Skipping towards Armageddon

Those people wandering around with giant signs proclaiming “THE END OF THE WORLD IS AT HAND!”? Sometimes you have to wonder if they’re onto something.

A recent Commonwealth Club program brought together two men proclaiming a similar message: the potential end of the world is at hand in the stockpiles of nuclear weapons — most of them in Russia or the U.S. — around the globe. They aren’t roaming the streets with hand-lettered signs, but they have written two informative, slightly scary new books. Ploughshares Fund President Joseph Cirincione opened his talk by saying, “If you buy one book about nuclear weapons, buy this book.” He held up co-presenter Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident and the Illusion of Safety.  Command and Control (full disclosure, I haven’t finished all 632 pages yet) is investigative journalist (Fast Food Nation) Schlosser‘s “ground-breaking account of accidents, near-misses, extraordinary heroism, and technological breakthroughs.” It covers the history of nuclear weapons accumulated by the U.S. since the days of the cold war, and it will make most other problems shrink to insignificance.

Cirincione’s own new book, Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late, covers the good news — only nine states now have nuclear weapons, down from 23, and “only” 17,000 such weapons still exist — and the bad: that’s enough to destroy the planet without much trouble. (Cirincione did later hold up his own fine, smaller work with the comment, “If you buy TWO books…”)

This not-so-comforting realization of what an edge of obliteration we live on was only one effect of the discussion. The other was sheer gratitude for the planet’s survival. Standing between you and me and the edge of oblivion are fallible human beings who have, so far, been able to avoid all the happenstances, large and small, that could trigger nuclear disaster. We can all hope they continue to guard the edge, but triggers for disaster are still everywhere: aging weaponry, international angst and mistrust, and the always possible lone crazy person.

Moderator David Holloway, Professor of International History at Stanford University, asked the elephant-in-the-room question: Would the author/experts agree with General Lee Butler, former head of the Strategic Air Command, who said the avoidance of nuclear disaster was thanks to a combination of skill, luck and divine intervention?

“I would not cite divine intervention,” Schlosser replied. “But we’ve been very lucky.” Like climate change, the threat of nuclear disaster is brought about by human actions, he said, and can be corrected by the same.  Both of the experts talked of the dangers existing around the globe from having 17,000 weapons stockpiled, from the tensions between many countries, and the possibility that terrorists could get their hands on a few weapons.

But the point was driven home to this audience member when Cirincione put it this way. It all started, he explained, because we wanted to deter the Soviet Union — now, presumably Russia — from annihilating us. So how many Russian cities would we need to obliterate, he asked, for an adequate deterrance? One? Two? Say, Moscow and St. Petersburg? Maybe three? He explained further that nuclear weapons make no attempt to pinpoint military targets and avoid collateral damage. They simply demolish everything and kill everybody. To accomplish this “deterrance”, wipe Russia’s three most significant cities off the map, would require eight nuclear weapons.

We have five thousand.

I’m still not counting out divine intervention.

Afghanistan suggestion: Make tea, not war

Greg Mortenson in Afghanistan 3500ppx
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A glimmer of good news from the endless bad-news war in Afghanistan: the people doing the fighting are in touch with someone who was winning, a long time before they started fighting.

In the frantic last hours of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s command in Afghanistan, when the world wondered what was racing through the general’s mind, he reached out to an unlikely corner of his life: the author of the book “Three Cups of Tea,” Greg Mortenson.

“Will move through this and if I’m not involved in the years ahead, will take tremendous comfort in knowing people like you are helping Afghans build a future,” General McChrystal wrote to Mr. Mortenson in an e-mail message, as he traveled from Kabul to Washington. The note landed in Mr. Mortenson’s inbox shortly after 1 a.m. Eastern time on June 23. Nine hours later, the general walked into the Oval Office to be fired by President Obama.

Mortenson, of course, hasn’t been winning any battles. What he has been winning are the trust, and occasionally the hearts, of Pakistani tribal leaders in a long-running effort to educate their daughters.

The story of this school-building crusade, which came about as a thank-you gesture after Mortenson received help during a mountaineering mishap, is told in Three Cups of Tea. The story of the book — it went nowhere when published with a warrior subtitle, then caught on like wildfire when Mortenson won a mini-battle to bring it out as his originally intended plea for peace — is told in the talks he has been making around the country for several years.

