Friday, April 28, 2017

Something About Eggs

Critical thinking and economic understanding lead to some interesting questions and answers on a wide variety of subjects.  This time it’s chickens and eggs.

My curiosity was aroused by a report about one company reconfiguring their operation to offer cage-free eggs.  With consumer demand for cage-free eggs at an all-time high, many fast-food chains and grocery stores are moving to completely cage-free in the next few years. “That means egg producers are under pressure now more than ever to go from cage to cage-free.”

In response to that pressure, they asked a contractor to build stronger cages and “design a [new] building around the cages and just wrap the cages with two inch insulated metal panels and completely eliminate the [existing] building.”  This seemed somewhat confusing as they were still talking about buildings and cages, but the new design would give the hens more options to “perch, run, nest and fly.”  A conveyor belt will move about a million eggs a day from the new buildings to an adjacent grading facility.  Overall it seemed like a small but costly change.

Research into the once-simple subject of chicken eggs shows that today’s choices include standard, cage-free, organic or free range. What are the advantages if any?

WebMD gives some information about the health benefits.  “'Those terms (organic, free-range, and cage free) have nothing to do with contamination. That does not assure eggs will be salmonella-free,' says Mike Doyle, PhD, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety.”

The Food Safety News reinforced this information from a legal standpoint.  There’s no food safety argument to be made for cage-free eggs versus those from chickens in other types of housing, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Nor are cage-free eggs more nutritious.”

WebMD adds organic eggs are from hens “that may be kept in any kind of caging system, but generally are cage free. They eat an organic feed and don’t receive vaccines or antibiotics.” They must have access to the outdoors, but it may be just a porch or patio.

Since there is no health benefit, then it’s all about the chickens.  Some animal advocates argue that it’s not humane to keep the hens caged up with little leg- or wing-room.  We should care enough about them to afford them a more pleasant life.  But a summary of studies from the Iowa Farm Bureau explains “the hen mortality rate in…cage-free systems was higher than in conventional production because of the ‘pecking order’ in flocks.”  The bigger ones often peck to death the smaller, weaker ones.  Likewise they “tend to have more breastbone injuries from flying inside a barn.”  Air quality is often not as good due to the chickens scratching and stirring up dust.

So maybe the simplistic view of happier chickens is not a valid justification.  Despite that, another site called The Spruce takes the same stance: “At the very least, getting cage-free eggs means you've avoided supporting the worst of the egg industry's all too common practices” of keeping hens in overly cramped quarters.  Again, it sounds good and caring in the abstract, but ignores those real world issues pointed out above. 

All Pet News goes even further, criticizing some cage-free operations for meeting only minimum standards.  They may still keep hens confined for part of the day.  They ask, “How can I eat without feeling guilty?”  This gets to the heart of the matter.

It is becoming more common today for advertisers to coerced shoppers into paying more for food with pseudo-scientific guilt trips about feeding only the best to your family.  Now the animal-rights advocates pile on with concerns for the chickens’ lifestyle.  And each of these adds cost to our grocery bill.  Again from the Food Safety News:  To meet all the increased demand for cage-free eggs such changes are projected to create, producers will have to invest $9 to $10 billion to switch to cage-free housing, according to some industry estimates. Cage-free eggs currently cost $1 to $2 more per dozen than eggs from hens kept in battery cages.”  That is a cost to everyone, not just to the people pushing for the change; and as always the poor will be the ones most affected – that’s poor people not poor hens.

In an ideal world, we should each be able to make our own choice about eggs: standard, cage free, etc.  That should be the case for all food.  Unfortunately, when a single-minded, vocal minority begins the emotion-charged campaigns using fear, guilt and compassion to manipulate a na├»ve public, producers, retailers, restaurants and advertisers are forced to respond to the pressure of shifting consumer demand.  (Remember the baseless “pink slime” fuss a few years ago?)  Then our choices are limited, and everyone is forced to pay more.

