Monday, October 13, 2014

Scared of Ebola? Consider The Flue Pandemic of 1918-1919

I'm in the midst of reading Dennis Lahane's excellent novel, Any Given Day. It gives a harrowing account of what happened in Boston after American troops came home from World War I carrying the flu virus with them.

He describes the health care system in Boston as so overwhelmed, that they could do nothing beyond picking up the dead bodies. It sounds exactly like what is happening in West Africa today.

Lahane did the historical research, of course, that makes a novel like this more than just a good story--which it most certainly is. According to the U.S. Public Health Service, 675,000 people, out of a population at the time of 105 million, died from the flu in just a few months. Hundreds of thousands of others were left orphaned or widowed. And, workers in those days, when they were trying to organize, had no health insurance and no pensions, so those widows and orphans were impoverished beyond our imaginations. Lahane, in this 2008 novel, offers a good look at those working conditions as well.

So, scary as Ebola is, let's take a deep breath and put this in perspective as people living in a country with a highly-developed health care system. And that goes in spades for the media outlets, both broadcast and in print, that are scaring people silly both for profit and to try to pin the outbreak of this disease on President Obama. ##

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

American Airlines Introduces Stand-Up Seating


Fort Worth, Texas, Oct. 1, 2014--American Airlines CEO W. Douglas Parker announced today that new planes being ordered will feature stand-up seating for coach passengers.
“We’ve been trying to squeeze more profit out of our coach passengers for some time,” he said, “and we’ve reached the limit of how many seats we can stuff in. But we can fit 20% more people into coach by standing them up. So we are confident that this new seating will do wonders for our bottom line.”
Asked how passengers might react to having to stand for hours, Parker said people already accept standing for hours at concerts, on line to buy new Apple products and so on. “They’ll be able to lean back and rest their butts on a rail, so it will be relaxing,” he insisted during a news conference at which reporters seemed skeptical at first. He said it would remind passengers of the fun they have at amusement parks on rides that stack them against a wall while the ride spins and subjects them to centrifugal force.
The announcement follows new seat configurations in airplanes that now have 9 or ten seats across, and which have also cut front-to-back space as well.  Some seat backs are now closer than normal reading distance to the passengers, but work fine for the incredibly near-sighted.
Parker said that with the new seating, passengers could use Google glasses for reading and gaming while flying. Passengers can rent the glasses for a fee expected to be about $59. Touch-operated compartments above their heads will have drop down drinking tubes that attendants can fill with  drinks of choice. No food will be served, but passengers can fill their pockets with snacks and sandwiches. When the "Torso Belt" sign is turned off, passengers will be able to move their arms and get to their pockets.

To further add to profits, soft drinks and water, formerly free, will now cost $4 each.
Reached by phone after Parker’s news conference, Arizona Senator John McCain applauded the innovation. Asked if it might be time for regulators to set minimum standards for seating—or standing, he said, “Hell no! We need government to stay out of civil aviation and let private industry continue to do a great job. The important thing is that we continue to buy more planes for the military, obsolete them quickly, and then stock pile them in the Arizona desert.”
The announcement apparently sat well with investors. American Airlines stock rose 5% following the announcement.##

Need I say that this press conference never occurred? It is the fantasy I had while sitting and fuming for the time it took to fly from New York to Chicago in an American Airlines Boeing 738. Not only was the seat very narrow, but the back of the seat in front of me was so close it was disturbing.  I tried to read but I needed to hold my Kindle a couple of inches further from my eyes. That was impossible  because the seat back was too close. The tray table, on which I've always been able to rest a book and see it well, also was too close. It's also a joke to say the seats "recline." If they move 5 or 6 degrees, I'd be surprised.

I could have gotten a seat with a bit more room, but that would have cost over $50, at least for some categories. A multiplcity of categories of seats now exist for we coach passengers; the airline geniuses, taking their cue from the Wall St. geniuses, slide and dice the inventory to create prices for newly optional services--like being able to read.

It all got me to wondering just how far this  airline industry will go in their effort to squeeze every bit of profit from their customers. With mergers leading to fewer competitors, there's little incentive to do anything but squeeze us tighter and tighter. So, even though I do think it's time for some minimum standards for seating--don't large people have a right to fly for coach prices?--John McCain lawmakers are as likely to back any bit of government regulation as I am to go sky diving.  So folks, get ready to stand up.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

OB-GYNs Still Removing Health Ovaries

A VERY DEAR FRIEND OF MINE died from ovarian cancer this year, so I certainly understand the risks of this disease. With no diagnostic tests in existence, she had no idea she was ill until the cancer had spread throughout her abdomen. I miss her constantly.

