Blue Marble

High Deductible Health Plans Penalize Women

| Fri Apr. 6, 2007 2:52 PM EDT

A recent Harvard study has found that having breasts and a cervix may cost women an arm and a leg when it comes to healthcare.

Women enrolled in high deductible health plans pay up to three times more in medical costs than men. High deductible plans, pushed by Bush as a way to reduce costs, require the insured to pay at least $1,050 and up to $5,000 out-of-pocket before insurance kicks in.

The Harvard researchers found that women's (age 18-64) healthcare costs were, on average, $1,844, while men's were $847. The reason for the disparity, the study found, is that women's yearly routine health costs--pap smears, breast exams, birth control prescriptions--are more than men's.

"High deductible plans punish women for having breasts and uteruses and having babies," the study's lead author, Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, told the Washington Post. "When an employer switches all of his employees into a consumer-driven health plan, it's the same as giving all the women a $1,000 pay cut."

According to Hillary Clinton's recent speech, that's not something that women can afford: working full-time, year-round, they still only make 77 cents to a man's dollar.

--Jen Phillips

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Humpback Whales Make Longest Mammal Migration

| Thu Apr. 5, 2007 6:25 PM EDT

Humpback whales in the Atlantic have been tracked making the longest migration on record. New Scientist reports that seven individual whales swam 5,160 miles between Antarctica and the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. One mother and calf made the trip in 161 days. While some researchers claim that gray whales hold the record for longest mammalian migration—from Mexico to the Arctic, at 4700 miles—no individual gray whale has been documented travelling the full extent of their migratory range, and it's possible that no individual makes the entire migration. Kristin Rasmussen at Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, Washington, says the new humpback data are important in light of proposals to hunt humpbacks, including Japan's decision to catch 50 humpbacks each year as part of its [bogus] scientific whaling program. "Whales don't respect political boundaries," she says. "Killing whales in one area could potentially impact their population half way around the world."--Julia Whitty

Mushrooms Now Grow Longer And Fruit Twice As Often

| Thu Apr. 5, 2007 6:01 PM EDT

Mushroom season in Great Britain has more than doubled in length since the 1950s. Nature reports the season has increased from 33 days to 75, with some species fruiting twice a year, in both autumn and spring. This is a clear response to rising temperatures, says Alan Gange of the University of London. Although it's been shown that climate change is making birds nest and flowers bloom earlier, he knows of nothing else that has added a complete extra breeding season to its life cycle. Will fungi come to rule the world? They have before. --Julia Whitty

Weird Weather Watch: April Showers Snowstorms

| Thu Apr. 5, 2007 3:26 PM EDT

A spring snowstorm dumped more than a foot of snow on New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine last night, leaving more than 100,000 homes without power.

Meteorologist Butch Roberts of the National Weather Service in Gray, Maine, said, "We had Easter on December 25th. People had crocuses coming out and blooms on bushes. And now we have Christmas, with all this snow. It's a little topsy-turvy."

Spring is notoriously unpredictable in New England, but National Weather Service data [PDF] suggests that major snowfalls are highly unusual.

Critical Mass Hysteria?

| Wed Apr. 4, 2007 7:43 PM EDT

When does activism go too far? That question was raised last Friday night when Critical Mass cyclists in San Francisco intentionally rammed their bikes into a kid-filled minivan, banged on the windshield and smashed the rear window wide open.

Critical Mass, for those who don't know, is a national, metropolitan-based movement where, on the first Friday of every month, hundreds of cyclists converge en masse and ride through city streets as a group. These routes are unannounced and often violate traffic signals and signs, immobilizing vehicular traffic and inspiring the ire of inconvenienced motorists. Critical Mass's message is not clear (due to the number of local groups) but centers around support for alternative, eco-friendly transportation.

Generally, Critical Mass events are peaceful. On this Friday ride, allegedly, the clueless, suburban driver had accidentally tapped the wheel of a cyclist (who, by his own admission, was not injured). The cyclists struck back for this slight, slamming into the minivan and eventually throwing a bike through the back window. The kids in the attacked minivan, out for a birthday dinner, were terrified, and the vehicle damage tops $5,000.

Thanks, Critical Mass, for literally making little girls cry, and for giving the conservatives another glob of mud to sling at the environmentally-conscious.

—Jen Phillips

Life After Cars

| Wed Apr. 4, 2007 7:00 PM EDT

James Howard Kunstler, the author of The Geography of Nowhere, a history of suburbia, and The Long Emergency, an exploration of what life will be like after oil ceases to be plentiful and cheap, spoke at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club yesterday. Kunstler, unlike the rest of the chorus chanting that Americans should drive less, actually provides specifics. He argues that Americans are so reluctant to give up driving—despite the hassles of parking, long commutes, expensive insurance, and the fact that cars are killing us and the planet—because of the perverse human tendency to throw good money after bad. In this case, the bad money is 50 years of building suburbs.

