Why We Name Our Children as We do.

Image result for babies images

Have you been following today’s trend in baby names? Whatever happened to names like George, Susan, Henry, Robert, Marvin, Kenneth, and Molly?

Names typically follow fashion and fashion, of course, changes just like clothing, hairstyles, and music favorites. We’ve this passion for the new, the trendy. For something that sets us apart. That says, “I am!” We want this for our kids as well.

Among the top five go-get-em names currently (2018) for girls are Emma, Olivia, Ava, Isabella, and Sophia; for boys, Liam, Noah, Oliver, Mason, and Lucas.

It used to be fairly common to name a first born boy after his father, but this has likewise tumbled out of fashion.

Religious folk are still drawn to biblical names like Joshua, Noah, Ethan, Matthew and John, though lots of people simply give their boys these names oblivious of their origin.

Sometimes parents are drawn to names of a TV or movie character such as Noah, Gabriella, Sidney, and Tristian.

Others associate a name with someone who’s impacted their life. I named my daughter after a cousin I’ve kept in touch with over a lifetime. Along the same lines, I’ve heard that Barack is increasingly popular.

Then again, sometimes we just like the sound of a name. I’ve always like Allison, Loran, and Natalie, for instance. My sister named her boy Michael, thinking it had a masculine ring to it, though ironically girls increasingly go by this name.

Today, a lot of parents want something unique, or a name their child’s unlikely to share with others. One of the things in this trend is that parents wlll vary a popular name, say rendering Noah into Noe, for example.

Racial and ethnic minorities have their own way of naming. Up to 30% of black girls, inspired by Black identity movements, have “invented” names to sound African such as the polysyllabic Shaniqua or Kadesha. Among boys, Jamal (Muslim), and DeShawn, a syntactical variant of Shawn are common.

Hispanics, on the other hand, though not averse to Anglo names for girls, overwhelmingly choose those terminating in the Spanish feminine –a like Isabella and Valentina.

One last observation related to choosing a name that stands out is the now frequent use of surnames for first names. Take my three grandchildren, Lincoln, Cole, and Hunter as examples. The Chinese have been doing this for years of course, the surname occurring first. One of the most popular boy names these days is Mason.

But what does it matter anyway? As Shakespeare famously put it in Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

—rj

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Thoughts on a remarkable book I’ve just re-read

This week I re-read Brad Willis Warrior Pose, a book that has lodged in my memory since I first came upon it two years ago. I read a lot of books, but only a few do I read twice. It’s the highest compliment I think I can render a good read.

Warrior Pose: How Yoga Literally Saved My Life is Willis’ account of his arduous journey from illness to healing, and I mean of both body and soul.

Formerly, an international correspondent with NBC, Willis was at the top of his game, doing what he loved, traveling to the remotest parts of the world, often in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, when life unleashed, as it sometimes does, its heavy, arbitrary hand.

In a freak accident while vacationing in the Bahamas with his girlfriend, a sudden storm erupted and reaching high from a chair to close an obstinate window, he fell to the floor, breaking his back.

Surgery only complicated his condition and ultimately physical pain ended his career.

A modern Job, Willis subsequently was diagnosed with Stage IV throat cancer and given two years to live.

In a dark night of the soul, he chanced upon yoga and almost immediately found relief for pain and an inner calm.

Two years later, Willis confounded his doctors. His back had healed and his cancer had gone into remission.

Well, that was a good ways back in time. Today he flourishes as an internationally renowned yoga instructor, lending the wisdom gleaned from his arduous deliverance from a cauldron of pain and despair, to helping others through the healing potential of fully implemented yoga for both body and mind.

In re-reading Willis’ inspiring book the following salient passage really strikes home to me for its acuity in summing up life’s essence, given fate’s vicissitudes and life’s relative brevity:

‘I’ve learned that humility and softness are far more powerful than the sharp edges of bravado and hubris of my earlier years. That accepting what is takes more courage than forcing what I think should be. That judgments and opinions, and the need to be right can be great hindrances. That it is always better to give than to receive. Affirm rather than criticize. Serve rather than be served. I’ve also learned to be grateful for the smallest, most ordinary things. The morning light. A sip of water. A breath of fresh air. The privilege of being alive.”

–rj

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Trophy Hunting Looms for Grizzly Bears

Averaging 800 pounds, powerful and fast moving, voracious defenders of their young, grizzly bears are a North American treasure deserving of our awe and worthy of preservation.

Native Americans held them sacred and embedded them in their legends, dances and paintings. Although they hunted them for food, clothing, and jewelry, they saw them as avatars of strength and courage conferring protection as the physical embodiment of spirit helpers. Wearing a bear claw necklace proffered security and good health.

At the turn of the twentieth century, an estimated 50,000 grizzlies roamed Alaska, Canada, and the American West. Unfortunately, by 1975, just 150 grizzlies remained in the lower U. S., most of them confined to the Greater Yellowstone Eco System.

Today, their numbers have increased to an estimated 1900 in the lower U. S. and their range by fifty percent, thanks to the Endangered Species Act. Some 150-200 grizzlies reside in Yellowstone National Park and another 500-600 within the Greater Yellowstone Eco System.

Yellowstone National Park attracts four million visitors annually, with tourists as eager to glimpse grizzlies as they do the Park’s thermal features.

Unfortunately, this great success story is now being used to justify revival of trophy hunting in Wyoming, sparked by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s announced plan (June 22, 2017) to remove the Greater Yellowstone grizzlies from the Endangered Species Act. Management of the bears would be handed-over to Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana.

Despite receiving some 500,000 protests, the Fish and Wildlife Service (USWF) is going ahead with its implementation, pending final determination by the courts.

Wyoming state wildlife officials are relishing this move and want to allow a twenty-four bear kill this fall, including 14-females.

Trophy hunters would be allowed to kill any bears that stray from Yellowstone National Park.

More than forty years have been invested in bringing back these noble creatures, indigenous to North America, from the brink of extinction. Killing a pregnant bear would obviously eliminate their cubs.

