Can Planet Earth Be Saved? Maybe. Still.

Wildfires 11.18One thing we absolutely know: the recent, tragic California wildfires were NOT due to “poor forest management.” Perhaps someone clued our president in on a few facts – since he did ease off the “It’s all their fault, stupid Californians” rhetoric. The facts: essentially all of the state’s publicly owned forests (including Plumas National Forest where the deadliest fire began) are controlled by the federal government. Mr. Trump recently reduced funds for cleaning up fire-prone vegetation. Meanwhile, though, who knows how many of those who simply accept Mr. Trump’s lies now have one more lie to confirm their belief that the globe isn’t warming and climate isn’t changing, and who needs to worry about the planet?Planet earth

It is our children’s and grandchildren’s planet we are playing with. Every regulations rollback that puts more pollution into the air and water, every “economy-boosting” measure that sends more CO2 into the atmosphere, every additional acre released from federal control so a few billionaires can get richer by mining, drilling, logging is lopping off health and life for future generations. That is, assuming the planet survives beyond the generations already born.

Planetary survival was at the heart of a recent Commonwealth Club program titled “A Four-Zero Climate Solution.” Climate One founder/director Greg Dalton brought together three leaders in the field to talk about the growing problem and discuss potential solutions. (Just to hear the words ‘climate’ and ‘solution’ in the same phrase is somehow heartening.) Panelists included Kate Gordon, a Partner in the Sustainability Practice of Ridge-Lane LP and a nationally recognized expert on the intersection of clean energy and economic development; author Hal Harvey (Designing Climate Solutions😉 and Stanford professor Arun Majumdar, co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy.

Climate One 11.13.18

l to r: Arun Majumdar, KatenGordon, Hal Harvey, Greg Dalton

The panelists were talking about answers to the critical state of our plant’s climate being a four-pronged solution: getting the carbon grid to zero, switching to zero-emission vehicles, replacing (eventually – but all of this is long-term thinking) existing buildings with zero net-energy buildings, and moving toward zero-waste manufacturing. It’s complicated, politically fraught, and no easy task. But there IS a solution.

Now – if only we could start working toward it, our grandchildren might still have a planet. Most estimates – by people with working brains, that is – are that we have another 10, maybe 12 years max to tackle the problem; after that we can start looking for a way to move to Mars. But Mr. Trump just shrugs off the report issued by his own White House detailing what is clearly happening, saying, “I don’t believe it.”

We are in deep trouble.

Evolution & the Curious Child

 

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It was a simple question about being distant kin to the monkeys. The kind of question, like “Why is the sky blue?” “Where do stars go in the morning?” that any curious third grader might ask. His teacher, however, was irate. “Ridiculous,” she said. “Don’t bother me with impertinent questions.”

This kind of a rebuke did not sit well with the grandson of Peter Klopfer.

Klopfer is a distinguished Duke University biology professor, author of more than 20 books and an expert in animal behavior and evoluntionary biology. His daughter Erika Honore, the questioner’s mother, is a retired veterinary scientist with multiple degrees and the author of A Concise Survey of Animal Behavior. She and her doctor husband know a thing or two about kinship with monkeys, and had – along with his grandfather – passed along enough anthropological truth to the third grader that his teacher’s rebuke had the opposite effect: now he wanted to know the story of evolution.

“Erika and I started looking for an age-appropriate book on evolution,” Klopfer says, “and it was nowhere to be found. That’s not to say that it doesn’t exist, but we couldn’t find a good book for six-to-ten-year-olds anywhere. So we decided to write our own.

Thus evolved Darwin and the First Grandfather, a small, colorfully illustrated (by Gretchen Morrissey) book of how humankind began.darwin-1

Darwin’s narrator, asked the where-did-we-come-from question by her own 8-year-old replies that she’ll tell him two stories. She tells first the biblical creation story – which would presumably please the creators of Texas textbooks (and which many if not most Christians see for what it is: a story.) Then she launches into another story, a tale of a boy names Charles and the discoveries he makes as he follows his own curiosity. It is a delightfully readable account of  creation from one perspective and evolution from the perspective of scientific truth.

