Monday, September 15, 2014

How Washington insiders differ from you or I.

Credit: Image courtesy of Johns Hopkins University

Surveying 850 people who either work in government or
directly with it, researchers found that the inside-the-Beltway
crowd has very little in common with America at large.

I find the results of this survey fascinating, and hope you do to.  In simplest terms, the "insiders" that work in Washington D.C., do not match the overall demographics of the country as a whole.

In one way, this isn't surprising.  In another, it explains the divided we see between many of our fellow citizens and the professionals who staff our government, i.e. federal bureaucrats.  

Okay, so how does this impact us as writers?  Obviously, anything that effects our society is grist for the mill.  The political divides in our country cause angry, rancorous name-calling and blame-gaming, with very few people from one side willing to even speak to those on the other.  This divide has given the least productive congress in the history of the country.  It effects the news we read or watch.  It even causes angry breaks within families. All of this impacts the story lines and plots we devise.

As a small-government liberal, I find the whole thing disgusting.  

According to this study, it turns out that at least one part of what some are saying is true.  The people who run our government day-to-day are not fully representative of the country as a whole.

To my mind, this is dangerous, akin to the divide between the governed and the governing elite prior to the French Revolution.  

Here's the story:

Johns Hopkins University political scientists wanted to know if America's un-elected officials have enough in common with the people they govern to understand them.

The answer: Not really.

Surveying 850 people who either work in the federal government or directly with it, researchers found that the inside-the-Beltway crowd has very little in common with America at large.
  1. Washington insiders are more likely to be white. 
  2. They are more educated. 
  3. Their salaries are higher, they vote more often and they have more faith in the fairness of elections.
  4. They are probably Democrat and liberal. 
  5. They more diligently follow the news. 
  6. And they think the mechanics of government couldn't be easier to comprehend.
Suggested reading
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"The elements of difference we have identified between the rulers and the ruled -- demographic, experiential, partisan and ideological -- give us some reason to suspect that the two groups may not perceive the political world in the same way," the researchers write. "Taken together, these elements could well create a substantial cognitive and perceptual gulf between official and quasi-official Washington on the one hand and the American public on the other."

The researchers, Jennifer Bachner and Benjamin Ginsberg, asked hundreds of questions in 2013 of those who work in federal agencies, on Capitol Hill and in other Washington policy jobs. They presented some of their findings recently at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in a talk called The Civic Distance Between the Rulers and Ruled. Complete results of their research will be featured in their forthcoming book What the Government Thinks of the People.

Americans and federal workers couldn't be more different, they found:
  • Ninety-one percent of those who work for federal agencies are white, versus 78 percent of the public.
  • In 2012, federal worker compensation averaged $81,704, or 48 percent more than the private sector average of $54,995, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. That puts federal workers in the top 10 percent of American earners.
  • Sixty percent of those who work on the Hill are Democrats versus 35 percent of Americans at large.
  • In the 2012 presidential election, 97 percent of congressional and White House staffers voted versus 80 percent of other Americans. Sixty-two percent of those Hill staffers believe election votes are counted fairly "very often" compared with 33 percent of other Americans.
  • Washingtonians read the news at least five days a week compared with about three days a week for the rest of the country.
  • And while 100 percent of congressional and White House staffers believe government and politics can be understood by people like them, only 30 percent of regular Americans feel that way.
The data on "average Americans" is largely drawn from the 2012 American National Election Study.

Is Washington another planet?
All told, Bachner and Ginsberg found, if random Americans were dropped into the offices of a Washington administrative agency or into a lunch at a Washington power restaurant, it would feel and sound to them like another planet. These crucial differences, the researchers say, lead to entirely divergent philosophies on policies, priorities and government's ultimate purpose.

"Official Washington views the public through jaundiced eyes, believing that ordinary Americans are uninformed and misguided and that policymakers should ignore them," Ginsberg says. "The government's lack of trust in the people reflects the civic distance between the American people and their government as much as any political reality. Nevertheless, what the government thinks of the people affects how it governs, especially the chance that policy will be influenced by citizen preferences."

"Some say American democracy would be strengthened if the people received better civic education," Ginsberg continues. "We argue that it is America's governing elite that needs civic education, focusing on the responsibilities of officials in a democracy."

