30 September 2010


CHARTER SCHOOLS. In her usual penetrating style, Gail Collins discusses several layers of issues raised by the new film "Waiting for Superman", which critiques America's public schools, and appears to advance charter schools as a more viable alternative. It is a well-documented truth that over the past several decades, public schools have been treading water while schools in all other developed nations have been forging past us in reading, math and science skills. Clearly a major overhaul is needed, including (in my opinion) scrapping seniority, requiring all teachers to undergo annual re-training and annual examination of their teaching skills and currency of subject knowledge, and raising the standards expected of students, both for passing a class and for graduation from every level of education. We are producing a nation of illiterate, math-challenged, science-ignorant underachievers whose greatest workplace achievement may be learning to say "Would you like fries with that?"

However, charter schools are a questionable alternative. While they may have value as laboratories for new ideas, their performance has been dismal. Unregulated and unencumbered by universal standards, only 17 percent of charter schools do a better job than the comparable local public school. In Texas, only 37 percent of charter school students passed state academic achievement tests, compared with 80 percent of public school students.

Collins is right -- "the regular public schools are where American education has to be saved." Here is her complete essay. It should be required reading for all educators, school boards and legislators.

MARIJUANA. In case you've been living under a rock, California voters will soon have the opportunity to pass or defeat Proposition 19, which would legalize personal marijuana use, allow local government to regulate the production and sale of marijuana, and allow local government to impose taxes on same. We as a society do move at a glacial pace, with no discernable distinction between rational thought and emotional panic, over certain hot-button issues. I've advocated for forty years that precisely this approach (legalization, regulation, taxation) should replace prohibition, which has NEVER worked. There is an Alice in Wonderland quality to our taking the saner path with regard to much more destructive substances like alcohol or tobacco, yet we resist that path when it comes to marijuana, a measurably more benign substance. Note: it is significant that the bulk of financial backing for opposition to Prop 19 comes from .... you guessed it, the alcohol and tobacco industries. When in doubt, follow the money.

Timothy Egan offers a tongue-in-cheek (and very informative) summary of the history and current status of marijuana laws in this country, along with his own pointed reality check. "Most of the bad things associated with marijuana come from its criminalization. If legalization curbs the violence -- of the Mexican drug lords, of the gangsters who still wage turf wars in parts of California, of the powerful and paranoid growers of the north -- it will have done society a big favor." Ya think?

29 September 2010


MEMORY. David Hirschman summarizes in a clear and accessible manner current research on how memory is recorded (and lost) in the human brain. This information is relevant to nearly every human activity, from raising a child, teaching in school, learning a new skill or name, to the loss of memory with aging. Here is a summary of the article:

"Memory isn't like a video or film, faithfully recording a sequence of minute details and storing it all intact. Rather, it's a far more complex procedure, which preserves brain space by filtering out extraneous details while still allowing us to pull together pertinent information about specific events. So a memory is a set of circumstances, details and characteristics strung together -- the brain can recreate events by activating specific strings in "convergence/divergence" zones and then accessing all the scattered details attached to the string.

"We begin to lose memories as we age when our brains have too much of certain molecules called beta amyloids. While at low levels these molecules are required for our normal memory system, high levels hurt intra-brain communication."

For a fuller, more detailed understanding of memory gain and loss, please click on the link to the article.

COYOTES. Among my most vivid memories from twenty years living in southern Arizona is the haunting, howling, yipping chorus of coyotes at night, declaring their territory. Their vocal talents are such that one or a few coyotes can sound like many. Whether viewed as mythic trickster, as God's dog, or as vermin, the coyote is far and away the most adaptable predator in North America. Efforts at eradication have only produced smarter, more elusive, and more numerous populations of coyotes. They are versatile in their hunting -- going it alone, or in packs, or even cooperatively with other species. Unlike the unfortunate wolf, which still hovers within an eyeblink of extinction, coyotes have expanded their range to include forays into towns and major cities.

Because they are so wary and elusive, wildlife ecologists find that acquiring a deeper understanding of their way of life is "like working with a ghost species." The NYTimes article Mysteries That Howl and Hunt summarizes current research into this virtuoso singer and versatile survivor.

RELIGION TEST. This cracks me up -- and at the same time does not surprise me in the least. A basic religion test administered to a cross-section of Americans revealed that "most people are deeply ignorant about religion. Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life. On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed questions about their own faith. Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities, Jews and Mormans."

How can this be, especially given that most questions had multiple-choice answers? Simple. Blind faith equates with poor knowledge. Most atheists and agnostics were raised in religious homes, but learned to examine, question and ultimately reject the moral hypocrisies and internal contradictions of religion through reading, thinking, and informing themselves. As Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, explained, "I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than most religious people. Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That's how you make atheists."

For a more thorough description of the survey and how various religious groups fared in their responses, as well as a sampling of the survey questions which you can answer for yourself, please check out the Basic Religion Test article.

28 September 2010


AFGHANISTAN / PAKISTAN. The parallels to the Vietnam war continue to escalate. We are fighting a guerrilla insurgency with outmoded tactics, and relying too heavily on technology rather than special forces units on the ground. Our military effort in Afghanistan appears increasingly to be running off the rails.

In a report reminiscent of the My Lai Massacre on a smaller scale, we learn today that soldiers are being ordered to deliberately kill civilians who pose no threat. Have we learned nothing?? Mindlessly following illegal orders, whether out of fear of reprisal or simply because that is how thorough military brainwashing can be, is inexcusable. Every single human being wearing a uniform and carrying a weapon is still ethically responsible for his/her own choices. Period. It turns my stomach that the military does not include individual ethical responsibility in its training. I've long thought that the minimum age for military service should be 30, not 18. At least that way low-ranking soldiers would have attained (hopefully) a minimal level of judgment. What a sad commentary on the American way of life that morally intact individuals like Hugh Thompson, Jr., are the exception and not the rule within the military.

