30 June 2011


SEXISM ON TV. My gratitude to one of my favorite blogs, The Angry Black Woman, for providing the link to a video originally posted by the Women's Media Center. Please take the time to watch -- for those of us who have been members of the second wave of feminism (from the 1960s onward), it comes as no surprise that truly ugly sexism is alive and well. What is disconcerting is that the video shows anchors and commentors from every major news network making derogatory, inflammatory, and demeaning remarks aimed at women in general, and women public figures in particular. It is truly sad to see women as well as men joining in the feeding frenzy, or politely trying to laugh it off. When are we ever going to grow up?

BACHMANN. All of which should not be confused with what follows -- my criticism of a particular politician running for president who happens to be a woman. I fault her not based on gender stereotypes, but rather on her demonstrated ignorance of the issues of the day, and of our own history. Through sheer persistent stupidity, Michele Bachmann (see image below) has proved to be an embarassment to serious women and men alike, seeking political office. During an interview with George Stephanopoulos, Bachman was given every opportunity to clarify her wildly inaccurate statements about slavery and the founding fathers, but merely stonewalled and tried to distract the audience with flowery, irrelevant platitudes in response (a typical Tea Party tactic). Here is a partial list of Bachmann remarks which seem to indicate that she is trying to out-idiot Republican luminaries like Dan Quayle, George W. Bush, or Sarah Palin.

Adding insult to injury (or perhaps adding hypocrisy to vapidity), Bachmann was caught with her and her husband's hands in the Federal till -- it seems that these paragons of cutting entitlement programs like Medicare, and retaining tax benefits for the wealthy, have themselves received unreported payments from Medicare for treatments ordered by her husband's mental health clinic. Emphasis on "unreported". What are they trying to hide?

Further muddying the waters, the clinic in question is self-described as providing "quality Christian counseling in a sensitive, loving environment." Um, whatever happened to the separation of church and state? This is not, unfortunately, unique to the Bachmanns. I contend that all Federal subsidies and tax breaks to religious institutions or operations of any denomination or faith, should cease. The resulting income from the Catholic church alone would greatly improve the Federal deficit. It is a matter of principle, one of those ethical guidelines handed down by .... you guessed it, the nation's founders. If you require documentation, you need look no further than the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

29 June 2011


HOT COFFEE. Most everyone remembers the elderly woman who sued McDonald's after being served very hot coffee, as an example of frivolous lawsuits. I just learned, however, that there is much more to the story. According to a Washington Post article and a new documentary by filmmaker Susan Saladoff, on the day in question the elderly woman was in the passenger seat of a car picking up an order at a McDonald's drive-through window. She did not realize that her coffee had been brewed to 180 degrees Farenheit. In her startled pain, she spilled the coffee into her lap, generating third-degree burns "so severe her doctors worried she might not survive." As filmmaker Saladoff notes, "Look, everybody knows coffee is hot. But nobody expects that if you're buying coffee at the drive-through and you spill it on yourself, you're going to need skin grafts." Graphic photos of the burns inflicted on the elderly woman's legs appear in the film.

Further, the plaintiff did not sue for $2.9 million -- she sued for a mere $20,000 to cover her medical costs. It was the jury who awarded the larger sum, sending a message on behalf of consumers that corporations are not immune from the consequences of their own policies if the public is harmed. The compensatory and punative award was subsequently reduced to $640,000 by the presiding judge.

Saladoff's documentary, Hot Coffee, evolved from a short feature to a full-length documentary which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and is slated for airing on HBO.

DEFICIT REDUCTION. It's about time that someone in Washington grew a pair in standing up to Republican obstructionists. Conservatives have been petulantly stubborn in insisting that "any deficit reduction be limited to spending cuts, including reductions in benefit programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, and exclude additional revenues." In other words, the same old tired refrain of screwing the non-wealthy, while maintaining opulent tax breaks for the wealthy and for the large corporations which effectively dictate what happens on Capitol Hill.

Finally, however, "in a blunt challenge to Republicans in Congress, President Barack Obama insisted Wednesday that limiting selected tax breaks for oil companies and the super-wealthy must be part of any deficit reduction plan .... Obama said both parties must be prepared to 'take on their sacred cows' as part of the deficit-reduction negotiations." (Click on the link to watch the video of Obama's remarks.)

It is remarkable to me that regardless whether or not Republicans hold a majority in Congress, they are able to bully and stonewall and bluster until they (usually) get their way. Democrats tend to be more principled in representing the rights and needs of the electorate, but also more timid in doing so. All of which reinforces my long-held opinion that by and large, Republicans are corrupt, and Democrats are inept. One hopes that the leadership of a President who is well-schooled in the arts of compromise and negotiation will lead to a deal with which no one will be entirely happy, but everyone can live with. That's our best hope, given the vacuous myopia of voters who insist on electing conservatives who are in the pockets of corporations, and increasingly, the radical fringe Tea Party loonies who just want to wreck everything for the sake of seeing it all come down.

28 June 2011


OH, FOR FOX SAKE. The Huffington Post reports on the latest salvos in the ongoing public feud between satirist Jon Stewart and conservative-bastion-of-reactionary-rhetoric-masquerading-as-journalism Faux News -- a debate which Stewart has dominated by any measure, be it factual accuracy, perceptual acuity, or humor. Specifically, Steward recently entered the lion's den by agreeing to be interviewed by Chris Wallace, and the ripple effects of that encounter continue to spread. Most recently, on his Daily Show, Stewart accurately observed that for Fox, "any editorial view that doesn't favor conservatism is elitist, but favoring conservatism is justified because it needs to be protected against liberal biases. If you question this logic, it only proves how right they are." To view the most recent hilarious video segment, simply click here.

SHYNESS. At the opposite end of the social spectrum, Susan Cain in the NYTimes poses the question -- Is Shyness an Evolutionary Tactic? Cain is careful to distinguish between introversion (a trait shown by at least 20 percent of the population) and social anxiety disorder, which is more severe and debilitating. Her analysis focuses on shyness and introversion, which is found in equal proportions in animal populations. By way of perspective, extroverts tend to be "relaxed and exploratory, make friends and take risks, both rewarding and dangerous ones .... extroverts are more likely than introverts to be hospitalized as a result of an injury, have affairs (men), and change relationships (women).

"In contrast, introverts are careful and astute, and tend to learn by observing rather than by acting .... Introverts, who tend to digest information thoroughly, stay on task, and work accurately, earn disproportionate numbers of National Merit Scholarship finalist positions and Phi Beta Kappa keys .... many of the most creative people in a range of fields are introverts who are comfortable working in solitary conditions in which they can focus attention inward .... Another advantage introverts bring to leadership is a willingness to listen to and implement other people's ideas .... The act of treating shyness as an illness obscures the value of that temperament. Ridding people of social unease need not involve pathologizing their fundamental nature, but rather urging them to use its gifts."

I would only take issue with the concept of "fundamental nature". To be sure, each of us is predisposed to a position in the continuum between extroversion and introversion. But that position is dynamic, changing over time depending on age, experience, choice, and circumstance. There are inherent advantages to either disposition. It seems to me that the best-adapted person is one who is able to shift from one to the other, as the situation and one's mood warrants.

27 June 2011


TOXIC LEADERS. As reported in the Washington Post, a survey of 22,000 Army leaders conducted by the Center for Army Leadership found that "more than 80 percent of Army officers and sergeants (NCOs) had directly observed a 'toxic' leader in the last year, and that about 20 percent of the respondents said that they had worked directly for one .... The Army defined toxic leaders as commanders who put their own needs first, micro-managed subordinates, behaved in a mean-spirited manner, or displayed poor decision making. About half of the soldiers who worked under toxic leaders expected that their selfish and abusive commanders would be promoted to a higher level of leadership. This may create a self-perpetuating cycle with harmful effects on morale, productivity, and retention of quality personnel. There is no indication that the toxic leadership issue will correct itself."

This comes as no surprise to anyone who has served in the military. Officers and NCOs tend to come in two flavors -- those who perform their duty with quality, taking the welfare of the men and women under their command seriously; and those who perform their duty perfunctorily, with an eye toward advancing their own military careers at any cost. Every subordinate in every war has known toxic leaders. They are the inept, insecure commanders who rely on the skills and abilities of those beneath them, rather than cultivating their own expertise. What is surprising to this Vietnam veteran is that the military is actually, finally addressing the issue. One obvious facet of the solution, as described in the article, is to factor subordinates' views into the evaluations of commanders being considered for higher-level posts. To do so would dampen the impulse toward arbitrary behavior based on power, and encourage the impulse toward rational behavior based on the larger tactical, strategic, and personnel picture -- even for those bent on furthering their careers.

In wondering about the timing of this study, I realized that the military may finally be coming to terms with the fact that their mission has changed. World War II was the last conventional war fought by U.S. forces. In ever war or engagement since, from Vietnam to Panama, Somalia to Iraq and Afghanistan, the field of battle has shifted from conventional warfare to guerilla warfare or counterinsurgency. Among those who are on the front lines, this is not news. But for those calcified, entrenched Cold Warriors who make up the bulk of higher command (including the Pentagon and many legislators who oversee military budgets), this shift has not yet sunk in. Hence, there is a widening generational disconnect between older commanders and younger ones, as well as between toxic leaders and righteous leaders.

A number of excellent books and films exist which present the new reality forcefully. Among them are Generation Kill by Evan Wright (made into an HBO miniseries), Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton, and most recently, Kaboom: Embracing the Suck In A Savage Little War by Matt Gallagher (a book partially based on the former Army scout captain's popular and suppressed blog). Speaking to the issue of commanders' mentality being stuck in conventional warfare, Gallagher writes, "Many junior officers, myself included, agree wholeheartedly with the general's premise that a generation gap existed within the officer corps, although our perception of it differed considerably. After spending most of our deployments at combat outposts with our soldiers, we tended to identify and think like our men more than our superiors probably wanted. Such seemed impossible to avoid, though, especially when said superiors showed up in too-clean uniforms, criticized trivial things, like soldiers not shaving enough or not wearing a full uniform while they walked to the shower, and then drove back to the FOB [Forward Operating Base] in time for dinner. We fought a war. All too often, it seemed like they avoided it.

" .... Not all of our visitors behaved like that, of course, but enough did to create the stereotype. The good spoke glowingly in public, and if they saw something they wanted corrected, pulled one of the leaders at the outpost aside. The bad criticized in public, talked rather than listened, and never once realized they were treading in someone else's house.

" .... While the general believed junior officers lacked discipline and openly feared for the future of 'his' army and 'his' officer corps, we in turn believed that the current institutional establishment lacked the creativity and ingenuity necessary to wage a successful counterinsurgency. The very top of the flag pole implored us to remain flexible and celebrated the innovative, different manner with which we approached problem sets. We were recruited and trained to make quick decisions on the ground, so that's what we did when we arrived in combat. After the first four years of war, it seemed overwhelmingly clear that approaching Iraq from a conventional mindset only led to calamity."

It is unlikely that conflicts anywhere in the world will return to conventional warfare anytime soon. Urban warfare and counterinsurgency are likely to be the most frequent form of armed conflict for years to come. In this environment, we need political and military leaders who are flexible, creative, and perceptive -- whose focus is on the mission, not on their own careers. Further, we need leaders who will not commit our military to unjust conflicts, or to conflicts intended to gain control over resources or territory which are not ours. If we wish other nations to conduct themselves ethically, we must lead by example.

NOTE: The concept of toxic leadership, although presented here in a military context, clearly applies across the board -- in academia, in corporations, in any workplace or any setting in which one person has power or influence over another.

POLITIFACT. I've discovered a wonderful online resource for ferreting out truth and accuracy, or their opposites, as mouthed by political leaders and those who aspire to high office. The website Politifact devotes itself to separating fact from fiction, holding to the fire the feet of those who get carried away with their own rhetoric, regardless of their party affiliation. Each entry is accompanied by a graphic Truth-o-meter, with values ranging from honest to pant-on-fire false. Whether you want to fact-check a regional politician, a Presidential candidate, or the President himself, Politifact is a most useful tool in separating the wheat from the chaff.

CONROY. Yesterday's post was devoted to quotes from Pat Conroy's novel Beach Music. As a followup, I offer this link to a famous letter which Conroy wrote to the editor of the Charleston Gazette, addressing teachers, censorship, and banned books. In the eyes of this lifelong reader, the only act more vile than banning a book is burning one. Conroy's defense of English teachers, of academic freedom, and the freedom to read and learn from any source, is nothing short of inspirational. It should be required reading for every school board, every librarian, every legislator who would limit or remove our civil liberties, control our thoughts, or in any way deprive us of the ideas of others .... however much those ideas may differ from our own.

26 June 2011


I'm taking a day off from social, science, and arts commentary to share a few passages from the 1995 novel Beach Music, written by one of my favorite authors, Pat Conroy. The story is set partly in Rome, but mostly in South Carolina's low country, the broad coastal plain which parallels the Atlantic Ocean. Conroy's writing is stunning, passionate, and wide-ranging as he deals with "picking away at life's wounds with a sharp wit." Having spent a year living in Charleston, SC, I readily identify with the narrator's sometimes-conflicted love affair with the terrain, the climate, and the culture of that sensous place. Here, in no particular order, are a few of my favorite passages from Beach Music ~

~ Her beauty had made her unaproachable, apart. She was one of those girls who pass through your life leaving secret wreckage, but no visible wake. You remember her, but for all the wrong reasons.

~ I didn't know that everything you do is dangerous -- everything -- the smallest, most inconsequential act can be the thing that brings you crashing to earth .... You're not supposed to see the signs. They're invisible and odorless and don't leave tracks. You don't even feel them until you find yourself on your knees weeping over their unbearable weight.

~ Paranoia has a sharper taste if the danger is real.

~ I'm romantic about people. I've got real self-control when it comes to rocks.

~ The mirror used to be my best friend. Now it is an assassin.

~ I'm an American and a free man and I was born into a democratic society and there's no goddamn law in the world that says I have to have a fucking thing to do with my weird-ass family.

~ The shinier, silk-tender air came streaming over me with each mile we traveled and I could smell my own boyhood sneaking up in a slow, purloined dream as I closed my eyes and let the chemistry of time allow me to repossess those chased-off, ghostly scents of my lost youth .... Because even beauty has its limits, I shall always remain a prisoner of war to this fragrant, voluptuous latitude of the planet, fringed with palms and green marshes running beside rivers for thirty miles at a time, and emptying out on low-lying archipelagoes running north and south along the coast of the Atlantic's grand appearance. The low country had laid its imprint on me like the head of some ancient king incised on a coin of pressed copper. The whole earth smelled as though a fleet of shrimp boats had returned from a day's work on tides of rosewater and eelgrass.

~ Life wounds me in the places only hope can reach.

~ Stories don't have to be true. They just have to help.

~ "It's dangerous to write about what you don't know," I said. Ledare got up to go and said, "It's dangerous not to."

~ You think you know what to look out for in life. You think your childhood teaches you all the traps you need to worry about. But that's not how it works. Pain doesn't travel in straight lines. It circles back around and comes up behind you. It's the circles that kill you.

~ Something terrible happens in everybody's life. Something out of the ordinary. I'm trying to raise you to be light on your feet. To be on your toes at all times, ready for the unexpected. You won't be able to prepare for it. It'll always take you by surprise.

~ The Vietnam War would be the only foreign war ever fought on American soil. All were free to choose sides. Bystanders were ridiculed and not tolerated. There were no survivors in the sixties, only casualties and prisoners of war and veterans who cried out in the dark.

~ [On dying:] You weep at the loss of so beautiful a world and all those parts you will never be able to play again. The dark takes on different meaning. Your body has begun to prepare you for the last completion, for the peace and generosity of silence.

~ "You ever touch me," Shyla said, "you'll be reading about yourself when they interview eunichs."

~ Same tribe. Both of them so full of love it causes an imbalance. They fall over with the unbearable weight of it. The fall becomes what they do best. They grow accustomed to great odds. Love floods them, overwhelms them, and makes them impossible to be around. They need love in equal proportion to what they throw off. Everyone disappoints them. Eventually, they die of the cold. They can never find the right angel.

~ Rome had taught me that beauty alone was sometimes enough; it had sheltered and nursed me and put me back on course .... I realized that words were sometimes nothing more than notes you wrote to your deepest self as you fought to articulate the splendor and the magic and the ineluctable sense of loss that you felt in the swift, disturbing hours.

Note: lest the above quotes lead you think that Beach Music is dark and weighty, please know that in some passages it is. But it is also a story of self-discovery, of reconnection to lost love, of passion, ambiguity, fear, pain and hope, painted with deft brush strokes in colors that will leave you breathless.

25 June 2011


BOYCOTT DELTA. One of the few surviving major air carriers in the U.S., Delta Airlines, is in deep doo-doo. According to a Huffington Post report, "Jews and Israelis, or passengers carrying any non-Islamic article of faith, will not be able to fly code-shared flights from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia under Delta Airline's new partnership with Saudi Arabian Airlines .... Saudi Arabia, which is governed by strict Islamic law, requires citizens of almost every country to obtain a visa. People who wish to enter the country must have a sponsor. Women, who must be dressed according to Saudi standards of modesty, must be met at the Saudi airport by a man who will act as a chaperone.

"Saudi Arabia bans anyone with an Israeli stamp in their passport from entering the country, even in transit. May Jews believe the kingdom has also withheld visas from travelers with Jewish-sounding names. Religious items such as Bibles that are not related to Islam may be confiscated at the airport."

Among reactions to the announcement are the following ~

"The very idea that there is a common carrier airline service that would deny an American citizen in America access to their services because they are Jewish or have religious items such as a yarmulke, a cross, or a priestly collar, is deeply disturbing."

"Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, should be strongly condemned for its despicable discrimination against Jews. For an American company, our nation's values should trump narrow business interests. Delta should be the first to reject Saudi airlines as a Sky Team member."

To date, Delta Airlines statements have been formulaic, in effect shrugging their corporate shoulders as if to say, "What can we do? Business is business." Which is precisely the problem. Even recognizing that the globalization of commerce, travel and even government is the inevitable next step in our social evolution, common sense suggests that Delta's narow focus on profit (and make no mistake, if they weren't realizing a magnificent profit from this partnership, they wouldn't be in it) is blinding the company's executives and stockholders to broader issues of human rights and dignity. It is an unfortunate truth that the U.S., which is largely run by Wall Street, has for decades supported, defended, and catered to vile national leaderships ranging from banana republic dictators to oil-rich kingdoms. Our national interest on the surface is about democracy, freedom, and national security, but at its foundation the national interest is about money, territory, hegemony, and natural resources. Period. Delta Airlines' licking the slippers of Saudi royalty is just one more manifestation of that sad reality.

Which is not to say that we should simply sit back and do nothing. An international boycott of Delta Airlines is entirely called for .... as is a national furor demanding that government regulators and the legislators who control them be held accountable for approving this mess in the first place. Was everyone asleep at the switch, or did they simply think that no one would notice? More likely, the gears of commerce and politics were lubricated by generous doses of monetary gain for all concerned -- except for the traveling public, that is.

MASTURBATION. Now that I have your attention, I would like to direct your eyes to The Scientific Case for Masturbation, an entirely serious explanation for how self-pleasure came about, and the evolutionary advantages it confers (the rants of religious fundamentalists notwithstanding). "The science is straightforward. Whenever a behavior is common in the animal kingdom, biologists suspect it has an adaptive function. That is, the behavior enabled individual animals to survive better and leave more offspring than animals that did not engage in the behavior. As a result, genes for the behavior spread throughout that population until it became essentially ubiquitous. And so it is with autoeroticism, which is common -- really common.

" .... What then, might be its adaptive function? How can autoeroticism help animals triumph in the war of survival of the fittest? Lucky for us, scientists have been pondering this. There are four basic theories, each with support in one or another animal species ~

"1. Masturbation might remove old, worn-out, broken sperm from the reproductive tract. That would increase the fraction of healthy, speedy sperm, improving a male's chances of becoming a father ....

"2. Masturbation might be a form of advertising. According to this idea, males that engage in autoeroticism signal to possible mates as well as to competitors how much they have to offer ....

"3. Masturbation might be a form of victory lap. Some animals masturbate after they mate. Since other members of a group know this, then masturbation signifies that the male engaging in this behavior was the chosen partner of other females ....

"4. Masturbation can serve a hygiene function. According to this idea, males engage in autoeroticism because it cleans the reproductive tract and reduces the chance of acquiring a sexually transmitted disease from a female that he mated with and who had other recent partners. Result: a lower incidence of STDs, better sexual hygiene, more mating, more babies."

But what about female masturbation? The report says little, other than that observations in the wild are rare except among bonobos (who are our closest and randiest primate relatives). I have to confess that I'm not entirely persuaded by any of the proferred explanations. I suspect that there are other adaptive advantages to self-pleasure which no one has thought of, yet. And please note that the above discussion applies to the non-human animal world only. Although we are assuredly members of the animal kingdom, our large brains and social evolution has carried us into experiential realms which other creatures cannot begin to fathom. Removing old sperm, advertising, a victory lap, a hygiene function .... any combination of these may apply, but they don't tell the entire story. I would suggest that, like exercising any other muscle, perhaps we pleasure ourselves because it provides a form of physical and emotional release, and because (like personal grooming) it just feels good. Other suggestions are welcome -- simply click on "comments" below.

24 June 2011


HARD COPY BOOKS. Found in today's Huffington Post: In The Age Of Distraction, We Need One Thing More Than Ever: Books. Johann Hari eloquently describes our increasing obsession with electronic devices (e-book readers, smart phones, laptop computers, Tweeting and instant messaging and Facebooking), and how these playful, hypnotic toys limit our thinking. Here's a partial exerpt ~

"The book -- the physical paper book -- is being circled by a shoal of sharks, with sales down 9 percent this year alone. It's being chewed by the e-book. It's being gored by the death of the bookshop and the library. And most importantly, the mental space it occupied is being eroded by the thousands of Weapons of Mass Destruction that surround us all. It's hard to admit, but we all sense it: it is becoming almost physically harder to read books.

" .... here's the function that the book -- the paper book that doesn't beep or flash or link or let you watch a thousand videos at once -- does for you that nothing else will. It gives you the capacity for deep, linear concentration. As [David] Ulin puts it, 'Reading is an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction .... It requires us to pace ourselves. It returns us to a reckoning with time. In the midst of a book, we have no choice but to be patient, to take each thing in its moment, to let the narrative prevail. We regain the world by withdrawing from it just a little, by stepping back from the noise.'

"A book has a different relationship to time from a TV show or a Facebook update. It says that something was worth taking from the endless torrent of data and laying down on an object that will still look the same a hundred years from now .... That's why we need books, and why I believe they will survive. Because most humans have a desire to engage in deep thought and deep concentration. Most humans don't just want mental snacks forever; they also want meals. The twenty hours it takes to read a book requires a sustained concentration it's hard to get anywhere else .... With any book, you are the co-creator, imagining it as you go. As Kurt Vonnegut put it, literature is the only art form in which the audience plays the score.

" .... T.S. Eliot called books 'the still point of the turning world.' He was right. It turns out, in the age of super-speed broadband we need dead trees to make living minds."

To which I add, bravo. Computers, movies, television (notably PBS), and perhaps someday e-books, occupy a useful place in my life. But nothing, nothing comes close to the intimacy, the engaged imagination, the feel and weight and smell of a good book. Losing oneself in a well-written novel, or an engaging biography, or an evocative work of history, is finding oneself again. Which is why the act of writing has become an interest bordering on obsession. Becoming the creator who eases others into the realms of their own imaginations -- what could be finer?

HAND HACKING. Want to play a musical instrument? Don't care to devote the time and concentration and discipline to practice all those tedious exercises and drills to develop your music reading skills and hand-eye coordination? Voila! Enter PossessedHand (thanks to Andrea Kuszewski for the link), a device which electrically stimulates the muscles in the forearm that move your fingers. With the aid of programming linked to musical scores, developers of the device claim that "it could help novice players by teaching them the correct finger movements."

Perhaps so, perhaps not. Over the years I've learned to play a number of musical instruments (with wildly varying degrees of expertise) -- French horn, keyboards, dulcimer, djembe, and classical guitar (see image below, click to enlarge). The latter instrument comes closest in appearance and function to the koto, the Japanese instrument for which PossessedHand was initially developed. Classical guitar requires intense focus and many hours of practice under the guidance of a master instructor to attain even modest skill. (My instructor, John Torrejon, was a student of Angel Romero, who in turn was a student of the legendary Andres Segovia.) As with reading a book, playing classical guitar requires imagination and focus over time, and provides physical, emotional, and spiritual rewards for which (in my never-to-be-humble opinion) electronic shortcuts will never substitute.

Koto players who have used the device describe the experience as "I felt like my body was being hacked." A musicologist points out that "there is a big difference between learning to play one song and being a competent musician." I would only add that for me, the satisfaction of being able to play Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata (transcribed for classical guitar) or Francisco Tarrega's Recuerdos de la Alhambra would be cheapened by having electrodes teaching me the movements. It is that most versatile instrument of all, the human brain, which provides the tools for learning complex skill/art, and also provides the deepest satisfaction in the achievement attained. Can you imagine truly learning to drive a car if a computer were manipulating the steering wheel, the brake and accelerator and clutch pedals, the gear shift, and your hands were merely following the motions? I thought not.

23 June 2011


RISING SEAS. According to a new study that offers the most detailed look yet at the changes in ocean levels during the past 2100 years, "researchers found that sea level was relatively stable from 100 B.C. to A.D. 950. Then, during a warm climate period in the 11th century, sea level rose by about half a millimeter per year for 400 years. That was followed by a second period of stable sea level associated with a cooling period, known as the Little Ice Age, which persisted until the late 19th century .... The researchers found that since the late 19th century -- as the world became more industrialized -- sea level has risen more than 2 millimeters per year, on average. That's a bit less than one-tenth of an inch, but it adds up over time. It will lead to land loss, more flooding, and salt water invading bodies of fresh water .... Rising sea levels are among the hazards that concern environmentalists and governments with increasing global temperatures caused by greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels.

" .... Although melting icebergs floating on the sea won't change sea level, there are millions of tons of ice piled up on land in Greenland, Antarctica, and elsewhere. Melting that ice would have a major impact by raising sea levels. The result could include flooding in highly populated coastal cities and greater storm damage in oceanfront communities .... Two co-authors calculated in an earlier paper that sea level could rise between 30 and 75 inches by the end of this century." Others suggest it might rise even faster.

These results are, of course, not new, but they do confirm in detail what others have predicted. To understand visually the effects of rising sea level, here is an interactive tool, a world map which you can center on a coastal area of interest (say, the San Francisco Bay area, Bangladesh, New Orleans, the Netherlands, or the mouth of the Amazon River in Brazil), then choose a sea level rise and watch the projected flooding.

QUANTUM WOO. You learn something new every day (hopefully). Yesterday I found a website called RationalWiki, whose stated purposes are to "analyze and refute pseudoscience and the anti-science movement, document the full range of crank ideas, explore authoritarianism and fundamentalism, and analyze and criticize how those subjects are handled in the media." Cool. The particular link which led me to RationalWiki was a reference to Quantum Woo, which I learned is "a phenomenon where many irrational beliefs are justified by an obfuscatory reference to quantum physics." Who knew? The smoke-and-mirrors tactic is consistent with political conservatives who, when faced by irrefutable facts, seek to distract their opponents and the public with ad hominem attacks and/or a blizzard of unrelated (and usually false) factoids, then wave the flag to suggest that anyone who disagrees is not patriotic. Sound familiar. Now we have a generic term for such behavior -- quantum woo. Heh.

22 June 2011


CARIN BONDAR. My gratitude to Andrea Kuszewski for her Facebook post promoting biologist Dr. Carin Bondar, whose eponymous indie blog is a delight to explore. Carin has written, networked, and published extensively, and she is an informed, clever, and articulate advocate for the environment. Her book, The Nature of Human Nature, is available both through her website (personalized and signed), and also may be ordered through major bookstores. I invite you to visit the blog link above -- you're in for a treat !

DEATH ROW. Imagine the burden on families if a funeral for a deceased loved one cost $308 million. That is precisely the burden on California taxpayers for each of the 13 executions carried out since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. I've long struggled with the ethics of capital punishment. From a moral standpoint, it seems that we as a society lower ourselves to the level of the criminals we execute. From a practical (read fiscal) standpoint, $308 million exceeds by a factor of 20 the cost of incarcerating someone who is an irredeemable danger to society. From the standpoint of justice, where is the fairness of letting a murderer live, after having taken the life of another human being, perhaps multiple other human beings? From the standpoint of the offender, is it not possible (assuming a justice system built around true rehabilitation, which we do not now have, nor have we ever) for an offender to come to understand the wrong committed, and to make restitution to society and the families involved without the loss of yet another life?

I don't claim to have a coherent answer. I know that if anyone murdered someone I love, I would gladly throw the switch that would end his/her life. But that's why we have laws and courts and juries -- the victims of crimes, while they must be accorded justice, are not in a dispassionate emotional state to decide the fate of the accused with any degree of objectivity. Still, isn't something horribly amiss when the appeals process drags on for decades, and when the actual execution of a convicted felon involves attorneys' fees, heightened security, and an elaborate and loathsome method of execution whose financial cost is so exorbitant? Just asking.

AVIAN ARCHITECTURE. Quite by accident I came across a NYTimes book review of Peter Goodfellow's Avian Architecture: How Birds Design, Engineer and Build. Each chapter in the book covers a different type of nest, as well as step-by-step construction sequences and over 300 color images of the nests of over 100 bird species worldwide. The sheer variety of birds' nests, adapted to the specific needs of size, access, and protection in a range of environments, provides unstated yet eloquent evidence of the presence of evolutionary adaptation. From the scrape nests of piping plovers to the excavated hole nests of red-cockaded woodpeckers, from the little-fingernail-sized cup of a hummingbird nest to the 6-to-10-foot tall avian skyscrapers of bald eagles, from the aquatic nests of grebes to the intricately-woven enclosures of cape weavers (see image below, click to enlarge), the homes of our winged cousins make many human structures look awkward and ungainly by comparison.

21 June 2011


SOCIAL SECURITY. In his provocative, persuasive piece in the NYTimes, Thomas Geoghegan proposes that we Get Radical: Raise Social Security. The social welfare and social insurance safety net for older or disabled citizens is a perennial target for attack by Republicans, who view any government expenditure aimed at the health, education or welfare of ordinary people as a waste of funding -- never mind that it is we, the people, who finance government in the first place. Democrats have been deafening in their meek silence when it comes to promoting spending which actually benefits taxpayers. In the case of Social Security, the best one hears is the suggestion to "save" it.

As Geoghegan correctly points out, "Right now Social Security pays out 39 percent of the average worker's preretirement earnings. We could raise that to 50 percent. We'd still be near the bottom of the league of the world's richest countries -- but at least it would be a basement with some food and air. We have elderly people living on less than $10,000 a year. Is that what Democrats want to 'save'?"

Geoghegan goes on to pinpoint exactly how that extra 11 percent would be financed, in ways that would not significantly impact existing programs or raise taxes. It is a compelling argument. He further notes that "34 percent of Americans have nothing saved for retirement -- not even a hundred bucks .... Retirees today are shortchanged on Social Security because they have been shortchanged on wages all their lives. The hourly earnings of workers dropped by 8 percent from 1973 to 2005 while productivity shot up 55 percent or more. The United States is one of the few developed countries where workers are routinely cheated of a share in higher productivity. And where has the money from the extra productivity gone? It's gone right to the top, to the top few percent. If wages had been paid fairly based on productivity, there would have been enough money subject to the payroll tax to avoid even a modest shortfall."

I happen to be one of those who barely stays afloat financially, with Social Security Disability my only source of income. The real Catch-22? If I were able to generate a supplemental source of income, my SSD benefits would be automatically decreased by that amount. One of the many devious penalties for being an American citizen.

HUFFPOST. The Huffington Post is one of my go-to sources for news and information that often doesn't make it into the cookie-cutter mainstream media. The website is rich with interest and detail, on topics both sober and whimsical. The website's header tabs illustrate -- Front Page, Politics, Business, Entertainment, Media, Tech, Comedy, Style, World, Food, Healthy Living, Impact, More, Local. An image of Ariana Huffington may be viewed below. Here is a representative sampling, culled from yesterday's HuffPost collage of articles. Enjoy.

~ Keith Olbermann 'Countdown' Returns on Current TV -- and about time, too. The outspoken and eloquent Olbermann left MSNBC in January, and American lost one of only two or three liberal commentors (another being Rachel Maddow) standing up to the floodtide of vapid and virulent conservative airheads on talk radio. Be sure to click on the video link for Olbermann's brief Special Comment, defining the direction of his new show.

~ State of the Ocean: 'Shocking' Report Warns of Mass Extinctions from Current Rate of Marine Distress. This is not mere hyperbole. The report comes from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO), the "first ever interdisciplinary international workshop examining the combined impact of all the stressors currently affecting the oceans, including pollution, warming, acidification, overfishing, and hypoxia." The world ocean is the ultimate source of life on the planet, and its composition is reflected in our very blood. It acts as a buffer and distributor for heat, carbon dioxide, and many other cycles which support this garden planet. As go the oceans, so go we.

~ Miss USA 2011 One of Only Two Contestants who Believe in Evolution. Even though such contests are fluff, could there be a more revealing commentary on the pathetic state of understanding of science among the population at large? Here too, clicking on the videos is instructive as the contestants explain their views (or lack thereof) on evolution.

~ LensCrafters Settles Female-on-Male Sexual Harrassment Case. Yes, it does happen, and no, it is no more welcome than a male supervisor or coworker hitting on a female associate. It's called unprofessional behavior, and besides, flings with coworkers always turn ugly when the affair goes south and you're still stuck with seeing the person every day. Why ask for trouble?

~ Why Not Give 'The Onion' a Pulitzer? Indeed. Satire is a perfectly acceptable form of journalism or literature -- Mark Twain would surely have received a Pulitzer, had the prize existed during his lifetime. Since 1988 The Onion has entertained, informed, and investigated alongside the best news organizations in the business. Why not?

~ Supreme Court Sides with Walmart in Sex Bias Case. What a bitter commentary on the radical conservatism now prevalent in the US Supreme Court. Appointments are for life, and the timing of appointments usually coincides with the death of an aged Justice -- so if you're a Republican President during whose term in office several Supreme Court Justices die or leave office, you can pack the Court with those who conform to your ideology. And if you're a Democratic President during whose term few if any Justices die or leave, you're S.O.L. This decision bodes ill for the future of class-action lawsuits, and bodes extremely well for the mega-corporations who are truly in charge of this country.

~ Christian Faith Requires Accepting Evolution. You may ask (especially if you are an evangelical Christian), "really?" Yes, really. "No amount of talk about 'worldviews' and 'presuppositions' can change a simple fact: creationism has failed to provide an alternative explanation to the vast majority of evidence supplied by evolution. The author, who was raised evangelical and graduated from a seminary, lists example after example proving that anti-evolutionists, far from defending the Christian tradition, are abandoning it.

20 June 2011


RESPECTFUL TEACHING. As a former teacher and life-long learner, I found Emily Finke's Science Communication, Museums, and Teaching with Respect to be a breath of fresh air. Finke is a regular contributer to the science blog This View of Life, and in this entry talks about the contrast between science communicators and museum educators/researchers who interact from the unfortunate assumption "that not only does everybody know the basic ideas of our field, but that everybody should know the basic ideas of our field, no excuses" .... or, on the other hand, science communicators and educators/researchers who recognize the wide range of experience (or lack of experience) both among other faculty, and also among the visiting public, and view that variation as a golden opportunity to "stop and think carefully through your information to make sure that you're correctly communicating a concept. If you act condescendingly because they don't know the information, they're going to immediately call you on it and then tell you something you don't know about their field that makes you look equally ignorant. You may have a different background, but both your knowledge sets are equally worthy of respect."

Interacting with respect pays huge dividends, and should be the lingua franca in all disciplines, most especially among the sciences (from which so many people feel isolated). For all my adult life, I've been an enthusiastic explorer of many disciplines, many topics. In both learning and teaching, the process of discovery and sharing is much more effective and more fun if conducted with respect and enthusiasm, as opposed to the old pedagogical model of an expert instructor deigning to illuminate the unenlightened masses with his/her wisdom from a great height.

Increasingly, there exists a variety of venues for exploration and discovery. Among them is the social network Facebook, a gold mine for sharing science with a wide audience. Among my favorite commentors on FB are Andrea Kuszewski and Hank Campbell, both of whom freely share web links, information, discoveries, and other resources. I try in my small way to emulate their more accomplished involvement in this forum, alongside my airing of political views and snippets of awe at the richness of our universe. Speaking of which ~~

JON STEWART. The political satirist and media critic recently appeared in a very frank exchange with Chris Wallace, to discuss Stewart's frequent criticisms of Wallace's parent TV network Fox, and particularly his characterization of Fox News as being "a biased organization relentlessly promoting an ideological agenda under the rubric of being a news organization," as well as being "a relentless agenda-driven 24-hour news opinion propaganda delivery system." (A fair and even understated description, in my view, but never mind that.) What is remarkable about the interview is Stewart's composure, his command of facts and the larger picture, and the tone of amiable opposition between the two men. Though they differ in their opinions, and express them forcefully, neither Stewart nor Wallace descends into the familiar pit of name-calling or ad hominem attacks so prevalent on Faux News. Altogether a class act, and a delight to watch.

HUBBLE. Finally, here is a brief, captivating video describing what the Hubble Space Telescope discovered when its view was directed at small, seemingly black and vacant regions of deep space, the ultra-deep field (click on image below to enlarge). It turns out that even the darkest and most distant patches of the night sky are densely populated with thousands of previously unknown galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of stars, 13 billion light years away. The video is an excellent example of respectful and informative teaching, permeated with awe.

19 June 2011


FATHERS DAY. Yes, I intentionally left of the apostrophe, since there is disagreement whether "father's day" (singular) or "fathers' day" (plural) is to be preferred. My choice is hopefully unambiguous -- a day celebrating all fathers, grandfathers, fathers-to-be, and significant males in the lives of children or young people. I've been all of the above, and am here to tell you that the experience of parenting is the most daunting and most rewarding of life's gifts. I was surprised to learn that so many countries around the world observe a day which recognizes "fatherhood, paternal bonds, and the influence of fathers in society." If you'd like a peek at the list of countries, click here. Cheers to us all.

If you are of a certain age, regardless of your gender or parental status, you may find this article of interest. "Gray hair is, along with premature balding, one of the greatest fears of image-conscious men and women everywhere, but it may soon be a thing of the past. Scientists at the Ito Lab at New York University's Langone Medical Center have identified the proteins that cause gray hair, which could lead to an eventual cure." I'm not certain that the word "cure" is appropriate, since gray hair is hardly a disease. (And there are many, myself included, who prefer the look of our naturally graying hair -- my feeling is that I earned every one of them.) Still, for those who would like a younger look and don't want to mess with hair coloring, this research offers hope of another path.

CLIMATE VIDEO. I know, I know, some feel that the topic has been beaten half to death. But it's not going away just because we ignore it -- quite the opposite. As the intro to The Most Powerful Climate Video You'll See All Week explains, "Bill McKibben published a must-read op-ed in The Washington Post last month about the connection between climate change and recent extreme weather events. Now Stephen Thompson has combined McKibben's words with striking footage of the events he's talking about." McKibben's commentary is factual and laced with a bit of dry irony, entirely in keeping with the head-in-the-sand stances of many policy makers and much of the public. I invite you to view the video, and see whether you find it persuasive.

18 June 2011


BEST PLACE ON EARTH. A highly subjective claim, no? Maybe not. The PBS Newshour earlier this week introduced an online tool which allows you to rate 34 countries along 11 quality-of-life dimensions (each on a scale of 1 to 5), then presents you with how those countries rank according to your own priorities. You can arrange the countries alphabetically or by numerical rank, using the small-print prompts at bottom right of the chart. It is an eye-opening exercise. I discovered that by my criteria for quality of life, the top four countries on my list were Australia, Sweden, Denmark, and New Zealand, with the U.S. a distant 7th. (I think I'd pick Sweden or Denmark.) Check it out, and see if the quick and easy exercise holds any surprises for you.

PTSD TEST. I've seen this device on news reports recently, and it appears to hold great promise for detecting and treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) early. Currently the virtual application is directed primarily at military veterans -- too bad it wasn't available during each of the 20th century's wars. It also holds potential for helping victims of rape, domestic violence, traffic accidents, debilitating diseases, and many of life's misfortunes.

17 June 2011


.... Out there

somewhere is the end of everything

but only the mountains are

comfortable with the idea.

The rest of us paddle,

paddle between what

we can't get away from

and where we don't want to go.

~~ "Vacationland", by Dean Young

16 June 2011


HANDWRITING. It has been known for some time that taking handwritten notes (lecture notes in a class, or notes on a book being read) improves one's memory of the material. But in an age of increasing texting and typing on keyboards, is handwriting likely to remain relevant? The answer is a resounding yes, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. "The benefits of gripping and moving a pen or pencil reach beyond communication. Emerging research shows that handwriting increases brain activity, hones fine motor skills, and can predict a child's academic success in ways that keyboarding can't." Among the practical benefits of handwriting --

~ Handwriting can change how children learn and how their brains develop.

~ Good handwriting can mean better grades.

~ Handwriting is faster, and encourages more complete sentences.

~ Handwriting aids memory.

~ Handwriting proficiency inspires confidence.

~ Handwriting engages different brain circuits than keyboarding, and the repetitive process of handwriting integrates motor pathways into the brain.

Someone near and dear to me is an accomplished calligrapher -- taking handwriting from a skill to an art. The careful, almost meditative practice of calligraphy is something I envy. My own handwriting has deteriorated as I've grown older, and too often I take the lazy way out by typing. Perhaps it's time that I discipline myself to write by hand every day, in hopes of regaining muscle control and retuning those neural pathways.

ANTIMATTER. I was surprised to come across a brief description of the discovery of antimatter. You don't have to be a physicist or a mathematician to appreciate the elegant simplicity of the story, or where it led -- to our recent ability to study entire anti-atoms.

"Readers who were paying attention in their math classes may recall that quadratic equations often have two solutions, one positive and the other negative. So when, in 1928, a British physicist named Paul Durac solved an equation relating to the electron, the fact that one answer described the opposite of that particle might have been brushed aside as a curiosity. But it wasn't. Instead, Durac interpreted it as antimatter -- and four years later, it turned up in a real experiment.

"Since then, antimatter -- first anti-electrons, known as positrons, and then antiversions of all other particles of matter -- have become a staple of real science and the fictional sort. What has not been available for study until recently, however, is entire anti-atoms. A handful have been made in various laboratories, and even held on to for a few seconds. But none has hung around long enough to be examined in detail because, famously, antimatter and matter annihilate each other on contact. But that has now changed .... "

With that teaser, I refer you to the article to learn what has changed, and how. Antimatter, the stuff of science fiction and science fact, continues to provide elusive glimpses into the mysteries of physics and the universe.

15 June 2011


In a post written three years ago, I ranted about the perilous carelessness and sense of entitlement evinced by certain bicyclists and pedestrians in traffic. In a post written one month ago, I vented in a more reasoned manner (I think) on the same topic. As a more light-hearted salute, consider the following three recent news items --

In Chicago (that toddlin' town), police were out in force to crack down on cyclist scofflaws who claim "unconditional rights to violate every traffic law on the books .... The sting was conducted at only one intersection near downtown, and for only two hours during the morning rush. But the site that was chosen is a complex intersection that's a magnet for bicycle commuters, widespread disregard for red lights, and plenty of accidents and close calls. Some 240 warnings and one ticket were issued by the end of the law enforcement and education operation, which was aimed at bicyclists pedaling through red lights and taking over crosswalks meant for pedestrians only .... Across the city, an average of 1300 crashes involving bicyclists occur every year."

Imagine. All those warnings and a ticket, in two hours at a single intersection. Multiply that by several thousand (at least), and you get some idea of the daily scope of many bicyclists' disregard for the law, and for the safety of themselves and others. Way to go, Chicago!

In New York City, a creative and somewhat goofy cyclist made a video of himself receiving a traffic ticket, followed by his deliberately crashing into a series of objects which sometimes obstruct designated bicycle paths, to show why he deviates into automobile lanes. The exercise makes a point, but also detracts from his message by sheer repetition. Enough, already. You got busted, deal with it.

And again in New York City, a woman visiting from Holland was ticketed for bicycling while wearing a skirt which allegedly exposed her legs sufficiently to distract motorists (see image below). This is just plain silly. She was breaking no traffic laws -- it seems likely that the police officer was himself distracted. Needless harrassment is no substitute for responsible law enforcement.

Just to be clear -- I totally support riding bikes, walking, using mass transit, and other green alternatives to single-occupant cars which clog traffic and emit monumental amounts of pollution. And I know from my own experience biking that there are hostile drivers who intentionally crowd bicyclists. But no one conveyance has a monopoly on righteousness. We all have to share those streets, legally and with care.

14 June 2011


For most of us in the northern hemisphere, summer is already well under way. But in the lands and watersheds on either side of the northern Rocky Mountains, spring has barely arrived -- and with ominous portent. You see, this past winter featured record snowfalls in the upper elevations of the mountains. The late advent of spring, coupled with copious amounts of rainfall, results in snowmelt too rapid for the region's streams and rivers to hold. The result is flooding, in proportions which rival the epic floods of 1964 (under similar snowmelt conditions) which burst three dams in Montana, and sent floodwaters surging for hundreds of miles downstream.

Even this late in June, much snow remains in the mountains. The annual clearing of Going To The Sun Road in Glacier National Park has been delayed by not only the sheer volume of snow on that spectacular drive, but also by the continual threat of avalanches from the slopes above. The image above shows the Logan Pass Visitor Center, located at the Continental Divide, still buried in snow on June 4 (with an even closer view here. The image below shows the same scene as it normally appears in summer, during the height of tourist season.

Already many communities west of the mountains are experiencing snowmelt flooding, as are communities east of the mountains, along the Rocky Mountain Front. Health departments and disaster services are publishing advice on how to prepare for, and respond to, massive flooding. Here is a list of recommended flood preparations, courtesy of the Choteau Acantha.

These snowmelt conditions are no joke. The disruption to community life, the destruction of property, and the potential for death among livestock and people, are real and harrowing. Readers who live in more temperate climates, please send a kind thought to the residents of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and areas downstream.

13 June 2011


RENAISSANCE MAN. In its common usage, the phrase renaissance man (or polymath) refers to "a person who is well educated and who excels in a wide variety of subjects or fields." Most ancient scientists were polymaths by today's standards, in which the pull is toward deeper and narrower specialization. One notable exception is Erez Aiden. As described in The Renaissance Man: How To Become a Scientist Over and Over Again, "Aiden is a scientist, but while most of his peers stay within a specific field -- say, neuroscience or genetics -- Aiden crosses them with almost casual abandon. His research has taken him across molecular biology, linguistics, physics, engineering and mathematics .... His approach stands in stark contrast to the standard scientific career: find an area of interest and become increasingly knowledgeable about it. Instead of branching out from a central speciality, Aiden is interested in interdisciplinary problems that cross the boundaries of different disciplines. His approach is nomadic. He moves about, searching for ideas that will pique his curiosity, extend his horizons, and hopefully make a big impact .... As an undergraduate, he studied mathematics, physics, and philosophy at Princeton .... At just 31 years of age, Aiden has a joint lab at MIT and Harvard .... He naturally gravitates to problems he knows little about. 'The reason is that most projects fail,' he says, 'If the project you know a lot about fails, you haven't gained anything. If a project you know relatively little about fails, you potentially have a bunch of new and better ideas.'"

The Discover article provides detailed and colorful examples of Aiden's work, including the study of culturonomics, solving the three-dimensional structure of the human genome, and studying the mathematics of verbs. His appetite for diverse knowledge resonates in me -- if you scroll back through weeks and months of this blog, you'll find a broad variety of topics, with certain recurring themes. As a teenager I fancied myself to be a "generalist" as opposed to a specialist. That philosophy has held throughout my life. Even my degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology integrates studies from many fields of science, augmented by my own forays into non-required classes in surveying, scientific illustration, women's history, et al.

Specialists make valuable contributions to our knowledge, and our functioning as a society. But in my opinion there is a special place for men and women who inform themselves in the sciences, the arts, literature, language, perhaps best summed up in the phrase "a liberal education."

MEDICARE. Paul Krugman of the New York Times is an erudite, perceptive economist who presents his thoughts clearly and forcefully. In Medicare Saves Money, Krugman takes on those, including most Republicans as well as a few Independents, seek to dismantle or disable Medicare. He asserts that our goal should be "to ensure that Americans get the health care they need, at a cost the nation can afford. And here's what you need to know: Medicare actually saves money -- a lot of money -- compared with relying on private insurance companies .... adjusting for overall inflation, Medicare spending per beneficiary rose more than 400 percent from 1969 to 2009. But inflation-adjusted premiums on private health insurance rose more than 700 percent over the same period .... By the way, we have direct evidence about the higher costs of private insurance via the Medicare Advantage program, which allows Medicare beneficiaries to get their coverage through the private sector. This was supposed to save money; in fact, the program costs taxpayers substantially more per beneficiary than traditional Medicare.

"Then there's the international evidence. The United States has the most privatized health care system in the advanced world; it also has, by far, the most expensive care, without gaining any clear advantage in quality for all that spending. Health is one area in which the public sector consistently does a better job than the private sector at controlling costs."

So the next time a Mitch McConnell or a John Behner, or even a Joe Lieberman, proposes deep-sixing Medicare, take it with a grain of salt. Chances are that those individuals have a financial vested interest in the private sector status quo. In Washington, DC, money talks. As one who just this month became eligible for Medicare coverage through disability, I'm grateful to individuals like Paul Krugman for shedding light on a complex topic.

12 June 2011


BULB PROTOTYPE. Unless you've been living under a rock, you're probably aware of the move afoot in the illumination industry to replace the familiar warm glow of incandescent light bulbs with longer-lasting compact fluorescent lamps which also use less energy. Alas, CFLs may be greener and more economical in the long run, but at present they are quite expensive compared to ILBs. Regardless, the soft yellow light of ILBs may soon be unavailable, according to Andrew Rice in the New York Times magazine. In Bulb In, Bulb Out he describes the transition, as well as an even newer generation of bulbs whose prototype "resembles a neon yellow mushroom" (see left image above, click to enlarge). The new model seeks to produce "the soft luminance of the incandescent bulb, while conforming to much higher standards of energy efficiency and durability." Just when I thought I'd simplified my choices to 60W or 75W.

RED MEAT. A vegetarian for over ten years reports that he recently reintroduced red meat into his diet, resulting in "an improved sense of well-being, mental clarity, and energy." Within three months his Body-Mass Index (BMI) went from 17% to 12%, while he gained nearly ten lb. of muscle mass. This individual works out regularly, eats well, and is sold on the value of retaining animal protein in our diets. He honors those who, out of principle, maintain a vegetarian diet, but has come to the realization that being omnivorous is a defining feature of human evolution, for very specific reasons. To learn more, check out So I Started Eating Meat Again .... I would be interested in any comments you choose to post.