Let The Sun Shine In?

I recently returned from a beach vacation.  One of our daily rituals was slathering on SPF 50 sunscreen to try to protect ourselves against the blazing sunshine.  We wanted to be in the warm sun rather than the gray cold Midwest, obviously, but we’d accepted the healthcare cautions about sunshine and skin cancer, and so the sunblock went on.

But what if the healthcare cautions that led to our lubing up are wrong — as in, 180-degree wrong?  What if exposure to sunshine is not only not bad for you, but in fact it helps you to be healthier in countless ways, by effectively and efficiently producing vitamin D, lowering blood pressure, making you feel happier, and having other therapeutic benefits?

6a00e5520572bb8834017d41062de7970c-320wiThat’s the intriguing conclusion of recent research that started with a look at the value of vitamin D supplements — which many people who avoid the sun are taking to try to compensate for the lack of solar-produced vitamin D.  Low vitamin D levels are associated with lots of bad stuff — cancer, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, heart attack, stroke, depression, cognitive impairment, autoimmune conditions — and vitamin D is required for calcium absorption and good bone health.  So vitamin D supplements should help, right?  But the research showed that vitamin D supplements weren’t having any discernible impact on cancer, heart disease, or stroke.

Scientists scratched their heads and looked into the unexpected result, and started to find evidence that it wasn’t high vitamin D levels that prevented the bad conditions.  Instead, the presence of vitamin D was just a marker, and the real cause for the positive health effects was that sunlight that was producing the vitamin D.  The people who had the high vitamin D and were avoiding the bad conditions were getting plenty of sunlight.  Exposure to sunshine also causes the skin to produce nitric oxide, which dilates blood vessels and reduces blood pressure — which, as the article linked above points out, helps to explain why “rates of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and overall mortality all rise the farther you get from the sunny equator, and they all rise in the darker months.”

And the vitamin D/blood pressure effects may just be the start.  The article continues:  “Sunlight triggers the release of a number of other important compounds in the body, not only nitric oxide but also serotonin and endorphins. It reduces the risk of prostate, breast, colorectal, and pancreatic cancers. It improves circadian rhythms. It reduces inflammation and dampens autoimmune responses. It improves virtually every mental condition you can think of. And it’s free.”

But wait — won’t getting more sunshine cause skin cancer?  Yes, there is that risk — but the article points out that skin cancer is not nearly as lethal as the other diseases and conditions that exposure to sunlight helps prevent.  And, additionally, people who regularly get sunshine, avoid sunburns, and keep their tans going — like outdoor workers — are much less likely to experience melanoma, the less-common but potentially fatal kind of skin cancer.  In fact, the evidence indicates that long-term exposure to sun is associated with lower melanoma rates.

All of this will come as a surprise to people who are scared to death of skin cancer and buy sunblock by the carload, but it makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint.  Our half-naked distant ancestors didn’t have SPF50 to apply, and they were exposed to the sun on a much more prolonged basis than modern, largely indoor humans.  It makes sense that humans would evolve in ways that would favor those who were more efficient in using that abundant, constant sunshine in positive, healthy ways.

Think about that the next time you’re carefully applying that SPF50 sunblock and popping down vitamin D pills.

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Exercise Is Where You Find It

The snow fell on Saturday, and when it looked like the snowfall had ended, I went out and shoveled the snow off our front steps, our brick entrance way, the walkway to the back yard, and the sidewalk in front of our house.

Alas!  The storm was only taking a breather and toying with me, and another four or five inches of snow fell later on Saturday and Sunday morning.  So yesterday I grabbed the back saver shovel and did it all over again.

Shoveling snow is pretty good exercise.  You do a lot of bending, lifting, and twisting, as well as some precision work in scraping off the packed down areas that somebody has walked on.  If the snow is moist, good packing snow, as this snowfall was, you end up with a decent amount of weight on the end of your shovel, ready to be hefted and hurled onto the snowbank you create. It doesn’t take much shoveling to get the heartbeat up and the sweat glands flowing, even though the weather is cold.  Combine that with being outside, taking gulps of crisp fresh air, and you’ve got a nice little workout going.

