Thursday, December 21, 2023

The U.S. is about to set a record for the most oil and gas extraction in its history

Guardian graph, from EIA data
Despite climate goals and lots of talk about the U.S. ending its dependence on fossil fuels, "The United States is poised to extract more oil and gas than ever before in 2023, a year that is certain to be the hottest ever recorded, reports Oliver Milman of The Guardian. "The U.S.’s status as the world’s leading oil and gas behemoth has only strengthened this year, even amid warnings from Joe Biden himself over the unfolding climate crisis, with the latest federal government forecast showing a record 12.9m barrels of crude oil per day, more than double what was produced a decade ago, will be extracted in 2023."

Part of what Americans want is cheaper gas, but that has come at a cost. Milman writes, "The increased fossil fuel production, which Biden championed last year as a way to tamp down gasoline prices for U.S. drivers and to support overseas allies in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, also risks burdening disadvantaged communities living next to polluting infrastructure and threatens to alienate younger, climate-conscious voters ahead of next year’s presidential election, an adviser to the White House has cautioned."

The transition to renewables is hard for Americans to imagine. Nate Hultman, an expert in climate policy at the University of Maryland, told Milman, "We have a dynamic that feels awkward, of how to reconcile the world we are living in, that’s heavily fossil fuel-driven, with the vision of a clean, non-emitting world. That’s the tension.”

Despite the Biden administration's "boost to renewable energy in the U.S., Biden has been handing out oil and gas drilling leases on public lands at a rate comparable to Donald Trump, with the emissions from 17 large projects permitted by his administration," Milman reports. 

Big trees are a big deal. Preservation of old-growth trees is becoming a contentious battle nationwide.

The largest trees often grow together in a 'stand.'
(Photo by Steve Ringman, The Seattle Times)
Trees don't seem controversial, but they are. "The fight over the future of the last old and mature forests in America intensified Tuesday when the Biden administration called for preservation of old-growth trees," reports  Lynda V. Mapes of The Seattle Times. "The administration, after creating an inventory of the nation's old growth, wants to amend 128 forest land-management plans to conserve and steward 25 million acres of old-growth forests and 68 million acres of mature forest across the national forest system."

"For the Pacific Northwest — home to much of the nation's remaining old forests — an effort is already underway to overhaul and update key old-growth protections in the Northwest Forest Plan of 1994, one of the world's most ambitious conservation plans," Mapes writes. "But the nationwide attention from the federal government is adding to the debate over old forests' cultural and ecological significance and their ability to suck up carbon from the atmosphere that is warming the planet."

Not everyone agrees the new initiative is needed. The American Forest Resource Council, a trade group, "panned the old-growth initiative as unnecessary and burdensome," Mapes explains. Council President Travis Joseph issued a statement, saying, "Existing federal environmental laws and forest plans provide direction on managing and protecting old growth. Yet the agency is now being directed to embark on a new, massive bureaucratic process — during a wildfire and forest health crisis — that will likely make forest management more complex, costly, and contentious."

Big trees are a big deal. "They are the most important helpers in absorbing carbon because while they are slower growing than young trees, their greater mass locks away more carbon," Mapes reports. "Recent research shows large trees dominate carbon storage in the Pacific Northwest. Old and mature natural forests also provide a haven for biodiversity and human well-being."

As part of the Northwest Forest Plan overhaul, a 21-member committee "began work last September on updates to reflect changed conditions and new science." The U.S. Forest Service has announced its intent to prepare an environmental impact statement, expected in June, on the Northwest Forest Plan amendment, with a 90-day public comment period to begin at that time. 

Overdose-prevention programs in remote Maine work to stem drug-related problems and deaths

Naloxone is part of harm-reduction strategies.
(Photo by NEXT Distro, Unsplash)
Access to drug overdose prevention and addiction treatment in rural America can be almost non-existent. In Washington County, Maine, a remote area ravaged by drug use and overdose deaths, there was little help for substance-related issues. But a non-profit with federal dollars from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is working to change the county's number of drug-related medical problems and deaths, reports Taylor Sisk of The Daily Yonder. "In 2022, SAMSA awarded $30 million to 25 grantees to support community-based overdose-prevention programs, syringe services programs, and other harm reduction services. . . .MaineHealth received $1.2 million for a statewide overdose- and infection-prevention initiative."

Washington County, ME
(Wikipedia map)
Because Maine is small -- California is five times its size -- fewer people may know the extent of the state's drug problems. "Maine is the most rural state in the country with one of the highest drug-overdose rates. . . . It has one of the highest rates of acute hepatitis B. And it has the highest rate of hepatitis C, largely attributed to injection drug use," Sisk writes. "Washington County is the nation's easternmost county – the last stop on the line. It has a Walmart in Calais, the county's largest town, pop. 3,032. But if you live in Machias, the second largest town, pop. 2,062, it's an hour's drive. You're more likely to rely on the Family Dollar for your essentials. There's no bus service and one taxi company. . . . It has the highest poverty rate in the state."

In 2022, MaineHealth "launched Project DHARMA – Distribution of Harm Reduction Access in Rural Maine Areas – a collaboration with community-based organizations, including syringe services programs. Washington County became a beneficiary," Sisk reports. Harm reduction care "embraces a set of evidence-based strategies for reducing the negative consequences of drug use to keep people alive and as healthy as possible until such time as they should be ready to seek treatment."