To hear Mortenson talk, as this writer has happily done several times, is to become a believer in hope. Most of us have been coming home saying, “Gee, could we spend a few billions less on platoons and give a few billions to Greg Mortenson’s schools instead?” Mortenson, a giant of a man who clearly has no personal agenda, is not a motivational speaker. But his tale is compelling.

The title of that first book comes from his discovery, early on, that the first step in building anything — school, relationship, whatever — is to sit down over three cups of tea. Hundreds of cups of tea and a few near-death episodes later, he has quietly managed to forge relationships with isolated tribes and build schools for girls who will grow up — perhaps — to think there’s something good about America. Some schools have been destroyed (and occasionally rebuilt), some relationships have gone sour, but the idea that something good can be developed between the U.S. and that wild land without bombs and guns — or despite guns and bombs — is heart-warming. And more than a little surprising.

Mr. Mortenson, 52, thinks there is no military solution in Afghanistan — he says the education of girls is the real long-term fix — so he has been startled by the Defense Department’s embrace.

“I never, ever expected it,” Mr. Mortenson, a former Army medic, said in a telephone interview last week from Florida, where he had paused between military briefings, book talks for a sequel, “Stones into Schools,” and fund-raising appearances for his institute. (The Central Asia Institute, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to community-based education, primarily for girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan.)

But thanks to a few military wives, who read Three Cups of Tea and then insisted their husbands read it too, a connection was made between the warriors and the peacemaker. It is an unlikely, and in many ways perilous, partnership, but if you’ve read the book or heard the talk you probably feel a glimmer of optimism.

The military’s Mortenson-method efforts  in Afghanistan thus far are outlined in Elisabeth Bumiller’s July 18 New York Times report. His own job will now involve convincing the elders that he hasn’t become a tool of the military. It’s a strange world out there. But it seems somehow more hopeful.

Unlikely Tutor Giving Military Afghan Advice – NYTimes.com.

Best city for geezers? NY lays claim

Landscape photo of Statue of Liberty in the af...
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New York City seems to be all aglow in being named by the World Health Organization to its Global Network of Age-friendly cities. As Clyde Haberman reported about the event in the July 1 New York Times,

“It makes us members of a club of people who are struggling, in their own and perhaps much different ways, with learning about and thinking about and approaching this issue,” said Linda I. Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services. “It’s really a lovely recognition.”

One reason for the acknowledgment was a plan that city officials and the New York Academy of Medicine announced last year to improve life for older New Yorkers. All sorts of ideas were put forth, on matters like transportation, housing, health care, job training, nutrition and cultural activities. To a large degree, it was more a wish list than a concrete program. But at least it showed that the city was thinking about issues that will only become more dominant.

Like other cities, New York has a population that is aging, if you will forgive a somewhat meaningless word that we are stuck with. After all, everyone is aging. It’s called living. The only people not aging are dead.

WHO says, of its Global Nework of Age-friendly Cities, that the problem lies with the fact that too many of us are aging and not dying.

Populations in almost every corner of the world are growing older. The greatest changes are occurring in less-developed countries. By 2050, it is estimated that 80% of the expected 2 billion people aged 60 years or over will live in low or middle income countries. The Network aims to help cities create urban environments that allow older people to remain active and healthy participants in society.

To that end, the Network got off the ground a few years ago, and now lists a few cities across the globe as having been accepted for membership. This week’s bulletin (excerpted above and below) lists the Big Apple as the first U.S. member, although the PDF of member cities also lists Portland, and one has to wonder how Portland’s going to feel about all of New York’s hoopla.

The WHO Age-friendly Cities initiative began in 2006 by identifying the key elements of the urban environment that support active and healthy ageing. Research from 33 cities, confirmed the importance for older people of access to public transport, outdoor spaces and buildings, as well as the need for appropriate housing, community support and health services. But it also highlighted the need to foster the connections that allow older people to be active participants in society, to overcome ageism and to provide greater opportunities for civic participation and employment.

