Very useful eclipse calculator (and traffic horror warning)

If you're anywhere near the path of Monday's solar eclipse in the United States, you'll want to check out Vox's eclipse page (link) to get an idea what the eclipse will look like where you live. Just enter your zip code and it will tell you the local time for the eclipse maximum, the percentage of totality you'll experience, and even an animation showing you roughly what you can expect to see.

Speaking of seeing, and this is important, various news reports indicate that a significant fraction of the eclipse glasses being sold are fake and entirely inadequate. Some counterfeit glasses are reportedly stamped with an ISO designation meant to indicate safety certification, so contrary to press reports that's no guarantee the glasses are safe.

Vanderbilt University has had to recall 8000 pairs of eclipse glasses, and a school district in Kansas discovered that more than 3000 it had purchased from were bogus.

Popular Science and CNET have advice on checking whether the glasses are safe. Please pass on these links:

A quick test: Indoors, turn on a lamp with a shade on it. If you can see it through the eclipse glasses, they aren't safe. If you glance at the sun through a pair of eclipse glasses it should look no brighter than a full moon.

I've experienced a total solar eclipse before, and I found that the most interesting part isn't the eclipse proper but what happens around it, notably the daytime darkness. So I won't be looking directly at the sun, I'll be checking out everything else. And later I'll look at the eclipse on line, in clear telescopic views better than I could possibly see through ultra-dark eclipse glasses. (I won't be in the path of totality anyway, but where I live more than 90 percent of the solar disk will be covered, which is enough to keep me from trying to drive to South Carolina.)

One more thing: Traffic into and out of the eclipse zone is likely to be horrendous. Here's Monday's XKCD comic about that:

Google traffic implies high automobile traffic to see eclipse

See for more explanation of the comic.

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Programs to help unemployed coal miners may be ended by Trump administration

The following clip from Comedy Central's The Daily Show is (reasonably) funny, but it points out something very serious, namely that a major initiative to help people in Appalachia, including coal miners that the president pretends to care about, is opposed by the Trump administration.

It's a microscopic part of federal spending, and it helps, mainly with job-training programs for adults, a region that has been for generations slammed with deep poverty.


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Living sundial time lapse

Saturday's Astronomy Picture of the Day from NASA featured this fun short video from southern Germany in July. Members of a local school's astronomy club drew a chalk sundial in a city square and took turns acting as the gnomon, the bit that casts the shadow, for 10 minutes each. Pictures were taken (using a Nikon D200) at the rate of once every 20 seconds, so the participants could also perform a bit of stop-motion animation, making the resulting time-lapse a lot more entertaining. (Their explanation in English is here.)

The astronomy group includes both adults and kids. There's also at least one dog and a human skeleton.

The video runs just over a minute and a half.


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How the administration is undermining Obamacare

Donald Trump has said several times that he wants the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) to fail. Unfortunately, there are some things he can do to make insurance harder to get or less affordable. He's already started doing it.

The law strives to make health insurance more affordable for people who have to buy their own. One is to give all most of them tax credits to help them pay the cost of premiums. (The credit is enough to limit their cost to a percentage of their income, based on the cost of the the least expensive silver plans available where they live.) Another is to give low-income working people help them copays and deductibles that most of them otherwise couldn't afford. This latter part is called "cost-sharing reductions" or "CSRs."

Some opponents of the Affordable Care Act claim that the wording of the law does not expressly appropriate funding for the CSRs, though when the bill was originally analyzed by the Congressional Budget Office and by independent organizations, and when it was debated in Congress, everyone on all sides of the issue assumed that the appropriations were automatic.

President Trump now claims that he has the right to withhold the payments. He has so far not tried to do so, but month after month, he suggests that he might decide to cancel the payments next month. This obviously puts insurance companies in a bind, since the law says they have to cut what they charge, and if the federal government breaks its promise and doesn't pay, the companies are on the hook for the money and will have to increase premiums next year.

This has already created a crisis in Nevada, where Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield has elected not to offer individual health insurance policies next year in all but the state's largest counties. Since no other insurers are likely to offer health insurance in most or all of these counties, this is a serious problem. (For more, see for example this article in The Reno Gazette-Journal.)

This isn't the only way Trump can screw with the Affordable Care Act. Last month, health insurance blogger Charles Gaba worked out, based on a sample of insurance company rate increase requests from 20 states, that while more than a quarter of the projected premium increases in 2018 can be blamed on such things as the general increase in medical costs, fully 71 percent is attributable to politics, specifically actions (or inaction) by the administration and Congress. Gaba isn't a neutral observer -- in fact, he makes it pretty clear that he's pissed off at the people he deems responsible -- but that doesn't make him wrong.

