Articles for the Month of January 2017

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

Winter Bison in Yellowstone

A week without blogging.  God knows there was plenty to blog about if I wanted to torture myself with the political circus that’s happening right now, but I’ve been on travel for work. Work, with a bit of play thrown in. I had a couple of days of meetings in Bozeman, Montana, which is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Yellowstone National Park (if you define a “hop, skip, and a jump” as a 1 1/2 hour drive).  My family and I have been in Yellowstone several times, but never in winter.  I didn’t have a lot of time, but decided to spend a day and a half in Yellowstone after my work meetings were done.

Most of Yellowstone is closed in the winter.  There’s only one road open, the road in the north part of the park between Mammoth Hot Springs and Cooke City on the northeast entrance.  Travel in the rest of the park is by snowmobile or snow coach only.  I wanted to see the interior of the park, so arranged for a snow coach ride from Mammoth down to the Old Faithful Area, where I spent one night in the Snow Lodge.  Whirlwind tour that ended with another snow coach ride back to Mammoth, but it was certainly an incredible experience.  I’ll share more photos and stories from my trip this week, but for now, here’s a look at some of the bison that overwinter in the park.  It’s thought that about 5,000 bison are found in the park right now, a high number historically, and they certainly were found throughout the park on my short visit.  They’re such massive, majestic creatures to begin with, but there’s something about the isolation and cold of a Yellowstone winter that really made them fun to watch and photograph.

Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) and bull Bison

It was 18 below in the north part of Yellowstone when I came across three massive bull Bison resting in the snow near the side of the road. As I watched, a lone Black-billed Magpie came flying in and landed on the head of the closest bull. The big bull tolerated it for a few minutes while the magpie perched on his head, but finally he’d had enough. With a shake of his massive head, the intruder was sent flying off and the bull resumed his nap. The Magpie in a great pose, the massive bison showing great detail in the fur and horns, and the warm steamy breath all contribute to what instantly became one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken.

Bison portrait in the snow

A little younger bison, not looking too impressed with the idiot in the car taking its photo.

Bull Bison foraging in snow

Another massive bull, using that massive head to push the snow aside and reach the grass below. With what’s been a very snowy winter in Yellowstone, even the big bulls like this were seemingly struggling to move through the snow at times.

Young bison

A younger bison, taking a break from feeding to strike a pose for the camera.

How much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Ssshhhhh….it’s classified

Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide

Trends in atmospheric carbon dioxide from pre-industrialization until today. We’ve gone from a baseline of 280 ppm to 404 ppm today, a level of atmospheric CO2 not seen in over 600,000 years. It’s irrefutable evidence of the impact man has had on the atmosphere and our climate. And now…evidently under the Trump administration, the level of atmospheric CO2 is classified information.

Science is in the news again!  Front page of the Washington Post, New York Times, and other major media outlets!! No, we haven’t discovered extraterrestrial life.  No, we haven’t found a cure for cancer.  In fact, there haven’t really been any earth-shaking research results published  No, the science-related stories that are capturing the front pages of major newspapers are those related to the muzzling of scientists in the federal government under the Trump Administration, after only 5 days.

It started on the 2nd day of the Trump administration.  Information on climate change was deleted from all White House website pages on Saturday, along with other issues that evidently aren’t important any more, such as civil rights.  Who needs to worry about civil rights, when we’re headed back to how it “should” be, with hairy old white men in charge of everything?  It’s all good!  In place of the climate change and LGBT information?  Melania Trump’s jewelry line. Yes, that’s right, a sales pitch for Melania’s jewelry literally is more important to the new administration than climate change or civil rights, and occupies space on the White House website.

Science and environmental research and reporting in the federal government was immediately under attack on other fronts as well.  This week Trump issued an executive order freezing all research grants and contracts at the EPA. All contract and grant awards, as well as all “task orders and work assignments”, are to be “temporarily suspended, effective immediately”.  It’s clearly the first step in dismantling regulatory activity at the EPA, with the Trump administration believing that regulation hinders business activity.  “Regulation”…you know…making sure you and your family don’t DIE or get sick just by breathing, drinking, and eating.  Minor little things like that get in the way of rich people making even more money, and we simply can’t have that.

Other federal agencies were instructed to halt “external communication”.  The Department of Health and Human Services has been instructed not to communicate “with any public officials”.  EPA was told to halt all press releases, blogs, or social media posts.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture was told to stop releasing any “public-facing documents”.  In other words, federal agencies have been instructed by the Trump administration to stop communicating with the public, to stop releasing results of the work that is done with taxpayer dollars.

Social media posts and press releases are a primary means by which federal agencies communicate with the public, and some bold renegade Feds today pushed the envelope on what’s now “allowed” in the Trump administration.  I say “push the envelope”, when in fact, all they did was do what they’ve done since social media became popular…they DARED to report scientific fact, without any inherent political message.  Badlands National Park in South Dakota sent out a series of tweets earlier today, simply providing the facts on what’s happening with our atmosphere and climate change.  Here’s a sampling of their tweets from the day:

National Park Service - Badlands Tweets

Pretty innocuous stuff, and pretty much the same kind of science information that’s tossed out on social media by many federal science agencies.  The response to DARING to state how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere? After a few hours, all climate-related tweets on the Badlands site were deleted, without explanation. Was there some violation of federal policy with the release of this mundane, extremely well-known, and well-verified data? As this story from Salon.com notes,the following rule of thumb generally applies to the disclosure of information by federal employees:

A public employee is allowed to speak publicly or share information with the media, if that information is not considered a government secret or classified information.

