Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for January 20th, 2013

The determined fight against abortion rights

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It’s hard to see the fight against abortion rights as anything more than part of the overall war on women. The “pro-life” crowd talks a lot about the sanctity of life and the importance of protecting life, but they seem totally against any sort of gun control—and this same crowd, oddly enough, seems also opposed to government having a role in healthcare. Go figure.

At any rate, many states are trying to legislate legal abortions out of existence, preferring that the poor be driven to illegal providers and procedures. The well-to-do, of course, can always find legal and medically safe abortions, even if it means traveling to another state or even abroad.

Esmé Deprez has an article in Bloomberg Businessweek on how access to safe and legal abortions is being prevented:

In January 2011, Michigan State Senator Rick Jones, a former sheriff from Grand Ledge, introduced legislation that would dramatically raise the costs of providing abortions in the state. Senate Bill No. 54 would require fetal remains to be cremated or buried separately from other medical waste and make noncompliance a felony punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine of up to $5,000, or both.

Soon after the bill was introduced, Renée Chelian, a petite 61-year-old who opened her first abortion clinic in suburban Detroit in 1976, called every funeral director and cremation company in the metropolitan area to see if they’d be willing to handle fetal remains from her clinics. Most told her no. When she finally found one willing to comply with the guidelines, the quoted price was $250 per disposal—which would nearly double the cost of most abortions at her clinics and was way more than most patients could afford. If the Jones bill as initially proposed were to become law, Chelian calculated, she and other abortion providers might go out of business.

Intimidation, harassment, and the threat of violence used to be Chelian’s biggest preoccupations. Her photo is posted on anti-abortion websites, her home has been regularly picketed, and one of her clinics was once doused in butyric acid, a clear, colorless liquid that “smells like 1,000 people lined up and threw up,” she says. In recent years, however, the main threats to abortion providers have come not from noisy picketers and protests but from regulations passed in statehouses across the U.S. Requirements that abortion providers be regulated more like hospitals than doctors’ offices may shutter most, if not all, clinics in Virginia, Kansas, and Pennsylvania. A Mississippi law mandates that abortion doctors secure admitting privileges at local hospitals, and could force the state’s last surviving clinic to close its doors. Instead of seeking to ban abortion outright, which would violate the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, anti-abortion groups are pushing laws that would make it too expensive for providers to remain in operation.

“If someone woke me up at 2 a.m. and asked me what’s the greatest threat to providers today, these laws would be the first thing I’d say,” says Carole Joffe, a reproductive health sociologist at the University of California at San Francisco who’s chronicled the abortion industry for the past 35 years.

The headquarters of Northland Family Planning are located in the Detroit suburb of Westland, in a standalone one-story building separated by parking lots from a GameStop and a bank. On a cold morning in early January, Chelian is trying to decipher how newly passed regulations will affect her business. She takes a call on her iPhone from a representative from a medical waste company that Chelian worries will face pressure from anti-abortion activists to drop her as a client.

“I don’t want them to start harassing you,” she says. “Do you have any vehicle you can pick up in that doesn’t have your name?” Yes, the man replies. “I mean, it’s your business and you have to do what you have to do, but I don’t want to lose you as a contractor because you had the name on your truck.” She hangs up. “Without medical waste pickup, we’re in trouble,” she says.

It’s one of the first times in months that Chelian has been in her office. Unpacked boxes from a 2010 renovation surround her desk. For the past two years, Chelian delegated payroll and other clinic-running duties to employees while she logged some 11,544 miles in her dark gray Ford Explorer driving to and from Michigan’s capital, Lansing, to lobby lawmakers and participate in rallies against a host of anti-abortion proposals.