Similarly, the CIA is stepping up its use of drone attacks on Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan, a non-combatant nation. Can you say "Cambodian invasion"? Like ground soldiers set loose with no clear operational guidelines and half-baked leadership, the use of airstrikes is more likely to kill civilians than actual terrorists -- partly because hard intelligence on the location of targets is quickly outdated, and also because terrorists use civilians as human shields. We continue to generate more and more enemies who (rightly) see us as armed invaders, when the surgical use of special forces operatives (Navy SEALS, Army Rangers and Green Berets, and especially Delta Force, which is trained specifically in counter-terrorism operations) would be infinitely more effective against terrorists .... wherever they may be.

"Just following orders." Ugh. We cannot get out of Afghanistan soon enough.

PUBLIC LIBRARIES. Outsourcing is metastasizing, and the results are rarely beneficial to the consumer. When you base a domestic production or service in a foreign land, you lose accountability for the quality of the product or service (not to mention the loss of jobs locally). When you farm out a legitimately govermental function to private enterprise ("enterprise" being a euphemism for the concentration of wealth among a few, rather than sharing of wealth among many), you also lose accountability for both quality of service and for controlling costs.

Consider the example of privatizing prisons. Our tax dollars are still paying for the operation, but there's a hitch. We either have to pay more to maintain the same level of service (since we're now contributing to a corporation's profit margin), or we pay the same for a lower level of service (to maintain that same profit margin). Either way, we lose and CEOs gain. The same applies to contracting military operations to private companies like Blackwater.

I recognize that governments often contract with companies for specific services -- say, a construction project or the manufacture of equipment. That should NOT be confused with letting the company take over the decision-making process without the oversight of government, which represents the interests of citizens, not stockholders.

Today's NYTimes reports that the management of more and more public libraries is being farmed out to private companies. I am furious. The public library is a sacred institution. Here too, accountability is removed from the hands of taxpayers, and placed in the hands of corporate officers and stockholders. No good can come of this. Some company wonk is going to decide which books, electronic media and other library services to purchase, and which to deny to the public? That's not a public library, that's a private library. WTF is WRONG with us? Why are we letting our local, state and national political leaders get away with passing the buck?

There are services which only government should be providing -- military defense, incarceration of criminals, maintaining the national parks, improving infrastructure (roads, dams, bridges, rail lines, energy production, clean water and clean air), providing and regulating health care options, and yes, public libraries. That's why they call it government. Those among us who are so mypoic that their motto is "get government out of our lives" have only a surface understanding of how the world works. The key is not less government. The key is efficient and responsible government. If you don't want to pay taxes, just remember -- you get what you pay for.

27 September 2010


HUMAN ASCENDANCY. In my Philosophy of Biology class, a quarter century ago, the professor suggested that the evolution of three traits accounts for the eventual rise to dominance of homo sapiens -- large brains (abstract thinking), bipedal posture and opposable thumbs (freeing our hands to use tools). There is, of course, much more to the story, and reading the thoughts of any evolutionary biologist -- Stephen J. Gould and Richard Dawkins are good starting pointa -- provides evocative insights into our development as a species.

A new study by anthropologist Pat Shipman introduces an intriguing hypotheses -- that the appearance of a symbiotic relationship between humans and animals (initially as hunter and prey, and currently reflected in our relationships with our pets) helps to explain the development of more sophisticated toolmaking, the development of language, and even the advent of art. I highly recommend Drake Bennett's article on Shipman's work -- whether you accept the premise or not (and not all scientists do), I suspect you will discover that Shipman's research will resonate, and provoke new avenues of thought. I've found that controversial ideas often provide the seeds for the transformation of our knowledge to new realms of understanding, and even new disciplines within science. This may be one such idea. Your cat, dog, horse or parakeet will likely agree.

Digestion. Speaking of science, I love the intro to this gee-whiz article -- "Science is inherently cool, but gross science is even better ... Using a combination of computer tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), scientists at Aarhus University in Denmark were able to visualize the entire internal organ structures and vascular systems of a Burmese Python digesting a rat." See the entire article for a series of images that record the digestive breakdown of said rat. Below is a picture of the entire snake at mid-digestion -- definitely click on the image to enlarge, then click again on the enlargement for fullest detail. Snakes are so damn cool !!

26 September 2010


FIVE MYTHS. In today's Washington Post, David Kirkpatrick picks up on the hype surrounding a movie called "The Social Network," whose subject is the website Facebook. The movie may perpetuate several myths about FB and its founder, Mark Zuckerman. Below are the myths. See if you have a grasp of their essential untruth, then check yourself out at Kirkpatrick's article.
  1. Facebook is used mostly by college kids.
  2. Facebook keeps changing to help sell advertising.
  3. Facebook users are up in arms about privacy.
  4. Zuckerman stole the idea for Facebook from other students at Harvard.
  5. Facebook could soon go the way of Friendster and MySpace.

It is remarkable to realize that Facebook has grown to include over 500 million active users globally, since the website's launch in February 2004. I happen to be one of them, and am grateful for the opportunity to have become good friends with people in places as far-flung as Greece, Portugal, Sweden, England, Slovakia, and Lebanon, as well as all parts of the U.S.

