Saturday, November 30, 2013

Sea Stars (by no means "free fish") plagued by mystery wasting disease, turning to "goo" - an environmental warning?

There is a mysterious disease that is turning starfish into “goo”.  Fox News has a typical story here
Starfish cannot become “free fish” because they aren’t fish at all;  they are from a rather bizarre phylum called echinoderms (class Asterozoa).  But their population is important to the ocean ecosystem upon which our seafood chain ultimately depends.
If it is a virus, it would indeed be bizarre, that a virus can liquefy animal tissue although Laurie Garret, in her 1990s book “The Coming Plague” described Ebola virus as capable of doing that to human internal organs. 
Some speculate that the disease has something to do with warming oceans and acidity.

There were a couple of smaller epidemics in the 1980s and 1990s, but nothing like the die-off up and down the entire West Coast in 2013.  
Maybe video filmmaker and actor Reid Ewing should add 30 seconds or so of coverage about this catastrophe  to his satirical “Free Fish” (2012) short film (Movies blog, May 13, 2013).  The video does mention that some sea birds are dying because of eating human plastic waster, or regurgitating it into the mouths of chicks.  No doubt, plastic isn’t good for the “fish” themselves. He mentions sea horses, and almost gets around to saying that the males sometimes carry the young.  As for jellyfish – yes, the filmmaker is better looking (much so) than a coelenterate in biology lab – but then there is nearly extraterrestrial horror of the box jellyfish (particularly near Australia), with perhaps the deadliest poison known, and a biological derivation that seems alien. 
Wikipedia attribution link for image of starfish (Sea Star( regrowing arms.  Second picture (my own), Pacific Coast north of San Diego, near nuclear power plant, May 2012.  

Friday, November 29, 2013

Latest issue of Time gives more details on how Obamacare is stalling

The Nov. 29 issue of Time Magazine has a big article on Obamacare, with a lead story by Kate Pickert, “Is your plan in play?” I couldn’t find the specific article online yet (even with the paywall), but it’s worth seeing in print, on p. 30. 

Smaller employers really are getting squeezed, as are some individuals. Particularly hurt are some individuals who had managed to get bare-bone plans while working part time, or often slipping below 30 hours a week.  Many such plans are being dropped.
Obamacare is supposed to spread the risk of health care to everyone, but Pickert reports that larger employers are likely to get even stricter on employee wellness, which would suggest that people with poor “numbers” (like BMI, glucose or blood pressure) can still be charged more, which defeats the idea of the ACA.

Is it unfair for a single male to have to subsidize the maternity coverage of others?  Is it fair for others to subsidize treatment for a serious STD (like HIV)?  We saw that question in the 80s.  Is it fair for us all to “subsidize” contraception, mental health overage, or even drug and alcohol treatment?
In previous decades, single people with stable large employers had it pretty good.  They didn’t pay much out of pocket on premiums or treatment, regardless of “fairness”. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Supreme Court will decide whether "corporations" are like people when it comes to freedom of religious practice and speech

The Supreme Court will consider whether for-profit companies can claim “freedom of religion” (or of religious speech) under the First Amendment and refuse to offer coverage of some kinds of contraceptives to employees under Obamacare because of perceived religious objections of the ownership or workforce.  The controversy would probably only to privately held companies.
Churches and non-profits have a recognized freedom of “religious speech”, but the same right has never been recognized for profit-making companies, although generally (to the objections of the Left) the Court has recognized corporations as being like “people” (as if they were cats).  Insurance companies owned by faith-related groups might be affected, also.

The main plaintiffs are Hobby Lobby and Conestoga.  Both companies say that covering ordinary contraceptives are OK with them, but the companies object to covering use of Plan B and Ella as “abortifacients”.  Hobby Lobby also objects to covering intrauterine devices.
Robert Barnes covers the issue on p. A4 of the Washington Post Nov. 27.  
Personally, I would have reservations about making coverage for contraception mandatory.  I can understand the need to make everyone “share” the cost of pregnancy (we always have in the workplace, but the actual cost has been very low), and I wouldn’t think this coverage would cost much. But insurance should be about protecting people from major catastrophes;  mandatory portions of it shouldn’t deal with personal decisions and behaviors.