Some fear that bait may be used to make them easier prey.

Ironically, the Wyoming proposal would not allow them to be hunted within one quarter-mile of a highway.

Hunters would pay $600 per bear.

Conservationists fear that actual killing limits would be exceeded.

Doubtless, monetary-minded game officials in Idaho and Montana will want in on the “ harvesting.”

The USWF’s Matt Hogan, former lobbyist for the Safari Club International, the world’s largest trophy hunting organization, has been the leading delisting proponent. Meanwhile, Zinke has announced plans to reallow importing of elephant and lion trophies into the U. S.

Oil and gas interests may also have pressured the delisting, which would open up public lands, i.e, grizzly habitat, for drilling. Hogan was appointed to the task, apparently not disclosing his ties to Anadarko Petroleum and Gas.

Native Americans were never consulted, despite the pleas of many Congress members, including Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders. Consequently, 125 Canadian and American tribes have signed a treaty calling for continuing protection of grizzlies and all animals sacred to tribal communities.

We, of course, know what happened in North Dakota with Trump issuing two memoranda encouraging resumption of the Dakota Access Pipeline just days after taking office, despite vigorous Standing Rock Sioux protests.

As is, an estimated one-hundred grizzlies are killed annually as roadkill, or by confusion with black bears during the hunting season, or by disgruntled ranchers who view grizzlies as livestock predators, and by poachers.

All of this comes even as grizzlies face declining primary food sources such as white bark pine nuts and cutthroat trout, forcing them to seek new habitat and increasing their risk for conflict with humans.

Environment encroachment remains an ongoing challenge along with the long term impacting of climate change on food resources. As Erik Movar of the Western Watershed Projects points out, “The Yellowstone region is one of the last places where grizzly bear still occupies its natural place as the king of the mountains. But the livestock industry continues to push sheep and cattle deep into the mountains, causing conflicts with grizzly bears and other native wildlife in their natural habitats. Turning grizzly bear management over to trigger-happy state agencies without guarantees that the bears will be protected turns back the clock to the dark days when predator killing was the rule and grizzly bear populations were eliminated.”

We know too well that wherever the human footprint establishes itself, wildlife is diminished. Bears shouldn’t have to coexist with humans. It’s the other way around.

—rj

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Amy Lowell’s “A Fixed Idea”: An Exploration in Paradox

A Fixed Idea

What torture lurks within a single thought
When grown too constant; and however kind,
However welcome still, the weary mind
Aches with its presence. Dull remembrance taught
Remembers on unceasingly; unsought
The old delight is with us but to find
That all recurring joy is pain refined,
Become a habit, and we struggle, caught.
You lie upon my heart as on a nest,
Folded in peace, for you can never know
How crushed I am with having you at rest
Heavy upon my life. I love you so
You bind my freedom from its rightful quest.
In mercy lift your drooping wings and go.

Amy Lowell

I read the above poem by Amy Lowell (1874-1925) and wanted to share my thinking about it with you.

Lowell wrote some 650 poems, though uneven in quality. She is largely known to us as an early modernist and for “imagism” in particular, inspired by Hilda Doolittle (HD) and Ezra Pound. “A Fixed Idea” appeared in Atlantic Monthly in 1910.

I like the poem and think you will too. We’ve all been there. We’ve had a crush on someone in earlier days or found a rare happiness in the coalescence of experience that we look back upon with nostalgia.

This poem, however, centers in paradox. When we can’t let go, reminiscence can give way to pain and even remorse as equally traumatic as remembered suffering.

All of this is very Keatsian, Keats along with Wordsworth an exponent of nostalgic remembrance. No surprise then that in her final years she wrote a definitive biography of Keats.

Many readers infer that “A Fixed Idea” deals with a past romantic love, though the poem can imply more than that as “you” grammatically applies to its antecedent, the fixed idea of the poem (l.1, single thought”), and title. In turn, this lends the poem a universality that augments its appeal.

What isn’t ambiguous is the poem’s pervasive theme of obsessiveness that embellishes the past with a burdensome present. To have known past joy no longer palpable is time’s inexorable consequence. We transcend by letting go:

The old delight is with us but to find
That all recurring joy is pain refined.

Nostalgia is always a constant of the human psyche, abounding in the archetypal admonition to avoid the fate of those who perished in their folly of a backward glance.

Fundamental to human identity is our ability to reckon our losses, extricate ourselves from the past, and live in the present, asserting ourselves in the cauldron of life’s new challenges that serve to enlarge rather than diminish ourselves. Identity finds itself in “quest” (l. 13), not stasis.

Our poem, written in fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, exhibiting two rhetorical sections, octave and sestet, one general, the other amplifying, is an Italian sonnet. In the former, we have recall of past happiness “once kind” (l. 1) and “welcome still” (l. 2).

The sestet, however, transitions into antithesis with its extended metaphor, or image, of the persona’s fixation as a nesting bird that weighs upon her heart, impeding her life:

…you cannot know
How crushed I am with having you at rest
Heavy upon my life. I love you so
You bind my freedom from its rightful quest.

Like all good poetry, “A Fixed Idea” is more than what it seems. In short, it’s precisely our clinging that lies at the crux of human unhappiness, our attempting to possess what, given life’s Protean flux, was never ours to own.

–rj

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Artificial Intelligence: Will It Take Your Job?

Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” (Robert Oppenheimer, quoting the Bhagavad Gita following the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima)

Recently, my daughter shared details of her trip as an Amazon employee to Las Vegas to attend a tech conference. 8700 people from all over the world gathered there for the conference—its major theme, Artificial Intelligence.

And why not! Artificial Intelligence continues to multiply and accelerate its presence, foreshadowing a brave new world.

Robots today weld auto parts tirelessly.

Tomorrow’s world of driverless cars is imminent.

No more truck drivers.

Or taxi drivers either.

You get on your plane. It hasn’t a pilot.

