18 October 2019

Is Politics Stressing You?

Welcome back. I’m old. I’ve lasted through quite a few U.S. presidents. Whether I agreed or disagreed with the man, his actions and policies, I’ve always respected the office. That’s changed over the past few years. I even get angry on occasion.

Judging by a recent study of the social, psychological, emotional and physical “costs” of Americans’ political involvement, I’m not alone.

The Women’s March, a protest held the day after President Trump’s inauguration, drew an estimated 3 million to over 5 million participants across the U.S. and over 7 million worldwide (photo from www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/if-women-s-march-was-beginning-resistance-what-s-next-n711031).
Surveying the Costs of Political Involvement
Political scientists from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of California, Merced, broke new ground in addressing the non-economic costs of engaging in politics.

To assess the degree to which people perceive politics as the source of particular problems, the researchers developed a survey list of 32 items on the impact of politics in four categories: physical health, emotional health, regretted behavior and social/lifestyle costs.

As a starting point, their list drew upon the diagnostic instruments used by Alcoholics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous. For example, those surveys ask, “Does your drinking/gambling ever cause you to have difficulty sleeping?” The researchers’ included an item: I have lost sleep because of politics, with possible responses ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

In addition to the 32 items on political impact, the survey also sought each respondent’s traits and characteristics, including socio-demographics, personality and political attitudes, knowledge, interest and activity.

The researchers enlisted YouGov to conduct the survey, which sampled 800 U.S. adults in March 2017, two months after Donald Trump was inaugurated. The study sample was specifically matched to a 2010 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey sampling frame on gender, age, race, education, party identification and political interest.

Key Impacts of Politics
Bowing to space and your likely interest, I’ll forego discussion of the data analyses and only highlight the survey’s key or interesting findings. Toward that end, the ten items that the highest percentage of respondents agreed or agreed strongly with are presented in the table.

The ten survey items with the highest percentage of respondents agreeing or agreeing strongly (from journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0221870).  
As shown in the table, 38% of the respondents said they were stressed by politics, 26% became depressed when their candidate lost, and politics caused 21% to be fatigued. Not shown is that 18% lost sleep, the physical health of 12% was adversely affected, and 4% took it to the extreme--they had suicidal thoughts.

Media outlets that promote views contrary to their own drove 32% of the respondents crazy. Going further, politics led 29% to lose their temper, 26% to hate some people, 23% to think seriously about moving and 15% to wish bad things on people with whom they disagreed.

Political differences caused problems in the immediate or extended family of over 15% of respondents, and 20% reported valued friendships damaged.

Who Felt the Impact?
The respondents most likely to believe politics was adversely affecting them at the time of the survey--again, two months after Mr. Trump’s inauguration--were younger, unemployed, more disagreeable and less emotionally stable. They tended to strongly disapprove of President Trump, be politically liberal and see their political opposites as uninformed, closed-minded and untruthful. They also tended to discuss politics frequently and be involved in political activities.

Wrap Up
The researchers emphasize how the timing of the study shaped the results. For comparison, they would hope to repeat the survey with a different president, particularly one who is left leaning.

As an Independent, I would expect the results would change markedly with any more conventional president. Also, although most of President Trump’s actions and their effects were predictable during the campaign and certainly at two months into his presidency, the costs measured by the survey likely increased with his time in office.

We can only stay tuned, I guess. Thanks for stopping by. 

Study of political costs in PLOS ONE journal: journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0221870
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-09/uon-soa092019.php

11 October 2019

Climate-Change Facts Missing

Welcome back. Not long ago, I interrupted a conversation about climate. It happened during the Saturday morning coffee klatch (Saturday Coffee Hour).

Months earlier, I had talked about carbon dioxide and climate change with different Saturday morning attendees. This latest incidence was back to square one. It began when I heard something along the lines of climate change is all politics, climate is always changing.

News about climate change has finally made it to prime time and the front page. Most people now accept that climate is warming, even if they still don’t get it.

CBS News poll of Americans on the gravity of climate change; Sep 2019 survey by YouGov (from www.cbsnews.com/news/cbs-news-poll-most-americans-say-climate-change-should-be-addressed-now-2019-09-15/).
A recent study by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, concludes that journalists could do more; that they have failed to present key facts to educate the public. While that study’s findings are reliable, there’s a lot of noise to overcome.

Why Don’t They Understand?
Polls show that whether Americans agree or disagree that human activity affects climate, they lack an understanding of the facts.

The Berkeley researchers identify five basic climate facts people need to know, and they investigate how often those facts were conveyed in The New York Times news articles on climate change from 1980 to 2018.

