The Garden Of The Gods

Yesterday we took a break from meetings in Colorado Springs to hike around the Garden of the Gods, an amazing array of rock formations. You drive through suburban neighborhoods, basketball courts, and soccer fields, then suddenly you notice jagged and colorful rock formations off in the distance, with Pike’s Peak and the Rockies in the background, One of the formations is bleached white, as shown in the photo above, but most of them are a vibrant and deep red. That’s when you know you’ve reached the Garden of the Gods.

The colossal rock formations in the Garden are sandstone, and they trace their history back hundreds of millions of years, to the period after the “ancestral Rockies”–the mountain range that existed here before the current Rockies were formed–had been eroded down to low hills and sediment. The climate then dried out and the landscape was covered with huge sand dunes, which eventually were covered by new layers of sediment that caused the sand to become compacted, forming horizontal sheets of sandstone. When tectonic plate shifts created the Rockies millions of years later, the sandstone formations were tilted and thrust upward, creating the Garden. In short, the story of the Garden is the story of geology and the inexorable forces of planetary change and pressure that have changed the landscape. When you think about it, the story of the Garden is also a humbling reminder that the human lifetime is a drop in the bucket compared to the millennia that shaped the formations that we mortals now enjoy.

The Garden is an easy hike, with most of the walking on paved paths. It’s also a relatively short hike, because the formations are confined to a limited area. We walked from the overflow lot to the site, spent about an hour and a half walking around and seeing the different formations from different vantage points, and enjoying the red crags against the blue skies, the little windows between the rocks in some of the formations, and the rocky balancing acts like the one seen in the photo below.

It was a brilliantly sunny day, with only a few clouds drifting across a bright blue sky, making for perfect conditions for taking photos of the formations. One thing to keep in mind if you visit the Garden of the Gods is that it is a dry climate and you will be changing elevation as you walk up and down–which means you’re going to want to bring a water bottle. We remembered to bring ours and were glad we did, because by the time our visit was ended we had drained our water supply.

One of the trails leads upward, via a series of steps, to a point where there is very little vegetation and visitors can scramble out onto the rock. Taking that trail allows you a close-up view of the sandstone and see some of the sedimentary layering, and allows you to get a better sense of how the area was formed. Except for a lone bush, you might as well be on the surface of Mars.

Some of the sheer rock faces are available for experienced and well-equipped rock climbers. During our visit we saw some hardy climbers on the top of one of the tallest formations. You can see the climbers below, as a tiny dot just to the left of the pinnacle of the formation on the right side of the photo. They must have had an amazing view of the Garden and the Rockies beyond.

From the upper trail you also get an interesting view of some of the formations, jutting dramatically above the surrounding trees, giving the observer a breathtaking vista that is a study in reds, blue, and greens. Whether you are an amateur geologist, or just interested in taking a walk through some beautiful scenery, the Garden of the Gods is worth a visit.

Random Weirdness In The Interstellar Void

The Voyager 1 probe, like the crew of the starship Enterprise, has literally gone where no one–or at least no person or machine associated with the planet Earth–has gone before. It is 14.5 billion miles from its home planet, which it left in 1977. Voyager 1 has traveled beyond the orbit of Pluto and is now out in interstellar space. It is so far away that it takes two full days for a message sent by the spacecraft to reach NASA on Earth.

Apparently, things are weird out in the interstellar void, because Voyager 1 has started behaving . . . strangely.

Voyager 1 still receives and executes commands from Earth, and transmits data back to NASA. That means the probe’s attitude articulation and control system is working and keeping its antenna pointed precisely at Earth. But the problem is that the telemetry data that the spacecraft is beaming back home doesn’t make any sense, or reflect what Voyager 1 is supposed to be actually doing. NASA engineers described the data being received as “random or impossible.”

What’s up with Voyager 1? NASA’s project manager for the probe notes that it is 45 years old, which is far beyond its anticipated lifespan, and the interstellar space that Voyager 1 is now traveling through is high radiation territory, which could be messing with the probe’s systems. So maybe Voyager‘s random or impossible data transmissions are just a glitch from an aging machine. But isn’t it curious that Voyager‘s issues came to light at the same time Congress was holding its first, highly publicized hearings into UFOs in decades?