WHO'S IN CHARGE? Last week our hard-working servants in Congress once again managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by failing to rescind the military's discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which denies gays and lesbians the right to serve their country openly. Had Congress acted according to the wishes of 82 percent of Democrats and 64 per cent of Republicans, our military would be in a position to avail itself of an untapped resource of intelligent, dedicated men and women (whose sexual orientation is nobody's businesss, and irrelevant to their ability to serve). During his satiric monologue the day after the Senate vote, Jon Stewart rhetorically asked, "Are We Being Led by A**holes?" In many instances, definitely yes. The posturing and petty politics being played out in Washington do not serve the interests of the country or the military. The fact is that one out of every ten people is a gay man or a lesbian woman, whether openly or secretly. This includes everyone YOU know. Think about that. Your friends, relatives and coworkers, good people all, include a substantial number of homosexuals. Does that mean you should drop them from your life? Hell no. It means that, if you haven't done so already, it is high time you reconsider your biases toward gays. My circle of friends around the country includes a number of gays and lesbians, and I treasure them equally with my straight friends. Too bad I can't say the same about certain politicians.

25 September 2010


YOUR HAIR. Did you know that your hair ages faster than your toenails, and that the explanation is Einsteinian relativity? Check it out here.
LANGUAGES. Here is an extremely versatile translation website, for those times when you just really have to know how to say it in Portuguese, or Greek, or Yiddish, or .....

24 September 2010


DOWNHILL. In today's NYTimes, esteemed economist Paul Krugman pokes holes in the already-perforated Republican Party's alleged "Pledge to American". Krugman notes that, as in past empty promises to the public, Republican math just does not add up. Far from decreasing the federal budget deficit, their agenda would actually increase the deficit -- just as they have done in every Republican administration since Dwight D. Eisenhower. Krugman cites Howard Gleckman of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center -- "the only way to balance the budget by 2020, while simultaneously (A) making the Bush tax cuts permanent and (B) protecting all the programs Republicans say they won't cut, is to completely abolish the rest of the federal government. No more National Parks, no more Small Business Administration loans, no more export subsidies, no more N.I.H. No more Medicare (one-third of its budget pays for long-term care for our parents and for others with disabilities). No more child health or child nutrition programs. No more highway construction. No more homeland security. Oh, and no more Congress."

So how does Republican rhetoric make any conceivable sense? If the party's plan for reducing the deficit makes no mathematical or fiscal sense, why are they proposing it? Well, for much the same reason they trotted out their "Contract with America" in 1994 -- in a naked grab for power. The American electorate is gullible to pompous promises (Nixon's "secret" plan to end the war in 1968 comes to mind), and in 1994 the electorate swept Republicans into power in both houses of Congress. As Krugman documents, modern conservatives make no bones about it -- being in power trumps responsibly serving the people every time. Once in power, conservatives also make no bones about their real goals -- "privatizing and dismantling Medicare and Social Security."

Yeah, that's what I really want to see, LESS accountability, FEWER governmental services for my tax dollars, and MORE money falling into the welcoming pockets of already-obscenely-wealthy CEOs (who donate handsomely to Senators and Representatives who serve them). The truly dispiriting aspect of all this? Voters had such a short memory, and so little interest in really informing themselves about the issues, that they'll likely swallow the conservative bait, as if they had not already tasted that barbed hook before.

A MILESTONE. I began posting on this blog on 13 February 2008. Yesterday, for the first time, the number of daily visitors reached 100 !!! Small potatoes for many widely-read blogs, but an encouraging achievement for this modest e-epistle. Thank you, gentle readers. Spread the word, and please feel free to click on "comments" at the end of each post to leave your remarks or questions. Below you will find graphs showing (as of this hour) the number of daily visitors for the past month, and the number of monthly visitors for the past year. Click on the image to enlarge.

23 September 2010


WAR DISSENTERS. Here is an odd trait of the Presidency -- whether one is elected as a hawk or a dove, inevitably new Presidents feel the urge to show their cojones by starting, perpetuating or escalating a war. Had John F. Kennedy lived, chances are Lyndon B. Johnson would not have been forced to seek the counsel of his military advisors, and this nation would not have been sucked into the Vietnam quagmire. (Click on the above image to enlarge the quote.)

A new book by Washington Post Reporter Bob Woodward documents another President who turned to military advisors for guidance -- Barack Obama. Sad to say, the opinions of General David Petraeus and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates prevailed, and Obama approved the deployment of 30,000 additional troops to combat the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Our military presence in that feudal, sectarian and politically corrupt country has almost no effect on the stabilization of the country or the suppression of terrorism. Quite the opposite -- the U.S. is seen as an infidel invader, provoking ever-increasing numbers of recruits into the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Like the Soviets before us, we are caught in military quicksand, and withdrawal is the only sane option.

Woodward notes that the military advice to Obama was not unanimous, however. Three generals assigned to the White House and the State Department were "the military's toughest, most persistent and most skeptical critics." It is refreshing to note that for some in the military, truth and honor take priority over career advancement and walking in lockstep. Their reasons are crystal clear. There is not shortage of published books (not to mention classified military intelligence) which clearly map out the history of the region, and the tactics which are most successful in defeating insurgents. Jon Krakauer's Where Men Win Glory is a comprehensive starting point. What a shame that young men and women are dying daily in that harsh geography, simply because the top brass stubbornly choose to pursue more conventional, counter-productive military tactics. A much more effective approach would see us using special forces units as military advisors to friendly tribal leaders, in combination with providing the means for locals to take charge of maintaining roads, hospitals, schools, food supplies, clean water, and a stable economy. Conventional military forces, no matter who technologically well-equipped, do more harm than good -- we kill innocent civilians, and we assume that our way of life and form of government holds universal appeal. They do not. We are, indeed, intruders. There are much more effective ways of defeating fundamentalist terrorists.