Chelian grew up in inner-city Detroit, the oldest of five children born to a Syrian-Lebanese Muslim father and an Irish Catholic mother. In 1966, at the age of 15, she had an illegal abortion. Her father accompanied her to a parking lot where they were blindfolded and taken to a nearby warehouse. For $2,500, a man packed her uterus with gauze to induce labor, and after some complications, she passed the pregnancy on the toilet at home. She now guesses she was about 16 weeks along. It was decades before she told anyone about the experience, which provided motivation for her career. “I don’t want my daughters or any other woman to be faced with that,” she says. . .

Continue reading. And note this graphic.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 January 2013 at 5:18 pm

A trip to North Korea

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Fascinating—and pointed out by James Fallows. Blog begins:

Disclaimer: I am a North Korea amateur and can only share what it’s like to be part of a NK-bound delegation. Straightforward trip report here: no discussion of meeting details or intentions–just some observations.

THE TRIP

Bill Richardson, former Governor, US Ambassador to the UN and backchannel freelance diplomat extraordinaire, was planning his 8th trip to Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea. He invited my father Eric, who invited me.

Two sets of goals for the trip: political (Richardson’s side) and technological (our side). Speaking as a tech person, just getting to speak to officials in the most closed country on earth about the virtues of the Internet–and having them (appear to) listen–seemed extraordinary.

It was a nine-person delegation in total. We left our phones and laptops behind in China, since we were warned they’d be confiscated in NK, and probably infected with lord knows what malware.

#1 Caveat: It’s impossible to know how much we can extrapolate from what we saw in Pyongyang to what the DPRK is really like.  Our trip was a mixture of highly staged encounters, tightly-orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments.  We had zero interactions with non-state-approved North Koreans and were never far from our two minders (2, so one can mind the other).

The longer I think about what we saw and heard, the less sure I am about what any of it actually meant.

Top Level Take-aways:

  1. Go to North Korea if you can. It is very, very strange.
  2. If it is January, disregard the above. It is very, very cold.
  3. Nothing I’d read or heard beforehand really prepared me for what we saw.

I can’t express how cold it was. Maybe 10-15 degrees F in the sunshine, not including wind chill.  The cold was compounded by the fact that none of the buildings we visited were heated, which meant hour-long tours in cavernous, 30-degree indoor environments. It is quite extraordinary to have the Honored Guest Experience in such conditions: they’re proudly showing you their latest technology or best library, and you can see your breath. A clue to how much is really in their control.

Ordinary North Koreans live in a near-total information bubble, without any true frame of reference.  I can’t think of any reaction to that except absolute sympathy. My understanding is that North Koreans are taught to believe they are lucky to be in North Korea, so why would they ever want to leave? They’re hostages in their own country, without any real consciousness of it. And the opacity of the country’s inner workings–down to the basics of its economy–further serves to reinforce the state’s control.

The best description we could come up with: it’s like The Truman Show, at country scale.

I. Arrival, cont.

We picked up visas at the check-in desk: slips of paper with our pictures taped on, which they then took back upon arrival at Pyongyang.  Deprived of our deserved passport stamps, we soldiered on.

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 January 2013 at 4:20 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government

The old “don’t make people uncomfortable” dodge

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Much discrimination is perpetuated on the notion that it is somehow reprehensible that people should ever be uncomfortable—and the cause of their discomfort is always something outside themselves (which reminds one of the claim made by abusive husbands: “She made me do it. I didn’t want to hit her, but she made me.”).

Now we see the military perpetuating discrimination because being nondiscriminatory would make some people (i.e., bigots) “uncomfortable”. I don’t recall when the military ordered racial integration that they worried much about discomfort: the troops were integrated and they by God dealt with it. What is different now?

Rachel Swarns reports in the NY Times:

Nakisha Hardy spent the first nine months of her marriage on a remote Army base in Afghanistan, a tour of duty punctuated by sporadic mortar blasts and constant e-mails to her spouse back home.

The strains of that separation lingered even after First Lt. Hardy returned to Fort Bragg in September. So she signed up for a military retreat to help soldiers and their husbands and wives cope with the pressures of deployments and relocations.