Are employers in this case imposing their views on associates?  I probably wouldn't see it that way. I've covered this before, but I generally would not work for an employer whose values I was at odds with (or vice versa).  In my own past, this led to some conflict over the military gay ban. 
Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Pete Williams reports for NBC on the clip above. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Universities, students pressure their portfolios and pension funds to eschew dirty energy

Students are pressuring their colleges (and the pension funds of universities) to invest green, and to develop portfolios that avoid fossil-fuel energy companies – big oil – according to Steven Mufson in the Washington Post, p. A10, today, Tuesday, November 26, 2013, link here

Analysts say that oil companies would have to be held to extracting about one third of their proven reserves, which serve as assets on their financial balance sheets, to keep global warming by 2100 down to 2 degrees C or 3.8 F.  

I held Exxon-Mobil for years (since 1977) and it did well for me, until my financial advisor sold it in a restructuring.My parents and relatives did well with energy and utility stocks and at least one natural gas well in Ohio. Quite literally, energy stocks provided stability for retirement and paid for eldercare. 
Would similar pressures be put on companies that practice mountatintop removal?

Universities have been active in pressuring other social policy changes, such as refusing to allow military recruiters on campus during the time of “don’t ask, don’t tell”.   

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Ted Cruz calls Obamacare a kind of "Robin Hood"

Saturday, CNN’s Chris Cuomo interviewed Texas Senator Tea Party and challenged Cruz to answer the question, if we started over on healthcare, what is supposed to happen to the currently uninsured, who cannot get reasonable health insurance because of pre-existing conditions, and wind up with unpayable medical bills (especially emergency rooms) that everyone else pays anyway (unless they are on Medicaid, which doesn’t always work). 
Cruz fired back and said, many people who did have individual health insurance have lost it.  So he says that Obamacare plays Robin Hood, taking something away from one person to give it by force to another.
It’s debatable how many people have really lost existing coverage and will have to pay much more under the new system. In states with their own exchanges, the experience is better, but even in these states, there have been some problems, as with a report on a woman in Washington State Nov. 19. 
Another question is, why did RomneyCare, started in Massachusetts under a Republican governor, work reasonably well, when it isn’t working nationally?

Imagine if the Obamacare idea carried over into other areas.  Suppose every blogger had to carry liability insurance if he blogged in the open, just because cyberbullying has happened to some people.  

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"Re-homing" of difficult foreign children highlights adoption, child-care crisis

It is often said that you cannot “un-adopt” a child, or return a child who turns out to be severely disabled or challenged or difficult to handle. (I think Nebraska passed a controversial law to allow parents to surrender difficult children a few years ago.)  But the New York Times today (Thursday, November 21, 2013) described the practice of “re-homing” difficult children, mostly adopted from foreign countries, in an article on p. A17 by Nicholas D. Kristof, “When children are traded”, link here
Apparently, off the books, the practice is rather widespread, with horrific consequences for children. 
Reuters is reported to be preparing a detailed series on the problem.
It’s also interesting to note that Russia is not allowing adoption of children in the US, but that appeared as part of its recent anti-gay law, and is probably really motivated by its concerns over slow birth rates and population loss.

A number of years ago, ABC 20-20 covered the challenges of adopting children from post-Communist Romania.
Is the fact that many relatively well-off adults or couples choose not to have children at all or become involved in raising them morally relevant?  

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Woman in Washington State, touted as an Obamacare success story, is double-crossed by the exchange.