The five facts are: climate change is occurring, its cause, there is a scientific consensus, the magnitude of the problem and the timescale of the resulting harm. 
The five climate-change facts searched for in The New York Times articles, 1980 to 2018; alternative or optional wording in parentheses (from iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/2515-7620/ab37dd).
A single newspaper, The New York Times, was chosen for analysis since the Times’ reputation and excellence in reporting environmental issues would place something of an upper bound on newspaper climate coverage.

The Times Search
The researchers’ search of the ProQuest US Major Dailies database from 1980 found 1,801 Times articles with “global warming,” “climate change” or “greenhouse effect” in the title.

Reducing these to standard, non-duplicative news articles (e.g., removing op-eds) of at least 500 words, they arrived at 597 articles.

A computer algorithm was devised to screen the 597 articles for character strings that conveyed any of the five climate facts. The identified articles were read to confirm the fact was present.

Newspapers Should Do More
The analysis found that the vast majority of climate-change news articles contained none of the five basic climate facts.

The one exception, that global warming is happening now, appeared in 31% of Times news articles. The mechanism of global warming appeared with a similar frequency in the early 1980s but is rarely reported today. Similarly, scientific consensus, highest CO2 concentrations and global warming permanence are also seldom reported.

Percentage of climate change articles in The New York Times since 1980 that mention five climate facts (graphic by David Romps from iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/2515-7620/ab37dd).
Presuming that other major newspapers don’t do much better, the researchers conclude that newspaper articles on climate change lack the scientific context readers need to make sense of the problem.

But Who Reads Newspapers?
The newspaper industry has been in decline since the mid-2000s. According to the Pew Research Center, the estimated total U.S. daily newspaper circulation (print and digital) in 2018 was 28.6 million for weekday and 30.8 million for Sunday, down 8% and 9%, respectively, from 2017.

By 2017, more Americans were getting news from social media than from print newspapers, though in 2018, television was still the most popular news platform.

Pew Research Center survey of where U.S. adults often get news, 2018 (from www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/12/10/social-media-outpaces-print-newspapers-in-the-u-s-as-a-news-source/).
Unfortunately, television hasn’t done much to educate the public. When I was still in academia and colleagues were recognizing and modeling climate change elements, the fossil fuel industry led the campaign to spread misinformation and sow doubt about global warming. Now, there’s talk radio and Fox News, the most watched TV cable network.

Wrap Up
I often watch certain Fox newscasts; I’m always impressed by the Fox News tape at the bottom of the screen. An analysis of Fox News TV transcripts during the first half of 2019 found that, of the 391 times “climate change” or “global warming” was mentioned, 247 involved considerable discussion. Of these, 212 (86%) were dismissive, undermining climate science, action and advocacy.

Fox News commonly framed climate change as a political construct, suggesting global warming is a vehicle for the Democrats’ big-government agenda, that responding to the climate change would kill our economy and that concern about climate is liberal hysteria.

Hmmm…that sounds like the Saturday morning conversation I interrupted. We’re running out of time. Thanks for stopping by.

U.C. Berkeley study of NY Times news articles on climate in Environmental Research Communications journal: iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/2515-7620/ab37dd
ProQuest News portfolio: www.proquest.com/libraries/academic/news-newspapers/
Pew Research Center’s Newspapers Fact Sheet: www.journalism.org/fact-sheet/newspapers/
Pew Research Center report on watching vs reading news: www.journalism.org/2018/12/03/americans-still-prefer-watching-to-reading-the-news-and-mostly-still-through-television/
Public Citizen analysis of Fox News: www.citizen.org/article/foxic-fox-news-networks-dangerous-climate-denial-2019/

04 October 2019

Tracking Whale Songs

It’s the 23rd century. To save Earth from an alien probe, Admiral James T. Kirk and his crew go back in time to 1986 to retrieve the only beings that can communicate with the probe--humpback whales, now extinct. (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home)

Welcome back. An international team led by a researcher with the UK’s University of St. Andrews published a study that reminded me of that movie. The reminder is a bit of a stretch since the only connection is the humpback whale song.

Humpback Whale Songs and Transmission
Vocal traditions and vocal learning provide a foundation for studying culture and its transmission whether by humans or whales.

Humpback whale and diver (from
Male humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) perform complex, hierarchically structured vocalizations. A sequence of sounds termed “units” comprises a “phrase,” phrases are repeated to form a “theme,” a few themes are sung in a set order to form a “song” and different versions of a song that contain different themes are called “song types.”

Although songs are constantly evolving, most males within a humpback whale group will converge on a single song type during any particular winter breeding season. Songs are also transmitted between groups. The rapid adoption of a new song from a neighboring group is a striking example of large-scale, horizontal cultural transmission.