Scientific publishers who had brought out Klopfer’s scholarly books were less than enthusiastic about undertaking a children’s book. The firm that had published his earlier children’s book had subsequently gone out of business, and he lacked a good connection to children’s book publishers. One atheist publisher was delighted with the idea, but eventually said he could find no way to market such a thing. “So we just put it aside,” Klopfer says now, “and it sat in a file cabinet for years.”darwin-4

Happily for children everywhere, the father-daughter duo recently dug the manuscript out again and decided to self-publish. Klopfer’s neighbor, a textile design artist, agreed to do the illustrations, and Darwin and the First Grandfather was born.

That third grade questioner? He did learn the scientifically accurate story of evolution, which today’s third graders can learn with the help of his mother’s and grandfather’s book. Currently he is a graduate student in computer science at Yale University.

 

Looking Globally at Death – & Life

Buda-conf.5In Japan the shift from Buddhism to secularism is complicating life and death. Ireland has launched a nationwide effort to encourage end-of-life planning. A Celtic Storyteller now based in Canada draws on her training as a nurse in helping people through illness and grieving. And at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, UK, one researcher/textile artist explores the intricate usefulness of cloth in the mourning process.

These were a few of the insights into end-of-life issues around the world shared at a recent Inter-Disciplinary.Net global conference in Budapest, Care, Loss and the End of Life. The conference provided a perfect excuse – once the abstract for my own paper was accepted – for this writer to take off several weeks for a memorable trip to Paris, Cologne and (eventually!) Budapest. The latter two ancient and wonder-filled cities I had never visited. More on travels later. This essay is a severely abbreviated commentary on a remarkable event, and explanation of the absence of any other commentary in this space over recent weeks. (The digital world does seem to have kept right on turning without my assistance.)

Inter-Disciplinary.Net was founded in the late 1990s by Dr. Rob Fisher, who gave up a tenured position at Oxford (not something many people would be inclined to do) to devote his entire and considerable energies to bolstering the “interaction of ideas, research and points of view that bear on a wide range of issues of concern and interest in the contemporary world.” The recent conference was the second global Inter-Disciplinary.Net event this writer has been privileged to attend, and they seem just to get better. As with more than a decade of conferences on end-of-life (and several other) issues, Care, Loss & the End of Life was organized and run by Nate Hinerman, PhD, Dean of Undergraduate Programs at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.  The following brief glimpses into end-of-life matters in other countries are summarized from three out of nearly two dozen presentations.

ancestor altar

Tomofumi Oka of Sophia University in Tokyo spoke on “Making Peace with Grief Through Indigenous Wisdom: A Case Study of Japanese Family Survivors of Suicide.” Oka illustrated his presentation with clips from Japanese films (thankfully with English subtitles) showing several Buddhist altars to departed relatives. The tradition of ancestor worship that has for generations been part of Japanese culture, Oka maintains, was helpful both in confronting death and in dealing with grief. As the country has become increasingly secular, though, the business of helping survivors through the grieving process has been turned over to nonprofits that are largely funded by the government – and Oka is dismissive of their usefulness. “You join a group of other survivors, talk about your loved ones for a while until you are ‘graduated’ into another course in which you’re supposed to get on with your life,” he told me. “The nonprofits don’t know what they’re doing, and the system just doesn’t work.” Japanese Buddhists seem to have it better.

One of the most moving presentations was titled “The Materialisation of Loss in Cloth,” given by Beverly Ayling-Smith. An award-winning textile artist and researcher, Ayling-Smith illustrated her presentation with images of burial cloths and related textiles, including some elegantly ethereal images of shrouds. “Cloth has its own language as curator Julia Curtis has written,” she comments, “‘. . . fold, drape, stretch, stain and tear – it signifies an emotional range from intimacy, comfort and protection, to more disquieting states of restriction fragility, loss and impermanence.’ It is this range that allows cloth to be used as a holder of memories of events, experiences and people.”