Perhaps it is just a coincidence. But anyone who remembers the plot of Star Trek: The Motion Picture will feel a little unsettled when they hear that V’ger is behaving . . . strangely.

“Please Don’t Weigh Me” Cards

I happened to see a news article about these “please don’t weigh me” cards that some people apparently are using with their doctors. One of the cards is pictured above.

The cards are being offered by a group called more-love.org. Its website indicates that it has sent out thousands of the cards. The website explains the cards as follows:

“Because we live in a fatphobic society, being weighed and talking about weight causes feelings of stress and shame for many people. Many people feel anxious about seeing the doctor, and will avoid going to the doctor in order to avoid the scale.

We want to support you in requesting healthcare that is free of weight bias. Getting weighed is an informed choice that we get to make with our doctor. We don’t have to automatically step on the scale just because someone asks us to.

Our “Don’t Weigh Me” cards are a polite and respectful way to assert your preference at the doctor’s office and seek informed consent if weight is deemed necessary for care and treatment. It’s OK to not automatically step on the scale when asked.”

Perhaps I’m insensitive and “fatphobic,” but this concept seems strange to me. First, there’s a passive-aggressive element to it that doesn’t seem particularly well-suited to a positive doctor-patient relationship. Why do you need pre-printed cards, rather than having an honest conversation with your doctor, and his staff, about your feelings? If you can’t have candid communications with your doctor about your issues, you’re probably not going to get the best health care.

Second, what is this about “healthcare that is free of weight bias”? Numerous studies have shown that weight is directly related to health care, in that obesity increases the risk of conditions like diabetes, heart disease, joint problems, respiratory problems, and other significant health issues. Even if you don’t currently have one of these conditions, excessive weight is likely to cause you to develop such problems in the future–which means weight logically is a focus of any doctor who is interested in preventive health care. Asking your doctor not to weigh you is like asking him to not take your pulse, conduct a blood test, or perform a physical examination. You are depriving him of information that he can use in prescribing appropriate medication, treatment, or other activities that can produce better health and avoid future problems.

Third, isn’t it odd that people are concerned about living in a “fatphobic” society, and what really worries them is getting a metric from a scale, rather than how they look, or how they feel, or how their clothes fit? What is it about the act of getting on a scale that makes it, specifically, the focus of a pre-printed card?

These cards seem to be a new development, and it isn’t clearly how common their use is. It would be interesting to know how doctors are reacting to being handed one of these cards.

Should Earthlings Be Advertising That We’re Here?

Stephen Hawking was, by all accounts, a pretty smart person. He also was very concerned about our ongoing efforts to reach out to potential alien life in the cosmos. Hawking rejected the notion that an advanced alien species would necessarily be a peaceful friend that would help backward Earthlings to achieve a higher level of consciousness. Instead, he thought it was at least plausible that any aliens might be interested in plundering Earth’s resources or finding new locations for alien colonies. As Hawking put it: “Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn’t turn out so well.”

So, should Earthlings be waving our arms and letting others in the cosmos know that we are here? And who should decide whether to accept the risk that such a decision could prove to have disastrous, alien invasion-type consequences?

In some ways, we’ve been reach out to aliens for a while. We’ve sent out spacecraft with information about humans and our location, and radio and television signals have been projected out into space for a century or so. But the chances of aliens coming across a spacecraft in the interstellar void is like finding a needle in a haystack, and radio and television signals fade below background radiation levels shortly after they leave the solar system.

However, scientists are getting ready to launch new messages to aliens that are designed to maximize the chances of letting the aliens know we are here. In China, in 2023, the world’s largest radio telescope is planning to send a message in radio pulses that will convey prime numbers and mathematical operators, the biochemistry of life, human forms, the Earth’s location and a time stamp. The message will be beamed to stars that are from 10,000 to 20,000 light-years from Earth–which means it will take a while before we get a response.

The other effort is focused on a solar system that is much closer–only 39 light years away. Later this year, scientists in England will beam a message toward the Trappist-1 system, which includes seven planets, three of which appear to be Earth-like worlds where the distance from the Trappist-1 star indicates that liquid, and life, could exist. If life exists on one of those planets, and if it is advanced, and if it detects the signal–and those are pretty big ifs–we could get a response back in as short as 78 years.

