Later On

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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Plant question

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The Wife and I had our final Monterey meal at the Monterey Cookhouse, and just outside the window was a plant with this fruit:

Anyone know what that is?

Written by LeisureGuy

20 September 2017 at 8:07 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

7 incredibly important economic fundamental by Robert Reich

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Written by LeisureGuy

17 September 2017 at 10:35 am

Posted in Science, Video

Montana residents desperate now for clean air to breathe

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Sarah Coefield, an air quality specialist with the Missoula City-County Health Department, writes in the Washington Post:

It’s late August when I get a call from a grandmother. She lives in Seeley Lake, and she’s heard we have air filters that can help with smoke. She needs one for the baby’s room. I explain we don’t have any and tell her how to purchase one. She coughs and goes silent before asking how much they cost. Almost every person I talk to in Seeley Lake has this cough. The family doesn’t have much money, she says, but she promises to order a filter for the child. The next day, the wildfire moves closer, and the county sheriff’s office evacuates her neighborhood. I wonder if the filter will be there when the family returns home. I know the smoke will be.

As an air quality specialist with the county health department here, my job is to understand air pollution, control it as much as possible and help people protect themselves from its effects. I focus on smoke management: issuing permits for outdoor burns and updates about what to expect from the smoke when wildfires send it our way. In a typical wildfire season, my smoke-related responsibilities end when I hit “send” on twice-daily media updates.

If my job were only about fires and how the smoke moves, it would be simple. Not easy, mind you: Wildfire smoke is flashy and weird, and if anyone tells you they can reliably predict its behavior, they’re lying. It’s just that purely focusing on the science would be fun for a smoke nerd like me.

But in July, thunderstorms trekked across western Montana, igniting a ring of fires around Missoula County. One by one, they started blowing up, smothering small towns in smoke. The massive Rice Ridge Fire burns directly above the community of Seeley Lake, and every night, smoke fills the valley, building by the hour and creating dangerous breathing conditions the likes of which we have never seen. To our south, the Lolo Peak Fire sends daily smoke to the Bitterroot Valley, creating frequently hazardous, unbreathable air for its residents. Never have we seen so many wildfires so close to home for so many weeks.

As with most mountain valley communities, Missoula County’s most worrisome and prevalent air pollutant is the fine particulate in wood smoke, so tiny it can enter your bloodstream when you breathe it in. It’s a cumulative pollutant: The more you’re in it, the worse it is for you. The particulate aggravates asthma symptoms and causes reduced lung function and wheeziness. It increases the risk of heart attack and stroke and can damage children’s developing lungs. The elderly, people with heart or lung disease, pregnant women, and children are most at risk. Wildfire health studies are still part of a growing science, but we know the smoke is dangerous. We know there will be more emergency-room visits, more hospital stays and, probably, more deaths. We don’t know its long-term health consequences, and no one knows what six weeks in the worst smoke we have ever seen will mean for the people in Seeley Lake.

At monitoring stations scattered around the county, we measure the mass of fine particulate in the smoke. The National Ambient Air Quality Standard for fine particulate matter averaged over 24 hours is 35 micrograms in a cubic meter of air. Our monitor in Seeley Lake is registering 1,000, as high as the machine goes. It was built without the expectation of ever measuring such concentrations.

When smoke descends on the valley, the world shrinks. Anything more than a block away disappears behind a white wall of smoke. The birds are quiet.

Smoke makes its way through door and window cracks. It follows ventilation systems into homes. Without a filtration system, the indoors provides no refuge. And in rural Montana, where air conditioning is rare, most residents open their windows at night to seek relief from the hot, stuffy summer air, even amid the smoke. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 September 2017 at 8:38 pm

The great nutrient collapse: Global warming is diluting the nutrients in our food

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And not just our food: this will affect all animals, not just humans.

Helena Bottemiller Evich reports in Politico:

Irakli Loladze is a mathematician by training, but he was in a biology lab when he encountered the puzzle that would change his life. It was in 1998, and Loladze was studying for his Ph.D. at Arizona State University. Against a backdrop of glass containers glowing with bright green algae, a biologist told Loladze and a half-dozen other graduate students that scientists had discovered something mysterious about zooplankton.

Zooplankton are microscopic animals that float in the world’s oceans and lakes, and for food they rely on algae, which are essentially tiny plants. Scientists found that they could make algae grow faster by shining more light onto them—increasing the food supply for the zooplankton, which should have flourished. But it didn’t work out that way. When the researchers shined more light on the algae, the algae grew faster, and the tiny animals had lots and lots to eat—but at a certain point they started struggling to survive. This was a paradox. More food should lead to more growth. How could more algae be a problem?