In my case, I’d say the whole process took between a half hour and 45 minutes.  When I was done I had clean steps, a clean sidewalk, and a feeling of accomplishment.  If I’d been in a gym, it would be akin to one of those exercise routines where you pick up a heavy ball, twist to one side and then another, and then throw it to the side and do the whole process again.

Studies consistently show that most Americans don’t get as much exercise as they should.  One response might be to move to the Midwest and buy a snow shovel.

 

Messing Around With Genes

Since 2015, Congress has included language in its funding bills to prevent the Food and Drug Administration from approving any application to create in vitro fertilization children from embryos that have been genetically modified.  Because the prohibitory language has been included in funding bills that have expiration dates, it needs to be renewed every year.  The House of Representatives just passed legislation that includes the renewal language, as part of an effort to fund certain governmental activities like food stamps and drug approvals.

Khan1The issue of genetic modification of embryos has some special urgency these days, with the recent news that Chinese scientists have announced the birth of the first genetically modified children — twin girls whose genes allegedly have been altered to supposedly make them specially resistant to HIV.  The Chinese scientists used a protein to edit the genes on a “CRISPR” — a stretch of DNA.  Some people question the validity of the Chinese claim about these so-called “CRISPR babies,” but there is no doubt that genetic manipulation of human beings is moving from the realm of science fiction to the reality of science fact.

The bar to such activities created by Congress ensures that efforts to genetically modify humans are not going to be happening in America — at least for now.  Is that a good thing?  The FDA Commissioner has said:  “Certain uses of science should be judged intolerable, and cause scientists to be cast out. The use of CRISPR to edit human embryos or germ line cells should fall into that bucket. Anything less puts the science and the entire scientific enterprise at risk.”  Others argue that Congress has taken a “meat axe” approach when it should be crafting a more nuanced policy that recognizes that some genetic manipulation could be beneficial.

It’s hard to know what’s right.  Scientists have been involved in the reproductive process for years, and their work, through processes like in vitro fertilization, has allowed people who are struggling to conceive to realize their dream of having children.  But I think the notion of scientists tinkering with genes to create “better” human beings crosses a line in several ways.  First, I’m not entirely confident that scientists know what they are doing and that there won’t be unintended, negative consequences from the removal of the genes the scientists snip out.  Anyone who has read about the history of science knows that scientists have been wrong before, and its reasonable to think they might be wrong again — only this time, their errors wouldn’t just be about the impact of certain foods or the properties of atoms, but would directly affect specific human beings.  Second, where do you draw the line in genetic manipulation?  Modifying DNA sequences to try to avoid diseases or debilitating health conditions is one thing, but what if scientists want to edit genes to create humans who are smarter, or more athletic, or taller?  Do we really want to permit the creation of “designer people” — like Khan Noonien Singh, that memorable Star Trek character who was genetically modified to be a kind of superhuman?  And finally, as this article points out, the whole issue brings up uncomfortable memories of the eugenics arguments of the early 20th century, where certain ethnic groups and traits were considered superior and others inferior.  If “improved” humans are created, where does that leave the rest of us?

In my view, this is an area where a sweeping rule makes sense — at least initially.  I think we need a lot more evidence, and a lot more thinking, before we should allow scientists to go messing around with human genetic material.

Tipping, Up In The Air

Next week I’ll be taking my first flight ever on Frontier Airlines.  It’s branded as a low-cost airline that differs from other carriers in that it charges you separate fees for things like your carry-on bag and basic in-flight drink and snack options.  Frontier presents its approach as allowing it to keep base fares low and giving travelers “options that allow you to customize your flight to match both your wants and your wallet.”

flight-crewNow I’ve learned that Frontier differs from other airlines in another, more interesting way:  it’s the only airline that encourages travelers to tip its flight attendants.  Beginning January 1, 2019, individual Frontier flight attendants can accept tips, and if a traveler purchases in-flight food or beverages, they get a prompt from the Frontier payment system notifying them that they have the option to leave a tip — just like you get in many restaurants.  In the article linked above, Frontier explains:  “We appreciate the great work of our flight attendants and know that our customers do as well, so [the payment system] gives passengers the option to tip.”