Monday, April 24, 2017

What's a Parent To Do?

At first many people thought this was so unbelievable that it must be fake news, but I found it in the Chicago Tribune, and other reputable sources.  “Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants Chicago public high school students to show they have a plan for what's next before they can get a diploma.”  This adds a requirement for graduation, to become effective for the class of 2020 if approved by the school board.

His justification is to set expectations that the kids actually have a plan.  The article quoted Mayor Emanuel, "Just like you do with your children, college, post-high school, that is what's expected. If you change expectations, it's not hard for kids to adapt."  So apparently the city is taking over the job of the parents whose kids attend Chicago public schools (CPS).

If it is approved, Chicago will be the “first large urban school district to require students to develop a plan for their lives after high school.”  I guess there will be no more backpacking around Europe looking for your head that was popular among some in the generation of these kids’ grandparents.

But the idea of the city and the schools taking over parental responsibility is not new to Chicago.  An earlier article from the Tribune explains, “Starting this fall [2014], all Chicago Public Schools students will be able to get free breakfast and lunch at school.”  They had so much trouble with fraud in their reduced and free lunch programs that it became easier just to feed everyone.  For the past three years the parents need only provide one meal a day for their own children.

But it doesn’t stop there.  From the CPS website:  “Since 1998, Chicago Public Schools has required students to complete 40 service-learning hours in order to graduate.”  Since then parents don’t have to worry about instilling compassionate values or setting an example.  (In this case, the question always is whether required service makes people more generous.  We don’t celebrate those doing court-ordered community service as selfless volunteering.)

How are all these initiatives working out for the city?  From a report in September 2016 – “The latest five-year graduation rate is 73.5 percent, CPS said. The rate has been rising steadily over the past five years, according to district figures, and in 2014-15 was 69.9 percent.”  Note that even with an extra year to graduate more than one-quarter fail to do so.  Compare that to the national high school graduation rate in four years of 83.2 percent.

So it’s not fake news, just sad news.  And they are working on the wrong things.  In their book The Why Axis, authors Gneezy and List, who were working at the University of Chicago, report on various studies of motivation and incentives.  One was to try different incentive programs with students, parents and teachers in Chicago Heights public schools.  (It is not a pure comparison.  They wanted to study the CPS, but the teachers' union would not approve.)  They found that when the incentives were properly designed, minority students in this system performed just as well as their suburban counterparts in "rich, white neighborhoods."

Maybe with all that extra time on their hands the parents should take the school system to task, demand more and better education with less city and school board interference in their responsibilities.  Of course, giving up responsibilities to someone else is the easy way out – until we discover that it also means giving up control or freedom to choose.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Critical Thinking Behind the Wheel

From time to time when I’m driving my car and searching the various radio stations for some entertainment, I come across an ad telling me that American men are not as macho as they used to be.  It seems, according to them, that the average amount of testosterone has been decreasing from generation to generation resulting in the crisis they label as low-T.  It behooves me, according to them, to point my car to the nearest clinic to be tested to make sure I, too, am not a victim of this dreaded condition.

If I fail the blood test, they will give me the shots I need to make me feel like my old self, with a better mood, more energy, firmer waistline and more desire.  Since almost no one feels as good as when they were younger, it sounds like another scientific miracle.

Do I turn my car around immediately and head to one of the clinics?  That’s not what a critical thinker does, especially when that critical thinker has learned to be very suspicious of these kinds of come-ons.

So I wasn’t surprised when I learned earlier this week that six of those companies were being sued in Illinois Federal Court for “inappropriate marketing of testosterone-replacement therapy (TRT) with misleading claims.”  The complaint continues that the companies have widely marketed the therapy for off-label use for “a condition invented by Defendants and referred to as Low-T.”  Furthermore, TRT offers little or no benefit while posing serious health risks with no warning to patients.

