30 April 2010


Recently I started very abruptly to experience a mysterious suite of symptoms -- elevated blood pressure, elevated pulse, hand and leg tremors, loss of appetite, aching joints, periods of disorientation and lack of mental focus, alternating chills and hot flashes, the inability to sleep. Since the onset occurred on a weekend, as the symptoms intensified I was forced to choose between going to the ER, or waiting until Monday to see my regular family practitioner. My choice to wait was guided partly by denial ("it has to get better"), but mostly by my having no health insurance coverage (a commentary on the catastrophic state of health care nationwide).

I suffered through the weekend, averaging 1-3 hours of restless sleep per night. By Monday night I was seriously contemplating my own imminent mortality.

The physician's assistant who saw me on Monday morning was clearly at a loss -- such a bizarre variety of symptoms could result from any of a score of sources. My vital signs were in fact elevated, but not to the point of crisis. Opting for a conservative approach ("Physician, first do no harm"), the PA ordered a urine test and a series of blood tests to try to narrow down the field of possible causes. In the meantime .... I had to guts it out. Over the subsequent four days my symptoms very gradually abated. The blood results ultimately revealed no clues. That painful and fearful episode remains a mystery. I dread going through it again, without knowing how to treat it.

Those same blood results, however, did reveal two important ancillary results which warranted further investigation. The first was a low testosterone level. The quintessential male hormone is manufactured in the testicles, and not only plays a key role in male reproductive development, but also influences muscle mass, bone density and hair growth. The low T-level was consistent with my decreased libido in recent months, and a possible result of my having had a vasectomy in 1985. The fix is easy -- I'm now on a simple hormone enhancement therapy, a topical cream.

The second blood result was potentially more troubling -- a slightly elevated PSA reading, indicating a possible disorder in the prostate gland. The prostate is one of three primary contributors to male sexual function. It secretes a milky, slightly alkaline fluid which makes up 25-30 percent of the volume of male semen, accompanied by spermatozoa from the testicles and by seminal vesicle fluid (see diagram below, click to enlarge).

The prostate has another important function -- regulation of the flow of urine. The gland is approximately the size of a walnut. Torus-like, it surrounds the urethra just below the urinary bladder, and may be felt by a physician during the dreaded (because uncomfortable) digital rectal exam.

PSA readings are notorious for giving significant numbers of false positive results (indicating a disorder which is not really present) and false negative results (failing to indicate a disorder which is in fact present). Still, it is a starting point for further investigation. Potential causes for an elevated PSA reading include prostatitis (prostate inflammation), benign prostate hyperplasia (prostate swelling), and (gulp) prostate cancer. You can imagine my trepidation when I visited a urologist yesterday for his diagnosis.

Long story short, he found no evidence to indicate the presence of cancer. He pointed out that PSA levels can, over time, vary in a sine-wave pattern for any individual man, and still be within acceptable limits. My elevated level is low enough to warrant observation, but no intervention is called for just yet. Another PSA reading in three months will give us a more definitive picture of what's going on.

Deep sigh of relief. So why have I burdened the gentle reader with this long and potentially boring narrative? Because if you are a man over age 50, or know a man over age 50, this is information which needs to be just as familiar as any other health issue. For men, regular blood tests, rectal exams, and periodic colonoscopies (I know, ick) are just as important as diet and exercise in taking good care of our health.

29 April 2010


Gulf of Mexico oil well explosion and spill. In a recent post I called into question the Administration's proposal for including expanded off-shore oil drilling in its energy plan. At the time of the post, analysis indicated a flow of 1000 barrels of crude oil per day from the well head of an explosion on an oil rig owned by British Petroleum. That estimate today was increased to 5000 barrels per day. It was further revealed that the Coast Guard's plan to burn off the oil slick before it reached shore would be minimally effective, eliminating something like 3 percent of the slick. Since there are insufficient floating oil containment booms to control the oil slick (now over 600 miles in circumference), it appears that the oil will indeed be carried onshore, contaminating wildlife, natural habitat, barrier islands, the fishery industry and human habitat as well. There is no end in sight. Oh yeah, and the feds are saying that it is up to state agencies to take proactive measures to protect wildlife. Now, can someone offer reassurances that MORE offshore oil wells are a good idea?

"Show me your papers" law. As it happens, in that same post I commented upon the state of Arizona's new law requiring anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant to produce documentation on demand by law enforcement officers. The inherent racism in this law is blatant (since the only possible cue for probable cause is a suspect's (or victim's) skin color). The state's usurping of Federal powers is similarly dazzling, so much so that Jon Stewart called Arizona "the meth lab of democracy," as cited by Timothy Egan in his NYTimes article Desert Derangement Syndrome. All of which is a real shame, since Arizona is home to many sane, clear-thinking residents, not to mention some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world. But then, my twenty years there were spent in and around Tucson, a liberal enclave in an otherwise mostly-conservative state. Time to move the state capitol from Phoenix to Tucson, methinks.