You’re in the emergency room. Within minutes, a medical database yields every minuscule of medical counsel ever assembled relevant to your illness.

Your subsequent surgery is performed by a tireless robot with steady hand.

Legal counsel is dispensed through a database that’s uncovers every precedent and resolution.

No need to gamble recklessly on Wall Street. A handy software app latent with market prognostication is at your disposal.

Several months ago I read Martin Ford’s mesmerizing Rise of the Robots: Technology And the Threat of a Jobless Future. Selected as Business Book of the Year (2015), this is a book you shouldn’t miss, since it’s not a question of if, but when and how Artificial Intelligence (AI) will arbitrate our everyday world, sweeping into oblivion a ride range of jobs, not merely those of the unskilled or workers engaged in manufacturing (already a dying breed), but even those of highly skilled professionals, whose jobs have long been dubbed impervious to the economics of the marketplace or Wall Street tremors.

Ford is a guy mustering credibility, having twenty-five years of experience designing computers and creating software with prodigious expertise on the economic impacting of innovative technology on the marketplace (see his The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology, and the Economy of the Future).

But just what is Artifical Intelligence?

At the bottomlime, we’re talking about the ability of computers to perform tasks traditionally relegated to human beings. Remember world champion chess player Garry Kasparov, defeated by a supercomputer in 1997 in a six game match? Prior to the match, Kasparov had boasted, “l never lost in my life.”

We’ve seen technical innovation before and its fallout. Think agriculture and the impacting of mechanization and bio-technology. At the birth of our nation, with a 3 million population, 90% of us farmed. Today, with some 325 million, just 2% of us do. We got through that revolution because new jobs were created to which we could transition.

In our modern era, we’ve likewise welcomed technological innovation as a harbinger of jobs, frequently at high wages, just for the asking as in our auto and steel plants of the early 1950s.

But then came automation, insidiously gnawing at the fabric of middle class prosperity. You got greater production, yes, but with fewer workers across the board, a trend that’s accelerating.

Net result—the job market hasn’t been able to keep up with a growing work force as population increases, exacerbated still further by rising numbers of former employees joining the queue.

As Ford points out, our present economy needs to create a million new jobs annually just to keep up. Dismally, however, we’re currently running a ten million job deficit as of the first decade of our new century.

Up to now, college educated workers, a good number with advanced degrees and professional portfolios, haven’t felt threatened. As had been vouched many times, the fallout overwhelmingly impacted unskilled, poorly educated workers. Up to now, the axiom’s been, “Go to college and make your future!”, a truism no longer valid, given the volatility of today’s workplace.

As Ford astutely observes, “While lower-skill occupations will no doubt continue to be affected, a great many college-educated white-collar workers are going to discover that their jobs, too, are targeted for elimination as software automation and predictive algorithms advance rapidly in capability.”

Jobs even in medicine may go the way of the pick and shovel as radiologists, for example, find themselves outsmarted by robots scanning images in mega seconds. While today’s radiologists are highly skilled technicians requiring up to 13-years post-high school, they’ll fall by the wayside just like Kasparov in a relative few years.

Meanwhile, many lawyers and paralegals, in an already crowded profession, are discovering that software has replaced them. Corporations, formerly engaged in litigation, traditionally dedicated untold hours to turning-up internal documents establishing precedent, which then had to be shared with the opposing side as part of the discovery process. E-discovery software, however, can sift documents including emails, for relevancy in an eye blink.

In the business world, accountants have been moved to the margins. Today, for example, you and I can resort to software to do our own bookkeeping quickly and accurately.

As for taxes, I just insert my TurboTax CD into my computer drive and, bingo, I can get my return out in an hour max, file it electronically, Fed or State, and
pay taxes due or request a refund. Frosting on the cake, just $45 versus the $300 I shelled out last time I visited the local H & R Block.

Planning a career in journalism? Not so fast! Machines can now generate news stories using raw data with tools such as Quill platform. Research and correlation can be performed quickly, helping to eliminate fake news. (https://www.techemergence.com/automated-journalism-applications/)

How do you prepare your kids for such a world? The traditional resort has been getting a college degree, desirably in a STEM area, enhancing employment opportunity and long-term security.

If you think getting a degree in engineering or computer science can save you, think again. The number of graduates in those fields exceeds by 50% the number of jobs currently available, one big reason being the off-shoring of corporate computer needs. Call up Express Scripts as I’ve had to on several occasions recently and you get India.

Shockingly, some 50% of today’s college grads end up in jobs that really don’t call for a college degree. Many can’t find work at all and live at home with Mom and Dad.

Unemployment or under-employment is rampant among today’s college graduates, with up to 50% of students affected. Since fewer job opportunities exist, college graduates are increasingly showing-up in unskilled areas like sales or even fast-food restaurants, replacing non-graduates. All of us know such young people, perhaps even our own.

The one exception to all of this may be in health care, where a substantial need for physicians will exist to serve a growing population, among them the elderly. The problem is that many doctors shun the rural areas or family medicine. Today’s graduates prefer big bucks specialization, given the considerable expense incurred to get their M.D.

At the same time, problems remain in today’s health care industry. Many health job opportunities are in home care, comprising the largest portion of service jobs, replacing manufacturing as today’s leading employment sector. The sad truth is that home care workers currently average a paltry $20,000 a year, though this could change if the several entities comprising the service sector unionized.

Education, which has been largely immune to the newer trends imposed by AI, is undergoing transition, with online courses proliferating, reducing the need for professors and campus costs, etc.

As I write, I’m enrolled in an edX course, a consortium of elite institutions. I can tell you they’re first rate. Mine is from Harvard and for a small fee I can earn a certificate to up my resume. All of this is part of a burgeoning educational movement called MOOCs.

Their pragmatic success ultimately lies in whether employers will ultimately give them regard. They don’t replace degrees.

All of which may be moot. Short on revenue, an increasing number of universities are offering actual online degree programs as a way of increasing revenue, reducing overhead, and just plain keeping their heads above water, something that Ford doesn’t touch upon. If this catches on, America´s campuses will be severely impacted. With fewer students, you´ll have fewer faculty and administrators.