Documenting South Pacific Whale Songs
To investigate humpback whale song transmission in the South Pacific, the researchers recorded whale songs during the same breeding season at sites spanning some 6,000 kilometers (3,730 miles). These included the Kermadec Islands, a migratory stopover, and six wintering grounds--eastern Australia, New Caledonia, Tonga, Niue, the Cook Islands and French Polynesia.

South Pacific study area showing Kermadec Islands (near center) and six wintering grounds (L to R: eastern Australia, New Caledonia, Tonga, Niue, the Cook Islands and French Polynesia) (from royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.190337).
All humpback whale song recordings were analyzed as spectrograms, which display the vocalization’s amplitude at different frequencies versus time. (In two dimensions, the y-axis is usually signal frequency, the x-axis is time, and signal amplitude is shown as the intensity or color.)

Three song types were identified in recordings from 52 “singers” at the six wintering grounds. One was dominant in the central Pacific (Cook Islands and French Polynesia), the second was the most prevalent in the west (New Caledonia, Tonga and Niue) and the third was only recorded in eastern Australia.

Example spectrograms of humpback whale song type 1 (top), 2 (middle) and 3 (bottom) (from royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.190337).
Migratory Stopover Song Transfers
Given that whales from different groups pass the Kermadecs at the same time during their southward migration, there is ample opportunity for song learning and transmission across the South Pacific.

When songs from 39 singers recorded at the Kermadecs were compared to those of the 52 singers from the six wintering grounds, the Kermadec songs could be matched to New Caledonia, Tonga, Niue and the Cook Islands. The matches were supported by genetic and photographic data. The comparative analysis also suggested that singers from French Polynesia and eastern Australia did not stop at the Kermadecs.

Of particular interest was one “hybrid singer” from the Kermadecs that sang themes drawn from two song types. This would be consistent with song learning on migration.

Wrap Up
The researchers conclude that the similarities in songs from the Kermadec Islands and multiple wintering grounds suggest the Kermadec migratory stopover and presumably other migratory stopovers are locations of cultural transmission, active song learning and the potential for cultural convergence after group isolation at the wintering grounds. As with human correlations between genes, communication and migration, humpback whale migratory patterns are written into their songs.

Thanks for stopping by.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: www.imdb.com/title/tt0092007/
Study of humpback whale song transmission in Royal Society Open Science journal: royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.190337
Article on study on New Scientist website: www.newscientist.com/article/2215121-we-can-tell-where-a-whale-has-travelled-from-the-themes-in-its-song/
Examples of humpback whale song types from study’s supplemental material:
Song Type 2 (Niue et al.) - rsos190337supp6.mp3
Song Type 3 (eastern Australia) - rsos190337supp7.mp3

27 September 2019

Trapped by a Robovac!

Welcome back. Today’s blog post is a warning, especially if you’re a cat.

Seven years ago, I released a blog post, Vacuuming with Cats. The post was an account of how our different housecats reacted to my weekly vacuuming.

You may remember the cats from that or other posts or from my e-book: the cerebral Lassie; the phantom Rex; Boss, the speedy cat of lesser intelligence; and the star of today’s post, Henry the Alpha cat, who boarded with us for a year when our son, Noah, and his college roommates moved to a no-pets apartment.

At the time, I described Henry as being as smart as Lassie but without Lassie’s manners or capacity for forethought. He genuinely liked and wanted to be with Noah; no carrier case was needed. Although he accepted me and his circumstances for the year, he was torn whenever Noah came home on college breaks.

Years ago, Noah was in college, and Henry was his new pet.
Henry never stopped being Henry. Days before being retrieved by Noah, he so intimidated a professional pet sitter she refused to enter our house to care for him and Boss.

Today, Henry is not just older, he’s tired. He’s had to contend with a younger cat, Timothy, initially thrust upon him as a hard-charging kitten. Nevertheless, his devotion to Noah hasn’t changed.

Setting the Stage

Henry, Timothy
and robovac in
the new apartment.
Noah and spouse, Cassy, with Henry and Timothy, recently moved to a new 2-bedroom apartment. They took along the co-star of this blog post, their 4-year old autonomous robotic vacuum cleaner (Roomba model 770).

For regular cleaning, they’ve programmed the robovac to operate on Mondays and Wednesdays, beginning at 12:30 PM.

In their absence, the device vacuums the living room and whatever additional areas it can accommodate before returning to its docking station, placed under the TV stand. Fully charged, it should run for up to two hours.
The robovac programmed to operate on
Mondays and Wednesdays at 12:30 PM.
Although the device usually makes its way into the bedroom or guestroom, they run it in those rooms on weekends with the doors closed to ensure a thorough cleaning.

