A Consequence of Over-Eating: Trying To Fit in Smaller Plane Seats

airline seats

Stephanie Rosenbloom, a New York Times reporter, has back-handedly pointed out why frequent or even infrequent flyers should be paying more attention to what they’re eating while on land. (They’re not eating nearly as much as they used to when in the air, as airlines have cut back on everything but fares!)

The shrinking-seat problem – they’ve gone from a width of 18 inches in the 1970’s to 16 or so inches today, while seat ‘pitch’, the distance from the back of one to the seat of the one behind it, has shrunk from 35 to 31 inches – has become so severe that Congress is being asked to rule on the matter as it considers how it should deal with the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act. Like most acts of Congress, you want to know as much about this one as about how sausage is made.)

Airlines want, naturally enough, to be able to squeeze as many people onto planes as they possibly can. Never mind that this often means compressing individuals’ space to something like Jews had in freight cars on their way to concentration camps or gas chambers.

Nevertheless, as all that onboard shrinking has occurred, the around-the-waist story is diametrically opposite: Men, according to Rosenbloom’s Times article, weight 30 pounds more, on average, than they did in the ‘70’s, when the airlines were deregulated. This has, of course, in addition to putting peanut farmers at risk, presented medical challenges those consumers of . . . what?

What is it American flyers are eating more of? Everything, various reports suggest, except the fresh fruits and vegetables that could be helping keep that waistline in check.

Men’s gain amounts to an unhealthy upshot from 166 to 196 pounds. And women have fared little better: They are, on average, up from 140 to 166 pounds, a belt-busting 26 pounds.

Eateries in airports don’t help: Most of them offer the same sort of calorie-heavy, sugar- and salt-saturated stuff to be found in fast food places across the country.

Meanwhile, passengers are less able to carry healthy food onto planes because of restrictions by the airlines themselves and the so-called Homeland Security teams who seemingly assume nearly every edible is a potential bomb.

(Did you ever notice that we never had a ‘homeland’ before 9-11? The insidious nature of ‘security creep’ is costing us freedom losses the Founding Fathers never could have imagined!

(‘Homeland’ has a Nazi-like ring to it – virtually a cause to rally around, and endure, while freedoms are bit by bit snuck aware from us. Think about that.)

U.S.-based  and other airlines continue to consolidate, supposedly to save money, but not for fliers – to protect the jobs and often outrageous perks of people running those corporations. And, sadly, workers’ jobs too often are lost these days through the greed of company officials and stock holders who clearly look after only their own interests – not those of the humans being around the country day in and day out.

I was a frequent flyer for 20 or so years. ‘Did far more miles than anyone should have to. ‘Got some great perks from the frequent-flyer miles programs, but in the end, I’d have preferred to be home, working as I now do – from a home office, well clear of New York City taxi- or helicopter-rides to airports, being able to ‘dress down’ and often sleep in beyond the start of the ‘normal’ business day.

But I do need to do something about that extra 20 or so pounds I’ve put on!

And Congress needs to do somethings about airlines’ shrinking space for those who pay its bills.


Shoot! Just What The World Needs: Artificial Mouse Sperm


Humans’ desire to reproduce and pass on their genes – possibly onto offspring who might eventually exist on rocks closer to or further from the sun – sometimes defy reason.

The U.S., in conjunction with a few other nations, are devoting untold hundreds of millions of dollars annually to pursuing knowledge about space, what’s ‘out there’, and how we might capitalize on, and perhaps populate, places that, in all practical terms, no member of earth’s human race is likely to ever get remotely close to.

And now we learn, via HealthDay News, that “scientists in China say they used mouse stem cells to create functional mouse sperm and turned them into sperm-like cells that were injected into eggs to produce embryos.”

After ‘normal’ development – for something so abnormal – “healthy and fertile” infant mice were generated. HealthDay News cited Cell Stem Cell as a source.

That web site’s 74-strong editorial board, apparently comprising nearly as many experts as the world needs on a field few ordinary humans understand, undoubtedly endorsed that rodent-creating effort. (Yeah, I know, it was a scientific study, meant to provide guidance toward . . . something. Something other than more rodents!)