Evidently stating how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere is now a “government secret” or “classified information”.

The public clearly has a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent.  There were several reported cases of the Bush administration editing climate-related research results, changing phrasing or eliminating certain results to downplay the expected impact of climate change. While the Bush administration was openly criticized for their attempts to downplay climate-change impacts, those interventions were in fact relatively infrequent.  Science research in the federal government, including climate-change research, has generally been considered public domain information, and attempts to muzzle or modify research results have been few and far between.

The actions of the Trump administration in just the first 5 days are a warning shot across the bow for scientists in general, a warning that science is now subject to the same vagaries of politics as is the rest of the federal government.

Countering today’s ugliness with some beauty…

I just can’t do it today.  I can’t watch the news.  I can’t read the newspaper. I can’t turn on the TV.  Not today. Not on a day where we’re losing one of the most dignified, graceful, moral families that have ever graced the White House.  Not on a day where many are celebrating a victory by hatred, by racism, by ugliness.

For today, a needed shot of some of the “beautiful” things in the world.  Here are some of my favorite photos, and the story behind them.

Black Oystercatcher - Haematopus bachmani

Black Oystercatcher – Cannon Beach, Oregon – June 2009 — We first visited Cannon Beach in Oregon as a family about 11 years ago. We’ve been back several times since, as it’s become one of our favorite vacation spots. From a birding perspective, it’s heaven on earth for me. “Haystack Rock” is just off the beach, a massive rock spire that is home to hundreds of nesting Murre’s, Puffins, Gulls, Cormorants, and other species. It’s a fascinating place for my son, and the vibrant tidal pools have always been a favorite of his. Cannon Beach is the first place I saw a Black Oystercatcher, and at dawn one morning I was able to capture a photo of one foraging amongst the rocks at low tide. Being able to capture such a unique bird against a backdrop of colorful starfish was a real treat.

Western Bluebird - Sialia mexicana

Western Bluebird – Zion National Park – May 2008 — We LOVE our family vacations, particularly visits to national parks. This was in 2008, our first visit to Utah and Zion National Park. I’d seen Western Bluebirds before, but didn’t have any photos. This gorgeous male decided to make things easy for me. We were sitting on the back patio of our B&B one night when he flew around the corner and landed in a tree about 15 feet away. A rarity in bird photography…getting an easy opportunity. This is one of my favorite photos though, with the warm colors of the canyon in the background, the curve of the branch, and the beautiful clean view of the bird.

Burrowing Owl - Athene cunicularia

Burrowing Owl – Near Brandon, South Dakota – August 2008 — It’s the location of this shot that makes it a special memory for me. I will often drive 3 to 4 hours to go birding in the central part of the state. In any season, prairie dog towns are good places to bird, as they attract a variety of birds. One of the reasons I like to visit prairie dog towns is because many of them also house Burrowing Owls. I’d seen them many times in the central part of the state, but always at least 200 miles from home. In August of 2008 I was returning home from a business trip, was driving on a road just northeast of my hometown of Brandon, and I saw something sitting on a fence post. A double-take, a slam of the brakes, and YES, it was a Burrowing Owl! Mere minutes from our house! I watched for a while before returning with my camera, and quickly realized it was a family of 2 adults and at least 4 youngsters. There were nesting in an old badger hole in an alfalfa field, a far cry from the prairie dog towns I was used to seeing them in. For nearly 2 months I watched the little family grow up and eventually disappear for the winter. Never again have I seen Burrowing Owls anywhere close to this part of South Dakota, but I’ll always remember this special little family.

Horned Puffin - Fratercula corniculata

Horned Puffin – Fox Island, Alaska – August 2010 — Who doesn’t love Puffins? I’ve been fortunate to see all three species in the wild, seeing Atlantic Puffins on a short whale-watching cruise off of the coast of Maine, seeing Tufted Puffins many times at Cannon Beach in Oregon, and seeing Horned Puffins in Alaska. This was during one of our most memorable family vacations, where we visited several locations in Alaska. Our favorite part of the trip was staying overnight on “Fox Island” just outside of Seward Alaska, and taking an all-day wildlife cruise the next day. When we awoke from our cabin on Fox Island that morning, there were several Horned Puffins feeding just off of the rocky beach. It was simply a matter of sitting and waiting for one to surface. I was fortunate enough to catch this adult with both a bill full of fish, but also a nice wing stretch. A definite favorite photo of mine.