For more, see this video from pediatrician and medical school professor Dr Aaron Carroll:


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Farming and antibiotics overuse

As previously noted (see below), PBS News Hour has broadcast a series on the antibiotics crisis, that is, the appearance of more and more deadly drug-resistant germs and the lack of new antibiotics to deal with them. Here are the most recent two installments, on how rampant use of antibiotics in farming is a major problem.

If you don't have time to watch, here's the short version: Farmers raising chickens, pigs, and other animals use antibiotics in feed because doing so promotes rapid growth. Pharmaceutical companies happily sell the drugs to farmers, generally at a tiny fraction of what they sell the same drugs for use in human patients or even veterinary medicine.

Not surprisingly, this overuse promotes the development of disease pathogens that are resistant to antibiotics.

Some farmers, grocery stores, restaurant chains, and so on have started advertising that they don't allow the use of antibiotics. As I pointed out in a post back in 2016, at least one irresponsible competitor has run ads attacking them, arguing there's no reason to avoid antibiotics because they're not present in meat anyway and falsely claiming that no-antibiotics claims are just a way of ripping-off consumers. Of course, that completely misses the point.



Other parts of this series:

  1. The antibiotic crisis is not getting any better
  2. The economics of new antibiotics
  3. Getting pharmaceutical companies to develop new antibiotics
  4. Farming and antibiotics overuse
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Purdue farms announces efforts to treat chickens better

According to National Public Radio, Purdue Farms is making efforts to raise chickens under better conditions with large windows and places for them to roost. When Leah Garces, the executive director of an organization called Compassion in World Farming, was given a tour of a new-style chicken house alongside a more typical factory farm building, she noted that while the chickens in the latter were quiet and immobile, those in the new facility were "running around, climbing on things, pecking, perching."

Part of this is that the new facility uses a different breed of chicken, one not bred with the single-minded purpose of growing rapidly, often so rapidly that their bones can barely support them.

Purdue claims that the better-treated, more active, slower-growing chickens have better-tasting meat. The company is also under pressure from customers such as restaurant chains that want to be able to say their chickens are treated more humanely. The chickens will also be rendered unconscious by a gas before they are slaughtered.

Obviously they're still slaughtered far short of normal lifespan, so it's hard to argue the new practices are free of cruelty. On the other hand, we humans aren't likely to turn 100 percent vegan anytime soon, and nonhuman predators in the wild don't exactly treat their prey with kindness.

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Former federal ethics director concerned about Trump administration

Walter Shaub, until last month director of the federal Office of Government Ethics, says he is very concerned by violations of ethical norms by the Trump administration. At a news conference on July 28 he said, "We are truly in an ethics crisis, and something needs to be done about it," according to a report from National Public Radio.

Shaub announced on July 6 that he was resigning effective July 19. He now works at the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center.

Shaub's public expressions of concern go back to November in response to Donald Trump's announcements that he would not adhere to the longstanding practice of presidents to put their investments into blind trusts in order to avoid conflicts of interest, instead using a trust nominally run by his sons and a business associate. In addition, the administration has, according to NPR, hired "unprecedented numbers of former lobbyists, lawyers and industry consultants" and given many of them waivers to exempt them from the usual ethics rules. Such waivers are supposed to be public documents, but the administration for a long while refused to release them.

Previous administrations of both parties have paid serious attention to ethics rules, according to Shaub and others, such as Danielle Brian, executive director of the independent Project on Government Oversight (, who says that in contrast with past presidencies, "we have an administration now that honestly doesn't care."

For just one example examined in another NPR report, Trump's hotel in Washington leases the old Post Office building from the government, and the terms of the lease are that the lease cannot be held by or benefit a federal elected official. To get around that, Trump's lawyers created a revocable Trust on Trump's sole behalf, one that even uses Trump's own personal Social Security number as its tax ID, to own the lease, and puts Donald J Trump Jr in charge of the trust. George Washington University law professor Stephen Schooner, who teaches this area of law, says the lease still benefits Trump, and furthermore under terms of the lease the rent must be renegotiated annually by the General Services Administration, which ultimately answers to the president.

The same report quotes Kathleen Clark, who teaches government ethics at Washington University in St Louis, as saying, "Donald Trump is managing his affairs in a way that enables, and frankly invites, people and companies and countries to send money his way, through his businesses, in an attempt to influence him and thereby influence U.S. government policy." Richard Painter, White House ethics counsel under President George W. Bush, said that corporate lobbyists and foreign governments may make use of Trump's DC hotel and other businesses in order to score points with the president, and that a revocable trust isn't enough to avoid conflicts of interest, "And some of those conflicts are illegal."

So Shaub is urging Congress to strengthen ethics laws and has received bipartisan support for that effort in both houses, including from Iowas Senator Chuck Grassley and South Carolina Representative Trey Gowdy, both Republicans.

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