But those risks, as I've written before, do not justify the practice of removing healthy ovaries from women who are having hysterectomies. The National Women's Health Network reported recently that a survey of 443 randomly selected obstetrician/gynecologists found that 63% still support removing healthy ovaries (OK, let's call it what it is: castration) from women aged 51-65, with average risk for ovarian cancer, while operating to remove their uterus. 32% favored castration for women under age 51.

They continue to damage women this way even though their trade group, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended against the practice in 2008.

As I've written here before, the plain facts are that removal of ovaries can lead to early death and a host of other health problems, including damage to a woman's sex life. Of course, there are hundreds of thousands of unnecessary hysterectomies every year, which enrich the doctors and the hospitals.

This latest survey shows once again that women must protect themselves. Question everything, get second opinions!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Equalizer/Frances Cerra Whittelsey: Army Corps Work on Lake O Dike Won't Stop Lake Dump or Help Everglades Despite High Price Tag

The Equalizer/Frances Cerra Whittelsey: Army Corps Work on Lake O Dike Won't Stop Lake Dump or Help Everglades Despite High Price Tag

Army Corps Work on Lake O Dike Won't Stop Lake Dump or Help Everglades Despite High Price Tag

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All around me as I look south, the flat land of the Everglades reaches to the horizon, interrupted only occasionally by small stands of palm trees. None of the distinctive native sawgrass grows here. In fact, the vista is not at all what visitors to Everglades National Park see. Instead, the black, peat-like soil is planted in sugar cane as far as I can see.
Behind me, as I turn around, is an expanse of placid blue water that reflects the sky. It is all water to the northern horizon. This is  Lake Okeechobee.
I am standing on the flat top of the mound of sand and gravel, not concrete, that is the fragile Herbert Hoover Dike, a 143-mile long structure that holds in the mammoth lake. Once-upon-a time, it was considered the brilliant solution to Florida’s sometimes deadly flooding problems. Today, it’s lack of an outlet to the south  deprives the remaining area of natural Everglades of the water it needs, while its fragility requires the repeated dumping of billions of gallons of polluted water, with disastrous results, into the delicate Indian River and Caloosahatchie estuaries to the east and west.
On this bright early Spring day,  I’m out on an all-day tour of some of the Army Corps of Engineer’s  latest work on the Dike, at the moment in the town of Moore Haven. With me are clean water activist Becky Bruner; Marty Baum, the Indian River Keeper; and my husband, Harry, a Sierra Club Long Island executive committee member and photographer for the day. Our guide is John Campbell who has come from the Corps office in Jacksonville.
As they are in New Orleans and so many other places, the Corps is responsible for managing the risks of flooding and dam safety. Here, the Corps has calculated the risk as one-in-two that a very heavy rain, from a hurricane or otherwise, will cause the dike to burst, if the water level rises to 18’. This calamity would inundate the small, low-income communities built just below the dike and spread water through much of South Florida.
Our tour showed contractors under Corps supervision working  on replacing the first of 32 nearly 100-year old culverts that the engineers consider especially vulnerable points of failure. The new concrete structures are expected to last 100 years. In 2012, after six years of toil, the Corps finished building 21 miles of a wall to prevent water from seeping through the dike. But the $10 million/mile project stopped 122 miles short of stabilizing the whole dike.
So here’s the problem: hundreds of millions of tax dollars of work later, the risk of dike failure is still high, and nothing the Corps is doing lessens at all the certainty that dirty water will once again be dumped into the estuaries when rain raises the water level high enough.
What the culvert work does guarantee, however, is that the sugar cane fields can continue to be drained when it rains hard—sending water back into the lake, which is already filling up very rapidly from the very same rain. And that is the very condition that leads to the dumping of Lake water east and west.
Should sugar can fields be allowed to flood and sustain damage? Should they be allowed to pump water back in when lake water is ruining some of the most important natural areas in the state of Florida, and in fact, the whole continent? Who is setting the priorities, and how are they doing that?
There is much more to this story, and I will pick it up again soon.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Indian River Lagoon Dodges Latest Bullet After Protest at St. Lucie Locks; Lake Dump Set for Caloosahatiche Estuary