This storyteller bonded early in the conference with Celtic Storyteller Mary Gavan, whose mastery of the oral form is both challenge and inspiration to a practitioner of the written form. Gavan grew up “as a Celtic storyteller tramp,” delighting in the ancient tradition as she heard it from grandparents and friends across Scotland and Ireland. Her presentation was told as story from her two personal perspectives: community palliative care nurse and Celtic Storyteller. It served as a vivid demonstration of how effective the well-told story can be in communicating and understanding the complex emotions brought to bear at the end of life.

Buda-conf.3

There were many more: perspectives on loss and grief offered by participants from Turkey, Spain, Norway, Slovakia and elsewhere, and one mesmerizing – if not for the squeamish – illustrated discussion of an anonymous 15th century Middle English debate, “A Disputation Between the Body and the Worms.” On that latter, presenter Martin Blum of the University of British Columbia Okanagan read the ancient text “not only as a contemplation of the transitory nature of life, but also as an affirmation of life.”

Which was, in effect, what this conference managed to achieve: pulling together diverse global perspectives on death to create a giant affirmation of life.

 

 

 

Celebrating the Iran Nuclear Deal

nuclear cloudsThe mood was sheer celebration. “We’ve moved the boulder in the road,” said Joe Cirincione; “this model can be useful for other work.” Moving the boulder, a distinguished group of speakers repeatedly explained to the small, celebratory-mood audience, will lead to a safer world for our children and grandchildren, a world “where nuclear weapons are a thing of the past.” He was speaking of the Iran nuclear deal.

The Iran deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in Vienna on July 14 by the U.S., Iran, China, Russia, U.K., France, Germany and representatives of the E.U. – runs to approximately 159 pages, very few of which this right-brained writer has read. But I absolutely trust Joe Cirincione.

Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund, a nonprofit that works to bring about a world in which our children and grandchildren might live without the threat of being blown to bits by a nuclear bomb. A really attractive idea. (Ploughshares Fund was founded in 1981 by Sally Lilienthal, a remarkable San Francisco woman this writer was privileged to know in the decade before her death in 2006.) It was at a small gathering of Ploughshares supporters that Cirincione and several others – who have not only read the entire 159 pages, but helped write them – explained the details, and the impact, of the Iran deal to us, our grandchildren, and the world.

Many of the details are beyond the technical comprehension of most lay citizens (and more than a few of the politicians whose knee-jerk opposition has little to do with the safety of our future.) They include things like requiring that Iran reduce its 20,000 centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, to 6,104 over the next 10 years, giving up its most advanced centrifuges while using only their older model. Then there is the business of how far the country will be allowed to enrich uranium: no more than 3.67 percent, which will be okay for power plants but is far below the level needed for weapons. Iran also agreed to reduce its stockpile of uranium by 98 percent.dove of peace

These extraordinarily complex details were part of a conversation between Cirincione and Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy, Arms Control Association at the event. Davenport was among the outside experts traveling to Geneva, Vienna and elsewhere to help work out the agreement – “and knows more about the Iran deal than anyone I know,” Cirincione remarked, and spoke of the long, often painful path toward its success. Davenport said she could usually tell right away how some negotiation went – discussions that often ran into the small hours of the morning – by the expression on someone’s face.

We should all be smiling today.

 

 

 

Fighting off dementia

DementiaAlzheimer’s – already afflicting well over 5 million Americans – is expected to claim more than 16 million of us by 2050 if a cure isn’t found. Today it is at the top of the Bad News list of potential diagnoses for almost anyone over 50. Justifiably so, since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports than one in three seniors now die with Alzheimer’s or other dementia.

That’s the bad news.