But the bigger question is, should we be doing this at all, and should such attempts be left in the hands of scientists who think it is an interesting project? Or should we focus instead on improving our technology, developing our own ability to venture out into space and explore, and getting better prepared for any aliens who might take us up on our invitations to visit? Either way, it seems silly and pretty darned naive for us to assume that any aliens who might come to call will inevitably be peaceful friends who are looking only to help us out of the goodness of their hearts.

A Return To Masking Up In Philadelphia

I’ve very enjoyed the month or so of relatively mask-free life since Columbus lifted its mask mandate in early March. Other than masking up for air travel, things were starting to feel like they were returning to the pre-pandemic “normal”–or at least, a reasonable resemblance of it. That’s why I experienced a chill when I read last night that Philadelphia has decided to return to a mask mandate and become the first major U.S. city to do so.

Philadelphia is going back to masks because a rise in COVID-19 cases in the City of Brotherly Love has hit the metric that triggers masking requirements. Starting April 18–a week-long delay was established to allow businesses to adjust–Philadelphia will again require masks in indoor public spaces, like restaurants, offices, and shops. Businesses have the option of requiring proof of vaccination in lieu of masks. In explaining the cause for the new mask regime, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports:

“Philadelphia established a benchmark system in March that uses case counts, hospitalizations, and the rate of case increase to determine which safety strategies are needed. The seven-day daily average of cases, 142 as of April 8, and a 60% increase in case counts over the past 10 days met the standards to reintroduce the indoor mask mandate. There were 44 people hospitalized in the city Monday, a slight decrease from last week.”

The Philadelphia system of establishing triggers raises an interesting question: should raw numbers control policy, or should public officials exercise their judgment and weigh other issues? Are 142 cases a day and 44 hospitalizations in a city of about 1.5 million sufficient to cause reimposition of a mask mandate, and should other considerations–like obvious mask fatigue on the part of the population, and questions about how a general public that keenly wants to be done with COVID will react to a return to masking–come into play? Will reimposition of mask mandates result in protests and general civil disobedience and noncompliance with the order?

I hope public officials in Columbus and elsewhere are seriously thinking about the possible consequences of a return to masking, because there will be pressure from some quarters to follow Philadelphia’s lead. CNN reports that COVID cases are rising in the U.S., although the numbers are low compared to what we experienced in 2020 and 2021. And, curiously, Philadelphia’s reimposition of its mandate is coming on the same day that the current federal mask mandate for the transportation sector is set to expire. It will be an odd juxtaposition indeed if cities are reinstituting mask requirements at the same time the federal government is lifting them.

Dementia Diagnoses

A recent metastudy conducted by the University of Michigan shows a sharp increase in the diagnosis of dementia among older adults. The study examined 3.5 million individuals over the age of 67 who died between 2004 and 2017 and specifically focused on the bills their providers had submitted to the Medicare system–and any diagnosis of dementia that was provided in connection with the bills.

The study found that, in 2004, 35 percent of the invoices submitted for specific patients contained some mention of dementia, and by 2017 that number had risen to 47 percent. A similar increase was shown when researchers limited the data to individuals where providers had submitted two or more bills that referenced dementia, with multiple mentions increasing from 25 percent of patients in 2004 to 39 percent in 2017.

So, is the condition of dementia increasing, or is there some other cause? There are two reasons to suspect that alternative causes for the increase in diagnosis may be responsible. First, Medicare billing practices changed between 2004 and 2017 to allow providers to identify more diagnoses on their requests for payment, and second, during that time period there has been increased emphasis on dementia and its treatment, including the adoption of the National Plan to address Alzheimer’s Disease. With billing practices allowing for more diagnoses and heightened sensitivity to signs of dementia, it is not surprising that the number of diagnostic mentions has gone up.

Whatever the cause for the increase in formal diagnosis, it’s clear that many elderly Americans suffer from at least some symptoms of dementia–and I also suspect that people are a lot more open about it than used to be the case. The U of M metastudy showing the prevalence of this dreaded condition may be of comfort to the family members who have a loved one who is sinking into the depths of dementia: they are not alone.

From The Ground Up

Some of the things we can do these days are pretty amazing, when you stop and think about it. Here’s an example: earlier this month an astrophotographer took a picture of astronauts performing spacewalk maneuvers around the International Space Station–from the ground. That’s the photo, above.