Oceanic wind farm. After a years-long debate, the federal government has approved a permit for a 130-turbine wind farm in the waters off the coast of Cape Cod, within sight of Hyannis. I am torn on this issue. Clearly wind power must be part of our future energy budget. It is clean, renewable, and increasingly efficient. Yet I completely understand the objections of those who have enjoyed unobstructed ocean views for years, and those who take pleasure in sailing the waters soon to be populated by 150-foot tall wind mills. There is also some concern for the effect of those giant swooping blades on the mortality of migrating birds. No easy answers, but on balance I tentatively have to side with the wind farm proponents, pending further developments.

Hair. Finally, whimsically, the "American Tribal Love-Rock Musical" Hair debuted on Broadway 42 years ago. I'm not a huge fan of musicals, but Hair ranks among my favorites, for its compelling score, insoucient attitude, portrayal of human innocence and pathos and transcendance, and the final tragic loss of life to the machine of war. I'm one of that fortunate generation which lived, celebrated, protested, got high, and was part of an entire counterculture which, in the end, was a decisive force in ending the Vietnam War and bringing down one of our country's two most evil Presidents. Let the sunshine in !!

28 April 2010


Last night I happened to catch a PSA (public service announcement) that rivited me. Harrison Ford has been one of several active spokespersons for AOPA's campaign to raise public awareness of the diverse services rendered by general aviation (GA) aircraft -- the outreach program is called GA Serves America. As a wannabe pilot, I'm pleased that Ford, who owns a number of small aircraft and is licensed to fly both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, stepped up to further the cause.

Ford's appearance last night was on behalf of another public awareness outreach which is even dearer to my heart -- he spoke on behalf of CAWT, the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking. His presentation was direct, forceful and vivid. The illegal international trade in wildlife skins, trophy heads, and other body parts for arcane medicinal purposes, has driven too many endangered species to the brink of extinction. Conservation groups have limited resources for combatting this hideous practice, and governments too often turn a blind eye ... until it is too late.

As with illegal drugs, the key lies with the consumer. If there were not a lucrative market for cocaine (or ivory, or exotic furs), poachers would find other ways to make a living. And as with illegal drugs, the profit from illicit sales is so substantial that the taking of wildlife has become a violent business -- gangs of thugs armed with heavy automatic weapons often outgun those few government wildlife rangers who try to enforce the law. Already too many species only survive in zoos, not in their native habitat.

My own visceral preferred solution would be summary execution of poachers, middlemen and purchasers alike, without benefit of trial. But I realize that is overreacting. Much more effective in the long run is to hit them in the pocketbook, removing the profit from this or any other activity which threatens the planet.

Bottom line, inform yourself. Get involved. Speak out. Do not allow someone you know to buy an animal product from the other side of the globe, if that animal is in any way threatened or endangered (whether through dropping population or through loss of habitat). For every one of nature's perfect creatures that we destroy, the world becomes a poorer place for ourselves, and for our grandchildren -- not to mention for wildlife, which have an inherent right to live without human interference. I for one don't ever want to have to answer my grandson's question, "Grandpa, what's a tiger? What's a snow leopard? What's a humpback whale?" The answer would break my heart.

Please check out the CAWT website for more information.

27 April 2010


Johnny Mathis sang "Chances Are", but he wasn't crooning about luck so much as love. In math and science, chance can more accurately be expressed and measured using the language of probability. For instance, we know that if a person flips a coin, there's a .5 (or 50 percent) probability that it will land showing heads, and an equal probability it will show tails. -- unless the coin flipper is using a two-headed coin.

Probability becomes confusing for folks when presented with a slightly more involved problem. Let's say the same person intends to flip a coin 100 times. Other things being equal, there is a reasonable probability that approximately 50 of those flips will show heads, and 50 tails. So let's say we've arrived at the halfway point with 45 heads and 5 tails. Shouldn't the probability be greatly increased that the next toss will be tails? Alas, no. For you see, each toss is a discreet event, and that is what the probability is based on. The next toss still has a 50 percent probability of being either heads or tails.

Ah, so what if we have 100 people, all tossing a coin at the same time? The same odds hold true for each individual. For the group as a whole, it is reasonable to expect that approximately half will be heads, and half tails.