The good news, explained recently by Patricia Spilman, M.S. at a sold-out Commonwealth Club event in San Francisco, is that there are things one can to do lower the risk, and perhaps slow the progress of the disease. Spilman, who is Staff Scientist at the Buck Institute’s Bredesen Lab, should know. She has spent more than two decades researching neurodegenerative disease, and has written and spoken extensively on Alzheimer’s and related diseases.

“Forgetting,” Spilman says, by way of reassurance, “is normal. You don’t need to remember where you put the car keys last week, or a doctor’s appointment last month.” And studies – including one by Buck Institute founding President and CEO Dale Bredesen M.D. that is fascinating even for a lay reader – suggest that cognitive decline can be slowed, or in some cases reversed.

Spilman’s prepared remarks consisted largely of useful, realistic advice about how to delay the cognitive decline most of us will experience at some point. The audience, ranging from 20-somethings to more than a few senior citizens, was furiously note-taking throughout (or furiously jotting down questions for the Q&A session to follow.)

Exercise – particularly activities that combine movement and navigation such as tennis or golf – is at the top of the list. “It’s easier if you have a partner,” Spilman suggests, “because this adds the important element of socialization. Walking, plus climbing, is particularly good if you try new routes.” More than a few audience members nodded knowingly when Spilman noted the increasing, widespread dependence on mindless GPS. “Take the opportunity to look at a map,” she said.

Cognitive decline can also be offset by paying attention to the critical need for plenty of sleep. To help with a good night’s sleep, Spilman advises allowing at least several hours between eating and going to bed, and having a dark room. Chronic stress is relieved by a combination of exercise and sleep, along with those other preservatives of gray matter, yoga and mindfulness meditation.

Also good for the brain: almost any sensory stimulation. Music, smells, touch. Spilman cites Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, and Norman Cousins’ Anatomy of an Illness, in which Cousins treated himself with comedy as useful reading.

“Do something new every week,” Spilman suggests; “every day. Have goals in later life. Take classes, volunteer, build intergenerational relationships, pursue spirituality, encourage others to change and to grow.”

Computer games can improve cognition also. Spilman did not mention any specific sites, but this writer has enjoyed BrainHQ, and other brainy items from Posit Science’s Karen Merzenich, as well as introductory games on the Lumosity site. Most fascinating of all is the University of California San Francisco (UCSF)’s Brain Health Registry, in which anyone can participate; it’s free, and your brain might wind up helping someone else’s brain one day.

The Q&A segment following Spilman’s talk was fast and full of both personal stories and pertinent questions: “What’s normal decline?” (The difference between not remembering the movie star’s name and not being able to do a job well. You might keep a diary of cognitive function.) “What about genetics – the father-daughter-son factors?” (Yet unproven.) “How about overexposure to electromagnetic fields? (Don’t have unnecessary radiation.) And enough other issues raised for two or three more hours.

No one’s brain, in any event, was idle. Which indicates that everyone in Spilman’s audience was lowering his or her risk of Alzheimer’s.

Saving One Small Piece of the Planet

Every now and then you can go home again… at least, home to a better planet. Here’s another story (OK, we admit to too many stories about the ducks…) from Mountain Lake in San Francisco’s Presidio National Park.

whirlpool

Mysterious whirlpool

Recently a few Mountain Lake Park regulars began to notice a strange and mysterious phenomenon: whirlpools in the lake! Mineral springs? Fresh water from the bowels of the earth bubbling up into this water-starved state? A submerged hot tub? As the King of Siam would have said, “It’s a puzzlement.”

Enter Jason Lisenby, Biological Science Technician with the Presidio Trust and a particular friend of Mountain Lake Park. It was Lisenby who intervened when this writer wanted to mount a campaign to find a mate for lonely Musco the Duck. “Wait, wait,” he said. “You will wind up with a lake full of – non-native – Muscovy ducks and nothing else.” Musco apparently got bored with being behind the giant dark fence while the non-native fish were being removed anyway, and has relocated to other waters. Where we hope he has found a family more appropriate if less devoted than the human admirers he had at Mountain Lake.

