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How geocachers navigate fear in the urban woods
Because geocaches are always hidden out of sight, players often have to behave in out-of-the-ordinary ways to reach them.
On a drizzly Saturday morning in June 2018, I found myself kneeling on the edge of a wooden boardwalk in Melbourne's northern suburbs.
My right arm was hooked over the side, fingers gathering cobwebs and dust as they probed the rough pine of the planks. I hoped for the smooth sensation of plastic or metal rather than the squish of a creepy-crawly.
I looked over at my partner on this expedition: sharkiefan, as she's known in the geocaching community, a pharmacist from New Zealand. She was sprawled on her stomach across the boardwalk, with her shoulder jammed in for maximum reach. Before I could suggest she move into a less hazardous formation, a man on a bicycle swerved and braked to avoid her outstretched legs. He shuddered to a halt, plastic poncho swirling.
“What are you after there? Flowers?" he asked. His eyes were wide behind his raindrop-covered glasses. “No," said sharkiefan, calmly rolling into a sitting position. “We're looking for geocaches."
“Oh," he said. He continued to watch as sharkiefan made a last-ditch effort for the geocache (which our GPS assured us, unconvincingly, was right there). Then he rode away, poncho flapping. With the rain starting to spatter, sharkiefan hauled herself up and decided it was a DNF (did not find)—for the moment, at least. “Besides, that guy was kinda creepy," she said. “I didn't wanna keep looking for it while he was watching us."
At the time, I was an anthropology student in Melbourne studying geocachers, or people who play geocaching. Geocaching is one of the many location-dependent digital games that have proliferated since smartphones with GPS capabilities became common in the mid-2000s. You can think of it as a kind of multiplayer treasure hunt, where players use GPS and a digital map to hide and search for containers (geocaches) filled with trinkets.
Because geocaches are always hidden out of sight, players often have to behave in out-of-the-ordinary ways to reach them. They might have to climb a tree, crawl through bushes, or flatten themselves on a boardwalk like sharkiefan and I did. The way they use public space departs sharply from social norms, without providing any obvious motives to passers-by.
When onlookers are left to fill in the blanks, they often assume some kind of deviant behavior. For instance, vividrogers, an avid creative writer and stay-at-home mom, recounted the time she had squatted under some pines to sign a cache's logbook. At that moment, a family came past. She told me sheepishly, "The mum said, 'Let's not go this way, kids,' because it looked like I was doing a wee or something."
As I did my field research, I became more and more interested in how this unusual behavior makes some geocachers appear sexually threatening and others feel sexually vulnerable—usually depending on their gender. A man ferreting in the undergrowth might notice suspicious gazes. And a woman sprawled on a boardwalk might feel uneasy when a man takes an interest in her "flower gathering."
People playing mobile locative games—like geocaching or Pokémon GO—are often perceived to inhabit a somewhat trivial world belonging to a subculture all their own. But, as my experiences highlight, they are in fact deeply entangled with the political currents of the everyday world. They, too, are impacted by the social norms and current events that establish gendered assumptions and provoke fear.
The winter sun dipped in the sky as I wrapped up an interview with Peter, a chemistry teacher in his early 40s, at a café in southeast Melbourne. After our chat, we drove our separate cars to the nearby Valley Reserve, a tranquil, densely vegetated park, where we planned to do some geocaching. It was getting dark under the trees, and only a couple of other vehicles were parked on the far side of the lot.
We pulled up next to each other and got out. As we juggled notebooks and GPSs, Peter remarked, "Shouldn't you have a chaperone? Going into a bushy park with a strange man—I don't know, if it was my daughter, I would want her to have a chaperone."
Peter's comment flustered me. I ducked my head to hide my embarrassment and frustration. Not only had he verbalized the irrational fears I'd spent the whole day trying to dismiss from my own mind, I was also more than a little disgruntled at the idea of needing a chaperone.
The previous week, the news and social media had been swamped by stories about Eurydice Dixon, a young woman who was raped and murdered by a man in a Brunswick park in north Melbourne. The statistical likelihood of experiencing such violence from a stranger in Melbourne—one of the safest cities in the world—is miniscule. But the news had piqued everyone's anxieties, and concern about the potential for violence was in the air. It was on my mind. Presumably, it was on Peter's too.
But then again, people around me had expressed similar concerns long before this awful murder had brought the issue to the fore. Before my research had even begun, my university's ethics committee had made me resubmit my application with better risk-management strategies. "As a young female student … Is it safe for the researcher to travel alone with the unknown geocacher in a park or other abandoned areas?" they wrote. Each time I left for an interview with a male participant, my parents made me text them the name of the interviewee and our meeting place. While I took reasonable precautions, I wanted to put these worries in their place. Statistically, violence was so unlikely, it seemed unfair that the fear of it could exert so much control over my life.
What surprised me about Peter's comment was that the person who appeared as the "threat" in this narrative had voiced misgivings himself. Perhaps he had been trying to diffuse any tension, as if a perpetrator wouldn't be so frank about such things. To fully disperse that tension, I should've laughed it off, saying something like, "Oh, but I'm sure you'd never do something like that!" Unfortunately, I tend to strive for accuracy more often than I strive for social harmony. What I actually said was, "Well, I suppose you have to take risks."
On that somewhat dark note, we set off.
The day after Eurydice Dixon was murdered, I was cycling to Brunswick for an interview with vividrogers. Losing my bearings, I turned up alongside an expansive park and paused to check Google Maps. Then I saw the police cordon stretched across the grass of the soccer pitch. I realized, with a visceral jolt, that I knew exactly where I was.
Vividrogers, like many of the female geocachers I spoke to, said she was unlikely to go geocaching by herself at night: "It definitely occurs to you. As a female in today's society, I probably wouldn't wander around in a dark park in the middle of the night on my own."
Rod, a truck driver and respected member of the geocaching community, often takes women on nighttime geocaching expeditions. He acts as a kind of "chaperone," to use Peter's term. He does know female geocachers who go out at night alone, but just like my parents and the ethics committee, he worries about them. "And there are grounds to worry," he said, "based on recent happenings in Melbourne."
Sharkiefan, though, isn't afraid of the dark. Rod has invited her on his night expeditions before, but she wouldn't limit herself to night-caching with a male companion. "I feel safe in the city," she said. "It doesn't mean I'd go down an alley, but you just have to be sensible."
The assumptions that make women feel vulnerable at times can, in other contexts, act in their favor. One of the things that sharkiefan loves about geocaching is that she can sneak through a park full of children and parents, rummaging under benches and peering into foliage, without anyone taking much notice. At a glance, she isn't assumed to be threatening. "Being a white girl, and being middle-aged, well, you can kinda just do what you like," she told me once over brunch. "No mums and dads give me a second look because I'm not a guy and I'm not gonna be some child molester or something." Without a partner or children beside them, lone male geocachers in parks are sometimes interpreted as gay men wanting casual sex in the toilet block, or as potential pedophiles, she explained.
Race plays into these assumptions too. But this is less noticeable in geocaching, because most players are white—in fact, a study conducted in the U.S. found that 96 percent of geocachers identified as white, a statistic that matched my own experience in Melbourne. You could even speculate that geocaching is so white precisely because prejudices like these keep people of color away from the game.
In any case, the result is that it's the men who bear the burden of suspicion. "If I was a man … men are always more …" she said. Sharkiefan couldn't find the word, so she started again. "If you were a woman and there was a man lurking around acting a little bit weird, you'd be a bit creeped out. If it's a girl, people are just like, 'Oh well, whatever.'"
I didn't start my research with such heavy topics in mind. I was more interested in how people interact with digital technology and how that technology affects the way they experience their environments. But the topic of suspicion, and the possibility of violence, kept coming up. Both for me as a researcher and for my subjects—male and female—there was a marked intersection between geocaching and gendered assumptions about threat and vulnerability in urban public spaces.
Geocachers and non-geocachers size each other up from the other side of the street, using the tools they have available to judge whether the other might be innocent or predatory. Unfortunately, these tools are incredibly blunt. Poor Peter—he is a lovely guy. I'm sure the cyclist on the boardwalk is too. Some might say we'd dressed lambs up as wolves.
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The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
- Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
- To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
COVID-19 deepens U.S. health disparities<p>Communities on the pernicious side of America's health disparities have their unique histories, environments, and social structures. They are spread across the United States, but they all have one thing in common.</p><p>"There is one common divide in American communities, and that is poverty," said <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/about/leadership/debbie-salas-lopez" target="_blank">Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH</a>, senior vice president of community and population health at Northwell Health. "That is the undercurrent that manifests poor health, poor health outcomes, or poor health prognoses for future wellbeing."</p><p>Social determinants have far-reaching effects on health, and poor communities have unfavorable social determinants. To pick one of many examples, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/27/913612554/a-crisis-within-a-crisis-food-insecurity-and-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">food insecurity</a> reduces access to quality food, leading to poor health and communal endemics of chronic medical conditions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified some of these conditions, such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as increasing the risk of developing a severe case of coronavirus.</p><p>The pandemic didn't create poverty or food insecurity, but it exacerbated both, and the results have been catastrophic. A study published this summer in the <em><a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05971-3" target="_blank">Journal of General Internal Medicine</a></em> suggested that "social factors such as income inequality may explain why some parts of the USA are hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than others."</p><p>That's not to say better-off families in the U.S. weren't harmed. A <a href="https://voxeu.org/article/poverty-inequality-and-covid-19-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper from the Centre for Economic Policy Research</a> noted that families in counties with a higher median income experienced adjustment costs associated with the pandemic—for example, lowering income-earning interactions to align with social distancing policies. However, the paper found that the costs of social distancing were much greater for poorer families, who cannot easily alter their living circumstances, which often include more individuals living in one home and a reliance on mass transit to reach work and grocery stores. They are also disproportionately represented in essential jobs, such as retail, transportation, and health care, where maintaining physical distance can be all but impossible.</p><p>The paper also cited a positive correlation between higher income inequality and higher rates of coronavirus infection. "Our interpretation is that poorer people are less able to protect themselves, which leads them to different choices—they face a steeper trade-off between their health and their economic welfare in the context of the threats posed by COVID-19," the authors wrote.</p><p>"There are so many pandemics that this pandemic has exacerbated," Dr. Salas-Lopez noted.</p><p>One example is the health-wealth gap. The mental stressors of maintaining a low socioeconomic status, especially in the face of extreme affluence, can have a physically degrading impact on health. <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/index.cfm/_api/render/file/?method=inline&fileID=123ECD96-EF81-46F6-983D2AE9A45FA354" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Writing on this gap</a>, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, notes that socioeconomic stressors can increase blood pressure, reduce insulin response, increase chronic inflammation, and impair the prefrontal cortex and other brain functions through anxiety, depression, and cognitive load. </p><p>"Thus, from the macro level of entire body systems to the micro level of individual chromosomes, poverty finds a way to produce wear and tear," Sapolsky writes. "It is outrageous that if children are born into the wrong family, they will be predisposed toward poor health by the time they start to learn the alphabet."</p>Research on the economic and mental health fallout of COVID-19 is showing two things: That unemployment is hitting <a href="https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/09/24/economic-fallout-from-covid-19-continues-to-hit-lower-income-americans-the-hardest/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">low-income and young Americans</a> most during the pandemic, potentially widening the health-wealth gap further; and that the pandemic not only exacerbates mental health stressors, but is doing so at clinically relevant levels. As <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7413844/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the authors of one review</a> wrote, the pandemic's effects on mental health is itself an international public health priority.
Working to close the health gap<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5MDk1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTYyMzQzMn0.KSFpXH7yHYrfVPtfgcxZqAHHYzCnC2bFxwSrJqBbH4I/img.jpg?width=980" id="b40e2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1b9035370ab7b02a0dc00758e494412b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Northwell Health coronavirus testing center at Greater Springfield Community Church.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>Novel coronavirus may spread and infect indiscriminately, but pre-existing conditions, environmental stressors, and a lack of access to care and resources increase the risk of infection. These social determinants make the pandemic more dangerous, and erode communities' and families' abilities to heal from health crises that pre-date the pandemic.</p><p>How do we eliminate these divides? Dr. Salas-Lopez says the first step is recognition. "We have to open our eyes to see the suffering around us," she said. "Northwell has not shied away from that."</p><p>"We are steadfast in improving health outcomes for our vulnerable and underrepresented communities that have suffered because of the prevalence of chronic disease, a problem that led to the disproportionately higher death rate among African-Americans and Latinos during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Michael Dowling, Northwell's president and CEO. "We are committed to using every tool at our disposal—as a provider of health care, employer, purchaser and investor—to combat disparities and ensure the <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/education-and-resources/community-engagement/center-for-equity-of-care" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">equity of care</a> that everyone deserves." </p><p>With the need recognized, Dr. Salas-Lopez calls for health care systems to travel upstream and be proactive in those hard-hit communities. This requires health care systems to play a strong role, but not a unilateral one. They must build <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/news/insights/faith-based-leaders-are-the-key-to-improving-community-health" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">partnerships with leaders in those communities</a> and utilize those to ensure relationships last beyond the current crisis. </p><p>"We must meet with community leaders and talk to them to get their perspective on what they believe the community needs are and should be for the future. Together, we can co-create a plan to measurably improve [community] health and also to be ready for whatever comes next," she said.</p><p>Northwell has built relationships with local faith-based and community organizations in underserved communities of color. Those partnerships enabled Northwell to test more than 65,000 people across the metro New York region. The health system also offered education on coronavirus and precautions to curb its spread.</p><p>These initiatives began the process of building trust—trust that Northwell has counted on to return to these communities to administer flu vaccines to prepare for what experts fear may be a difficult flu season.</p><p>While Northwell has begun building bridges across the divides of the New York area, much will still need to be done to cure U.S. health care overall. There is hope that the COVID pandemic will awaken us to the deep disparities in the US.</p><p>"COVID has changed our world. We have to seize this opportunity, this pandemic, this crisis to do better," Dr. Salas-Lopez said. "Provide better care. Provide better health. Be better partners. Be better community citizens. And treat each other with respect and dignity.</p><p>"We need to find ways to unify this country because we're all human beings. We're all created equal, and we believe that health is one of those important rights."</p>
What’s Eminem doing in Missouri? Kanye West in Georgia? And Wiz Khalifa in, of all places, North Dakota?
This is a mysterious map. Obviously about music, or more precisely musicians. But what’s Eminem doing in Missouri? Kanye West in Georgia? And Wiz Khalifa in, of all places, North Dakota? None of these musicians are from those states! Everyone knows that! Is this map that stupid, or just looking for a fight? Let’s pause a moment and consider our attention spans, shrinking faster than polar ice caps.
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Vegans and vegetarians often have nutrient deficiencies and lower BMI, which can increase the risk of fractures.
- The study found that vegans were 43% more likely to suffer fractures than meat eaters.
- Similar results were observed for vegetarians and fish eaters, though to a lesser extent.
- It's possible to be healthy on a vegan diet, though it takes some strategic planning to compensate for the nutrients that a plant-based diet can't easily provide.
Comparison of fracture cases by diet group
Credit: Tong et al.<p>The results showed that vegans were especially vulnerable to hip fractures, suffering 2.3 times more cases than meat-eaters. Vegetarians and pescatarians were also more likely to suffer hip fractures, though to a lesser extent.</p><p>One explanation may be that non-meat eaters consume less calcium and protein. Calcium helps the body build strong bones, particularly before age 30, after which the body begins to lose bone mineral density (though consuming enough calcium through diet or supplement can <a href="https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-Consumer/" target="_blank">help offset losses</a>). Lower bone mineral density means higher risk of fracture.</p><p>Protein seems to help the body absorb calcium, <a href="https://www.bonejoint.net/blog/did-you-know-that-certain-foods-block-calcium-absorption/#:~:text=Historically%2C%20nutritionists%20have%20warned%20that,may%20increase%20intestinal%20calcium%20absorption." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">when consumed in normal levels</a>. The recent study, along with past research, shows that people who don't eat meat tend to have lower levels of both protein and calcium. When the researchers accounted for non-meat eaters who supplemented their diets with calcium and protein, fracture risk decreased, but still remained significant.</p>
Credit: Pixabay<p>Another explanation is body mass index (BMI). Non-meat eaters tend to have a lower BMI, which is associated with higher fracture risk, particularly hip fractures. In the new study, vegans with a low BMI were especially likely to suffer hip fractures. That might be because having more body mass provides a cushioning effect when people fall.</p><p>Still, the study has some limitations. For one, White European women were overrepresented in the sample. The researchers also didn't collect precise data on the type of calcium or protein supplementation, diet quality or causes of fractures.</p><p>Another complicating factor: Producers of vegan products, such as plant-based milk, are increasingly fortifying foods with nutrients like calcium and protein, so modern vegans are potentially at lower risk of deficiency.</p><p>The researchers wrote that their findings "suggest that bone health in vegans requires further research."</p>