Costa's Hummingbird - Calypte costae

Costa’s Hummingbird – Madera Canyon, Arizona – November 2015 — I do manage to fit some birding in when we go on family vacations, but because I don’t want to take time away from our family, it’s typically early morning hours, before my wife and son get up. That changes, however, when I go on work trips. If I have a work trip in an area with a good birding location nearby, I will often use my own money and stay and extra day to bird. In November of 2015, I had work meetings in Tucson…one of our favorite locations on earth. Did I mention earlier that Cannon Beach was “heaven on earth” for a birder? Take that, double it, and add 3,456, and that describes how great birding is in the Tucson area. There are many famous birding locations in the area, including Madera Canyon south of Tucson. This trip was incredibly memorable because I saw several species for the first time, including a “Holy Grail” bird for birders in the U.S., and Elegant Trogon. Another attraction for the area in general is the wonderful variety of hummingbirds that are often around, some of which are rarely found elsewhere in the United States. This is a male Costa’s Hummingbird, not one of the mega-rarities, but one of my favorite hummingbird species. It’s hard to capture the colors of male hummingbird’s gorget, as the light has to be JUST right, but on this occasion the lighting helped to show off that brilliant purple gorget of a male Costa’s.

Elegant Trogon - Trogon elegans

Elegant Trogon – Madera Canyon near Tucson, Arizona – November 2015 — After mentioning it with the previous photo, how can I not show this? Elegant Trogons are indeed a “Holy Grail” kind of a bird, as they are uncommon to begin with, and have a range that just barely touches the U.S. On occasion they are found in some of the forested canyons of southern Arizona, near the border. I’ve been to two of those, “Ramsey Canyon”, where I’ve visited twice, and “Madera Canyon”, where I’ve been 3 times. In my November 2015 visit to Madera Canyon, I knew the timing wasn’t great. Summer is much better for hummingbirds, as well as many other rarities that breed in these canyons. Elegant Trogon have bred in these canyons, but most of the time, they move southward for the winter. On occasion, however, one overwinters. I wasn’t thinking “Trogon” at ALL as I visited the area. I had heard of another rarity, a Rufous-capped Warbler that had been seen in nearby Florida Canyon, so I thought I’d try making the hike to where that bird was seen. I parked the car, headed up the trail, and struck out on the warbler. However, when I was nearly back to my car and about to leave, I saw the movement of a large bird out of the corner of my eye. Elegant Trogon! It had just flown down the canyon and landed in a tree by the creek! I’ve been birding 15 years, and don’t really freak out when I see a “good” bird, but I must say, as I raised the camera to try to get a shot, I was shaking a bit, just PRAYING it didn’t move or fly away before I could watch it and get a photo. Fortunately, it stayed in its perch for a few minutes before flying away. This definitely isn’t one of my greatest photos from a photographer’s standpoint, but I’ll always consider it one of my greatest experiences from a birding standpoint.

Gray Wolf - Canis lupus

Gray Wolf – Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota – March 2013 — I admit I often turn a blind eye to any photo opportunity that doesn’t involve a bird. Sometimes an opportunity arises that you can’t pass up, however. Another favorite American birding location for me is Sax-Zim Bog in Minnesota. I was there for the incredible northern owl irruption of 2004, when in one day, I saw over 30 Great Gray Owls, and over 30 Northern Hawk Owls. It’s never been quite as magical since that incredible winter, but it’s still a wonderful place to try to find a northern owl or other boreal species that are hard to find in the lower 48 states. In early March of 2013 I thought I’d try one last late-winter visit, hoping to spot Boreal Owls that had been seen in the area. I ended up striking out on owls, but the trip ended up being magical due to what happened in the first 10 minutes when I arrived at the bog. I had gotten up ridiculously early and left Brandon at about 2:00 in the morning, hoping to arrive in the Sax-Zim area just a little after dawn. As I reached the bog and started up a small road, I saw movement in the trees to my left. As I stopped to see what it was, this beautiful creature stepped out of the woods, a lone Gray Wolf. He stopped for a second and stared right at me before deciding I wasn’t all that interesting. He slowly trotted across the road and back into the forest. It remains the only wild wolf I’ve ever seen (even with all our visits to Yellowstone!), and I’m very grateful he paused long enough for me to get this photo.

Saguaro Sky - Tucson, Arizona

Saguaro Sky – Near Tucson, Arizona — Yeah, another Tucson area shot. There’s a wonderful B&B we’ve stayed at multiple times on the edge of Tucson, right next to Saguaro National Park. The B&B owners have their own 40 acres of beautiful Sonoran Desert habitat, and I just love getting up at dawn to walk through it and take photos. As always, birds are a focus, but other critters I’ve found there include rattlesnakes, coyotes, javelina, and even a bobcat one morning. On this morning, just after dawn, it was the sky the caught my attention The sun was just coming over the mountains, and the blue sky was dotted with beautifully patterned, high, wispy clouds. I decided to try something new (for me), trying to capture the majesty of the tallest saguaro cactus I could find, with that gorgeous sky as a backdrop. I also call this photo “Paying the Price”. I laid flat on my back at the base of the saguaro to get this photo, shooting up into the sky. Did you know that in a Sonoran desert habitat, the ground is sprinkled with all KINDS of cactus needles? Neither did I! I got the shot I wanted, and was thrilled with the result, but also spent half an hour back in the B&B having my wife pick cactus thorns out of my back and legs.

