Small minds, and POOF, a S.Dakota science institution is gone

South Dakota State University - Geospatial Sciences Center of ExcellenceSmall minds, insular thinking.  It’s an infection that’s spread across the United States in the last several years, and one victim of the “disease” is the death of one of the most successful science programs of its kind in the entire world.

In 2016, Barry Dunn became president of South Dakota State University. One thing he did when arriving was review the state of the “Geospatial Sciences Center of Excellence” (GSCE)…a truly WORLD-renown science center established in 2005 to develop and apply remote sensing and other geospatial data for research and education purposes. Some of the biggest names in the field were lured to South Dakota State.  In the last 13 years, Mike Wimberly…Matt Hansen…David Roy…Geoffrey Hennebry…Mark Cochrane…all were key parts of GSCE and its development.  Over the last 13 years, they’ve had a massive impact on the field, applying remote sensing data and analysis techniques to applications that include understanding disease vectors and risks of West Nile virus…helping to establish and use the next generation of satellite sensors…mapping fire extent and severity…mapping changes in our ever-declining grassland ecosystems…and many, many more.

Students from all over the world moved to South Dakota, of all places, to work with such a wonderful collection of researchers.  The research impact has been enormous.  The reputation is sterling.  The senior scientists at GSCE brought in huge amounts of external research dollars. It has been, by all logical measures, a raging success.

It’s now decimated. During his review process, Barry Dunn in his infinite wisdom decreed SDSU GSCE wasn’t of any benefit to South Dakota, partially because 1) it didn’t do all its work IN South Dakota, and 2) it didn’t have enough South Dakota students. So, they cut $1 million in core funding. They effectively gave the research leads a 25% pay cut.  The result of the drop of support?  For the next semester that starts in a few weeks, literally NONE of the GSCE Senior Scientists will remain.  That’s right…ALL have decided enough is enough, and all are moving on to greener pastures. A science center like no other, one South Dakota could put up against ANY similar science center in the world…and it’s gone belly up, thanks to new “leadership” at South Dakota State.

Small minds, insular thinking…what the hell has happened in this country? Doing work that’s WORLD-renown and applied in all continents is deemed a NEGATIVE, because they didn’t do all their work in South Dakota? Too many foreign students is a “problem”?  It’s a problem that’s certainly not limited to SDSU, GSCE, or South Dakota.  To me it all falls under the same kind of anti-intellectualism, anti-“expert”, anti-SCIENCE paradigm that seems to have infected America.

A South Dakota institution is gone after far too short a time, all thanks to tiny little minds with a lack of vision and appreciation for the bigger picture.

Birds Under Systemic Attack in the U.S. Under Trump

Young Whooping Crane - Grus americana

A researcher at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, dressed in white garb designed to emulate an adult Whooping Crane, and a young, 2-month old Whooping Crane “colt”.  Researchers only interact with the young while wearing such outfits, to avoid any human imprinting on the young.  Patuxent has played a vital role in conserving Whooping Cranes and bringing them back from the edge of extinction. Thanks to the GOP and this administration, the entire Whooping Crane program and its minuscule $1.5 million cost is being eliminated.

There are around 600 Whooping Cranes in the world, with about 30% of those in captivity. Of the few hundred birds in the wild, most breed near Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, while a smaller and more recently established breeding population is found in central Wisconsin. The species has become reestablished in the wild only due to strong conservation measures and to the diligent and long-term efforts of captive breeding and reintroduction programs such as the 51-year year effort at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. When the program started in 1966, only 42 Whooping Cranes were left. The dedicated efforts of Patuxent scientists were vital for bringing the species back from the edge of extinction.

In 2016, Patuxent scientists developed a plan that would wind down their captive breeding program, with a plan to end the program in another 10 to 15 years.  Thanks to the Trump administration, that program is now in the process of being disbanded immediately.  In a multi-TRILLION dollar federal budget, the $1.5 million U.S. Geological Survey budget for the Whooping Crane program was a minuscule drop in the bucket.  But with a GOP political ideology that’s focused on corporate profit and short-term financial gain over ANY environmental concern, the death of the USGS’s Whooping Crane program is just one small part of a sinister, death-by-a-thousand-cuts to wildlife conservation in the United States.

The proposed cuts in both the proposed fiscal year 2018 and 2019 Trump budgets are more a declaration of war on the environment than they are a sound, fiscally responsible means of streamlining federal programs. The Ecosystems mission area of the USGS is responsible for an array of wildlife research and management programs: The Trump budget proposes a 30% cut in those programs for the coming fiscal year.  Many programs are slated for complete elimination, including the popular Cooperative Research Units, a network of an onsite USGS presence on academic campuses across the US.  Designed to foster local cooperative research on wildlife issues, the entire $25 million budget for the Coop units for 2019 is likely to be eliminated. The Climate and Land Use program is being forced to change its name to “Land Resources”, with nearly ALL climate-related research eliminated (as well as much of the landscape research).  Eliminating even the WORD “climate” is a common theme in proposed budgets across ALL Federal agencies. The “Energy and Minerals” Mission Area is the one USGS mission that maintains most of its funding, but the proposed changes are startling in scope.  While funding would remain stable or even increase for mineral resource exploitation, the entire “Environmental Health” program, designed to assess potential environmental consequences of resource extraction on Federal lands, is slated to be eliminated.  In other words…we want to exploit the Federal lands that YOU AND I own, but we don’t want to even look at the environmental consequences of that exploitation.

Other agencies in the Department of Interior are also slated for severe cuts, including cuts to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service. The GOP goal is to transition the primary focus of DOI to the exploitation of our natural resources, with environmental concern and conservation efforts being severely curtailed.  The Endangered Species Act, originally championed under the GOP and the Nixon Administration, is similarly under attack, with multiple efforts in Congress underway to undermine the law.

600 Whooping Cranes on the planet.  600 birds, found in only two concentrated breeding areas, and thus extremely susceptible to some disturbance or disease event, yet while the GOP attempts to raise our military spending by a ridiculous $70-80 BILLION a year, they have the gall to point to the $1.5 million Whooping Crane cost as a “luxury” that our Nation can’t afford.  Not to mention a trillion-dollar tax cut for corporations and the rich at a time when corporate profits are at record levels.

There’s so many disgusting things happening in Washington right now that it’s hard to stay on top of all the latest headlines.  Russia-gate, potential impeachment, obvious racism and bigotry emanating from the president himself (no, this president doesn’t get a capital “p”), mass killings and gun control issues…it’s overwhelming.  Conservation stories such as these are having a hard time getting any play in the mainstream press.  With the damage that’s being done RIGHT NOW, it will likely take decades for us to recover, after what’s shaping up to be four years of continuous and widespread attacks on our Nation’s wild resources, and the long-established programs designed to protect and manage them.

I just hope birds like the Whooping Crane can weather the storm until Americans come to their damned senses.

Small-town America and New American Values

Brandon, South Dakota

Brandon, South Dakota. Small-town, USA, population 10,000., “Midwestern Values”, But we’re not immune to what’s happening in the country over the last year.