The whirls and bubbles, Lisenby explains, “are from a newly installed aeration and water-mixing system” recently turned on. “We are using a compressor to pump air through hoses to twelve locations around the bottom of the lake. The added oxygen and movement will help keep algae blooms at bay while we get the lake’s aquatic plant communities restarted.

whirlpools

More whirlpools, and a spot that’s lovely even on a foggy day

“Limiting algae will keep the water more clear, and clear water is good for our newly reestablishing aquatic plants. In the long run, the aquatic plants will do the work the aeration system is currently doing, but this is a solution until then.”

Who knew? Biological science knew. Already the lake is so clear it’s possible to see eight feet down (don’t try this yourself; the lake is not for swimming and diving), and this is a body of water so polluted by highway runoff, abandoned pets and assorted human detritus that only a few years ago you couldn’t see your hand six inches below the surface. You wouldn’t have wanted to get too near the water anyway.

aquatic plants

Aquatic plants coming soon (or their relatives will be coming soon) to Mountain Lake

All this, a little good news amidst the abundant smoldering global bad news, right here in the Presidio National Park. Your tax dollars, and biological science, at work.

Halleluia.

Want to put your brain to good use?

child Head

(Part Two of Data Today – Better Tomorrow)

Could this be you? Creating a better tomorrow through brain research??

It turns out one does not have to be a pro football linebacker to have a brain worth studying. One does not even need to have a brain like Albert Einstein’s, Steven Hawking’s or any of those scientists/exceptionalists/geniuses whose brains would seem worth figuring out.

One only needs to be 18 or over and willing to be studied, and then to go sign up on the Brain Health Registry. This entitles you to sit back and wait for your brain to help discover a cure for Alzheimer’s or ADHD or depression, or perhaps help find better ways to treat traumatic brain injury. Not bad, for just having a brain and investing a little time (no money.)

This writer got off to a sluggish start as a Brain Health Registry member. Signed up early on because it sounds like such a great endeavor, but then I ran into a few off-putting instructions like “This will take about 20 minutes. It is best done in a quiet room where there will be no distractions or interruptions.” Twenty minutes, quiet rooms and absence of distractions are three things hard to come by around my house.

Eventually, however, the requisite conditions were found, and I was off to create a better tomorrow – well, in partnership with a few thousand other participants and some very smart neuroscientists – by finding out stuff about the human brain. And this is one fascinating journey. The neuroscientists find it fascinating because they really are going to figure stuff out. But for participants, the fascination is in the process.

Participants enter a little basic, very general data about medical/family history etc. Then the fun begins. We have two sets of ‘Cognition’ tests aimed at assessing our memory, attention and other cognitive characteristics. “These tests give us a sense of how your brain is currently functioning,” the screen says. This participant can only wonder what the Brain Health assessment people think about how her brain is functioning. The ‘Cognition’ tests are computer games on steroids. For a while you try to remember and replicate the pattern of dots, and then you go to the card games. The card games require Yes or No answers about what the cards are doing, press D for Yes and K for No. My brain kept trying to tell me what the cards were doing, while my fingers tried to remember that K was not for Yes.

It is, all in all, a lot more fun that the computer games the rest of the world is playing.

In another three to six months, the BHR people will be reminding me to go back and do it again, or do something else, to see how the brain is getting along. Perhaps they will flag my entry and advise me to check myself into an institution. But more likely they will just combine my data with the data of a zillion more or less anonymous others – and find a cure for Alzheimer’s! Or depression! Or improvements in treatment of traumatic brain injuries! All with the help of my weary, aging brain. Plus, when the survey was completed I got an email from UCSF professor Michael Weiner, MD telling me I am a medical hero. “You’re helping to make brain research faster, better and less expensive – and ultimately that gets us closer to a cure for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other brain disorders that strike tens of millions of Americans every year.” Who could resist?

You may want to go straight over to the Brain Health Registry and join the fun.