Loladze was technically in the math department, but he loved biology and couldn’t stop thinking about this. The biologists had an idea of what was going on: The increased light was making the algae grow faster, but they ended up containing fewer of the nutrients the zooplankton needed to thrive. By speeding up their growth, the researchers had essentially turned the algae into junk food. The zooplankton had plenty to eat, but their food was less nutritious, and so they were starving.

Loladze used his math training to help measure and explain the algae-zooplankton dynamic. He and his colleagues devised a model that captured the relationship between a food source and a grazer that depends on the food. They published that first paper in 2000. But Loladze was also captivated by a much larger question raised by the experiment: Just how far this problem might extend.

“What struck me is that its application is wider,” Loladze recalled in an interview. Could the same problem affect grass and cows? What about rice and people? “It was kind of a watershed moment for me when I started thinking about human nutrition,” he said.

In the outside world, the problem isn’t that plants are suddenly getting more light: It’s that for years, they’ve been getting more carbon dioxide. Plants rely on both light and carbon dioxide to grow. If shining more light results in faster-growing, less nutritious algae—junk-food algae whose ratio of sugar to nutrients was out of whack—then it seemed logical to assume that ramping up carbon dioxide might do the same. And it could also be playing out in plants all over the planet. What might that mean for the plants that people eat?

What Loladze found is that scientists simply didn’t know. It was already well documented that CO2levels were rising in the atmosphere, but he was astonished at how little research had been done on how it affected the quality of the plants we eat. For the next 17 years, as he pursued his math career, Loladze scoured the scientific literature for any studies and data he could find. The results, as he collected them, all seemed to point in the same direction: The junk-food effect he had learned about in that Arizona lab also appeared to be occurring in fields and forests around the world. “Every leaf and every grass blade on earth makes more and more sugars as CO2 levels keep rising,” Loladze said. “We are witnessing the greatest injection of carbohydrates into the biosphere in human history―[an] injection that dilutes other nutrients in our food supply.”

He published those findings just a few years ago, adding to the concerns of a small but increasingly worried group of researchers who are raising unsettling questions about the future of our food supply. Could carbon dioxide have an effect on human health we haven’t accounted for yet? The answer appears to be yes—and along the way, it has steered Loladze and other scientists, directly into some of the thorniest questions in their profession, including just how hard it is to do research in a field that doesn’t quite exist yet.

IN AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH, it’s been understood for some time that many of our most important foods have been getting less nutritious. Measurements of fruits and vegetables show that their minerals, vitamin and protein content has measurably dropped over the past 50 to 70 years. Researchers have generally assumed the reason is fairly straightforward: We’ve been breeding and choosing crops for higher yields, rather than nutrition, and higher-yielding crops—whether broccoli, tomatoes, or wheat—tend to be less nutrient-packed.

In 2004, a landmark study of fruits and vegetables found that everything from protein to calcium, iron and vitamin C had declined significantly across most garden crops since 1950. The researchers concluded this could mostly be explained by the varieties we were choosing to grow.

Loladze and a handful of other scientists have come to suspect that’s not the whole story and that the atmosphere itself may be changing the food we eat. Plants need carbon dioxide to live like humans need oxygen. And in the increasingly polarized debate about climate science, one thing that isn’t up for debate is that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is rising. Before the industrial revolution, the earth’s atmosphere had about 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Last year, the planet crossed over the 400 parts per million threshold; scientists predict we will likely reach 550 parts per million within the next half-century—essentially twice the amount that was in the air when Americans started farming with tractors.

If you’re someone who thinks about plant growth, this seems like a good thing. It has also been useful ammunition for politicians looking for reasons to worry less about the implications of climate change. Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican who chairs the House Committee on Science, recently argued that people shouldn’t be so worried about rising CO2 levels because it’s good for plants, and what’s good for plants is good for us.

“A higher concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere would aid photosynthesis, which in turn contributes to increased plant growth,” the Texas Republican wrote. “This correlates to a greater volume of food production and better quality food.”

But as the zooplankton experiment showed, greater volume and better quality might not go hand-in-hand. In fact, they might be inversely linked. As best scientists can tell, this is what happens: Rising CO2 revs up photosynthesis, the process that helps plants transform sunlight to food. This makes plants grow, but it also leads them to pack in more carbohydrates like glucose at the expense of other nutrients that we depend on, like protein, iron and zinc. . .

