Friday, December 23, 2016

Give Mother Nature a hand this holiday season. She needs the help.

There are lots of ways to give a Christmas present to Mother Nature.

You can do your part for climate change, since it’s increasingly evident that Uncle Sam won’t be going there.

(Images: O`ahu `elepaio. Credit: Michael Walther, Oahu Nature Tours.)

You can help clean up a beach. Here are the links for Surfrider’s beach cleanups.

And you can help the birds.

The state doesn’t adequately fund its natural resource commitments through the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, but you can find lots of ways to help out.

One of them supports the endangered O`ahu `elepaio. 

The Hawaiian `elepaio are not the most colorful birds in the forest, with the reds, greens, yellows and fancy crests of many of the honeycreepers and honeyeaters. 

But it’s among the friendliest. This perky old world flycatcher or monarch flycatcher will land right near you on a forest trail, follow you along, with its tail jauntily sticking up in the air.

Dr. Eric VanderWerf, of Pacific Rim Conservation, has launched a crowdfunded effort to trap rats in `elepaio habitat. 

Rats are among the most significant threats to Hawaiian forest birds. There are videos of them creeping along branches to bird nests, and going after eggs and chicks. Rats are not native to the Hawaiian environment, and controlling them is key to protecting what’s left of native birdlife in the Islands.

If you have some dollars to shell out for Mother Nature, consider helping the `elepaio. Here's the site with the information on how to do it. 

© Jan TenBruggencate 2016

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Fake News: What's free speech and what's crying "fire" in a crowded theater

There’s free speech, and there’s yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

“Fake news” and some of the more awful conspiracy theories are more like the latter—and ought to be treated that way—as crimes.

We have a tradition in our country of letting people speak without fear of being censored. The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees it. 

But freedom of speech in the United States is not absolute. You can say most anything you like, but it shouldn’t cause harm. Abraham Lincoln gets credit for this line: “My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.”

If one person claims a presidential candidate is running a child sex ring out of a pizza joint, and then someone else shows up with an assault weapon to clean it up—then maybe the person who spread that filth needs some jail time.

If you provide a vehicle for that kind of nastiness—like a website or a radio station that provides a voice for dangerous conspiracy theories—isn’t that handing a megaphone to the guy yelling “Fire?”

Fake news resulting in aggressive action may not be protected under the First Amendment. There is solid legal footing for the idea that these are “fighting words,” which do not qualify as privileged speech.

“Fighting words” are described by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1942 case as “those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” The case is Chaplinsky vs New Hampshire

It seems that showing up at a pizza stand with a rifle at the ready, or chopping down a Hawai`i Island or O`ahu papaya farmer’s crop, or vandalizing a historic irrigation system—those may qualify as breaches of the peace. 

Shouldn’t those who incite that kind of behavior be held liable? The First Amendment Center notes that it’s a fine line. 

“The lower courts have had a difficult time determining whether certain epithets constitute ‘fighting words.’ At the very least, they have reached maddeningly inconsistent results,” it writes.

The Supreme Court has given citizens wide leeway to use profane and abusive language, but has been less clear when the language is provocative. 

Still, the standard was established nearly a century ago, when Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes issued the 1919 unanimous Supreme Court opinion about yelling “Fire.”

“The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. It does not even protect a man from an injunction against uttering words that may have all the effect of force,” Holmes wrote.

Holmes admitted that it’s not an easy call. One issue is whether speech that promotes physical harm to people is sufficient, or whether calls for damage to property are also covered.

“The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. It is a question of proximity and degree,” Holmes wrote.

I’m not an attorney. I’m an old journalist with a lifelong history of supporting the First Amendment. But in these troubled times, I’m forced to modify my support for unfettered free speech.

Some “fake news”-- telling outright lies that cause people to act in illegal ways-- that may meet the standard for unprotected speech.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2016

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Does the Web make you wise? Or the opposite?

Does using the web make you stupid?

There’s some evidence that it does, but how does that work? Why doesn’t having all the world’s information at your fingertips make you, like, the smartest person in the world?

