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Komodo dragons are the are the king-sized cousins of Nile monitor lizards, an invasive species showing up in Florida. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Florida attracts lots of quirky creatures of both the two-legged and four-legged variety.

But none of them are creepier than the Nile monitor lizard, which has been gaining a foothold on the peninsula thanks to exotic pet owners who gave up on their repugnant reptiles and released them into the wild.

In January, I wrote a story for the Palm Beach Daily News about invasive species in the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge, the sprawling last-remaining vestige of the northern Everglades in Palm Beach County. The subject was Melaleuca and the proliferation of Old World climbing fern, which is strangling native vegetation.

But in talking with people from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the subject of invasive animal species also came up. There is a well-known problem with pythons in the Everglades, but less discussed is the more recent issue of Nile monitor lizards, which have been harassing domestic pets from suburban West Palm Beach to Fort Myers.

While alligators — and even some species of crocodiles — have a certain majesty and are native to the state, sightings in residential neighborhoods are likely to prompt a call to authorities for removal. But spotting a monitor lizard in your backyard may raise the hair on the back of your neck.

“A typical adult Nile monitor can grow over 5 feet in length and weigh close to 15 pounds.” the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission says on its website. “If encountered, they typically flee into the water.”

But not always.

This report which aired last fall on Channel 2 in Fort Myers, shows a lizard attacking someone’s dog. Through November, the City of Cape Coral received more than 30 calls about monitor lizards.

“If approached, a Nile monitor lizard will try to appear bigger, puffing out its lungs and standing on its back legs,” the reporter on the story says. It hunts during the day and sleeps at night.

Monitor lizards are the “baby cousins” of the larger and even more formidable Komodo Dragons, which can range up to 10 feet long and weigh as much as 200 pounds.

Found on the Indonesian islands of Komodo, Rinca, Flores, Gili Motang, and Padar, they hunt in packs and prey on large animals, including deer. “They will also ambush live prey with a stealthy approach,” says a description on Wikipedia. “When suitable prey arrives near a dragon’s ambush site, it will suddenly charge at the animal and go for the underside or the throat.”

They have never been reported in Florida.

But I just finished a 2010 book by Randy Wayne White — part of the very entertaining Doc Ford series — called Deep Shadow, in which the biologist protagonist and his buddies run into a Komodo on a remote Central Florida lake while hunting for lost treasure. Adventure and intrigue ensue amid a battle with the giant lizard, which had been culling beef cattle from the local rancher over several decades. (Komodos can live to the age of 30.)

Diving in the lake, Ford spots the creature and says: “I tried to convince myself that I was watching an over-sized gator, but I knew it wasn’t true. More than anything else, it looked like the tail of a Nile monitor lizard — but that couldn’t be. Monitors didn’t grow to be thirteen feet long, and the animal I was watching had to be at least as big as that.”

“A Komodo monitor? In Florida? Even as I thought the word impossible, I knew that I was wrong again. Florida was the perfect habitat for the world’s largest venomous lizard.”

Fiction is fiction and a novel is a novel. But some people will keep any kind of exotic pet, and exotic pet ownership inevitably leads to a chance of accidental — or intentional — release.

In Deep Shadow, White says: “In the remote pasturelands of Central Florida, a Komodo-sized lizard wouldn’t just survive, it would thrive. An animal with its habits could live unnoticed for years, feeding by night and sleeping underground by day.”

One thing is certain: Florida with its near-tropical climate is more attractive to exotics than most other states. Environmentalists can and do make progress against both plant and animal varieties, but the war never seems to be completely won.

The Everglades is remote and its fringes press up against residential neighborhoods as development pushes farther into the peninsula’s interior.

Be careful out there.

Automation is taking away U.S. manufacturing jobs much faster than NAFTA or low-wage competitors in countries like Mexico or China.

That’s a fact, but one that gets lost in all the rhetoric around immigration and trade agreements.

And now in the last few months there’s increasing evidence that automation is also rushing to fill a labor vacuum in the agricultural industry. There’s a heated debate over undocumented workers coming into the U.S. to take farm jobs, but this could soon be a moot point.

The cheap foreign labor U.S. farmers have come to rely on for harvesting their crops may no longer be needed as machinery and sophisticated robots move into fields and orchards. A crackdown on immigration may not have the devastating effect on U.S. agriculture that growers feared, and domestic produce prices seem likely to rise if NAFTA is reworked or scrapped.

The result would be higher profits for farmers while middle class consumers face higher prices at the supermarket and see no real increase in employment opportunities.