Brandon, South Dakota. population 10,000. Small town, USA. Yet our High School has a new and growing problem with racism and bigotry. That’s the message we got this week, when our son started as a freshman.  We attended a question and answer session, with members of the senior class responding to questions from parents of incoming freshman.  After one question about potential fighting or bullying at Brandon High School, the principal stepped in and sadly announced that last year, for the first time, Brandon High School had experienced notable confrontations related to racism. Small-town USA, in the heart of the Midwest, where people claim to take pride in their “Midwestern values”.  Yet here we were being told that our little town’s high school was having issues with racism over the last year.

The principal has been in Brandon for many years. He didn’t say these words lightly. In fact, he rightfully seemed rather ashamed of the fact that it had become and issue.  The fact that he’s been in Brandon many years, and that racism hadn’t cropped up in an widespread, overt way until 2016? It’s not exactly a mystery as to why overt racism is becoming more common, even here in Brandon, South Dakota.

As a scientist, and particularly as a scientist who touches on climate changes issues, the last year can only be described as “soul-crushing”. We now have state-sponsored attacks on science, and even on basic logic and empirical proven TRUTH.  They are attacks on the very paradigm by which I’ve led my career and life.  However, even as a scientist, there’s been one characteristic of presidency of Orange Hitler (sorry, the SOB is like Voldemort…I can’t say his fucking name) that’s been even more troubling…the bigotry and state-sponsored HATE that emanates from the Oval Office.  Beyond what happens in DC however, is how that hatred and intolerance is trickling down even to small-town America (or perhaps FROM small-town America).

The Texas coast is currently dealing with a disaster of epic proportions…Hurricane Harvey.  Thanks to the predictions of government-funded scientists and research from NOAA (ironically, some of the same scientists ostracized for climate-change related work), we’ve had several days notice of the likely progression of the storm. Hopefully loss of life and property is held at a minimum thanks to those warnings. It’s a time where the nation’s focus rightly is with the people suffering through the storm.  And what was Orange Hitler doing just as the storm was hitting? Using the office of the Presidency to spread his own personal bile, bigotry, and hatred.

As the storm was beginning to lash the Texas coast, Orange Hitler issued the first pardon of his presidency. There have been sickening abuses of Presidential pardons in the past…Ford’s pardon of Nixon, and Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich are the two cases most commonly cited cases. None can top Orange Hitler’s pardon of fellow bigot and hate-monger Joe Arpaio.  None tears at the very soul of a nation more than this action, particularly as it was accompanied by a near-simultaneous executive order instructing the Pentagon to to ban transgender service members. Ford’s pardon of Nixon was presented as a means of ending the traumatic events leading up to Nixon’s resignation and help a nation heal. Clinton’s pardon of Rich?  Likely even more disgusting, given that it’s primarily viewed as a tit-for-tat favor to a man who donated heavily to the Clintons.

But Trump’s moves last night? They go behind personal political favors or misguided attempts to move a nation past a crisis.  They DIRECTLY flout the very principles on which the United States was established.  We’re 240+ years beyond the Declaration of Independence. We’re 240 years past the point where we had established that “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights“. However, after 8 years of a (gasp!!) black President, Orange Hitler tapped into the bigotry and HATRED of vast numbers of Americans, and has used the Oval Office as a platform for spreading hate and intolerance.  The founding fathers of 240 years ago would be aghast at the events of last night.

Joe Arpaio is a hateful bigot.  He was convicted on criminal contempt of court charges after ignoring directives to stop his abusive and discriminatory targeting of…well…anyone not lily-white.  There’s no gray area here, no logical grounds for pardoning such a man. Pardoning a man such as this sends a clear message…that the kind of government sponsored bigotry and hatred practiced by a small man like Arpaio has now graduated to full-fledged sponsorship by the Federal Government. Moments later, the same message was sent when Orange Hitler went against the recommendations of his own military commanders, and banned transgender citizens from serving their country in the military.

Orange Hitler is what he is. It was obvious during the 2016 presidential campaign, when he used his thinly veiled dog-whistle calls to the millions of hateful, bigoted Americans that long for a return to the days where White Power was unquestioned, where anyone who wasn’t white and Christian “knew their place” in society.  Americans KNEW they were voting for a bigot.  They KNEW they were voting for a man who advocated for hatred and intolerance of their fellow Americans.

Confederate Flag in South Dakota

Yes, this is good ol’ small-town South Dakota. Taken near Corson, just outside of Brandon. A new feature since the election, just like the house in Brandon who put “Get on board the Trump Train!” in big block letters across their fence. Small-town values. Small-town hatred and bigotry.

And they voted for him anyway.  Or more accurately, they voted for him BECAUSE of those views.

The dismissal of logic and reason, the outright rebellion against science in Orange Hitler’s administration is sad and disheartening.  But that’s nothing compared to the knowledge that not only is the American President a hateful bigot, but that SO many millions of Americans sympathize with his beliefs.  It’s fundamentally changed how I view the country in which I live. When I go out in public now here in very “red” South Dakota, I can’t help but look at my fellow citizens with a mix of bewilderment, sadness, and even fear.  That hatred and intolerance is showing up even in our own high school, no doubt being “passed down” from South Dakota parents who share those views. Thanks to the election of Orange Hitler, racism, intolerance, and bigotry is now “OK”. It’s OK to express those views in public.  It’s now acceptable to hate your fellow man, to discriminate and abuse them if they happen to be a different color, creed, or sexual orientation.  For many, it’s now evidently OK to even express those views in a public school setting.

Soul crushing.  Orange Hitler is an odious, despicable human being, but he’s one man. It’s the knowledge that so many millions of my fellow Americans share those views that is difficult to take.

 

Mitch McConnell’s Tumor – John Thune

John Thune and Mitch McConnell

Senate Majority leader and eunuch, Mitch McConnell, and the ever-present tumor of his left butt cheek, John Thune, talking today about their refusal to support an independent investigation into TrumpGate.

I’m pissed. Yes, after the news of the last 24 hours, I am genuinely, 100%, down-to-my-core, pissed. Who am I pissed at? Yes, I’m pissed at Trump, who has the gall to fire the very man tasked to lead an investigation into RussiaGate.  I’m even MORE pissed at enablers like Mitch McConnell, a eunuch who CLEARLY lost his balls decades ago.  Republican leadership who continually look away from potentially unethical and/or illegal behavior are even worse than Trump himself, since unlike the completely clueless Orange Hitler, THEY KNOW BETTER. THEY KNOW THE STAKES.  They know the threat to our government institutions and people’s faith in government, yet they continually put politics (and their own hides) above the country. Who am I most pissed at?  Trump supporters, the most hypocritical group of human beings on the planet. They couldn’t have been more vocal in criticizing James Comey for supposedly not pursuing Hillary Clinton more vigorously (a laughable criticism to begin with), but then they turn around and support Comey’s firing when he dares to investigate one of their own.  As I’ve stated before, Donald Trump was right during the campaign when he said he could walk down the street and shoot someone, and still his clueless supporters would cheer him on.  The only thing that enables the destruction of a democracy is a ignorant, apathetic populous whose only interest in life is their own selfish pleasure, and that’s exactly what Trump supporters are, given their aversion to FACT and their intellectual and moral laziness.