The Global Network builds on these principles but takes them a significant step further by requiring participating cities to commence an ongoing process of assessment and implementation. Network members are committed to taking active steps to creating a better environment for their older residents.

A few years ago (2006) the Sperling’s Best Places people came out with a “Best Cities” list about which do the best job of caring for their aging folks. The “Best Cities for Seniors” study examined the state of senior care in the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States.

“This is different from the usual studies of retirement living,” said Bert Sperling, the study’s primary author. “When we first retire, we have the energy for traveling and sightseeing. At some point, we will all need specialized resources and facilities to help us cope with aging. That’s what this study examines.”

This unique new study, produced in partnership with Bankers Life and Casualty Company, identifies cities that offer the best resources for less active seniors. The study analyzed nearly 50 categories such as various senior living facilities, comprehensive medical care, specialized transportation services, and a significant senior population.

Top Ten Cities for Seniors

  1. Portland, OR
  2. Seattle, WA
  3. San Francisco, CA
  4. Pittsburgh, PA
  5. Milwaukee, WI
  6. Philadelphia, PA
  7. New York, NY
  8. Boston, MA
  9. Cincinnati, OH
  10. Chicago, IL

Haberman takes issue with that ‘Senior’ word along with the ‘aging’ word. “What does that make the rest of the populace — juniors?” This space (an unabashed fan of Sperling’s #3 city — sorry, #7; but you’re my #2) concurs. But Great Geezer Towns probably wouldn’t cut it with WHO.

Does this sound exciting? New TV channel for the over-50s

As if there weren’t already about 500 more TV channels than anyone can possibly manage, news comes from Britain about Vintage TV’s plans to launch in a few months.

It is the generation that has had it all: five decades of peace and prosperity, technological and social revolution bringing longer and more fulfilled lives, followed by fat pensions. Now, when they are tired of roaring about on their new motorbikes, working out at the gym or renovating their Umbrian farmhouses, the baby-boomer generation will be able to relax with its own television channel.

Vintage TV, which is due to begin broadcasting in September, is aimed at the over-fifties. It will focus on culture and music from the post-war rock’n’roll years – from the Berlin airlift to the fall of Mrs. Thatcher. The presenters lined up for Vintage, which will be available to 10 million viewers via Sky and Freesat, include veteran broadcaster Paul Gambaccini, 61. The Who singer Roger Daltrey, 66, Blondie’s Debbie Harry, 64, Yes keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman, 61, are also set to appear.

One of the innovations on the 24-hour channel will be newly commissioned videos for 500 hits that were in the charts before they became a compulsory accompaniment for the MTV generation in the 1980s. The creators of Vintage said the programming would provide a “destination” for the fifty-somethings who find their interests squeezed by broadcasters looking to attract younger viewers.

No amount of Googling produced an answer to the burning question of whether Vintage TV will be offered to U.S. viewers, but couch potatoes have to hope. And this space, which does advertise itself as focusing (more or less) on issues of concern to over-50 generations, felt you should hear it here first.

We thought they had it all – now baby boomers get own TV channel – TV & Radio, Media – The Independent.

Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus speaks on micro-lending — and world hope

Muhammad Yunus, Managing Director, Grameen Ban...
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Recently, someone remarked to Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi banker/ economist/ crusader against poverty, that he must be a very rich man.

“I said, why would I be a rich man?” he tells an attentive audience. “Well, you have all those companies; you must be rich to have all those companies.”  Yunus scratches his chin and smiles the beguiling smile that makes you want to be a believer. “Oh. I start these companies, but I would never own them.” You are now a believer.

Yunus was in San Francisco Monday, at a social entrepreneurship program sponsored by the Commonwealth Club. He is winding up a U.S. tour promoting his new book, Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs. In the process, he is promoting a theory that social business — business operated for the benefit of society (such as the poor who are commonly the beneficiaries and owners of Yunus’ companies) — can and should be a viable segment of the global economy.

Grameen Bank, which was begun in 1976 with $27 out of Yunus’ pocket and now provides loans to more than 8,100,000 borrowers — no collateral, just good faith and trust — would seem to prove his point. Defaults on Grameen micro loans are so few as to make Fannie Mae weep.