Just one day after a glowing report about how well Obamacare was working in states that ran their own exchanges, comes a disaster from Washington State.
The woman involved in Jessica Sanford, who was contacted at least twice by the exchange and told her premium would raise significantly, after processing errors, and then finally she was told her family wasn’t available for a federal tax credit.
She wound up with a “silver” plan of $390 a month, or “bronze” (with very high deductibles” for $324 a month. 
The CNN news story (here) doesn’t mention whether she lives in the Seattle area, or along the populated I-5 corridor, or in the rural interior where costs ought to be a bit lower. 
The single mother has a teenage son.  
I seem to remember paying about $30 out of pocket for my own premiums at ING in 2001.  RMA, where I worked a while (in St. Paul, MN) in 2003, offered employee-only insurance for $49 a month.  Generally, when I was at ING, people paid four or five times what single people paid for family coverage, with the employer picking up the rest.  While the employer offered family coverage (and started to do so for same-sex couples while I worked there), I don’t know how well it subsidized the premium for family members.  I remember hearing that some employees paid something like $300 a month out of pocket for complete family coverage. 
It seems that family coverage has always been very expensive.  It’s interesting to ponder in the individual market whether single males subsidize maternity care when they can’t possibly need it (where presumably they would in a family plan).  Perhaps my premiums did subsidize it, but if so, it probably cost me only about $2 a month then. 

I will add, as I have noted, that my plan was very good at getting the very best surgical care quickly when I had an accident in 1998.  I’ll also add that in my own experience, with both retiree health insurance and later with Medicare Supplemental from UHC, as well as prescription drugs, coverage has been very effective with no questions on claims.  

Monday, November 18, 2013

Individual consumers in states that run their own exchanges seem to have much better experience with Obamacare

Obamacare (or the Patient Protection and Afforable Care Act) is working relatively well in states that set up their own exchanges, at least in Washington, Kentucky and Connecticut, according to a Washington Post story on p. A23 Monday November 18, 2013, by Jay Inslee, Steve Beshear, and Daniel P. Malloy, “How we got Obamacare to work”, link here. The story took surprising effort to find on the Post site even when searching for “Obamacare”.
The writers point out cases where, on state run exchanges, consumers were able to find superior products quickly, allowing them to keep their own doctors and often more coverage for less money.  They point out that it is the attitude of state politicians that determine whether this will work.  Instead, in many states, politicians have wanted to treat this as a kickball.  Then the failure of the federal site in these states (as well as a refusal to accept extension of Medicaid coverage) led to a self-fulfilling cycle. 
The authors point out that it is up to states as to whether to allow insurance companies to keep old policies for one more year, as Obama has asked them to do. So far, Arkansas, Rhode Island, and Vermont, and Washington have refused to allow the extension, as with the New York Post story here  or Mediate, here,  Only Arkansas (among these denier states) doesn’t have its own exchange yet.  Forbes has a map on which states have exchanges here.  New York State is considering whether it can allow the extension.  States that run their own exchanges (including NY) have less reason to accept the extension. 

Picture: Whiteface (Adirondacks, NY, Aug. 2012).  

Update: Nov. 20

The Washington Post reports that Minnesota also is refusing to allow the extension. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Insurers will be hit by anti-selection with Obamacare grace period extension, unless there are more subsidies

The Wall Street Journal is reporting Friday morning, in a front page story by Timothy Martin, Christopher Weaver and Joe Kamp, that insurance companies are somewhat unprepared for Obama’s policy decision, announced Thursday, to allow insurance companies to keep “non-compliant” individual insurance policies in place through Sept. 30, 2014, giving consumers more time to find adequate compliant replacements.

Obama stressed that insurance companies are not ordered to keep them, because companies stop selling some kinds of policies all the time.

The president announced the change in policy at noon on Thursday. 
One of the WSJ links is here

Many leading Democrats, as well as insurance executives, have expressed concern that anti-selection will be a bigger problem in 2014 than had been expected, and the government may subsidize excess claims somewhat.  

