Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Science of Cicadas

My garden is full of holes and my yard is full of cicadas. This is my first cicada season – they can’t survive the Maine winters, where I used to live. To find out more about them, I did a little research into the science of cicadas.

You can learn a lot from the website of the University of Illinois Extension Service (web.extension.illinois.edu/cicadas). The Extension scientists correctly predicted that the brood of 13-year cicadas which periodically visits Morgan County would appear in late May. There are three different species of these periodic cicadas, and the males have different mating songs, so they will not attract females of the wrong species. Some cicada experts also consider the 13-year and the 17-year cicadas to be different species, but others disagree.

More science can be found at Cicada Central. Well before they emerge, the nymphs complete their exit tunnels to the surface. Then they wait for the soil temperature to reach 64 degrees. On this website, you can hear their wide song repertoire, sung at different stages of mating. The females lay eggs in slits they make in tree branches. After the eggs hatch, the nymphs fall to the ground and burrow down to a tree root, whose juices they will suck before they return in 2024.

Because I work on a college campus, it was easy to find a couple of biologists to tell me more. One suggested to my surprise that cicadas were “tasty”, an opinion that is confirmed by the Extension Service. Insects are mostly protein. In some desert regions, people fry cicadas up and consider them a delicacy. Those people are not playing “Survivor” games. Where food is scarce, any local source of nutrition is valuable.

One of my biologist friends speculated about the origin of the 13- and 17-year cycles. She thought cicadas might have developed these prime number rhythms as an evolutionary defense against predatory animals who appear in shorter regular cycles, like every 2 or 3 years. Cicada populations who appeared on the same cycles would always be devastated by these predators, but a 13-year cycle insures that they will not always overlap. But the other biologist said that certain birds might have adapted to the cicada’s peculiar cycles by having slightly larger clutches, numbers of eggs, in those years when the cicadas offer such a rich food source. A wonder of evolutionary genetics and adaptive behavior.

I asked why the cicadas shed their skins. Surviving underground for over a decade requires a good protective shell against water, worms, rocks, and other dangers. The empty shells are perfect replicas of the cicada’s whole body, including their eyes. After they emerge from the ground, they shed those hard skins all at once. At that moment, they are soft and vulnerable, but soon their outside surface hardens, their wings dry and they fly up into the trees to start the next long cycle. Their life-affirming mission complete, the adults die.

The science of cicadas is like other kinds of science. Some parts are thoroughly understood, while other ideas are less certain. Because the cicadas appear so infrequently, they are much harder to study. When there is uncertainty, there is scientific disagreement, which then gradually diminishes as scientists gather evidence and think about what it means in relation to what they already know.

Except for a few biologists, nobody cares about whether there are 3 or 6 cicada species. Cicadas are inconvenient, but not dangerous in any way. So we accept science for what it is, an ever more precise understanding of our world, which will always have gaps and uncertainties.

But when the subject is important to our daily lives, science becomes political. In politics, unlike science, inconvenient truths are routinely ignored or denied. The very inconvenient fact that the earth’s surface is getting warmer, attested by every government and every scientific organization, is so politically inconvenient that Republican presidential candidates who previously argued that steps should be taken to reduce warming, are now disavowing their earlier statements.

The stakes are very high. Many scientists believe that the kind of storms that have devastated the Midwest this year will be come more frequent this century as the average temperature rises just parts of a degree. That is inconvenient. Even if that piece of uncertain science turns out not to be true, just dealing with a warming climate will take major social investments over many years. Or we can listen to the conservative politicians, the discredited websites, and the paid shills who say, “Do nothing!”

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 31, 2011

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sports Without Money?

This weekend I watched an ultimate frisbee tournament in Boston. Ultimate is my children’s main sport, so I have paced the sidelines of many grassy fields, watching younger people run around and throw a plastic disc.

Ultimate is a bit like soccer and football. Seven players on each team on a big field throw the disc to each other, trying to catch it in the opponent’s end zone. If a pass is incomplete, the other team gets the disc. Ultimate involves lots of running, jumping, and throwing, plus defensive and offensive strategizing. It’s that simple.