I find myself feeling like James Spader in one if his closing arguments on Boston Legal — one of the best TV series produced in recent years. (It’s right up there with Scandal, Nashville, and the Chicago cops and medical franchises that from time to time do cross-overs with Law & Order/SVU, a long-time favorite of mine and hoards of others, judging from its years of serial showings.)

Spader has an amazing way of expressing total incredulity about his opponent’s arguments. I can only imagine how stretched that look would be if he had to, in the course of a defense, justify why, while  humans have spend vast millions trying to rid ‘our’ world of rodents, Chinese scientists would spend untold millions of yuan, or renminbi, a less-commonly understood name for China’s currency, to artificially producing sperm for more of them!

These are, indeed, strange times.

By Law: Alabama Low-Earners Can’t Earn 1/3 What State Workers Do



The state of Alabama, never known to be the most forward-looking of territories, has enacted a law barring cities, towns or whatever from enacting minimum wage laws exceeding the federal one, which now is $7.25 per hour. (At 40 hours per week, year round, that provides a worker an almost-impossible-to-live-on $15,080 a year.)

One objective of the law is to prevent Birmingham, the state’s largest city (pop. 212,237 or thereabouts) from mandating a minimum wage of a massive $10.10 an hour – still barely a living wage.

Why did the state legislature find it necessary to create, vote for and pass such a law (which the state’s governor signed an hour or so after it was passed)? Because, simply stated, some well-healed business people opposed Birmingham’s plan to push forward an almost-living-wage minimum wage law. You can assume those business people prevailed, in their lobbying efforts, thanks to their contributions to assorted elected officials – many of whom, you might also assume, are over paid.

I know this is apples and oranges, comparing something going on in one state to something going on in another, but I happened to learn today about the salaries being paid by a Virginia-based member of the House of Representatives to his staff.

Now I fully appreciate that the cost of living in my pretty-damn-rural part of Virginia are nothing like the costs of living in Washington. But not all of his staff members live in the over-priced District of Columbia.

The wealthiest ten percent of people in my town (pop. <4,000) probably earn less than $50k-$60k per year. The average family income, hereabouts, is closer to $30,000.

At least one of our area’s  Congressman’s based-outside-of-Washington staffers is paid more than double the higher of estimates of what our town’s highest earners do.

Doesn’t earn – is paid.

Like professional athletes don’t earn the massive sums too many of them are paid.

But get this: A 2012 report by Alabama’s state personnel department shows that the state’s employees – who more than likely earn less than the state’s elected legislators – pull in an average of $42,966 a year.

Why are taxpayers in Alabama supporting wages at that level for their public servants when they themselves – the poorest of them, anyway – don’t stand a chance of earning much more than one third as much as their public servants’ average wage?

Hamlet said something was rotten in the state of Denmark. I’m saying the same of the state of Alabama.

Pregnant,’Friend’ of Pope, She Dies Mysteriously In Rome Suburb


St. Peter’s Church behind Vatican Square, actually an oval. (Incredibly, early one morning in the early 1970’s, I was the only person in that ‘Square,’ where I was taking pictures.)

(An aside: Who knew there is an hotel within the walls of Vatican City, a 110-acre city-state (pop. 842 in 2014) smack dab in the middle of Rome?

(Casa Santa Marta happens to be, as well, the home of the pope, the residence of 40 or so priests and bishops who work in the Vatican. This large structure is considered to be an hotel because it is where Vatican visitors — bishops and other dignitaries from around the world — are housed. They enjoy, as you might expect, full hotel services throughout their time there.)

Mariam Wuolou, a 34-year-old receptionist at the Domus Santa Marta, a small hotel within the walls of Vatican City, was seven months pregnant when she was found dead, in an advanced state of decomposition, a few days ago.

Well known to Pope Francis, who is said to have seen and greeted her every morning and evening when she gave him his key and personal messages, Wuolou was found in her apartment in a suburb of Rome by her brother, who told authorities she hadn’t been answering her phone. She’d been on medical leave from her job for several weeks.

