Lazy Saturday Reads

Marilyn reading

Good Afternoon!!

There was another suspicious death of an African American in police custody–and this time it’s a woman named Sandra Bland.

“What Happened to Sandy?”

The Guardian: ‘What happened to Sandy?’: protesters tie Sandra Bland case to US race tensions.

Demonstrators in Texas on Friday staged a protest outside the county jail where a black woman was found hanged in her cell, three days after she was arrested following an altercation stemming from a stop for a minor traffic infraction.

About 150 people gathered at the Waller county jail, at a building that also houses the sheriff’s office, then marched the half-mile distance to the courthouse in the small town of Hempstead, near Houston.

Some carried posters asking: “What happened to Sandy?” The official account is that Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old from Chicago who had just moved to Texas to take up a college job, asphyxiated herself in her cell on Monday morning using a plastic bag.

But her family called that conclusion “unfathomable” in a news conference in Chicago on Thursday. And it was not a version of events that protesters found credible, especially in the context of recent high-profile examples of African Americans being killed by law enforcement nationwide. And not in Waller County, which has a long history of racial tension.

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Sandy was stopped for failing to signal before a lane change. What was she doing in jail three days later?

Bland drove down from Chicago last Thursday, arriving in Waller County on Friday for a job interview at the university, her alma mater. She dropped off her bags at his house. Her elation at being offered the post turned to anger, he said, after she was pulled over by police in what turned into a confrontation that saw her being pushed to the ground and charged with assault of a public servant.

They spoke on the phone on Friday night at 10.25pm, Mosley said. Bland said she was slammed to the ground during the incident.

She reportedly posted a video on Facebook in March in which she described herself as battling depression, but Mosley said that was not a reliable indicator of her mindset when she arrived in Texas. Nothing in her personality or behaviour suggested she would take her own life, and she had not been clinically diagnosed as depressed, he said.

“I talked to her on Friday night. She was upbeat, looking forward to posting bond and moving forward,” he said. “This is a girl who had a thirst for life … she did not exhibit any suicidal characteristics.”

More from Sandra’s friend at ABC News.

candle-2009071485706-45780-originalFrom DallasNews.com crime blog: DPS: Violations of agency procedures found in Sandra Bland traffic stop.

AUSTIN – The state Department of Public Safety has found violations in the agency’s “procedures regarding traffic stops and the department’s courtesy policy” in the recent stop that resulted in the arrest of Sandra Bland in Waller County.

The department on Friday announced those preliminary findings, saying the trooper involved in the stop has been “assigned administrative duties” until the investigation is complete. The trooper was identified by the Houston Chronicle as 30-year-old Brian Encinia.

Bland, a 28-year old black woman, was found dead Monday in the Waller County Jail from an apparent suicide. She had been arrested last Friday — as a result of the traffic stop — on a charge of assault on a public servant….

The agency said Friday that the video footage will be “shared with the public as soon as possible.” DPS and the Waller County District Attorney have also asked the FBI to conduct a “forensic analysis of the videos” related to the Bland case.

Mother Jones reports: The Texas County Where Sandra Bland Died Is Fraught With Racial Tensions.

Whether or not it was suicide, Bland’s death comes amid an ongoing national conversation about race and criminal justice in America, and casts a spotlight on a county apparently rife with racial tensions. In 2007, Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith was suspended—and eventually fired by city council members—while serving as police chief in Hempstead, a city in Waller County, following accusations of racism by community members. Less than a year after his firing, Smith was elected county sheriff. When asked about the accusations on Thursday, Smith said his firing in 2007 was “political,” and denied that he was a racist.

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The history of Waller County’s racial tensions doesn’t end there. In 2003, the Houston Chronicle reported that two prominent black county officials, DeWayne Charleston and Keith Woods, claimed they were the target of an investigation by the county’s chief prosecutor because of their race. Charleston had been accused of keeping erratic hours and falsifying an employee time-sheet record, according to the Houston Chronicle. Charleston and Woods claimed the Concerned Citizens of Waller County was behind those accusations, and said that the group was conducting a Ku Klux Klan-like campaign against black officials:

Charleston, the county’s first black judge, said a county grand jury has interviewed him, although he declined to elaborate. And Woods, the four-term mayor of Brookshire, is facing questions about his role in the last city election.

“I do believe race plays a big part in what DeWayne and I are facing,” Woods said. “I feel that way because we’re the ones obviously not being given the benefit of the doubt (when) we face contrary decisions by the district attorney.”

Kitzman, 69, a retired state district judge, denies any racist implications in his interest in the two men. He says he’s simply doing his job by looking into complaints brought to him by residents.

Houston Chronicle reporter Leah Binkovitz also pointed out that a disproportionately high number of lynchings have been recorded in Waller County. According to the advocacy group Equal Justice Initiative, the county saw 15 lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950.

News for Fat-Shamers

Here’s some food for thought for all the fat-shamers out there–if they can find time to think about anything other than judging other people’s bodies.

marilyn-monroe-mit-zeitungCBS News: Obese people almost never attain normal weight, study finds.

Weight loss can be a battle for everyone. But a large new study says that for obese people, the odds of reaching normal weight are near impossible.

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, shows the odds of a clinically obese person achieving normal weight without surgical interventions are just 1 in 210 for men and 1 in 124 for women in a given year. Among the most morbidly obese, the chances were even worse.