Dr. Sebastian Voltmer took the photograph on March 23, as astronauts Raja Chari (from NASA) and Matthias Maurer (from the European Space Agency) were in the middle of a seven-hour spacewalk. Dr. Voltmer took the picture just after sunset, from Maurer’s hometown of Sankt Wendel, Germany. You can see the two astronauts in the photo–which Dr. Voltmer considers to be a “once-in-a-lifetime image.”

What’s amazing is that the ISS orbits the Earth at an average altitude of 227 nautical miles, or 420 kilometers. Dr. Voltmer says he used a Celestron 11-inch EdgeHD telescope on a GM2000 HPS mount and an ASI290 planetary camera to take the photo–which means you probably shouldn’t attempt this with your new iPhone.

A clear photo taken from the ground of astronauts working on a space station, 227 miles up? I guess the future is here.

Ten More Minutes Of Walking

The American Medical Association’s JAMA Internal Medicine recently published a metastudy that looked at the impact of physical activity and mortality. Drawing upon a pool of data about thousands of American adults, the study concluded that even a modest amount of additional physical activity–walking only ten more minutes a day–could, collectively, prevent thousands of early deaths.

The problem with Americans is that too many of us are couch potatoes who sit pretty much all day, at work and at home. And prior research has shown that constant sitting is just not good for your health. People who don’t exercise are far more likely to struggle with obesity and have inactivity-related medical conditions that lead to premature deaths that could have been prevented with more exercise. A 2020 study of 44,000 adults in the United States and Europe, for example, found that “the most sedentary men and women in the study, who sat almost all day, were as much as 260 percent more likely to die prematurely as the most highly active people studied, who exercised for at least 30 minutes most days.”

The study published in JAMA Internal Medicine is admittedly speculative, and put the metadata into a statistical model that sought to determine what would happen if people simply walked briskly for an additional 10, 20, or 30 minutes each day. The model showed an anticipated direct cause and effect between more exercise and fewer early deaths.

Notably, the study was based on pre-pandemic data, from what many of us fondly think of as the “normal” world. Obviously, though, its conclusions could be used to question the health impact of extended “shutdown” and “stay-at-home” orders that have the effect of preventing people from exercising. Sedentary lifestyles obviously significant health problems, and any public health care initiative that encourages such lifestyles cannot be viewed as risk-free. What’s past is past, but in the future, we need to remember that.

The Population Implosion

I was born in 1957, the peak year of the American “baby boom.” I grew up in a world where families routinely had three, four, five, or more children, and where population growth was a huge concern for some futurists, giving rise to scary depictions of future Earth in grim movies like Soylent Green and books like The Population Bomb.

As a result, it’s very weird to see people expressing the opposite view now. Social scientists and politicians are worried about population shrinkage, not growth–because in many parts of the world human beings simply aren’t reproducing at a rate that would even replace those who are dying. The signs of the issue are everywhere. In 2020, for example, Michigan had more deaths than births. In China, the world’s most populous country–right now, at least–the fertility rate fell in 2021, for the fifth straight year. China’s population issues are so significant that the country reversed its long-standing “one child” policy in 2016 and is now encouraging families to have more children, as well as restricting the ability of Chinese men to receive vasectomies, which once were mandated. (The Chinese about-face on children obviously is a pretty strong indictment of large-scale governmental planning of modern societies, but that’s a blog post for another day.)

China and Michigan aren’t alone. Across the world, many countries are falling far below the fetility rate needed to simply replace their current population, which is 2.1 births per woman. In America, the fertility rate in 2020 was 1.64, well below the replacement line. Many countries are so far below that rate that they will commonly see years like Michigan in 2020, where deaths outnumber births. And that trend will create clear social and economic problems in those counties, going far beyond the presence of “ghost cities” in China–like the one shown above–because there just aren’t enough people to fill them. The problems are very basic. If most of your population is aging and retired, who is going to work and produce the income that produce the taxes that support the retirement social apparatus? And who is going to care for all of those older people?