From micro loans, Yunus expanded into business ventures on the same basic principle: to achieve one or more social objectives through the operation of the company. The investors/owners can gradually recoup the money invested, but cannot take any dividend beyond that point.

There are now Grameen (the word refers to a rural village) companies in banking, agriculture, healthcare, telecommunications and other areas.  Yunus gave one as an example of why he believes the principle works:

Grameen and Group Danone went into a joint venture to create a yogurt fortified with micro-nutrients to decrease malnutrition for the children of Bangladesh. The yogurt is produced with solar and bio gas energy and is served in environmentally friendly packaging. The first plant started production in Late 2006. The 10-year plan is to establish 50+ plants, create several hundred distribution jobs and self-degradable packaging.

The environment is protected, children get healthy, grow up to create businesses. Yunus spoke of one skeptic saying, “where will I get a job?” and said he explained, “You don’t look for a job, you create a job.”

Grameen Bank has more than 2500 branches — now including three in New York (where Yunus would like to see payday loan and check-cashing operations go out of business), one in Omaha, and in the near future: one in San Francisco. If Yunus is enjoying the proving out of his theories and the lifting of vast numbers of people out of poverty, he may be enjoying most of all the reminiscences about those who scoffed at his notions in the 1970s.

“They said the poor were not credit worthy,” he smiles. “I was told, about non-collateralized loans, ‘You can’t do that!’ After 2008, I wanted to ask, ‘Who is credit-worthy?'”

Russian orphan Artyom, & another orphan story

Artyom and Vasya came from the same part of the globe as adoptive Americans — but the similarities end right about there. This is a personal perspective on another, happier-ending orphan story.

Seven-year-old Artyom Savelyev found himself at the center of an international incident recently, after being put on a plane by himself, with a one-way ticket back to Moscow and a note from his adoptive mother, 33-year-old Torry Hansen. “I am sorry to say that for the safety of my family, friends, and myself,” the letter said, “I no longer wish to parent this child. As he is a Russian national, I am returning him to your guardianship.”

She also said, “He is violent and has severe psychopathic issues”

Russian authorities were outraged, and suspended adoptions of Russian children. Some of the mom-for-a-year’s neighbors in Shelbyville, Tennessee, and many others who knew nothing more than what was reported in sound bites, were quick to condemn Torry Hansen and, in at least one instance, to say she deserved to go to jail. Investigations are ongoing.

Seventeen-year-old Vasya is the grandson of my friend Sally, who sent an e-mail today reminding everyone that there are not only two sides to every adoptive story, but some stories with hard-won happy endings. I’ve been following Vasya’s saga, via Sally’s e-mails, for over four years. There were two years (or perhaps a little more) of agonizing struggles with the red tape of the Ukranian government before Vasya finally arrived in the U.S. in 2007 at the age of 14, speaking no English and having an education at 5th grade level.

As reported today by his grandmother, Vasya is now fluent in English, finishing 9th grade in a private school, playing outstanding soccer, “an outgoing kid so proud of his newly-acquired driver’s license, a nice looking young man with a great personality. He is also an American citizen.”

All this, Vasya’s family emphasizes, “did not come about quickly, easily or smoothly.” They want others to know that adoptive families, as well as adopted children from abroad, can use a lot of support.

What about the future of adoptions of Russian children, currently on hold for U.S. citizens? The Joint Council on International Children’s Services, a membership-based advocacy organization, reported today,

The Department of State has received no information to confirm a suspension of adoptions from Russia to the United States.  Our Embassy in Moscow and other Department of State officials are talking with Russian officials to clarify this issue.

The Department of State is sending a high-level inter-agency team to Russia this weekend to meet with senior Russian officials, including officials from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Justice.  The U.S. delegation will emphasize the importance of this issue to the United States, and will discuss our mutual concerns about how to better protect the welfare and rights of children and all parties involved in intercountry adoptions.

Many thousands of Russian children have found loving, safe and permanent homes in the United States through intercountry adoption.   Families in the United States have adopted more than 50,000 children from Russia.

The good news is, despite governmental red tape and countless hurdles, there are far more Vasyas than Artyoms. Maybe Russia will remember that.