Picture: my own topical cream, for actinic keratoses on my face from sunlight, costs Medicare almost $1000.  

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Missouri man (Ryan Ferguson) freed after wrongful conviction based on shaky eyewitness testimony and "dreams"; apparently he was no where near the crime scene with no physical or DNA evidence

Multiple media outlets have reported the freeing of Ryan Ferguson, 29, who served nine years in prison for second degree murder of a sports editor, Kent Heitholt, in 2001.  Ferguson was arrested in 2004 after a “friend”, Chuck Erickson, told police in late 2003 that Ferguson had been with them when Kent was beaten to death in a robbery.  Erickson testified and later recanted.  But it is typically very difficult to overturn convictions even when a witness recants.  In this case, there were other matters that the prosecution withheld from the defense.  The CBS news story on the release is here and leads to another link giving the detailed back story.
What seems particularly galling is that perhaps neither young man was present at the scene of the murder.  No direct evidence was found.  Both had been at a bar illegally, drinking underage, and Erickson said he could not remember what he did that night when he woke up.  He became concerned when he saw a newspaper picture that looked like him at the scene two years later.  Apparently he had dreams about it.
The Daily Mail had written about the “dreams” in this account in June 2012, link here.   CBS have covered the case in a “48 Hours” story on December 27, 2008, specifically titled “Dream Killer”, as if a documentary film.  There was a supplement Feb. 23, 2013 called “The Accuser”.

There was also another CBS episode in Dec. 2012 sensationally called “Under a Killing Moon”.
In a few other cases, as reported on ABC 20-20 as with a case in Illinois, police have taken dream accounts seriously.
What seems so disturbing here is that Ferguson could have been convicted for the crime when he was nowhere near the scene, and when the “accomplice” wasn’t even sure that he was there but amplified the story to save his own skin.
Ferguson sounded quite articulate and forgiving in his television appearances. But he has lost ten years of his life because of something someone else did and has no college education. 
Lauren Effron and Dan Abrams have a similar story on ABC here and it was covered on Nightline Wednesday night.
Ryan Ferguson has a petition site, here
I sometimes write that there are no victims, only casualties.  But maybe this could happen to anybody.

The picture above is actually from Kansas (2006).    

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

NatGeo map shows mid-Atlantic states, New England at more tornado risk than generally believed

The November 2013 issue of National Geographic traces the activities of tornado chaser Tim Samaras, with particular emphasis on the May 31, 2013 tornado that took a bizarre course near El Reno, OK and barely missed Oklahoma City.  At one point it was almost 3 miles wide with wind speeds of almost 300 mph (the typhoon in the Philippines topped at around 220 possibly, but probably that was well off shore).  Curiously, the tornado dissipated four minutes after its maximum fury. The article is called “The Last Chase” by Robert Draper (like the 1966 movie “The Chase”).

There are graphic photos of the storm.  On pp. 48-49 there is, besides a drawing showing how supercells evolve, a US map showing the relative frequency of tornadoes, with the largest in “tornado alley”, especially Oklahoma. In the late winter and early spring there’s a patch from east Texas all the way to north Georgia.  I was surprised that there is a little “mini tornado alley” in the mid-Atlantic, stretching from SE Maryland, up by Annapolis and Baltimore, and into southeastern PA and southern New Jersey.  The risk diminishes quickly from Washington DC to the West,  There is another little alley in Connecticut and central Massachusetts.  I wasn’t aware that these areas have some heightened tornado risk.  The position of the mountains in the Blue Ridge (gaining in elevation quickly to the south) seems to funnel some severe storms through Harper’s Ferry gap into the Frederick area, but protects a lot of the Virginia suburbs directly west of DC somewhat, as some severe storms “divide” as they approach DC.
Try this link at NatGeo (“direct hit”), link
A few of the most severe storms I have encountered driving were north of Fredericksburg in April 2005, and (particularly heavy) northeast of Baltimore on I-95 in August 2012., and perhaps southern New Jersey in July 2011.   

