03 December 2020

Arecibo Observatory Revisited

Last week, I suggested that, during my hiatus, you might find something of interest on the blog’s long list post topics. If the Arecibo Observatory got your attention--its reflector was damaged last August and the platform collapsed this week--I thought I’d help. I collected data for my M.S. thesis there in the 1960s and, years later, blogged about or mentioned the site several times.

Here are links to four blog posts, all from 2011:

Example articles on the collapse:

27 November 2020


I’m going to take a break from the blog for a spell. Instead of a new blog post, I’ll point to the website (www.retired—nowwhat.com), to the column on the right labeled Blog Post Topics.

There are over 700 posts, and I hope you’ll find one or more of interest. Be well. -warren

20 November 2020

Lonely or Wise

Are you lonesome tonight? Do you miss me tonight? Are you sorry we drifted apart? (lyrics from song written by Roy Turk and Lou Handman,1926).

Elvis first recorded "Are you lonesome tonight" on 3 April 1960.

Welcome back. I hope you’re not feeling lonely. There’s a lot of that going around with the pandemic, and loneliness can impact health, well-being and longevity.

Please join me as I highlight two recent studies that sought improved understanding of loneliness to guide development of strategies for its prevention and intervention.

One of the studies, by researchers with the University of California San Diego, conducted a web-based, national survey of 2,843 U.S. adults, age 20 to 69, 10 April through 10 May 2019 (pre-pandemic).

The other study, from the Netherlands, sampled 26,319 adults, age 19 to 65, from one province, drawing from a self-reported health survey conducted every four years. Although the study by researchers affiliated with Maastricht University and the Public Health Service South-Limburg was recently published, the data were collected September to December 2016.

A third study was also recently published on the topic. I’ll get to that.
What Did They Find?
There are many reasons why results of the two studies would differ, e.g., national vs single region; fall vs spring survey; different cultures, healthcare systems, loneliness correlates and loneliness measurement scales (U.S. - UCLA Loneliness Scale Version 3 ; Netherlands - De Jong-Gierveld Loneliness Scale). 

UCLA Loneliness Scale (Version 3), response
format: 1 = never, 2 = rarely, 3 = sometimes, 4 = always

(from sparqtools.org/mobility-measure/ucla-loneliness-scale-version-3/#all-survey-questions).

Both studies revealed there is no one-size-fits-all approach to reduce loneliness. The Netherlands survey, which grouped responders as young, early middle age and late middle-age, found a general increase in loneliness with age. The U.S. survey, which divided responders by their ages in decades, found almost the reverse--highest loneliness in the 20s, lowest in the 60s, and another peak in the mid-40s, when people start to experience physical challenges and health issues.

All ages in both studies found living alone, lower prosocial behaviors and smaller social network to be associated with loneliness. Young adults showed the strongest association between contact frequency with friends and loneliness.

In the Netherlands study, the strength of association between financial imbalance and loneliness gradually decreased from young to late middle-aged adults, while an association between employment status and loneliness was found solely among early middle-aged adults. Perceived health was associated with loneliness for late middle-aged adults only.

In the U.S. study, loneliness was associated with sleep quality in every age group, with lower decisiveness in the 50s and with memory complaints in the 60s.

Effect of Wisdom
The U.S. survey included measurements of wisdom using the San Diego Wisdom Scale (SD-WISE), which reflects six commonly identified wisdom components: prosocial behaviors, social decision-making, self-reflection, emotional regulation, decisiveness and acceptance of uncertainty. The results confirmed previous reports of a strong inverse association between loneliness and wisdom.

Among those previous reports was the third study I mentioned. Researchers with the University of California San Diego and Italy’s University of Rome La Sapienza conducted a cross-cultural analysis of loneliness and wisdom using SD-WISE. They surveyed two age groups--50 to 65 and those older than 90--from Cilento, Italy (212 and 47 in respective age groups), and from San Diego (138 and 85).

They found wisdom and loneliness were inversely correlated in both age groups, in both cities. The prosocial behaviors empathy and compassion showed the strongest inverse correlation. Wisdom was positively associated, while loneliness was negatively associated, with general health, sleep quality and happiness in most groups, with varying levels of significance.

Wrap Up
Overall, the studies found that loneliness interventions should be developed for specific age groups, though the different predictors at different ages suggest the need of personalized and nuanced prioritizing of prevention and intervention.

The UC San Diego studies suggest that wisdom could be a protective factor against loneliness. The researchers recommend routine assessment of loneliness with compassion-focused interventions.

I think it’s rather comforting that people who were more compassionate were less lonely. Thanks for stopping by.