Guns as art and in the world

At my granddaughter’s art school, student work features what struck me as an awful lot of weapons: handguns, automatic rifles, daggers. “Well, Gran,” she replied to my comment on this high degree of angst, “we are teenagers.”

OK, I know it’s been two generations and at least 70 light years since I was a freshman art student myself, but I do miss the landscapes, still lifes and quiet figure studies. And I lament the angst.

I draw NO parallel, absolutely NO parallel between the excellent training and remarkable students at today’s art schools and the angst-level of terrorism. It is still both unsettling and heart-wrenching to pick up today’s New York Times and be greeted by a front page photo of a pretty,  baby-faced, all-innocence young girl pointing a gun upwards behind her head while in the casual embrace of her boyfriend, who is holding a larger handgun.

The boyfriend, as it happens, is a handsome young Russian who was killed by government forces a few months ago. The young woman, hardly more than a child, blew herself up in a Moscow subway on Monday, killing a lot of other innocent human beings. What is striking, among all the other ironies and tragedies of this picture, is the wealth of warmth and promise that seems to shine out of those two faces… if you cover up the guns. But those faces, and the bodies to which they were attached, are now dead.

I am holding onto my Brady Campaign membership.

Cycling a relief for Parkinson’s?

That old saw about bike-riding as something one never forgets has taken on a new meaning. According to a report in the latest New England Journal of Medicine, cycling skills learned long ago can remain even when the ravages of Parkinson’s have destroyed most other abilities to get around… or even to stand without aid.

Dr. Bastiaan R. Bloem of the Radboud University Nijmegen Medical
Center in the Netherlands thought he had seen it all in his years of
caring for patients with Parkinson’s disease. But the 58-year-old
man who came to see him recently was a total surprise.

The New England Journal of Medicine

A video from the Netherlands of a 58-year-old man
with a 10-year history of Parkinson’s disease showed him freezing in his
movements after a few steps. Yet he was able to ride a bicycle.

The man had had Parkinson’s disease for 10 years, and it

had progressed until he was severely affected. Parkinson’s, a
neurological disorder in which some of the brain cells that control
movement die, had made him unable to walk. He trembled and could walk
only a few steps before falling. He froze in place, his feet feeling as
if they were bolted to the floor.

But the man told Dr. Bloem something amazing: he said he was a regular
exerciser — a cyclist, in fact — something that should not be possible
for patients at his stage of the disease, Dr. Bloem thought.

“He said, ‘Just yesterday I rode my bicycle for 10 kilometers’ — six
miles,” Dr. Bloem said. “He said he rides his bicycle for miles and
miles every day.”

“I said, ‘This cannot be,’ ” Dr. Bloem, a professor of neurology and
medical director of the hospital’s Parkinson’s Center, recalled in a
telephone interview. “This man has end-stage Parkinson’s disease. He is
unable to walk.”

But the man was eager to demonstrate, so Dr. Bloem took him outside
where a nurse’s bike was parked.

“We helped him mount the bike, gave him a little push, and he was gone,”
Dr. Bloem said. He rode, even making a U-turn, and was in perfect
control, all his Parkinson’s symptoms gone.

Yet the moment the man got off the bike, his symptoms returned. He froze
immediately, unable to take a step.

Parkinson’s has to be among the most bewildering of diseases, to the patient and caregiver alike. A very old friend of mine, former dean of a major theological school and author of a long list of acclaimed books, has had Parkinson’s for decades. He is fortunate also to have a wife with spine of steel and persistence of Job. More than a decade ago, when he was in a period of severe decline, she agitated for changes in his medications she felt needed to be made — and they subsequently left for an anniversary cruise to Scandinavia.  Some years later, after he had lost control of his mobility and most other functions it was determined that his Parkinson’s was not Parkinson’s after all, but “Parkinson’s-like symptoms,” and once again his treatment was dramatically changed. To dramatic effect. Having missed his sharp wit and ability to make conversation on earlier visits, the last time I was in their town the three of us enjoyed a long and hilarious lunch in a local restaurant.

If the old, familiar bicycle can be utilized to revive mobility and offer a new route to exercise and enjoyment, it will be very good news for Parkinson’s families.

For Some, Cycling Eases Parkinson’s Symptoms – NYTimes.com.

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