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Story Source:  Materials provided by Johns Hopkins University.  "When rulers can't understand the ruled: Study finds significant gaps between Washington insiders, general Americans." ScienceDaily, 15 September 2014.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Happy Wife Equals Happy Life. Really?

Credit: © Darren Baker / Fotolia

When it comes to a happy marriage, a new Rutgers study finds that 
the more content the wife is with the long-term union, the happier 
the husband is with his life no matter how he feels about their marriage.
This is an age old saying, so it's no surprise that researchers have confirmed this.  Some years ago I read a study out of a major Eastern university that concluded that for a long term marriage to survive, it came down to the husband's ability to say, "Yes, dear," not matter what the wive said or wanted.

After forty-two years of marriage (three wives) I consider myself an expert on what not to do to have a happy wife and happy marriage.  If you have any questions on what not to do, just ask. (Hint: look in the mirror each morning and practice saying, "Yes, dear," with a straight face.  It's the straight face that makes this tactic work.)

Here's the report:

A wife's happiness is more crucial than 
her husband's in keeping marriage on track

"I think it comes down to the fact that when a wife is satisfied
 with the marriage she tends to do a lot more for her husband, 
which has a positive effect on his life."

When it comes to a happy marriage, a new Rutgers study finds that the more content the wife is with the long-term union, the happier the husband is with his life no matter how he feels about their nuptials.

Suggested reading
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"I think it comes down to the fact that when a wife is satisfied with the marriage she tends to do a lot more for her husband, which has a positive effect on his life," said Deborah Carr, a professor in the Department of Sociology, School of Arts and Science. "Men tend to be less vocal about their relationships and their level of marital unhappiness might not be translated to their wives."

Carr and Vicki Freedman, a research professor at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, co-authored a research study published in the October issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family on marital quality and happiness among older adults.

The study, done by the two Big Ten universities, differs from previous research, according to Carr, because it examines the personal feelings of both spouses to determine how these marital appraisals influence the psychological well-being of older adults. Researchers analyzed data of 394 couples who were part of a national study of income, health and disability in 2009. At least one of the spouses was 60 or older and on average, couples were married for 39 years.

In order to assess marital quality, those involved in the study were asked several questions, such as whether their spouse appreciates them, argues with them, understands their feelings or gets on their nerves. They were also asked to keep detailed diaries about how happy they were in the previous 24 hours doing selected activities like shopping, doing household chores and watching television.

Those involved in the study, on average, rated their general life satisfaction high, typically five out of six points -- with husbands rating their marriage slightly more positive than their wives.

"For both spouses being in a better-rated marriage was linked to greater life satisfaction and happiness," Carr said.

Still, she said, the study also found that while wives became less happy if their spouses became ill, the husbands' happiness level didn't change or reflect the same outcome if their wives got sick.

"We know that when a partner is sick it is the wife that often does the caregiving which can be a stressful experience," said Carr. "But often when a women gets sick it is not her husband she relies on but her daughter."

The study is important, the researchers said, because the quality of a marriage can affect the health and well-being of older individuals as they continue to age.

"The quality of a marriage is important because it provides a buffer against the health-depleting effects of later life stressors and helps couples manage difficult decisions regarding health and medical decision making," Carr said.

Related posts:
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Story Source:  Materials provided by Rutgers University, original article written by Robin Lally. Deborah Carr, Vicki A. Freedman, Jennifer C. Cornman, Norbert Schwarz. Happy Marriage, Happy Life? Marital Quality and Subjective Well-being in Later Life. Journal of Marriage and Family, 2014

Friday, September 12, 2014

CRIME: Our broken, unfair prison system. Is there a better way?

photos.nj.com
Ahmed Dar, charged with murder of Roman Kaploun, makes first appearance in a
New Jersey court on Oct. 18, 2013.  If found guilty should Mr. Dar be sentenced 
on factors such as race and social status?  Or on scientific risk assessment?

As we all know, there is a large political push to reduce the cost of government. One area where costs are out of control is our system of imprisonment and corrections.

  
Simply looking at the money we spend locking people away doesn't tell the entire cost story.  We should look at the lost economic activity of taking people out of the work force for prolonged periods of time.