Things really get dicey (as it were) when we introduce conditional probability, which is the interaction of not one variable (heads or tails), but two variables which may affect each other. Steven Strogatz, a math professor who teaches conditional probability, has broken it all down nicely for us in his article on the interaction of variable outcomes. The subject is a bit tricky, but well worth understanding, since we encounter conditional probability every day of our lives. Check it out.

26 April 2010


I'm reading Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, the first novel in her Native American series. In one passage, reference is made to the Wendigo, a mythical creature among Algonquin peoples. Flash back fifty years to a barbershop (remember barbershops?) in a small rural Montana town. A teenager waiting for my turn in the chair, I idly thumbed through the collection of outdoor men's magazines (Argosy, Field & Stream, et al.), and came across a shorty story by Algernon Blackwood called "The Wendigo". I did not realize that Blackwood was a prolific writer of ghost stories, in a similar vein to H.P Lovecraft ... though darker. Thankfully there were several in line for haircuts ahead of me that day, because I could not put it down. The story was written in 1910, and is "a camper tale set in the Canadian wilderness. A hunting party separates to track moose, and one member is abducted by the Wendigo of legend."

Etched into my memory is the final passage in the book, in which the remaining hunters have returned to camp, where one man recounts hearing the missing hunter's screams, and discovering his tracks being pursued by the much larger tracks of a predator .... until both sets of tracks vanish into thin air. At that moment they hear a chilling sound -- high overhead, tracking back and forth across the sky at impossible speeds, they hear their missing comrade's voice -- "My feet afire!! My feet afire!!"

Only later in life did I pursue the story, and discover that it has its foundation in Native American myth -- a Wendigo is a malevolent, cannibalistic spirit into which humans could transform, or which could possess humans. According to Basil Johnston, "The Wendigo was gaunt to the point of emaciation, its dessicated skin pulled tautly over its bones. With its bones pushing out against its skin, its complexion the ash gray of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into their sockets, the Wendigo looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the grave. What lips it had were tattered and bloody .... Unclean and suffering from suppurations of the flesh, the Wendigo gave off a strange and eerie odor of decay and decomposition, of death and corruption."

That description doesn't precisely match the image I chose from among many artists' renditions (see below, click to enlarge), but I think they both convey the visual force of threat, evil and death. The mention of the Wendigo was sufficient to encourage Indian children (and adults) to behave, and I can see why. The story certainly sent chills down the spine of a teenager sitting in a barbershop in broad daylight, lo these many years ago.

25 April 2010


During my pre-high school years in northern Montana in the 1950s, I was lucky to be a member of the Cub Scouts (my mom, bless her heart, was a den mother), and later the Boy Scouts. Scouting was an awesome adventure for this shy boy. My luck was doubled by virtue of living within easy travel distance of the Rocky Mountain Front. The eastward-facing slope of the Rockies offered limitless camping opportunities in its canyons and high country.

And camping was the ultimate lure of Scouting. Weekly troop meetings were fun. Community projects were fulfilling. Earning any of an array of merit badges in recognition of achieving skill and knowledge in a particular activity (art, first aid, wilderness survival, camping, archery, canoeing, et al.) was an exciting challenge. But camping out, especially in the mountains, was paradise.

Our troop leader was an able and enthused man who'd served as a Marine in WWII. He was a certified Scuba diver who helped with search and rescue. He was a man's man who inspired awe and obediance. And he was an expert organizer for the myriad logistical details which are required to make a weekend or weeklong camping trip for thirty boys a success.

Back then, equipment was crude compared to contemporary gear. The standard Boy Scout backpack was canvas, no padding, no backboard. The tents we used were also canvas affairs, notorious for leaking at the spot where you touched the roof during a rain storm (see image above -- click on any image to enlarge). But we were happy and proud of our gear, and ourselves. It is a mighty thing to realize that you have the skills to survive in the wild -- and a mightier thing still to set off by yourself into the wild, treading where no human foot has been. Wildlife sightings included moose, deer (whitetail and mule), Canadian lynx, elk, black bear, grizzly bear, pronghorn, mountain goat, and numberless birds and small mammals. We fished and ate our catch. We played tag in canoes on frigid alpine lakes. We listened to tall tales around the nighttime campfire. We explored mountain streams and dense quiet forests, marveling at the view and the sound of the earth breathing as wind swept through the trees. We lived as both social and primordial beings.