There is a classic Hawaiian educational tradition that may make some sense of this. 

Nana ka maka, hana ka lima

It’s the dictate that children keep their mouths shut, and learning by watching, and figuring out how things work and how things are done by using their heads, their senses, their curiosity.

Instead of just asking and being told.

With the Internet, you don’t have to figure stuff out. You just look it up. 

And so often, what you look up is wrong, but since you’ve lost the skill of critical thinking, you don’t recognize that the web is lying to you. Worse yet, the web may be giving you exactly what you asked for—but you’re unaware that you’ve asked the wrong question.

A Michigan State study recently found that the more kids use the net, the worse they do in educational testing. The paper on the study is entitled, “Logged in and zoned out.” It is to be published in the journal Psychological Science. Here’s the university’s article on the research.

“The detrimental relationship associated with non-academic internet use raises questions about the policy of encouraging students to bring their laptops to class when they are unnecessary for class use,” said Michigan State psychology professor Susan Ravizza, the lead author.

Of course, if you spend a lot of time on the Internet, you already knew this, right? Because the Web is full of news on how dumb the Web makes you.

Psychology Today four years ago carried a piece called The Internet makes you stupid and shallow.

Author Ravi Chandra writes: “A tech-filled life means that we will have to be more careful choosers of our own mental and emotional destinies. Or else we’ll sell our souls to the search engine store.”

“As the internet trains our brains to be distractible, we are rewiring our synapses and losing capacity for depth,” he writes. He references a 2011 Pulitzer-winning book, The Shallow: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. 

Of course, not everyone agrees with that proposition. A Pew Research Center study found that most scientists (All of them internet users. I’m just sayin’.) say Carr was wrong. 

One theme in this review of experts is that we’ll be stupider in some ways, but smarter in others. 

“It’s a mistake to treat intelligence as an undifferentiated whole. No doubt we will become worse at doing some things (‘more stupid’) requiring rote memory of information that is now available through Google. But with this capacity freed, we may (and probably will) be capable of more advanced integration and evaluation of information (‘more intelligent’),” said Stephen Downes, of Canada’s National Research Council, cited in the Pew report.

So, if the Net is making us stupid in some ways and smart in others, what kinds of stupidity should we worry about? 

One is comprehension. A pair of Australian researchers, Val Hooper and  Channa Herath, say your memory goes to hell. Their article is Is Google Making Us Stupid? The Impact of the Internet on Reading Behaviour.

“In general, online reading has had a negative impact on people’s cognition. Concentration, comprehension, absorption and recall rates were all much lower online than offline,” they wrote.

UCLA psychology professor Patricia Greenfield said some skills are increased—spatial skills are improved among video game players—to the point that laparoscopic surgeons who are good at video games are better at doing surgery than those who aren’t so good at video games. 

"The best video game players made 47 percent fewer errors and performed 39 percent faster in laparoscopic tasks than the worst video game players," Greenfield said.

But she cautions that a lot of other skills are lost in the process at gaining in spatial skill. The loss of time for reflection, analysis and imagination—all things gained by reading—leads to a loss in the capacity to reflect, analyze and imagine.

So your doctor will be really good at doing surgery, but not all that good at deciding whether you actually need surgery.

There’s the old line, to a guy with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Going back to the Hawaiian tradition of learning, another Hawaiian saying is ‘U`uku ka hana, `u`uku ka loa`a. It means that if you only put in a little effort, you only get a small result.

Sometimes folks, seeking a quick response, don’t take the time to ask the question properly. If you can’t frame the question, how can you expect a useful answer?

A lot of people believe that agricultural chemicals with very low toxicity are actually very dangerous. How could that be? Perhaps it’s in how they ask the questions.

Let’s forget most agricultural chemicals and just look at water.

If you ask the Google question in a particular way (Is water toxic?) you get a whole lot of scary stuff about contaminated water in the city of Flint, about water intoxication, about toxic compounds in drinking water.

If you ask another way (Is water necessary for health?) you get a very, very different set of results.

