02 February 2024

Ending the Break, Plus

As the Retired--Now What blog approaches its 13th birthday with 830 posts, I need more than a short break. I renewed the blog domain for another year, but I don't know if I'll be using it again. My health is fine, I just need a change. 

Although the blog is now read by thousands around the world every month, it still feels like the science section of a hometown newspaper. I hope you've found it clear, interesting and sometimes maybe even useful.

Thanks for stopping by. -warren

15 December 2023

I Need A Break


OK, that’s not me, but like the cat, I really need a break. You might, too (photo from 2011 blog post, Time for Pets--Cats).
Ahead of my past hiatuses, I generally referred you to the list of Blog Post Topics in the column on the right of the blog website (http://www.retired--nowwhat.com).

Last December, I suggested you might enjoy some of the earliest posts I wrote years before I started reviewing research topics. The quickest way to reach those older posts is to go to Blog Archive in the website column on the right. Click on the archive and scroll down, for example, to the bottom, “Apr2011 (6).” You’ll call up my first six posts with the 6th displayed.

To sample the earlier posts, you might click on any of these, all posted more than 10 years ago:

Time to Exercise 

Time to Sleep 

Time for Lawn and Garden 

Technology Update 

Time to Visit the Arecibo Observatory 

Time for Pets--Henry the Cat 

Time for Non-Furry Pets (Tropical Fish, etc.)  

Dental Check-Up Time 

Happy Valentine’s Day!  

Astrology Time 

Stay safe, be well and enjoy. I hope we’ll all be back next year. -warren


08 December 2023

Americans’ Vaccine Skepticism

Welcome back. I’ve blogged about Americans and vaccinations several times, most recently to highlight Dog Vaccine Hesitancy. If you recall, dog owners are especially likely to doubt dog vaccines if they themselves have reservations about human vaccines, though there’s also evidence of vaccine politicization.

Earlier I blogged that most Americans believe vaccinations are safe and effective, though you might get the impression from social media that the topic is up for debate. That post reviewed an assessment of the impact of bots and trolls and the content of Russian troll activity (Vaccination Tweet Meddling).

Reaching even further back, when blogging about conspiracy theories, I reviewed a study that suggested that medical conspiracy theories are widely known in the United States, endorsed by a rather broad segment of society and generally predictive of common health behaviors (Conspiracy Theories, Continued).

Celebrity anti-vaccine advocates compete with medical experts (from Conspiracy Theories, Continued).

All this is to introduce a recent survey that showed Americans have less confidence in vaccines than they did just a year or two ago. Vaccine confidence fell as belief in misinformation grew.

The Vaccine Survey
The survey was conducted by SSRS, an independent market research company, for the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Over the past two-and-a-half years, the center has been tracking Americans’ knowledge, beliefs and behaviors regarding vaccination, COVID-19, flu, RSV and other consequential health issues.

Annenberg Public Policy Center’s 13 surveys; N – number of respondents. MOE – measure of error, Deff – estimated design effects, Fielded/Closed – initial and final survey dates (from cdn.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/APPC_ASAPH_Toplines_W13.pdf).

The most recent of the series of surveys was conducted 5-11 October 2023 with 1559 nationally representative respondents (1528 in English, 31 in Spanish; 1520 via website, 39 by telephone). The margin of sampling error was ± 3.4% at the 95% confidence level. Respondents’ data were statistically weighted to represent the U.S. adult population.

Survey Highlights

Examples of the growth in misinformation acceptance
* Childhood autism: The percentage of Americans who believe “increased vaccinations are why so many kids have autism these days” grew to 16% from 10% in April 2021.
* MMR-autism link: 12% incorrectly believe that vaccines given to children for diseases like measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) cause autism, up from 9% in June 2021.
* Flu shot and COVID-19: 9% incorrectly believe that getting a flu shot increases the risk of contracting COVID-19, up from 6% in January 2023.
* Vaccines and toxins: 12% incorrectly believe that “vaccines in general are full of toxins and harmful ingredients like ‘antifreeze,” up from 8% in April 2021.
* Cancer and mRNA vaccines: 12% incorrectly believe that mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 cause cancer, up from 9% in January 2023.
* COVID-19 vaccine: 21% say the vaccine is not safer than the disease, up from 10% in April 2021.
* Ivermectin and COVID-19: 26% incorrectly say ivermectin is an effective treatment for COVID-19, up from 10% in September 2021. 

Survey responses to question D49: Ivermectin is an effective treatment for COVID-19; superscript letters indicate statistically significant differences with the corresponding survey (from cdn.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/APPC_ASAPH_Toplines_W13.pdf).