The union that represents Frontier flight attendants, the Association of Flight Attendants International, isn’t happy about Frontier’s tipping policy and says that the airline should be paying flight attendants more instead.  The union and Frontier have been trying to negotiate a new contract, and one union official has said that “[m]anagement moved forward with a tipping option for passengers in hopes it would dissuade flight attendants from standing together for a fair contract — and in an effort to shift additional costs to passengers.”

I’m not quite sure how I come out on the issue of tipping flight attendants.  Obviously, their job involves a lot more than donning a little apron and serving drinks and snacks, so there’s a bit of a disconnect between the tipping option — apparently presented only when food or drink is ordered — and the actual contours of the flight attendant’s job.  At the same time, many airlines are nickel-and-diming passengers with fees, so perhaps tip income for flight attendants is the wave of the future.  And I’m all for airlines adopting different models — like Frontier’s low-cost approach — as they compete for passengers, and letting the passengers themselves decide which approach they like best.

I’m thinking my flight on Frontier next week is going to be a bit of an adventure.

Never Quite “Old”

Recently the New York Times ran a piece which once again addresses the question of what constitutes being “old” in America.  The writer, who is 61, says that the question of “what is ‘old,’ anyway?” is very much on his mind and is on the minds of the 70 million Baby Boomers who are older than 50.  He adds, by way of illustration:  “Dinner conversations are now hyper-focused on how to stay young or at least delay old.”

active-seniors-bicyclingThose sound like pretty damned boring dinner conversations!

It seems like we see these articles with regularity, as we Baby Boomers fight desperately to avoid association with “old age.”  The article linked above, for example, quotes a researcher who says that somebody who is 60 years old today is “middle-aged” and true “old age” doesn’t occur until men hit 70 to 71 and women hit 73 or 74.  Wanna bet that those numbers move back even farther as the bulge of the Boomer generation moves closer to the dreaded “old age” cutoff, to the point where, in a few years, people are saying 80 is the new 50?

It’s pretty ridiculous — and kind of pathetic — when you think about it.  Some people in the Baby Boom generation have always seemed more focused on how they are perceived than how they feel about themselves.  Now that they are aging, and they don’t want to be seen as “old,” they struggle to convince everyone that a different definition should apply. But the efforts aren’t working, and people still use the same criteria to define who is “old” — things like whether you’ve got gray hair, or for that matter any hair, and whether you’re approaching retirement at your workplace.  If you have enough of those criteria, you’re going to be seen as “old,” whether or not some researcher argues that advances in longevity really should change the definition.

If all Baby Boomers were really as rebellious as they like to think they are, they wouldn’t care about public perception.  If you’re seen as old by others, so what?  The key is what people think about themselves, not the labels assigned to them by others.  Baby Boomers would be better off if they stopped talking about “being old” at dinner conversations, and started focusing more on what they personally still want to do with their lives.

The Coming College Collapse

Some pretty alarming predictions are being made about American institutions of higher education these days.  Clayton Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School, predicts that half of all colleges and universities will close or go bankrupt in the next decade.  That’s upping the ante on a prediction Christensen and Michael Horn made in the New York Times in 2013:  that the bottom 25 percent of every tier of colleges and universities will close or merge out of existence in the next 10 to 15 years.

Abandoned HospitalWhy the dire forecasts?  Because colleges have been struggling for a while now, their business models aren’t sustainable, and demographics and economics indicate that things are going to get worse very soon.

Here’s an interesting point made in the first article linked above:  “Many colleges and universities are increasingly unable to bring in enough revenue to cover their costs. Indeed, the average tuition discount rate was a whopping 49.9% for first-time, full-time freshmen in 2017–18, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. That means that students are paying roughly only half of what colleges and universities say they charge. A tuition discount rate above 35% puts a college in a danger zone, particularly when it is heavily dependent on tuition. Many institutions have discount rates far above that now.”

The fact that the average tuition discount rate is nearly 50 percent indicates that it’s high times if you’re somebody whose child is getting ready to go to college.  College tuitions may be like hospital prices lists for different procedures — that is, they are quoted amounts that almost no one really pays — but an average discount of 50 percent is staggering.  Clearly it’s a buyer’s market out there, and buyer’s markets are bad news for sellers, who get caught in price wars that do nothing except cut into their bottom line.  And, in the case of colleges and universities, the fight for students not only involves cutting tuition, but also building new, high-end dormitories, workout facilities, student centers, and other facilities that might appeal to high school kids who are trying to decide where to spend the next four years.