Case in point, I used to supplement my income by teaching courses on Saturdays, morning and afternoons, for twenty-one years at the local community college. When I started, I’d average nearly 30 per class. Then came the web and online courses, making it more convenient for students to study at home and on their own time. By the end of my tenure, I could barely get the ten student minimum. Ultimately, we cancelled afternoon sessions.

For the community college faculty at large, they shortly were opting to teach online classes to replace their own depleted campus courses. This led to replacing a good number of adjunct faculty, some with Ph. Ds like myself and needing these jobs far more than I did. I believe that digitalization of higher education will not only continue, but increase, conceivably becoming the norm.

“Virtually every industry in existence is likely to become less labor-intensive as new technology is assimilated into business models,” Ford writes.

Nationally, it will polarize us into fractious entities of haves and have nots, privileged and resentful. Our last election results mark only the opening round of this polarization and civic strife.

The pot boils over even more when you add the triple threat of global warming, diminished resources, and aging population to downward consumer spending.

How do you compete with robots anyway? They always show up for work, don’t take breaks, vacations or sick leaves, haven’t any need for a paycheck or retirement benefits, don’t unionize, and will work for you twenty-four hours a day without complaint.

Tesla has a new plant in Fremont, CA. 160 robots produce 400 cars a week. Hard to beat!

But there’s a good side to some of this. While low cost, off shore entities have drained our manufacturing sector into virtual extinction, a good many of these jobs are returning to us, simply because AI has sharply curtailed production costs.

For example, textile and apparel exports rose 37% just between 2009 and 2012, amounting to 23 billon (New York Times, 9/20/2013).

Yet what’s good for the goose isn’t good for the gander. Increasingly, even these returning jobs don’t need you and me!

Despite our recovery from the 2008 economy bust, most new jobs are low-paying service jobs, replacing millions of middle-class jobs wiped out in the fallout. Many of these jobs are in retail or fast food entities, subject to increasing automation in the future through robotics and self-servicing. Going to a $15 an hour minimum wage only speeds up the process.

Or let’s put it another way. In 1998, the U.S. business sector produced 194 billion hours of total labor. By 2013, the value of the business sector economy, adjusted for inflation, came to $3.5 trillion, or a 42% increase in output. By the same token, just 194 billion hours (the same as in 1998) were required to yield that increase.

In short, no job growth took place in the fifteen subsequent years, despite a 40 million increase in population!

Along these lines, Oxford researchers have projected that approximately 47% of current total employment, i. e., 64 million jobs, will potentially disappear through automation over the next decade or two.

Fewer job opportunities at meaningful wages can only exaggerate class alienation with a plutocracy of the wealthy, lessen consumer spending, and downgrade the quality of family life. Further, it poses a gargantuan challenge to a growing elderly population in a world of accelerating health costs, including for Medicare, along with declines in social security revenues and retirement provisions increasingly subject to corporate and state ransacking to reduce costs.

Ford thinks that in light of these sobering facts, we may need to resort to a basic, or guaranteed income, for everyone. Finland has already begun the experiment.

The money, of course, would have to come via an uprooting of our traditional way of taxation, perhaps much higher taxation of high income. Of course, the recently passed new Republican tax bill moves in the opposite direction in regard to corporate income and the 1% at the top owning most of the wealth. Out of necessity, we may resort to something like a value added tax.

As another way out, several states like California are considering tax measures affecting deep pocketed corporations implementing technology that replaces workers. If they accelerate profits by replacing workers with automation, then that profit residual will be taxed and redistributed to the needy.

Meanwhile, AI continues to advance prodigiously, with Silicon America committed to its imposition—ironically in a race among themselves (i.e., Google, Apple, and Amazon) as to who will get there first and best.

Ford says that AI is likewise proving indispensable to military intelligence and, ominously, to authoritarian regimes bent on controlling dissent through surveillance.

It’s even conceivable that our future, or at least that of the next generation, will feature a leap to AGI, or artificial general intelligence, i. e., computer intelligence dwarfing human intellect, with still further inner directed incremental advances enabling these machines to improve their capabilities, perhaps writing their own software, or implementing evolutional programming to enhance their design in what we might call recursive improvement. Ultimately, these machines would not only be smart, but get ever smarter.

Chillingly, we may be headed for “singularity,” a term borrowed from astrophysics to depict in its new context an artificial intelligence largess replacing humans. In fact, machines and man may even merge, fulfilling many a science fiction scenario.

In 2014, Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking wrote that the advent of AGI in which machines could think on their own “would be the biggest event in human history, machines capable of outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-maneuvering human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand.”

All of this in a world facing the exponential threat of global warming, increasing population, diminished earth resources, declining employment opportunity. Putting off dealing with climate change to meet our immediate needs will eventually serve only to exasperate the human crisis. Unfortunately, that’s the way things are breaking now.

So where do we go from here?

While Ford may give us the sobering details contributing to our demise, he’s wanting on long term solutions, save for looking seriously at a guaranteed base income, which of itself, only adumbrates our dystopian future.

Even here, he doesn’t assess how government at all levels can exact revenue, not only for a guaranteed income, but for other pervasive needs such as refurbishing infrastructure, combatting global warming, maintaining already costly entitlement outlays, etc., from an obviously declining tax base. Imposing high taxation on corporations and individuals can only go so far without potentially harmful reverberations.

We might have options. Take offshoring, for example. Ultimately, even these bastions of virtual immigration, India and China, are likely to face automation. Nevertheless, an estimated 130 million of the smartest of the smartest will remain with the help of AI tools to perform informational tasks for Western firms at reduced cost. That is, unless we take restrictive measures.

The social-political implications of artificial intelligence are staggering. As Arend Hintz, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at Michigan State University comments, “In our current system, automation pushes people out of jobs, making the people who own the machines richer and everyone else poorer.” (Scientific American, July !4, 2017).