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Clinton urges Democrats to change Obamacare to let all people keep legacy plans; debate on "no frills" plans continues

The debate on whether people who find their individual health insurance policies not renewable had “useless” policies continues. 
Patrick Duvall, governor of Massachusetts (where RomneyCare started) said that most of the canceled policies were pretty worthless.  But “real people”, who speak up (maybe out of proportion to real numbers) say these are high deductible, no frills plans that meet their real needs – keep them out of bankruptcy.   Sean Hackbarth weighs in on this duplicity on “Free Enterprise” here
So, if you like it, sometimes you can’t keep it, and sometimes you really liked it.
When I was growing up, my parents had individual policies, but they were high deductible,  In those days, office visits to the doctor cost $5, and many everyday items of medical care were easily affordable.  No longer. 

And former president Bill Clinton has been saying that the law should change to let people who like their plans keep them.  Obama should give in on this, he said today, with Los Angeles Times link here

Monday, November 11, 2013

Sunspots fewer, weaker than usual; other solar anomalies this cycle, not clear if good or not

Sunspots are fewer in number and weaker than would be expected for a solar sunspot activity maximum, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal by Robert Lee Holtz on Monday, November 11, 2013, link here
Furthermore, the two poles of the Sun’s rotation have the same charge, which is unusual, although the south pole is expected to reverse soon.  Scientists do not expect this reversal to affect Earth, at least not now.
Nevertheless, there have been a few coronal mass ejections recently, but all have missed Earth.
The strongest solar storm in recent years was still the one in October 2003, which damaged some satellites, striking ironically on the same day that WB’s “Smallville” program aired an episode about solar flares.

Solar output may be slightly weaker than usual, which could help ease global warming.  On the other hand, we wouldn't want a scenario like in the 2001 TV movie "Ice".  

The WSJ story says that solar storms can damage electronics.  They could severely damage major transformers, knocking out some areas of the national grid for weeks or months.  Local power generation or microgrids could be an effective preventive countermeasure.  Generally, other sources have reported that home electronics and newer cars would be at risk from EMP but never from solar storms.  Maybe that is incorrect.  

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Medicaid Coverage Gap and the religious duty to help the poor

The refusal of many states to accept expanded Medicaid funding from the federal government as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) has put many lower income people in peril, according to reports such as one from KSDK about the situation in Missouri, link here
Republican leaders say that Medicaid is so badly run that they want no further part of it, and deny that they want to leave people in the dark.  The news story tells about one childless woman with ovarian cancer, “I’m going to die”.  They can’t get on Medicaid or get subsidies for the exchange purchases either, if the state doesn’t accept expansion of Medicaid.
Kaiser Health has a story about “non expansion states” here.
But CNN has a long story by John Blake on its religion blog about attitudes toward how the poor should be helped, especially in matters of health care, “The Obamacare ‘scandal’ you haven’t heard about” here.
The article talks about the double talk from conservative pastors on helping the poor.  Getting personally involved in helping others is seen as a Christian (and more generally religious) obligation – “even when it costs you something” and requires radical hospitality or compassion.  But people typically don’t want go much beyond the needy within their own “natural families”. 

Friday, November 08, 2013

Obamacare: we indeed must become our brothers' keepers, sometimes

Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas have a short Wonkblog entry in the Washington Post Friday, “Obama shouldn’t apologize for blowing up the terrible individual market”, link here.  Terrible things do happen to people in the individual market, with sudden denials and cancellations or non-renewals due to pre-existing conditions (before Obamacare).  But the op-ed says that the old individual market is one where “healthy people benefit from systematic discrimination against the sick” along with other comparisons – men might benefit because they can’t get pregnant.   But the “conclusion” about healthy people seems to beg the question, backwards.  No one who is healthy and productive enough never to need medical services (it may be reckless to avoid screening) has “benefited” from what happens to the sick.  The right question to ask is whether healthy people should be responsible for the sick, either collectively through premiums or taxes, or even personally, as in filial responsibility situations.  Sometimes we must indeed become our brothers’ keepers.  But let’s ask the right question for the moral debate.  