The Pope is said to have been distressed at news of her demise.

A native of Eritrea, Wuolou was married to an Italian, but it doesn’t appear she was (possibly ever!) living with him. There’s now speculation if hers was an arranged, marriage-of-convenience, to provide her Italian citizenship and, thus, the right to emigrate and reside in Italy.

(One must pass through Italy – from the airport, a train station or by road – to reach Vatican City, which is considered to be a self-contained entity beyond Italian law and jurisdiction.)

The Daily Beast reported today (2/23) that the cause of Wuolou’s death remains a mystery, despite extensive searches of her apartment and personal effects by investigators.

She was found fully clothed, and there was no indication she’d been physically harmed in any way. And though her medical records showed she was diabetic, a condition that can be harmful and even fatal during pregnancy, it isn’t clear if an Insulin error caused or contributed to her death. Police are said to doubt her death was Insulin-related.

The Vatican’s concern about this matter is so strong that authorities there – the ‘home’ of the Catholic church – have called for a complete autopsy and a criminal investigation, according to the Rome-based newspaper Il Messaggero. Ilmessagaggeo.it, the paper’s website, also noted that a magistrate ordered a DNA test of Wuolou’s unborn infant.




Most Quoted in Supreme Court Decisions: Bob Dylan


It’s apparent in so many ways that the times are, indeed, a’ changing, and we’ll get a clearer idea of how much they’re changing when the recently deceased Antonin Scalia is replaced on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Why? Because for the past few years, with the average of justices falling into that range (a bit more than 70, right now) where ordinary folk are said to be ‘of a certain age’, Bob Dylan has been the songwriter most-quoted by SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the U.S.) justices in their opinions.

More often, perhaps, in dissents, because “you have a little more leeway there,” Chief Justice John Roberts said earlier this month while being interviewed by Dean John F. O’Brian of New England Law – aka The New England School of Law, of Boston.

But what, you may be wondering, does the appointment of a new Supreme Court justice have to do with how often Dylan (or any songwriter) is cited by that court? Simply this: If the new justice is significantly younger, perhaps even than today’s youngest SCOTUS member, Elena Kagan, who is 55, his or her favorite songwriter is likely to be of a more recent vintage than the early Bob Dylan, the vintage that is most-often quoted in the court’s decisions.

Dylan rocked the music world, and musical history, with a huge outpouring of material from 1963 through 1965, a short period, but the time when much of his most memorable work was presented to an often-astonished public. And though he’s been churning out music for more than half a century, many of his best-known works are from that period.

And many of them, including “Blowing in the Wind,” “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” have had snippets of lyrics woven into SCOTUS decisions.

The first such reference was by Chief Justice John Roberts, in a 2008 dissent in what actually was a misquote. The issue concerned whether or not collection agencies for pay phone companies had ‘standing’ – a vested interest – in the case at hand. Roberts, citing ‘Blowing in the Wind’ as his ‘authority,’ said, “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

True Dylan fans rightly complained that he’d left out the word ‘ain’t’:  “When you ain’t got nothing…”

The Dylan line most often quoted by justices, at the highest and lower levels, is “You don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” from “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

And it’s not just courts that quote him: A New York Times article (2/22/16) noted that a recent study found 213 references to Dylan in medical journals.

But, as The Times pondered, will a younger justice – if we get a new 9th justice within any current American’s lifetime – be offering up quotes from, say, Billy Joel, Mick Jagger, Sting (hopefully not “I’ll be watching you”!) or even Taylor Swift? (Hopefully not “I make the moves up as I go (moves up as I go”) (from her ‘Shake It Off’.)

I have about as much interest in her music as she does, I venture to guess, about Supreme Court rulings. But as Dylan noted, in a slightly different context, “It’s alright ma, I’m only sighing.” You could bet against quotes from her showing up in future SCOTUS decisions, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Swift could be quoted because many of her lines are, as Alex B. Long, a law professor at the University of Tennessee said of Dylan’s, “pithy, memorable and pointed. They’re great lines on their own, and they’re also really useful to convey the legal concept [a justice] is trying to get across.”