Kinna Thakarar is an infectious disease and addiction medicine physician for MaineHealth and Project DHARMA's lead researcher. She told Sisk, "The services Project DHARMA is funding are evidence-based. Among the supplies and services syringe services programs typically provide in addition to clean syringes are saline, Band-Aids, condoms, information, and referrals. . . . They provide naloxone, a medication that quickly reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, and offer fentanyl test strips, an increasingly urgent need."

"Another critical service this grant will fund is one advocates have fought hard to launch: drug testing using handheld spectrometers. Outreach workers will test drugs to determine their contents; the drugs will then be sent to Colby College for confirmation. Other academic partners are providing technical assistance," Sisk writes. "But gaining permission to do so wasn’t easy. It required passing legislation 'so that none of us would get arrested in doing this evidence-based public health work,' Thakarar said. The passage of L.D. 1745, signed into law this summer, allows select individuals to possess 'nominal amounts' of illicit or controlled substances for the purposes of drug testing."

As states receive more than $50 billion in opioid settlement money, companies are competing to get some of the funding

Caution is advised with settlement money.
(Photo by JP Valery, Unsplash)
Money from opioid settlements began to hit state coffers in November, and now a long line of companies and service providers want to help states spend it. Experts are urging caution, reports Aneri Pattani KFF Health News. Marketing pitches for everything from funding new psychedelic research to providing law enforcement with lassos instead of tasers have been flooding state and local officials in charge of distributing the more than $50 billion in settlement funds.

The billions in payments were intended as a punishment and warning to drug companies whose aggressive, harmful and often dishonest marketing practices "fueled an epidemic that progressed to heroin and fentanyl and has killed more than half a million Americans," Pattani explains. "The settlement money, arriving over nearly two decades, is meant to remediate the effects of that corporate behavior."

But as the dollars began to flow to states in early November, "a swarm of private, public, nonprofit, and for-profit entities began eyeing the gold rush," Pattani writes. "Some people fear that corporations, in particular — with their flashy products, robust marketing budgets, and hunger for profits — will now gobble up the windfall meant to rectify it."

JK Costello, director of behavioral health consulting for the Steadman Group, a firm that is being paid to help local governments administer the settlements in Colorado, Kansas, Oregon and Virginia, "receives multiple emails a week from businesses and nonprofits seeking guidance on how to apply for the funds," Pattani adds. "To keep up with the influx, he has developed a standard response: 'Thanks, but we can't respond to individual requests, so here's a link to your locality's website, public meeting schedule, or application portal.'"

KFF Health News "obtained email records in eight states that show health departments, sheriffs' offices, and councils overseeing settlement funds are receiving a similar deluge of messages," Pattani reports. "In the emails, marketing specialists offer phone calls, informational presentations, and meetings with their companies. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall recently sent a letter reminding local officials and vet organizations to reach out.

While some private sector companies will be partners, "the key, agree public health and policy experts, is to critically evaluate products or services to see if they are necessary, evidence-based, and sustainable — instead of flocking to companies with the best marketing," Pattani reports. "And, ultimately, failure to do due diligence could leave some jurisdictions holding an empty bag."

'White Christmas' is a carol all Americans can enjoy; its history has lessons about overcoming sad times

'May your days be merry and bright.'
(Photo by Chandler Cruttenden, Unsplash)

Dreaming of a White Christmas? Many people do -- even 80 years after the song's debut. With a "new kind of Christmas carol" Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby helped make Christmas a holiday all Americans could celebrate, writes Ray Rast for The Conversation, a journalistic platform for academics. In 1940, Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant, wrote "the quintessential American song, White Christmas, which the popular entertainer Bing Crosby eventually made famous."

But the 1940s was a "profoundly sad time for humanity. World War II – what would become the deadliest war in human history – had begun in Europe and Asia, just as Americans were starting to pick up the pieces from the Great Depression," Rast explains. "Today, it can seem like humanity is at another tipping point: political polarization, war in the Middle East and Europe, a global climate crisis. Yet, like other historians, I've long thought that the study of the past can help point the way forward. White Christmas has resonated for more than 80 years, and I think the reasons why are worth understanding."

Part of the song's lasting charm is its melodic nostalgia for what Americans hope for during the holidays. "The Christmases that Berlin and Crosby 'used to know' were those of the 1910s and 1920s, when the season expanded to include the nation's first public Christmas tree lighting ceremony and the appearance of Santa Claus at the end of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade."

Berlin's inspiration for the song came in 1937 when he spent Christmas alone. "Berlin had connected his lonesome Christmas to the broader turmoil of the time, including the outbreak of World War II and fraught debates about America's role in the world," Rast explains. "This new song reflected his response: a dream of better times and places. It evoked a small town of yesteryear in which horse-drawn sleighs crossed freshly fallen snow. It also imagined a future in which dark days would be 'merry and bright' once again. . . .This was a new kind of Christmas carol. It did not mention the birth of Jesus, angels or wise men – and it was a song that all Americans, including Jewish immigrants, could embrace."

Bing Crosby was already an American favorite. When 'Holiday Inn' premiered in August 1942, "reviewers barely mentioned the song, but ordinary Americans couldn't get enough of it," Rast writes. "By December, it was on every radio, in every jukebox. . . . The key reason was the nation's entry into World War II. . . . White Christmas was not overtly patriotic, but it made Americans think about why they fought, sacrificed and endured separation from their loved ones. As an editorial in the Buffalo Courier-Express concluded, the song 'provided a forcible reminder that we are fighting for the right to dream and for memories to dream about.'. . . This made it a song all Americans could embrace, including those not always treated like Americans."