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Mental health claims could scuttle Obamacare model for young people

USA Today is reporting concerns that the “young and healthy” could scuttle the actuarial models for Obamacare if they use mental health services a lot, as in a USA Today story this morning by Kelly Kennedy, link here.
The problem is that young adults need mental health services more than was realized.  The recent epidemic of rampages has drawn attention to the fact that young adults seem at risk for schizophrenia or other breakdowns during the college years, and there may be physiological reasons.  The brain finishes its “prurning” and ability to “see around corners” during those years.  There have been a few notorious cases where apparently intellectually gifted students did break down during those years.  The worst example may be James Holmes, who seems to have gone into neuroscience knowing that something dark lay ahead for him  (New York Daily News story from July 2013 here.)  He obviously was planning his attack as early as March of 2012 and was probably unwound long before that.
But generally there doesn’t seem to be any indication that teens with unusual talents, as shown in high school years, are more likely to break down than others.  Still the whole concept of the story, and the widespread need for mental health services, is disturbing.
In the latter half of 1962, when I was 19, I was an inpatient at NIH in a program for those with “adjustment difficulties” in college – part of the whole Cold War effort.  The women in the program tended to be there for “family” difficulties and were often less intact.  My “hospitalization” may have been more motivated old-fashioned ideas about homosexuality.  But during the therapy, “they” were very concerned about my “fantasy” material and my apparent unwillingness to bond with others whom I saw as “flawed” as I had been viewed.  They seemed more concerned about the existential consequences of what they perceived as my beliefs (as derived by the culture I had grown up in) than about me.  I did have a period of individual therapy in 1964 – in those days, the rate was $20 to $25 an hour – which I don’t discuss in detail but which I see as related to the coercion I had faced.  I even remember a day being bitten on the leg by a neighbor’s dog waiting for the bus to go into therapy – a real indignity. 

Update: November 9

The New York Times has reported and opined on the details of how tjee mental health care rules under Obamacare will really work, here.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Childless increases in the US among women (Pew study)

WJLA (ABC affiliate in Washington DC) reported tonight that more women are “choosing” not to have children.  About 20% of U.S. women reach age 40 without having children now, compared to 10% in the 1970s.  Many postponed having children while pursuing careers.  And some families really seem deterred by the enormous financial costs.  The report was based on Pew studies, and the story  (Jummy Olibanji) link is here
The report does not show that the US will lose working-age population because it has considerable immigration.
The link for the Pew story by Gretchen Livington and D’Vera Cohn is here.  Some groups of highly educated women are having more children, however.
Women who do not have children may have more risk of breast cancer. 

Friday, November 01, 2013

Microgrids can make communities much more resilient to disasters

According to a story in USA Today Friday, November 1, 2013 on p 2B, Money, “microgrids” are becoming a major resource to provide some resilience to electric power blackouts, link here
Microgrids can include local facilities that generate and store power in a renewable manner, including wind and solar.  In a sense, a home with a full backup generator, powered by natural gas, is a microgrid.  It would be possible for developers to build them into new home communities. 
Another aspect of the microgrid is the ability to sell power back to the grid.
Would the development of local microgrids protect community security?  From many kinds of threats, yes.  It would seem that a local generator, powered by gas, would not be affected by a big solar storm. Local microgrids could get power to homes and apartments up very quickly after severe thunderstorms or hurricanes or tornadoes.  Protection from EMP might be more difficult or problematic. Earthquakes could pose the problem of breakage of gas lines.

Still, microgrids could provide a rebittal to “doomsday prepper” kind of thinking.