab-grown Japanese Wagyu beef. Others are also working to perfect a variety of cultured meats. An Israeli lab produced a steak grown from cells in a lab back in 2018. The Brits are trying for cultured bacon. The UK’s University of Bath aims to achieve bacon which comes entirely off of the hoof, giving an entirely new meaning to the phrase “Makin’ Bacon.” The UK researchers point out the end result of their work is that the pig is alive (albeit missing a few stem cells) and there’s lots of bacon.

Intellectually, I understand the desire for lab-grown products to address health, animal welfare, and environmental concerns. Nevertheless, my stomach is having a hard time getting excited about the the idea of eating cultured meat. But progress is inevitable whether my stomach likes it or not. One day, (post-pandemic, of course), I’ll be in a restaurant and the server will ask, “And how did you want your steak? Off the hoof or out of the lab?” Label me a bad citizen, but I am not eagerly anticipating that conversation.

Just WONDER-ing:

Did you have any idea that meat could be grown in a lab without the necessity of killing an animal? Would knowing the meat on your plate came out of a bioreactor rather than off the hoof affect how you viewed it? How willing are you to try cultured meat?

Bullets Beat Bombs–Assassins Take Out Iran’s Top Nuclear Scientist

Hard as it may be to believe, COVID-19 is not the only thing going on in the world today. Yes, people are actually dying from causes other than the coronavirus. Take Mohsen Fakhrizadeh for example. Iran’s leading nuclear scientist was wiped out in a rather old-fashioned way; he was assassinated last Friday in a hail of bullets. But dead or alive, this scientist spells bad news for the United States.

How bad could one scientist be in comparison to the latest coronavirus surge? Well, in Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s case, the answer is “VERY BAD.” He is the scientist who’s led Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon for the past two decades. In fact, he is commonly referred to as “the father of Iran’s nuclear bomb.” The thought of Iran being in control of a nuclear weapon is scarier than going into a Wal-mart right now where no one is wearing a mask.

OK, so Mr. Fakhrizadeh’s been taken out and cannot led his country’s charge for producing a nuclear bomb. How can that be bad? His untimely and violent demise has made Iran mad; he has been called a “martyr” and “severe revenge” has been threatened by the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces. Iran suspects U.S. involvement in the assassination, so Uncle Sam or one of his allies is likely to be in the crosshairs. Yikes! Instead of an eye for an eye, Iran may aim for a bang for a bang.

Another negative fallout (no nuclear pun intended) of Fakhrizadeh’s assassination is that Iran’s relationship with the U.S. has just gotten worse. This further strain does not bode well for the incoming Biden administration which has expressed a desire to have the United States return to being a part of the so called Iran deal of 2015. The Trump administration withdrew from that multi-national agreement on nuclear activities in 2018. Under the agreement, Iran is constrained as to how much nuclear fuel it can produce–at least until 2030 when restrictions disappear and the sky’s the limit.

Even if the United States didn’t carry out the assassination, Iran may still have issues with our country because one of our allies did. According to a tweet by Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zerif, there are “serious indications” of an Israeli role. (Apparently many government statements whether in the U.S. or in the Middle East are conveyed via Twitter.) Israeli involvement would be a reasonable conclusion seeing that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu labeled Fakhrizadeh as national enemy #1.

News reports claim there is “little doubt” Israel was behind the killings. The Israeli government has so far declined comment. Their silence probably means that they did it but don’t want to gloat about it. Fakhrizadeh’s assassination had all the signs of a precision operation carried out by Mossad, Israeli’s spy agency. Mossad has previously been linked to four successful assassinations and one attempted assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists between 2010 and 2012. Isn’t past behavior a pretty good prediction of future behavior?

So what do we know about the assassins’ target and how he was taken out? Approximately 60 years old, Fakhrizadeh is (Oops! WAS) a physics professor at the Imam Hussein University in Tehran. I’m scratching my head at this information. I took physics in college, a course I thoroughly detested, and we NEVER talked about nuclear bombs; all I ever heard about was bullet and elevator problems. In addition to his scientific endeavors, Fakhrizadeh was also military–a brigadier general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

The scientist’s work with his country’s nuclear program, though, was what made him important to Iran and an anathema to Israel. He led a campaign to design an atomic warhead and ran Project Amad, Iran’s nuclear weapons program which purportedly ended in 2003; nevertheless, Netanyahu believes a covert bomb program has continued under his direction. Fakhrizadeh was hailed by Iran for having a track record of scientific and defense innovations. He is said to have led a team that developed one of the country’s first kits for coronavirus diagnosis. Perhaps the scientist would still be alive today if he’d switched his focus full-time to viruses instead of atoms.

Fakhrizadeh’s importance and value was underscored by his handling. He was kept under constant guard and lived in a secure compound. He even had his own security detail. [Note to Iran: Add hiring more competent security to the to do list.] He’d dodged a bullet (pun intended this time) when he escaped an assassination attempt a few years ago. But 2020 was a bad year for him in the end–it saw his life ended.

The scientist would likely still be with us today if he’d followed COVID protocols. Despite a coronavirus lockdown, Fakhrizadeh thought it would be a great idea to travel away from his secure compound and head to his villa some 40 miles east of Tehran to Absard, an area well known for being a mountain retreat for Iran’s elite. Absard, which has a view of Mount Damavand, the country’s highest peak, is where many well-off Iranis have second homes. What could go wrong with him traveling there accompanied by a convoy with three armored vehicles?

But, alas, Fakhrizadeh didn’t arrive alive. While en route, witnesses claim to have heard an explosion and then a burst of gunfire. Pictures on the internet show a black Nissan riddled with bullet holes and a pool of blood on the ground near the car. Although reports vary, it appears that a truck may have been blown up to stop the convoy of vehicles which then led to a shootout between the scientist’s bodyguards and his armed attackers. Fakhrizadeh was reportedly shot in the back and three of his bodyguards were killed. He was taken to the hospital where he succumbed to his injuries. A boom caused his death, but it wasn’t a nuclear bomb; it was just the sound of gunfire.

As Fakhrizadeh learned the hard way, nuclear scientists can be taken out without high tech bombs. Scientists may soon come up with a vaccine for COVID-19, but no vaccine is in the works for preventing man’s bent for violence. Unfortunately, the human desire to kill his fellow man isn’t so easily eradicated. Often our worst enemy isn’t a microscopic foe but other humans. There’s no shot to prevent being shot or blown up.

Just WONDER-ing:

Does Fakhrizadeh’s assassination sound like a scene out of a James Bond movie to you? Is it fitting that a man who worked to design a weapon of mass destruction died a violent death? Is Fakhrizadeh’s assassination justified under the circumstances?