But less than 24 hours after arriving at the retreat, she and her spouse were told to leave. The military chaplains who organized the program last month said that the couple was making others uncomfortable. They said they had determined that under federal law the program could serve only heterosexual married couples.

Lieutenant Hardy is a lesbian in a same-sex marriage who had hoped that the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2011 would allow her to fully participate in military life. But she and many other gay and bisexual service members say they continue to encounter a raft of rules and regulations barring them from receiving benefits and privileges routinely accorded to heterosexual service members.

Lieutenant Hardy had been assured by the chaplain’s office in the weeks before the retreat that she and her wife were welcome to attend. The chaplains said in hindsight that those assurances were given in error.

“I felt hurt, humiliated,” said Lieutenant Hardy, 28. “These were people I had been deployed with. And they were telling me I can go to fight the war on terrorism with them, but I can’t attend a seminar with them to keep my marriage healthy.” . . .

Continue reading. Interesting: Those discriminated against also feel uncomfortable—what about them?

And Chuck Hagel could potentially be a serious problem if he is confirmed as Secretary of Defense.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 January 2013 at 11:15 am

Excerpt from Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam

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One can see why some are reluctant to discuss their war experience. Alternet has this excerpt from Nick Turse’s new book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam:

In 1971, Major Gordon Livingston, a West Point graduate who served as regimental surgeon with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, testified before members of Congress about the ease with which Americans killed Vietnamese. “Above 90 percent of the Americans with whom I had contact in Vietnam,” said Dr. Livingston, treated the Vietnamese as subhuman and with “nearly universal contempt.” To illustrate his point, Livingston told his listeners about a helicopter pilot who swooped down on two Vietnamese women riding bicycles and killed them with the helicopter skids. The pilot was temporarily grounded as the incident was being investigated, and Livingston spoke to him in his medical capacity. He found that the man felt no remorse about the killings and only regretted not receiving his pay during the investigation. According to Livingston, a board of inquiry eventually cleared the pilot of any wrongdoing and allowed him to resume flying.

Among those whom Livingston counted in the 90 percent who regarded the Vietnamese as subhuman was his commander, General George S. Patton III. Son of the famed World War II general of the same name, the younger Patton was known for his bloodthirsty attitude and the macabre souvenirs that he kept, including a Vietnamese skull that sat on his desk. He even carried it around at his end-of- tour farewell party. Of course, Patton was just one of many Americans who collected and displayed Vietnamese body parts. Given how contemptuously living Vietnamese were often treated by U.S. forces, it is not surprising that Vietnamese corpses were also often handled with little respect.

Some soldiers hacked the heads off Vietnamese to keep, trade, or exchange for prizes offered by commanders. Many more cut off the ears of their victims, in the hopes that disfiguring the dead would frighten the enemy. Some of these trophies were presented to superiors as gifts or as proof to confirm a body count; others were retained by the “grunts” and worn on necklaces or otherwise displayed. While ears were the most common souvenirs of this type, scalps, penises, noses, breasts, teeth, and fingers were also favored.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by LeisureGuy

20 January 2013 at 10:58 am

Posted in Military

The guy who bought the NYSE

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Very interesting profile by Nathaniel Popper of the guy who’s bought the New York Stock Exchange:

WHEN nearly all else had failed, Jeffrey C. Sprecher flew to New York City and crashed at his sisters’ apartment, a cramped walk-up on the Upper West Side, one flight above a noisy bar.

It was January 2000, and Mr. Sprecher had been cold-calling Wall Street for weeks. He was searching desperately for someone to back his small company in Atlanta, a business that was eating up his money and years of his life.

That’s when a black limousine pulled up in front of the bar, Jake’s Dilemma. The limo had been sent by the mighty Goldman Sachs to fetch Mr. Sprecher, and as he sank into the back seat that winter day, he set off on an improbable journey that has since taken him to the pinnacle of American finance.