To read Rast's entire essay,
click here.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

More than $1 billion in medical debt abolished for Appalachians by RIP Medical Debt organization

A national nonprofit announced recently that it has abolished more than $1 billion in medical debt for people in the Appalachian region. RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit "that raises funds from donors and uses them to acquire and abolish medical debt for people who are financially burdened" has a program that focuses specifically on people in Appalachia, "one of the poorest and least healthy areas of the U.S.," according to information from the organization.

The region's campaign to wipe out medical debt began in 2019 "with the generous support of two families with ties to the region – Jim and Sharen Branscome and Bill Bishop and Julie Ardery – whose donation wiped out $10 million of medical debt for 10,000 individuals in Appalachia. The Branscome's ongoing fundraising has played a major role in reaching the 1 billion dollar milestone." Read more about that donation and the funders' connection to the area here.

According to the organization, Appalachia comprises 423 counties across 13 states and spans 206,000 square miles, from southern New York to northern Mississippi. The region is home to 26.3 million residents. "While it has made progress in recent years, it still lags behind the nation in key socioeconomic indicators. Just under 1 in 7 people in Appalachia are in poverty, and approximately 2.2 million people are uninsured. With higher debt burdens than other parts of rural America, nearly 1 in 4 Appalachians have medical debt in collections."

RIP Medical Debt works nationally to relieve people of medical debt, which in turn helps individuals "enhance their economic opportunities and enable them to live healthier lives. RIP’s criteria for debt relief are those individuals who are four times or below the federal poverty level or those with medical debt that is 5% or more of their gross annual income. Medical debt relief cannot be requested . . . ."

Since RIP Medical Debt's inception in 2014, "more than $10.4 billion of medical debt has been abolished, helping more than 7 million people. Medical debt often results from unplanned, unexpected illnesses and accidents. About one-third of U.S. adults have difficulty covering unexpected health care bills."

New Mexico schools use wastewater testing to identify student drug use; the science is catching on in other places

Wasterwater testing can pinpoint drug use in schools
and communities. (N.M. Health Dept. photo via WP)
School administrators in New Mexico are using wastewater testing analysis to learn more about student drug use and to help inform their decisions on how to respond. "Using a technique that became popular nationally to spot Covid-19 outbreaks, New Mexico appears to be the first state to test wastewater at public high schools for a range of opioids and stimulants," reports Sara Randazzo of The Washington Post. "Initial data released since last week from more than three dozen high schools. . . included what school leaders and state officials called a surprise: cocaine use in nearly 82% of the campus communities."

Health and school officials plan to use testing results to "guide drug-prevention programs and pinpoint how to allocate resources for addiction services," Randazzo writes. "The tests aren't meant to assist in punitive measures, but to give a snapshot of campus drug use. . . . Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that has led to a surge in overdoses nationwide, and its metabolite appeared at nine of the 38 New Mexico schools. None showed a heroin presence."

Europe and Australia began deploying wastewater testing to measure illicit drug use around 2010, but the method has been slow to "catch on in the U.S.," Randazzo reports. 

New Mexico may be the first to use wastewater testing in schools; however, "communities in California, Delaware, Virginia and elsewhere started broader municipal wastewater drug-testing programs this year focused on the opioid epidemic, some of it funded by the federal government," Randazzo writes. "Drug overdoses killed more than 100,000 people in the U.S. in 2022, federal data shows, more than two-thirds of those from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids."

The wastewater testing company Biobot Analytics "is working with Marin County, an affluent area north of San Francisco, where drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for those 55 and under," Randazzo adds. "Matt Willis, Marin County's public health officer, said weekly testing over the past year helped them see in May that xylazine, a powerful horse tranquilizer that is dangerous to humans, was entering the community. . . ."

Female election officials are often targets of physical and verbal threats, but there are tools to protect them

A polling station worker in Falls Church, Va.
(Reuters photo via Brookings)
As the U.S. heads into the final months of election preparation, officials are dealing with challenges that go beyond counting votes --  physical and verbal threats, especially against women. "The threat of violence against election officials is pervasive. Women make up 80% of election workers in the United States, and they face unique, gendered harassment," report Zoe Wynn, Hannah Fried, and Norman Eisen of Brookings.

With more partisan politics, election site hostility has become more common. "Legal tools are available to make things better. The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 lays out confidentiality provisions aiming to protect the personal information of survivors of domestic violence," Brookings reports. "If codified into state law, similar provisions based on those in VAWA could help protect female election officials in advance of the expected surge of election denialism in the 2024 election."

The harassment of female election officials has been well-documented, alongside the loss of seasoned election officials who have quit or retired. "An investigation by Reuters in 2021 found that threats to election officials were typically generated by men and directed at a predominantly female workforce. Reuters found that dozens of these threatening messages used sexual or misogynistic language," Wynn, Fried and Eisen write. "The Brennan Center for Justice found that one in five election officials are 'very' or 'somewhat unlikely' to continue serving through 2024. The election officials surveyed specifically cite attacks on the system and stress as their primary reasons for leaving."

The VAWA gives states a framework to begin protections, but a "one-size-fits-all" structure is not the answer. "The VAWA provides a useful legislative starting point for a tailored, female-specific anti-harassment law. The bill's aims include reducing violence against women, securing offender accountability, and ensuring victim safety," Brookings reports. "Eleven states have passed comprehensive laws to protect election officials. . . . Threats to female election require a tailored approach that accounts for the gendered nature of the issue."