BOOZY FRUIT. This one tickled me. Like many who grew up in rural areas, I have clear memories of my mother canning fresh fruits and vegetables -- a laborious project involving macerating, simmering, and sterilizing jars. Melissa Clark presents an easier alternative -- simply preserving fruits and vegetables in the appropriate alcoholic libation. After a time, "you can sip the liquid as a cordial and eat the sweet, spiked fruit over ice cream or cake." Yummy.

22 September 2010


Hats off to Garrett Baer for his essay "Yes, Mr. Kristof, This Is America." Subtitled "Why Are We Surprised at Our Own Bigotry?", Baer points out with eloquence and clarity the disconnect between this country's founding ideals and our consistent failure to live up to those ideals. As this writer has frequently noted, racism, religious and gender bias and xenophobia are the rule, rather than the exception.

Baer notes, "Unfortunately, contemporary Islamophobia is not a stain against the otherwise spotless canvas of American history. If anything, that canvas is filthy and should be acknowledged as such .... Rather than viewing the shameful interning of Japanese Americans during World War II, or the disgraceful refusal to accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe as rare, exceptional tests in American history, we need to view those events as constitutive elements of the American experience. Was America not America prior to the abolishing of slavery? Was America not America prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, during the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, the Zoot Suit Riots, or the pursuit of Manifest Destiny? Anti-miscegenation laws were belatedly toppled in the '60s, but today 37% of Americans would not approve of a family member marrying outside of his or her race. Are those people not American? ....

"We have to stop treating American bigotry as a series of exceptions, and finally deal with it as a chronic condition. America, I have a diagnosis, and you do not look good. If it looks like racism, feels like racism, and sounds like racism, then I'm pretty sure that's what it is. Let's stop reacting with disbelief, as if someone pulled the multiculturalist rug out from beneath our feet, only for us to land on our surprised asses in an America we'd never seen before ....

"When this country does manage to get beyond its narrow-minded bigotry, it's not by insisting that racism is a rare aberration and gasping in surprise, but by openly ackowledging the utter depravity of our condition and doing something about it. Our great civil rights movements -- against the majority's delusions about race, gender, and sexual orientation -- have always known this. By pretending as if Islamophobia, anti-immigration, or the Tea Party are odd and temporary, we excuse ourselves from taking them seriously, and from seriously fighting against them."

The above exerpts are only a portion of Baer's thoughtful essay. In response to his query ("Maybe we need to redefine the fringe?"), I'm increasingly persuaded that the answer is yes. In the Declaration of Independence, the signers pledged "our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor" in support of independence and in opposition to tyranny. Sadly, these educated and forward-thinking men would not recognize the distortions visited upon our democratic republic during the past 234 years. They, like those few of us today who insist on rational discourse and tolerance toward all races, religions, and ethnicities, would find themselves among the new fringe. Welcome to America, 2010.

21 September 2010


From brilliant behavioral therapist, essayist and blogger Andrea Kuszewski -- "The very traits that make someone creative, passionate, and likely to achieve a high degree of success in their domain, are the same traits that define psychological disorders such as Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, and ADHD. So what is the difference between creativity and psychopathology? Where do we draw the line between functional excess of extreme traits and the point at which they define a psychological disorder? Is there a discriminating trait that separates these two groups? The answer is .... "

I invite you to read her article to learn more about the fascinating commections, and how they function (or malfunction). She goes on to explore the essential truth of creativity, creativity across different domains, and why we need psychopathology if we want geniuses. The comments thread is almost as stimulating as the article itself.

As an entertaining aside, here is singer Joni Mitchell's musical take on creativity and mental health. Joni's prodigious talent has inspired awe in audiences and fellow musicians alike.

SCORE !! Now this is the man we elected to be President. In a discussion on the economy, President Obama responds to two questions from a wealthy hedge fund manager -- clearly, calmly and placing the issues in perspective. If our public and political discourse were conducted with more mutual respect and restraint, and less mindless ranting and raw emotion, the problems we face could be solved quickly and very nearly painlessly. ALL politicians and ALL political extremists, please take note.

20 September 2010


Two articles in today's NYTimes provide sharp contrast in comparing the many lives of those in this country who are over age 50 and jobless, and those in this country who are wealthy and not about to let go of a penny.

The first article, by Motoko Rich, examines the very real fears over the prospect of never working again, given the depth of the Bush-generated economic crisis and the years it will take to recover. An endless cycle of poverty and hopelessness already exists, and is widening daily. I empathize, I've been there. For sixteen years I followed my ex-wife's career around the nation, sacrificing my own professional aspirations for the relationship, and always finding it harder and harder to land a job at each new home. When we parted ways, the final job hunt was the most difficult, lasting nearly a year. Work-induced injuries forced me into early retirement, and I'm here to tell you, living on Social Security with no other pensions or retirement benefits is no joke.

The second article, by economist Paul Krugman, eloquently portrays the anger and sense of entitlement among our nation's wealthiest and most privileged (and by virtue of their wealth, most influential) citizens. Far from seeing their wealth as something to be shared through taxation or philanthropy (as was the case with many rich industrialists in the past), today's elite intends to not only gorge themselves while others starve, but to bleed the public coffers, in the form of paying few if any taxes, and in the form of government bailouts when their financial mismanagement or malfeasance threatens their CEO bonuses and corporate dividends. Greed has replace social responsibility, the inevitable fruits of capitalism allowed to run feral.

The impoverished many. The obscenely wealthy few. And the financial gap between them widens with every passing year. Unless fiscal reform is forthcoming in short order, this will become the seeds of uncivil unrest expressed in stark and potentially violent terms. And both Republicans and Democrats will share responsibility for having done NOTHING.

18 September 2010


"Since the invention of the kiss there have been five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure. This one left them all behind."

~~ The Princess Bride, by William Goldman

I'm not certain about purity, but for sheer, spontaneous passion, surely one of the great kisses was the one planted by a sailor on a nurse he did not know, in Times Square in August, 1945 -- part of a grand celebration of the end of WWII with the defeat of the Japanese Empire. Legendary photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt captured the moment for posterity, creating one of the most recognized images of all time.

Now comes the story behind that moment, in an interview with another nurse who was at the scene. That glorious feeling of unbridled celebration lives on.


In todays NYTimes there is a very informative article on balance training. The article narrows its focus to training for the elderly, as a way of enhancing posture and strength, thus avoiding the likelihood of falls and injuries. But balance training should be an important adjunct to any fitness program for any age group.

I come by this awareness naturally -- as a boy I was more interested in reading, music and girls than I was in sports. It wasn't until (A) Army basic training, and (B) my taking up kayaking, karate and weight training in my thirties, that I became an athlete. Please note that in each of those sports, balance is (as it were) pivotal. If you lose your balance in a whitewater kayak which by design is laterally unstable, you will flip upside-down, and you'd better hope that you have a bullet-proof Eskimo roll if you're halfway down a rapids when you lose it. If you are a karate-ka (practitioner of karate), balance is key, both in forming a solid platform and in executing kicks from a position of stability. If you're lifting weights, especially free weights, intuitively you know you don't want to be off balance in any way, lest there be a loud and embarrassing crash when something massive and metallic hits the floor.

More recently I've been using balance exercises in the context of physical therapy for two work-induced injuries -- tendonitis in both ankles, and a herniated lumbar disk which requires building up my core muscles (those surrounding one's mid-section -- in particular the abdominal and lower back muscles). My daily PT routine includes balancing on each foot for one minute on a thick pad, strengthening the ankle muscles. By concentrating on an erect, upright posture, those core muscles will also be firing.

Taking it to another level, I've started doing swimming, cardio and weight workouts at a fitness center. One of my exercises is (again) balancing on one foot for one minute on a BOSU ball. When the ball is placed with the flat side to the floor, it may be difficult to remain balanced on two feet. Doing so on one foot really kicks the challenge up a notch. Note in the image below how the man is crouched forward -- cheating. The woman is closer to the right postural idea. Alternatively, Placing the ball with the flat side up provides an even greater balance challenge (see image above) -- have a wall or other support handy in case you start to fall !

One needn't join a gym or have access to Pilates or BOSU equipment to begin a home fitness program. Stretches, sit-ups, push-ups, and a wide variety of exercises can be done at home, with this caveat -- it would be useful to consult with a certified physical therapist to design a home program that is suited to your age, health and level of fitness before doing something which could actually injure you. The minimal investment will pay for itself many times over, and ultimately you'll be leading a more balanced life in every way -- sitting, standing, walking, doing chores, driving in your car, fixing dinner, watching a movie, reading a book. Your body will thank you.

17 September 2010


Periodically, we are blessed with leaders who understood the importance of statesmanship, the quality of bringing people together, and of caring for people. An example -- on this day in 1978 the Camp David Accords were signed by Israeli prime minister Menachim Begin and Egyptian president Anwar El Sadat, formalizing peaceful relations between the two countries after decades of political and military conflict. The meetings between the two leaders were hosted (and, one suspects, mediated) by US President Jimmy Carter, a man much underappreciated for his accomplishments. Begin and Sadat jointly recieved the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize for their courage and foresight in fostering peace in the most unstable region on Earth.

How low we have sunk since then. US politics have become a carnival sideshow, complete with freaks. Earlier this week, Christine O'Donnell, a former marketing consultant, public relations consultant, and political commentator, won the Republican Senatorial primary in Delaware. O'Donnell's views are very shallow, and she is completely lacking in political experience or sophistication. She is riding the coattails of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement, no more, no less. One expects her to start chanting, "Yeah, I'm a maverick" at any moment.

To give you a window into her shallow understanding of social and political reality, here is an MSNBC video showing O'Donnell bleeding her fundamentalist religious beliefs all over, taking a "moral" stance which would ultimately legislate the prohibition of most sexual activities between consenting adults, except within the narrow confines of her evangelical Christian interpretation of the Bible. Somehow even masturbation becomes evil again (remember the repressive days of the 1940s and 1950s? -- they're back). This, from the same people who claim to want LESS government intervention into our lives. The double standard is positively dazzling.

Incidentally, O'Donnell had the chutzpah to say on national television that she won the primary without the help of the Republican party, and she has no need of the party's support for the upcoming general election. It will be very interesting seeing how the purported "We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore" philosophy (or lack of philosophy, since they do not offer substantive alternatives) plays out. Will the Tea Partiers sink the Republican Party's hopes for taking back the House and Senate as a result of voter backlash over TPers' excesses? Or will more and more Republicans jump on the extremist TP bandwagon, leaving moderate (read: sentient or statesmanlike) Republicans abandoned in the wilderness? Sounds a whole lot like anarchy to me.
Between Democrats tripping over their own feet to avoid showing firm leadership, and Republicans spilling in droves out of a tiny car like circus clowns, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. President Obama is a man of principles -- it is past time that he began to act on them, setting an example of both decorum and action. Jimmy Carter never hesitated.

16 September 2010


SPACE PASSENGERS. Everyone needs a dream. I have a list of ambitions/fantasies -- to conduct a symphony orchestra, to kayak the Grand Canyon, to learn to operate a backhoe, to learn the tango, to become an aviator -- and to be an astronaut. Naturally, some dreams are more realistic than others, and some dreams are realized in smaller degree. But the act of dreaming is vital to my well-being.

While I'm probably past the age for being on the frontiers of space exploration, there is hope. Boeing has announced plans to fly tourists in space (in earth orbit only -- it is too early for visits to Saturn, alas). The concept of commercial passenger travel into near space is not new. In fact, for several tens of millions of dollars, you too can hitch a ride on a Russian rocket bound for the Inernational Space Station. More affordable space travel is something aerospace companies have been developing for some time. Boeing's announcement is likely the precursor of things to come -- and with competition will come falling prices for passage. My fingers are crossed.

LEARNING II. Remember my post two days ago, in which I discussed the styles of learning and teaching? Here's a great example of my philosophy -- make it fun, and they will come. Middle-school teacher Al Doyle in NYC has incorporated his kids' own passion, video games, into his teaching, with very positive results. Read the article for a chuckle of recognition -- the passions of children never cease to delight me.

My own resources were far more limited. As a science and math teacher at a small private school with constricted funding, I had no lab equipment, no visual aids (other than a chalkboard and a TV on which to show relevant movies or taped TV shows), and texts that had been out of date since the Crimean Wars. Enter imagination. Enter enthusiasm. Enter creativity. After each week of brief (but brilliant) lectures off the top of my head, and animated discussions in which I encouraged any and all questions, each Friday was review-and-fun day. One variant which my kids loved was a home-made version of "Jeopardy!". Lacking a bank of TV monitors, I fashioned a mock-up using poster board and 3X5 card pockets (the kind you once found attached inside the front cover of library books). The format was familiar -- columns of categories, and rows of questions within each category, the questions increasing in difficulty and value as they went down the board. A given class was divided into two or three competing teams, and when a question was chosen and I read it aloud, each team raced to confer on the correct response and a representative would dash to the blackboard to write (legibly) the answer. The winning team earned candy rather than cash, which suited them fine.

The excitement in my classes often became so loud (the crowd at the Super Bowl had nothing on us) that the lead teacher would poke her head in the door, expecting to have to break up a riot. We would honestly try to tone it down to avoid disturbing neighboring classes, but damn, it was fun !!

Speaking of other classes, I'm a firm proponent of cross-disciplinary learning. I often consulted with the teachers of history, English, health, and government, and included questions from those classes in the game. No subject exists in a vaccuum. It enriches any student's experience to see how physics relates to biology, how history relates to literature, or how math relates to just music or sports or economics -- how all subjects touch the students' own lives. Fun is entertaining, but relevance is everything. I led haiku exercises out on the lawn for environmental studies students, taught math students how to sing harmony in the old Rice Krispies song, and held chess tournaments for all. It was demanding, draining, and absolutely delightful.

Thankfully the school director was very generous in allowing me to organize field trips -- to area wildlife preserves, Philadelphia science museums, to the National Aquarium in Baltimore. We all remember the non-ordinary -- those experiences which lie outside our daily routine. My question to myself in any situation was, "How can I juice this up?" The absolute finest moment in a teacher's life is when you see that little light bulb illuminate over a student's head, that "aha" or "ohmygod" moment which makes me grin to this day.

Now if only our society valued and paid its teachers like it does entertainers or sports stars.

15 September 2010


METRIC SYSTEM. The US is one of only three nations in the world which have refused to adopt the metric system (see map above, click to enlarge -- the metric world is shown in green) -- the other two nations are Burma and Liberia. It is a measure of our stubborn culturocentrism that we lag behind the rest of the planet in converting from the arbitrary and ungainly English system of measurement. The metric system is the common language of the sciences, commerce, aviation, and personal use. It's utility and simplicity are easy to manipulate and comprehend -- a standard set of prefixes in powers of ten are used to derive larger and smaller units from the base unit.

For example, consider the metric unit of length, the meter (equivalent to approximately 1.09 yards). The simple addition of the appropriate prefix yields the following:

1 kilometer = 1000 meters
1 hectometer = 100 meters
1 decameter = 10 meters

1 decimeter = 0.1 meters (a tenth of a meter)
1 centimeter = 0.01 meters (one hundredth of a meter)
1 millimeter = 0.001 meters (one thousandth of a meter)

Whether doing simple math in the grocery store, or complex calculations in physics, chemistry or biology, the metric system is intuitively simple and direct. Now compare this ease with units of length in the English system:

12 inches = 1 foot
3 feet = 1 yard
1760 yards = 5280 feet = 1 mile

As a child, I had to learn by heart the English system in all its absurd complexity, as well as learning fractions and their equivalents in percentages (percentages being nothing more than a variant of the metric system !! ). For instance:

1/2 = 0.5
1/3 = 0.3..... (..... means the preceding number is repeated indefinitely)
1/4 = 0.25
1/5 = 0.2
1/6 = 0.16....
1/7 = 0.14 approximately
1/8 = 0.125
1/9 = 0.1 ....
1/10 = 0.1

Those who grew up with the English system cringe at the thought of learning to convert units of distance, area, volume, mass, temperature, etc., to the metric system. Yet the conversions are simple to memorize, and once you are accustomed to using metric, you begin to think in metric. No more conversions necessary. Child's play. Even an old dog like myself can do it in his head.

I was reminded of the measurement dilemma by an article in today's NYTimes. In the early 1980s, the road signs on a stretch of Interstate 19 from Tucson to Nogales, AZ, were changed to show distance in kilometers (one mile = approximately 1.6 kilometers, while one kilometer = approximately 0.6 miles). I'm intimately familiar with this stretch of highway, and never once had any trouble deducing my position using either system of measurement. Apparently, the current gubernatorial administration of Luddite Jan Brewer has decided to abandon this tiny step toward joining the rest of the world -- I-19 is to have new signs installed showing distance in miles, not kilometers. What a shame. Rather than being a beacon of education and understanding, America's only highway with signs using the metric system will revert to the tired and cumbersome English system. I suppose there's one thing to be said for our backward ways -- we're consistent.

