A Science for Everyone

A Covid Risk Calculator

Johns Hopkins has a covid mortality risk calculator that is both interactive and online: https://covid19risktools.com:8443/riskcalculator 

Remember, I like statistics and correlations, and covid has provided a bit of an enigma since the data came out from the Diamond Princess outbreak last year.  This calculator takes in age, health and location and coughs up your probability of dying from covid.

My own numbers were reassuring – I answered the questions . . . age 71, height, weight, history of asthma, cancer and diabetes, and the model churned out that I was 1.1 times as likely to die of covid as the model’s norm.  Essentially I was at a normal risk.  The analysis was:

“Based on the information you have provided, the tool estimates that you have 1.1 (95% CI: 0.95 – 1.3 ) times the risk of dying from COVID-19 compared to the average risk for the US population.

Based on the estimated risk, you are categorized to be at Closer to or lower than average risk based on the following chart:

Further, based on the information available from pandemic projections in your state of residence, the tool estimates an absolute rate of mortality of 0.6 (95% CI: 0.3 – 1.3 ) per 100000 individuals in subgroups of the population with a similar risk profile to yours during the period of 05/15/2021 – 06/04/2021. This estimate is calculated based on the CDC’s Ensemble mortality forecast data.

*95% CI: Error bounds with 95% confidence.”

It’s a model – and only as good as the data that went into its development.  That said, Johns Hopkins has a pretty good reputation, and I would guess they will continue to refine the model.  Scientific method and statistical analysis do not allow perfect data for the individual.  That said, I like having a model that I can use.  Give it a try with your own data.


This week in ’88: Murder for Hire Charges Dismissed

Murder for Hire Charges Dismissed

James R. Houchin stopped by right after we’d finished last week’s edition. He had with him a copy of Judge R. D. McPhillips’ order releasing him.

Houchin had, along with DeBoar, been busted for ‘conspiracy to commit the offense of Deliberate Homicide’. As McPhillips noted, “the person to be killed was a fictitious person and did not in fact exist.”

The Judge explained that “the attempt statute… provides that impossibility for the accused to commit the defense is not a defense.” and that conspirators must act with “the purpose that an offense be committed.” He ended that paragraph with “It is not possible to kill a person that doesn’t exist, or is already dead when the conspirators make their agreement.”

Judge McPhillips ruled that, since deliberate homicide “requires the causing of adeath of a human being. A human being is defined as a person who has been born and is alive. In this case the person to be killed does not exist. The requirement that a offense be factually possible is built into the statute.

McPhillips decision didn’t rule on guilt or innocense –He determined that, so far as Montana is concerned, you can conspire to kill imaginary people or dead people toyour heart’s content. Since the offense is impossible to commit, there is no crime in the conspiracy.

Houchin expressed intent to sue the county for the inconvenience of his 38 days incarceration over this non-crime.

Want to learn more? It’s actually possible to find details about the State v. Houchin case online.

Community, Recipes

Rhubarb Bars

Rhubarb Bars

  • 3 cups rhubarb, cut up
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 tbsp cornstarch
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Dissolve cornstarch in cold water. Add sugar and rhubarb, cook until thick. Add vanilla. Set aside.

Crust and topping

  • 1 1/2 cups oatmeal
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 cup (or less) brown sugar
  • 1 cup margarine
  • 1/2 cup nuts (optional)

Mix all together until crumbly. Pat 3/4 mixture in a 9×13 pan. Pour rhubarb mixture over crumbs, sprinkle the rest of the crumbs over the rhubarb mixture. Bake at 375 degrees F. for 30-35 minutes.


Lowering Academic Expectations

A few weeks back, a request came in for thoughts on grade inflation – basically lowered academic expectations.  Grade inflation is easiest observed in the Spring – high school graduation time.  The more students that share valedictorian status, the greater the statistical improbability.  It is possible to have the Lake Wobegon situation, where everyone is above average – but that is not the way to bet.

We can glance at the ACT scores – Schooldigger  ranks Montana high schools based on their students ACT performance.  It’s worth a glance – Whitefish is rated third in state.  Troy was 99th in 2018, and rose to 88th in 2019.  Lincoln County High School in Eureka was rated 78th in 2018 and went to 96th for 2019.  Libby was 58th in 2018 and 103 in 2019.   119 high schools were ranked. 

The ACT was a test to evaluate a student’s potential for college – now, with all Montana high school students taking it during their junior year, it has morphed beyond the individual student  application into a tool for evaluating each school.  The ratings were an unpleasant surprise when I looked at our high school.  This link shows the ranking data over the decade. In 2013, LCHS was in the top half.  Follow the link.  Look at the data.  I started writing this, and the data led me into a spot I didn’t want to see.

I recall taking placement tests in the fieldhouse at MSU back in 1967.  Sitting on a folding chair, with a chunk of particleboard there was a single memorable statistic shared: “42.8 percent of you will be here next Fall.”  George Bush had definitely not sold the concept of “No Child Left Behind.”  A lot rides on class rank and test scores for college selection . . . yet as I write this, I remember 2 academic full rides that I dismissed because travel costs were too high.  My freshman year travel was carpooling in Grant’s Mercury, with high school classmates, back from the cow college. 