There are plenty of Trump enablers to share the blame, but three of them are from right here in good ol’ South Dakota. Our congressional delegation has one overarching commonality…they are simply 3 empty suits, 3 people without an original thought in their collective minds, 3 people whose only purpose on the planet is to serve as 100% guaranteed votes for whatever their Republican leaders tell them to vote for.  One of the three holds a special place in my heart though.  It’s not Senator Mike Rounds, our former governor who is most likely the least visible member in all of the Senate. It’s not Representative Kristi Noem, although her laughable, misguided defense of her TrumpCare vote does give her extra points.  No, it’s Senator John Thune who receives most of my wrath.

John Thune and Mitch McConnell

McConnell’s tumor has been present for quite some time. Here McConnell and his tumor address a ceremony honoring Muhammad Ali in 2016.

There’s a history. Over a decade ago, we met with the Thune multiple times.  Our very young son was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes at a very young age, and we wanted to talk to Thune about health care bills making their way through Congress.  One of those was a stem cell bill, a bill that offered tremendous hope for Type-1 diabetes research.  We talked for 15 minutes, discussed the merits of the research and how it would help Type-1 children, and expressed our hope he would vote for the bill.  His answer, the VERY FIRST WORDS he spoke, are word that I’ll never forget…”I can’t be expected to vote for that bill, I’m a Republican!“.  It wasn’t even “I (myself) can’t vote for that bill”, it was “I can’t be expected to vote” for the bill, a phrase that perfectly describes Thune’s lack of original thought and inclination to do whatever he was told by party leadership.  HE DOES WHAT PARTY LEADERSHIP EXPECT HIM TO DO.  In the many years since, it’s become painfully obvious that this mentality is what has driven his entire career.

Given Thune’s mechanical performance when we met with him, and given his lack of original thought or ideas in the years since, I’ve had a revelation. At first I thought….could Thune not be “real”? Could be be an android, or some other artificial being, purposely created by the Republican party to do their bidding?  But then it dawned on me. John Thune isn’t human. John Thune isn’t an android or artificial being.  No, John Thune can best be described as a tumor…specifically, a tumor of Mitch McConnell’s rear end.

John Thune and Mitch McConnell

Dear god, the tumor is even starting to DRESS like it’s master…

Think about it…when do you see photos of John Thune?  Do you EVER see a photo of him by himself?  For such a senior Senator, you’d THINK there would occasionally be a press conference, a hearing, or some other government function where he has a lead role, where he appears at a podium by himself.  Do we ever see that? NO!! When is the ONLY time we see a photo or video with John Thune?  When he’s standing directly behind Mitch McConnell, staying completely quiet like a good little (mindless) Republican soldier.

Perhaps Thune WAS once human.  Perhaps Thune DID once have a mind of his own.  Over the years, however, he’s kissed Mitch McConnell’s butt cheeks so many times that I believe he’s now become permanently attached.  John Thune has now been assimilated into Mitch McConnell, and sadly, is no longer anything other than a tumor of Mitch McConnell’s left butt cheek.

Mitch McConnell’s Tumor, much like Mitch McConnell himself, came out today with a statement stating we don’t need an independent investigation of the Trump / Russia link. Not exactly a surprise, since as a tumor, he shares the same DNA as McConnell himself.  Sadly, and ironically, it’s unlikely the tumor will be excised from McConnell’s rear end at any point in the near future, given the Republican focus on destroying the very health care system that could assist medical cases such as his…

John Thune and Mitch McConnell

It’s been a long-standing relationship! The tumor budded from McConnell’s butt cheek almost immediately upon Thune’s arrival in the Senate. Historical footage from 2013, shown here, indicates the close relationship between the tumor and McConnell, even predating the time before McConnell became servant to Beelzebub and lost his ability to even provide a fake smile such as this.

Actually, NO, Trump supporter…we can NOT be “friends”

Unfriend - FacebookLast week I got a direct email at work from someone I had unfriended on Facebook several months ago.  She (finally) noticed that I had unfriended her, and seemed a bit bewildered why I would do so after so many years. She was someone who was a friend / buddy while in high school and early into my college years, but someone I’ve not otherwise seen or communicated with over the last 30 years (other than Facebook). Over the time we were Facebook “friends”, it was obvious that our political beliefs were vastly different, but any political posts or comments to each other weren’t antagonistic or inappropriate.  However, late in the campaign her behavior  took a nasty turn, and the transformation was complete after the election was over.  It was a shocking and abrupt change in behavior that I also noticed with other “friends”, who now seemed empowered by the Trump election. It wasn’t acceptable, and I unfriended her.

As a result of last year’s political campaigns and the aftermath, my “friends” list on Facebook is decimated. I literally have half the Facebook friends now than I did when 2016 started, with some “unfriend” actions taken by others, but most taken by myself. None of these were people I actually physically interact with (which as my wife brings up…why were they Facebook “friends” in the first place?). They were nearly all old high school classmates or other acquaintances I haven’t seen or talked to for many years / decades, such as the old high school friend who contacted me through email.  The reasons I unfriended so many?  Their disgusting posts during and after the campaign.  The easiest choices?  The racist posts.  When 4 former high school classmates shared and joked about a cartoon showing Michelle Obama as a gorilla? A pretty easy (and fast) choice to immediately unfriend them. Other reasons were across the spectrum, as shown below, but were all because of online conduct and posts that any “friend” of mine simply would never dream of. It doesn’t matter if you’re an old, distant acquaintance, or if you’re one of the people closest to me today, there are certain lines that are unacceptable for any “friend” to cross. The former high school friend crossed that line, but it goes beyond just her. Frankly it’s ANY Trump supporter.  Some may howl and scream at some perceived lack of respect for other viewpoints, but I’m sorry, if you support Trump and his policies, we simply cannot be “friends” in any way. Why, you ask?

Let’s start with item number one…bigotry and racism.

If this past election revealed anything about our nation, it’s that there are still some incredibly deep racial divides. Trump did the unthinkable…he actually CAMPAIGNED on a platform of racism, something no other politician dared to try.  And sadly…it worked.  Analysis after analysis show the same thing… no driving force was a better predictor of a Trump vote than a person’s racist or bigoted attitudes.  I have ZERO tolerance for bigots. Supporting and actually electing an open bigot to the most powerful position in the world?   From the treatment of immigrants, intolerance towards any religion other than Christianity, and an open war on LGBT rights, Trump and his supporters have shown a shocking degree of bigotry that many thought was in our past after the Obama election. If you support this man, you’re supporting hate. I’m sorry, but that’s not something that I could ever overlook.  It was shocking how many Facebook “friends” (again, many former classmates who never left southeastern Nebraska) I cut based on an outpouring of bigoted comments over the last year.

Item number two — Attitudes towards helping those in need.