Juvenile Gyrfalcon - Falco rusticolus

Dark-phase Gyrfalcon – Fort Pierre National Grasslands, South Dakota – January 2010 — This is both one of my favorite photos, and a photo that breaks my heart. In all the dead of winter trips I take to the central part of the state, THE attraction, the ONE SPECIES I’m really hoping to see, is a Gyrfalcon. They’re the largest falcon in the world, and are a bird that’s damned tough to ever see in the United States, outside of Alaska. Every winter, a few may straggle down from the Arctic and cross into the United States, but they’re real rarities and another “Holy Grail” bird for U.S. birders. Central South Dakota is actually one of the best places to see them in the lower 48, and I’ve been lucky enough to find them on several occasions. On this day, in the distance I saw a dark bird on a snag. Given the coloration, I wasn’t thinking “Gyrfalcon” at all. It was too dark. As I got closer, I saw it was indeed a Gyrfalcon, a young, dark-phase Gyrfalcon. This is the only dark Gyrfalcon I’ve seen, and it was a thrill to get some nice photos of him. However, as I approached, I also noticed a bird seemingly struggling in the middle of the gravel road. As I got closer, I saw it was a pigeon, tangled inside a net. That pigeon DEFINITELY had the attention of the Gyrfalcon, but he wasn’t about to make a move while I was there. As I wondered what to do, a SUV came roaring down the hill, and as they approached, a man and woman frantically waved their arms at me, motioning me to “move away” from the pigeon. Not knowing what the hell was going on, I pulled up to them, rolled down the window, and asked what was going on. They were falconers. The pigeon and net was theirs. They were trying to capture the young Gyrfalcon to use for falconry. Unfortunately this actually IS legal in the U.S., even for a mega-rarity such as a Gyrfalcon. They had the proper permits. I admit I wasn’t the friendliest to this couple. There are SO few Gyrfalcons that ever make it into the lower 48 states, it just didn’t seem right that they could actually capture one and keep it for their own personal entertainment. Unfortunately, that young Gyr stayed in his perch the entire time I argued with the couple. After a while, after checking with South Dakota Game Fish & Parks friend to see if this was indeed legal, I drove off. I always wondered if that couple caught the Gyrfalcon. That even DEFINITELY changed my behavior though as a birder. After finding out that falconers often scour the birding hotlines for news of a Gyrfalcon, I now NEVER report a Gyrfalcon sighting. After coming across this bird and the falconers trying to catch it, never again will I do anything that could potentially help a falconer remove one of these magnificent birds from the wild.

Killer Grizzlies, Ice Twisters, and more – Science, Nature, and other news

Killer Grizzlies, “Ice Twisters”, and more…Science, nature, and other news of the week. Click on each headline for the story itself.

Grizzly Bear - Ursus arctos

Taken this morning, A Grizzly Bear, lurking JUST outside the Brandon Valley Middle School attended by my son. STAY BRAVE, MY SON!! We finally have a leader…nay…a HERO…who will stand up for you and your fellow children.  No longer will you cower in fear each day at school, wondering if…wondering WHEN...the next child will be taken by a Grizzly Bear. Prepare for firearm training, my son! Soon you will be able to defend yourself!

Grizzly Bear Scourge Killing Thousands of American Children — With all the testimony this week of potential Trump Cabinet members, the most insightful, meaningful words of wisdom came from Betsy Devos, the woman who (shockingly) is about to lead the Department of Education.  When asked about her stance on guns in schools, Devos first deflected, stating that it should be a local choice.  When pushed, Devos spoke of the one issue that wasn’t discussed NEARLY enough during the fall campaign…the deadly scourge of Grizzly Bear attacks on our children at school.  Yes, that’s right folks, FINALLY we have a Trump Cabinet member who “gets it”, who understands the daily struggles of everyday Americans. Who hasn’t worried about Grizzly Bear attacks when dropping off their child at school in the morning? Betsy, we love you.  You’ve proven you are one of US, everyday Americans struggling with everyday, life-or-death problems.  Hopefully under your watch, teachers, or…better yet…children THEMSELVES will be allowed to carry semi-automatic weapons to combat the Grizzly Bear scourge.  God bless you, Betsy Devos!

Cat toll on wildlife tallied – We had a neighbor with a cat that started showing up on their front step.  They adopted it, although for the much of the time, they kept it as an outdoor cat. Every night it would be out on its own, and often during the day as well.  It was a sweet cat! It was also an evil, bird-killing machine that was seemingly always in our yard. There would be many, many times I’d look out our sun room at the bird feeders, only to see the cat crouched and hiding by a nearby bush. Over the years, the visits to our yard became less frequent, either because 1) it was scared to death of me chasing it out of the yard again, or 2) it progressively got fatter and less agile.  He took a toll on birds in my yard.  I often witnessed him killing a bird, and other times, I’d just find the aftermath, with a pile of feathers or a dead mangled body. One cat, one yard, and likely many dozens upon dozens of kills.  So what is the toll of cats on wildlife?  As this story notes, a wildlife rehab group in Virginia tallied cat-related animal injuries over the years, and found they treated over 80 species that had been attacked by cats, including over 60 different bird species.  This past summer, the neighbor cat disappeared one day, as it didn’t return home after (yet another) night left outside on its own.  I love what pets bring into a home, but admit I was NOT fond of the way the neighbor cat was treated, and what it was allowed to do. Leaving it outside all the time ended up costing it its life, but it also ended up costing the lives of countless small critters over the years.