"A critical portion of the law is its confidentiality provisions. Confidentiality provisions are measures to protect the personal information of survivors of domestic violence and can provide opportunities for disciplinary action if personal information is disseminated," Wynn, Fried, and Eisen explain. "Lawmakers identified these measures as an effective means of preventing abusers from tracking their victims and causing them further harm."

Brookings reports, "Women who serve in election posts should be awarded similar protections commensurate with the nature of the threat to their safety. The functioning of our elections, and therefore our democracy, depends upon it."

Some rural Americans hope the Farm Bill can help in getting broadband services to their homes and businesses

Broadband is reaching some rural residents while others
feel 'cut off.' (Photo by Emily Haxby via Modern Farmer)
Farming families need broadband for education, connection, and to compete in global food markets. Too often, farmers feel cut off from the rest of the world with few viable options, reports Emily Baron Cadloff of Modern Farmer. "Millions of Americans live without reliable internet services. For farmers and food providers, this leaves them lagging behind competition and stuck with outdated equipment. Now, they're looking to the Farm Bill for answers."

It's widely known that getting broadband to "the last mile" is a challenge, but there are other dead spaces. The Stroup family farm raises beef cattle and grows soybeans and wheat near Bessemer City, NC., pop. 5,400. "The family has been consistently stymied when it comes to internet access on their farm," Cadloff writes. "The farm is a classic example of those impacted by the middle mile effect. In an urban area, if an internet service provider lays a mile of cable for broadband internet, it will be able to connect hundreds, if not thousands, of customers because the area is densely populated. In a rural area, that same mile of cable might connect a single family, so ISPs aren't financially incentivized to run cable in those regions. What ends up happening is a lot of high-volume areas, surrounded by dead zones."

Dead zones disproportionately limit rural connections from online schooling to a farmer's ability to update his tractor's technology software, but the solution has been hard to come by. Sascha Meinrath, the Palmer Chair in telecommunications at Penn State University, told Cadloff: "The Farm Bill could include a mandate that says anytime a provider reports to a federal agency that they provide service at an address, they must provide that service within 30 days or get fined $10,000 a day until they do." Cadloff adds, "In other words, force the ISPs to show verification that they are doing what they claim."

Reinstating "common carriage" is another solution. "Up until 2005, we had common carriage in the US, just like the universal service with telephones," Cadloff reports. Meinrath told her, "If you had a telecommunications infrastructure, you had to carry the traffic of your competitors." But Cadloff reports, "the government got rid of common carriage in 2005, so ISPs started focusing on only the most profitable areas."

To find out why there is still so much work left to do to connect rural America with broadband, click here.

Listening to holiday music can help runners improve their mood and speed; even non-runners benefit from music

Maybe Santa is a runner.
(Photo by Artem Maltsev, Unsplash)
Running with holiday tunes crooning in your ears can improve your mood and your stride. "It's the most wonderful time of the year for 'music doping,'" reports Mallory Arnold of Outsider. "One study had 20 male participants perform two six-minute running tests, one with and one without music. Researchers measured mean running speed, blood lactate, total distance covered, heart rate, and rate of perceived exertion. The results concluded that runners who listened to their music of choice were significantly faster and had lower blood-lactate concentrations."

No wonder Santa can get so much done in one night -- he's obviously knee-deep in snow and Dean Martin. Erin Hannon, director of the University of Nevada Las Vegas Music Lab, told Arnold, "You may not realize this, but when you listen to music, the part of your brain you're using doesn't just process sound. It's also the part that controls movement, so you're actually engaging the motor system of the body when you listen to music."

It makes sense that Santa would need to be fit.
(Photo by RawKim, Unsplash)
It's true that an individual has to enjoy holiday music for their run to improve while listening. "Those who have positive feelings around the holiday season will benefit from listening to carols while running, as the brain becomes stimulated (or aroused), hyper-focused, and releases endorphins that can not only create that 'runner's high,' but can promote short-term psychoactive effects like feelings of calm and elevated mood," Arnold explains. "Excess endorphin release has also been studied for its pain-relieving properties, which can be extremely beneficial during a run, like a natural ibuprofen."

Of course, listening to carols after the holiday may not have the same impact. Then, what's a person to do after Dec. 25? Keep listening to music -- even if you're not running or listening to holiday tunes. As Henkjan Honing points out in her report for The MIT Press Reader, a study showed "newborns possess the ability to discern a regular pulse – the beat – in music. It's a skill that might seem trivial to most of us, but that's fundamental to the creation and appreciation of music," Honing writes. "The discovery sparked a profound curiosity in me, leading to an exploration of the biological underpinnings of our innate capacity for music, commonly referred to as 'musicality.'"
Newborn babies participating in a listening experiment.
(Courtesy Eszter Rozgonyiné Lányi, MIT Reader)

"Alongside psychology and neuroscience, the realms of biology and genomics now offer effective toolkits for empirically testing theories on the origins of music in the present day," Honing reports. "Consequently, musicality research is gaining scientific respectability, coherence, and maturity. The once-speculative nature of the origins of musicality research is giving way to a more concrete and scientifically rigorous approach, making it an exciting and promising avenue" for discovery.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

FCC rescinds SpaceX funding for broadband services in rural America; decision affects customers in 35 states

Elon Musk, Chief Executive Officer of SpaceX 
(Photo by 
Gonzalo Fuentes, Reuters)

The Federal Communications Commission has refused to reinstate SpaceX's roughly $900 million in rural broadband subsidies, which were to be used to provide high-speed internet services to rural customers in 35 states. The work was scheduled to be handled by the company's satellite internet unit Starlink to improve rural internet access. "The FCC said the decision impacting Elon Musk's space company was based on Starlink's failure to meet basic program requirements," reports David Shepardson of Reuters. "And that Starlink could not demonstrate it could deliver promised service after SpaceX had challenged the 2022 decision."