This is the issue highest on my mind at the moment, and the reason I’m writing this blog post to begin with, given that today Republicans are about to pass “health care” legislation (more accurately referred to as tax-cut legislation for the wealthy) in the House.  20-25 million Americans will simply lose coverage, while the sick, the elderly, and needy will effectively lose health care access after being priced out of the market. No other developed country uses a health-care system based on corporate profit. No other developed country fails to cover the health care needs of its citizens.  No other developed country bases the quality of your health care on your ability to pay. I have a son with Type-1 diabetes, a disease we’re managing rather well, but a disease he’ll be grappling with for the rest of his life. The REASON we are managing it very well is because we’re fortunate enough to have 1) good insurance, and 2) a level of income that allows us to utilize the most advanced treatment regimes that have been developed. Given that good blood sugar control is LIFE for a Type-1, with drastically lower chances of complications (eye and kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, nerve damage) as blood sugar control improves, having access to the best treatments available literally means a much longer, healthier life.  While we’re fortunate, other families facing Type-1 diabetes are not.  Some simply can’t afford an insulin pump.  Some can’t afford a continuous glucose monitor that constantly reports blood sugar levels.  Some can’t afford frequent doctor visits.  To put it simply, Type-1 children whose families can’t afford quality care will have much harder lives, with more health complications, and a much shorter life span.  Children are DYING sooner than they need to, because of the basic greed and selfishness of Americans who value their own short-term prosperity above all else.  If you’re a Trump supporter, if you’re someone who believes health care should be more of a personal burden and responsibility rather than a shared societal responsibility, I’m sorry, there is NO way I can call you a “friend”. It’s a direct slap in the face to a father with a Type-1 child.  It’s you telling me that all you care about is yourself, that helping the sick and the needy isn’t something you want to be bothered with. It’s an issue that goes FAR beyond health care, as the Trump / conservative ideology simply refuses to recognize that there’s a societal, moral IMPERATIVE to help those in need.  It’s a shocking indictment of the basic greed and selfishness of Americans.  “Friend”? I think not.

Item number three — Attitudes towards science, towards logic and reason

I’m a scientist.  I monitor, assess, and predict changes to our earth’s landscape. The very real, observable, and predictable impacts of climate change are a big part of my life’s work. More than that, my very persona and belief system is based on logic, and reason.  The Trump movement is a threat not only to climate change, not only to science, but to logic and reason itself. When Trump says climate change isn’t real, it’s a lie, and he knows it. When Trump states the GOP health care bill will lower costs, cover more people, and cover pre-existing conditions, it’s a lie.  When Trump states that he lost the popular vote to voter fraud, it’s a lie.  Trump supporters have no use for fact.  They have no use for evidence, for data. They have no use for reason, for logic. In a shocking (and disgusting) recent poll, 80% of Trump voters say they believe Trump’s lies are less important than “fake news” distributed by mainstream media. Only 3% (!!!) believe Trump’s own lies are the bigger issue.  The poll question itself irritates the hell out of me, as it presents Trump’s lies and supposedly false media coverage as equal choices in the eyes of poll participants. They’re not. There’s simply no question that climate change is occurring, and we are the primary cause.  They’re simply no refuting the fact that the new GOP health care bill will cover fewer people and hurt the sick, elderly, and poor.  There’s simply no refuting the fact that Hillary convincingly won the popular vote and there was no widespread voter fraud.  We have evidence, we have data, we have analysis that disprove the Trump assertions, yet his mindless followers continue to believe everything that’s spoon-fed to them by the Trump administration. I’m sorry, if you support Trump, if you are a climate change denier, if you think of scientists as “elitists” rather than dedicated professionals who devote their lives to serving humanity?  You’re not my “friend”.  You’re effectively calling my career, and indeed my entire LIFE, as the “lie”, rather than confronting the evidence right in front of your eyes and reconsidering the Trump positions.

Item number four — A life built on hate

Basically a culmination of the prior items, I refuse to be “friend” to anyone who bases their life on a platform of hate.  Hate of people of “other” races. Hate of people of “other” religions. Hate of people of “other” sexual orientations.  Hate and disdain towards the poor, the sick, the needy.  Hate towards “elitists” and “experts”, those with knowledge, skills, and positions in life that you yourself don’t have. The Trump doctrine is based solely on the TEARING DOWN of others…not building a happy, healthy, prosperous society.  HURTING immigrants through cruel policies. HURTING LGBT people through discriminatory practices.  HURTING the “experts” through government-sponsored misinformation with an underlying political agenda.  What’s been proposed by the Trump administration to truly HELP people (other than those who are already wealthy?)?  It’s an agenda, a doctrine, seemingly built solely on revenge, hatred, and greed.

Facebook “friends”? These are the reasons I’ve unfriended you. In short…I have no problem with my well-reasoned conservative friends.  I have no problem with my well-reasoned Republican friend.  Trump supporters, you are anything but well-reasoned. I don’t need the hate, the bigotry, the callousness towards the needy, the abandonment of reason.

Hearing Neil deGrasse Tyson — Science in today’s world

Neil deGrasse Tyson - Sioux Falls, SD

Neil deGrasse Tyson, speaking at the Boe Forum at Augustana University in Sioux Falls. All science related of course, getting sidetracked on some amusing other issues at times, but a great speech. My biggest takeaway…the need to restore humanity’s sense of wonder about the universe (and our own world).

We had the GREAT pleasure last night to hear Neil deGrasse Tyson speak at the “Boe Forum” at Augustana University in Sioux Falls.The Boe Forum on Public Affairs was founded in 1995, with a goal “to provide access to individuals who can address events, issues or problems of worldwide or national concern and of broad public interest.”  They’ve certainly had some wonderful speakers (and some less wonderful speakers…think Newt Gingrich and Rudy Guiliani) over the years. They’ve managed to draw some very big names, including Colin Powell, Mikhail Gorbachev, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, Desmond Tutu, Vicente Fox, Sandra Day O’Connor, Pervez Musharraf, and Madeline Albright. Augustana University has just opened their new “Froiland Science Complex”, and said they wanted a “moonshot” science speaker to coincide with opening of that science center.  They certainly succeeded by managing to draw Neil deGrasse Tyson to Sioux Falls.

Tyson ended up talking for two hours, and while my son was getting a wee bit antsy towards the end, I must say that it was a very engaging, surprisingly funny, and interesting talk that kept me very engaged the entire time. There were a few things that surprised me a bit, things I disagreed with.  Given today’s political climate and how it’s affecting science, I was hoping for more content on the intersection of the two, but overall it was a terrific talk.  Some of the takeaways for me:

1968 – 1972 – Birth of the Environmental Movement — The highlight of the talk to me was a section where he specifically talked about the period of 1968 to 1972 and the profound effect it had on humanity and our country.  Apollo 8 was the first mission to orbit the moon, in 1968. As they rounded the moon, astronaut William Anders took the iconic “EarthRise” photo (bottom of this post), looking across the moon’s surface back at Earth.  The next year we landed on the moon. As Tyson noted, these events totally changed humanity and how we view our own planet.  Some very simple observations noted how little we understood our earth up to that point.  He showed a photo from Star Trek, of the Enterprise orbiting the Earth. Their depiction of Earth had the continents, the oceans…but no clouds!  Tyson gave other examples of artwork and even scientific renderings of Earth up to that point, and none of them portrayed the clouds that are always present! The sense of wonder during the space race, the first looks at our planet from space…it changed how we viewed our planet.  In the period from 1968 to 1972, you thus ended up with the establishment of the first Earth Day. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was founded.  We started cleaning up our air, our water.  We noticed the massive decline in our national symbol, the Bald Eagle, and banned DDT to save the species (a resounding success!).  The Endangered Species Act was founded in 1973.  This period STARTED the environmental movement.