Then there is the personal cost.  Putting a man or woman in jail stigmatizes that person, making it so much harder for them to become productive members of society, and increases the odds that the person will return to crime.

Today's base article is about scientific risk assessment from a report out of Vanderbilt University with excerpts from other sources, starting with an overview of incarceration from the NAACP website.

I'm offering this with limited comment for your consideration.

The Cost of Incarceration
  • About $70 billion dollars are spent on corrections yearly
  • Prisons and jails consume a growing portion of the nearly $200 billion we spend annually on public safety
Incarceration Trends in America 
  • From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people.  (The period of "The War on Drugs. - Ed.)
  • Today, the US is 5% of the World population and has 25% of world prisoners.
Racial Disparities in Incarceration

  • African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population
  • African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites
  • Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population
  • According to Unlocking America, if African American and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of whites, today's prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50%
  • One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime
  • 1 in 100 African American women are in prison
  • Nationwide, African-Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice).
CRIMINAL JUSTICE FACT SHEET, 
© 2009 - 2014 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People 
http://www.naacp.org
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Scientific risk assessment may result 
in more equitable sentences

"Science does have something to contribute to justice."

The use of scientific risk assessment in criminal sentencing is being touted by one expert as "powerful." Risk assessments use statistical information to try and discern the likelihood of convicted criminals' committing more crimes if released. None of the most widely used risk assessment instruments rely on race or income as criteria. Still, critics worry that risk assessments will discriminate against the poor and minorities.

*  *  *  *  *
Given the minimal impact of long prison sentences on crime prevention, and the negative social consequences and burdensome financial costs of US incarceration rates, which have more than quadrupled in the last four decades, the nation should revise current criminal justice policies to significantly reduce imprisonment rates, says a new report published by the National Academy of Sciences.
The report concludes that future policy decisions should not only be based on empirical evidence but also should follow these four guiding principles, which have been notably absent from recent policy debates on the proper use of prisons:
    • Proportionality: Criminal offenses should be sentenced in proportion to their seriousness.
    • Parsimony: The period of confinement should be sufficient but not greater than necessary to achieve the goals of sentencing policy.
    • Citizenship: The conditions and consequences of imprisonment should not be so severe or lasting as to violate one's fundamental status as a member of society.
    • Social justice: Prisons should be instruments of justice, and as such their collective effect should be to promote society's aspirations for a fair distribution of rights, resources, and opportunities.
National Academy of Sciences
 "U.S. should significantly reduce rate of incarceration, says new report."
 ScienceDaily. 30 April 2014.
*  *  *  *  *
Risk assessment
Risk assessments use statistical information to try and discern the likelihood of convicted criminals' committing more crimes if released. None of the most widely used risk assessment instruments rely on race or income as criteria. Still critics, who include Attorney General Eric Holder, worry that risk assessments will discriminate against the poor and minorities.

"Race and class affect every disposition in the criminal justice system," said Christopher Slobogin, who holds the Milton Underwood Chair at Vanderbilt University Law School. "But risk assessment instruments prevent explicit or implicit reliance on those factors, unlike seat-of-the-pants judgments by judges that, because they are opaque, are virtually impossible to challenge, even when they are influenced by an offender's race or class.

"At least when an instrument is used, the criteria are transparent, consistent and can be examined for patterns. Furthermore, research consistently shows that predictions based on well-validated risk assessment instruments are more accurate than intuitive judgments based solely on criminal history."

Caution in using risk assessments is appropriate, said Jennifer Skeem, professor of public policy and social welfare at the University of California, Berkeley.  "But putting the brakes on their use would be a myopic policy," she said. "In our view, risk assessment should be considered in sentencing within bounds set by concerns about the offender's culpability for the past crime. For example, if the morally appropriate sentence is in the range of five to nine years, then risk assessment can be used to sentence the high-risk offender to nine years and the low-risk offender to five.

  • In Virginia, the prison population has been reduced by 25 percent with little impact on public safety through use of risk assessment tools, say Slobogin and Skeem.
"Whether the use of risk assessment exacerbates, ameliorates or has no effect on existing sanctioning disparities is an open question -- one that we can and should address with research," Skeem said. "We predict that the answer will vary as a function of how well risk assessment is applied, and to what specific sentencing questions."