The other thought that occurs to me is that, given Arizona's recent attempt to abrogate Federal immigration laws, and the inherent racism behind that attempt, might the retreat from metric measurement along I-19 also have a racist component? That highway is the essential corridor between Tucson, with its significant Latino population, and Nogales, the nearest port of entry between the US and Mexico. Use of the metric system on I-19 encouraged travel and commerce back and forth between the two countries. Squelching such a welcome would be consistent with Arizona's increasing xenophobia. I'm just sayin'.

STEWART. Regular readers know that I am opposed to racism or exclusionary thinking, including the current, ugly spread of anti-Muslim sentiment. Comedian and talk show host Jon Stewart brilliantly skewered Islamophobia recently. I invite you to take a few minutes to enjoy his pointed satire -- no matter what your political or religious beliefs, you're bound to find a laugh (or two, or 3.33..... ).

14 September 2010


FINANCIAL TUNEUP. Today's NYTimes featured a very useful article -- 31 steps toward clarifying one's financial status and enhancing the stability of one's financial future. They are broken down into subtopics -- investments and retirement, loans, credit, planning, consumer issues and insurance. My only quibble lies in the amount recommended to be set aside in savings. The article says one percent from each paycheck. I've found it more useful to target ten percent. Yes, in recessionary times that can be tough. But if you take that ten percent right off the top of your take-home pay, you'll find that your spending habits adjust automatically.

LEARNING. In recent decades, learning theory has paid much attention to the learning styles of students, and the corresponding teaching styles of instructors. There is certainly evidence to support the perception that some people learn most effectively through rote memorization, or through listening to verbal explanations, or through visual demonstration, or by hands-on practice -- with the implication that teachers need to be aware of their students' needs, and make adjustments in their method of presentation.

A new study suggests that these principles are only one avenue toward effective learning. The study found that absorption and retention of new information can be enhanced by (A) alternating the study environment, so that one is exposed to learning material in varied settings, (B) varying the type of material studied in a given setting, and (C) including intervals of self-testing -- essentially practicing taking tests and quizzes without the pressure of being graded, so that on actual tests the process feels familiar and less daunting, and one can concentrate more fully on content.

Speaking as a lifelong student and also as a former teacher, these ideas make intuitive sense. The more tools one has for learning, the more effective learning will be. Of course, nothing can replace the symbiosis between an inquisitive mind (student) and a versatile and creative imagination (teacher). Set and setting (i.e., one's attitude and the learning environment), physical resources (books, labs, field trips, guest speakers), varied study habits, and making the experience both challenging and FUN, all revolve around that core student-teacher relationship.

13 September 2010


NATIVISTS. At regular intervals in U.S. history, those who may be a numerical majority among citizens, or those who perceive themselves as being more purely "American" (whatever that means), focus the prejudices of their tiny minds on an "alien" group. Almost every ethnicity, every nationality, every religion has been targeted for vilification at one time or another -- blacks, eastern Europeans, Scandinavians, the Irish, Jews, Catholics, Asians, Latinos, et al. The group currently under attack is, of course, Muslims. The spreading right wing fervor directed against Islam is, like all bigotry, vapidly irrational, not to mention antithetical to the founding principles expressed in the Contitution. Witness the furor over the construction of a Muslim community center and place of worship in lower Manhattan. Witness the weak-minded and desperate attempts by Republicans to label President Obama as a secret Muslim. Witness the surreal smear by Newt Gingrich when he said that the President exhibited "Kenyan, anticolonial behavior." Clearly one symptom of fevered dysentery in the Gingrich brain is diarrhea of the Gingrich mouth. (You may substitute Palin, Beck, McCain, Boehner, Limbaugh, McConnell, or any of a hundred other conservatives who value power over truth, wealth over integrity.)

Is this America?, asks Nicholas D. Kristoff. I'd say it's a toss-up.

The supreme irony is that whenever self-styled nativists (portrayed brilliantly in Martin Scorcese's film Gangs of New York) claim the flag and the nation as being exclusively theirs, they ignore the fact that ultimately it is Americans who have always been the invaders. We stole this rich land from tribes of indigenous peoples. We swept across the continent in a sweaty fervor of Minifest Destiny (a rationalization devoid of ethical or historic content). Hypocrites all, these nativists.

Three years ago today (better late than never), the United Nations adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples -- spelling out individual and collective rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education, and more. In the U.S. Native Americans are the dark secret never discussed -- independent nations subsumed, conquered, placed like lepers onto reservations, deprived of their language, their culture, their traditional ways of life, their identity. Alcoholism and poverty and suicide and unemployment are higher on Indian reservations than in any other segment of American life. Yet somehow, miraculously, remnants of Native culture and pride have persisted over the years.

We, the peoples and cultures of this Earth, have so much to learn from each other. We shame ourselves when we stereotype and reject any group. When will we learn?

ROADKILL. Regular visitors will have read more than once of the plight of wilderness and wildlife, locally and globally. Intentional human predation and loss of natural habitat to human rapacity are two of the prime threats to endangered species and to wilderness -- not to mention to the health of the entire biosphere, which includes us humans. (see map below, click to enlarge.)

A less publicly debated, more easily ignored pressure on wildlife populations comes in the deadly form of cars and trucks. In recent years citizen scientists have begun to document the toll on wildlife, by counting and mapping (using GPS) the bodies of animals, birds and reptiles who perish when hit by a vehicle. It is onerous and thankless work, but vital to our understanding of how to avoid perpetuating the slaughter.