Like many other songwriters, Swift also offers up some amazingly ‘pithy,’ right-to-the-point lyrics.

I mention her only because I have great admiration for her devotion to her craft, and for her business acumen.

I read a profile article on her recently, and she appears – if what was said can be believed – to devote herself about 97% to that craft. The rest of the time, she sleeps. We should all be so fortunate!

Dengue, Zika, Cancer May ALL be linked to Wolbachia bacteria


The Aedes mosquito

Two totally unrelated fields of study are addressing two of the world’s oldest, greatest killers plus a new one:  Dengue fever and cancer have been around for eons; The Zika virus is a relative new-comer, but it is related to dengue (pronounced ‘den-gae’).

Actually, assorted studies are separately addressing the dengue and Zika issues, and at least one of them, like one concerned with cancer, have something to do with a bacterial genus called Wolbachia, which live within insects and pass genetic information on to both successor generations and to other insect species.

The connection to dengue anad Zika is more obvious, since those usually fatal afflictions are spread by bites of a species of mosquito. But the one that spreads dengue doesn’t carry or spread Wolbachia, and scientists have been studying how they might make use of that fact, and their knowledge of it, to prevent other insects from passing around the dengue disease.

By the early 2000’s, researchers had uncovered the fact that some bacteria swop bits of DNA with other bacteria. This practice is called lateral gene transfer (LGT).

There also was, at the early part of this decade, early evidence that some such transfers took DNA bits from bacteria into multicellular organisms, and one of the types of bacteria known of being involved in LGT was Wolbachia, which had transferred some of its own DNA to a species of beetle and a parasitic worm.

Then along came Julie Dunning Hotopp, a post-doctoral fellow. She wanted to know more about this phenomenon, and soon did, as she and several colleagues tracked lateral gene transfers from Wolbachia to eight inspect species and nematode worms.

Were these transfers moving genes and traits that could alter the behaviors of the new host? ‘Turns out they were, and confirmation of that, said Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health in his blog:

 “… put Dunning Hotopp on a research trail that now has taken a sharp turn toward human cancer and earned her a 2015 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award.”

This award, Dr. Collins noted, “supports exceptionally innovative research projects that are inherently risky and untested but have the potential to change fundamental research paradigms in areas such as cancer and throughout the biomedical sciences.”

It would be pointless to paraphrase the blog post on this, because it’s explained so well there:

Unlike insects and worms, people don’t harbor lots of bacteria in their cells. But the human body does play host to a diverse array of microbes, collectively known as the human microbiome.

Dunning Hotopp, now an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, began wondering several years ago while pursuing this new research trail whether it was possible that bacterial DNA might also make its way into the human genome—probably not into the germline (the part that gets passed to future generations), but into various cells of the body (so-called somatic cells).

Dunning Hotopp searched for signs of bacterial gene transfer in publicly available data from the Human Genome Project, the 1000 Genomes Project, and The Cancer Genome Atlas.

There, dispersed within this vast body of data, she found something others had overlooked: thousands of instances in which bacterial DNA had apparently become enmeshed in the DNA within human cells taken from about one out of every three people.

Interestingly, evidence of LGT turned up much more frequently in cancerous cells than in healthy human cells. Microbial sequences were especially frequent in the genomes of acute myeloid leukemias (AML) and stomach cancers, and Dunning Hotopp’s latest NIH award will enable her to conduct additional studies for further confirmation.

It’s not yet clear whether bacterial DNA in human genomes causes cancer, or if cancer cells are somehow more prone to receiving DNA from microbial sources. As a next step, Dunning Hotopp plans to genetically engineer some of the insertions she’s uncovered into human cells in the lab to better understand their functional consequences and potential relationship to cancer.

The search for bacterial DNA in human sequences requires great care to ensure that any findings aren’t due to bacterial contamination of samples. In fact, one reason it’s taken this long to confirm the existence of bacterial DNA in the human genome is because evidence of bacterial sequences, once found, has often been thrown out!