Tornado - 1884

What’s thought to be the world’s oldest photo of a tornado, taken in 1884. This photo always terrified me, ever since I saw it as a kid. It just looks…evil. And hey, GREAT! THANKS SCIENCE! In addition to every other way a tornado can kill you, now we also know that the inside of a funnel is quite cold! “Ice Twisters”, the SyFy movie, may have actually been a documentary!

Ice Twisters!! — Several weeks ago, my son and I were flipping through the channels, and as we passed the SyFy channel, we saw a movie called “Ice Twisters!” was on.  Typical SyFy movie…government research gone wrong, with drone-related atmospheric research somehow resulting in deadly “Ice Twisters” that were ravaging the landscape. In the movie, the cause of death for those impacted by an Ice Twister wasn’t necessarily wind…no…they froze to death!  Yes, twisters that were THAT cold!  Well, it turns out there’s a hint (the slightest hint) of truth in the show.  The story goes back to 1955, when three employees from a radio station in Nebraska were taking cover from a tornado in the basement of an old stone house. The vortex passed directly overhead, and as it did so, the structure above was blown away.  The three people in the basement noted the difficulty in breathing as the tornado passed overhead, but also felt the temperature dropping very sharply.  Researchers studying the case found that the temperature likely dropped from around 27° Celsius to 12° as the funnel went overhead.  The drop in temperature and the difficulty they had in breathing were related. The density of the air in the funnel would have been equivalent to being at nearly 30,000 feet in elevation, and as warmer, denser air is sucked into low pressure of the funnel, the expansion causes the large drop in temperature.  Touche’, SyFy, Touche’.  Never again will I make fun of your (admittedly sometimes entertaining) movies.  Ice Twisters was simply a movie ahead of its time, ahead of the science behind it.

Move over “Polar Vortex”! Now we have “Atmospheric Rivers” — I just love when the mainstream media gets excited and jumps all over a “new” scientific phenomenon. A few years ago, somebody put a label of “Polar Vortex” on the same kinds of cold snaps the U.S. has always experienced, evidently deciding that just calling it “winter” as we always have wasn’t exciting enough.  Today, I see we have a new entry in the journalistic annals of creating new and exciting ways to describe phenomena that have been around forever. A very significant precipitation event did just recently occur in California, but the same kind of event has occurred countless times throughout history.  The term “Atmospheric Rivers” itself is evidently old, mentioned by a couple of researchers back in the 1990s. Other terms for it in California have been the “Pineapple Express” or “Hawaiian Express”.  Reading this story, however, and you’d think it was the first time such a phenomenon had been discovered or discussed.

February 2016 Temperature Anomalies

An image that shows global temperature anomalies in February of 2016. February was the most “anomalous” month in history up to that point, with the greatest departure from the “normal” for any month that had ever been measured. 2016 as a whole ended up setting yet another global temperature record. Leading the way…much of the Arctic. This graphic shows a temperature anomaly of nearly 12° for much of Arctic, but even greater departures from normal were found this fall and early winter.

3rd straight year of record global temperatures — For the first time ever, we’ve now had three straight years where all-time global temperature records have been broken. As stated by Gavin Schmidt of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, ““What’s going on in the Arctic is really very impressive; this year was ridiculously off the chart”. Parts of the Arctic were 20 to 30 degrees (Fahrenheit) above normal for much of the fall and early winter, including days with temperatures hovering at or above freezing even at the North Pole. Globally, levels of sea ice have never been lower.  Irrefutable evidence of the continued onslaught of climate change…not that more evidence is needed at this stage, but it comes at a time when a new incoming President and his Party are about to take power in Washington D.C.  Which leads into…

Mixed bag for Trump’s Cabinet on Climate Change — Not a single story, but a collection of stories related to confirmation hearings for Trump’s Cabinet members this week. First the good…incoming Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, openly disagreed with Trump’s statements on climate change.  He stated “The climate is changing, and man is an influence”, certainly welcome words from a man tasked to manage the Department that oversees Federal lands and natural resources.  Responses related to the issue of climate change were more reserved and mixed from other Trump nominees.  Scott Pruitt, tasked to lead the Environmental Protection Agency said “I do not believe climate change is a hoax”, but he stopped short of saying man was the major cause, or that we need regulation and change to mitigate the effects. Given that EPA is the Federal Agency that can potentially regulate greenhouse gas emissions, it’s not comforting to see a lack of conviction about regulatory action.  The aforementioned Betsy Devos, who could very well be in charge of the Department of Education (GOD I hope not), didn’t specifically comment on climate change in her confirmation hearing, but did offer a simple statement of “I support the teaching of great science“.  Note the word “simple”, a statement that could be attributed to MUCH of her testimony this week.  It’s not encouraging when the Secretary of Education is clearly not even aware of the many programs her agency is responsible for.  Rex Tillerson, an oilman slated to become Secretary of State, did state that the climate is changing and that greenhouse gases are a cause. However, he also stated that the science was murky, saying “The increase in the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.”  Tillerson’s comments were perhaps the most representative of what’s likely to happen in a Trump administration.  In the face of overwhelming evidence that’s slowly convincing even a scientifically illiterate American public, the stance of many Cabinet members was to recognize climate change as “real”, yet simultaneously state the science is very uncertain. In short, they’re setting the stage to potentially monitor the situation, but not do a damn thing about it.