The “why” of this development is impossible to figure out. Are people having fewer children because they are concerned about bringing new lives into a troubled world? Or do they think that having a large family will be an impediment to their lifestyles? Or are they more focused on living virtual lives through their computers, or concerned at the impact that humans have had on the world and its environment? Deciding whether to have a family is an intensely personal decision, and there are undoubtedly a huge range of reasons for the decline in birth rates, but what’s interesting is that it seems to be happening everywhere, in virtually every culture, at the same time.

What does it mean for us? It means immigration becomes a lot more important as a means to fill the worker gap caused by the falling birth rates. It means that states like Michigan are going to have to figure out how to lure workers from other states if it wants to survive long term. And it means that robotics are going to become an increasingly common way of replacing the human workers who just aren’t available. Over the next few years it seems likely that we’ll see a shift to a much more automated, machine-oriented world because there just won’t be any choice. That’s not exactly the future people were expecting.

The Science Of “Hangover Cures”

Here’s some useful information to keep in mind as we head into the weekend: according to a study published in the journal Addiction, researchers have concluded that that there is no convincing scientific evidence that hangover cures actually work— so plan your activities accordingly.

Everyone who has ever overindulged, or knows someone who did, has heard of one purported “hangover cure” or another. One of my college friends swore that chewing and then swallowing multiple dry Excedrin tablets, without water, was a sure-fire remedy; another touted the consumption of a platter of french fries covered with rich brown gravy to soak up and counteract the evil alcoholic juices still working in the stomach. Other claimed remedies of my college days involved concoctions made with raw eggs, hot sauce, and other random ingredients that you would never consume if you weren’t desperately dealing with a pounding headache, cotton mouth, sour stomach, and generally impaired senses caused by your foolish activities of the night before. And, of course, some inveterate partiers simply turned to the hair of the dog that bit them.

Scientists, being scientists, recognize that hangovers aren’t pleasant. The lead author of the study, Dr. Emmert Roberts, says, with admirable, clinical understatement: “Hangover symptoms can cause significant distress and affect people’s employment and academic performance.” So the researchers looked at studies of items like clove extract, red ginseng, Korean pear juice, artichoke extract, prickly pear, and other claimed hangover cures. They found that the studies either didn’t show statistically significant improvements in hangover symptoms or, if they did show such results, involved various kinds of methodological limitations or imprecise measurements. And the results of the studies haven’t been independently replicated, either.

But take heart! Scientists recognize that hangovers suck, and that remedies deserve more careful and rigorous study. Until that happens, though, Dr. Roberts offers this advice: “For now, the surest way of preventing hangover symptoms is to abstain from alcohol or drink in moderation.” And if you just can’t follow his advice this weekend, be sure to drink lots of water and have a bottle of Excedrin and some french fries and gravy on hand, just in case.

Bird, Undeterred

Here’s what I consider to be pretty much conclusive evidence that the behavior of creatures is not solely determined by genetics, and that environment has an impact: Caribbean birds. St. Lucia, the southern Caribbean island we are visiting, has many familiar bird species, but the conduct of the birds is definitely different from the conduct of the birds of the Midwest.

This pigeon-like bird rested on the guardrail of our cottage, about a foot away from me, for a long time this morning. Unlike jumpy central Ohio birds, he didn’t flutter off at any movement on my part. Instead, he confidently strutted up and down the railing, eyeing me with apparent disdain because I wasn’t eating anything that would yield a crumb or two for him to seize. His pugnacious attitude reminded me of the tough-guy pigeon gangs you see in New York City, or Paris.

The pigeon’s haughty ‘tude, however, was nothing compared to the sparrow-like birds that hang around the breakfast patio. Those little guys hop closer and closer to the food on the plate, undeterred by repeated shooing, until they finally dare to perch on the side of the plate and take a nibble of a half-eaten pastry. And when guest rise from their table, the birds descend in force and tear away every scrap of food they can get in their beaks like they own the place.

In the Midwest, birds are timid creatures who don’t want any part of interaction with humans. In the Caribbean, birds are aggressive in taking what they want, whether humans are nearby or not. And I have no doubt that if you transported Columbus birds to St. Lucia, they’d get roughed up a bit by the natives at first, but then would quickly learn that if they want to rule the roost, they’d better adopt the Caribbean approach and take what they want.

Einstein’s Latest Test

One of the greatest things about true science is the constant skepticism about accepted truths. Scientific theories are adopted, then are disproven by data gathered from experiments designed to test them, new theories to fit the data are developed, and the general understanding about how the world works is advanced, step by step.