“Bump me again,
and you’ll never
vacuum again.”
Neither cat fears the robovac, yet it is noisy and bothersome. Like his old self, Henry occasionally stands his ground until it bumps him, then he angrily moves aside.

Action--Scene One
On the fateful day, Henry was already sad to be without Noah when the robovac turned on and began its task. He didn’t need the aggravation. To escape the roving machine, he walked into the guestroom, where there’s an empty box, perfect for catnapping.

Half asleep, he paid no heed when the robovac came through the doorway and began vacuuming the guestroom. The sound of the closing guestroom door did get his attention, but he was too sleepy and the device too noisy to pursue the matter. When the robovac eventually shut down, Henry realized he was trapped.

Action--Scene Two
Hours passed. Noah got home first, about 7:00 PM.

Pet owners normally recognize signs of their animal’s distress, and a cat’s meows, wails, groans and the like can be quite distinctive and informative. Hearing Noah’s arrival, Henry screeched a mix of anger and plea for help!

(Noah had heard that same screech the first morning in the new apartment. Whatever Henry had been sleeping on atop the clothes dryer slid off, wedging Henry between the dryer and wall.) 

The robovac in
the guestroom,
door open.
Noah quickly traced the screech to the guestroom, opened the door wondering why it was closed, and watched Henry fly by to the litter box. The robovac sat there.

In addition to his characteristic screech, Henry has also found a way to announce an unsettled stomach that presages retching. While on his phone a few minutes later, Noah heard that low belly, deep, loud groan 3 or 4 times with the expected consequence.

Wrap Up
Poor Henry. The freak accident he suffered is indeed a warning. Their previous apartments had barriers to confine the robovac. Letting the device wander freely and unattended through the new apartment was probably unwise; still, who expects it to shut doors?

Hearing of this incident, I immediately sought internet guidance. You might enjoy a few examples of the cat and robovac videos I’ve appended. I doubt Henry would. Thanks for stopping by.


I am indebted to Noah for relating Henry's ordeal and providing all photos but the first.

20 September 2019

Live with Optimism

Welcome back. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll recall that two weeks ago, I suggested you munch on dark chocolate to stay happy (Depressed? Try Dark Chocolate). Today, going further, I suggest you be optimistic, which can be a stretch with what’s going on in the world. Plus, it’s not as easy as reaching for chocolate. 

Don’t be blue and you’ll
probably live longer.
Here’s the deal. Studies have shown that optimists are less likely to suffer from chronic diseases and die prematurely. And now the latest: Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity, which is commonly defined as living to the age of 85 or older.

Optimism Study
Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine, Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, Harvard Medical School and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health tapped two cohort (longitudinal) studies.

They analyzed data on 69,744 women from the Nurses’ Health Study and 1,429 men from the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study. The women were followed for 10 years, 2004 to 2014; the men for 30 years,1986 to 2016.

Both groups completed surveys on overall health and health habits (e.g., diet, smoking and alcohol use) and their level of optimism. The Nurses’ Health Study measured optimism using the Life Orientation Test–Revised; the Normative Aging Study used the Revised Optimism–Pessimism Scale from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2.

The researchers employed statistical modeling (accelerated failure time models) to assess life span differences associated with optimism, adjusting for demographic factors and health, and then considering the effect of health behaviors. They subsequently used predictive analyses (logistic regression) to evaluate the likelihood of exceptional longevity.

Scoring with Optimism
The study found higher optimism levels associated with increased longevity with both women and men. Women in the highest versus lowest optimism quartile had 15% longer life span and 50% greater odds of celebrating their 85th birthday. Men in the highest versus lowest optimism quartile had 11% longer life span and 70% greater odds of living 85 years.

The results held after accounting for age, demographic factors, chronic diseases, depression as well as health behaviors, including alcohol use, exercise, diet and primary care visits.

Wrap Up
While it’s clear that optimism delivers additional years, it’s not clear precisely how. Nevertheless, earlier work has shown optimism is modifiable, which suggests that promoting optimism might in turn promote longevity.

So, just keep thinking that good things are coming. The future is bright because we can control many important outcomes (like voting). Thanks for stopping by.  

Never mind if the glass is half empty or half full. Drink what’s there, and believe you can refill it.
Optimism study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal: www.pnas.org/content/early/2019/08/20/1900712116
Articles on study on EurekAlert! and NPR websites:
Cohort studies: www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/281703.php
Nurses Health Study: www.nurseshealthstudy.org/
Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study: www.maelstrom-research.org/mica/individual-study/va-nas
Life Orientation Test: www.midss.org/content/life-orientation-test-revised-lot-r
Revised Optimism-Pessimism Scale: onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/1097-4679%28199503%2951%3A2%3C205%3A%3AAID-JCLP2270510210%3E3.0.CO%3B2-2