Examples of reduced belief in vaccine safety, effectiveness or both since August 2022
* MMR vaccine: 81% believe the MMR vaccine is safe, 83% believe it’s effective; down respectively from 88% and 87%.
* Flu vaccine: 75% believe the flu vaccine is effective, down from 81%.
* Pneumonia vaccine: 74% believe the pneumonia vaccine is safe, 69% believe it’s effective, down respectively from 80% and 74%.
* HPV vaccine: 61% believe the human papillomavirus vaccine is effective, down from 66%.
* Covid-19 vaccine: 66% believe the Covid-19 vaccine is safe, down from 73%.

Wrap Up
Those who think approved vaccines are safe dropped to 71% from 77% in April 2021. Those who don’t think approved vaccines are safe grew to 16% from 9% over that same period.

Although the proportion of the Americans that are skeptical of vaccines is, in some cases, still small, the growth in misinformation acceptance is a warning sign. As the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and director of the survey noted, “Growing numbers now distrust health-protecting, life-saving vaccines.”

Thanks for stopping by.

Article on Annenberg Public Policy Center survey: www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/1006556
SSRS methods report: cdn.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/W13-APPC-National-Survey-Wave-13_Methods-Report_Final-10302023.pdf

01 December 2023

The Climate Report

Welcome back. Four years ago, a global coalition of scientists, led by Oregon State University researchers, published a paper, World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency. The paper was cosigned by more than 11,000 scientists from 153 countries.

Interviewed, the lead author stated: Despite 40 years of major global negotiations, we have continued to conduct business as usual and have failed to address this crisis. Climate change has arrived and is accelerating faster than many scientists expected.

I’m going to guess that recent climate records and disasters have convinced many that the climate change predicted in 1988 is indeed happening (see blog post Consider Catastrophic Climate Change), that life on Earth may well be imperiled without action.

Nature struck relentlessly in 2020 with record-breaking and deadly weather -- and climate-related disasters, Photo | AP (from www.newindianexpress.com/galleries/world/2020/dec/18/the-stormy-fiery-year-when-climate-disasters-wouldnt-stop-in-2020-103039--1.html).

But if anyone still needs convincing, the Oregon State University researchers are back with 10 international co-authors and more than 15,000 scientist cosigners from 161 countries. They’ve published an update that I’ll highlight: The 2023 state of the climate report: Entering uncharted territory.

Planetary Vital Sign Trends
In their earlier paper, the authors introduced a graphical suite of planetary vital signs of climate change and impacts. Of the 35 planetary vital signs tracked by the authors, 20 are now at record extremes. I offer excerpts about selected trends.

Carbon emissions have continued soaring, and fossil fuels remain dominant, with coal consumption reaching a near all-time high in 2022. Although renewable energy (solar and wind) grew 17% between 2021 and 2022, it remains roughly 15 times lower than fossil fuel consumption.

Global mean greenhouse gases and temperature
[T]hree important greenhouse gases--carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide--are all at record levels. The global average carbon dioxide concentration is now approximately 420 parts per million, which is far above the proposed planetary boundary of 350 parts per million. In addition, 2023 is on track to be one of the hottest years on record.

Global average carbon dioxide concentration vs. year (from academic.oup.com/bioscience/advance-article/doi/10.1093/biosci/biad080/7319571).

Oceans and ice
Ocean acidity, glacier thickness and Greenland ice mass all fell to record lows; sea level rise and ocean heat content rose to record highs. The increase in heat content and the rapid rise in sea surface temperatures could have serious impacts, including the loss of sea life, coral reefs dying and a rise in the intensity of large tropical storms.

Climate impacts and extreme weather
Climate change is contributing significantly to human suffering. Climate-related impacts in 2022 included another billion-dollar flood in the US, in Kentucky and Missouri, and the third highest frequency of extremely hot days. Between 2021 and 2022, wildfire activity in the US rose by 6.3%.

Of Particular Concern
Fossil fuel subsidies (i.e., tax breaks on consumption or exploration) roughly doubled in 2021-2022 to top $1 trillion. Some 735 million people faced chronic hunger in 2022, an increase of approximately 122 million since 2019. This year, Canadian wildfires pumped more than 1 gigaton of carbon into the atmosphere; 38 days had global temperatures exceeding preindustrial levels by more than 1.5°C; and an average global surface temperature in July may have been the highest on Earth in 100,000 years. 

Fossil fuel subsidies vs year (from academic.oup.com/bioscience/advance-article/doi/10.1093/biosci/biad080/7319571).

Wrap Up
The researchers add recommendations involving economics, stopping warming, stopping coal consumption, feedback loops, food security and undernourishment, and justice.