Sit on your butt and watch your life drain away — That’s the basic message of new research that assessed the biologic “age” of cells, related to the level of physical activity.  Telomeres, little caps on the ends of DNA strands within a cell, gradually shorten as a person ages. Telomeres protect your chromosomes, and a shortening of telomeres is associated with cell “aging”, and increased likelihood of diseases including diabetes and cancer. Interesting study, and one of the first to take this form of measurement and connect it with activity levels.  That’s the price of blogging, I guess…sitting here for hours trying to come up with interesting and clever stories, all while my damned telomeres shorten by the second.

Eating and Sitting

A family sitting AND eating at the same time. As science has proven this week, this could be one of the most dangerous aspects of American life. This, or rampaging Grizzly Bears around our children’s schools.

Don’t eat, live longer — To riff off of Charlton Heston…Damn you, science.  DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!!  FIRST you have the story above about deadly Ice Twisters, amplifying my already well-ingrained fear of tornadoes.  Then you have the story of your DNA rotting away while you sit still.  And now, this story, noting that restricting calories is one way to ensure a longer life. Survival and health of rhesus monkeys was found to be significantly higher as caloric consumption was reduced.  Great.  What.  The.  Hell.  My favorite pastime is lounging on the couch in the basement, hiding from tornadoes, eating a bowl of ice cream.  Little did I know how much I was putting my life in danger. As a scientist, and as an avowed atheist, I do find it incredibly fascinating that so many things that human beings crave in life, are inherently bad for you.  Eating fatty and sugary foods, relaxing and taking it easy.  From an evolutionary and biologic standpoint, does that make sense?  Does it make sense that the very things we crave can kill us? How does simple biology explain that?  It’s times like this where my belief in a “god” may not be reinforced, but it does reinforce my belief in a “devil”.

10,000-km long “wave” on Venus — The Akatsuki spacecraft captured a spectacular image of Venus in December, marked by a massive, vertical “smile” that stretched nearly pole-to-pole.  The 10,000-km long feature is thought to be a “gravity wave”, which would make it the largest gravity wave observed in the solar system.  It’s thought to have developed from air movement over mountain ranges on the surface of Venus, with the feature then propagating higher into the thick Venetian atmosphere. However, such a feature isn’t easily explained by the current understanding of the surface of Venus and near-surface atmospheric conditions. Either some other explanation is in order, or our understanding of the surface/atmospheric interactions on Venus needs to be reevaluated.

 

Bye-bye Birdie…Repubs set to gut Endangered Species Act

Greater Sage Grouse -- Centrocercus urophasianus

A Greater Sage Grouse, one of many species that have been considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act in recent years. In the case of this species, political and economic interests won, and Sage Grouse were removed from consideration for protection. The partnership between conservative political groups and economic interests has been very successful in recent years in fighting species listings on the ESA, and with an environmentally hostile Republican Congress now emboldened with a new Republican President, the ESA as a whole has never been under more of a threat.

Mention “Greater Sage Grouse” to a birder, and you’ll get an enthusiastic discussion of a unique, large bird with spectacular breeding displays.  Mention Sage Grouse to a hunter, and you’ll get an enthusiastic discussion of a wily game bird that’s much sought after, particularly as numbers and hunting opportunities decline.  Mention Sage Grouse to energy developers, real estate developers, and conservative politicians in the West, and “Sage Grouse” is a four-letter word. As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) considered the species for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), it sparked a fierce political battle, with Republican politicians in the West teaming with oil, gas, and real estate interests to fight protection.  Despite populations of Greater Sage Grouse declining by over 50% in the last 40 years, and despite the loss of vast areas of former sagebrush habitat, in 2015 the USFWS decided not to list the species under the ESA. It’s disingenuous to discount the impact political pressures had on that decision, as the Greater Sage Grouse still faces significant threats due to habitat loss.  However, one of the contributing factors in the USFWS decision not to list the species was, ironically, widespread conservation efforts that started happening in the West after the species was being considered for listing.  In effect, the threat of listing, and the very existence of the ESA, sparked protections that may have substantially reduced threats to the species. Without the ESA and the threat of legal protection, those conservation efforts likely would never have occurred.