            Nurse Pamela Joy, 57, had a question, in fact a series of questions all about the same issue: “Why is it OK for them (the Army Corps of Engineers) to flood us and destroy the Indian River? Why is one industry, sugar, more important than all the species (that live in the river)?”
            She pointed to the shirt she was wearing, a blue tee shirt imprinted with the image of a skeletal fish. “This is what we have in our lagoon. We want healthy fish. This is our sad, mourning shirt.”
            It was before-breakfast early on a foggy Feb. 5, and I was out to witness protestors objecting to the announcement that the Corps might start discharging as much as 756.2 million gallons of polluted water into the Indian River estuary this very day. About 25 demonstrators were gathered next to the St. Lucie Locks to show that they are fed up with a system that protects sugar plantations while causing an environmental catastrophe in the Indian River Lagoon.
            As it turned out, the Corps. announced that no discharge would go to the Indian River right now, but starting tomorrow, Saturday, a dump of 1,000 cubic feet of water per second will flood the Caloosahatchie Estuary in western Florida.
            Massive discharges of toxic, polluted water went into both estuaries last summer and continued into October. Now, unusually heavy winter rains have once again filled Lake Okeechobee to levels that the Corps said could be dangerous and cause a breach of the dike. If the discharge occurred while they were at the locks, the protestors would see the dirty water passing through.
            Local experts, including Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Institute, disagreed vehemently with the Corps assessment of the situation. “There’s no danger of a breach,” said Perry, according to the The Stuart News. He noted that it might rain some more, but then again, might not. Other experts said the Corps could release water into storm water treatment and conservation areas south of the Lake, and that they were following old, outdated protocols.
            A spokesperson for the Army Corps told The Stuart News that the Corps is simply following federal law, which requires them to give priority to the sugar plantations, which were experiencing flooding from the recent rain. Water drained from the plantations was filling those storm water and conservation areas, and there was even a possibility, she said, that they would pump some of that polluted water back into the lake.
            So why is this happening and will continue to happen?  The sad answer to Pamela Joy’s question is this: Because the law is written that way. And the laws have been written to suit Big Sugar.##
           

Sunday, January 26, 2014

They Are Not Going Away! Florida Activists Vow to Hold Politicians Accountable For Pollution of Indian River Lagoon

I attended a fundraiser last night in Stuart, Florida,  to support efforts to stop the pollution of the Indian River Lagoon.  I’ve been visiting this area off and on for the past 10 years or so, drawn by the twisting mangroves and their “walking” roots, the magnificent birds, the constantly changing colors of sky and their reflections on the water.

I supported the fund-raiser because I can see with my own eyes the damage that is occurring. Before the 2004 hurricanes, I would see multitudes of birds--ibises, herons, egrets, storks, sanderlings, and squadrons of pelicans flying in formation.  Pelicans were also common on the beach, looking solemnly down their long fishing beaks at people surf-casting.
I have no data but only my own observation that after the hurricanes, the number of birds of all kinds diminished sharply.
 And then, last summer, to prevent a disastrous break of the dike holding in Lake Okeechobee, the Army Corps of Engineers released billions of gallons of horribly polluted fresh water into the Lagoon. The Lagoon is actually a salt-freshwater estuary, a very special place that when healthy supports 700 species of fish and, in general, more diversity of life than any other estuary in North America.
“Massive biological kills” resulted, according to the Indian RiverKeeper, and a level of toxicity in the water so high that people were warned not to even touch it.
A similar dump of polluted lake water occurred in 2001, but nothing was done to prevent a repeat, despite numerous studies of the situation and recommendations to fix it. And another dump of polluted lake water will occur again the next time there is heavy rain or, more catastrophically, a hurricane that hits the Lake area.
I met the keeper of the Indian River last night, Marty Baum. Yes, there is one, an energetic and forceful man who accepts living on a $24,000/year salary because of his love of the Lagoon.
He is part of a dedicated group of River Keepers joined in the Waterkeeper Alliance who stand guard over our precious rivers, often frustrated and helpless in the face of politicians, developers and wealthy business owners who can’t see that harming the rivers is harming all of us.
But last night, the activists gathered to raise money for the River Keeper shouted their intentions: They are not going away!
They vowed to hold politicians running for office this year to a litmus test:
 Will they support enforcement of a Florida law that says polluters must pay for their pollution?
That concept was actually voted into law by Florida’s residents in the 1990’s, but a court ruled that the language contained no mechanism for enforcement; Florida’s legislature would have to create that.
Did the legislature act? No, not in this state where most politicians genuflect before wealthy sugar barons and developers.
The activists also vowed to campaign against a proposed new state law that would prevent municipalities like Stuart from making any rules about the environment.
Stuart is one of the few Florida municipalities that has worked hard to retain the natural beauty of this state by limiting the height of residential buildings to four stories, for example. No towering condominium buildings here.
Now the city is being sued by the likes of King Ranch, which raises sugar can in the Everglades and not cattle. It is another of Florida’s sugar cane companies whose websites tout their environmental consciousness.  No mention of the lawsuit there.
To overcome these powerful interests will take nothing less than the passion I saw last night, and thousands more people willing to take a stand. 
As for me, no, I am not going away!