Continue reading.

The future looks pretty bleak to me, though of course the GOP denies that there is any problem at all, nothing to see, move along…

Written by LeisureGuy

16 September 2017 at 12:57 pm

Hillary Clinton used ‘alternate nostril breathing’ after her loss. Here’s why you should, too.

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Kim Weeks writes in the Washington Post:

Hillary Clinton revealed this week she turned to an esoteric breathing technique popular among yogis to heal from her devastating election loss.

She has spoken in the past about using meditation and yoga for calm and balance, but during an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Wednesday night to promote her new campaign memoir she explained and demonstrated alternate nostril breathing, or nadi shodhana in Sanskrit. She said the practice is “very relaxing” and urged Cooper to try it.

By bringing this kind of breath work into the mainstream, Clinton has introduced the world to a practice that has both proven mental and physical health benefits.

Yoga in general, and yoga breathing practices such nadi shodhana, calm the mind and the body. In nadi shodhana, the process of literally alternating breathing between the right and left nostril also helps balance the right and left brain, the right and left lungs, and the right and left sides of the body. Alternate nostril breathing has been shown to slow down a rapid heart rate and to lower blood pressure. It can clear toxins and respiratory systems — shodhana translates to purification and nadi to channels, so the intent of the practice is to cleanse different systems of the mind and body.

Research has also shown that this type of breathing exercise can significantly increase the effectiveness of the parasympathetic nervous system, or the “rest-and-digest” system that automatically kicks in when we relax or sleep to help restore our body’s equilibrium. But in our hectic, daily lives, when our bodies are in a perpetual state of fight or flight, this calmer part of ourselves is harder to activate.

It’s particularly challenging to access during times of extreme stress, which is why Clinton told Cooper he probably wouldn’t be able to do it in the middle of covering a hurricane. But for everyday stresses, taking the time to breath this way is calming and grounding.

The demands of daily life act on the body the same way, whether you’re running for political office or running late to pick up your toddler at day care. In almost all cases, the body doesn’t register the difference. It just knows that it is stressed, deprived of its need to disengage from activity and be still. So instead we look to power, money, career, relationships and thousands of other things outside ourselves in hopes they will bring us contentment and calm. But life doesn’t work that way. . .

Continue reading.

Later in the article:

Here’s how to try it yourself

1. Take a seat. Sit cross-legged on the floor or use a chair.

2. Curl your right forefinger and middle finger into your palm. You’re getting these two out of the way. Your thumb, ring finger, and pinky finger will be sticking out. You will use your thumb and ring finger to do alternate-nostril breathing.

3. Put your thumb on the right nostril where the nose bone meets cartilage. Put your ring finger on the left nostril in the same place. Rest them there lightly.

4. Breathe normally, but do not breathe through the mouth. Keep it closed. Take a long, slow, deep inhalation through both nostrils. Before exhaling (don’t really pause, just go with it), push in/depress the right nostril to close it off completely. Exhale fully through the left nostril only.

5. Keep the right nostril closed off. Inhale through the left nostril. Before exhaling again (again, no pausing, just keep going), press the left nostril with the ring finger and release the thumb from the right.

6. Exhale through the right nostril only, and then inhale through the right nostril only.

7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 until you’re ready to finish (for maximum benefits do at least 10 rounds). The finishing breath will be an exhale through the left nostril.

8. Take a long, slow breath in through both nostrils, and then exhale through both nostrils.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 September 2017 at 7:40 pm

Can American soil be brought back to life?

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Jenny Hopkinson writes in Politico:

Four generations of Jonathan Cobb’s family tended the same farm in Rogers, Texas, growing row upon row of corn and cotton on 3,000 acres. But by 2011, Cobb wasn’t feeling nostalgic. Farming was becoming rote and joyless; the main change from one year to the next was intensively planting more and more acres of corn and soy, churning up the soil and using ever more chemical fertilizers and herbicides to try and turn a profit.

“I’d already had the difficult conversation with my dad that he would be the last generation on the farm,” Cobb said.

While looking for a new job, Cobb stopped into a local office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to pick up some paperwork. That day, the staff was doing a training session on soil health. He stayed to watch and was struck by a demonstration showing a side-by-side comparison of healthy and unhealthy soils.