But ultimate is a unique sport in its social organization. The “spirit of the game” discourages all forms of anti-social behavior towards one’s opponents. The official rules say: “Ultimate relies upon a spirit of sportsmanship that places the responsibility for fair play on the player. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of mutual respect among competitors, adherence to the agreed upon rules, or the basic joy of play.” Taunting trash-talk, name-calling, and any form of denigrating the other team are violations of this spirit. Competitive team play has flourished for over 30 years without referees to enforce the rules. Instead an honor system prevails in which players decide when rules have been broken and what should be done.

Naturally there are disputes on the field and grumbling about the other team’s lack of spirit. But I have never seen a team sport played in such a friendly manner. At the highest level of competition, the national championship for club teams, each team rates the others for their “spirit”, and that prize is a coveted reward. When the NBA has to institute special rules for flagrant fouls, which themselves are then routinely violated, ultimate’s reliance on fair play and good cheer is refreshing.

Of all the team sports in America, ultimate is the least involved with money and power. There are no professional leagues, no college scholarships, and no corporate sponsors. Players pay entry fees and finance their own travel to tournaments. There are virtually no authority figures telling the players what to do. Except for a very few college coaches, players organize everything themselves.

Without money and coaches promoting seriousness, the players are able to indulge a sense of fun. The play is hard, but silliness is everywhere else, beginning with team names. The theme of the spring league whose final tournament I watched was superheroes, so teams were named Fantastic Forehand and Underdog. There were lots of puns on the word “huck”, which means a long pass into the end zone: Huck Morris, The Incredible Huck. Closer to home, the University of Chicago’s team was called Discmonsters of the Midway. One of my favorite names from the past is Weapons of Mass(achusetts) Destruction. Athletic gear is often supplemented with colorful accessories, like kilts, neon shorts, T-shirts with funny pictures. After games, each team makes up a foolish chant on the spot to congratulate their opponents.

The gender wall, which characterizes every other team sport I know, barely exists in ultimate. Although college teams are divided by gender, the tournament I saw was the culmination of a coed league. Three of the seven players on the field must be women. Not only does the disc move seamlessly from men to women, but gender conventions of colors and clothing are routinely violated. All this can be seen in Jacksonville every year at the Jax Hat tournament, or weekly at the local pick-up games in Springfield.

Ultimate Frisbee represents sports as athleticism plus fun. The rigidity that big money demands, the confining gender separation demanded by schools and colleges, the conformity that professional coaches believe promotes team solidarity are not the choices of these athletes. In some ways, ultimate is a grown-up version of what I remember doing as a kid: getting together with friends and playing sports, without the supervision of non-playing adults. Ultimate presents a different model of what sports can be, where competitive passion is funneled into feats of athletic skill rather than nasty behavior toward opponents.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 24, 2011

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I Have Faith in My Doctors

Today I’m getting my left eye cut open. A cataract has been gradually clouding my lens, so that now I have trouble seeing the big E on the chart. I’m spending half the day at Passavant Hospital.

Cataract surgery is one of the most common operations in the US. My doctor, David Sutton, has successfully replaced thousands of cataracts with artificial lenses. I’ve already had this done to my other eye, with an amazing improvement in my vision. But I’m still nervous.

My confidence in Dr. Sutton keeps my anxiety in check. By explaining to me exactly what he would do and frankly discussing what results I can expect, he gave me faith that he would do the best possible work. Pretty good work on my eye would not be enough. I need him to be perfect.

That’s true for all of my doctors. When I visit William Weller to get a cap on my tooth or Shawn Fry to get a cyst cut out or Charles Wilson to deal with a kidney stone, I don’t want even a little mistake. My health depends on their skills, their precision, their perfection.

And on one other thing – their bedside manner. That phrase is now outdated, since doctors don’t make house calls any more, so let’s say “office manner”. If I don’t have faith in their expertise and belief in their concern for my health, I’ll be less likely to accept their advice when they say, “It’s time to cut.”

They provide that confidence by the way they interact with me in their offices. They give me confidence in many ways. Dr. Weller is the third generation in his family to become a dentist and has seen patients all over the world. Dr. Wilson embodies the experienced authority of a lifetime of medical practice. Dr. Fry projects enthusiasm for family practice, when many of her medical colleagues are seeking more lucrative specialties.