If you ask a weird question (Does water contaminate groundwater?) you get answers about fracking, and contaminated groundwater and pesticides in groundwater.

If you ask another question (Is water a solvent?), you may be surprised to learn it not only is, but it’s the most common solvent—often called a universal solvent. 

Go back to the first question, is water toxic? There are lots of caveats. Are we talking about mineral-infused water, water being used as a solvent for something else, water in what quantities and concentrations? 

If water is that complicated, how are you going to make sense of products that are less common? You have to work very, very hard at it, and try to remove your preconceptions from your inquiry.
If you don’t realize that the results of your internet search are framed by your own limitations, perhaps you’ve been spending too much time on the internet.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2016

Monday, December 5, 2016

How long will you live? Exercise plays bigger role than diet, smoking and a lot of other factors.

Finally some clarity.

You aren’t what you eat.

You are what you DO.

A new study suggests you can get away with a fair number of dietary and other lapses, as long as you stay active.

There are Hawai`i data that make sense of this.

We’ve got our health issues in the Islands. Diet alone is an issue. Think fast food burgers, kalua pork and bento lunches with five kinds of meat. 

(People outside Hawai`i will question this, but I recently had a box lunch with rice, pickled vegetables and Korean barbecue ribs, barbecue chicken, teriyaki beef, Goteborg sausage and Vienna sausage.)

Despite such excesses, Hawai`i has the highest life expectancy in the nation. More than 81 years on average. This isn’t news. Here’s just one citation, from the Centers for Disease Control. 

Hawai`i also has one of the highest rates of exercising in the nation. One Gallup survey from 2013 said 62 percent of Island residents said they exercise at least 3 times a week. 

And it’s not just the nice weather. We’re second highest in the nation for exercise after Vermont. And Montana and Alaska are right up there, too. All are also in the top third in longevity

So, is there a connection? 

Sure there is, according to these researchers from the American Heart Association and Queen’s University. They say exercise trumps diet and lots of other risk factors toward living a long life. (Here's the Eureakalert review of the paper we're citing.)

And you don’t have to be a triathlete. 

“Moderate levels of physical activity consistent with current recommendations may be all that is needed to derive a clinically significant benefit for habitually sedentary individuals,” said Dr. Robert Ross, of Queen’s U.


Those are the basics. Let’s get into the details.

The report is called Importance of Assessing Cardiorespiratory Fitness in Clinical Practice: A Case for Fitness as a Clinical Vital Sign. It was published in the American Heart Association journal, Circulation.

The report says that your level of physical fitness, referred to here as cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF), is a key to mortality. 

It's dead simple. Low fitness, high mortality. Even moderate fitness, lower mortality.

“Mounting evidence has firmly established that low levels of cardiorespiratory fitness are associated with a high risk of cardiovascular disease, all-cause mortality, and mortality rates attributable to various cancers,” the paper says.

It goes on: “A growing body of epidemiological and clinical evidence demonstrates not only that CRF is a potentially stronger predictor of mortality than established risk factors such as smoking, hypertension, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes mellitus, but that the addition of CRF to traditional risk factors significantly improves the reclassification of risk for adverse outcomes.”

Any one study gives you a pinpoint view of a very broad subject. This is different. This particular report is not new research, but is a review of the known literature on health and mortality over the past 30 years, and an attempt to get a better handle on risk factors. And it looks at studies with thousands of participants.

One study after another has confirmed the role of exercise in living longer. Here are some of the study results.

A study of nearly 10,000 men: “Survival increased in subjects who improved exercise capacity.”
A study with more than 3800 participants: “Fitness was a strong predictor of outcomes irrespective of weight status.”
A study with more than 15,600 participants: “Moderately fit had 50% lower mortality than those with low CRF.”

The upshot: “A consistent finding in these studies was that after adjustment for age and other risk factors, CRF was a strong and independent marker of risk for cardiovascular and all-cause mortality.”

And as we said earlier, you don't have to go to extremes in exercise.