A few snippets from memory --
~~ going swimming in a glacier-fed stream, wearing only our (in those days) white briefs in lieu of swim suits, one boy's underwear turned blue. We were astounded, thinking that the water must be even colder than it felt. It turned out that the boy's mother had used a bit of starch when washing her whites.
~~ during one campout with a troop from another town, I was tentmates with a friend who played the bugle . He'd volunteered to play Taps at lights-out, then suggested that I give it a shot (I was a French horn player). At first reluctant at the thought of screwing up such a venerable moment, I finally jacked up my courage and stepped out into the starry dark, raised the bugle to my lips, and lost myself in the flood of feelings and senses as I played the camp to sleep. Transcendent.
~~ taking part in Camp Napi, Montana's state equivalent to the national Scout ranch Philmont. Scouts from all over the state were there. It was a heady mix of skills contests, solo hikes and campfire gatherings, a highlight of my youth.

The skills and values taught by Boy Scouts served me well -- in the military, and during numberless camping and kayaking trips throughout my adulthood. The words of the Boy Scout oath, law and motto (see link to Boy Scouts above) still slide easily off my tongue. Some things are worth remembering.

Those days of innocence and adventure seem to be long gone. The name of Scouting has been tarnished by scandals -- sexual abuse, homophobia, the paramilitary aspect of the uniform. But I believe the founding spirit of scouting lives on. As it happens, my belief is shared by the articulate and iconoclastic travel writer Paul Theroux. His article on the Boy Scouts is both entertaining and provocative.

24 April 2010


Reviewing several events of the past few days (click on any image to enlarge)--

A) Yesterday Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed into law the nation's toughest, most xenophobic legislation against illegal immigrants, abrogating to the state what is in reality a Federal function. The law, which has already come under fire from President Obama (a Constitutional scholar) and from civil rights leaders, "would make the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and would give the police broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. Opponents have called it an open invitation for harassment and discrimination against Hispanics regardless of their citizenship status."
Indeed. It happens that Arizona channels more illegals from Latin American into the US than any of the other states (California, New Mexico, Texas) which border Mexico. Paranoid stereotypes of illegals stealing jobs from Americans, or taking advantage of American social services aside, the fact remains that undocumented workers perform the vast majority of unskilled, underpaid labor all across the country (see map below, click to enlarge) -- harvesting crops, working in manufacturing sweat shops, washing dishes, serving as maids, groundskeepers and housecleaners -- work which most US workers find too menial or low-paying.

It is disturbing that a law is now in place which will place millions of residents (documented US citizens as well as undocumented workers) at risk of racial profiling, jail and possible deportation. Further, our system of laws requires that law enforcement must have probable cause before detaining a suspect. If an officer drives past a field or enters the kitchen of a restaurant, and sees both white and Latino workers, what will be his probable cause for arrest? The color of the suspect's skin, no more, no less. Tell me we have not descended to this.
This strikes me as sleight of hand. During the past twenty years, drug-related crime along the border with Mexico has become a much more critical issue than undocumented immigration ever was. But the War on Drugs, like every other form of prohibition, has been a dismal and expensive failure. How ironic that Republicans are not turning on that very portion of the electorate whom they had been courting so amorously during the Presidential election -- the Latino vote.
It is time to face the facts. We will always have a need for inexpensive labor -- why not simply do as we've done with alcohol (and should do with marijuana), i.e., legalize and regulate? It would be simplicity itself to issue temporary green cards good for six to twelve months, and allow our economy to recover and flourish with the help of a segment of the labor force which many thousands of small, medium and large employers are only too happy to hire, legally or otherwise. With so many other problems to deal with, immigration seems to me to be a non-issue. (Please see my post on 09 April 2010 for further thoughts.)

B) Four days ago the Deepwaater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing a number of crew and unleashing both an uncontrollable fire and an oil slick before the platform evenually collapsed beneath the surface of the sea. The well head at the sea bottom, at first reported as being seals, is currently leaking up to 1000 barrels of crude oil per day, presenting the prospect of catastrophic damage to Gulf beaches, fisheries and wildlife habitat. Regular readers will recall that on 31 March I posted here, urging the Obama adminstration to reconsider its decision to open up thousands of miles of Atlantic Coast, the eastern Gulf Coast, and Alaska's North Slope to offshore oil drilling. One of the reasons I cited for my opposition was the prospect of just such disasters as this. Only six days later, in my 06 April post, I cited the running aground of a Chinese cargo ship on the Great Barrier Reef, which release a miles-long slick of oil and fuel which threatened the world's largest ecosystem. It is as though nature and man are conspiring to prove me correct -- though I would gladly forego their assistance. Clearly, money and power continue to substitute for rational thought in corporate and political America.

C) Lastly, on a much more positive note, it was 94 years ago today that the Proclamation of the Republic of Ireland was announced by Padraic Pearse outside the GPO (General Post Office - see the GPO sign below) in Dublin, Ireland, an act which was the opening salvo in the Easter Rising against the oppressive hegemony of England. For a grand and rousing description of events both before and after, I refer the gentle reader to Morgan Llywellyn's excellent series of historical novels -- 1916, 1921, 1949, 1972, and 1999, known collectively as "The Irish Century". Long live the Irish, and may their troubled island one day be reunited, freed from interference from the British crown.