So it is not surprising that scientific researchers continue to test everything: even Albert Einstein’s famous theory of general relativity. In this case, however, Einstein’s theory passed the test . . . again.

The latest experiment involved using deep space telescopes to look at the effects of gravity on space-time in the area around distant pulsars–dense, highly magnetized objects that rotate rapidly and emit beams of electromagnetic out of their poles. The pulsars being examined were part of a double-pulsar system that was discovered in 2003. The amount of energy emitted from the two pulsars is enormous and the two stars generate very strong gravitational fields, allowing scientists on Earth to precisely study the energy carried by gravitational waves, even though the pulsars are 3,000 light years away. And their analysis of the data they gathered confirmed one of the cornerstones of Einstein’s theory.

When you think about it, Albert Einstein must be ranked as one of the most extraordinary human beings in history. He developed his sweeping theories of special and general relativity largely through the use of abstract “thought experiments,” and those theories have since been repeatedly confirmed by real-world data that did not exist when Einstein first developed the theories. Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which addressed the effect of gravity on space-time, was published in 1915–before objects like pulsars were even discovered or sophisticated deep space telescopes that could gather data from dense celestial objects like pulsars were created.

How did he do it, and will we ever see such rare genius again? Those questions may never be answered, but in the meantime Einstein’s theories are ready to face the next test.

The Scientific Pursuit Of Happiness

Scientists have been analyzing happiness for a long time–probably for as long as “science” has existed as a discipline separate from philosophy or religion. The basic questions being explored are straightforward: Why do some people seem to be happier than others? How much personal happiness is genetic, and how much is the product of environment or intentional activity? These age-old questions have taken on added urgency recently, with so many people in the modern world struggling with depression, stress, and anxiety–and COVID isn’t exactly helping, either.

A recent article summarized the current scientific landscape on the analysis of happiness. It notes that the modern framework for the analysis was set by a 2005 article in General Psychology called “Pursuing Happiness: The Structure of Sustainable Change.” The summary of that article describes its analysis as follows: “surprisingly little scientific research has focused on the question of how happiness can be increased and then sustained, probably because of pessimism engendered by the concepts of genetic determinism and hedonic adaptation. Nevertheless, emerging sources of optimism exist regarding the possibility of permanent increases in happiness. Drawing on the past well-being literature, the authors propose that a person’s chronic happiness level is governed by 3 major factors: a genetically determined set point for happiness, happiness-relevant circumstantial factors, and happiness-relevant activities and practices.”

Only scientists would use a phrase like “chronic happiness level.” But stripped of the scientific verbiage, the article posited that some element of individual happiness is determined by genetics and therefore beyond your control, another element is based on your environment, and yet another element is based on activities and practices that affect your happiness–activities and practices that you can control. The 2005 article even attributed percentages to each of the three elements, with 50 percent of the variance in happiness attributed to genetics, 10 percent to environment, and 40 percent to activities and practices. This 50-10-40 hypothesis was seen by some as a “happiness pie.”

As with any scientific hypothesis, the “happiness pie” analysis has been criticized, primarily on the ground that it is pretty hard to distinguish genetic factors from environmental factors. One 2019 article in the Journal of Happiness Studies (yes, there evidently is such a publication) noted: “We conclude that there is little empirical evidence for the variance decomposition suggested by the “happiness pie,” and that even if it were valid, it is not necessarily informative with respect to the question of whether individuals can truly exert substantial infuence over their own chronic happiness level.”

It’s the scientific equivalent of the theological argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But there does seem to be consensus on three basic propositions: (1) genetics play a role, and some people are genetically disposed to be in a happier frame of mind than others; (2) your environment has an impact on happiness; and (3) what you are doing at a particular point in time–such as running through a sprinkler on a hot summer day, like the happy kid in the photo above–can affect your happiness.

In view of that, what’s the point of arguing about what percentage of happiness should be assigned to each of those three factors? You can’t control your genes, and you can’t control how your environment shaped you when you were growing up. But you can identify what you enjoy–whether it is exercising, listening to your favorite music, spending time with friends and loved ones, volunteering, or some other activity–and try to work those activities into your day. And, in big-picture terms, you might be able to change your environment going forward to a place or setting that is more likely to make you happy, too. And part of changing your environment is identifying what makes you unhappy–like jerky behavior on social media, for example–and trying to change or avoid it.