Technology is advancing so quickly that the “America first” strategy that attracted so much support during last year’s election is already starting to look quaint.

strawberriesIn Florida, a winter fruit and vegetable center, a Tampa company called Harvest CROO Robotics was awarded a patent last summer on a strawberry picker that can harvest 25 acres of strawberries in three days.

Bloomberg reported last month: “Robotic devices like lettuce thinners and grape-leaf pullers have replaced so many human hands on U.S. farms in recent years that many jobs now held by illegal workers may not exist by the time Donald Trump builds his promised wall.”

A Michigan apple grower bought a $138,000 machine that can pick three times as many apples as workers using ladders and buckets. The machines never have to take a break, don’t need visas to get into the U.S., and don’t have to worry about immigration raids.

A California vineyard owner cut his need for grape pickers by 95 percent by purchasing an automated harvester.

Dairy farmers are using robots that milk, feed and clean cows.

Bloomberg says that out of a U.S. agricultural workforce of 2.6 million in 2016, up to 1 million were undocumented foreign workers. But that percentage is falling fast, since fewer foreign workers are coming into the country and those who do enter are looking for non-agricultural jobs.

Economists believe a lack of farm workers could mean higher prices at the supermarket. But if NAFTA is scrapped or renegotiated, the door could be open to higher produce prices anyway, even if automation plays a bigger role, because of less international competition.

So what’s in it for consumers if there’s no expansion of domestic job opportunities and supermarket prices are actually higher?

Tax the robots, says Microsoft founder Bill Gates. You could use the revenue to fund services for the elderly and for working with kids in schools, he said in an interview with Quartz, a publication founded by former Wall Street Journal reporter Kevin Delaney. It would also generate funding for worker retraining and may even have the effect of slowing down automation.

“Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things,” Gates said. “If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”

And here’s one thing guaranteed: You won’t hear any complaints from the robots.

Image credit: Fresh-picked strawberries via Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s yet another example of the law of unintended consequences — one that could have a harmful impact on the already-struggling U.S. health care system.

About 260 foreign medical students could lose their medical residency assignments as a result of the Trump Administration’s order banning travel to the U.S. from seven countries.

The Association of American Medical Colleges says the order could have a far-reaching effect on medical research and may also ultimately cause problems for patients in the U.S.

The organization released a statement saying that it’s “deeply concerned” about the order, which has been challenged in the U.S. courts and has been suspended — for now.

“International graduates play an important role in U.S. health care, representing roughly 25 percent of the workforce,” the statement said. “Current immigration pathways —including student, exchange-visitor, and employment visas — provide a balanced solution that improves health care access across the country ….”
Atul Grover, executive vice president at the AAMC, told Kaiser Health News: “These are doctors. They could be exceptional practitioners and I don’t know if you want to stop them from coming here and serving their patients.”

The countries are Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

One medical student from Sudan described the turn of events as “very devastating. Because you are born in an unfortunate situation, you have to pay the price for that.”

In addition to the 260 applicants for a residency slot — the positions were set to be announced March 17 — others who are already involved in a residency program fear that they won’t be able to complete it.

About a quarter of doctors in the U.S. are foreign-born, according to KHN. AAMC projects that there will be a shortage of 94,700 physicians in the U.S. by 2025.

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CRACKING THE CANCER CODE: Certain kinds of hard-shelled nuts can help fight cancer, new research shows.

Macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds and pistachios help initiate “programmed cell death” in cancer cells, researchers found, although it’s unclear whether their anti-cancer power is reduced by roasting.

That will require further study, they said.

The studies were conducted by Friedrich Schiller University Jena in Germany.

Image: pistachios could help in the fight against colon cancer and other types of the disease. (Credit: Wikimedia commons)

Sixty percent of Americans take at least one prescription drug, according to the Washington Post. Yet only 27 percent have a pre-existing medical condition, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation analysis concluded.

One seems to be in conflict with the other — If you’re taking a prescription drug, aren’t you taking it for an existing condition?

It’s a hot topic now that the repeal of the Affordable Care Act is being pit-bulled through Congress by the new crew in D.C.

prescription_drugsHealth insurance companies can’t reject applicants for pre-existing conditions under the ACA, and President Trump and some Congressional Republicans have suggested that that’s a good provision to keep in whatever plan they come up with.

But on the other hand they are talking about reviving high-risk pools, which were the half-baked solution to the uninsured crisis prior to the ACA’s passage in 2010. High risk pools were expensive and limited, and many states had to put people on a waiting list for coverage.

The one thing high risk pools do is allow cheaper premiums for younger people. The ACA has a spread-the-risk policy that requires younger, healthier people to sign up for insurance so that older, sicker people can access policies that aren’t off-the-charts expensive.