23 April 2010


This from a concerned (some would say radical) environmentalist -- in the spring of 1995 I bought a new Ford Explorer XLT, a midsized SUV, straight from the factory. Because a previous dealership in suburban Philadelphia had played fast and loose with me on a used Explorer, I'd written directly to the president and CEO of the company, who was willing to negotiate a deal on a new one that was satisfactory to all parties -- from a different dealership. I was allowed to choose the options I preferred in wheels, color (forest green), interior (tan), et al. After several weeks' waiting, I took delivery of what has turned out to be the best vehicle I've ever owned.

Contrary to my son's kidding reference to the Ford "Exploder", and contrary to adverse publicitiy related to tire failures and rollovers (caused both by driver recklessness and by the use of Firestone tires), my vehicle has been utterly reliable, versatile, and a pleasure to own. It has carried everything from lumber, to kayakers and their gear, to luggage on a long trip (including two cat carriers), to groceries -- and is easily adaptable for car camping.

From time to time SUVs come under fire for somehow being dangerous because, by virtue of their size and weight, in an accident they protect their passangers, while the occupants of smaller vehicles in a collision don't fare so well. I'm thinking, this is the SUV's fault? Shouldn't ALL vehicles be crashworthy, regardless of size? Don't point fingers at me just because you were too impulsive or too stupid to buy a safe car. Talk to the car manufacturers, and the government.

SUVs have also (and rightly) been criticised for being gas-guzzlers. That's MY beef with car manufacturers and the government. We know the technology has been around for decades for improving gas mileage -- if only so many corporations (auto industry, steel industry, oil industry) didn't have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Not too long ago I rode in a friend's Toyota Prius, which gets 50 mpg on the highway, and even more in town, since at city speeds and especially at stop lights, it switches to its electric motor. There is no possible justiification for comparable mileages not being attainable on private vehicles of all sizes. I'm waiting for big business to catch up with reality and start manufacturing cars and SUVs with hybrid engines, or other alternatives to the combustion of fossil fuels. But I have no regrets about driving my Explorer. It has greater cargo capabilities than smaller vehicles. There's always a trade-off.

Two days ago my Explorer turned over 150,000 miles, after 15 years of faithful service. The average of 10,000 miles per year is somewhat lower than the average of 12,000 miles per year which I drove in my youth. The old beast (like me) is starting to show her age, but (also like me) still has a long way to go before making the last departure for that great highway in the sky.

22 April 2010


Incredible. It has been a full forty years since the first Earth Day, on 22 April 1970. The brain child of Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI), the nationwide (and later global) event was intended to inspire awareness and understanding of the Earth's environment, in the hope that a grassroots outcry about environmental issues might prove to the Federal Government just how distressed Americans were in every constituency. According to the public announcement of the upcoming event, "Rising concern about the environmental crisis is sweeping the nation's campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam ... a national day of observance of environmental problems, analogous to the mass demonstrations on Vietnam, is being planned for next spring, with a national environmental 'teach-in' ... "

[I was living in Houston, TX, when the first Earth Day was celebrated -- attending a computer programing school and enjoying my first glipses of the counterculture, which gifted me with a hippie girlfriend named Ginger, my first experiences with marijuana and psychedelic drugs and rock festivals, an alternative view of the world, and a German shepherd puppy. At age 23, I had already experienced two years of college and two years in the Army (half of that in Vietnam), and so had a wider and more varied perspective than many people. As was true with feminism, I was reading, thinking and talking about our environment long before it became fashionable to do so. ]

Earth Day was the signature moment marking the beginning of the modern environmental movement as a cohesive entity, uniting scattered groups concerned with single issues into a powerful voice for re-evaluation and change. Remarkably, it worked because so many individuals organized at the local, grassroots level. Over 20 million Americans, and thousands of schools and communities, took part. Today, though it receives less publicity, Earth Day thrives in virtually every country on Earth, a monumental and fitting tribute to the vision and voice of Senator Nelson.

21 April 2010


No, it's not a Caribbean or Brazilian steel drum band. Circadian rhytm refers to the 24-hour cyce of biochemical, physiological and behavioral processes of living creatures, including humans. The chief source of external cues governing our daily internal clock is sunlight.

Were we left to our own devices, unfettered by work or home life, we would tend to settle into a daily rhythm of activity which takes fullest advantage of the hours of darkness for our sleep needs. However, as individuals we must make adjustments to our natural clock settings to accomodate work and other prioritites. Over the years I've had to adjust to working 12 hours on and 12 hours off (Army communications), 24 hours and and 24 hours off (ambulance driver), being up well before the crack o'dawn (forestry wildlife tech, bus driver), and working from midnight to 8 a.m. (DCS security officer). Most other jobs were daylight, weekday events.

For those whose work imposes a "normal" schedule, say 8 a.m. - 5 p.m., Monday - Friday), there are many who still have problems sleeping. Michael Terman describes how it is possible to fine-tune one's rhythms to more fully match the need for rest. His article is informative and timely, even for those who get enough rest -- for you probably know someone who doesn't. (click on the above image to enlarge)

19 April 2010


Many, many years ago, at 165 lb. I found myself to be 10 lb. overweight, and decided to correct the situation through fasting. I'd fasted previously, for a day or two. This time I fasted for a few weeks, and lost 30 lb. It took only marginally longer than that to regain the weight I'd lost.

Fast forward (so to speak) twenty years or so. Once more I'd inched up the scale, until I was substantially even more overweight. At 5'9", I'd attained a weight just shy of 200 lb. This time I went about losing weight in a more sensible manner, watching my diet and limiting my food intake to 1200 calories of balanced nutrition per day. The resulting drop of around 2 lb. per month was far easier to manage. I've since reached, and even dipped beneath, my high school weight of 155 lb.

During neither time interval was I exercising studiously (although in the years between I went through a period of athleticism that included karate, weight training and whitewater kayaking.) I accept the value of both diet and exercise in staying fit. An article in the NYTimes examines exercise as a component of losing weight. The findings of recent studies reveal that exercise may not play as important a role weight loss as had been previously accepted, but that it still is important in losing the weight one manages to lose.
My principal guide for a target weight is the Body/Mass Ration (BMR) Index, which offers a weight range for people of different heights, broken down by gender. Generally, I believe that lighter is more healthy, within one's range. This varies depending on how much exercise one does. Less exercise should mean a lower target weight. More exercise should allow for a higher target weight, since (a) muscle mass is denser than other soft tissue, and (b) the greater number of calories burned will require a greater caloric intake to support. At least, that is my understanding based on current research.

18 April 2010


ENTERING. One of the prime territories for meeting and mating is, for better or worse, the workplace. I've ventured into that territory a few times over the years, against my own better judgment. One can never regret a learning experience, but one can also hope to caution others so that we don't keep re-inventing the wheel. When you're first taken by someone, it is hard to remind yourself that oops, if we do this and then break up, it could be very sticky having to continue to work together. A NYTimes advice column addresses several very interesting questions posed by readers who feel that pull to engage with a coworker.

FIXING. In 1985 psychiatrist Herriet Lerner first published The Dance of Anger (revised in 2005). Though the book is aimed primarily at women in relationships, it is a wonderful resource for anyone. Lerner is clear and informative in discussing how each of us contributes not only to our partnerships, but also our relationships with siblings, parents, children, friends, coworkers. Her perspective on owning one's behavior and discovering how one's family history may affect life choices is illuminating.

SURVIVING. For well over a century, the prevailing wisdom has been that people who are married have a longer life expectancy and are generally healthier than people who are single. This perception was based on an 1858 study by William Farr, a British epidemiologist who divided adults in France into three groups -- those who were married, those who had never married, and those whose spouses had died. His analysis was ground-breaking, and helped to establish the field of medical statistics. As Tara Parker Pope points out, however, Farr's study was incomplete. It did not include unmarried couples living together, gay couples, or those who were divorced. Nor did it distinguish between happy and unhappy marriages. Contemporary studies suggest that one's quality of life, whether married or single, has a more compelling effect on health and well-being than does marriage itself.

Many thanks to my friend YS, who recommended The Dance of Anger to me.

17 April 2010


Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano has been actively erupting since March. The most recent event on April 14 produced an ash cloud sufficiently massive to disrupt air travel throughout the British Isles and nearly all of Europe, with ripple effects for travelers around the world. Continuous eruptions are so rare that vulcanologists have insufficient data to determine how much longer the current event will continue.

Iceland is a geolological paradox -- a land of active volcanoes and glaciers. It is the interaction of the two which has made the current eruptions so ... well, seismic. Before it erupted, the Eyjafjallajokull volcano was overlain by an ice sheet which prevented the possibility of earlier, smaller eruptions to release in smaller doses the titanic magma pressures beneath. Only after the pressures reached epic proportions were they intense enough to break the ice barrier. In addition to the spreading ash cloud, meltwater from the superheated ice sheet poses a threat of significant flooding.

As Simon Winchester points out in a NYTimes article, the last time the planet experienced such force was in 1883, when the island of Krakatoa (located between Java and Sumatra) erupted. The explosion was heard as far as 3000 miles away, and destroyed the entire island, ejecting five cubic miles of ash, rock and pumice into the atmosphere. For years after, airborne ash created light displays around the world -- vibrant sunsets, horizon rainbows and a blue moon. An entire art movement was born. Many thousands of paintings of landscapes with red, yellow, salmon, amber and purple skies were produced, the most famous of which was Edvard Munch's "The Scream."

The current ash cloud is being carried to altitudes as high as 30,000 feet, which may allow it to spread across Asia, perhaps reaching North America. In addition to the potential for destroying any air-breathing engine, ash presents serious health risks, particularly for those with asthma or other breathing disorders. The individual ash particles are so fine that once breathed in, they adhere to the moist linings of the lungs -- in effect creating cement.

16 April 2010


In yesterday's post I pointed out the demographic makeup of the Tea Party movement, and suggested that, far from being representative of the American electorate, TPers are a radical fringe who believe that Republicans (and the nation) can never be conservative enough.

A friend and regular follower brought to my attention an article by Frank Rich in the NYTimes. The article places the movement in historical perspective, and also shines a light on the recent eruption of death threats and acts of vandalism against liberals and even moderates who don't happen to share the views of the radical right. In the process, Rich reveals an aspect of our current political unrest which cannot be overemphasized -- that beneath the surface, racism is an undeniable prime mover.

Our country's first black president has maintained a demeanor of balance and dignity, even when provoked in the most public and confrontational terms (witness his composure when Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouted "You lie!", interrupting a nationally-televised Presidential address to Congress last September). While no one in a public forum has yet resorted to the N word, it's clear that Barack Obama's race is a problem for many who are still living in the pre-civil rights era. If his skin color were white, the level of virulence in public and Congressional debate would be far lower, this observer believes. But don't take my word for it. Please take the time to read Rich's article, and draw your own conclusions.

We live (ideally) in a diverse, pluralistic society, one in which I may disagree with your views, but I will defend your right to hold them. It would be a shame to allow our ideals to be smeared by rigid ideology, or worse, by domestic terrorism.

15 April 2010


In politics, as in so many other aspects of our lives, when one encounters outspoken views on issues which affect us, it pays to know a little something about the people espousing those views. In recent months the Tea Party Movement has been getting a lot of attention for their unfounded, emotional street theater protesting the policies of the Obama administration.

It should be sufficient commentary to note that a certified airhead like Sarah Palin is one of the Tea Party's stars. But let's look a little deeper into the rank-and-file members promoting all this drama. According to a poll published in the NYTimes, "the 18 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45 ... More than half say the policies of the administration favor the poor, and 25 percent think that the administration favors blacks over whites." Further, although most are adamant about reducing the size and influence of government, nearly all support Social Security and Medicare. In other words, "don't spend tax money unless it is on me."

More specifically, of Tea Party supporters --

~ 59 percent are male.
~ 89 percent are white.
~ 75 percent are 45 or older.
~ 54 percent are Republicans who wish to see the party become even more conservative.
~ 73 percent identify themselves as somewhat or very conservative.
~ 50 percent attend church regularly.
~ 70 percent are married.
~ 68 percent are middle to upper class.
~ 97 percent are registered to vote.
~ 56 percent are employed.
~ 37 percent graduated from college.
~ 56 percent make $50,000 per year or more.

Is it just me, or do these figures appear NOT to fit the self-portrayal by Tea Party members as regular folks, middle class, a cross section of the American public? News flash -- the Tea Party is a group of ultra-conservative, reactionary, racist Luddites who in no way represent the values of the majority of Americans. Their melodrama rings hollow in the absence of substantive evidence for their views. I'm reminded of the old joke -- how many Republicans does it take to change a light bulb? Five. One to actually change the bulb, and four to sit around and reminisce about how good the old bulb was.

The good news is that the more the Tea Party acts out, the more the progressive policies of the current administration are revealed in contrast as being rational and aimed at the greater public good. So sail on, Tea Partiers -- you are your own worst enemy.

14 April 2010


John Tierney reports in the NYTimes that for the first time, rigorous clinical studies are being conducted into the potential positive effects of administering hallucinogens (in this case, psilocybin) in the treatment of mental disorders -- including depression, PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety disorder -- and in expanding our understanding of human consciousness.

The double-blind trials are administered under benign, controlled conditions, with trained medical and mental health professionals on hand to monitor patients' experiences. Prestigious institutions taking part include Johns Hopkins University, the University of Arizona, Harvard University, UCLA, and New York University, with most funding coming from non-profit groups.