Reinvigorating interest in science — The take-home point from the examination of the 1968-1972 period?  All that sense of wonder…that feeling that our Earth is a special place…that’s GONE, or at least incredibly diminished right now. Many people today simply can’t see past their own short-term guilty pleasures to even THINK about the future.  At the end of Tyson’s talk, he had a question-and-answer period. One of the questions was related to these points, and how we can get back to those days of the 1960s and 1970s where environmental conservation, where caring about our planet, really was part of the American consciousness. The answer from Tyson wasn’t related to politics, it wasn’t related to things like the March for Science coming up on April 22nd, it wasn’t related to need for better PR.  No, the answer was much more basic, and was rooted in k-12 education. We just don’t value science as much as we should in those formative years. As Tyson stated, what’s going to end up giving us a kick in the butt isn’t just a change in k-12 education, but a realization that we’re losing our economic competitiveness.  With education driven not by national-scale policy but local and state policy, the States that embrace science and technological innovation, starting in k-12, are the ones that will be competitive for industries that drive our economy. Given how much of a focus their is in this country right now on economics, money, and growth, the cynical side of me believes that it will be economic competitiveness that will end up re-igniting the interest and science and innovation, rather than any pure desire to invest in science for science’s sake.

Star Trek depiction of Earth

Prior to the famed “EarthRise” photo from 1968 and our landing on the moon a year later, humanity had little awareness of how to even portray our Earth. As Tyson noted, up until the late 1960s and the space race, this was a typical depiction of Earth (from the original Star Trek) series. Continents…check! Water…check!! Atmosphere, clouds, and weather…something’s missing! The space race had a profound impact on the way humanity viewed our own planet

Intersection of Science, Culture, and Politics — Speaking of the March on Science on April 22nd, one of the questions he received was about scientists and their role in activities such as this. Overall for the night, he really avoided politics, although there were a few timely, light jabs thrown in.  When the audience member asked this question, I thought we might finally hear his thoughts on the impact of politics on science right now. He did touch on that intersection, but it was different than I was expecting. He’s an educator, some may view him as an entertainer, but at his heart, he’s a scientist through-and-through.  His answer began by saying he was on the fence, that in his own mind, he’s still trying to decide how scientists should react in this kind of political environment.  But for the March itself, he said what he really hoped was that such an event wouldn’t be necessary.  As he hammered home all night long, science isn’t political.  Science provides its own truths, as as he stated, it doesn’t really give a damn what you think about it, what your personal, cultural, or political beliefs are.  In short, you can tell that what he’d like to have happen is that the science would speak for itself, that the knowledge and understanding we produce would stand on its own, and that humanity would return to a time where we’d base our decisions on that knowledge.  You can tell he’s struggling a bit with the issue, and is likely as bewildered as many of the rest of us as to how truth, how fact, are being ignored in the face of cultural, political, and ideological attacks. He definitely didn’t seem to have a clear answer on how scientists respond.

Human ego and science — Tyson ended his talk with a theme similar to his discussion of the 1968-1972 period, and its effect on humanity.  He talked about the “Pale Blue Dot” images, the first from Voyager One in 1990, where the instrument looked backed towards Earth and took an image representing our planet as tiny, pale blue dot in a sea of stars and emptiness.  The Cassini satellite studying Saturn provided a similar view more recently, with a 2013 image that shows Earth as a tiny blue dot hiding in the shadows below the foreground image of Saturn and its rings. The end of the talk itself was a reading of material from Carl Sagan, from his 1994 book “Pale Blue Dot”.  The following summarizes that material (a bit revised, from a talk Sagan gave that year):

We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

 

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

 

To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

"Pale Blue Dot", Cassini

‘Version 2″ of the Pale Blue Dot photo, if you will. This is from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn, looking back at Earth (the small dot in the bottom right).

Religion and Science — Tyson touched on topics related to the Sagan reference all night long. In the overall scheme of the universe, we’re insignificant. We’re not “special”.  At one point he listed the 5 most common elements in the Universe.  He then listed the most common elements in a human body. The list is identical, with the exception of helium (given it’s pretty much non-reactive, it doesn’t form elements found in the human body).  The point he makes…we’re just “stardust”, made up of the same common elements found throughout the universe.  On a night when he would occasionally brush up against the edge of talking in depth about the intersection of culture, politics, and science, but never really dive into the deep end of that pool, this may have been the most “controversial” part of the talk (particularly given that the talk was at a University associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and was speaking in very “red” South Dakota). When touching on politics or culture, you can tell he tries very hard to avoid offending anyone, and he barely mentioned religion.  But as I listened to this part of the discussion, I did wonder what some of the more religious people in the room were thinking.  We’re not “special“.  We’re almost certainly not alone in the Universe, given that we’re made up of the same material as is found throughout the rest of the Universe. We live in a country, however, where a huge swath of the population is unable to separate the science, even the empirical world staring them in the face, from their religion.  In the end its a personal ideology that ends up driving the behavior and interactions of so many Americans, science (and reality!) be damned.  Overall for the night, in what would be interpreted to be a tough cultural and political setting for a science purist like Tyson, he did a great job walking the fine line of informing, without offending.

If you ever get a chance to see Tyson speak, it’s well worth your time.  He’s a wonderful speaker, with a rare ability for a scientist…he knows how to connect with people.

Apollo 8, William Anders' "Earthrise"

The iconic “Earthrise” photo, taken by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders on Christmas Eve, 1968.

I am DONE, South Dakota! No more “one-finger waves”!!!

Country "one-finger wave"

A photo of me giving my LAST one-finger wave as a truck goes by. NEVER AGAIN SOUTH DAKOTA!! YOU ARE NOT WORTHY!!!

We’re nice in South Dakota and the Midwest in general.  We’re polite! We’re neighborly! We’re friendly and approachable!! We’re not like those big-city folk, people who won’t look you in the eye when they pass you on the street. Heck no!! We’re GOOD folk!!

There’s definitely anecdotal evidence of that friendliness. It generally is true, when you’re in a store, a restaurant, etc., people are usually relatively polite and friendly.  It even manifests itself while driving.  Ever since I grew up and started driving in southern Nebraska, I’ve been a steady practitioner of the “one-finger wave”, the acknowledgement of a passing car with a quick raised finger.  It’s not expected while driving in the big city…you know…intimidating, scary places like Sioux Falls.  However, I drive a lot of gravel roads, and when you approach a car on a country road, the one-finger wave is almost obligatory.

We’re GOOD people in Nebraska and up here in South Dakota! That’s what people like to tell themselves anyway.  In reality? Not so much.  Yes, there’s a thin veneer of politeness, a fragile shell of general friendliness that perhaps you don’t find as much in a New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles.  But that’s all it is…a veneer, a facade, covering up the same human flaws that are found no matter where you go. In fact, it’s pretty obvious to me that there’s a level of hate, of bigotry, of intolerance that goes beyond anything I felt while living in Washington DC.  It’s pretty obvious that the veneer of “Midwestern nice” does NOT extend beyond the superficial, to anything that actually benefits society as a whole.