There are other species where equally contentious political battles are currently being waged.  The Lesser Prairie Chicken was listed as “Threatened” under the ESA in 2014, and for good reason. On the global IUCN “red list” of threatened species, the Lesser Prairie chicken is listed as “vulnerable” to extinction, primarily due to the loss of >85% of its original habitat.  Only 20,000-40,000 birds are left, a number that is 98% lower than before settlement of the Great Plains. Despite the obvious scientific reasons for listing the Lesser Prairie Chicken, in 2015, a court order vacated the USFWS decision to protect the species. An energy development group, the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, had teamed with a number of counties in New Mexico to sue the government to prevent listing.  After the court order, the USFWS released a statement that the court order was contrary to the actual scientific, biologic evidence, and that protections were still required to ensure the species was preserved. However, in a very disappointing move to conservationists, the USFWS decided not to appeal the court ruling.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Sights like this have become incredibly common in many parts of South Dakota as Bald Eagle numbers continue to increase. Bald Eagles were one of the original species included on the Endangered Species Act. With their precipitous decline up through the 1970s, the story of the Bald Eagle was in fact one of the driving forces behind the very establishment of the ESA. Despite countless success stories such as this, the ESA is under a threat unlike any other in its 40+ year history, all due to political and economic interests that value short-term monetary gain over environmental and conservation concerns.

Western states and associated economic interests have wielded considerable political power in efforts to derail listing of species under the ESA, The Lesser Prairie Chicken is but one example.  Political battles against the ESA have ramped up substantially since the Northern Spotted Owl listing in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) resulted in the eventual establishment of the Northwest Forest Plan, resulting in major changes in forest management in the region. Those politically opposed to the ESA use the Spotted Owl case as a rallying cry, citing (supposed) massive job losses in the timber industry as a result of the Northwest Forest Plan. However, after the Northwest Forest Plan was enacted, an economic analysis of the first 10 years of the plan found that 40% of communities in the region experienced some economic decline, 37% experienced economic gains, while the rest were relatively stable.  The economic impacts were thus decidedly mixed, not the economic disaster that was foretold, and it was also very difficult to disentangle the economic impact of the Northwest Forest Plan from other economic and political impacts on forestry in the Pacific Northwest.  At the same time the Northwest Forest Plan was beginning to take effect, there was substantial increases in competition for timber products from other timber-producing regions such as Canada, Russia, New Zealand, even the elsewhere in the U.S. (primarily the southeastern U.S.).  Asian economic declines and a sharp decline in demand for PNW timber in Asian markets also strongly contributed to timber industry declines in the region. However, the perception that it was the ESA and the Northern Spotted Owl that “killed the economy” in parts of the PNW is still widely held among those without a complete economic and political understanding of timber industry declines in the area.

It’s been disappointing to see the lack of political will to uphold the ESA and the scientific research that supports decisions to list or not list a species. Given the strong biologic evidence to support listing of the Lesser Prairie Chicken, and given that the 2015 court order to vacate the ESA listing occurred under the watch of a Democratic Obama administration, the decision not to appeal the ruling was viewed as a betrayal by many conservation groups.  However, it’s a sign of the power of political and lobbying groups that have rallied against the ESA in recent years. Even with a Democratic administration that is far more supportive of conservation concerns, the protective power of the ESA has eroded.  Scientific research and the actual biological basis on which ESA listings SHOULD be based have instead been replaced with the influence of politics and economics.

This weekend, we’re shifting to a new administration that will undoubtedly be much more hostile to conservation and environmental concerns than has been the Obama administration. The stocking of the Cabinet and other key government positions with businessmen who are openly hostile to environmental regulation ensures that stories like that of the Lesser Prairie Chicken will become increasingly common, where science and biologic need are dismissed in favor of short-term economic concerns.  The lack of political will to support provisions of the ESA will remove the regulatory and enforcement “bite” of the law, regardless of what happens with the law itself.

Even more distressing, however, are discussions about directly confronting the ESA itself. Rob Bishop (Republican, of course), head of the House Natural Resources Committee, states that he would “love to invalidate” the ESA.  Think about that.  The head of the Congressional Committee tasked with overseeing and preserving the nation’s natural resources, stating that he’d like to remove the very law that has been instrumental in preserving our national symbol, the Bald Eagle, as well as countless other plant and animal species

We’re a country where a wide swath of the electorate knows more about Kim Kardashian’s latest fashion statement than they do about the Affordable Care Act, what’s happening in Syria, the real state of the economy, or other issues that are truly important.  It’s that ignorance, that apathy, that enables the election of a narcissistic, childish, pig of a man to the most powerful position on the planet.  Here’s hoping that someday soon, we all snap out of that apathy, start paying attention, and hold politicians accountable. Otherwise we’re in serious danger of losing all the great strides we’ve made in conservation and environmental protection in the last several decades.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Changing things up — Drawing “Oscar”

"Oscar" - Pencil drawing

“Oscar”, looking up from the carpet with his beautiful puppy-dog eyes. Click for a larger view.

I drew in high school, when I took elective art classes most semesters.  I drew a little bit in college, when during my “sports nut” phase, I mostly drew 1) baseball players, and 2) Nebraska Cornhusker things. They were all black-and-white photos, using just a basic #2 pencil.  And then…I stopped drawing, for 25 years or so.  It was 4 or 5 years ago I started, and it started out as a kind of way to “fill in” the gaps for the bird species that I didn’t have photos for. I’ve been working on getting individual species pages for all ~980 or so species that have been seen in North America. I have personal photos of about half of those, but needed images for my species pages for the other half.  I do often use freely available photos from other photographers, but I thought I’d also try personally drawing some of the species. I also started drawing in color for the first time in my life. It took some getting used to, but I started getting some bird drawings that I was happy with.