"The FCC had rescinded the funding in August 2022 based on speed-test data after Starlink had agreed to provide high-speed Internet service to 642,000 rural homes and businesses in 35 states," Shepardson writes. Jon Brodkin of Ars Technica reports, "The [August rejection ruling] called Starlink a 'nascent LEO [low Earth orbit] satellite technology' with recognized capacity constraints.' The FCC questioned Starlink's ability to consistently provide low-latency service with the required download speeds of 100Mbps and upload speeds of 20Mbps."

SpaceX filed a reply to the denial, saying the company was "deeply disappointed and perplexed by the Commission's decision to exclude SpaceX's Starlink from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. This decision directly undermines the very goal of RDOF: to connect unserved and underserved Americans. Starlink is arguably the only viable option to immediately connect many of the Americans who live and work in the rural and remote areas of the country where high-speed, low-latency Internet has been unreliable, unaffordable, or completely unavailable, the very people RDOF was supposed to connect."

The two Republican commissioners on the five-member FCC "dissented from the decision, saying the FCC was improperly holding SpaceX to 2025 targets three years early and suggesting the Biden administration's anger toward Musk was to blame," Shepardson reports. "Musk said in a post on X the FCC decision 'doesn't make sense. Starlink is the only company actually solving rural broadband at scale! They should arguably dissolve the program and return funds to taxpayers, but definitely not send it (to) those who aren't getting the job done.'"

Opinion: West Virginia University 'faculty are stretched so thin that no one could offer a class on Shakespeare'

(Photo by Chase Barnes, The Atlantic)
As West Virginia University administrators continue to cut classes and degree programs that carve out the humanities, writer Michael Powell asks in his opinion for The Atlantic, "Do West Virginia kids of modest means deserve the humanities?" Below is a condensed version of his thoughts.

"For too long, President E. Gordon Gee of West Virginia University told anyone who would listen that public universities had tried to be everything to everyone and keep up with elite private colleges. When the coronavirus pandemic shut down American universities in 2020, Gee embraced its disruptions as a gift. He began rolling out his own plan. . . . He spoke of investing in medical, nursing, cybersecurity, and business degrees to serve a working-class state with an aging population plagued by disease and drug abuse. . . . Gee terminated more than two dozen majors and cut professors in other programs in areas as varied as foreign languages, public health, jazz studies, and community planning.

"Some cuts were truly baffling, given his insistence on WVU’s obligation to strengthen the state. The university decided to stop granting graduate degrees in environmental health sciences, education administration, and math. Many of WVU’s 27,000 students protested that this wasn’t what they wanted. The faculty cast an overwhelming no-confidence vote in the president, to zero effect. More than 140 professors will soon be without jobs.

"For most students, their state’s main public university remains their best hope of breaching the walls of class difference. As the ax falls, that idealistic mission fades, and inequalities widen. A student at Cornell University, for example, has a buffet of choices, including more than four dozen languages as varied as Sinhala, Old Norse, Farsi, Khmer, and ancient Greek. By contrast, a student at West Virginia University will soon have just four choices—Chinese, Arabic, French, and Spanish—and there will not be enough instructors for students to major in any of them.

"The budget for the school library was cut by $800,000 in recent months, and administrators laid off employees and have suspended ordering new books. Liberal-arts departments cannot afford to fix photocopiers. English faculty are stretched so thin that no one could offer a class on Shakespeare."

Many environmentalists prefer real Christmas trees over fake ones because of substantial 'ecological benefits'

A Maine family's annual outing to cut
down their Christmas tree. (TRB photo)
Christmas preparations include dear traditions, and for some Americans, that means a trip to their local Christmas tree farm, where they may sleuth and argue for the best fir to chop down and haul home for the beloved decking of the tree. Little do some know their yearly outing supports more than the Christmas tree farmer. "The ecological benefits of real Christmas trees are why many environmentalists endorse them over the fake, petroleum-based versions shipped from half a world away," reports Cara Buckley of The New York Times. "Christmas tree farms can function much like young forests, said Andy Finton, a forest ecologist with the Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts."

Several years ago, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests started a Christmas tree farm. A few years into its planting, Nigel Manley, who oversaw the operations, "began noticing some interesting developments among the rows of fragrant balsam and Fraser firs lining the land," Buckley writes. "In the spring, areas around the younger trees drew ground nesters like bobolinks — songbirds that migrate to and from South America — killdeer and woodcocks, who availed themselves of the open spaces . . . . Mice and voles living on the land drew foxes and migratory raptors such as kestrels and harriers, who feasted on the cornucopia each time the grass was mowed."