To address this problem and help streamline the search for lateral gene transfer in the human genome, Dunning Hotopp and her colleagues are devising bioinformatics tools, which they intend to share with the scientific community. As these tools become available, I’ll look forward to learning what she and others will uncover.”

Some of the research into causes and possible means of preventing dengue and Zika is spelled out in a WebMd article. Again, there’s little to be gained by me paraphrasing what’s been said there, because I am way less – make that extremely less – knowledgeable about these issues that are the authors of that piece.

So here’s what it said, on February 2nd:

They’re tiny. They attack with supreme stealth, biting in full daylight with no buzz and no sting. And they carry viruses that can be lethal to their preferred food source: us.

The Aedes aegypti, or yellow fever mosquito, killed more soldiers than guns did during the Spanish-American War. And now these black-and-white striped femme fatales    — only the females suck blood — are causing misery through Central and South America as they pass the viruses that cause dengue fever, yellow fever, chikungunya and now Zika virus disease from person to person.

Their ancestors lived in the forest where they fed on all manner of warm-blooded creatures, but some time in recent history — no one is sure exactly when — the modern Aedes mosquito developed a preference for just one animal — humans.

“They only live in association with humans. And they have all these physical and behavior adaptations to do it,” says Carolyn McBride, PhD. She’s an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University who specializes in Aedes aegypti.

“They have an amazing ability to recognize human odor,” McBride says. “You can put on a lab glove and cut a little hole in the back so that just an inch of skin is exposed, and they’ll find it.”

Where They Hide Out

Experts who have spent some time studying Aedes mosquitoes are amazed at how well they’ve adapted to feeding on people.

Take, for instance, their habitat. They don’t have a lot of stamina in the air. Their flight range is just 300 to 600 feet. As a result, insecticidal sprays mostly don’t work on this breed, because it’s hard to catch them airborne.

To feed, they have to stick close to their intended targets, a.k.a. us. They live under decks, patio furniture, and in homes that don’t have cool air — they don’t much like air conditioning. They especially love the drip trays that collect extra water under potted plants. But that’s not the only place you’ll find them.

They “can breed in incredibly small amounts of water,” says Joe Conlon, spokesman for the American Mosquito Control Association.

“When I was in Suriname, South America, several years ago, I saw them breeding very happily in discarded soda bottle caps,” he says.

In New Jersey, researchers at Rutgers University found them breeding in water that had pooled in discarded snack-size potato chip bags.

“These mosquitoes are in people’s backyards,” says Dina Fonseca, PhD, an entomologist and associate professor at Rutgers. They live in containers, she says, and are “urban, domestic mosquitoes.”

In 2009, Fonseca and her team went house to house through neighborhoods around Trenton, N.J., trying to understand exactly where these mosquitoes and their close relatives, Aedes albopictus, live and lay their eggs.

(In lab experiments, albopictus mosquitoes have also been shown to carry Zika.)

They dumped and checked out more than 20,000 different water-holding containers for the study.

They found these mosquitoes mainly in buckets, in the drip trays under potted plants, and in little pools of water than collect in the crevices of outdoor equipment like lawn mowers and air conditioners.

Even in the most manicured, clutter-free yards, they found infestations. One place that was a reliable hideout? The corrugated extenders that people attach to downspouts to direct rainwater away from homes.

“Sometimes they are so long that you always have water inside of those accordion folds. We’ve gotten 500 larvae out of those little folds before,” Fonseca says.

And Margaret Chan, MD, director-general of the World Health Organization, warned that many areas could see their number of mosquitoes boom this year because of the El Nino weather pattern — the strongest in almost two decades. El Nino often brings warmer, wetter winter weather, which allows these insects to hatch earlier and breed longer.

How to Protect Yourself

The Zika virus is spread when a mosquito bites an infected person, then bites an uninfected person and passes the virus. Most infected people don’t show symptoms. But the virus is suspected of causing microcephaly in babies of infected pregnant  women, although a cause-and-effect link hasn’t been definitely established.

Microcephaly causes devastating, sometimes-fatal brain damage, and can result in miscarriage or stillbirth.