The report looks at studies of high intensity training compared to continuous moderate intensity training, and does not find a compelling case for one over the other. Both improve cardiorespiratory fitness, it says, but there are concerns about injury and “cardiac complications in selected patients” with higher intensity workouts, it says.

So, what kind of exercise should you consider? Here is the language from the report:

“Exercise that involves major muscle groups (legs, arms, trunk) that is continuous and rhythmic in nature (eg, brisk walking, jogging, running cycling, swimming, rowing, cross-country skiing, climbing stairs, active dancing), in contrast to high-resistance muscle-strengthening activities that produce limited CRF benefits.”

If you’re getting started, depending on your condition, it recommends building up to a regimen of three to five days a week, for 30 to 60 minutes at a time. You should start slow and easy if you’re just beginning an exercise regime, and breaking the initial sessions up into batches of at least 10 minutes is okay.

If you're in poor shape, the study recommends increasing activity in coordination with your medical provider. And it wouldn't hurt to read the whole report. It's free and available as a PDF from the heart association website

© Jan TenBruggencate 2016

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Hawaiian climate: it's not changing the way you expect--it's getting scarier

Much of what you’ve heard about the Hawai`i impacts of climate change may be false. It could be worse than what you’ve heard. 

Example: It’s probably not going to be drier everywhere, as many have suggested in recent years. In fact, according to a new paper, it’s more likely to get more extreme everywhere—kind of like American politics. 

Although “Hawaii is renowned for its generally pleasant weather, anticipated climate change over the present century will likely present significant challenges for its inhabitants,” says the paper, published by the American Meteorological Society.

Kevin Hamilton, of the University of Hawai`i’s International Pacific Research Center, said the best research indicates it’s likely to get wetter in wet areas, but drier in dry areas—deepening the divisions between the different zones of the Islands. IPRC is part of the university's School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology.

“We expect generally more rainfall on the windward sides and less on the leeward sides.  Combined with increased evaporation from the warmer surface this could lead to particularly dry conditions in places that are already feeling water stress, such as west central Maui,” said Hamilton, the retired director of the IPRC, in an email. 

Hamilton and co-authors Chunxi Zhang, Yuqing Wang and Axel Lauer just published their latest data in the Journal of Climate. It is entitled, Dynamical Downscaling of the Climate for the Hawaiian Islands. Part II: Projection for the Late Twenty-First Century

Their work also anticipates warmer weather in the Hawaiian uplands. 

“The surface air will warm significantly and the warming will be substantially more pronounced at high topographic elevations,” Hamilton said in an email. 

That has significant impacts, for example, for Hawaiian upland forest habitats. Previous research suggests that warming high mountains will increase upland mosquito populations, with direct impacts on native birds. Mosquitoes carry avian disease like avian malaria and pox.

“While published research on climate-related stress has concentrated on a limited number of species, it is likely that climate change in Hawaii will threaten many species and perturb terrestrial and coastal ecosystems, with unfortunate effects on the state’s remarkable contribution to global biodiversity,” the authors wrote.

Another issue: If drier areas get drier, they’ll be in greater need of irrigation to support agriculture, landscaping and other uses. That water will need to be diverted from the wetter areas. Water issues are intensely political matters in the Islands, and this suggests they’ll continue to be problematic for policy-makers.  

“Available surface and groundwater resources are scarce enough that water use restrictions are common in some areas during droughts, while agricultural demands for groundwater have sparked a history of public controversy and litigation,” the authors wrote.

Extreme weather events are likely to increase, Hamilton and his team wrote, like the big Manoa, O`ahu, flood of 2004, and this year’s Iao Valley flood, both of which caused massive damage costing into the tens of millions of dollars.

The IPRC group is continuing to fine-tune its data, but Hamilton said its climate models, when compared with past weather conditions, are accurately representing what’s been happening. And one of the warnings from the models are that apparent trends may not reflect what will happen in the future.

For example, while the models predict the drying trend in Hilo that has been seen in recent years, that may not continue. The models predict Hilo will get significantly wetter later in this century.

If you’re interested in detailed analyses, here are links to the group’s previous paper and the current paper.

© Jan TenBruggencate