Slobogin insists that "science does have something to contribute to justice. Properly validated, judiciously applied risk assessment instruments can enhance both fairness and the efficient use of scarce correctional resources," he said.
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Some of the latest research on recidivism:
  • Within three years of being released from jail, two out of every three inmates in the US wind up behind bars again -- a problem that contributes to the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. New research suggests that the degree to which inmates' express guilt or shame may provide an indicator of how likely they are to re-offend.
J. P. Tangney, J. Stuewig, A. G. Martinez. 
Two Faces of Shame: The Roles of Shame and Guilt in Predicting Recidivism. 
Psychological Science, 2014
  • Murderers who committed homicide during robberies are more likely to commit crimes again when they are paroled, compared to murderers who committed homicide under other circumstances, according to research from North Carolina State University and Harvard University.
M. Liem, M. A. Zahn, L. Tichavsky. 
Criminal Recidivism Among Homicide Offenders. 
Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2014
  • In a study of crimes committed by people with serious mental disorders, only 7.5 percent were directly related to symptoms of mental illness, according to new research. Researchers analyzed 429 crimes committed by 143 offenders with three major types of mental illness and found that 3 percent of their crimes were directly related to symptoms of major depression, 4 percent to symptoms of schizophrenia disorders and 10 percent to symptoms of bipolar disorder.
Jillian K. Peterson, Jennifer Skeem, Patrick Kennealy, Beth Bray, Andrea Zvonkovic. 
How often and how consistently do symptoms directly precede 
criminal behavior among offenders with mental illness? 
Law and Human Behavior, 2014
  • Some people may be at increased risk of criminal behavior due to their genes, some say. Such research holds potential for helping judges and juries with some of the difficult decisions they must make, but it also brings a substantial risk of misinterpretation and misuse within the legal system. Experts suggest that addressing these issues will be of critical importance for upholding principles of justice and fairness.
Paul S. Appelbaum. 
The Double Helix Takes the Witness Stand: Behavioral and Neuropsychiatric Genetics in Court. 
Neuron, 2014

This post is not intended to be a comprehensive review of the literature on this subject.  It is intended to provide basic information that you can use in your fiction, and in your personal life.  This is a complicated set of issues, but can we not act to change the system given the unrealistically high financial costs?  And the often egregious personal costs faced by those convicted and incarcerated.

In short, there has to be a better way.

*  *  *  *  *
Story Source:  Materials provided by Vanderbilt University. "Scientific risk assessments may result in more equitable sentences." ScienceDaily, 11 September 2014

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Brain structure predicts risky behavior

Credit: Patrick J. Lynch

Some people avoid risks at all costs, while others put their wealth,
health, and safety at risk without a thought. Researchers at Yale 
School of Medicine find that the volume of the parietal cortex 
in the brain could predict where people fall on the risk-taking spectrum.

The debate about whether human behavior is learned or results from genetic programming impacts the way a writer structures character in their stories.  It's accepted at least in the film industry that characters that learn and grow from their experiences in a story are the most appealing to audiences, and that those films do better in the box office.  Examples range from Jerry Maguire to Casablanca to A Christmas Carol, films in which the main character becomes a better person over the arc of the story.

But, if some human behavior is genetic in origin, can people with certain behaviors actually change?  That is at the core of the Nature vs. Nuture debate.  Based on this research which shows a basic brain structure difference between people who are risk takers and those who are not, you can make the argument that once a risk taker, always a risk taker.  

What's interesting about this and other research, researchers point out that they're not sure whether the brain structure causes the behavior, or if the behavior causes the brain structure.  Sounds to me as if we have the power to change the structure of our brain, while the structure of our brain does predispose behavior.

This makes my brain hurt.

Here's the story: 

"We could use millions of existing medical brain 
scans to assess risk attitudes in populations."

Some people avoid risks at all costs, while others will put their wealth, health, and safety at risk without a thought. Researchers at Yale School of Medicine have found that the volume of the parietal cortex in the brain could predict where people fall on the risk-taking spectrum.

