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Posts Tagged ‘psych’

Charley Steiner: The Ugly. The Bad. The Good. The Vinko Bogataj Decade.

December 25th, 2009 admin No comments

So how are you liking our new millennium so far, kids? Me, I’m thinking Vinko Bogatoj. Vinko was the Slovenian ski-jumper from a distant decade (1970 to be precise), who took that horrific fall at some World Championship and became the painful embodiment of the agony of defeat. It was Vinko’s cringe-producing stumble and tumble that became the center piece of ABC’s Wide World of Sports opening montage every Saturday afternoon. His death-defying fall made him an immortal but little did I know that Mr. Bogatoj would become a metaphor for the century and millennium to follow. As it turned out, he was truly a man ahead of time. Vinko began at the top of the mountain fell horrifically and never quite reached rock bottom. Ten years down, 990 to go. We still have time.

No sense in rehashing the first decade of the two thousands. It hurts too much. But as we say good bye to the decade with a zaftig zero in front of every single year (fitting don’t you think?), I offer up three examples of where I think we seem to be entering the “teens”. The good, the bad and the ugly. Let’s begin with the ugly and work our way back.

For the record, Eldrick the Tiger was born five years after our friend Vinko took his physical fall from grace. Tiger’s fall is melodramatically more painful and incredibly less graceful. It tells us much about who we are and where we are, than it does about the ironic and iconic Mr. Woods. We are forever seeking heroes and role models without kicking the tires. The body looks good, but what’s under the hood? And then when we discover we have a lemon on our hands. It is never our fault. (See Frank Rich’s brilliant column last Sunday in the New York Times).

Charles Barkley is my role model for defiantly declaring he is not a role model. Warning: Choose your role models at your own risk. Most of us can get past celebrity and political indiscretions, but hypocrisy is a significantly more difficult hurdle to clear. Tiger’s triple bogey in his heretofore publically perfect life, will likely make it a long slog before he even gets back to par, if he ever does with his once worldwide fan base. And here we are in the age of “reality” and tabloid television, magazines and newspapers when a TMZ can replace the NYT for too many information consumers, as a major source of news. Tiger’s travails have been the dominant story of the holiday season, the voyeuristic gift that keeps on giving.

Now to the bad, but also so very 21st century. The evaporating sport of boxing has but one fight in its immediate future that is transcendent, Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, the two best and most compelling fighters on the planet. What was at first to be a sure thing, an event that could generate nine figures separated by two commas and create a buzz that boxing so desperately needs, isn’t so certain anymore. Mayweather is seemingly misnamed as he has always been stormy weather, a cantankerous sort who is easy to admire for his considerable skills, but not so easy to like. Pacquiao fresh off beating the bejesus out of Miguel Cotto last month is boxing’s poster child at the moment. At the moment.

Just when you thought it was safe to embrace this boxing event, Mayweather has demanded that both fighters submit to Olympic drug testing, that is to say blood testing which is more precise and detailed than urine testing. It doesn’t seem like a particularly unreasonable request. Pacquiao responds by saying doesn’t like needles and is superstitious about having blood drawn within days of a fight. Thanks, but no thanks says Pacquiao, Urine tests on the house! But blood? Uh-uh. Mayweather, always a superb counter-puncher has backed his possible opponent into a corner, with a powerful lead jab,making it seem Pacquiao has something to mask.

Superstition seems a rather weak defense. Pacquaio suggests three blood tests, one when the fight is announced and one that is a full month away from the proposed March 13th bout. And the final exam after the final bell. A presumably impartial United States Anti-Doping agency, if it is to become involved would want, need and demand blood testing as it see fits, not ground rules set by Pacquiao or Mayweather for that matter. Where else but in the early 21st century could a 100 million dollar fight never answer the bell because of drug testing, a lovely leftover from millennium past. “Pretty Boy” Floyd has knocked down Pacquiao without ever laying a glove on him. Pacquiao, a knockout machine who has seven different world titles ranging in weight from 112 pounds to 145 simply looks like he has something to hide.

Superstition of blood testing? Is that all you got, Manny? Puh-leeze. Walking under a ladder? A black cat crossing in front of you? Sounds more like my dog ate my homework. If Pacquiao bails out on the fight whether he likes it or not, fair or not, what is the inescapable conclusion? If he ultimately acquiesces, in this sport of physical strength and psychological insecurity, Mayweather has secured a place inside Pacquiao’s head, while reversing the roles. Mayweather has transformed himself into the good guy, while Pacquiao’s reputation has taken a hit, by bobbing and weaving on a question that should be blood simple. Drug testing BEFORE a fight, a deal breaker? To save this fight, and his reputation, the Filipino has no choice but to agree to the Olympic standard blood tests. Oh, and there is this little matter of 25-million bucks at the end of the rainbow.