Again, it doesn’t suffice to exfoliate on the emerging social displacement via a barrage of stats without exploring preventative measures to offset the monopoly of artificial intelligence by a relative few controlling production to the demise of the many.

In short, can democracy survive in tomorrow’s world?

Then too, experts have shared their plausible anxieties as to potential malevolent applications of this technology, given human history and the misuse of power.

If artificial intelligence is itself a by-product of human induced evolution, can we impute a capacity for the ethical in this machinery destined to replace human cognition? We might then get a level playing field.

Even then, this implies cooperation among all earth’s people, something that would surely be an anomaly when the United Nations hasn’t succeeded in accomplishing this. What could happen is simply, and dreadfully, machines in the image of man warring on one another.

When you come down to it, the problem isn’t really artificial intelligence, but what humans might do with it.

But whatever. If you can bring yourself to read this book without being pummeled into depression, then this book is for you, enlightening as it is sobering.

I suggest you read it twice.
—rj

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Alzheimer Breakthrough? Bredeson’s The End of Alzheimer’s: The First Program to Prevent and Reverse Cognitive Decline

Death has many doorways. Yet most of us go by way of heart disease, cancer, or respiratory disease; in fact, 50%.

The good thing is that we can preempt these diseases, if not reverse them through lifestyle changes.

Not so when it comes to Alzheimer’s disease, ranking sixth for causes of mortality. Shockingly prevalent, some 5.4 million Americans have it, with 200,000 of them below the age of sixty-five. All of them will die.

Estimates have it that this number will swell to 14 million by 2050.

Cost wise, treating dementia comes to a mind-blowing $250 billion annually .

Alzheimer’s differs from other types of dementia in that ultimately you become totally unable to perform normal body functions and require round the clock monitoring. You also lose long and short term memory. Alzheimer patients live in an eternal present. There is neither a past or future.

Aside from stroke, it may consequently be the illness we fear most.

But it could be that a breakthrough has appeared, thanks to the diligent clinical research of neurologist Dr. Dale Bredeson at UCLA, who has researched the disease for 30 years. For the first time, we have evidence that those strictly heeding his protocol can both prevent and even reverse early Alzheimer’s. The proof lies in some 200 plus survivors of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and early stage Alzheimer’s who’ve experienced either remission or reversal.

Bredeson details his research in his just published (2017) The End of Alzheimer’s: The First Program to End and Reverse Cognitive Decline.  When I learned that Maria Shriver enthusiastically endorsed the book, along with several respected neurologists on the forefront of Alzheimer research, I was hooked.

In September, I lost my sister, though probably due to vascular dementia, not Alzheimer’s. Additionally, I had already become more sensitive as an older person to the the plight of those confronting cognitive decline in either themselves or their loved ones and, of course, my own potential fate in growing older.

I’ve now read the book, difficult going in some places because of the underlying genetic and chemical factors involved, but worth your time, though Bredeson says you can skip such chapters if you want. I read the entire book in three days, virtually mesmerized.

Presently, there are four principal drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s. At best, while perhaps relieving confusion or memory loss, they’re ineffectual in halting the ultimate ravages of this progressive illness.

Bredeson attributes this to the current medical paradigm of treating Alzheimer’s as a single disease rather than the consequence of several contributing causes. Almost always, Alzheimer’s is described as simply a build-up of beta-amyloid and tau proteins, resulting in abnormal plaque deposits that damage brain cells and promote consequent memory loss. Find the right pharmaceutical formula—and bingo!—you’ll slow or prevent the disease.

As to what causes the excessive amyloid/tau accretion, conjectures exist, but none of them validated. As with virtually all contemporary medicine, we treat the symptoms rather than cause.

Bredeson proposes that Alzheimer’s is primarily a response to inflammatory insults (e.g., infections, or trans fats, sub-optimal nutrients, trophic factors and/or hormone levels, toxic compounds including bio-toxins such as those from mole or bacteria), any and all of which contribute to an imbalance between reorganization of older and newer synapses, the latter not sufficiently produced to replace the former synapses and enhance healthy neuron molecule production.

Bredeson further contends there are three subtypes of Alzheimer’s inflammatory response initiated principally by the common genetic variable ApoE4, each requiring its own treatment protocol.

75 million Americans carry a single copy of ApoE4, giving them a 30 percent risk for the disease. If you have two copies of the ApoE4, one from each of your parents, you have a substantially higher than 50 percent risk for developing Alzheimer’s. Presently, that’s 7 million of us.

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s usually appear when you’re in your sixties or seventies, traceable in blood-work that identifies your subtype, requiring a specific treatment protocol, though we know Alzheimer’s can sometimes occur earlier.

Obviously, genetic evaluation is required as a starting point in treatment. Catching Alzheimer’s in its early stage, especially when asymptomatic, may halt or slow its progression. Simply following the present medical scenario of trying to reduce amyloid-beta production is ineffectual unless its inducers are eliminated.

Everyone 45 and up should undergo a “cognoscopy,” or genetic and blood work-ups, Bredeson contends.

Bredeson’s treatment formula, called ReCODE, is potentially expensive, requiring in addition to the usual lifestyle formulae of a healthy diet, sufficient sleep, exercise,  elimination of stress, numerous supplements, and brain exercise. In short, such treatment would seemingly exclude those with marginal income.

You may also find it difficult to locate a ReCODE physician in your area, although word is spreading and more physicians are practicing it.

Bredeson’s ketogenic diet recommendation, not the previously reported Mediterranean diet, may likewise prove challenging, if not unpalatable for many, requiring substantially reduced carbohydrate intake, replaced by healthy fats. No sweets or grains. It also includes twelve hour fasting daily. Meat choices should derive from grass-fed beef and free-range chickens. Be careful about mercury laden fish like tuna. Alaska salmon is your better choice.

Chapters 8-9 detail 36 factors that individually or collectively may induce Alzheimer’s. Eliminating these is essential and requires discipline, which perhaps many, even if they can afford treatment, will find difficult. You simply can’t cheat. Alzheimer’s doesn’t take holidays.