Let’s face it, where I grew up in Nebraska, and now living in South Dakota, where we’ve been for 24 years, the political climate is very “red”. It’s conservative as hell, with Congressional reps who are conservative Republicans, Governors who are conservative, state legislatures that are conservative. There are some more liberal pockets within the likes of Lincoln, Omaha, or Sioux Falls, but overall? They’re not even states where politicians really even have to campaign.  If you have “Republican” after your name, you’re going to win here, period.  I’m as liberal as can be, and we just had a Senate and House race this past November.  To be completely honest, I don’t remember the NAMES of the two Democratic candidates that ran in those races. Why? They’re irrelevant.  They’re just a formality, but there’s no real chance they’d win.

It’s the long-standing political climate which is why I say the politeness, that “Midwestern nice”, is all a facade.  To put it more succinctly, it’s complete bullshit.  It’s VERY evident from a political standpoint, in terms of who people vote for, what side of an issue they support, the crap that’s written every day in the local “voices” section of the local paper.  That niceness?  It ONLY is offered in superficial, meaningless situations…such as when passing someone on a country road. The reality is much uglier.  What do those who are “Midwestern nice” really stand for?  Intolerance, selfishness, and greed certainly are given much higher priority than any real, meaningful level of “nice”, of caring for your fellow man.  Let’s take Obamacare and what’s happening in Washington right now with the effort to “repeal and replace”.

In a state like South Dakota, a program like Obamacare isn’t viewed from the standpoint of how it helps the sick and the poor.  It’s not measured in terms of lives saved. No, when discussed in a state like South Dakota, the ONLY thing that matters is 1) the fact that the federal government has some role to play in it, and 2) the cost to a taxpayer and government taking “their” money. Because it’s a government program, it’s inherently bad…period. Just like in other red states, even when a “freebie” comes along like the offered Medicaid expansion from Obamacare several years back, it’s turned down without a second thought by our Republican state government, simply based on ideology.  Never mind the fact that THOUSANDS of poor and sick South Dakotans could have been covered.  No, it’s a government program, and even worse it was a government program offered under a liberal (black!!) President.

I’m done, South Dakota.  I’m done helping to perpetuate the myth of Midwestern “nice”. For a region that wraps themselves up in a warm, fuzzy facade of religious belief, conservatism, and friendliness, your actions certainly speak otherwise.  You can’t consider yourself Midwestern “nice”, yet throw a fit when government dares to tax you for programs that benefit society as a whole.  You can’t can’t be Midwestern “nice”, yet express your bigotry and racism towards anyone who’s not a white, Midwestern “Christian”. You can’t be Midwestern “nice”, yet place your own greed and selfishness above helping the sick, the poor, the needy.

Confederate Flag in South Dakota

My now MODIFIED “one-finger waves” are reserved ONLY for people like this, the wonderful, “Midwestern nice” house I pass on the way home from work. You will DEFINITELY get a very special, one-fingered wave every day I drive by. As for the rest of South Dakotans I pass by? You’ll get no such “kindness” any more.

In short, you can’t consider yourselves to be Midwestern “nice”, but ACT the way that South Dakotans typically act. What’s become ABUNDANTLY evidently over the last few months since the election is just exactly WHO South Dakotans are, and it sure as hell isn’t Midwestern “nice”.

I’m done with the one-finger wave on a country road.  Sorry, dude driving that pickup towards me, with your shotgun in the backseat, your “Make America Great” bumper sticker, your barely concealed hatred and bigotry…you will no longer receive any such kindness from me.  I now reserve my “special” one-finger waves for very special circumstances, such as the “good Midwestern folk” who live in this house I pass every day on my way home from work (photo on the left). At least you’re not hiding what you are!  More than most people I meet around here, you are VERY open in representing what Midwestern “nice” really means.

 

Visiting a Muslim country, facing your “fear”

Terry - United Arab Emirates

A much younger version of myself, still hanging on to my old heavy-metal days and the long flowing hair. I couldn’t have looked, or acted, more differently than the local population when I spent a month in the United Arab Emirates. It didn’t matter. I was always treated with respect and warmth. People are people. We all want the same things in life.

20 years ago today I landed in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, to do a month’s worth of work in a cooperative exchange with the UAE government. I was young(er), had long flowing hair about a foot long in the back, and had never been overseas before. I was probably the definition of a hippie, obnoxious, clueless American overseas.

During my trip I also visited Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, all countries that are overwhelmingly Muslim. Despite looking and acting MUCH different than the locals, I was treated with kindness, respect, and warmth throughout my trip. The people I dealt with were wonderful, warm, funny…in other words, they were normal human beings trying to live out their lives the best way they knew how. Not once did I feel threatened. Not once did I feel scared. At every opportunity, when I needed help making my way through a day in a strange land, a helping hand was offered.

These are the same people being targeted over the last month. These are the people so many Americans are scared of. They’re not criminals. They’re not terrorists. They’re people who may look a little different than you, may believe in different things than you. They want the same things you want in life…family…health…and happiness.

Put a human face on those you may be suspicious of. Put yourself in THEIR shoes. You may find you have a hell of a lot more in common than you realize.

Abu Dhabi - 7 EmiratesRub Al Khali Desert - United Arab EmiratesUnited Arab Emirates - CamelRub Al Khali Desert - United Arab Emirates

A “Devil Wear’s Prada” kind of world…

The Devil Wears Prada

“Andrea” and “Miranda” interacting in the movie “The Devil Wears Prada”. For this blog post, I’ll be playing the role of Andrea…

In the movie “The Devil Wears Prada“, Meryl Streep plays the role of Miranda Priestly, an icon in the fashion industry who is editor of Runway magazine. Anne Hathaway plays Andrea Sachs, a young journalism graduate looking for employment in a very competitive environment.  Andrea ends up taking one of the few jobs available, as a personal assistant to Meryl Streep’s character Miranda.  Andrea knows nothing about fashion, and for much of the movie, is openly skeptical and dismissive of the importance those around her place on fashion.  At one stage, Miranda, tiring of Andrea’s lack of fashion awareness, gives the “Cerulean Sweater Speech”, poking fun at Andrea’s dowdy cerulean sweater she had on, while at the same time providing a backstory on the fashion industry and the role it played in making that color of sweater fashionable. Andrea eventually learns to “play the game”, becomes fashion literate herself, and begrudgingly accepts the importance of the fashion industry, before leaving and finding a real journalism job.

I enjoy that movie.  Meryl Streep is, as always, fantastic in her role. But it’s the part of Andrea that I can really relate to, a young person just entering the “real” world, someone who is baffled at what those around here deem to be important in life.  I must say, I myself am constantly baffled at those around me in a very similar “fashion” (ha-ha), as I wonder about what people focus on as “important”.  For example…

We are a few days from the end of the Obama era.  Newspapers are printing a rash of stories about the legacy of Barack Obama, and what it’s meant for America.  The New Yorker posted a piece on his last speech, and the importance of Obama’s definition of what America “should be”.  GQ wrote a piece stating Obama will go down as one of the greatest Presidents in American history, with a heavy focus on his character as a defining feature.  New  York Magazine published a compilation piece, gathering the thoughts of 53 historians to weigh in on their view of Barack Obama’s legacy, with the focus of those views ranging from the impacts of Obamacare to his attempts to change overall political discourse. Countless other pieces have been written, focusing on his legacy in bringing health care to the forefront of the American consciousness, the major shifts in foreign policy such as opening up relations with Cuba, or his relationship with Congress and inability to reduce partisanship, despite his best intentions.