Kunstler also has some relatively sane ideas about how we might start preparing for the time when we will have to drive less. We will have to rethink our industrial agricultural system, which has been accurately described as "The Oil We Eat." We should invest in rebuilding railroad and shipping infrastructures, to replace trucking.

The weird thing is, Kunstler's view is rather utopian. Giving up oil will cure what ails us about modernity: Locally owned small family farms will replace industrial agriculture, small businesses will replace Wal-Mart, and home schooling will replace public schools to which students are brought in a fleet of buses.

But alongside these heart-warming predictions, Kunstler also tells us to brace ourselves for serious battles over remaining resources, which, in the absence of mega-productive oil-fed agriculture and our most common forms of transportation, will need to be redistributed one way or the other. As to how to ensure that the redistribution will be equitable, not a peep.

So: Brace for a revolution, after which things will be surprisingly pleasant because they just will. Sounds kinda like Marxism, doesn't it? Even so, I think he's onto something with smart growth and railroads (to which I would add mass transit).

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Catching Big Pharma's Little Lies, Teens Bust GlaxoSmithKline

| Wed Apr. 4, 2007 12:04 AM EDT

A blackcurrant drink produced by drug giant GlaxoSmithKline was advertised as having way more Vitamin C than it actually does. What's cool is that the independent investigation was conducted by two 14-year-old girls for a science fair project. As Seed Magazine reports, New Zealanders Anna Devathasan and Jenny Suo tested the Vitamin C content of eight juices, with most matching their advertised C content. But Ribena, which claimed to have four times as much Vitamin C as oranges, fell far short. The teens tried to contact the company directly, but failed to get a response. So they went to a consumer affairs TV show and then the Commerce Commission. After two years, GlaxoSmithKline finally admitted breaching the Fair Trading Act. They'll pay a fine and change the labeling on the drink. Tch tch. How about detention?--Julia Whitty

Race For A Green Car, X Prize To Offer Millions

| Tue Apr. 3, 2007 10:33 PM EDT

The X Prize Foundation has announced a competition to build an environmentally friendly car. Nature reports that the winning vehicle will have to achieve at least 100 miles per gallon, regardless of the type of fuel it uses. Its carbon emissions have to be no more than 210 grams of carbon per mile. And it has to be cheap enough to expect sales of 10,000 a year.

That'll be a huge improvement on today's US average of about 21 miles per gallon. The prize's challenge lies more in manufacturing and economics than in developing radical new technologies. To achieve 100 miles per gallon can be done with existing technology, but requiring a radical redesign.

The rules are currently in draft form, and are open to public comment for 60 days beginning 2 April. The prize's value has not yet been announced, but will likely be more than $10 million. The previous two X Prizes, for spaceflight and genomics, each had a value of $10 million. --Julia Whitty

Scientists Turn Old Garbage Into New Homes

| Tue Apr. 3, 2007 7:38 PM EDT

A British civil engineer has invented a building block made almost entirely of recycled glass, metal slag, sewage sludge and ash from power stations. John Forth of the University of Leeds said his "Bitublocks" might revolutionize the building industry by providing a sustainable, low-energy replacement for concrete blocks. This according to UPI via Science Daily.

The secret ingredient is asphalt, which binds the mixture of waste products together, before compacting them to form a solid block that is heat-cured until it hardens like concrete. Forth said it's possible to use a higher proportion of waste in the Bitublock than by using a cement or clay binder. He's now working on developing a "Vegeblock" using waste vegetable oil as the binder.

Another noble reincarnation for MacDonald's used french-fry grease?--Julia Whitty

World Oil Production Close To Peak, Good Riddance

| Tue Apr. 3, 2007 7:21 PM EDT

In a worst-case scenario, global oil production may reach its peak next year, before starting to decline. In a best-case scenario, this peak will be reached in 2018. This according to the doctoral thesis of Fredrik Robelius of Uppsala University in Sweden. He estimates future oil production on the basis of the largest oil fields.

A giant oil field contains at least 500 million barrels of recoverable oil. Only 507, or 1% of the total number of fields, are giants. Their contribution is striking: over 60% of 2005 production. However, giant fields are impending dinosaurs since a majority are over 50 years old--and fewer are being found, with less volume available within them.

Robelius' model forecasts future production from giant fields, combined with forecasts on other oil sources, to predict future oil production. In all scenarios, peak oil occurs at about the same time as the giant fields peak. The worst-case scenario sees a peak in 2008 and the best-case scenario, following a 1.4 % demand growth, peaks in 2018.--Julia Whitty