Bredeson also gives readers sample programs that two of his patients with mild cognitive impairment have pursued successfully, with the caveat that the regimen must be life-long.

Refreshingly cautious, Bredeson isn’t proposing he’s actually found a cure, but rather that those in Alzheimer’s early stages heeding his research-based protocol faithfully have proven to be successful thus far. Depart from the regimen in even minor aspects and you’ll retrogress.

As he’s commented elsewhere, “The longest we have a person on the program is four and a half years. We’ve not had a single example yet out of hundreds in which someone has gone on the program, gotten better, stayed on the program, and then gotten worse.”

Leonard Hood, M.D., Ph. D, National Medal of Science recipient, writes that “Dr. Bredeson has provided enormous hope for the heretofore intractable clinical problem of Alzheimer’s. Bredeson’s early studies suggest that this approach can halt and in many cases reverse early Alzheimer’s.”

This is good news!
—rj

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Does American Sign Language (ASL) Have a Future?

We all have hobbies or special interests. Mine has been studying languages. As a child, it literally became an obsession. I’d buy paperbacks with my meager allowance, seemingly offering a pathway to fluency in German, a language I desperately wanted to learn given my brother’s return from post-war Europe with a German bride.

On one occasion, I made the long trudge, several miles, to the voluminous Philadelphia Library on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, checking out several books in Russian. When I got home, I must have somehow fantasized that this new tongue in Cyrillic would instantly dissolve into comprehension. No such luck!

In subsequent years, I pursued some thirteen languages more or less, but several very seriously. I took Latin, French, and German in high school; had to read Beowulf in Old English as part of my Ph. D., took language courses in France and Mexico, and traveled much of the world.

For all this, I still don’t speak any of these languages with any fluency, not because they’re difficult, or I lack discipline, or due to inadequate exposure, but simply because I don’t hear well, never really have, and it’s gotten worse, forcing me to resort to hearing aids a decade ago.

Only recently did I figure things out why I wasn’t mastering these languages orally. Years ago, a colleague, who was a professional speech therapist, gave me a hearing test. It showed significant hearing loss.

Sometimes this happens to a great many of us as part of the aging process, but it happened to me a lot earlier. I know genetics can play a role and that my mother became totally deaf later in life.

If I underwent an illness of some sort when I was little, I don’t have any family members around to tell me.

It’s not fun being hearing impaired, which makes me aware, compassionately so, of the lot of those born that way.

As is, my tendency to not hear, mishear, and sometimes invent can border on the edge of absurdity, softened on occasion by the confused, tolerant silence of my listeners, mostly my long-suffering spouse who, like other females, save maybe for a low voiced Lauren Bacall, I cannot comprehend in their high pitch lanes.

Writing in The New York Review of Books (December 7, 2017), Jerome Groopman spells out my dilemma, as well as for many others with diminished hearing:

Several years ago, I noticed difficulty hearing: testing showed diminished perception of high frequencies, a common consequence of aging. Hearing aids were prescribed, which helped to amplify sounds but weren’t a complete remedy. Background noise in restaurants made it difficult to discern the conversation of dinner partners, and I often missed muttered dialog in movies. Most vexing was what Oliver Sacks termed  “mishearing”—I thought I heard certain words, but they were distortions of what was actually said, and my response corresponded to the distortions. For example, recently a scientific colleague told me he was going to a conference in Milan. I heard “Iran” and replied that he was sure to be harassed at US Customs given Trump’s travel ban. He looked confused.  “Since when is Italy on the list?” 

My hearing has gotten so bad that I recently explored getting a cochlear implant, but then surprised the university staff, including my otolaryngologist, when tested with a hearing aid in separate ears, I scored 93 in the left ear; 89 in the really bad ear. I thought maybe I’d somehow outwitted the test, but they told me they’d recently toughed it up. My accompanying MRI brain scan showed no evidence of any tumor.

In a Mexican restaurant a short time later with my wife, the same damn problem, a tsunami of background noise drowning out any semblance of meaningful conversation.

Recently, I’ve been combing the Web to find available ASL classes, either on site, or online, feeling that a deadline is nearing when I’ll not hear anything at all. Sign language works for the deaf. Maybe it can work for me.

But American Sign Language, what’s taught in North American, can be a formidable challenge in itself, requiring lots of practice and finger dexterity. You also need a partner, so my wife would also need to learn it.

I didn’t know until Gerald Shea’s recent insightful book, The Sounds of Silence, that Sign Language, that nearly universal fixture of communication among the deaf, or so I thought, faces its own imminent demise, given the rise of cochlear implants and the increasing dominance of the oral approach, which seeks to encourage the deaf to acquire spoken language. I think this is wrong and a revival of a sort of the historical cruelties imposed upon the deaf in past eras, sometimes torture.

Until Shea’s book, I hadn’t any knowledge of these cruelties. The Byzantine Justinian Code, for example, disallowed the deaf from inheriting property.

Thirteenth-century bishop Guilaume Durand de Mende believed the deaf were unwilling to hear the word of God.

At times, the deaf were tortured, with hot coals pushed into their throats to force them to speak, or catheters twisted into the nasal cavity and shoved down into the Eustachian tubes, or burning liquids poured into drilled holes in the skull.

Sign language began in earnest in mid-18th century France with a priest, Michel de l’Épée who believed that seeing could replace hearing in learning concepts.

In the early 19th century, Roche-Ambroise Auguste Bébian, who had normal hearing, mastered French Sign Language and did much to emancipate the deaf.

Bébian’s methodology spread to America, and the American School for the Deaf was founded in Hartford in 1817, arousing disdain from oralists from the very beginning, who associated sign language with primitive people.  Oralists believe that the deaf can learn to hear and speak.

Unfortunately, I only recently learned that oralists have won the debate, as only a minority of the deaf learn sign language today. With the exception of Gallaudet University, the vast majority are mainstreamed, with classroom interpreters employing coded systems.