So why debate percentages? If trying to structure your day to maximize the conduct and activities that you really like can make you happier–even if it is only an incremental increase–why not do it? What have you got to lose?

Another Month, Another Variant

The world is up in arms about the latest COVID-19 variant. The new variant, named “Omicron” by the World Health Organization, emerged in South Africa and in only a few days has traveled across the world. Dr. Anthony Fauci says he wouldn’t be surprised if the Omicron variant is already in the United States.

“Omicron” seems like an odd name for a virus, at least to me. It sounds like one of those anonymous planets visited by the Starship Enterprise where one or two guys in red shirts met an untimely death, or the name of one of the Transformers. But there is a rational basis for the choice. The WHO started naming the variants after letters in the Greek alphabet, and “omicron” is the 15th letter. That means we’ve cycled through 13 prior named variants. (The WHO skipped “nu” and “xi,” purportedly because “nu” could be confused with “new” and “xi” is a common last name–which just happens to be the name of the Chinese president). Of the 13 variants, the WHO has designated five as “variants of concern”: alpha, beta, gamma, delta, and omicron.

The emergence of the new variant has produced the by-now-familiar scenes of government officials scrambling to determine their responses, because “Omicron” is seen as having the “potential” to be more resistant to vaccination protection. Some governments, including the U.S., have imposed travel restrictions in an effort to allow time to determine whether the new variant is more transmissible than the “delta” variant that we’ve heard so much about. The U.S. has restricted entry by non-U.S. citizens traveling from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. Other countries have gone farther; Israel, for example, has closed its borders to all foreign travelers.

Brace yourself, folks: we may be in for another round of government-mandated restrictions, closures, and mandates. This time, however, the surrounding circumstances are likely to be different: regulators will be dealing with a population that includes a lot of mask-weary, restriction-fatigued people that might not be as willing to comply with new edicts. In addition, the legality of the prior COVID-related orders, such as President Biden’s vaccination mandate, are working their way through our court systems, and some state courts have struck down such orders on state constitutional grounds. The legal challenges and prior court rulings are likely to complicate the issuance of new, sweeping mandates by federal, state, and local governments.

So now we’ve got “Omicron” to deal with. In case you’re interested, the upcoming letters in the Greek alphabet that could become the names of newly emerging COVID variants are pi, rho, and sigma. I guess we should all be grateful that the “pi” variant didn’t show up before Thanksgiving, our greatest pie holiday.

The Year Of The UFO

Some people have dubbed 2021 “The Year Of The UFO.” A Forbes article published this week recounts some of the UFO-related event that have occurred this year. They include a spike in UFO sightings, as well as the release of UFO-related reports and documents by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Forbes summarizes the latter report as addressing “144 UFO sightings by Navy pilots since 2004, with intelligence officials unable to explain 143 of the sightings, but concluding they are likely real objects that could pose a threat to national security.”

The most recent milestone in “The Year Of The UFO” came just a few days ago, when the Pentagon issued a press release announcing the creation of a new program called the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group. The AOIMSG will collect and review reports of UFOs in special use airspace, like the areas around military bases, to “assess and mitigate any associated threats to safety of flight and national security.” The new initiative suggests that the U.S. military is taking the issue of UFOs seriously–which is quite a difference from the days when UFO sightings were routinely dismissed as reflections from “swamp gas” or other figments of overactive imaginations.

Of course, UFOs don’t necessarily mean we’ve been visited by technologically advanced extraterrestrial beings. But if other life out there wanted to visit Earth, it’s worth noting that our little planet wouldn’t be especially hard to find–as an interesting article published earlier this year points out. An Austrian astrophysicist considered whether other nearby star systems would be in a position to see our planet transiting the Sun, which is one of the techniques that our scientists currently use to identify planets in other star systems. She concluded that hundreds of star systems could have used that method to spot Earth since the dawn of recorded human history, and hundreds more could do so in the future.

Who knows? If there is life in those other star systems, maybe they’ve decided to pay us a visit. Let’s face it: as weird as 2021 has been, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility.