Monday, January 30, 2012

Life Span, old age, and statistics

The issue before last of the National Geographic featured an article on the Teenage Brain. This past issue, which arrived last week, included a letter to the editor from a reader who somewhat grumpily suggested that the teenage brain might be the evolutionary norm, because, he suggested, back in our early days as a species, we didn't live much longer than that.

Oh yes we did.

The suggestion of the letter writer was that human beings live longer than they used to. This is a common belief, people state that all the time, but it simply isn't true. People live the same number of years that they always have. That number of years varies by population and culture, but it's generally between 60 and 120 years. Extreme old age generally seems to cap out at an absolute maximum of 120 years, a span that's actually mentioned in the Old Testament, interestingly enough. The longest any human in modern times has been recorded to have live is 122 years. There are claimed examples of people living in excess of this number of years, but they lack verification and tend to be subject to serious questioning. This is not to say, of course, that anyone can live to 120 years. Far from it. Only a tiny minority of people shall ever approach that age. But instances of advance years in any one era are quite easy to find. Chief Washakie, for example, lived to be 99 or 100 years of age and was not the only Native American of that to have done so. Adams and Jefferson lived into their 80s. And so on.

Well, if people are not actually living longer, why do we tend to think that we are? That's because life expectation is increasing. That is, average life span, or life expectancy, is increasing.

Well, isn't that the same thing? Not at all.

Life expectancy or average life span is a statistical figure. It doesn't mean that all people live to that age. No, by its very nature it means that most people will have died before that age or after it. It's the statistical medium.

But if that's the case, wouldn't it still mean that people are living longer? No, what it means is that people aren't dieing as young.

That sounds like semantics, but it isn't. When you look at what killed people in prior eras, it makes sense.

For one thing, and a huge thing at that, an enormous number of people died at (and in) child birth prior to the mid 20th Century. And this was in European and North American societies. Infant death was very common. Childhood death was also distressingly common. A large number of people died prior to age five.

The reason for this is varied, but disease and the stress of birth explains a lot of it. But what it also means is that if a person passed their fifth year, their life expectancy jumped enormously. Indeed, if you take out the number of infants who died prior to age five, and the number of women who died giving birth, life expectancy for the most part would begin to look pretty recognizable for most European or North American cultures.

They would not, of course, be identical. But that's easily explainable as well. Diseases of all types were enormously dangerous prior to the late 19th Century. The germ theory of disease itself was only discovered in the mid 19th Century. There were an awful lot of diseases that, if you acquired them, your end was nearly guaranteed, where as this would not be the case now. Heart attacks, cancer and strokes basically killed. Diagnosing dangerous diseases prior to their last phase was often impossible. None of this is true now. And accidents tended to be much more lethal in any era prior to the one we're living in right now. Work, for males, was much more dangerous in prior eras.

And, of course, warfare was very prominent in earlier eras. Most European nations were constantly at war in the 18th Century. When the Indian Wars are included, the US was basically at war from 1776 through the 1880s. And wars have become less lethal in modern times in comparison to prior eras.

So what does all this mean? Perhaps not that much, but the common modern assumption that we're living longer is simply incorrect. Things aren't killing us before we reach our natural end of life. That's what is occurring.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Railhead: Rails to Trails, Casper Wyoming

Railhead: Rails to Trails, Casper Wyoming: Casper is presently served only by the Burlington Northern Railroad, whose rail line separates North Casper from the rest of Casper. But th...

Friday, January 27, 2012

Today In Wyoming's History: January 27

Today In Wyoming's History: January 27: 1943 Contact was reestablished with Jackson after the town had been isolated due to a snowstorm. The period of no contact was six days.

This was not really an unusual event at the time. Prior to advancements in 4x4 vehicles, brought about due to World War Two, it was nearly impossible to remove significant amounts of snow from mountain passes, and towns located in mountain valleys were routinely cutoff from contact with the outside for days and even weeks. This was particularly true for Jackson. Indeed, this was so much the case that a book written in the 1950s, by a screen writer who lived in the town off and on during the 40s and 50s, maintained that the "Cocktail Hour In Jackson Hole" was the entire winter, as the town was completely cutoff from the outside during that time and engaged in one huge party all winter long. No doubt that was an exaggeration, but there was some truth to the statement.