Suggest reading
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Led by Ifat Levy, assistant professor in comparative medicine and neurobiology at Yale School of Medicine, the team found that those with larger volume in a particular part of the parietal cortex were willing to take more risks than those with less volume in this part of the brain. The findings were published in the Sept. 10 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

Although several cognitive and personality traits are reflected in brain structure, there has been little research linking brain structure to economic preferences. Levy and her colleagues sought to examine this question in their study.

Study participants included young adult men and women from the northeastern United States. Participants made a series of choices between monetary lotteries that varied in their degree of risk, and the research team conducted standard anatomical MRI brain scans. The results were first obtained in a group of 28 participants, and then confirmed in a second, independent, group of 33 participants.

"Based on our findings, we could, in principle, use millions of existing medical brains scans to assess risk attitudes in populations," said Levy. "It could also help us explain differences in risk attitudes based in part on structural brain differences."

Levy cautions that the results do not speak to causality. "We don't know if structural changes lead to behavioral changes or vice-versa," she said.

"Risk aversion increases as people age, 
and we know that the cortex thins with age."

Levy and her team had previously shown that risk aversion increases as people age, and we scientists also know that the cortex thins substantially with age. "It could be that this thinning explains the behavioral changes; we are now testing that possibility," said Levy, who also notes that more studies in wider populations are needed.

Related posts:
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Story Source:  Materials provided by Yale University, original article was written by Karen N. Peart.  "Brain structure could predict risky behavior." ScienceDaily, 9 September 2014. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Are We Driving Species Extinctions?

Credit: iStockphoto

Vintage engraving of the Dodo (Raphus cucullatus), a flightless 
bird endemic to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius.  The 
dodo has been extinct since the mid-to-late 17th century.
Yesterday, we published a post about how researchers demonstrated that the loss of just 29 species of large animals over the 6,000 years of Egyptian history caused dramatic environmental change as well as social and political turmoil.


Step forward to today.  Globally, the extinction rate of entire species is at a never before seen pace, the highest since the last major extinction 65 million years ago.  Last time, it was a meteor slamming into the Gulf of Mexico causing several years of "nuclear winter".  Today, in simplest terms, it's us.  We are driving species to extinction at a rate that many argue that we won't last much longer as a species either.

And it's not doomsday freaks and whack-jobs saying this.  It's the majority of the world's highly educated, skilled and experienced scientists.  Scientific celebrity Stephen Hawking has said that he doesn't expect the human species to be around in one thousand years.

Doomsday?  If it is, we're bringing on ourselves.

Here's today's post:


"Extinctions during human era one thousand times more than before."

The gravity of the world's current extinction rate becomes clearer upon knowing what it was before people came along. A new estimate finds that species die off as much as 1,000 times more frequently nowadays than they used to. That's 10 times worse than the old estimate of 100 times.

It's hard to comprehend how bad the current rate of species extinction around the world has become without knowing what it was before people came along. The newest estimate is that the pre-human rate was 10 times lower than scientists had thought, which means that the current level is 10 times worse.

Extinctions are about 1,000 times more frequent now than in the 60 million years before people came along. The explanation from lead author Jurriaan de Vos, a Brown University postdoctoral researcher, senior author Stuart Pimm, a Duke University professor, and their team appears online in the journal Conservation Biology.

Suggested reading
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"This reinforces the urgency to conserve what is left and to try to reduce our impacts," said de Vos, who began the work while at the University of Zurich. "It was very, very different before humans entered the scene."

In absolute, albeit rough, terms the paper calculates a "normal background rate" of extinction of 0.1 extinctions per million species per year. That revises the figure of 1 extinction per million species per year that Pimm estimated in prior work in the 1990s. By contrast, the current extinction rate is more on the order of 100 extinctions per million species per year.

Orders of magnitude, rather than precise numbers are about the best any method can do for a global extinction rate, de Vos said. "That's just being honest about the uncertainty there is in these type of analyses."

From fossils to genetics
The new estimate improves markedly on prior ones mostly because it goes beyond the fossil record. Fossils are helpful sources of information, but their shortcomings include disproportionate representation of hard-bodied sea animals and the problem that they often only allow identification of the animal or plant's genus, but not its exact species.

What the fossils do show clearly is that apart from a few cataclysms over geological periods -- such as the one that eliminated the dinosaurs -- biodiversity has slowly increased.