People in the study were somewhat more successful at managing enough weight loss to improve their health, defined as dropping at least 5 percent of body weight. But they often did not maintain the lower weight.

“What our findings suggest is that current strategies used to tackle obesity are not helping the majority of obese patients to lose weight and maintain that weight loss,” lead researcher Alison Fildes, a research psychologist at University College London, told HealthDay.

The study was based on analysis of more than 278,000 people from the UK’s Clinical Practice Research database, tracked between 2004 and 2014, and it highlights the difficulty obese people face in trying to achieve sustained weight loss through diet and exercise alone.

Much more on the study at the link.

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And from The Washington Post: One chart shows why it’s nearly impossible to lose weight and keep it off.

In a given year, the average obese woman has roughly a 1 in 124 chance of returning to a normal weight. And for obese men, the odds are even worse: 1 in 210. As if that weren’t bad enough, obese men and women have very low odds attaining even a 5 percent weight loss in a given year: 1 in 10 for women, and 1 in 12 for men.

Those are the main findings of a new study out today in the American Journal of Public Health, which analyzed electronic health records of over 278,000 people living in England over a nine-year period. “For patients with a BMI of 30 or greater kilograms per meters squared, maintaining weight loss was rare and the probability of achieving normal weight was extremely low,” the study’s authors conclude. “Research to develop new and more effective approaches to obesity management is urgently required.”

Among the people who lost five percent of their weight or more, more than half had gained it back within two years’ time. In a statement, Professor Martin Gulliford, a study author from King’s College London, said: “Current strategies to tackle obesity, which mainly focus on cutting calories and boosting physical activity, are failing to help the majority of obese patients to shed weight and maintain that weight loss.”

Maybe fat people should be forced to eat bacon flavored seaweed as punishment.

Marilyn reading1The Christian Science Monitor: Bacon-flavored seaweed: Better than kale? (+video).

In a bizarre marriage of the best of both food worlds, a team of scientists at Oregon State University have developed a new strain of dulse, an edible seaweed with twice the nutritional value of kale – and an arguably more palatable bacon-like flavor.

The newly developed strain resembles translucent red lettuce and is chock full of minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, and protein, researchers say.

Dulse, which rhymes with pulse, has been consumed in powder and flake form for centuries in Northern Europe, where it’s added to smoothies or other foods by health-conscious people. But the new strain developed at OSU can be farmed and eaten fresh.

I think I’ll stick with real bacon when I want bacon-flavored food, thank you very much.

Mystery Ship Found

The Washington Post reports on an interesting find off the coast of North Carolina: The mysterious, pre-Civil War shipwreck just discovered off the North Carolina coast.

The Marine scientists didn’t set out to find a shipwreck. But when they deployed their underwater equipment off the North Carolina coast, there it was, lying nearly a mile beneath the surface: a ship carrying an iron chain, red bricks and glass bottles.

Those artifacts suggest the ship could date to the Revolutionary War or the early 19th century. The team of Duke University, North Carolina State University and the University of Oregon scientists announced their discovery Friday.

Scientists found the wreck using sonar. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will now try to identify the mysterious ship, including how old it is and its country of origin.

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“Lying more than a mile down in near-freezing temperatures, the site is undisturbed and well preserved,” Bruce Terrell, chief archaeologist of NOAA’s Marine Heritage Program, said in a statement. “Careful archaeological study in the future could definitely tell us more.”

The wreck was found near the Gulf Stream, which was used as a popular trade route to ports in North America, the Caribbean and South America. “Violent storms sent down large numbers of vessels off the Carolina coasts, but few have been located because of the difficulties of depth and working in an offshore environment,” Marine Heritage Program director James Delgado said in a statement.

Other News, Links Only

Voice of America: Frozen Plains Glimpsed on Pluto.

Democracy Now: Newly Released Dashcam Video Shows California Police Shooting Unarmed Man with Hands Up.

New York Times: Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White (WARNING: may make you gag).

Charles Pierce: Here’s Some Stupid for Lunch: David Brooks’ American Dream.

American Psychological Association report on psychologists who helped the CIA torture people.

New York Times: Chattanooga Attacks Claim a Fifth Service Person’s Life.

Newsweek: KKK, Black Panther Groups to Hold Opposing Confederate Flag Rallies.

Naomi Klein at The New Yorker: A Radical Vatican?

Huffington Post: A Note About Our Coverage of Donald Trump’s ‘Campaign.’

Boston Globe on Massachusetts cold cases: Baby Doe is not alone.

A real shocker from the Washington Post: This man filmed a fatal car crash instead of helping. Then, Ohio police arrested him.

 


The processed-food-industrial complex: Weaponized Food

zombie cornI watched Amy Goodman of Democracy Now interview an investigative reporter with The New York Times named Michael Moss. He penned “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us”.   His recent article–“The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food” was published last –weekend in the Times Sunday magazine. Moss won 2010 Pulitzer Prize for investigating the dangers of contaminated meat.  I’m going to excerpt some of Goodman’s interview and some of the article itself for you.

AMY GOODMAN: We spend the rest of the hour going deep inside the “processed-food-industrial complex,” beginning with the “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.” That was the  cover story in the recent  New York Times Magazine that examined how food companies have known for decades that salt, sugar and fat are not good for us in the quantities American’s consume them, and yet every year they convince most of us to ingest about twice the recommended amount of salt, 70 pounds of sugar—22 teaspoons a day. Then, there’s the fat. Well,  New York Times reporter Michael Moss explains how one of the most prevalent fat delivery methods is cheese.

MICHAEL MOSS: Every year, the average American eats as much as 33 pounds of cheese. That’s up to 60,000 calories and 3,100 grams of saturated fat. So why do we eat so much cheese? Mainly it’s because the government is in cahoots with the processed food industry. And instead of responding in earnest to the health crisis, they’ve spent the past 30 years getting people to eat more. This is the story of how we ended up doing just that.

Okay, I’m officially off cheese now.  I don’t eat chips, crackers, sodas, or cookes, but I do eat cheese a lot.  Well, maybe that explains these hips.  But seriously, I’ve noticed how hard it is to eat almost anything or find food that’s not loaded down with chemicals and additives.    Moss’ work is eye-opening.  The industry actually works to make bad food addictive.

The public and the food companies have known for decades now — or at the very least since this meeting — that sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the quantities that we consume them. So why are the diabetes and obesity and hypertension numbers still spiraling out of control? It’s not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the consumer and a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude on the part of the food manufacturers. What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive. I talked to more than 300 people in or formerly employed by the processed-food industry, from scientists to marketers to C.E.O.’s. Some were willing whistle-blowers, while others spoke reluctantly when presented with some of the thousands of pages of secret memos that I obtained from inside the food industry’s operations. What follows is a series of small case studies of a handful of characters whose work then, and perspective now, sheds light on how the foods are created and sold to people who, while not powerless, are extremely vulnerable to the intensity of these companies’ industrial formulations and selling campaigns.

Goodman has also interviewed food reporter Melanie Warner who wrote “Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal”. 

MELANIE WARNER: Yeah, I’m not much of a scientist, but a number of years ago, when I started covering the food industry, I became curious about expiration dates that are printed on packages. Pretty much you to go into the supermarket, and every package in the store will have an expiration date on it. And I wondered: Well, what will happen? What do these expiration dates mean, and what will happen after this date has come and gone? Some of these dates are actually quite far out; they’ll be six to nine months or even more.

So I started collecting a number of food products, and I saved them in my office. And then I would open them after the expiration dates had passed, sometimes long after the expiration dates had passed because I had forgotten about them. And what I found out over time—I collected all kinds of products: cereal, cookies, Pop-Tarts, fast-food meals, frozen dinners, I mean, you name it. I have all kinds of gross stuff in my office at this point.

And what I found—there were a few exceptions—but what I found was that most of this food did not decompose or mold or go bad, even after long, long periods of time. I mean, I started this seven, eight years ago, and I still have slices of cheese that are perfectly orange, processed cheese.

AMY GOODMAN: From years and years and years ago?

MELANIE WARNER: Years and years and years ago, yeah. And they’re—

AMY GOODMAN: And what keeps their color? And what keeps them looking—

MELANIE WARNER: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —completely preserved?

MELANIE WARNER: There are a variety of reasons for this, depending on the product. Sometimes it’s because of powerful chemical preservatives that are in it. Sometimes it’s because of additives that lower the acidity of products, so that no microorganisms can grow. And sometimes it’s because food manufacturers very intentionally remove all the water from products. That’s the case with cereal and cookies.

Well, there we are with the cheese again.  I’ve now learned a new phrase. It’s “process optimization” and it’s not about producing things right the first time.  It’s about making food taste wonderful even when it’s bad for your or its underlying taste is awful.

Moskowitz, who studied mathematics and holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Harvard, runs a consulting firm in White Plains, where for more than three decades he has “optimized” a variety of products for Campbell Soup, General Foods, Kraft and PepsiCo. “I’ve optimized soups,” Moskowitz told me. “I’ve optimized pizzas. I’ve optimized salad dressings and pickles. In this field, I’m a game changer.”

In the process of product optimization, food engineers alter a litany of variables with the sole intent of finding the most perfect version (or versions) of a product. Ordinary consumers are paid to spend hours sitting in rooms where they touch, feel, sip, smell, swirl and taste whatever product is in question. Their opinions are dumped into a computer, and the data are sifted and sorted through a statistical method called conjoint analysis, which determines what features will be most attractive to consumers. Moskowitz likes to imagine that his computer is divided into silos, in which each of the attributes is stacked. But it’s not simply a matter of comparing Color 23 with Color 24. In the most complicated projects, Color 23 must be combined with Syrup 11 and Packaging 6, and on and on, in seemingly infinite combinations. Even for jobs in which the only concern is taste and the variables are limited to the ingredients, endless charts and graphs will come spewing out of Moskowitz’s computer. “The mathematical model maps out the ingredients to the sensory perceptions these ingredients create,” he told me, “so I can just dial a new product. This is the engineering approach.”

Moskowitz’s work on Prego spaghetti sauce was memorialized in a 2004 presentation by the author Malcolm Gladwell at the TED conference in Monterey, Calif.: “After . . . months and months, he had a mountain of data about how the American people feel about spaghetti sauce. . . . And sure enough, if you sit down and you analyze all this data on spaghetti sauce, you realize that all Americans fall into one of three groups. There are people who like their spaghetti sauce plain. There are people who like their spaghetti sauce spicy. And there are people who like it extra-chunky. And of those three facts, the third one was the most significant, because at the time, in the early 1980s, if you went to a supermarket, you would not find extra-chunky spaghetti sauce. And Prego turned to Howard, and they said, ‘Are you telling me that one-third of Americans crave extra-chunky spaghetti sauce, and yet no one is servicing their needs?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And Prego then went back and completely reformulated their spaghetti sauce and came out with a line of extra-chunky that immediately and completely took over the spaghetti-sauce business in this country. . . . That is Howard’s gift to the American people. . . . He fundamentally changed the way the food industry thinks about making you happy.”

I make my own spaghetti sauce, but I do put cheese on top of that too.  Drat.  I really must be cheese addicted.

Anyway, I just thought all of this was very interesting and thought I’d share it and this taste of food porn on the side.


What Really Makes Us Fat

Let’s face it. People feel the fat-antifat kerfuffle is a struggle between good and evil. Gluttony is bad! It’s not gluttony. It’s a disease! It’s not a disease. It’s genetics. It’s okay. It is not okay.  You haven’t read the latest positive waist trainer reviews. And so on and on.

Folks, we’re talking about biology. It could be all of the above and then some. “Then some” is actually my preferred answer and I’ll discuss it in a bit. But in the meantime, it’s worth remembering that none of the above are mutually exclusive. The answers vary from person to person and there is no single thing that is true for everyone, or even for one person all the time. As they say on Facebook, it’s complicated. In that spirit, it’s well worth looking at research that tells us about parts of the answer.

Gary Taubes writes about a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Ebbeling et al., 2012) on What Really Makes Us Fat:

[T]he study tells us that the nutrient composition of the diet can trigger the predisposition to get fat, independent of the calories consumed. The fewer carbohydrates we eat, the more easily we remain lean. The more carbohydrates, the more difficult. In other words, carbohydrates are fattening, and obesity is a fat-storage defect. What matters, then, is the quantity and quality of carbohydrates we consume and their effect on insulin.

Chalk one up for the Atkins Diet, but don’t therefore assume the American Heart Association is “wrong” when it tells you to eat a low-fat diet of whole grains, fruits and veggies. The AHA is trying to help your heart. Their advice is perfectly good for your heart. The Atkins Diet is trying to help you lose weight. This research says it does. It says nothing about your cholesterol or the kidney-damaging effects of long term excess protein, especially in people with borderline kidney disease they may be unaware of.

The research shows an interesting piece of the obesity puzzle, but unless fat storage regulation is the biggest reason for obesity, it’s not actually going to deal with the epidemic. And the biggest causes can’t be fat storage regulation gone awry. Human physiology hasn’t changed in the last few decades. We have the same fat-storage hormones we’ve always had. Likewise, people have always wanted to eat too much. Nor have our genetics changed a whole hell of a lot in the last few dozen years. And yet obesity (as medically defined and meaning more than mere overweight) has gone from being a rather rare issue to being a problem for a third of all US adults.

The thing that’s missing in too many current discussions of the obesity epidemic is environmental effects. This is not a comment on the research, because that wasn’t its topic. But every single discussion for the general public needs to beat that drum until we all get it. Environmental factors are the only ones that have changed recently. Plus, that explains why we have an epidemic. Epidemics are public health issues, and they’re all embedded in the environment.

The reason it’s so important for everyone to understand the biggest causes is because obesity really is an epidemic, and it really is destroying the health of millions. It’s causing and will continue to cause horrible suffering in people who go blind or need amputations due to diabetic complications, or who become paralyzed after strokes. This stuff is no joke. Nor is it just a conspiracy by the fashion industry (although it’s that too). To the extent that obesity damages health, it’s vital — literally — to understand and fix the real causes and not to waste time on sacrificial food offerings to gods who don’t care.

I think two environmental factors stand out like sore thumbs.

  • Advertising for fat-making food and drink
  • Endocrine disruptor environmental pollution

You may not think of ads as an environmental factor, but what I mean by that is it’s out there, in your environment, and not something you control. You can’t simply ignore ads, no matter how many people blithely tell you to. Ads have their effect whether or not you pay attention. Your only real choice is to turn them off. An individual can choose to eschew most media, but on a population level, that’s not going to happen.

So we’re in an environment saturated with unavoidable messages to have fun with food. At the population level, some proportion of people some of the time will find themselves wanting that food, wanting that cola, and taking it. At the population level, some proportion of people get more calories than they otherwise would. And some proportion of them get fat.

It’s important to remember that getting fat, being a biological process, is not a simple matter of balancing calories in and calories used. Nothing in biology is simple. Calories in is a factor, certainly. If it wasn’t, you’d see fat people among famine sufferers.

But how the body stores fat stands right between the two halves of the equation. That is a complicated, hormonally controlled process we’re only beginning to understand. Insulin is one of those hormones, but only one. Sex hormones are also among the messengers that carry out the regulation. The starkest example of fat storage gone crazy is rare genetic conditions where the body’s hormones that promote fat storage are so active, they don’t leave enough glucose circulating in the blood for metabolic needs. Everything goes into fat, there’s too little left over for the business of staying alive, and the person is literally starving while putting on weight.

A big contribution of Ebbeling’s and her colleagues’ research is demonstrating the subtle effect of fat storage regulation that’s within the normal range. And since hormones are part of that process, hormone disruption can be expected to have a huge effect on fat deposition.

Which brings me to the second big environmental factor: a whole group of chemicals. They’re called hormone disruptors and they come from some plastics, pesticides, hormonal medicines, and so on. Those break down into hormone analogues and get into the environment. As I said in an earlier post on the Obesity Epidemic, if hormones help regulate energy balance, and if we’ve flooded the environment with bad substitutes for hormones, is it any wonder that people are having trouble regulating energy balance?

So, you may be asking, what does it all mean? What are we supposed to do about it? I’ve said it before so I’ll just say it again:

Like all public health issues, nothing less than a population-level approach will work. Dysentery, cholera, and typhoid are never wiped out by drinking boiled water. They’re wiped out by building municipal sewers. Smallpox wasn’t eradicated by avoiding smallpox patients. It was eradicated by universal vaccination. The individual actions aren’t useless. They just don’t change the widespread causes of the widespread problem.

Modern health problems like cancer and obesity aren’t going to be wiped out by eating fresh vegetables. Eating veggies is good, but it doesn’t address the basic problem. That’s going to take nothing less than a change to clean sustainable industry.

It’s almost enough to make you wish a mere diet really was all that’s needed.


Tuesday Reads: Targeting Citizens with Predator Drones while Failing to Protect and Nurture Children

Good Morning!! Yesterday Dakinikat wrote about predator drones being used by local law enforcement in North Dakota. According the the LA Times story Dakinikat referenced,

Michael C. Kostelnik, a retired Air Force general who heads the office that supervises the drones, said Predators are flown “in many areas around the country, not only for federal operators, but also for state and local law enforcement and emergency responders in times of crisis.” Yet Congress never approved the use of drones for this purpose.

…former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), who sat on the House homeland security intelligence subcommittee at the time and served as its chairwoman from 2007 until early this year, said no one ever discussed using Predators to help local police serve warrants or do other basic work.

Using Predators for routine law enforcement without public debate or clear legal authority is a mistake, Harman said.

But the article makes clear that law enforcement types are slavering over the possibility of using the sophisticated surveillance technology offered by drones–and without a warrant.

Glenn Greenwald had more at his blog yesterday. He says that the so-called “approval” for the use of predator drones on U.S. soil came because Customs administrators included the words “interior law enforcement support” in their budget request! And since Congresspeople rarely read the bills they vote on, no one noticed. So now government agents can spy on us and track us whenever they want, apparently.

Greenwald:

Whatever else is true, the growing use of drones for an increasing range of uses on U.S. soil is incredibly consequential and potentially dangerous, for the reasons I outlined last week, and yet it is receiving very little Congressional, media or public attention. It’s just a creeping, under-the-radar change. Even former Congresswoman Harman — who never met a surveillance program she didn’t like and want to fund (until, that is, it was revealed that she herself had been subjected to covert eavesdropping as part of surveillance powers she once endorsed) — has serious concerns about this development: ”There is no question that this could become something that people will regret,” she told the LA Times. The revelation that a Predator drone has been used on U.S. soil this way warrants additional focus on this issue.

You’d better not be doing anything suspicious on your own property–like smoke a joint in the backyard or something. You could be spotted, raided, and thrown in jail in no time flat, all without a warrant.

Dakinikat sent me a link to this article at the NYT on the relationship between poverty and education: Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit It?

No one seriously disputes the fact that students from disadvantaged households perform less well in school, on average, than their peers from more advantaged backgrounds. But rather than confront this fact of life head-on, our policy makers mistakenly continue to reason that, since they cannot change the backgrounds of students, they should focus on things they can control.

No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s signature education law, did this by setting unrealistically high — and ultimately self-defeating — expectations for all schools. President Obama’s policies have concentrated on trying to make schools more “efficient” through means like judging teachers by their students’ test scores or encouraging competition by promoting the creation of charter schools. The proverbial story of the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost comes to mind.

The Occupy movement has catalyzed rising anxiety over income inequality; we desperately need a similar reminder of the relationship between economic advantage and student performance.

As a developmental psychologist I can tell you there are tons of studies that show that socioeconomic status (SES) is related to many different variables. This is a fairly complex issue, because poor people are disadvantaged in so many ways. Poor families are more likely to have only one breadwinner–usually a mother–who is probably overwhelmed by stress and worry. That leaves mom with much less energy to spend talking to and reading to her children.

A researcher I know slightly, Catherine Snow of the Harvard School of Education, worked on a number of government-funded longitudinal studies that investigated this. The research showed that very young children who are talked to, encouraged to tell stories about things that happened to them, and are read to in an interactive way are better prepared for literacy and will perform better in school than children who don’t get those kinds of attention. Interestingly, they found that the best predictor of academic success is a child’s vocabulary.

Children in poor families may also be stressed by inadequate nutrition, abuse from stressed-out parents, and perhaps exposure to violence in their neighborhoods. This kind of stress leads to higher cortisol (stress hormone) levels, which in turn can cause all kinds of problems, including obesity.

Back to the NYT article:

The correlation has been abundantly documented, notably by the famous Coleman Report in 1966. New research by Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University traces the achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families over the last 50 years and finds that it now far exceeds the gap between white and black students.

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that more than 40 percent of the variation in average reading scores and 46 percent of the variation in average math scores across states is associated with variation in child poverty rates.