Very important to me is that they are all willing to give me time to understand what they tell me, to ask questions and make my own choices. That time is becoming a rarity. Doctors’ offices are becoming ever busier places and the time we see the doctor is being replaced by time with an increasing number of doctors’ helpers. Fewer and fewer doctors are in practice for themselves, as they become employees of for-profit clinics, sometimes as franchises of even larger corporations. As medical practice becomes more business-like, I worry that the precious time with the doctor is under increasing pressure.

The delivery of health care in the US is being transformed in my lifetime from individual practice to corporate medicine. It can be difficult to find a family physician who will take on a new patient. Many people get all their medical care in overcrowded emergency rooms. Yet the only thing that we are talking about is medical insurance. The entire national conversation about health care revolves around money.

Medical insurance is very important. It does not save us money, but it makes the costs of health care more predictable from year to year. It is also incredibly complicated, taking up more and more of our time and attention. Insurance companies make a growing number of medical decisions, overruling doctors and patients.

But insurance is just one factor in our changing health care system. Right now I am much more concerned about my relationship with my doctor, which today will become very close, as he works on my eye. I don’t want him to feel rushed to get to his next patient. I want the hospital facilities to be free of germs. I want to be sure that decisions that ultimately affect my health are not simply driven by some corporate bottom line.

I have faith in Dr. Sutton, and in all my doctors. They are dedicated professionals, who are also caring people. They know how to make me feel comfortable, even when they do uncomfortable things to my body. If only our politicians acted as professionally as our doctors, instead of trying to scare us with stupid phrases like “death panels” and “Obamacare”. Naturally I’ll be nervous today, but not nearly as nervous as I am about what is going to happen to our national system of health care.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville, IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 17, 2011

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Mother Nature's Day

All over my yard clusters of green spears poke out of the bare ground one day. Hostas have been growing here for decades, sometimes tended and sometimes neglected. Once an ambitious gardener brought many varieties into this landscape: greens, whites, and yellows in many combinations, small and giant, all sending up two-foot flower stalks in summer.

I have ministered to these forgiving plants: cleared out their competitors, fed them compost, divided and replanted them. They’re happy now – it’s spring.

In some spot around my house, according to a preference built into their genes, dozens of species have found a home, where they get the light and water they need to reproduce. The hostas and all the other perennial plants in my yard have evolved over millions of years into efficient propagators of their own lives. Every spring leaves reappear on the trees, baby seedlings pop up in one place and shoots from an underground mother plant in another. By now in May, the showy flowers of the daffodils and crocuses are already gone, and the bulbs begin their slow effort to gather energy for next spring.

I’ve lived many springs, but I still love the surprise of the first shoots sticking out of the winter’s debris. I can help this process along with labor and nutrients, but there is nothing I could do which compares with the reemergence of natural life in my garden. I anticipate, nurture, and admire this life, but I can’t create it. That’s a good thing.

Ever since I moved here five years ago, I have been moving plants around and bringing new ones in, trying to create little scenes of beauty. I have had some success, but I have also created havoc. Every time I take plants out, prolific weeds invade the newly open spaces. Just the other day, I put a coleus in a too sunny spot, and its brightly colored leaves wilted and washed out.

My whole gardening effort is unnatural. Without constant human intervention to develop these artificial arrangements of plants, very different processes would take over. Some plants are implacable foes, like the dandelions, whose little flowers do not overcome my irrational distaste. Even repeated applications of poison cannot defeat the dandelions, who come back every year through cracks in my driveway and everywhere else.

Other plants need more specialized conditions. This spring thousands of maple trees have sprouted in my gardens and lawn. Twenty years from now there might be a maple forest here if I did not intervene with my tools and fingers. Last year it was the water grass that spread through lawns all over town.

We cannot control life. We cannot even get human societies to stop killing each other. We are much less successful with nature. For every success, such as the creation of domesticated corn or the propagation of tulips in every possible color, we have released devastation by chemical poisoning or just by ignorant interference. We are very good at making specific changes in specific plants, but not so good at understanding the natural systems that have developed over the Earth’s lifetime. So much that humans have done has destroyed rather than enhanced these systems, often out of ignorance, but sometimes due to misplaced priorities. The private drive for profit, unregulated by any dedication to social well-being, has done long-term damage to natural habitats across the globe for short-term gain. Even when our leading minds have been motivated by the best intentions, colossal mistakes have been made in caring for our Earth.