I was pretty shocked in 2010 when I saw that 71.8% of South Dakota high school graduates were going directly to college.  Some of those new freshmen had to be below average.  Still, there are spots where kids learn a lot more in today’s high schools.  Now, high school algebra is often an 8th grade class – I had classmates back in 1967 who had taken algebra as their final math class as sophomores.  Today the kids in 8th grade learn about electron orbital configurations – that was my Junior year. 

We have to look at online education.  I can’t say I hated teaching online, but even large lecture halls gave me a chance to catch students who were having problems – I remember the girl who showed up regularly, took notes, and was flunking the class . . . and a few minutes visiting showed that she was a first-semester freshman from a small rural school and didn’t realize that ANTH 412/512 meant the class was intended for seniors and grad students.  As a teacher, I liked the opportunity to save a student who was off-course.  Online, my best students looked at the grade rubric, finished their work by mid-term, and were gone.  The advice I got to improve the class was to add busywork to keep them through the semester.  Online is a great option for the self-motivated learner who doesn’t need a teacher.

I haven’t kept on topic well.  The moment of reading the LCHS state rankings stays in my mind as I write. 


How to tell spiders and ticks apart

This past week, some folks in our community Facebook page wanted to know if something was a tick or a spider. The comments section got a bit heated, and the offending post seems to have been censored. There were differing opinions, as there often are on such things, and opinions held with no shortage of confidence.

Here’s how you can actually tell the two critters apart.

Both spiders and ticks are arachnids, and have two body regions – the “cephalothorax” (a combination of old Greek words for “head” and “chest”) and the “abdomen” (same as in English).

In arachnids, the cephalothorax is what all the limbs are attached to, and where the mouthparts and muscles are. The abdomen holds most of the non-muscular organs, and is where breathing and digestion take place.

In spiders, there is a strong pinch between these two body regions – it looks like you could cut the abdomen off with a lasso of dental floss.
In ticks and mites, however, these same two body regions are “completely fused” or “broadly joined”. Functionally, this means it’s hard to see when one part begins and the other ends, much less separate the two.

No description available.

This is pretty much all you really need to tell the two apart, but there are a few more differences.
Spiders have paired fangs (chelicerae, pronounced “Kelly-Sir-Ee”) to pinch their prey and inject venom.
Ticks and mites have mouthparts like hypodermic needles, and their chelicerae have saw-like teeth to help them cut their way through your hide before injecting chemicals to keep your blood from clotting.
Spiders (well, uninjured spiders) all have eight legs, even when they are newly hatched.
Ticks, however, start out as larvae with six legs. They gain another pair of legs after their first molt.

Medical Importance (are these dangerous?)

In our area, northwest Montana, we have only one spider of medical significance. That’s the western black widow. Personally, I’ve always found Western Black Widows to be very docile – I’ve known quite a few kids to keep females as pets, even ones with eggsacs. Next time you’re at a rodeo and there are crates as extra seating, flip one over – the odds of finding a black widow are decent.

While we have Hobo spiders (aka “the aggressive house spider”) up here, their venom isn’t anything to get worried about. They move quickly – that’s about the only reason for their bad reputation. They need to move quickly, though – they don’t have much at all in the way of venom, and they don’t make sticky webs, so they rely on speed to catch their prey. If you want to control them, I’d recommend using sticky traps.

There’s a lot more to be concerned about with ticks – while their feeding itself isn’t generally harmful in our neck of the woods, they can transmit harmful diseases in other locations.
Southern Montana is home to several tick-borne diseases you should be aware of.
The American Midwest and East are where you’re most likely to catch Lyme disease. Some west-coast deerticks in coastal regions of Washington and Oregon, can spread it, too.


Thoughts on Ghost Guns

How hard is it to build a gun?  A friend explained to me that an AR-15 is basically a lego set for adults.  I kind of think he’s correct – virtually any individual, with something approaching average ability and willing to follow directions, given all the parts and less than a Benjamin’s worth of tools can put an AR together and expect it to work.

On a ghost gun, the question is, on a ghost gun, how hard is it to do the final 20 percent that hasn’t been finished on the 80 percent lower.  I haven’t done one – but I have a feeling that it could be done with my drill press, my dremel and a few files . . . but it would probably be easier with a computer controlled mill.

The thing is, guns aren’t all that complicated.  John Shields managed to build a rifling machine on the Pacific coast, as the  Lewis and Clark expedition overwintered, to re-rifle Clark’s .36 caliber rifle.  They hadn’t hauled a whole lot of tools across the Rockies with them, but Shield took that brief winter to bring every gun back into condition.