10 September 2010


Years ago, during a time when I was single and dating, I was also pursuing activities in which I found innate pleasure or challenge -- ranging from riding my motorcycle to ushering for productions of the Arizona Theatre Company (and seeing many excellent plays for free), peer counseling, singing in the University-Community Choir, and taking French horn lessons. Adult day or evening classes in Tucson were diverse. A favorite was assorted dance classes. I'd always been a self-conscious dancer, and wanted to push my boundaries. To this day my favorite memories include the mind-body learning that took place in modern dance, group improv, and jazz dance. (Alas, there were no classes in 1930s and 1940s Swing.) I did not become even remotely a virtuoso. But it was fun, and since men were often a numerical minority, it was also a chance to meet women who were similarly broadening their horizons and learning about themselves in the process.

I've never been a fan of going to dances solo. I would much rather have a compatible partner with whom to create and improvise, not tied down to a small set of memorized moves. For those who do dance to meet others, however, I've discovered a recent study by evolutionary psychologists at Northumbria University. The findings (which focused on male dancers -- a followup will focus on female dancers) suggest that women are more attracted to men whose dancing includes creative and vigorous movement of the neck and torso -- subconscious signals of a man's health and vigor, and (for younger dancers) of reproductive quality.

My thought is that upper body movement is fine, but the study appears to have neglected, in both its design and its findings, the foundation of great dance -- legs and hips. Watch any salsa, hip-hop or tango dancer, and you are certain to notice elaborate and expressive step patterns and movement of the pelvis. The best dancing is a whole-body experience -- including slow swaying to romantic music.

Here is a link to the study -- their method for generating computerized figures is intended to eliminate viewer bias toward an individual's appearance. Be sure to check out the two videos which demonstrate movements which are appealing or less-than-appealing to most women.

09 September 2010


It seems that even the most bigoted fundamentalist clerics can be sensitive to public opinion. Terry Jones, a pastor from Gainesville, FL, announced earlier this week that he intended to burn copies of the Koran this Saturday, on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The outcry from religious leaders of all faiths, from political leaders of all persuasions, from US military leaders, and from citizens of countries around the world, was a tsunami. One hopes that Mr. Jones was suitably chastened (though I doubt it) when he announced earlier today that he is cancelling the proposed burning. Is it coincidence that ultimately it was the voice of Prsident Obama that appears to have tipped the scales? Obama rightly pointed out (as would occur to anyone with an ounce of common sense) that such a brazen act of religious vilification would endanger the lives of Americans at home and abroad, including US troops in Muslim countries. The justifiable outrage which would spread across the Muslim world would provide a perfect recruiting tool for a new generation of terrorists. It's called throwing fuel on the fire.

What was this delusional man thinking? (A) It makes no sense to commemorate an act of violence (the attacks) with another act of violence (the burning). (B) What would be the reaction of Christians if an allegedly holy man from another religion started burning Bibles? Sacrilege is sacrilege. (C) Book burning in any form (think Nazi Germany) is the signature of cowardice, weakness and paranoia -- no one has the right to censor what others read. The last time I looked, we live in a land where freedom of choice is still intact -- at least in theory.

So the upshot is that Mr. Jones is to meet with the imam of the proposed Muslim cultural center located over two blocks from Ground Zero. Jones claims to have assurances that no mosque will be incorporated into the center. The presence or absence of a mosque is frankly none of Mr. Jones' business. What would Mr. Jones think if a Muslim leader were to tell him where he could or could not build a church? I wonder if he is just trying to save face. There should be NO limitation on e inclusion of a mosque. It's called freedom of religion, remember?

One of the tired refrains that keeps popping up is that a mosque would be an insult to the victims and family members of the 9/11 attacks, and to Americans in general. Whenever anyone claims to be speaking for all Americans, I automatically discount his/her credibility. Our origins, culture, politics, religions and opinions are simply too diverse (gloriously so) for anyone to suppose they know what "America" wants. I doubt that person's ability to grasp what "America" even stands for -- tolerance, diversity, respect for others. Voltaire said, "I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Mr. Jones, the Tea Party, anti-war activists, and all other citizens benefit from that right. But with every right comes a responsibility. Freedom of speech is not absolute. It is against the law (and common sense) to yell "FIRE" in a crowded public place, when there is no fire. Making a public display of burning Muslim holy books (or any holy books) is just as incendiary, and should be just as criminal.

08 September 2010


A television news anchor on KPAX in Missoula is the most popular media personality in western Montana. Jill Valley comes across as professional and serious on screen, but her coworkers know that she has a wry and insidious sense of humor. Watch her closely and you'll see a twinkle in her eye, and the barest quirk of a smile as she quietly delivers a comment or dig to one of her team members, usually without the viewing audience even noticing. Jill has been named Montana Broadcaster of the Year four times, and has won journalism awards for writing and reporting. She's been voted Missoula's best television personality for the past decade.

Jill Valley is the center of attention these days for another reason -- breast cancer. I first learned of it after befriending her on FaceBook. She recently underwent a mastectomy, and is currently enduring chemotherapy. And through it all, she's rarely missed a day of work, nor lost her composure and focus on camera. What blows me away is that she seems so .... well, casual about it all. I know that doesn't come close to summing up her experience. There have been moments when the world is dark and painful and fearsome -- but Jill has unfailingly shared hope, and humor, and gratitude to all those who love and support her.

But my description is hopelessly inadequate. Take a moment to get acquainted with this charming and brilliant woman in her own words, at the August 31st post on her blog, Mission to Missoula. I predict that, like me, you'll come away feeling like you've just met someone you would like as a lifelong friend. Here's to you, Jill, and to all the other woman and men who battle cancer every day, everywhere.