A clump of soil from a heavily tilled and cropped field was dropped into a wire mesh basket at the top of a glass cylinder filled with water. At the same time, a clump of soil from a pasture that grew a variety of plants and grasses and hadn’t been disturbed for years was dropped into another wire mesh basket in an identical glass cylinder. The tilled soil–similar to the dry, brown soil on Cobb’s farm—dissolved in water like dust. The soil from the pasture stayed together in a clump, keeping its structure and soaking up the water like a sponge. Cobb realized he wasn’t just seeing an agricultural scientist show off a chunk of soil: He was seeing a potential new philosophy of farming.

“By the end of that day I knew that I was supposed to stay on the farm and be part of that paradigm shift,” Cobb said. “It was that quick.”

The shift he’s talking about is a new trend in agriculture, one with implications from farm productivity to the environment to human health. For generations, soil has been treated almost as a backdrop — not much more than a medium for holding plants while fertilizer and herbicides help them grow. The result, over the years, has been poorer and drier topsoil that doesn’t hold on to nutrients or water. The impact of this degradation isn’t just on farmers, but extends to Americans’ health. Dust blowing off degraded fields leads to respiratory illness in rural areas; thousands of people are exposed to drinking water with levels of pesticides at levels that the Environmental Protection Agency has deemed to be of concern. The drinking water of more than 210 million Americans is polluted with nitrate, a key fertilizer chemical that has been linked to developmental problems in children and poses cancer risks in adults. And thanks to some modern farming techniques, soil degradation is releasing carbon—which becomes carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas—instead of holding on to it. In fact, the United Nations considers soil degradation one of the central threats to human health in the coming decades for those very reasons.

Now, some farmers and soil scientists are realizing that for the health of both people and farms, the most important thing you can do is look at soil differently—seeing topsoil as a living thing itself, which can be tended and even improved. Good soil is alive with a host of delicate organisms, many of them microscopic, producing structure and nutrients. As long as they’re thriving, soil can better absorb and retain water and feed plants and control pests. But when they die off, because they’ve been churned up and exposed to the sun and air or smothered with chemicals, the soil gradually becomes little more than powdered minerals.

Science and farming techniques have been evolving—in part thanks to the Agriculture Department’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, where Cobb saw that demonstration in 2011 that changed his worldview. But the change isn’t coming easily. Even as some farmers move toward more holistic soil management, they’re running into friction–from the culture of farming, from the business of agriculture and—ironically—from some federal policies that encourage them to stick to the same old farming approach that got them here.

AMERICA USED TO be famed for its rich and fertile topsoil. Prairie and forests were virtually untouched when settlers first started dividing land into fields across the Southeast and Midwest, making for rich dark soil in which to grow food and fiber.

Since the invention of the plow, farming has focused on disrupting the soil to make it productive. Most farming methods, whether conventional or organic, are based on “tillage” – the premise that to plant crops and control weeds and other pests, the soil must be broken up and turned over, then amended with chemical fertilizers or organic compost to boost fertility. And it worked for a long time.

But tilling, it turns out, kills off many of the microorganisms that build the soil. It churns up their habitat and exposes them to air; it also makes it easier for soil to be washed off the land by rain and wind. Over time, the damage has built up: More than 50 percent America’s topsoil has eroded away. In areas of the Southeast, the country’s original breadbasket, it’s almost all gone.

Soil, at its base, is 50 percent gas and water, and roughly 45 percent minerals such as sand, silt and clay. The remainder is organic matter—decomposing plants and animals. For being such a small portion of dirt, organic matter plays a huge role. It serves as food for microorganisms that do everything from store water to provide nutrients for plants and control pests. Researchers are learning more and more about the exchange between plants and fungi, bacteria and other organisms in the soil, said Robert Myers, a professor of soil sciences at the University of Missouri. . .

Continue reading.

Do read the article. Some fascinating photos included with it.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 September 2017 at 10:51 am

When Junk Science About Sex Offenders Infects the Supreme Court

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Via one of Radley Balko’s links: David Feige reports in the NY Times:

This month the Supreme Court will have a rare opportunity to correct a flawed doctrine that for the past two decades has relied on junk social science to justify punishing more than 800,000 Americans. Two cases that the court could review concern people on the sex offender registry and the kinds of government control that can constitutionally be imposed upon them.

In Snyder v. Doe, the court could consider whether Michigan’s broad scheme of regulating sex offenders constitutes “punishment.” The other case, Karsjens v. Piper, examines the constitutionality of Minnesota’s policy of detaining sex offenders forever — not for what they’ve done, but for what they might do.