The CDC has warned women who are pregnant or may become pregnant to consider postponing travel to more than 25 countries and territories in Central and South America, and the Caribbean.

In Brazil, the situation is so desperate that they’re trying an experiment: releasing genetically engineered male mosquitoes into the wild. When they breed with females, they pass a self-destruct gene to their offspring that causes them to die before they reach adulthood.

Oxitec, the British company that produces that mosquito, claims in tests that it cut wild Aedes populations by as much as 90%.

The company says it has been in talks with the FDA to test its mosquitoes in the Florida Keys, but hasn’t yet received approval to try it there.

Supporters say the Oxitec mosquito could end the menace of Zika and other mosquito-borne viruses without the toxic after-effects of pesticides. But critics worry about the unintended consequences of releasing a genetically modified insect into the wild.

While we wait to see if science can save us, warm, wet weather is on the way.

Fonseca says the first Aedes mosquitoes will hatch in an area after the temperature has been above 50 degrees for at least 16 days.

To protect yourself, experts agree that the most important thing to do is to get rid of standing water in and around your house. But the mosquitoes aren’t always where you might think.

In her house-to-house survey, Fonseca didn’t often find them up high in places like roof gutters or in ornamental ponds or in swimming pools, even when they’d been left untreated and neglected. Instead, she says, think low and small.

Fonseca and Conlon offer these suggestions:

  • Empty buckets or watering cans. If you have a rain barrel, treat it with a non-toxic product designed to kill mosquito larvae.
  • Drill holes in your trash or recycling bins so they don’t collect water.
  • Even though it’s a pain to disconnect them, unscrew and empty downspout extenders at least once every 5 days. That’s how long it takes mosquito eggs to hatch.
  • If you’ve got plants in containers, empty their drip trays at least once a week. Same goes for outdoor-furniture covers that may hold pockets of water after a rainstorm.
  • Try to cover any outdoor equipment, like a barbecue grill, so it doesn’t collect water in places you can’t see or reach.
  • Aedes mosquitoes like to bite below the knees, so long pants and socks are important. Wear long sleeves as well.
  • Use a mosquito repellent. Conlon says the active ingredients DEET or a slightly less sticky, greasy alternative called picaridin both work well.

Here’s another tip from Conlon, who isn’t just a professional mosquito fighter, but also a Florida resident who has to deal with them year-round: If you’re sitting on a porch or patio, use box fans to create a strong breeze around your feet and legs. Since mosquitoes don’t do well in wind, a draft helps set up a mechanical barrier, and it also helps blow away all the human odors that cue them to your warm-blooded presence.

The more we learn, the more we realize how little, overall, we understand about the sometimes weird workings of nature!

Monster Ramp, 197-feet long, Lets 7-Year Old Move From House To Street Via Wheelchair


Lally House before


Lally House after

Katie Lally is seven years old. She and her mum live it a council flat (a subsidized apartment) in a town just north of Glasgow, Scotland. Katie uses a wheelchair. In its wisdom, the West Dunbartonshire Town Council placed them in a third floor flat. Getting Katie to ground level – or back up again – is a nightmare, her mum told The Guardian.

She tried for three years to get the council to move them to a first-floor flat. Exhibiting further wisdom (except of things to do with wheel chairs), the council instead choose to erect, at considerable tax payer expense, a zig-zag, ten-level ramp extending 60 meters (196.85 feet) from their building’s door to street level.

While that ramp does not address the issue of moving the child from several stories above ground level to the building’s door, it most certainly does provides access – albeit probably not at all easy access – between the two outdoor levels, albeit at a cost of some £40,000 ($57,163).

The Guardian says the council “apparently told Lally that the giant ramp was the only option because of building regulations.

“There must have been a better,” Lally told the paper. “The council could have gone about the whole project in a more sensible way.”

That statement demonstrates, the paper said, Lally was “fundamentally misunderstanding the joy of spending tens of thousands of pounds of public money on a cross between a fairgrounds ride and the most terrifying steel construction this side of a post-apocalyptic war zone.”