Here’s the thinking: Take care of numero uno, and don’t worry that maybe one day you yourself may need a more accommodative policy.

The real question is, how many people actually have a pre-existing condition? If 60 percent of Americans are taking a prescription drug — and estimates are as high as 70 percent — the problem is a lot more widespread than the Kaiser analysis claims.

It also depends on how a pre-existing condition is defined. The New York Times reported Monday that a woman diagnosed with a mild form of gastritis — basically an upset stomach — was offered an insurance policy that excluded coverage for anything related to the digestive tract.

If that’s how insurers will determine the scope of coverage once the ACA is repealed, there are going to be a lot of very unhappy Americans under President Trump’s “terrific” new health plan.

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Eat your heart out, Mary Shelley.

Scientists have frozen roundworms — solid — and brought them back to life, possibly paving the way for people to be frozen and brought back.

The Antarctic nematode, known commonly as the roundworm, was the first living organism to be frozen and revived by researchers from the University of Otago in New Zealand. The worm survives the freezing process because it has a mechanism that allows it to eliminate all of its water content, a process known as cryoprotective dehydration.

maryshelley“No other organism that we know of is able to withstand freezing in its cells with as good a survival rate,” said biologist, Michael Thorne, lead author of the study. “Once thawed from such a state it is able to produce offspring.

“To date no work has been carried out at the molecular level on any organism able to survive total freezing, and the insights provide a great starting point for a fascinating biological phenomenon.”

The paper, Molecular Snapshot of an Intracellular Freezing Event in an Antarctic Nematode, was published in the professional journal Cryobiology.

In fact, people have been frozen since 1967 in the hopes they can be revived later, when a cure is found for the disease that caused their death. The process, known as cryonics, is controversial within the scientific community.

At a cost of between $10,000 and $12,000, the blood is removed from the body and replaced with a special solution before the person is stored at -196 degrees Celsius.

Several U.S. companies do the work but cryonics is also a growing industry in Russia, according to the UK’s Financial Times, which published a profile in December 2015 about a company outside Moscow that hopes to take a global leadership role in the business.

The writer said of the company’s founder: “He has worked at an investment bank, hosted his own television show and helps run an anti-human-trafficking organization, but his day job is freezing people.”

There is actually a new “cold war” brewing between the two countries over cryonics, according to the newspaper.

What proponents have been waiting for is some proof, or at least some hint, that the process can work — that people can be reanimated after freezing and live again another day.

Is the roundworm study the first step in that direction?

Will people wake up 50 years from now to find that world peace has finally been achieved? Or will they step out of the cryonics storage building and into a brutal, raging war between humans and robots?

Stay tuned ….

Image credits: Prescription drugs, National Cancer Institute; Mary Shelley via Wikimedia Commons

Researchers these days don’t get by on coffee and donuts as they pore over pages and pages of printed data. All they need is someone to plug them into the wall in order to recharge their batteries.

The artificial intelligence bandwagon is building up a head of steam as we race toward the next decade. It’s already been well-documented that the loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. has very little to do with off-shore out-sourcing and plenty to do with automation.

People waiting for a surge in high-paying manufacturing jobs with the incoming administration touting an America First strategy are whistling Dixie.

Less discussed is new AI technology that can conduct research — think paralegals reviewing thousands of words of case-law being replaced by computers that can sift through the same material in a fraction of the time and at basically zero cost.

And now AI is being successfully employed to do the heavy lifting in academic studies.

The University of Bristol in the UK used it to analyze 150 years of British history by reviewing newspaper clippings from 1800 to 1950. The material included 35 million articles and 28.6 billion words published by regional papers.

The resulting report tracked big cultural changes.

“The research team tracked the steady decline of steam and the rise of electricity, with a crossing point of 1898,” the university reported in a Jan. 9 press release. “Trains overtook horses in popularity in 1902; and the four largest peaks for ‘panic’ corresponded with negative market movements linked to banking crises in 1826, 1847, 1857 and 1866.”

The results also showed that “males are systematically more present than females during the entire period studied, but there is a slow increase of the presence of women after 1900, although it is difficult to attribute this to a single factor at the time. Interestingly, the amount of gender bias in the news over the period of investigation is not very different from current levels.”

While computers do a thorough and quick job of compiling statistics and identifying trends, interpretations are left up to the flesh-and-blood staff.

But how long will it be before even that role is gobbled up by AI?

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California red chili peppers. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Are you a fan of red-hot chili peppers? The food, I mean — not the band.

Eating chili peppers may reduce your risk of death by heart disease or stroke by 13 percent, a new University of Vermont study concludes.