The Rocks Christmas Tree Farm in New Hampshire.
(Photo by Nigel Manley, SPNHF)
Beyond wildlife homes, the firs make their space healthier. Finton told Buckley: "They're pulling carbon from the atmosphere. They're cleaning the air and, in many cases, cleaning the drinking water. They're keeping the landscape undeveloped, preventing impervious surfaces, by giving economic incentives to landowners." Buckley adds, "Ten years ago, researchers "documented 80 plant species at tree farms in North Carolina, including milkweed growing waist-high at the edges of fields, which drew 17 genera of bees and predatory insects that gobbled up tree pests."

Because of pesticide use in larger tree farms, some ecologists don't support the practice, Buckley reports. "Yet Bert Cregg, a professor of horticulture and forestry at Michigan State University, said Christmas tree growers generally want to minimize use of the chemicals. . . . .Pesticides are expensive, he said, and many growers live on-site and don't want to be exposed."

Tom Norby, the president of the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association, said that "a small portion of the trees were harvested each year, leaving roughly 90 percent growing and available for animals," Buckley reports.

Will inflation deflate American Christmas dinners? Many people say they might cut back on desserts, side items

Will ongoing U.S. inflation stifle Americans' "eat, drink and be merry" Christmas meal? Researchers from Purdue and Illinois University agricultural departments wanted to find out. "Inflation has been a key topic for much of the last two years," report Maria Kalaitzandonakes, Jonathan Coppess and Brenna Ellison. "The latest update from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that inflation continues to cool. For food prices, the report shows that prices rose 0.2% in the last month and are 2.9% higher now than 12 months ago (BLS, 2023)."

But despite some reprieve from food inflation, "the increased demands of the holidays means that not all consumers are feeling so jolly. We asked participants who typically celebrate a winter holiday with a meal whether they expected rising food prices to impact their meal plans," researchers write. "We find that over two-thirds thought their meals would be affected."

Among individuals who "indicated rising food prices would impact their meal, we asked about several potential strategies they might use to manage the cost of the meal. Table 1, above, shows the proportion of these consumers who plan to use each strategy," Kalaitzandonakes, Coppess, and Ellison explain. "Participants could select multiple strategies. The most common strategies were shopping for deals on ingredients (52.0%) and shopping ahead of time to spread out the cost (40.4%). However, reducing the number of foods and amounts of foods was also quite common. In open responses, consumers also mentioned the potential to cut back on certain food items – most commonly desserts, appetizers, and sides."

What's for the big dinner? "Reducing the amount of meat or changing up the types of foods served is one way consumers are managing food costs this holiday season," researchers add. "In Table 2, we show Christmas protein choices across consumers who expect rising prices to impact their holiday meal and those who do not. . . . Relevant for many farmers and ranchers, we also asked about reducing the amount of meat. We find that 16.9% of consumers who expect rising food prices to impact their holiday meal planned reduce the amount of meat they serve. In open-ended responses, some consumers mentioned scaling down the size of their proteins."

Flora and fauna: Shoes for a chicken; cats can eat more than 2,000 species; the decline of snowbirds

Nubz in his reindeer slippers
(Photo by Meesh Davignon via WP)

A tiny chicken missing some toes inspired fans to send him over 60 pairs of chicken shoes. The chicken, lovingly named Nubz, began his shoe journey with "a tiny pair of dog slippers decorated with reindeer" intended for a Chihuahua, reports Cathy Free of The Washington Post. Nubz's owner, Meesh Davignon, created a TikTok page and posted a "video she'd taken of him learning to walk in his reindeer slippers. . . . People loved it, and some wanted to add to Nubz's shoe wardrobe and give him more variety."

As your kitty heads outdoors, they could be hunting any number of creatures to call dinner. "Now, researchers have documented the breadth of cats' global buffet. A study published in the journal Nature Communications found that free-ranging domestic cats (including feral ones) eat more than 2,000 species, raising renewed concerns about the ecological fallout," reports Catrin Einhorn of The New York Times. "It's not the cats' fault they're bad for wildlife. Cats are carnivores. Their talent for preying on rodents is a big reason their ancestors and ours started hanging around together in the first place."

Juncos thrive in the cold.
(Photo by P. Trail via WTR)
National bird populations have declined; snowbirds such as the chill-loving junco are no exception. "Juncos are among the West's most familiar birds, reliable companions on summer hikes and winter days, writes Pepper Trail for Writer on the Range. "Juncos are also in sharp decline. According to the Breeding Bird Survey, a decades-long monitoring study of the nation's birds, junco populations are down by 42% since the surveys began in the late 1960s. . . . But here is the peculiar part: There is no obvious reason for this loss of millions of birds. What seems to be killing juncos is simply . . . everything."

"Have you ever wanted a strawberry so shiny and red that your field looks like it's full of Christmas lights? OK, maybe you haven't thought about it in those terms, but a new, shiny strawberry variety promises to kick off your season with traits growers want," reports Philip Gruber of Lancaster Farming. Kim Lewers, a strawberry research plant geneticist at the USDA's Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, told Gruber, "It was like the Holy Grail was a big, early, sweet strawberry, right? So now I finally have one." Meet the "Lumina" strawberry.

Judging by appearances, it doesn't look like oysters are extraordinarily talented, but looks can be deceiving. "Oysters stabilize shorelines, trap carbon-rich sediment, and help marshes grow," reports Emily Jones for Grist. "And researchers are now studying how creating new oyster reefs could help fight climate change by sequestering carbon."