Today Mr. Sprecher, a man virtually unknown outside of financial circles, is poised to buy the New York Stock Exchange. Not one of the 2,300 or so stocks traded on the New York Stock Exchange (combined value of those shares: about $20.1 trillion). No, Jeff Sprecher is buying the entire New York Stock Exchange.

It sounds preposterous. A businessman from Atlanta blows into New York and walks off with the colonnaded high temple of American capitalism. But if all goes according to plan, his $8.2 billion acquisition, announced a few days before Christmas, will close later this year. And with that, 221 years of Wall Street history will come to an end. No more will New York be the master of the New York Stock Exchange. Instead, from its bland headquarters 750 miles from Wall Street, Mr. Sprecher’s young company, IntercontinentalExchange, will run the largest stock exchange in the nation and the world.

Mr. Sprecher, 57, certainly plays the role of a wily upstart. He may wear power suits and a Patek Philippe watch, but he comes across as unusually casual and self-deprecating for a man in his position. He pokes fun at himself for his shortcomings — “I don’t know how to manage people,” he says — and his love of obscure documentaries.

How the New York Stock Exchange fell into Mr. Sprecher’s hands is, at heart, a story of the disruptive power of innovation. ICE, as IntercontinentalExchange is known, did not even exist 13 years ago. It has no cavernous trading floor, no gilded halls, no sweaty brokers braying for money on the financial markets. What it has is technology.

Like many young companies that are upending the old order in business, ICE has used computer power to do things faster and cheaper, if not always better, than people can. Its rapid ascent reflects a new Wall Street where high-speed computers now dominate trading, sometimes with alarming consequences. New, electronic trading systems have greatly reduced the cost of buying and selling stocks, thus saving mutual funds — and, by extension, ordinary investors — countless millions. But they have also helped usher in a period of hair-raising volatility.

Mr. Sprecher (pronounced SPRECK-er) has probably done more than anyone else to dismantle the trading floors of old and replace human brokers with machines. Along the way, he and ICE have traced an arc through some of the defining business stories of our time — from the rise and fall of Enron, to the transformation of old-school investment banks into vast trading operations, to the Wall Street excesses that not long ago helped derail the entire economy. Now, after a series of bold acquisitions, he is about to become the big boss of the Big Board.

Does it really matter who owns the New York Stock Exchange and its parent company, NYSE Euronext? For most people, stock exchanges are probably a bit like plumbing. Most of us don’t think much about them — until something goes wrong. But lately, some things have gone spectacularly wrong.

One sign of trouble came in 2010, when an errant trade ricocheted through computer networks and touched off one of the most harrowing moments in stock market history. The Dow Jones industrial average plunged 900 points in a matter of minutes, and a new phrase entered the lexicon: flash crash.

Since then, flash crashes in individual stocks have been remarkably common, as the centuries-old system of central exchanges has given way to a field of competing electronic systems.

ICE wasn’t involved in any of these problems. In fact, it has been praised as one of the first exchanges to put limits on lightning-quick, high-frequency trading. This points to Mr. Sprecher’s deftness in piloting his company through periods of regulation, deregulation and now re-regulation.

While many banking executives have clashed with Washington, Mr. Sprecher has sensed the changing winds and tacked accordingly. He also stays close — some say too close — to the powerful Wall Street firms that are his customers.

It is perhaps unsurprising that some of the people who make their living on the Big Board’s floor are a bit nervous about the exchange’s new boss. But Mr. Sprecher says they have nothing to fear. His friends and business associates say he could actually turn out to be the best hope for restoring trust in the stock market. After all, he has beaten the odds before.

“There were a number of times when the odds were long, but he wasn’t deterred from stepping in,” says James Newsome, who was Mr. Sprecher’s regulator at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission before becoming his competitor as chief executive of the New York Mercantile Exchange. “A lot of people, if they don’t think they will win, they won’t participate. Jeff doesn’t operate like that.”