The new study next examined evidence from the evolutionary family trees -- phylogenies -- of numerous plant and animal species. Phylogenies, constructed by studying DNA, trace how groups of species have changed over time, adding new genetic lineages and losing unsuccessful ones. They provide rich details of how species have diversified over time.

"The diversification rate is the speciation rate minus the extinction rate," said co-author Lucas Joppa, a scientist at Microsoft Research in Redmond, Wash. "The total number of species on earth has not been declining in recent geological history. It is either constant or increasing. Therefore, the average rate at which groups grew in their numbers of species must have been similar to or higher than the rate at which other groups lost species through extinction."

The work compiled scores of studies of molecular phylogenies on how fast species diversified.
For a third approach, de Vos noted that the exponential climb of species diversity should take a steeper upward turn in the current era because the newest species haven't gone extinct yet.

"It's rather like your bank account on the day you get paid," he said. "It gets a burst of funds -- akin to new species -- that will quickly become extinct as you pay your bills."

By comparing that rise of the number of species from the as-yet unchecked speciation rate with the historical trend (it was "log-linear") evident in the phylogenies, he could therefore create a predictive model of what the counteracting historical extinction rate must have been.

The researchers honed their models by testing them with simulated data for which they knew an actual extinction rate. The final models yielded accurate results. They tested the models to see how they performed when certain key assumptions were wrong and on average the models remained correct (in the aggregate, if not always for every species group).

All three data approaches together yielded a normal background extinction rate squarely in the order of 0.1 extinctions per million species per year.

A human role
There is little doubt among the scientists that humans are not merely witnesses to the current elevated extinction rate. This paper follows a recent one in Science, authored by Pimm, Joppa, and other colleagues, that tracks where species are threatened or confined to small ranges around the globe. In most cases, the main cause of extinctions is human population growth and per capita consumption, although the paper also notes how humans have been able to promote conservation.

The new study, Pimm said, emphasizes that the current extinction rate is a more severe crisis than previously understood.

"We've known for 20 years that current rates of species extinctions are exceptionally high," said Pimm, president of the conservation nonprofit organization SavingSpecies. "This new study comes up with a better estimate of the normal background rate -- how fast species would go extinct were it not for human actions. It's lower than we thought, meaning that the current extinction crisis is much worse by comparison."

Related posts:

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Story Source:  Materials provided by Brown University. Jurriaan M. De Vos, Lucas N. Joppa, John L. Gittleman, Patrick R. Stephens, Stuart L. Pimm. Estimating the Normal Background Rate of Species Extinction. Conservation Biology, 2014

Monday, September 8, 2014

Ecological collapse over 6,000 years of Egyptian history

Credit: Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, Brooklyn Museum

Carved rows of animals, including elephants, lions, a giraffe,
and sheep cover both sides of the ivory handle of a
ritual knife from the Predynastic Period in Egypt
.
There are those who argue that the climate change we are experiencing is a normal phenomena, and part of the natural cycle of things.  This study of Egypt from ancient times through today identifies almost thirty native species that have gone extinct, much to the detriment of the regions ecology, as well as its social and political stability.

A question for any author or screenwriter is how our current decline in species and increasing instability of our environment is going to effect the way we live.  In this study, it's noted that environmental change coincided with a change in the ruling dynasties and political realities in the world's oldest known civilization.

Are we on the verge of social and political upheaval due to loss of  species and climate change?  I have no answer, though I can imagine a range of things that may happen, some good, most not so much. 

The task of any writer is to explain and interpret the world we live in, to create scenarios and situations and to drop characters into them to see how they react.

Here's the report on this study: 


"Species extinctions in the past 150 years have a 
disproportionately large impact on ecosystem stability."

Depictions of animals in ancient Egyptian artifacts have helped scientists assemble a detailed record of the large mammals that lived in the Nile Valley over the past 6,000 years. A new analysis of this record shows that species extinctions, probably caused by a drying climate and growing human population in the region, have made the ecosystem progressively less stable.

The study finds that local extinctions of mammal species led to a steady decline in the stability of the animal communities in the Nile Valley. When there were many species in the community, the loss of any one species had relatively little impact on the functioning of the ecosystem, whereas it is now much more sensitive to perturbations, according to first author Justin Yeakel.