International research tells the same story. Results of the 2009 reading tests conducted by the Program for International Student Assessment show that, among 15-year-olds in the United States and the 13 countries whose students outperformed ours, students with lower economic and social status had far lower test scores than their more advantaged counterparts within every country. Can anyone credibly believe that the mediocre overall performance of American students on international tests is unrelated to the fact that one-fifth of American children live in poverty?

Why does the government ignore this research–much of which has been done with government funding? There has been no effort to deal with the source of the problem–poverty–just bullheaded efforts to force schools to meet unrealistic standards. The authors admit that many in the government want public schools to fail so that education can be privatized and turned into a profit-making corporate enterprise.

The authors offer some suggestions, but since none of our elected officials seems to want to deal with the problem of increasing poverty among children in this country, their ideas come off sounding pretty weak.

This article really hit home with me, because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why America as a whole doesn’t seem to care about children. I’ve been trying to write about post about it, but have struggled to put my ideas into words. I might as well just put some of it down here. My thoughts were not only about education, but also about the problems of protecting children from abuse and exploitation.

Children are our future. It’s a cliche because it’s true. We spend billions of dollars on the ridiculous and dangerous Department of “Homeland Security,” and we do very little at the federal level to protect children from poverty (one in four young children in the U.S. live in poverty), violence, abuse, and exploitation.

We are destroying our system of public education by requiring standardized tests instead of teaching children critical thinking. We encourage profit-making charter schools instead of providing more support for public schools.

In my fantasy future government, the President would have a cabinet level department devoted exclusively to children’s issues. This department would focus on designing the very best possible educational system for young children. There would be a strong focus on early childhood education, and especially on educating parents about the best ways to foster future academic success for their children, based on serious research. The department would work with the NIH and NSF to provide research grants to study these educational issues.

In addition, the department could develop ways to deal with the rampant abuse of children–physical, emotional, and sexual–that takes place in this country. The need for this is obvious if you read the news regularly. Children are beaten, raped, and murdered in their own homes every day. They are sexually abused in schools and in organized activities by people who should be protecting and guiding them. And people who hurt and kill children generally receive lighter sentences than those who prey on adults.

What has prompted me to think about these issues is not only the recent high-profile sexual abuse scandal at Penn State, but the stories that have been breaking recently about child sexual abuse in the Hollywood entertainment industry.

Two men who worked with child actors were recently arrested, Jason James Murphy, who worked on the well-received movie Super-8, and Martin Weiss, a talent agent.

The arrests have led a number of former child actors to come forward and talk about being abused as children. Reuters covered the story last week.

First, it was the Catholic Church. Then Penn State. Now, a new child-abuse scandal in Hollywood is raising questions over the safety of minors in the entertainment business and sparking calls for new child-labor regulations.

Last week Martin Weiss, a longtime manager of young talent, was arrested on suspicion of child molestation after an 18-year-old former client told police he had been abused by Weiss 30 to 40 times from 2005 to 2008.

Weiss’ arrest came just weeks after it was discovered that a convicted child molester and registered sex offender under the name Jason James Murphy was working in Hollywood and helping cast children for movie roles.

TheWrap contacted a wide array of professionals and found a mix of surprise, and those that say that this type of abuse is an ongoing concern, pointing to abuse allegations over the years by actors such as the late Corey Haim and Todd Bridges.

Other former child actors who have talked openly about the problem are Paul Peterson who appeared on The Donna Reed Show, Allison Arngrim from Little House on the Prairie, and Corey Feldman, who appeared on Nightline in August to talk about his own abuse.

“I can tell you that the No. 1 problem in Hollywood was and is and always will be pedophilia. That’s the biggest problem for children in this industry. … It’s the big secret,” Feldman said.

The “casting couch,” which is the old Hollywood reference to actors being expected to offer sex for roles, applied to children, Feldman said. “Oh, yeah. Not in the same way. It’s all done under the radar,” he said.

“I was surrounded by [pedophiles] when I was 14 years old. … Didn’t even know it. It wasn’t until I was old enough to realize what they were and what they wanted … till I went, Oh, my God. They were everywhere,” Feldman, 40, said.

The trauma of pedophilia contributed to the 2010 death of his closest friend and “The Lost Boys” co-star, Corey Haim, Feldman said.

“There’s one person to blame in the death of Corey Haim. And that person happens to be a Hollywood mogul. And that person needs to be exposed, but, unfortunately, I can’t be the one to do it,” Feldman said, adding that he, too, had been sexually abused by men in show business.

This Fox News article gets a little graphic, so skip over it if you prefer.

Another child star from an earlier era agrees that Hollywood has long had a problem with pedophilia. “When I watched that interview, a whole series of names and faces from my history went zooming through my head,” Paul Peterson, 66, star of The Donna Reed Show, a sitcom popular in the 1950s and 60s, and president of A Minor Consideration, tells FOXNews.com. “Some of these people, who I know very well, are still in the game.”

“This has been going on for a very long time,” concurs former “Little House on the Prairie” star Alison Arngrim. “It was the gossip back in the ‘80s. People said, ‘Oh yeah, the Coreys, everyone’s had them.’ People talked about it like it was not a big deal.”

Arngrim, 49, was referring to Feldman and his co-star in “The Lost Boys,” Corey Haim, who died in March 2010 after years of drug abuse.