For now, Mr. Sprecher is still spending much of his time at ICE’s headquarters in suburban Atlanta. The contrast with the New York Stock Exchange is striking. Behind its neoclassical face, the Big Board is a sprawling labyrinth of historic oil paintings, gilded leather chairs, stained wood and elegant dining rooms — all set amid crowds of gawking tourists.

ICE, meanwhile, occupies a few floors of an anodyne black-glass cube surrounded by trees and parking lots. The employees share their cafeteria with the building’s other tenants. The walls are lined with dry-erase boards. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 January 2013 at 10:15 am

Posted in Business, Technology

Causes of obesity

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Nicholas Kristof has an interesting column in the NY Times:

20KRISTOFSUB-articleLarge

ONE of the puzzles of the modern world is why we humans are growing so tubby. Maybe these two mice offer a clue.

They’re genetically the same, raised in the same lab and given the same food and chance to exercise. Yet the bottom one is svelte, while the other looks like, well, an American.

The only difference is that the top one was exposed at birth to just one part per billion of an endocrine-disrupting chemical. The brief exposure programmed the mouse to put on fat, and although there were no significant differences in caloric intake or expenditure, it continued to put on flab long after the chemical was gone.

That experiment is one of a growing number of peer-reviewed scientific studies suggesting that one factor in the industrialized world’s obesity epidemic (along with Twinkies, soda and television) may be endocrine-disrupting chemicals. These chemicals are largely unregulated — they are in food, couches, machine receipts and shampoos — and a raft of new studies suggest that they can lead to the formation of more and larger fat cells.

Before I describe some of this research, a more basic issue: Why should an op-ed columnist write about scholarship published in scientific journals? Don’t pundits have better things to fret about, like the feuding between Democrats and Republicans?

One answer is that obesity is an important national problem, partly responsible for soaring health care costs. Yet the chemical lobby, just like the tobacco industry before it, has impeded serious regulation and is even trying to block research.

A second is that journalists historically have done a poor job covering public health issues — we were slow on the dangers of tobacco and painfully delinquent in calling attention to the perils of lead — but these are central to our national well-being. Our lives are threatened less by the Taliban in Afghanistan than by unregulated contaminants at home.

Endocrine disruptors are a class of chemicals that mimic hormones and therefore confuse the body. Initially, they provoked concernbecause of their links to cancers and the malformation of sex organs. Those concerns continue, but the newest area of research is the impact that they have on fat storage.

Bruce Blumberg, a developmental biologist at the University of California, Irvine, coined the term “obesogen” in a 2006 journal article to refer to chemicals that cause animals to store fat. Initially, this concept was highly controversial among obesity experts, but a growing number of peer-reviewed studies have confirmed his finding and identified some 20 substances as obesogens.

The role of these chemicals has been acknowledged by the presidential task force on childhood obesity, and the National Institutes of Health has become a major funder of research on links between endocrine disruptors and both obesity and diabetes.

Among chemicals identified as obesogens are materials in plastics, canned food, agricultural chemicals, foam cushions and jet fuel. For example, a study in the fall found that triflumizole, a fungicide used on many food crops, like leafy vegetables, causes obesity in mice.

Just this month, a new study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that endocrine disruptors that are sometimes added to PVC plastic cause mice to grow obese and suffer liver problems — and the effect continues with descendants of those mice, generation after generation. . .

Continue reading. The last paragraph quoted points out the epigenetic changes (inheritable characteristics acquired by the parents, but not gene-based) that continue over generations. There is current speculation that the wave obesity is the result of epigenetic changes in the parental generation of the 40’s and 50’s and 60’s, when endocrine-disrupting chemicals began to be used in large quantities in agriculture and in consumer goods.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 January 2013 at 9:46 am

A collection of food-related links

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In the NY Times Mark Bittman has a sort of round-up post in which he has collected a lot of food news:

Potentially big: A superior court in Hyde County, N.C., ruled that the state has authority to require Rose Acre Farms, a facility housing nearly four million egg-laying hens, to be regulated under the federal Clean Water Act because of pollutants released from ventilation fans in the henhouses. Unprecedented. The F.D.A. proposed two sweeping rules aimed at preventing the contamination of produce and processed foods, taking a long-awaited step toward codifying the food safety law that Congress passed two years ago. And New Mexico lawmakers have introduced legislation that calls for the mandatory labeling of G.M.O.s within the state. Washington State joins the state, along with a half-dozen others.