Less romantic, an irony of the situation is that up until 1970s Jackson was not regarded as a particularly desirable place to live. This was very much the case prior to 1950. Prior to 1950 agriculture, together with government agencies, formed the economic base of the town, but even there the homesteads that had been filed there were very late ones and were not the most enviable to have, as the ranches in the valley had to combat the weather and were so extremely isolated. It is only the modern 4x4 snow plow that has made Jackson the winter vacation spot it is, and by extension the home of many wealthy people.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Holscher's Hub: Sheep

Holscher's Hub: Sheep: My father took this photograph of sheep in a pen, but I don't have any of the other details and can't quite tell where it is. It's clearly on a railroad, and the building in the background makes me suspect that it's near Glenrock, but I don't know for sure.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Holscher's Hub: Flying from Casper, Wyoming to Salt Lake City and ...

Holscher's Hub: Flying from Casper, Wyoming to Salt Lake City and ...:

These photos were taken in one set, I think. I know that the Salt Lake to San Francisco photographs are part of a set my father took on a journey that ultimately went to Japan, with stops at Hawaii and Wake Island. I suspect that the first few photographs, showing a Western Airlines airliner at the Natrona County Airport, are part of this set.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The end of horse artillery.

A really interesting thread about horse artillery logistics in the U.S. Army in World War One.

This topic closely relates to some others here about the end of the horse era. Given the exploration about horses in urban and agricultural use, this topic may be particularly interesting in the context of the topics we try to explore here.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Today In Wyoming's History: January 1. New Years Day

Here's the January first entry from the Today In Wyoming's History companion site.

Today In Wyoming's History: January 1. New Years Day: 1863 Daniel Freeman files the first homestead under the newly passed Homestead Act. The homestead was filed in Nebraska.
While the original Homestead Act provided an unsuitably small portion of land for those wishing to homestead in Wyoming, it was used here, and homesteading can be argued to be responsible for defining the modern character of the State.

As noted, the Homestead Act has had a huge, and continuing, impact on the State's history. That's probably self evident to most students of history. But it occurs to me also, for some reason, that the Homestead Act is more representative of a bygone age than perhaps we'd care to imagine.

At the time the Homestead Act was passed, in 1863, obtaining land on the cheap, indeed nearly free, had been the American rule since Jamestown. What the Homestead Act really formalized is the granting of Federal Domain in an orderly fashion, seeking to encourage people to move West. It says something about the Union that it could afford to take this step during the Civil War, which in 1863 was only at its mid point. You wouldn't think that the country would be encouraging some of its citizens to pull up stakes and move West at that time, but it did.

The Act, or rather various Homestead Acts, continued on in force until 1934. The peak year for homesteading was 1919. But even the demise of the Act in 1934 did not mean that land was unavailable.

That's really changed. It'd be difficult, if not outright impossible, for the poor or nearly poor to take up farming today. Indeed, it isn't easy for the Middle Class to do so, or at least not in a serious manner. That's an enormous change in the nature of the country.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Today In Wyoming's History: January 2. The Legendary Blizzard of 1949

Nobody who lived through it ever forgot it. Whenever my father and his contemporaries turned towards discussing the weather, it came up. The Blizzard of 1949, which started on this day, and lasted for a month in one form or another.

Today In Wyoming's History: January 2:
1949 Beginning of the Great Blizzard that struck the Northern Plains this year. In Wyoming, the storm started on this date and lasted until February 20. Snowfall in some areas measured up to 30". The storm halted all inter town transport of all kinds within the state within 24 hours. Seventeen people died as a result of the storm. 55,000 head of cattle and 105,000 head of sheep were lost.

Today In Wyoming's History: January 2. It must have been quiet, or at least different, before that.

Today In Wyoming's History: January 2: 1930 First commercial radio station in Wyoming begins operation. KDFN later became KTWO and is still in operation.

Hard to imagine an era with no radio. But Wyoming lacked a commercial radio station until 1930. This was a Central Wyoming station (or is, rather, it still exists). I'd guess Cheyenne could have picked up Denver stations by then, but in Central Wyoming, having an AM radio prior to 1930 must have been pointless.