Additionally, cochlear implants have abetted the oralist approach, with 80% of those born deaf now fitted in the West with these devices. Implants, unlike the hearing aids I use, which merely amplify sounds, transmit sounds directly to the auditory nerve. In the U. S., cochlear implants is a $5 billion annual industry.

Research indicates cochlear implants, while beneficial to those with impaired hearing, are substantially less so for those born deaf.   Those favoring the implants, however, have predicted that within a few decades, signing will be gone.

Shea argues that cochlear implants are measured in labs, which don’t mirror life in the outside world. A British test found that children fitted with the devices were no more educationally advanced than those with hearing aids. Likewise, a University of Toronto study found that children fitted with cochlear implants didn’t fare any better than children with hearing aids. And with both, background noise made things worse.

The sad truth, as a French study shows, few children fitted with the cochlear develop “intelligible” speech. As those children grow older, they frequently resort to sign language, avoiding the strain to hear with the devices.  Sign language, on the other hand, affords them both fluency and dignity.

As Shea concludes, depriving an individual of his or her language denigrates their identity.

—rj

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Does the Qur’an Preach Violence?

Yesterday came news of the slaughter of up to 300 Sufi worshippers exiting a mosque in Egypt’s Sinai at the close of prayer, among them, twenty-seven children. It isn’t the first time such a murderous attack on unarmed civilians, even fellow Muslims, has occurred in Egypt and elsewhere.

Increasingly, Islamic violence has spread to Europe and North America as well. Thanks to Carnegie Mellon’s interactive platform, EarthTimeLapse, drawing on the Global Terrorism Database, we can even precisely map both its locale and frequency over the last 20-years.

Last year, 2016, Islamic extremists killed 269 people across Europe. In America, we’ve largely escaped since 9/11, apart from several sporadic incidents, the latest occurring in NYC when Uzbekistan immigrant Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov drove a rented truck into a crowded bike lane in lower Manhattan, killing eight on October 31, 2017.

All of this pales, however, when we include the Middle East and Africa, where 19,121 died last year, according to the Global Terrorist Data project, nearly all of them Muslim, which we’re likely to miss in our frequent ethnocentrism.

Consequently, it’s not unreasonable that many have come to associate Islam, “the religion of peace,” with violence. Critics call it Islamophobia.

Feeding into the public’s unease have been the likes of Franklin Graham, Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, who have vociferously argued that Islam is intrinsically disposed to violence, both in its long history and the present, posing an insidious threat to our nation’s future, given their rising immigration numbers, high birth levels, and alleged intolerance.

And, of course, there’s President Trump who has seemingly bought into the nation’s anxiety, perhaps for political advantage.

I would personally like to defuse my own unease that erupts with almost daily news bulletins announcing some new, malicious violence somewhere on our troubled planet. Hopefully, its source isn’t Islam, but almost always it is.

I studied in France at the University of Dijon in the summer of 1985 and my best memories are of the friendships I shared with Muslims from Morocco, Iraq, Jordan, Iran, Syria and Israel. What won their affection was my sympathy for the Palestinians in their pursuit of nationhood, something they found incongruous, what with the stereotype Muslims often have of Americans, given our country’s traditional support for Israel.

We never quarreled. In fact, religion never came up at all.

At home, while I haven’t had much contact with Muslims, I’ve met several who treated me with kindness when I’ve met them in stores, allowing me to precede them in a line or fetching me a grocery cart.

My experience of Muslim reciprocal kindness tells me that like most human beings, their heart is good and wants to share its goodness, and that their faith has been grievously  maligned.

Now comes Gary Will’s new book, What the Qur’an Meant And Why It Matters (Viking,2017). This a crucial book, since Muslim proponents of terrorism trace what we now know as jihad back to the Qur’an, which they interpret literally, devoid of context or cultural antecedents, doing what fundamentalists generally do whatever their proclaimed religion.

Taken out of context, the Qur’an can indeed be disturbing reading, but so can the Old Testament with its advocacy of genocide towards those of different faith and culture like the Moabites. Wills, on the other hand, persuasively argues that the Qur’an is utterly incompatible with the barbaric atrocities committed in its name by Isis, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and Al-shabaab.

Wills points out, for example, that the Qur’an’s employment of  jihad “striving,” i.e.,”zeal,” and sharia don’t resonate their original nuance for these groups, and that jihad, for example, can suggest “holy war” in modern Arabic.

As for “sharia” with its modern association with complex religious laws, it occurs only once in the Qur’an (Q.45:18) and simply means “the right path.” In fact, no complex system of religious laws even existed in the Prophet’s lifetime.

In Wills’ view, the Qur’an has been grossly abused by militant Muslims, its text supporting peaceable co-existence with Judaism and Christianity and recognizing Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus as antecedent prophets to the preeminent  prophet, Mohammed.

The Qur’an does allow for defensive warfare against militant aggressors opposed to monotheism: “If God did not refuel some people by means of others, many monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, where God’s name is much invoked, would have been destroyed (Q. 22:40).

The one liability for Wills is the Qur’an’s seeming denigration of women as in Q. 4:34: “If you fear bad conduct from your wives, advise them, then ignore them in bed, then strike them. If they obey you, you have no right to act against them.”

By the same token, the Qur’an doesn’t assign blame to Eve, who is unnamed, for the transgression in the garden, unlike the Old Testament.

While Wills’ scholarship seems impeccable in its fairness and exactitude, the problem of the Qur’an’s grievously distorted message and misappropriation by radical Islamic extremists and many Western critics, remains. Good as Wills’ book is, it will prove no more effectual in promoting reconciliation with all faiths than a seed by itelf can produce a harvest.

Islam needs to undergo theological and cultural reform, as occurred with Judaism and Christianity to curtail radical extremism.  Though there are reformers trying to do just that such as Maajid Nawaz, Asra Nomani, and Irshad Manji, they’re all too few and face vehement opposition, if not enmity, among purists and entrenched theocracies like Iran. Islam isn’t merely a faith but a total way of life in which change, if any occurs, will only come grudgingly.