Tom Philpott writes, “The fiscal-cliff deal between Congress and the White House included a fast-and-dirty, stop-gap farm bill compromise that will be in place only until September — meaning that Congress will have to start from scratch on a new five-year bill this year.”

2012 was the hottest year ever in the continental United States! Extreme weather is blanketing the globe and changing the way that we live. Related: Chuck Hagel, the defense secretary nominee, has a history of obstructing climate action, but also a record of elevating climate as a national security issue. He’s confused, so stay tuned.

Read the case for a comprehensive public health approach to gun violence inan article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Guns and the injuries they cause may be the next big issue facing physicians(including navigating ridiculous state laws that punish doctors for routinely asking their patients about gun safety).

News on obesity: New WIC food packaging designed to promote healthier eating choices for children is making a dent in reducing childhood obesity. Obesity and HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) are the next wave of cancer threats. Big Food is enabling the country’s obesity epidemic, as food companies spent 19.5 percent less on television ads between 2006 and 2009 — but 60 percent more in online marketing. (Scary: 2.1 billion of these ad impressions were placed on “child-oriented” Web sites). Also, in an analysis of nearly 100 studies, obesity was associated with a significantly higher all-cause risk of death, while being overweight was associated with significantly lower all-cause mortality. So, while obesity is quite devastating, those extra five pounds may not be not as bad as we thought. (In fact it’s more complicated, but later for that.)

Unsettling: A new study from the Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine found that 84 percent of fish have unsafe levels of mercuryEggs from caged hens are really bad news. The genetically modified soybeans grown in 91 percent of U.S. soybean fields have repeatedly been linked with reproductive and birth defects in animals. And foods identified as “whole grain” are not always healthy, as current standards for classifying foods as “whole grain” are inconsistent and misleading.

Some better news: Smithfield announced this week that it is continuing its U.S. conversion away from gestation crates and has already converted all of its European operations. It will begin converting its Mexican operations, too. And 14 percent of consumers say they’ve reduced pork consumption (by an average of 56 percent) over the past three years due to animal welfare concerns.

Food costs for a family of four increased more than $2,000 above expectations in 2012. Not unrelated: half of the world’s food is thrown away. On the positive side, the U.K. charity Sustain intends to launch a campaign designed to increase the amount of food waste being used for animal feed.

Maria Sharapova is taking heat for shilling candy with tons of sugar, while Beyoncé (theFirst Lady of Pepsi, who is taking heat from me) is set to sing at Obama’s inauguration. Meanwhile, the governor of Maine is trying to ban sodas from being purchased with SNAP dollars.Fast food news: A weight loss guru said Chipotle is the healthiest fast food chain, McDonald’s seasonal McRib sandwich is a Franken-creation of G.M.O.s and toxic and banned ingredients, Chick-fil-A has published a children’s book, “The Jolly Barnyard,” loaded with half-truths about farms and animals, and a teen at a KFC in England found a kidney in his food (I’m all for offal, but not where you don’t expect it).

Fascinating miscellany:

The U.S. is only the 16th best place on earth to be born; Switzerland is number one. Countries with free universal health care, paid maternity leave and government-subsidized job training—you know, everything the U.S. lacks—fill out the intervening 15 spots.

Most personal-health journalism ignores the basic pitfalls included in all scientific research and spreads unreliable information, CJR reports.