UC San Diego study of loneliness by age decade in Jour. of Clinical Psychiatry: www.psychiatrist.com/JCP/article/Pages/predictors-of-loneliness-by-age-decade.aspx
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-11/uoc--slh110920.php
Netherlands study of loneliness in BMC Public Health journal: bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-020-09208-0
Article on study on MedicalXpress website: medicalxpress.com/news/2020-08-loneliness-differ-age.html

UCLA Loneliness Scale Version 3: sparqtools.org/mobility-measure/ucla-loneliness-scale-version-3
De Jong-Gierveld Loneliness Scale: journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/014662168500900307
San Diego Wisdom Scale (SD-WISE) in Jour. of Psychiatric Research: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5843500/
Article on San Diego Wisdom Scale on ScienceDaily website: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/09/170920095925.htm

Study of loneliness and wisdom, U.S. and Italy in Aging & Mental Health journal:
UC San Diego news release on study: health.ucsd.edu/news/releases/Pages/2020-10-01-from-san-diego-to-italy-study-suggest-wisdom-can-protect-against-loneliness.aspx

13 November 2020

Fatal Police Shootings

Welcome back. Living in the D.C. area for more than 20 years, I was a regular reader of The Washington Post. I still see selected articles, but most of the content goes by. I wasn’t aware, for example, that the newspaper started logging every fatal shooting in the U.S. by an on-duty police officer.

The Post began that project after its investigation of the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, Jr., in Ferguson, Mo., found the FBI undercounted fatal police shootings by more than half. Reporting by police departments is voluntary and many don’t.

The Post’s “Fatal Force” database begins on 1 January 2015; relies primarily on news accounts, social media postings and police reports; is updated as new information is obtained; and is searchable by state, gender, race, age, mental illness, weapon, body camera, fleeing the scene, year, as well as name.

The Washington Post’s database of fatal shootings by on-duty police officers (from www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/).
Although The Washington Post makes the database available publicly, a team of medical researchers affiliated with Penn, Yale and Drexel universities judged it was critical that fatal police shootings of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) be recognized and treated as a public health emergency. Toward that end, they decided to enter the data into the scientific literature and present it using methods that are accepted by science as rigorous and robust.

Relative Rates of Fatal Police Shootings
For their recently published study, the researchers conducted a longitudinal analysis of 4,653 of the 5,367 fatal police shootings listed through May 2020, omitting those lacking race/ethnicity or age details.

Using generalized linear-mixed models to capture trends with time and rates relative to respective populations, they found shootings of BIPOC, whether armed or unarmed, were essentially constant from 2015 to 2020 and significantly higher than that of Whites. 

Fatal U.S. police shootings by ethnicity, 1 Jan 2015–14 July 2020; graphic’s end date is several weeks after that of study (The Washington Post data; www.statista.com/chart/21857/people-killed-in-police-shootings-in-the-us/).
For armed victims, the rates that Native Americans, Blacks and Hispanics were killed were, respectively, 3 times, 2.6 times and 1.3 times higher than the rate Whites were killed. For unarmed victims, the rates that Blacks and Hispanics were killed were, respectively, 3 times and 1.4 times the rate of Whites. The average age of Whites killed was 38; Native Americans, Blacks and Hispanics were younger, 31, 30 and 33, respectively.

Years of Life Lost
The researchers also calculated the estimated years of life lost by race/ethnic group. Basing the estimates on national historical life expectancy data for U.S. citizens in the victim's birth year vs. age at death, they found an average 31,960 years of life lost annually due to police shootings. Relative to Whites, the years of life lost were 4 times higher for Native Americans, 3.3 and 3.5 times higher for Blacks overall and unarmed, and 1.6 times higher for Hispanics overall and unarmed.

Another, more difficult factor to quantify is that Blacks report worse mental health in areas where there are police killings.

A center-of-the-road memorial to Michael Brown, Jr., for the 5th anniversary of his fatal shooting by a police officer, 9 Aug 2014; the neighborhood memorial was in place on 8 Aug and will be guarded overnight by the man in the folding chair (photo by Robert Cohen for St. Louis Dispatch, rcohen@post-dispatch.com).
Wrap Up
Why should the number of fatal police shootings be almost the same, nearly 1,000, every year since the Post started its tally? The database website points to probability theory for a possible explanation. In essence, the quantity of rare events in huge populations tends to remain stable absent major societal changes. For police shootings, that change could involve a fundamental shift in police culture or restrictions on gun ownership.

Treating the shootings as a public health emergency, the researchers note that what has been done at the local level--body cameras and independent investigations--is insufficient. It must be raised to the state and national level and codified into law.

So, should it be more Law and Order, more Black Lives Matter or…well, what do you suggest? Thanks for stopping by.