While it may seem out of line to link John Moses Browning with a ghost gun, this 1893 patent for the simplest single-shot 22 I’ve ever seen, does show a rifle that could be made at home.  Winchester bought the patent, but never produced the rifle.  Since it lacks any sort of receiver, and was never built, it may be the real ghost gun.

Fundamentally, a home-built gun is a question of how much risk you’re willing to take.  SAAMI recommendations limit shotgun ammunition to 12,500 psi.  The .45 Colt automatic is loaded for 21,000 psi chamber pressure – far above the 14,000 psi of the old Colt Peacemaker.  Modern rifles go up past 55,000 psi.  There is more room for error with less pressure, more risk with more pressure.

Philip Luty ( http://www.thehomegunsmith.com/ ) designed a submachine gun made exclusively of plumbing parts.  After he demonstrated it’s functionality to British police, he spent a couple of years at the Queen’s room and board.  His page and plans show that it doesn’t take a tremendous amount of tools and supplies for a guy with time on his hands.  Nothing that particularly appeals to me – full auto wastes ammunition, smoothbores aren’t particularly accurate, and spending time in federal prison isn’t on my bucket list.  The picture shows why the name BSP-9 is abbreviated from “British Standard Pipe.”

The FGC-9 came out on line about a year ago.  It’s had enough time for the second version to be released. https://www.kommandoblog.com/2021/04/17/fgc-9-mkii-file-package-release/    It’s set up for a 3D printer, and described as “ Like the MkI, the FGC-9 MkII is made entirely out of unregulated commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components using EU law as a compliance benchmark.  Anyone living in almost any non-permissive space can complete an FGC-9 build, including people without gunsmithing experience, or those who’ve never touched a gun. Using metric hardware to help with worldwide parts availability, and with a comprehensive manual and troubleshooting guide containing hundreds of IKEA-esque picture references, it’s never been simpler to make a reliable semi-automatic firearm from scratch at home.”  The designer is IvanTheTroll –

The aptly named Ghost Gunner ( https://ghostgunner.net/ ) is a CNC milling machine designed to complete an 80% receiver for someone with no experience.  Full price for the unit is $2,120, so it looks to be a bit expensive if you only want to make one or two guns at home – though perhaps it might not seem so high to someone from a much larger family.  After all, John Moses Browning grew up in a family of 22 kids.

Hopefully, this gives a bit of perspective to the ghost gun legislative proposals.  It seems kind of like shutting the gate after the horse has escaped, but I don’t always see things the same way as politicians do. 


This day in 1987

Anyone remember $55/cord firewood? Or the Montana Cultural Exchange?

As it turns out, there are still programs of that sort out there. The easiest to find was a wrestling exchange with Germany.

Bomb threats in the Yaak? If our 1987 coverage is anything to go by, things were pretty conflict heavy in the school district that year.

Also- fireman’s ball? It’s certainly been a while since we’ve had one, though there was some discussion of reviving the practice at annual meetings for both the hall and the fire department.

Patches' Pieces, Wildlife

Around the Pond

New on the game cam this week is a badger.  The badger tends to be transitory with few Columbia grounds squirrels residing in the field to become dinner. The geese are being geese. The goslings are growing and hiking along the pond’s edge.  The turkeys are being camera shy.  The deer look like they need a good combing.-Patches


Planting Alfalfa Again

I’ve planted alfalfa . . . again. I think the last time I planted alfalfa in this field was 1964. Then it included a lot of disking, and I planted wheat in 1963, then vernal alfalfa with a nurse crop of oats in Spring of 64. The alfalfa has pretty much ran out in nearly sixty years, and the field just doesn’t look right without it.

It isn’t a great hayfield – over a century ago, draining a shallow lake with dynamite looked like a fast way to make a hayfield. The problem was the soil under the lake – not just high in calcium, but high in calcium salts. Not just clay, but one of the few northern vertisols. Taking the top water off by draining the lake didn’t keep from having a high water table. No matter how much I liked alfalfa, it was challenged.

The world has changed over the last half-century. This time, I’m planting a variety of alfalfa that was developed for the saline seeps of the east side. It’s salt tolerant. It’s more water tolerant. It has branching roots as well as the deep taproot, which help with poorly drained soils – kind of turning poorly drained into sub-irrigated. If I’m reading the literature correctly, it should be better suited for my field than the Vernal I planted over 50 years ago.

It even tolerates herbicides.  I’m used to alfalfa curling and dying if a delivery truck drives by with a closed jug of 2,4 D.  This variety tolerates using Imazethapyr to control broadleaf weeds and Sethoxydim and Clethodim for grasses.  The tag claims that I can get away with using up to 3 quarts per acre of 2,4 DB with only minor crop damage.  Other varieties even offer roundup tolerance – but I’m more concerned with salt tolerance.

If all goes well on my planting, I’ll be adding 16-20-0 fertilizer next year – a little nitrogen, a little phosphate and a bit of sulphur.  My clay soils have plenty of Potassium, so fertilizing the first little alfalfa field with Dad’s old fertilizer spreader will be fun.  I suspect the deer will like it.