And while the idea of indefinite preventive detention might sound un-American or something out of the film “Minority Report,” the larger problem is that “civil commitment,” like hundreds of other regulations imposed on those required to register, has been justified by assertions about the recidivism of sex offenders. But those assertions turn out to be entirely belied by science.

For the past 24 years, Minnesota has detained sex offenders released from prison in a “therapeutic program” conveniently located on the grounds of a maximum-security prison in Moose Lake. The “patients” are kept in locked cells, transported outside the facility in handcuffs and leg irons, and subjected to a regimen that looks, sounds and smells just like that of the prison it is adjacent to.

But unlike prison, this “therapeutic” program, which aims to teach the patients to control their sexual impulses and was initially designed to last from two to four years, has no fixed end date. Rather, program administrators decide which patients are safe enough to release. In the 24 years it has existed, not a single “patient” has ever been fully released. There are now about 850 people in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, some with no adult criminal record, and others who, despite having completed every single program ever offered at the facility, have remained civilly committed for over 20 years.

While civil commitment is perhaps the most extreme example of punishments imposed on people convicted of sex crimes, it is by no means the only one. Driven by a pervasive fear of sexual predators, and facing no discernible opposition, politicians have become evermore inventive in dreaming up ways to corral and marginalize those forced to register — a category which itself has expanded radically and come to include those convicted of “sexting,” having consensual sex with non-minor teenagers or even urinating in public.

These sanctions include being forced to wear (and pay for) GPS monitoring and being banned from parks, and draconian residency restrictions that sometimes lead to homelessness. In addition, punishments can include, on pain of re-incarceration, undergoing interrogations using a penile plethysmograph, a device used to measure sexual arousal. They have also included requirements that those on the registry refrain from being alone with children (often including their own) and barred from holding certain jobs, like being a volunteer firefighter or driving an ice cream truck.

And when these restrictions have been challenged in court, judge after judge has justified them based on a Supreme Court doctrine that allows such restrictions, thanks to the “frightening and high” recidivism rate ascribed to sex offenders — a rate the court has pegged “as high as 80 percent.” The problem is this: The 80 percent recidivism rate is an entirely invented number.

A few years ago, Ira Ellman, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, and Tara Ellman set out to find the source of that 80 percent figure, and what he found shocked him. As it turns out, the court found that number in a brief signed by Solicitor General Ted Olson. The brief cited a Department of Justice manual, which in turn offered only one source for the 80 percent assertion: a Psychology Today article published in 1986.

That article was written not by a scientist but by a treatment provider who claimed to be able to essentially cure sex offenders though innovative “aversive therapies” including electric shocks and pumping ammonia into offenders’ noses via nasal cannulas. The article offered no backup data, no scientific control group and no real way to fact-check any of the assertions made to promote the author’s program.

Nonetheless, because that 80 percent figure suited the government lawyers’ aim of cracking down on sex offenders, Solicitor General Olson cited it, and Justice Anthony Kennedy, seemingly without fact-checking it, adopted the figure in a 2002 opinion that Justices William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas joined. (Justice Sandra Day O’Connor concurred.) Their decision blew open the doors to the glut of sex offender restrictions that followed.

But in the 30 years since that Psychology Today article was published, there have been hundreds of evidence-based, scientific studies on the question of the recidivism rate for sex offenders. The results of those studies are astonishingly consistent: Convicted sex offenders have among the lowest rates of same-crime recidivism of any category of offender.

Nearly every study — including those by states as diverse as Alaska, Nebraska, Maine, New York and California — as well as an extremely broad one by the federal government that followed every offender released in the United States for three years, has put the three-year recidivism rate for convicted sex offenders in the low single digits, with the bulk of the results clustering around 3.5 percent. Needless to say, there is a tremendous difference between claiming that 80 percent of offenders will re-offend and that more than 95 percent of them won’t. And it is in that basic difference that the Supreme Court’s doctrine has done its most lasting damage.

This profound misrepresentation of social science has led to extraordinary real-world harms. For example, while the public almost universally embraces the strict residency restrictions the Supreme Court and lower courts have ratified, study after study has shown that rather than reduce sexual violence, these residency restrictions actually increase recidivism.

The merciless enforcement of the conditions routinely placed on those on the registry has resulted in the constant re-incarceration of offenders — not because they have committed new crimes but for technical violations of the conditions themselves, like failure to maintain a driving log, being late for curfew or failing to pay polygraph fees. . .

Continue reading.

There’s an 8-minute video at the link that’s worth watching.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 September 2017 at 10:40 am

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