Using Google Earth, a doctoral candidate in Chicago mapped the city’s community gardens and found that only 160, or 13 percent, were actually producing food.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 January 2013 at 9:36 am

A good slap-down of ignorant analysis

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Paul Krugman in his blog:

. . . Some readers may have noticed a recent op-ed by King and Soneji alleging that Social Security projections understate life expectancy and are therefore far too optimistic. This claim will, I’m sure, become part of what all the serious people think they know.

But the Social Security actuaries have replied (pdf), offering among other things one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of a brutally polite intellectual takedown:

King and Soneji developed their own projection methodology for mortality and made a series of assertions in their op-ed about the methods used by the Office of the Chief Actuary. As with all new entrants into this field of analysis, their work may ultimately provide value in the continuing evolution of our methods. However, the assertions in their op-ed require some response and clarification.

Oh, snap. (Or since we’re talking about social insurance, SNAP).

So yes, the Social Security Administration knows about obesity and smoking, and incorporates this into its projections. More broadly, SSA has not failed to anticipate rising life expectancy; on the contrary, it has if anything been slightly over-optimistic. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

20 January 2013 at 9:10 am

Posted in Government, Science

A Cat’s 200-Mile Trek Home Leaves Scientists Guessing

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Jack from Amsterdam points out this interesting article:

Nobody knows how it happened: an indoor housecat who got lost on a family excursion managing, after two months and about 200 miles, to return to her hometown.

Even scientists are baffled by how Holly, a 4-year-old tortoiseshell who in early November became separated from Jacob and Bonnie Richter at an R.V. rally in Daytona Beach, Fla., appeared on New Year’s Eve — staggering, weak and emaciated — in a backyard about a mile from the Richter’s house in West Palm Beach.

“Are you sure it’s the same cat?” wondered John Bradshaw, director of the University of Bristol’s Anthrozoology Institute. In other cases, he has suspected, “the cats are just strays, and the people have got kind of a mental justification for expecting it to be the same cat.”

But Holly not only had distinctive black-and-brown harlequin patterns on her fur, but also an implanted microchip to identify her.

“I really believe these stories, but they’re just hard to explain,” said Marc Bekoff, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Colorado. “Maybe being street-smart, maybe reading animal cues, maybe being able to read cars, maybe being a good hunter. I have no data for this.”

There is, in fact, little scientific dogma on cat navigation. Migratory animals like birds, turtles and insects have been studied more closely, and use magnetic fields, olfactory cues, or orientation by the sun.

Scientists say it is more common, although still rare, to hear of dogs returning home, perhaps suggesting, Dr. Bradshaw said, that they have inherited wolves’ ability to navigate using magnetic clues. But it’s also possible that dogs get taken on more family trips, and that lost dogs are more easily noticed or helped by people along the way.

Cats navigate well around familiar landscapes, memorizing locations by sight and smell, and easily figuring out shortcuts, Dr. Bradshaw said.

Strange, faraway locations would seem problematic, although he and Patrick Bateson, a behavioral biologist at Cambridge University, say that cats can sense smells across long distances. “Let’s say they associate the smell of pine with wind coming from the north, so they move in a southerly direction,” Dr. Bateson said.

Peter Borchelt, a New York animal behaviorist, wondered if Holly followed the Florida coast by sight or sound, tracking Interstate 95 and deciding to “keep that to the right and keep the ocean to the left.”

But, he said, “nobody’s going to do an experiment and take a bunch of cats in different directions and see which ones get home.”

The closest, said Roger Tabor, a British cat biologist, may have been a 1954 study in Germany which cats placed in a covered circular maze with exits every 15 degrees most often exited in the direction of their homes, but more reliably if their homes were less than five kilometers away. . .

Continue reading.

Roger Tabor, quoted in the article, has two interesting books on cat behavior: Roger Tabor’s Cat Behavior: A Complete Guide to Understanding How Your Cat Works and Understanding Cats. (At the links, inexpensive ($1) secondhand copies.)

Written by LeisureGuy

20 January 2013 at 8:01 am

Posted in Cats, Daily life, Science

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