There have also been some wonderful tributes to Michelle Obama, with various stories focusing on her legacy of promoting healthy lifestyles, her overall legacy and how it was shaped by her personality, or her uncanny ability to relate to everyday Americans. She has been celebrated in a way few other First Ladies have been celebrated, and her upcoming departure has been met with both celebration of her accomplishments, and with tears.  But even a woman as revered as respected as much as Michelle Obama is subject to the same biases faced by all women in the United States.  One of her lasting “legacies” is based on her external appearance and how she presents herself.

The New York Times posted a piece this weekend entitled “What Michelle Obama Wore and Why it Mattered“. Here’s where I put on my “Andrea” hat, as a person who discounts the role of fashion as being an important social institution.  I “get” the interest in what she wears. I obviously get why Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, InStyle, and other fashion/women’s magazines have provided summaries of Michelle Obama’s clothing choices over the years.  I’m not bashing the fashion industry, or people who are interested in it.  A fascination with Michelle Obama’s fashion is on par with, oh, some guy’s fascination with birds and birding. I’d never poke fun at what makes people “tick”, what gets them excited.  However, as somebody who loves birds and birding, I’d also never judge another human being based on how good of a birder they are.  Far too often, however, women in general are judged based on appearance, clothing, or behavior rather than accomplishments. The same types of articles that appear in fashion magazines also show up not only in the New York Times, but also the Washington Post, Time Magazine, and other mainstream news organizations. How many similar stories have been written about Barack Obama’s clothing choices over the years?  How many stories have ever been written about ANY (male, of course) President’s choice of clothing?  Other than the rare puff piece such as the takedown of Barack Obama’s tendency to wear “dad jeans, the answer is like somewhere between “zero” and the number of fingers on one hand. Men and women are simply judged differently.

Serena Williams has dominated women’s tennis for many years and is one of the greatest female athletes in history, yet rather than focusing on her remarkable accomplishments, she has often been subject to “body-shaming” and criticism over her appearance, and even was recently called “a hooker” for a basic Sports Illustrated cover where she (gasp!) dared to show her legs. After Hillary Clinton lost the election, stories popped up about her (gasp!) make-up free appearance, with other stories during the campaign discussed her clothing and appearance and the impacts on her “likeability”. Oprah Winfrey is constantly analyzed for her weight (as are many women). Actresses like Renee Zellweger are expected to maintain a youthful, “sexy” appearance, yet are subject to exhaustive speculation and questions of “did she or didn’t she” with regard to elective surgery to try to maintain that appearance. It’s obviously not just outward appearance that dictates how a woman is (unfairly) judged, it’s demeanor as well.  During the campaign, Hillary Clinton was first criticized for not smiling enough, and then criticized for over compensating and smiling too much. Women seem to necessarily walk a tightrope between acting aggressively and confident and being called “a bitch”, and acting more passively and be dismissed as a “ditz”.  Women are often expected to display a moderate amount of sexuality, but if they go “too far” and they are labeled as bimbos and sluts. It’s often a no-win situation, where your actions and accomplishments mean very little compared to your appearance and demeanor.

When I see a statement in a story such as the New York Times piece that “clothing played a role unlike any it had ever played before in a presidential administration”, I immediately go into Andrea Sachs mode, and scoff at the ridiculousness of such an assertion. When I see a piece from a respected news organization like the New York Times that tries to convince me that what Michelle Obama wore “mattered”, all I see is a perpetuation of the same unfair criteria of how women are judged compared to men.

The one aspect of The Devil Wears Prada that was disconcerting was when Andrea began to become assimilated into the culture and world of Miranda Priestly.  She started to “walk the walk” in order to fit in and keep her job at Runway. That part of the movie perhaps hit a little too close to home, as it so perfectly depicted the lengths women have to go to, to fit in and be accepted in a world that judges them solely by appearance and behavior.  By the end of the movie, Andrea recognizes what’s TRULY important in life, ditches Runway and Miranda Priestly, and accepts a much less glamorous job as a entry-level journalist.  As a society, we’re at that same stage in our evolution. Particularly at a time when a misogynistic pig of a man is about to assume the role of the President, It’s time to ditch this “Runway” world, and start to judge women (and all human beings) based on factors other than appearance or behavior. Sorry, New York Times, I just don’t buy the premise of your story.

 

Why “Alex” > “Olivia” > “Nate” — Health care in America

Three Happy Children

Three happy children, “Alex’, “Olivia”, and “Nate”, living in a world where Alex will receive better health care than Olivia, and Nate will receive the worst health care of all 3, all because of their socioeconomic status.

We’re two weeks into a new Congress that smells blood in the water.  Other than a flurry of legislation designed to limit transparency and ethics oversight (always a great sign when that’s their first thought when they arrive in Washington), the major focus has been the dismantlement of Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act, ACA).  What is abundantly clear is that those voting to “repeal and replace” the ACA, without having ANY idea of what they might eventually replace it with, are oblivious to the impacts of the law on real Americans.  What follows is a NOT so hypothetical story of three children, “Alex”, “Olivia”, and “Nate”, and what health care policy in the United States means to them.

Alex, Olivia, and Nate are all young teenagers or pre-teens.  Each has Type-1 diabetes, the auto-immune version where their own misguided immune system has attacked and destroyed the islet cells in their pancreas’ that make insulin.  For the rest of their lives, they will be dependent upon insulin injections.  It’s a life fraught with risk. If you don’t control your blood sugars well, you’ll have frequent hyperglycemia events (high blood sugar). Over time, that will contribute to kidney disease, eye disease, cardio-pulmonary disease, and peripheral nerve damage. If you’re extremely vigilant and try to control your blood sugars very tightly, you’re more likely to have hypoglycemic events (low blood sugar), a dangerous condition that can cause seizure, coma, and even death.  Long-term blood sugar control is measured with a patient’s “A1C”, a hemoglobin-based measure from your blood.  A “normal” A1C is less than 6.5. The higher a diabetic’s A1C is, the worse their long-term blood sugar control, and the higher their risk for complications.

There’s little doubt the ACA is a god-send to Type-1 diabetics like these Alex, Olivia, and Nate.  No longer can they be refused insurance coverage for their pre-existing condition.  Diabetes is an expensive, life-long disease, but thanks to the ACA, they will no longer be subject to lifetime maximum payouts from insurance companies.  For parents helping them transition to an adult life and the responsibility for their own health insurance, the ACA allows parents to cover children on their insurance until they turn 26.  Things are much better with the ACA, but even with the ACA, we’ve got a long way to go in providing equitable health care in the United States.  With that as background, here is the not-so-hypothetical story of Alex, Olivia, and Nate and their battle with Type-1 diabetes…and the American health care system.