Blue pigment adds an icy hue to a poplar branch's cellular
structure. (Photo by Robert Berdan, National Geographic)
What do plants look like from the inside? Photographer Robert Berdan aimed to find out: "With his camera-mounted microscope, Berdan zooms in to the cellular level to capture the hidden beauty of poplars, pine cones, and dandelions," reports Annie Roth of National Geographic. "His technique, known as photomicrography, involves photographing dyed specimens under a microscope fitted with a DSLR camera."

Monday, December 18, 2023

Humanities are getting cut from public university offerings, and rural areas can be affected more than others

WVU student poster protesting the cuts.
(Photo by Elaine S. Povich, Stateline)
English, history, philosophy, political science, economics, sociology and Spanish are just some of the subjects on public university chopping blocks, most of whom see the cuts as necessary to meet budget shortfalls and respond to a labor market that does not stress the humanities, reports Elaine S. Povich of Stateline. "Reductions are expected to grow across the country, particularly in rural areas where campus budgets are lower, enrollments are more likely to be falling, and where the pressure for career-oriented majors may be greater. But critics argue that such changes in emphasis will sap states of intellectual firepower, leaving them with fewer leaders and citizens who are well-rounded."

"Humanities courses such as languages, history, arts and literature are particularly vulnerable nationwide. Schools are more inclined to emphasize business, science, math and technology studies, which could lead to more high-paying jobs," Povich explains. "State budget reductions and schools' funding shortfalls also have contributed to cuts, particularly in rural states. State spending on higher education fell in 16 of the 20 most rural states between 2008 and 2018, when adjusted for inflation, according to a Hechinger Report analysis of data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research and policy institute that advocates for left-leaning tax policies."

While statistics show fewer college students are working toward humanities degrees, those who are feel shortchanged and question administrators' intentions when even other majors are cut. A group of West Virginia University students, "led by senior math major Matthew Kolb, of Follansbee, West Virginia, protested on campus this fall, joined by some faculty members whose jobs are being cut," Povich reports. "But it was no use; the school announced that it would eliminate 8% of its majors and the Ph.D. program in mathematics. The school also is cutting faculty in career-oriented departments such as mining engineering and petroleum and natural gas engineering."

WVU English professor Adam Komisaruk says, "The larger question is what state universities want to be."  He told Povich: "Is our mission as a university simply to respond to market forces and popular prejudice and to make educational decisions based on supply and demand? Or are we committed to providing a robust and diverse exposure to modes of thought that will allow our students to become knowledgeable, responsible, ethical, and engaged members of society?"

"Rural students can be particularly affected by university cuts, said Andrew Koricich, executive director for the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges and an associate professor at Appalachian State University in North Carolina," Povich reports. "As West Virginia is a mostly rural state, a higher proportion of its students come from rural areas." He told Povich: "A lot of states are shifting more toward looking at higher education not just as a public good but as a cost-benefit calculation. Then it becomes a value judgment whether rural students deserve the same education as urban institutions and students."

Frequently dredging the Mississippi River helps to keep cargo moving, but places to 'stash' sand are in short supply

The Mississippi River near Wabasha, Minn., is a dredging
hotspot. (Photo by Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune)
Frequent dredging kept cargo moving along the Mississippi this year, but moving sand from here to there has its own complications. "Historic low flows turned the Mississippi River into a construction area in 2023 as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged huge quantities of sand to keep the channel open for barge traffic," reports Chloe Johnson of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "Massive machines like the Dredge Goetz, a 225-foot-long vessel with a suction pipe nearly two feet wide, were moving through the river constantly to keep it clear. . . . From May to July, 'day in and day out, we were digging,'" said Tom Heinold, chief of operations for the Rock Island District of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Extreme weather fluctuations make preparing waterways more difficult. Johnson explains: "A sudden drop in flow means the water in the river loses velocity, and all the sand flowing with it drops to the bottom." This year's snowmelt and sudden drought caused that scenario to unfold, with sand blocking up many expected "choke points" and clogging some unexpected areas.

Constant dredging is expensive and leaves the corps searching for places to "stash the sand." Johnson reports. "It's expensive work for the corps and the taxpayers who fund it – between surveying potential dredging areas, sucking the sand up and moving it into storage areas. The dredging program on the Upper Mississippi cost an average of $45.4 million a year between 2014 and 2023. . . . As the corps seeks new places to dump sand in the future, Sabrina Chandler, manager of the Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, told Johnson, "I'm not sure that it's going to be a very simple fix."

While environmental advocates push for wildlife protections, the river's ability to ship remains the top concern. "It's a challenge to tease out all the impacts of dredging and sand placement. The upper Mississippi has already been chopped into 29 pools, each ending in a lock and dam to keep water high enough for shipping navigation. Since Congress required the 9-foot shipping channel in 1930, that navigation mission remains first and foremost for the corps on the river," Johnson writes. "Wildlife managers who bargain with the corps on sand placement are left looking for the least harmful scenario in a river system that has already been massively changed by human intervention across 145 years."

Wildfire smoke takes a physical and mental health toll on rural residents, and can be linked to suicides, study shows

Lingering wildfire smoke from Oregon's Archie Creek fire  
(Photo by Jan Pytalski, The Daily Yonder)

Wildfire smoke travels wherever the wind flow takes it, and lingering fires can be physically and emotionally exhausting for residents along the path.