I am distrustful of both commercial gain and human knowledge as guides to the control of natural life. Human societies exhibit far too much self-confidence in our ability to understand, alter, and control the living systems which have been created by natural processes over millennia. The short-sightedness of our vision and the arrogance of our science are not to be trusted to control the most fundamental processes of creating new life and conserving existing life. Our science, as advanced and remarkable as it is, is too often like a kid with a new toy: eager, but clumsy.

Before I would trust giant corporations and government agencies and scientific laboratories to replace our foods with artificial creations or to tinker with human cloning, I would like to see them fix their existing mistakes, especially the dangerous warming of the planet. Before I would welcome the human creation of new life forms, I would like to see humans be better at preserving the life forms we inherited.

I’m getting better at tending my little gardens. But I’m thankful each spring for powers much greater than mine, pushing new life out of the ground. We have a long way to go before humans are ready to do more than cultivate that life all around us.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 10, 2011

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Death of Public Service

Today’s villains are easy to spot – guns on their hips or chalk on their sleeves, riding red fire engines or garbage trucks. You see them everywhere you go, but especially in all the government buildings in town, in the courthouses, in the motor vehicle department, in the Post Office, in the neighborhood schools. Government workers.

They used to be called public servants. That label for those who were employed by governments came from a time when serving the public meant accepting meager salaries in exchange for the satisfaction of doing the nation’s work, helping fellow citizens. Nevertheless those salaries often allowed people to step out of the working class into the lower middle class. Middle class meant a leap in comfort and in financial security for the long term. It also meant respect and status from everybody else, higher or lower.

Now their salaries are no longer meager. Collective action by male policemen and female teachers, by white collar clerks and garbage men have created a social revolution. As governments grew in the 20th century, millions of American families wrestled their way into the middle class through public service. This was the great historical moment for the American middle class. Small businessmen, members of powerful unions, managers of fast food franchises, and many others rose into the middle class.

That was right for America.

Public servants kept rising. Just in my lifetime, the salaries of many cops, teachers and government office workers have moved them into the upper half of American families. It was a struggle to convince governments at every level to pay their employees as much as similarly skilled people made in private industry. In many cases, public servants gave up salary hikes for better benefits, income now for income later.

There were some who climbed the staircase even higher into management. Their salaries might reach over $100,000. That’s doing very well, unless you compare them to bankers or stock brokers.
Apparently that’s no longer right for America.

Now the favorite target for Republican politicians seeking ways to reduce government spending is the public servant and public service unions. Republican governors across the country argue that teachers and police and all the other employees of local and state governments make much too much money. They are feeding off the public, pushing our tax rates up, ruining state budgets.

According to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis for 2009, public sector workers earned an average of 4% more than private sector workers across the US; the difference is mainly in more valuable benefits. Is that so terrible? How much can we save by cutting public service workers’ salaries and benefits? Should people working for the public be paid less than private workers? That tiny difference of 4% does not take into account the skill levels of government workers, the lengthy training that firefighters receive or the advanced degrees that teachers get. No matter how you look at it, government workers are right at the average American income. Is that too much?

Meanwhile, every government contract that is given to private corporations goes to pay the salaries of their multi-millionaire executives. Companies like Halliburton, Boeing, and General Electric use funds from huge government contracts to subsidize their executive pay scales. Why don’t we set some limits on how many of our tax dollars go into the pockets of millionaires?

Instead Republicans are going after one half of the middle class by trying to make the other half jealous. Across the country, Republicans are trying to privatize a wide variety of government services, to transform public service into private profit. They claim there will be a big savings. Maybe they’re right. Instead of offering people a job they could retire from, private companies could hire and fire, adjust to every market change, keep finding younger workers. They won’t have to spend endless sums on training and study. Hiring will be much easier when qualifications are lower.

Maybe public service is too good for these Republicans. There is too much public in it – too much attention paid to those way below the middle class, too much attention to diversity and equality.

Do we want our police departments and our schools, our veterans’ hospitals and our national parks to just focus on the bottom line? Is the public servant dead, to be replaced by the minimum wage private employee? How will that make our lives better?

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 3, 2011