The Washington Post “Fatal Force” website: www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/
Study of fatal police shootings in Jour. of Epidemiology & Community Health: jech.bmj.com/content/early/2020/10/20/jech-2020-215097
Articles on study on EurekAlert! and Yale University websites:
CDC’s definitions of years of potential life lost: www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/fatal_help/definitions_ypll.html

06 November 2020

Communicating with Cats

Are you striving for a stronger bond with your cat? Would you like to make friends with cats you may encounter? Do you want to learn the secrets of communicating with cats? Science has found the way!

Welcome back. I haven’t blogged about cats in more than a year. You may see no reason to end that drought, but a new study stirred my interest. I thought it might stir yours, too.

Gazing behavior has been suggested to be a form of communication in dogs and other domestic species, such as goats and horses (see blog posts: Dogs and Us, Looking at Goats, Horses Don’t Forget). Although the communicative abilities of domestic cats (Felis catus) have been relatively understudied, one anecdotally reported behavior is the slow blink sequence. This sequence involves a series of half-blinks (eyelids move toward each other without closing) followed by either prolonged narrowing of the eye aperture or a full eye closure.

The cat slow blink sequence (left to right): neutral face, half blink, eye closure, eye narrowing expression (from www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-73426-0).
Researchers with the UK’s Sussex and Portsmouth universities conducted two experiments to explore the significance of slow blink behavior.

Cats and Their Owners
For the first experiment, the researchers examined if the owners’ slow blink stimuli would elicit slow blink sequences from their cats.

The researchers tested 21 cats (11 female, 10 male; average age 7 yrs) from 14 households. All were indoor cats with outdoor access and had been living with their owners at least 3 months. The cats were tested at home with their 14 owners. Tests of 3 of the 21 cat-owner pairs were outliers and dropped from the final analyses.

Each cat was tested with both a slow blink stimulus condition and a no human interaction condition. For the former, owners sat approximately 1 meter in front of the cat and performed the slow blink action when the cat gave direct eye contact. Owners repeated this procedure until the end of the trial, which lasted 2 minutes or until the cat departed. For the control, no human interaction condition, the owner remained in the room with the cat but did not sit in front of or interact with the cat.

Video of the tests was used to code cat’s eye movements in accordance with CatFACS, an anatomically based system to measure facial actions based on underlying muscle movements. The owner’s eye movements were coded according to the original FACS (see Facial Expressions Addendum). One additional code, eye narrowing, was included.

Cat and human eye movements and corresponding FACS
action units
(from www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-73426-0).

The rates of each cat’s individual eye movements (half-blink, blink, eye closure and eye narrowing) were compared across the slow blink and the no human interaction conditions using a series of linear mixed models.

Cat demonstrates eye narrowing technique (photo by Karen McComb, from www.sussex.ac.uk/staff/newsandevents/?id=53423).
Cats and Unknown Person
The second experiment examined if the slow blink stimuli of an unknown person, a researcher, would cause the cat to approach.

They tested 24 cats (12 male, 12 female; average age 6 yrs) from 8 households. Six were excluded from the final analyses due to data outliers.

The trials began with the researcher, seated or crouched opposite the cat, offering the cat a flat hand, palm upward to observe the cat’s baseline level of approach tendency. After a few seconds, the researcher retracted her hand and adopted either the slow blinking stimulus or the control condition, a neutral expression without eye contact.

Each trial lasted one minute, after which the researcher again offered her hand for a few seconds and the cats’ responses were monitored. Between trials, there was an interval of approximately 2 minutes.

Behavioral coding and statistical analyses were the same as for first experiment, except that normal reflexive blinking was omitted. Based on the first experiment, it did not appear to be part of the slow blink sequence.

Wrap Up
The cats responded to the slow blink stimulus significantly better than to the control conditions. Their rates of eye narrowing and half-blinks were faster and the scores of approaching the researcher’s hand were higher.

Frequency of cats’ responses (avoid, neutral, approach) in relation to condition (slow blink stimulus or neutral); cats had a significantly higher approach score following slow blink condition compared to neutral condition (from www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-73426-0).
Overall, the study produced evidence that slow blink interactions are a positive experience for cats and could potentially be used to assess their welfare in a variety of settings (e.g., veterinary practices, shelters) as well as enhance communication at home. Try it. And thanks for stopping by.

Cat eye communication study in Scientific Reports journal: www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-73426-0
Article on study on Miami Herald website: www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/article246318635.html
University of Sussex news release on study: www.sussex.ac.uk/staff/newsandevents/?id=53423
Cat Facial Action Coding System (CatFACS): animalfacs.com/catfacs.html