As wildfires become more common, many rural residents struggle to deal with the effects of pervasive air pollution, reports Claire Carlson of The Daily Yonder with John Upton and Kaitlyn Trudeau of Climate Central. "The smoke harms farms and recreation-based businesses, can be psychologically triggering for wildfire survivors, frequently drives residents indoors, and recent research showed it's associated with increases in rural suicides."

Ongoing exposure to wildfire smoke can lead to a litany of health issues. "It exacerbates asthma and worsens infections," the Yonder reports. "Tiny smoke particles move from lungs into bloodstreams and can directly affect brain health, with research out of the University of Montana connecting smoke exposure to the development of dementia."

A study published last fall in the science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences "linked smoke exposure with increases in suicides among rural populations, though not among urban ones," Carlson, Upton and Trudeau write. David Molitor, a health economist at the University of Illinois, who led the research, which drew on 13 years of smoke and federal suicide data to track mental health effects, told reporters, "In rural areas, we find that smoke days are significantly associated with increases in suicide rates."

But the very nature of wildfire smoke as a smelly, hazy, lingering environment leaves rural residents with an inescapable mental hazard. Colleen Reid, a health geographer and environmental epidemiologist at the University of Colorado, who studies the health effects of wildfire smoke, told the Yonder: "In rural areas, there's likely more people whose livelihoods are based on the land and working outside. We're increasingly seeing mental health impacts. . . . There are some more recent studies where even individuals who were just affected by the smoke could have mental health impacts."

Looking for a way around the gas stove controversy? This writer found a solution.

Americans are 'very attached to their gas stoves.'
(Photo by Donna Kallner, The Daily Yonder)
Chefs, cooks and bakers from all walks of life have claimed kinship with their gas stoves. For rural fans, their devotion goes beyond being able to control heat; it speaks to survival when electricity fails. "For those who've never lived out yonder, it can be hard to understand how often we deal with power outages, reports Donna Kallner of The Daily Yonder. "During an electrical outage, I cannot use my oven because there's no way to light it manually. But I can light the stovetop burners the old school way: A box of kitchen matches sits by the stove 24/7/365."

Gas ovens' reliability and long-time presence in American homes make their removal seem unlikely, even when residents like Kallner want cleaner, safer energy. "Most Americans would prefer to live in a home where almost all major appliances run on electricity — but only if they can keep their gas stoves," reports Tik Root of Grist. "Just 31 percent want to go fully electric. People across the political and demographic spectrum are very attached to their natural gas stoves — an affinity that was particularly strong among respondents who identified as Hispanic. Nationally, one-third of all homes use methane for cooking."

So, what is a possible solution? Kallner, a rural cook, found a solution: "Liquid propane is considered a very clean burning fossil fuel suitable for indoor use. It was approved as an alternative fuel under the Clean Air Act, as well as the National Energy Policy Act of 1992. About 90% of the LP gas used in this country is produced in the United States. LP may be more expensive than natural gas, but it's about twice as energy efficient per cubic foot. It's delivered to the tank on my property by a friendly guy who checks our supply on a regular schedule and fills the tank before it's empty."

Kallner purchased a propane stove, including a new range hood. She writes, "This [hood] has a greater intake area than our old hood to increase the air exchange. . . . We should be able to cook a batch of pancakes in half the time. And I can light those burners with a match when the power is out."

Holiday fun: One gigantic meatball is nearly all you would need to feed 25 guests

'It's the proper Christmas showstopper.'
(IKEA courtesy photo via The Washington Post) 
Known for its flatpack furniture and iconic cafeteria offerings, Ikea is breaking from its minimalism-design traditions and serving up turkey-sized meatball. "The British branch of the Swedish retailer is holding a contest in which it is giving away 30 of the giant orbs, along with another 30 'vegan-friendly Veggieball Christmas Trees,'" reports Emily Heil of The Washington Post. "Ikea did not specify the weight of the thing, but the hulking, perfectly round meatball/boulder feeds up to 25 people, it said."

The overwhelming globe of meaty wonderfulness had some people wondering if the contest was a hoax. "But over the weekend, the company revealed the legal terms and conditions of the giveaway, making it look like this was, in fact, the real deal," Heil writes. "Winners, the company said, must pick up their prizes from their Ikea stores on Dec. 22-23. 'The Turkey-Sized Meatball is real!' it said in an Instagram post. 'It's big. It's tasty. It could be yours!'"

Ikea's normal-sized Swedish meatballs are a favorite, with some customers frequenting the store to stock up on meatballs. "During the pandemic, the company even released its recipe to give housebound devotees their fix," Heil adds. "They are typically served in a cream sauce, and the giant holiday version appears to come with a side of that traditional pairing to pour over the top."

"But the gargantuan version of the' ball perplexed my colleagues. First, guessing the size was difficult: 4 oz. servings for 25 people totals 6 ¼ pounds," Heil explains. "But Ikea claims that it is 'turkey-sized,' and most holiday turkeys are 10 pounds or more, reporter Becky Krystal noted. Then again, unlike its poultry rival, the meatball contains no bones."

Reporter Tim Carman "thought that all of these mysteries might be made (sort of) clear. 'Does it come with a 20-step instruction booklet, impossible to follow?' he wondered. . . . Online, people expressed similar wonder at the mammoth orb," Heil reports. 'We're gonna need a bigger gravy boat,' one commented, reprising an iconic line from the movie Jaws. 'Going to need an Uber XXXXXL to get that bad boy home,' another surmised. . . . Jokes aside, the contest had nearly 10,000 responses on Instagram alone as of Tuesday last week."