What this book can do for those who read it is expurgate the vast majority of the world’s one billion Muslims, whether Sunni or Shiite, from the shibboleth of violence and intolerance so often impugning both the Qur’an and its practice as a consequence of an extremist minority. After all, Muslims have been by far, terrorism’s victims as yesterday’s Sufi massacre attests.

—rj

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Elegy for Iris: A Review

“We can only learn to love by loving.” —Iris Murdoch

I’ve just read John Bayley’s Elegy for Iris, his moving memoir of his wife, renowned British novelist Iris Murdoch—26 novels in addition to nonfiction—who succumbed to Alzheimer’s in 1999 at 79.

How does something like this happen? We’re told that we may ward off Alzheimer’s scourge by exercising our brains via mental pursuits like puzzles, word games, picking-up a language, trolling in math, yet here’s this woman of scintillating brilliance, winner of the Booker Prize, working omnivorously at her craft, yet ultimately pummeled by this dread disease. The truth is that the cards were virtually stacked against her, given her mother’s earlier Alzheimer’s.

Lasting forty-three years, their marriage was unconventional. Iris was bi-sexual and had liaisons throughout their marriage. Age or gender didn’t matter. She was attracted to robust intellectuals, not least, her distinguished husband highly regarded for his literary criticism and as an academic at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford.

But does it matter anyway? That eccentricity often goes hand-in-glove with artistry is a given. Besides, an author’s sexual life ranks in the lower tier when it comes to our reading choices. Think Dickens, George Eliot, Sartre, and others.

For some of us, however, we retain curiosity about the life behind the work when it comes to those who seemingly “hook” us with their artistry. In this, we’re probably no different from those devotees of Hollywood celebs, rampaging People magazine and the like in fervent quest for intimacy. We even have our dedicated websites.

My own practice when I come upon an established writer that I really like is one of saturation.   Generally, I’ll read maybe three novels and two biographies. This helps me see writers in context and provides a ground-base for properly appreciating their work. I had just read Murdoch’s Booker Award novel, The Sea, O the Sea (1984).

Bayley received sharp criticism in some quarters for publishing his memoir in 1998. Iris was still alive, yet Bayley proved unsparing in disclosing Murdoch’s private life without her consent or ability for rebuttal. Muriel Spark described the elegy as “sordid.”

On the contrary, Bayley felt that the Elegy honored Iris and the vast majority of readers seem to agree. We learn something about marriage, in this case, an anomaly that worked for Iris and John as opposed to the traditional axiom of not taking your partner for granted. For John and Iris, taking each other for granted took on a quotidian staple, emerging as a refrain in the Elegy.

By this, the couple meant not clinging to one’s partner or controlling, but allowing them independence to embrace the effulgence of their identity: “Apartness in marriage is a state of love and not a function of difference or preference or practicality,” Bayley writes.

As columnist Graeme Archer perceptively observes in the Telegraph (2015), “Only when you know without question that you are wanted, no matter how you behave, no matter what you say; that you’ll be together till death, etc – this is when you know it’s love.”

The Elegy tells of their early romance, their shared living habits, common interests, and writing practices. What sets the book apart is its honest wrestlings in living with someone you love, in this instance, a woman of cerebral brilliance now unable to remember her friends, achievements, and their life experiences as a couple, reduced to minimal articulation, daily angst, and ubiquitous dependence by chronic illness. Bayley fed, clothed, and “hosed her down.”

A forthright narrator, Bayley castigates himself for his sometimes loss of patience and scolding, the Elegy emerging as a testimony of love’s transcendence over the vagaries that time with its contingencies imposes on us mortal creatures, fallible in our humanity, yet graced with the capacity to not merely endure, but to overcome and love steadfastly.

An international best seller, it would provide along with Bayley’s subsequent book, Iris and her friends, the basis for the 2001 film, Iris, garnering three academy award nominations.

Writing in the Providence Sunday Observer, critic Tom D’Evelyn wrote, “Elegy for Iris has already become a classic memoir and a remedy for modern love. Read it and, if you dare, give, it to someone you love.”

—rj

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My hummingbird friends

My hummingbird friends descend upon my garden landscape each spring, or like clockwork with the advent of April, having journeyed more than a thousand miles from their winter feeding grounds to the south or in Mexico.

They stay with me, these ruby throated aerial acrobats, until the first week of October when days of shortened light signal them to begin their return journey.

Often less than 6 inches in length, they’re among the most intrepid of birds, aggressive even among their own, and quite capable of speeds up to 60 mph.

Occasionally, I sometimes think of them as analogous to helicopters, able to both hover and fly backwards.

While they’re with me, I try to help them find food by providing a red feeder for them filled with my home brew of four parts water to one part sugar.

I last saw my sojourners on October 2, darting their bills vehemently into their liquid brew fattening themselves for their exodus to warmer feeding grounds.

Like the falling leaves, their departure is one of nature’s ritual markers of coming frost and winter’s inevitability.

I worry about them.

Climate change has resulted in flowering plants now often blooming up to three weeks before their arrival to rest and feed in an area, before resuming their spring journey north, meaning a loss of nectar and the risk of starvation.

And then there’s that constant of diminishing habitat, pesticides, and invasive species.

Although Spring brings joy with its warming temperatures and a regenerating landscape, our world around us is rapidly entering into a new phase and perhaps some future spring they, like butterflies and bees, will no longer be part of that spring, inflicting a hovering silence with their absence..

Meanwhile, I hope to supplement their well-being while they’re with me, adding plants like penstemon, cardinal flower, bee balm, coralbell, and scarlet sage to next year’s garden.

Their departure always saddens me, not helped by increasing somber gray skies, brisk temperatures, and a waning landscape.

But then, such are nature’s rhythms, and even our own, that every beginning has its ending, with wisdom teaching us to value each moment in a cosmos of impermanence.

 

 

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