Suggested reading
click on image
Around six millennia ago, there were 37 species of large-bodied mammals in Egypt, but only eight species remain today. Among the species recorded in artwork from the late Predynastic Period (before 3100 BC) but no longer found in Egypt are lions, wild dogs, elephants, oryx, hartebeest, and giraffe.

"What was once a rich and diverse mammalian community is very different now," Yeakel said. "As the number of species declined, one of the primary things that was lost was the ecological redundancy of the system. There were multiple species of gazelles and other small herbivores, which are important because so many different predators prey on them. When there are fewer of those small herbivores, the loss of any one species has a much greater effect on the stability of the system and can lead to additional extinctions."

The new study is based on records compiled by zoologist Dale Osborne, whose 1998 book The Mammals of Ancient Egypt provides a detailed picture of the region's historical animal communities based on archaeological and paleontological evidence as well as historical records. "Dale Osborne compiled an incredible database of when species were represented in artwork and how that changed over time. His work allowed us to use ecological modeling techniques to look at the ramifications of those changes," Yeakel said.

The study had its origins in 2010, when Yeakel visited a Tutankhamun exhibition in San Francisco with coauthor Nathaniel Dominy, then an anthropology professor at UC Santa Cruz and now at Dartmouth. "We were amazed at the artwork and the depictions of animals, and we realized they were recording observations of the natural world. Nate was aware of Dale Osborne's book, and we started thinking about how we could take advantage of those records," Yeakel said.

Environmental change causes upheaval
The researchers identified five episodes over the past 6,000 years when dramatic changes occurred in Egypt's mammalian community, three of which coincided with extreme environmental changes as the climate shifted to more arid conditions. These drying periods also coincided with upheaval in human societies, such as the collapse of the Old Kingdom around 4,000 years ago and the fall of the New Kingdom about 3,000 years ago.

"There were three large pulses of aridification as Egypt went from a wetter to a drier climate, starting with the end of the African Humid Period 5,500 years ago when the monsoons shifted to the south," Yeakel said. "At the same time, human population densities were increasing, and competition for space along the Nile Valley would have had a large impact on animal populations."

The most recent major shift in mammalian communities occurred about 100 years ago. The analysis of predator-prey networks showed that species extinctions in the past 150 years had a disproportionately large impact on ecosystem stability. These findings have implications for understanding modern ecosystems, Yeakel said.

"This may be just one example of a larger pattern," he said. "We see a lot of ecosystems today in which a change in one species produces a big shift in how the ecosystem functions, and that might be a modern phenomenon. We don't tend to think about what the system was like 10,000 years ago, when there might have been greater redundancy in the community."

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Story Source:  Materials provided by University of California - Santa Cruz, original article written by Tim Stephens.  Justin D. Yeakel, Mathias M. Pires, Lars Rudolf, Nathaniel J. Dominy, Paul L. Koch, Paulo R. Guimarães, Jr., and Thilo Gross. Collapse of an ecological network in Ancient Egypt. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, September 8, 2014

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Viking Fortress Found Near Kjoge, Denmark

File: Vallo Castle Ring from luften.png
Vallo Castle Ring from the air. Graphic by processed satellite photo, September 7th 2014.
Vallo Castle Ring

Vallo Borg Call or Borg ring at Lellinge is a Sealand Viking fortress, located in a field belonging to the estate of the Vallo Diocese west of Køge . Harald Bluetooth is considered be builder of other Danish ring forts and very likely also Vallø Borg Scale.  Harald "Bluetooth" Gormsson (c. 920 AD - c. 986 AD) was the King of Denmark from around 958 and King of Norway for a few years around 970.

Vallo Castle Ring is circular with 145 meters in diameter, making it the third largest of the six original Danish Trelleborge . It was equipped with a 10-11 meter wide violence , surrounded by a palisade, a redoubt work of tapered wooden posts.

Vallo Castle Ring is near the old main roads from Roskilde and Ringsted met in the Køge River Valley .  During the Viking Age the Køge was a navigable fjord and one of Copenhagen 's best natural harbors  with access to Køge Bay.  The modern town of Køge is 43 kilometers or 27 miles south of Copenhagen.

To read a Copenhagen Post article on the discovery, click here: Vallo Borgring

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Story submitted by Tyler Fisher.