There is a real medical condition called hypogonadism, not called Low-T.  The Mayo Clinic has information about diagnosis:  “If tests confirm you have low testosterone, further testing can determine if a testicular disorder or a pituitary abnormality is the cause. Based on specific signs and symptoms, additional studies can pinpoint the cause.”  Seems it’s not the direct route to virility the radio ad makes it sound like.  That should be a surprise to no one.

On a completely unrelated subject, except that I have also wondered about this when driving in the car – if you look up the butterfly effect, not the book or the movie, the definition looks like this.

“The butterfly effect is a term used in chaos theory to describe how small changes to a seemingly unrelated thing or condition (also known as an initial condition) can affect large, complex systems. The term comes from the suggestion that the flapping of a butterfly's wings in South America could affect the weather in Texas, meaning that the tiniest influence on one part of a system can have a huge effect on another part.”

So if theoretically the flapping of the wings of one butterfly can affect the weather, what is the effect, if any, of the estimated 300,000 wind turbines around the world harvesting wind power to generate electricity?  We see them along the road and think “clean energy,” but is it more like “lots of huge butterfly wings”?

Monday, April 17, 2017

Getting Enough Sleep

The original story was in the New York Times Magazine but many other outlets picked it up and commented as well.  Sleep is the new status symbol.  If you get 7 or more hours of sleep per night you are the envy of the neighborhood (or the office).

There was a time, not too long ago, when bragging rights went to those with more endurance, the marathon runners of staying awake.  If someone needed only 4 or 5 hours (or less) a night, we were sure to hear about it.  It put him or her in a league with many people famous, in part, for their admirable work ethic.  The list includes Thomas Edison, Nicola Tesla, Buckminster Fuller and Leonardo Da Vinci. If someone achieves stardom but needs a normal amount of sleep, we never hear about it.  The rich and famous who got by on much less had it listed with other credentials of superiority.

Now driven by promotion of a supposedly new, cool image, we are being sold a wide variety of sleep solutions that are expected to fly off the shelves.  The researchers are investigating a broad spectrum of ideas and devices including: a machine for bedroom air quality measurement, recordings of Icelandic fairy tales, specialty hammocks, weighted blankets, lavender oil and a headband that uses sound waves to induce sleep.  Another inventor came up with “a gadget you wear on your finger that uses sound to startle you awake every three minutes for an hour.”  The theory is that it gets all disruptions out of the way allowing you to fall asleep.   He also markets “a pair of goggles fitted with tiny green-blue lights that shine back into your eyes, [which] aims to reset your body’s clock.”  This is becoming big business.  “Sleep entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley and beyond have poured into the sleep space, as branders like to say -- a $32 billion market in 2012 -- formerly inhabited by old-style mattress and pharmaceutical companies.”  (I guess if they can sell us water that falls from the sky, they can sell us sleep, too.)

While the purpose of sleep may not be totally clear, the benefits of getting enough sleep and the dangers of getting too little are well known and broadly publicized.  The website lists many benefits.  Getting enough sleep is among the big, common sense lifestyle recommendations on such websites as Mayo Clinic, WebMD and many others – along with healthy eating, not smoking, not drinking to excess and exercise.  In his book about addiction Irresistible, Adam Alter lists the following as symptoms of sleep deprivation:  heart disease, lung disease, kidney disease, appetite suppression, poor weight control, weakened immune functioning, lower resistance to disease, higher pain sensitivity, slow reaction times, mood fluctuation, depressed brain functioning, depression, obesity, diabetes and certain forms of cancer. (p. 68).  The annual loss to businesses in the US attributed to sleep-deprived employees is estimated at $411 billion.

We know all the truth of this and usually feel it the next day but pay no attention to the advice.  One source estimates the problem at thirty percent of the population.  In 2017 does it take hype, gadgets and gimmicks to get Americans doing what they have known all along they really should be doing?  That doesn’t paint a very encouraging picture of our society and its future.  It used to be simple.  Our cave-dwelling ancestors could fall asleep without an app or a sleep coach even as they faced more threatening daily perils; why can’t we?