“Alex”

Alex is a young teenager who was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes at a very young age.  His family would be considered  upper-middle class. Alex’s family has a very good, comprehensive health care plan, with insurance provided through one of Alex’s parents. Alex has had access to some of the best care a young diabetic can have. For over 10 years, Alex has had an insulin pump, a small device that holds a reservoir of insulin.  His pump automatically provides a steady stream of insulin all day long (the “basal” insulin), just as the body normally does, to try to keep blood sugars stable. His pump also makes it easy to administer insulin at meals.  He simply estimates how many carbs he’s eating, enters that number in the pump, and the pump provides the proper amount of insulin required to process the sugars in that meal. Alex checks his blood sugar very often (8-10 times a day), but was still occasionally experiencing both hyperglycemic and hypoglycemic events.  In addition to his pump, his family pursued a “continuous glucose sensor” (CGM), another medical device that automatically checks his blood sugars every 5 minutes.  The CGM even has a cell phone app, where his parents are alerted on their cell phones if his blood sugars need attention. He no longer faces the dangerous “nighttime lows”, a hypoglycemic event that may occur at night when a patient is asleep and less able to respond. If Alex’s blood sugars start to drop anywhere close to dangerous levels, an alarm will alert both him and his parents that action is needed.  Alex’s A1C levels have typically been right around 7.0, just a bit above that of a “normal” person.  With the new CGM, it’s likely that will go down even further.  Alex’s care is expensive.  The insulin pump and the CGM both costs thousands of dollars, as do the yearly supplies that support those devices.  Along with the costs of insulin, doctor visits each month, and other supplies, Alex’s health care costs without insurance would be in the 10s of thousands of dollars per year.  Even with what’s considered quite good insurance, his parents pay a lot out of pocket each year for the pump, CGM, and supplies. They can afford it, however, and Alex’s long-term prognosis and risk of complications is much lower than Olivia’s or Nate’s.

“Olivia”

Olivia is a pre-teen who has had diabetes for about 5 years.  Her family would be considered middle-class, perhaps lower middle class. Olivia’s family has a health care option through a parent’s employer, with coverage that isn’t nearly as good as what is provided by Alex’s insurance. Olivia’s family would like a better insurance plan, but their income is high enough that they’re not eligible for subsidies under the ACA that might enable them to “shop around” and find better insurance.  Olivia’s insurer covers only part of the costs of an insulin pump, and does not cover costs for a CGM.  Olivia’s family cannot afford the out-of-pocket costs that would be required to get an insulin pump, so Olivia does not have an insulin pump, or a CGM.  Her insulin control relies on frequent injections, with a daily “long-acting” insulin that is meant to mimic the basal insulin (the steady, day-long drip) provided by Alex’s pump, and “short-acting” insulin that is given with every meal.  Olivia doesn’t like needles, but as a young diabetic, she’s learned to tolerate them. Olivia knows Alex, and marvels at his pump, which frees Alex from the 4-6 daily injections that Olivia gets.  Olivia checks her blood sugar as frequently as Alex, 8-10 times per day, which helps keep her blood sugars under control.  She can respond when blood sugars are low or high, but it means another injection (for high blood sugars).  Without a CGM, she’s more subject to unnoticed hypoglycemic or hyperglycemic events.  Unlike Alex, who “feels” when his blood sugar is low, Olivia has no such physical feelings or warning signs when her blood sugars go low.  She recently was hospitalized after a severe, nighttime hypoglycemic event, when extremely low blood sugar results in seizure and a short period of unconciousness.  With her diligence in checking blood sugars, however, those events are minimized. Her A1C is significantly higher than Alex’s, usually around 8.0 to 8.5.  Compared to Alex, she’s thus not only at risk of unnoticed high or low blood sugar events, she’s also more likely to develop longer-term complications such as heart disease, kidney failure, or eye disease.

“Nate”

Nate is a teenager who was diagnosed with diabetes about 10 years ago.  He lives in a single-family home, a good home with a very loving mother, but paying the bills is a struggle.  The only health insurance available to Nate’s family prior to the ACA was a “catastrophic care” policy with very high deductibles and much poorer coverage than either Alex or Olivia receive.   After Nate was diagnosed, the economic struggles meant pinching pennies on health care. It even meant pinching pennies on the administration of insulin. At difficult times, Nate’s family would avoid carbohydrate-laden meals, in order to save money on the amount of insulin needed to treat Nate. Visits to the endocrinologist were few and far between, as Nate’s mother couldn’t afford them.  Nate’s blood sugar control was very poor prior to the ACA, with A1C’s typically over 10.  Under the ACA, subsidies are available, including both tax credits and cost sharing subsidies, that ensure a plan on the ACA marketplace can’t cost more than 9.5% of a family’s income. After the ACA, Nate’s mother enrolled in a marketplace plan and obtained a health care plan that was much better than the poor health care option provided through her employer.  However, Nate’s insurance is similar to Olivia’s, in that only partial costs of an insulin pump would be covered, and a CGM is not covered.  Nate’s mother cannot come close to paying the out-of-pocket costs that would be required for an insulin pump. Nate relies on shots much like Olivia does.  Nate’s mother is extremely thankful for the availability of ACA coverage, as without it, even the cost of insulin would have been very difficult for her to pay under her employer’s poor, catastrophic coverage insurance.  However, the family still struggles with everyday costs, including costs of health care. With the only available, affordable ACA plan, coverage is worse than either Olivia’s or Alex’s.  Nate’s situation has improved, but his family is still forced to make extremely difficult healthcare decisions, regarding both health care and other, every-day expenses.  With another sibling with asthma and other problems, covering health expenses is difficult even with the ACA and tax credits.  Visits to the doctor are fewer for Nate’s family than for Olivia’s and Alex’s. Blood sugar control has improved for Nate with the better insurance from the ACA, particularly as the family doesn’t feel the need to “scrimp” on insulin, yet Nate still has A1C levels that approach 10 at times.  Nate is at substantially higher risk of long-term complications than either Alex or Olivia.

Comparing Alex, Olivia, and Nate

Alex > Olivia > Nate.  That’s the situation in today’s health care system, where your level of care is directly related to your ability to pay.  With Type-1 diabetes, blood sugar control is LIFE.  There are tools available that assist a Type-1 diabetic in maintaining blood sugar control, but those tools are of no use if a family can’t afford them.

In all likelihood…Alex will outlive Olivia.  Olivia will outlive Nate.  It’s as simple as that, when blood sugar control is the key to a long, happy life for a diabetic.  Particularly a type-1.  It has NOTHING to do with the love of a family, or the desire to keep blood sugars under control.  The parents of Alex, Olivia, and Nate all love their children very much, and would do anything to keep them as healthy as possible.  It simply boils down to economics. Even if insurance provides some access to advanced treatment options, that’s useless if the family can’t afford co-payments or other fees required to get those advanced options.

The ACA is far from perfect, but also a much, much better situation than we had prior to the ACA. The ACA is a step in the right direction, but more is needed. Instead, we’re heading backwards.  The split between the “haves” and the “have nots” has never been more evident in the United States, and as the not-so-hypothetical case of Alex, Olivia, and Nate shows, that divide is also still clearly evident in how we dispense our health care.

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