“I literally heard that they were ‘passed around,’” Arngrim said. “The word was that they were given drugs and being used for sex. It was awful – these were kids, they weren’t 18 yet. There were all sorts of stories about everyone from their, quote, ‘set guardians’ on down that these two had been sexually abused and were totally being corrupted in every possible way.”

Yes, Virginia, child sexual abuse is common in every strata of our society. It’s not rare, and it’s time we got serious about dealing with it. If we had a Cabinet department of children’s issues, we could address the problem with public education programs. It worked for smoking and littering–why not try it with child abuse?

The department could request that the media show public service announcements to educate parents about nonviolent ways of disciplining their children and about the dangers of hitting or otherwise abusing children. I firmly believe that child abuse is the root cause of many of society’s ills–including domestic abuse, pedophilia, rape, murder, and serial murder. The majority of abused children don’t grow up to be perpetrators, but they often turn their anger on themselves, becoming depressed or suicidal or self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.

High profile cases like the Penn State and Hollywood casting scandal can often spur changes in societal attitudes. We should seize upon these issues to push Federal, state, and local governments to take positive action to improve the lives of American children.

Now I’ve rambled on too long and haven’t covered many stories. I’ll have to leave it to you to post what you’ve been reading and blogging about in the comments. If you made it this far, thanks for reading my somewhat incoherent thoughts.


The obesity epidemic

People discuss obesity as an epidemic, but the solution somehow remains individual action. That doesn’t work for real epidemics. You can’t, for instance, not catch smallpox all by yourself. (You can be lucky and have natural resistance, but that’s different.)

It’s turning out that people spoke more truth than they realized. Evidence is accumulating that obesity is a real epidemic, i.e. a public health issue with social and environmental causes. It’s something I’ve suspected for years.

Obesity has become more prevalent over the last thirty to forty years. That means — at the population level — it can’t be caused by the human tendency to eat too much. People have always been primed to eat too much, but large numbers of very overweight people relative to the whole population is a phenomenon of the last few decades.

And note that this isn’t just a matter of changing measurements or statistics. When coffin makers have to upsize coffins because the ones they’ve used for decades no longer work, there’s a real change. It’s not just PR.

So the cause(s) of the problem have to be something that’s changed in the last few decades. I’ll list all the changed factors I can think of, but the one I want to talk about is the last. Some of them are most developed in the US, but if and when they manifest elsewhere, they can be expected to promote obesity likewise.

  • The baby boom generation, which is large relative to the whole population, has aged, and older people are often heavier. (A factor beyond anyone’s control.)
  • Advertising for high-calorie fast food has grown very sophisticated and ubiquitous, and fast food is much more available. (A social environment factor that requires changes to industries.) (A side note: advertising is not something that can be simply ignored. It functions to steer choices whether you’re paying attention or not. The only way to avoid its effect is to avoid the advertising itself, which involves avoiding almost all modern media. Individuals may do that, but it’s not going to happen at a population level, and that’s where public health issues operate.)
  • Related to that is the increase in drinking sweetened sodas. That’s upped average calorie intake by a couple of hundred calories per day. (Again, advertising and availability combine to make this a social environment factor.)
  • Related to both of the above is the use of refined sugar, which has never before been used on the huge scale of the last few decades according to a report by birthorderplus. It promotes obesity by the simple mechanism of making it too easy to get too many calories. There’s also a potential added wrinkle involving high fructose sweeteners. Scientists argue about its effect. Fructose is processed differently than glucose, and given the way it’s regulated, it could be a contributing factor to the problem. (A social environment factor due to industry practices and agricultural subsidies.)
  • Urban factors contribute as well. Urban sprawl makes distances too big for walking. Use of mass transit, which requires walking to and from stops, has declined versus personal cars. And many urban areas don’t have adequate parks or play spaces where adults and children can be physically active. Epidemiology indicates that (lack of) urban planning is a measurable factor in increasing obesity. (NYTimes 2003 article) (Another social environment issue.)
  • Last, there’s my pet peeve: endocrine disruptors. These are pollutants that are byproducts of some plastics, some agricultural chemicals, some hormone therapies, and the like. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a well known example. Once they’re in the environment they can break down into related compounds, they get into the food chain, and once they’re ingested, they latch on to some of the same receptors as the body’s own hormones. Once they’ve latched on, they can rev up or shut down the normal function, or they can cause strange results not in the body’s normal repertoire. Widespread endocrine disruptor pollution has happened only in the last few decades. (An environmental factor involving dozens of industries.)

Recent research (press release, article summary in Cell Metabolism) has shown that estrogen receptors in the brains of female mice regulate hunger and energy expenditure. (Male brains likewise have various androgen and estrogen receptors and are expected to have similar regulatory pathways. However, that wasn’t the topic of this research. The recent increase in the phenomenon of “man-boobs” on young and not-obese men shows rather plainly that endocrine disruptors have no less effect on fat deposition in men.)

Interestingly, one implication the researchers draw is that estrogen replacement therapy for postmenopausal women may have an overlooked benefit by keeping weight down and therefore keeping the complications of obesity down.

However, they don’t draw the far more significant implication for the entire population. If sex hormone receptors regulate energy balance, and if we’ve flooded the environment with bad substitutes for sex hormones, is it any wonder that people are having trouble regulating energy balance?

It’s one more instance where the flood of chemicals released by modern industry is affecting the environment, in this case the environment of the human body.