They conclude in part: As scientists, we are increasingly being asked to tell the public the truth about the crises we face in simple and direct terms. The truth is that we are shocked by the ferocity of the extreme weather events in 2023. We are afraid of the uncharted territory that we have now entered.

Thanks for stopping by.

Earlier world scientists’ warning paper: academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/70/1/8/5610806
Article on earlier study and interview in Oregon State University news: today.oregonstate.edu/news/world-scientists-declare-climate-emergency-establish-global-indicators-effective-action
2023 state of the climate report: academic.oup.com/bioscience/advance-article/doi/10.1093/biosci/biad080/7319571
Article on 2023 report on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/1004610

24 November 2023

Finding Lowest Cost Flights

Welcome back. I don’t fly much anymore, do you? Do you try all the hacks trying to find the cheapest flight? You know, travel on Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday? Be flexible on days? Avoid peak travel times of summer and holidays? To fly in one peak season, book in the opposite season?

Flyopedia’s tips for getting the cheapest flights (from www.flyopedia.com/blog/amazing-travel-tips-for-getting-the-cheapest-flight-tickets/).

I wish you luck, but a recent study suggests many of those won’t work. Researchers with Chicago; California, Berkely; Texas at Austin; and Yale universities examined data from a large U.S. airline--daily prices and quantities, capacity choices, fare decisions, internal demand model, demand estimates, flight-level forecasts, pricing design, as well as all consumer interactions (clicks) on the airline’s website. The sample covered 300,000 flights and 470 domestic routes over two years.

What they found, which is representative of airlines around the world, was at odds with what most economists would expect and most consumers assume. Permit me to highlight some key points.

Convenience vs. Price
Travelers generally select flights that balance convenience and price: The price of one flight might lead people to select a less convenient but cheaper flight.

Airlines don’t consider that kind of substitution. Instead, they think about the prices of seats on each flight rather than the total seats sold in a day. This, despite changing the price on one flight, will affect the way people think about all options.

Pre-Set Prices
If one airline cuts prices, you would expect others to do the same. But airlines don’t incorporate competitors’ fares in price-setting. This is the result of the specific pricing heuristic--decision-making shortcut--airlines use.

Airlines have a fixed and relatively small number of prices they assign to tickets on each flight. There are large gaps between possible prices, sometimes $100 or more. They might sell the first 30 economy tickets at the lowest price, the next 30 tickets at the next possible price, and so on.

Tickets are sold through global distribution systems that ensure everyone sees the same price. The system emerged from an industry alliance to facilitate inventory management. Other travel sector businesses (e.g., hotel rooms, car rentals) do the same.

Airlines are thus relatively unresponsive to real-time changes in cost. The next discrete fare is often a significant jump.

Departments Don’t Coordinate

Probably the most interesting (OK, strangest) discovery is the process airlines use to set prices.

Following deregulation in 1978, airlines adopted pricing heuristics that relied on decentralized decision-making by separate departments. The network planning department decides where to fly and assigns initial capacities. The pricing department designs itineraries and chooses a menu of fares. The revenue management department (RM) estimates demand, develops flight forecasts and monitors flight-level performance. These inputs are then given to the observed pricing heuristic that decides how many seats it is willing to sell at each fare level.

Key departments and responsibilities at all airlines; solid arrows show decision flow across departments, dashed arrows show departments that influence the pricing heuristic (from fig 1, academic.oup.com/qje/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/qje/qjad051/7284417).

The researchers document three problems.

First, the pricing heuristic does not solve a dynamic program. Every flight is optimized using the same heuristic, regardless of market structure.

Second, department input decisions are biased and subject to miscoordination. Departments do not incorporate all of the decisions made by other departments, leading to input decisions that are incompatible.

Third, departments manipulate inputs they supply to the pricing heuristic. For example, RM analysts inflate the demand model, causing 93% of flights to be over-forecasted. It’s estimated that over-forecasting demand reduces the percentage of flights that are priced on the inelastic side of the internal demand model by up to 60%.

Wrap Up
One of the researchers expects that, over the next several years, airlines may start to adopt more dynamic pricing platforms, and non-business travelers may benefit. For now, trying all the hacks in search of the lowest fares may be futile. 

Static vs. dynamic airline pricing strategies (from expertassignmenthelp.com/price-analysis-case-study-on-comparative-flight-prices/).

She does suggest not waiting until the last minute as prices go up significantly days before a flight. I haven’t looked at that lately, but thanks for stopping by.

Study of an airline’s organizational structure and pricing in The Quarterly Journal of Economics: academic.oup.com/qje/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/qje/qjad051/7284417
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/1004467