It is remarkable to me that forty years after my own introduction to psychoactive drugs (back in the days when I thought I was a hippy), the U.S. government still clings to a paranoid perception of drug research that dates back to the 1930s. As in so many changes in attitude, the feds lag far behind the scientific community and the general public.

A short list of substances I've tried includes marijuana, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, speed, hashish, Jimson root, sacred datura (see image above), mescaline, laughing gas (in a dentist's office), and others. Intuitively, I paid attention to set and setting, that is, to my mindset at the time and to my physical and social surroundings. No one who is struggling with a mental disorder, emotional turmoil or extreme physical discomfort should try such substances, unless under the supervision of a trained therapist.

To give you an example -- the first time I tried acid (LSD) was alone, in my tiny duplex apartment in Tucson, Arizona in 1970. I trusted the purity of the drug, since I knew and trusted the person who'd given it to me. I had no time obligations to meet, no pressures or distractions. It was a beautiful experience -- candles, enjoyable music, a safe environment. As happens to many, I felt my normal psychological and sensory perceptions alter, revealing nuances of emotion and color which had been present all along, but which my busy daily mind had failed to notice.

Let's be clear about a common misconception -- drug-induced hallucinations are not inherently unpleasant or overpowering. They vary from individual to individual, but do not include seeing, hearing or feeling anything that doesn't exist (as in the image below). No little green men or fanged monsters. Rather, one's sensory perception is intensified. Using LSD as an example -- colors are more vivid, the harmonics and overtones in music emerge more clearly, the taste of various foods is intensified (though one does not feel an unusual urge to eat, as happens with marijuana). Further, there are no visual straight lines when under the influence of acid. Rather, one sees gentle, undulating curves and soft pulsing motion, as though the walls were slowly breathing. It's a bit like viewing a scene through a film of water falling along a pane of glass. Clarity remains, but in a different form. Trying to describe the visual effects of acid is a bit like trying to describe the Grand Canyon to a blind person. Words give only an approximate impression of the reality.
(Note: so-called bad trips are normally a result of two possible factors -- one's emotional state going into the experience, or the chemical purity of the substance being used. When I was younger, purity was common. These days it is rare -- street acid is laced with everything from strychnine to baby powder. I would not trust it today.)

Psychologically, one is lifted from daily cares and assumptions, one's sense of self gradually dissolves and becomes one with the surroundings, an organic part of an organic whole. It is a very moving, transformative experience, one which many interpret in spiritual terms, but which I see as simply noticing what was always there, both within myself and in my surroundings.

I've intentionally never been a heavy or habitual user of any psychoactive drug, so I've avoided encounters with bad trips or mental/physical side-effects altogether. And I've never ventured into the realm of more addictive or destructive drugs like heroin or angel dust or opium, again by choice. It is an urban myth that there is a domino effect among drugs, with marijuana inevitably leading to intermediate drugs and finally to heroin. More government sensationalism with no credible clinical evidence for support.

It has been twenty years since I last smoked marijuana, and twenty-five or thirty years since I last dropped acid. There have been no adverse residual effects in my life. To the contrary, I'm grateful for the expansion of consciousness which I went through, and absolutely support the current trend toward clinical studies which may reveal medical or psychological uses for hallucinogens (just as there are legitimate medical uses for marijuana in the treatment of claucoma or chronic pain). Here is Tierney's article -- it describes in greater detail the rigor of the trials, and the experiences of those participating.

13 April 2010


Justice John Paul Stevens announced last Friday that he will be retiring from the U.S. Supreme Court at the end of the current term. His announcement presents President Obama with his second opportunity to nominate a new Justice -- his first was Sonia Sotomayor.

The President already has a short list of ten possible nominees. Two seemingly opposing forces will guide his selection -- the need to appoint someone who is moderate enough to gain approval in the no-longer-filibuster-proof Senate, against the need to appoint somone who is liberal enough to create at least the beginnings of ideological balance in a Court which is ideally impartial, but which is currently so packed with conservative justices that it has shifted to a reactionary stance which pays too little attention to the Constitution and the precedent of law.

It is a Gordian knot. Obama is both an idealist and a pragmatist. I've not agreed with all his decisions thus far in his presidency, but he's still the most intelligent and thoughtful leader to occupy the office in decades. Since his appointee, if approved, will serve an indefinite term, one can only hope for an experienced jurist, deeply schooled in the Constitution, eloquent in his/her opinions, and unafraid to buck the tide of the conservative majority.

Weighing in on the debate, here are a few letters to the NYTimes. I found the first two to be particularly evocative.