Like all public health issues, nothing less than a population-level approach will work. Dysentery, cholera, and typhoid are never wiped out by drinking boiled water. They’re wiped out by building municipal sewers. Smallpox wasn’t eradicated by avoiding smallpox patients. It was eradicated by universal vaccination. The individual actions aren’t useless. They just don’t change the widespread causes of the widespread problem.

Modern health problems like cancer and obesity aren’t going to be wiped out by eating fresh vegetables. Eating veggies is good, but it doesn’t address the basic problem. That’s going to take nothing less than a change to clean sustainable industry.

It’s almost enough to make you wish a mere diet really was all that’s needed.


Blame or Shame? When It Comes to America’s Kids, Where Do We Stand?

Don’t know about you but to me the blame game has hit the hyper-drive button.  Whether it be Fundamentalists claiming that the country’s economic difficulties are God’s payback for licentious living or Herman Cain pointing to the unemployed as being responsible for their own unemployed status, the mounting accusations are deafening and ultimately unproductive.  The Right blames the Left; the Left blames the Right.  Libertarians blame anything that smacks of cooperative, interdependent governance, yearning for circa 1900, a Paradise Lost.  And the Anarchists?  They blame the world.

The one segment of the population that has virtually no voice over the current US economic tailspin are the children.  But like any vulnerable, powerless group, they are caught in the crosshairs.  

A recent headline not only caught my attention but stunned me by its implications.  One in four American children are now categorized as “food insecure.”  I initially misread this label as ‘hungry, absolutely food deprived.’ 

Not necessarily true. 

According to a report sponsored by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) food insecurity is defined as follows:

Limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways (Anderson, 1990).

The IOM points out that this ‘insecurity’ can be cyclical in nature.  Mom and/or Dad have work one month with adequate hours and money to buy food for the family and the next month their hours are cut. Less hours, less money, less food. Or, as is the case for many middle-class families, the jobs they once depended on simply vanish and nutrition suffers.  Or a family is living on a meager monthly wage that runs out before the month is over; so food is available at the beginning of the month and in short supply as the month goes on. Walmart has confirmed this cyclical nature, reporting that their customers, many of whom are low-wage or government-assisted households, are running out of funds before the end of each month.  The company has spotted the pattern in their sales records—thin at the end of the month, a big spike at the start. The rising cost of food has only complicated matters.

But wait!  Haven’t we been awash in data warning about the growing problem with childhood obesity?  Michelle Obama has used her office as First Lady to address not only the problem but accompanying health concerns–diabetes, for instance, a silent killer and a condition that’s expensive to treat. How can we have food insecurity and obesity at the same time?  A paradox, for sure.

Again, not necessarily.

A study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Drewnowski A, Specter SE. Poverty and obesity) indicates that meager incomes will affect a family’s behavior when it comes to food.  When faced with bills to pay—rent, utilities, expenses to get to and from work, etc.—a family head will limit funds to those needs where the cost is not fixed.  This behavior directly impacts the purchase and selection of food.  When purchases are made, low-income families will steer towards calorie-dense foods, selections high in sugar and fat but low in cost.

You gotta do what you gotta do, as my Mama once said.

Though there is contradictory data for the effects of calorie-dense food on children, particularly young children, we do have data indicating the link between food selection and obesity in low-income women.  This from the IMO:

Researchers and the public increasingly are recognizing that obesity and food insecurity co-exist in the same families, communities, and even the same individuals. For example, recent research suggests that household food insecurity may be related to increased weight in women.

The paradox is explained, at least in part: food insecurity is linked to poverty and particular food selection, which can play havoc on weight. This makes sense to any of us who have had weight problems [Peggy Sue raises her hand because of a childhood weight problem].  Genetics, metabolism, emotional factors, physical activity are certainly factors, too. But food selection plays an important role.  Nutritional experts are now seriously questioning the sort of foods we’re feeding our kids in school programs and other government-assisted nutritional outreaches.

Finally, symbolizing the growing number of American kids in poverty and those tumbling into the ‘food insecurity’ category, Sesame Street has added a new, cameo-appearing Muppet—Lily, the hungry kid.  This move has already come under attack by PBS critics, who claim that this is simply another ploy to reinforce the Nanny State, a pulling of heart strings by left-of-center activists.

But here’s what we know: 25% of American children are now categorized as ‘food insecure.’  That represents 17 million children, a number which spikes during the summer when school is in recess. Food insecurity can result in cyclical, end-of-the-month nutritional deficits and/or possible obesity because of calorie-dense food selection.  Our children, all our children, represent the future.

Who do we blame?  It’s easy, even tempting to point fingers or take self-righteous, politically-charged stands. 

But if we continue the blame game, point fingers without pushing to alleviate our rising poverty rates and the subsequent food insecurity of our children?  Then shame on us.

Additional information can be found at Feeding America:

http://feedingamerica.org/

The stats on rising poverty and food insecurity in the US are nothing short of . . . staggering.

And check out Map the Meal Gap, where you can see how your state, your region measures up in food security/insecurity statistics:

http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/hunger-studies/map-the-meal-gap.aspx

A final note: I am very happy to be joining the fine staff of Sky Dancing. Everyone has been kind, encouraging and helpful as I put my toe in the water.  This is a new venture for me, a different sort of writing than I normally do. But I’m looking forward to join the discussion and analyses from a different vantage point. And learn as I go.