“Although the mechanism by which peppers could delay mortality is far from certain, Transient Receptor Potential (TRP) channels, which are primary receptors for pungent agents such as capsaicin (the principal component in chili peppers), may in part be responsible for the observed relationship,” study authors said.

Just two weeks from inauguration day, the debate over the Affordable Care Act remains chaotic, with no clear consensus emerging.

Although Republicans seemed in December to be coalescing around a plan to immediately repeal the law — and then delay its implementation for a year or more — some party higher-ups have been contradicting that, insisting that a replacement law accompany the repeal.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, for example, has said a replacement law could be passed this year. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, says it will take “several years” and a consensus with Democrats to come up with a workable alternative.

And now evidence is emerging that Americans don’t want outright repeal of the law. A Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Poll released Friday revealed that 75 percent of the public does not want to see repeal and delay, the option most often discussed by incoming officials.

Forty-seven percent don’t want repeal at all, and another 28 percent say the ACA shouldn’t be repealed until details of the replacement plan are announced.

“Views split not only on partisan lines but also within the Republican Party, where nearly four in 10 think that the government should guarantee health care is available to the elderly and to low-income people, even if it means more federal involvement,” reported Kaiser Health News.

On Thursday, Tennessee Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn asked in a poll on Twitter: “Do you support the repeal of Obamacare?” Eighty-four percent said no and only 16 percent said yes. (As any attorney will tell you, never ask a question you don’ t know the answer to.)

A focus group comprised of Trump voters expressed concern that a gap between repeal of the ACA and a replacement would lead to health care chaos. But one member of the group said she didn’t think “a smart businessman like Trump would let that happen.”

Interestingly, The New York Times said members of the group were “unmoved by the principle of risk-sharing,” a cornerstone of the ACA and in fact the insurance business in general. The insurance industry is built around the idea of combining low-risk customers with high-risk customers to create a profitable pool that can bail people out if a problem occurs.

But members of the focus group didn’t like the ACA’s insurance mandate, even though they want coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.

Overall, members of the focus group want health care to be affordable and understandable with adequate access to networks of care providers.

So what would the GOP alternative look like? The bill passed by Congress in 2015 — which was vetoed by President Obama — would remove the mandate, eliminate premium subsidies for low and middle-income Americans, and drop taxes on high income households.

The problem is if you remove the mandate but still require insurers to cover everyone with pre-existing conditions, those people would likely face sky-high premiums.

The two sides in this debate — the public’s demand for affordable premiums and simplified access to health care providers, and Republicans’ preference for market-based solutions — appear to be on a collision course.

An uneasy public can only sit back and wait to see what happens next.

Your mother used to say: “If all your friends jumped off a bridge would you do it, too?”

And now there’s evidence that the answer is yes, you’d be more likely to jump off a bridge if all of your friends were doing it.

Human beings are pack animals and if you hang out with a bunch of people who smoke, you’re more likely to smoke; if they use foul language you’re more likely to use foul language, and so on.

And unfortunately that pertains to violence as well. It can spread “like a disease,” particularly among teens, research by Ohio State University concludes.

The researchers found that teens were 183 percent more likely to commit violence if one of their friends did the same — and the tendency toward violence continues like dominoes from friend-to-friend at up to four degrees of separation.

“Acts of violence can ricochet through a community, traveling through networks of friends,” says Robert Bond, assistant professor of communication at Ohio State and lead author of the study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Bond looked at data from interviews of 5,913 teens in grades 7 to 12 during the mid-1990s. They were spread across 142 schools.

They were asked to name five male and five female students at their school and how often they were involved in a fight that required medical attention. The researchers then asked the friends whether they had committed the same acts.

total_juvenile_detention_chart_for_the_usaFor each friend who had committed a violent act, the chances of the subject being involved
in similar violence increased by 55 percent.

“If we can stop violence in one person, that spreads to their social network,” Bond said. “We’re actually preventing violence not only in that person, but potentially for all the people they come in contact with.”

Interestingly, juvenile violent crime has been falling, even as the U.S. incarceration rate has skyrocketed.

A 2014 report said violent crime among youths had dropped to a 30-year low, and killings by those under the age of 18 were at the lowest point in at least three decades, according to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

Out of a juvenile population of 74 million in 2010, 1.16 million were arrested, down 21 percent from 2001.

Investigators said there was a “blip” during the 1980s and 1990s during which juvenile crime shot up, but now statistics are returning to a more historic norm.

Incarceration numbers in the U.S., meanwhile, have been rising dramatically since the early 1970s, but not because of violent crime. Instead, it’s  largely due to the war on drugs.

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Graphics: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention graphic via Wikimedia Commons