For the last 5 years, that’s all I’ve drawn…birds!  I thought I’d change things up and try something new.  We have the two sweetest rescue dogs on the planet…”Oscar” and “Felix”.  They are INCREDIBLY photogenic!  There was one photo in particular of Oscar that I thought make for a nice drawing.  He was sprawled out on the carpet napping, woke up, and looked up with his puppy-dog eyes.

This one took a while!  The better part of 2 days, mostly because I was trying things I wasn’t used to trying.  Dogs don’t have feathers!  I’ve gotten halfway decent at feathers, but it was a different ballgame trying to represent the features and fur of a dog. It turned out better than I thought it would…Felix is next up!

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.

And my first NON-endorsement…Avoid PrairieSons Inc.

PrairieSons Inc.

Evidently we’re all going to “suffer” and the “worst is yet to come”. This is the cheery message received from the local PrairieSons company when I got the (ridiculously high) bill for looking at our furnace. But hey, at least they’re helpful about it, pointing to a website where I can “Repent”…or Perish.  Click for a larger view. DO IT…CLICK AND READ IT!!  OR PERISH!!!  🙂

Just two days ago in my last post, I gave my first ever endorsement for a product or service of any kind.  Two days later…I’m giving my first “un-endorsement”.  What a historic week!!!

We went to Lincoln, Nebraska to visit family and celebrate Christmas, the weekend before actual Christmas.  We got back to our home late that Sunday, December 18th, and it was 48 degrees in the house!  The furnace had stopped working at some point that weekend.  Knowing it was a Sunday and nobody was likely to come out, we looked in the phone book and thought we’d try somebody new (for us)…”PrairieSons Inc.” in Brandon.  They said they’d be out the next day. We turned the fireplace on, kept reasonably warm through the night, and waited for them to come the next day.  They arrived, and couldn’t find anything physically wrong with the furnace.  They hit a reset switch (the “roll out switch, that  had tripped), the furnace was running, and they said to just keep an eye on it.

6 days later, we wake up on Christmas Eve morning (Saturday) and it’s not working.  We call. They’re working that day, so they come out, and again, find nothing wrong after doing a diagnostic.  Again, the roll-out switch was flipped, and it runs again.  The guy basically said “it happens”, but didn’t recommend changing out the roll-out switch or anything, so there wasn’t anything new installed, nothing replaced. I got the bill today.  Here’s everything the bill “description” said. The bill didn’t even refer to 2 visits, just the one visit on the 19th:

  • Customer called with no heat
  • Found the roll-out switch had tripped.  Fire unit and it started up and shut down correctly.  Checked intake to exhaust for any obstructions. Found none.  Checked temp rise and filter.

For that…$270, plus $17.55 in taxes.

It’s a rip off.  It’s a ridiculous fee for a very small amount of labor.  I would NEVER use this business again, just for that reason.  But to make it worse, when we got the bill a few weeks later? A small card with a rambling message on the back.  It turns out PrairieSons Inc. has a very religious owner, by the looks of the enclosed card (photo of it shown above).  It’s quite the ramble, moving from topic to topic!  It all ends with a cheery “Godly people are basically guaranteed to suffer” and “The worst is yet to come”.

CHEERY!  Thanks for the sermon, PrairieSons Inc.!  Not that I asked for it.

I contacted the owner and complained about the bill, saying it was a rather ridiculous fee for providing no parts, and simply hitting a reset switch. I also complained about getting a religious message with my bill.  The response?

I am sure there is more to the work we did than hit a reset for the fee that was assessed Terry. I will have Bruce in our office look this up Monday for more clarification and get back to you. In regards to the Bible tract, we send that out with the bill to every new customer. We are sorry you took offense to it. That is a staple of who we are and what we stand for. It may not fit you and that is fine. Everyone will stand before him on the last day and need to make an account of their own life. That is a decision that only you can answer.

Uh…NO, PrairieSons, what I told you was 100% accurate.  You came out, found nothing wrong, reset the “roll out switch” to flip it back on, and…that’s it.  Two times, yes, and if you charge $270 for less than an hour’s worth of work? I guess that’s your prerogative. It’s also my prerogative to complain about your ridiculously high prices.

As for getting ANOTHER sermon, after I complained about the first one?  TERRIFIC customer service, PrairieSons!  What is your business model?  To TRY to piss off your customers?  That’s what it seems like.  Telling your customers they’re basically going to hell isn’t the type of message you typically expect to hear when you’re getting home appliances repaired!

Quick perusal online and I see others have complained about PrairieSons, both in terms of getting ripped off, and in terms of the religious messages.  Save yourself the bother.  Is your furnace out? Air conditioner out?  Live in the Brandon/Sioux Falls area? There are PLENTY of repair places in the area, so unless you skipped church and REALLY, REALLY want a sermon along with your repair…pass on PrairieSons and go with another company.

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