Statistics also show that about 25 percent of private colleges are operating at deficits, and that expenses have exceeded revenues at public colleges over the past three years.  And demographics aren’t helping, either:  the number of American 18-year-olds who are going to college is declining, and the decline is supposed to get worse within a few years.  Combine fewer applicants with tuition price wars and high fixed costs to pay expenses like tenured faculty salaries and building maintenance costs and you start to see the obvious challenges.  Throw in the possibility that some kids who have grown up sitting in front of their computers might decide to opt instead for the on-line learning options that are making increasing inroads, and the picture becomes even bleaker.

Often, predictions turn out to be wrong, of course, but there is no doubt that these are tough times for American institutions of higher education.  Don’t be surprised if, in a few years, you hear that your alma mater is closing its doors.

 

Green Book

Kish and I have taken a break from going to the movies — the holidays were hectic, we were on the road, and the standard superhero and shoot-’em-up fare just isn’t very appealing — but we wanted to get back into the habit of identifying thoughtful, interesting films and supporting them with our ticket money.  Yesterday, we went to see Green Book.  It was an excellent vehicle for allowing us to reengage with the movies.

16GREEN-BOOK-articleLargeGreen Book tells the story of a brilliant African-American pianist, Dr. Donald Shirley, who decides to take his musical trio on a tour of the Midwest and then the deep South during the last two months of 1962.  It was a brave decision intended to help spur social change, because in 1962 Jim Crow treatment of African-Americans, and legally enforced segregation, was still very much alive in the South.  Dr. Shirley’s record label decides he should hire a driver to shuttle him from performance to performance and also help him to navigate the racist barriers that he will inevitably encounter.  Dr. Shirley chooses Tony Vallelonga, a bouncer at the Copacabana who is temporarily unemployed while the club is undergoing renovations.  Vallelonga knows how to use his fists and is nicknamed “Lip” because, by his own admission, he’s a consummate bullshitter who can talk his way out of a jam.  The record label then gives Vallelonga the “Green Book” that gives the film its name — a paperback publication for African-Americans that tells them which hotels and establishments in the South will actually welcome them as guests and patrons.

Dr. Shirley and Tony Vallelonga are an odd couple indeed.  One is a virtuouso musician who is highly educated, extremely refined in his tastes, and impressively (and at one point in the film, surprisingly) multi-lingual; the other is a barely literate graduate of the school of hard knocks who has street smarts and a prodigious appetite for hot dogs, fried chicken, and just about everything else in life.  And, Vallelonga is a product of the casual, everyday racism found even in the North at that time.  According to the film, at least — the Shirley family disputes the film’s accuracy on this point — during the tour Dr. Shirley and the Lip overcome their differences and become friends.  Dr. Shirley schools Vallelonga on his diction, helps him to write more meaningful and expressive letters to his wife, and exposes him to music, musical talents, and concepts that Vallelonga had never experienced before.  Vallelonga, in turn, introduces Dr. Shirley to fried chicken and popular music and uses his bullshitting skills and street smarts to support and protect Dr. Shirley as he deals with racist treatment on a daily basis.

The story of the friendship is entertaining — and Mahershala Ali, as Dr. Shirley, and Viggo Mortensen, as Vallelonga, are terrific — but the emotional core of the movie is found in its depiction of the Jim Crow South and the ugliness of its racist, segregated, hateful ways and of the people who stubbornly refuse to change.  Whether it is the overtly racist small-town deputy enforcing a “whites only after dark” law, or a rich owner of a lavish house who won’t let Dr. Shirley use the bathroom in his home, or the country club manager who refuses to allow Dr. Shirley to eat in the dining room and pleads with him to “be reasonable,” the onslaught of racist ugliness is constant, jarring, and deeply appalling.

Green Book is a powerful film that will leave you embarrassed, sick to your stomach, and shaking your head about a terrible chapter in American history.  It’s well worth seeing.