Now to the good, the really good of the 2nd decade of the 3rd millennium. I just saw Avatar. Watching the much-hyped James Cameron film, really experiencing it more than merely seeing it, I came away with the same wow factor I felt the first time I heard Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. It was music, rock music but presented in a markedly different way than we had ever experienced before. It remains 40-something years later a transcendent historical musical milepost.

For me, I came out of the theater discarding the 3D shades, with that same sense of creative wonderment. It has the Wow factor. The 3D in the movie is wondrous without being gratuitous. Even if you are not a sci-fi geek, and admittedly I am not, this movie is the goods. And oh by the way, it sports a relevant story, even if it is 140-years into the future. Jon Landau famously said in that last millennium of ours, that he had seen the future of rock n’roll and his name is Bruce Springsteen. I think we have seen the future of film making and viewing and it’s named Avatar. At least in the movies, I’ve got to admit its getting better, getting better all the time. I hope.


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Peter Dreier: Pass the Health Care Bill – Then Improve It

December 25th, 2009 admin No comments

There are many lessons to learn from the health care war that has raged over the past year. We’ll get to some of them below. But here’s the bottom line: Pass the bill, then improve it.

The health care bill that will emerge from the House-Senate conference committee won’t be what most progressives had hoped for, but it is a major, historic turning point in American social reform legislation, comparable to the Social Security Act, the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act, the Fair Labor Standards (minimum wage/40 hour week) Act, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the Clean Air Act, and other progressive breakthroughs. None of those laws were what their advocates wanted. They all involved compromises that, at the time, were heart-breaking to activists. Each one was subsequently improved by amendments, although not without reformers doing battle with reactionary opponents.

It is incredibly irresponsible for some radicals and progressives to call for killing the health care bill. It is important to push for changes that would improve the Senate version of the bill. For example, the House funding plan (a tax on families with incomes over $1 million) is much better than the Senate version (a tax on so-called “Cadillac” health insurance plans). That’s what the labor movement, liberal and progressive Democrats in Congress, pro-choice advocates, and others will be doing in hopes of putting a better bill on President Obama’s desk, as Harold Meyerson discusses in his latest Washington Post column. But the idea that we should scrap this bill and start from scratch next year is both immoral and impractical. If we don’t pass health care reform now, we won’t have another chance for at least a decade. And, like taking food out of the mouths of hungry children, killing this bill will hurt tens of millions of real people who are now suffering physically, psychologically, and economically.

For proof, check out this chart, put together by Jonathan Cohn and Jonathan Gruber (a health care economist at MIT), based on CBO cost estimates of the Senate bill. It shows the health care cost projections for a family of four at different income levels. For example, a family of four earning $60,458 — 250 percent of the federal poverty line — would pay an estimated annual premium of $12,042 and an annual out-of-pocket maximum of $12,600 without the legislation (in total, 41 percent of annual income). If the legislation passes, the comparable numbers are $5,797 and $6,300, respectively (or 20 percent of annual income). Families with lower incomes benefit even more. Here’s Cohn’s article, that explains this in greater detail.

After the Senate passed its version of the health care bill earlier today, Obama said: “This notion that somehow the health care bill that is emerging should be grudgingly accepted by Democrats as half a loaf is simply incorrect,” Mr. Obama said. “This is nine-tenths of a loaf. And for a family out there that right now doesn’t have health insurance, it is a great deal. It’s a full loaf for a lot of families who have nothing to fall back on if they get into a medical emergency.”

We can differ with Obama on the math — I’d say the House bill is 3/4 of a loaf and the Senate bill is 2/3 of a loaf — but he’s basically correct about the real human impact. The bill will make life better for most Americans — those who don’t currently have health insurance and those who currently have inadequate health insurance. Every serious progressive health care expert agrees that the bill is a significant step forward — a stepping stone toward universal health insurance — although they may differ on some particular issues. The health care experts writing this week in the left-wing The Nation, the progressive American Prospect, and even the barely-liberal New Republic share this view.

Here’s what J. Lester Felder writes in The Nation :

“Despite these very serious shortcomings, however, the bill the Senate passed would reduce the number of uninsured Americans by 31 million by 2019. The Medicaid program will be open to new ranks of the country’s poorest residents, and the near-poor and middle class will get subsidies to buy insurance. The Senate also advanced some important delivery system reforms that could chart a path towards reining in costs.

As disappointed as progressives are with the compromises Democratic leaders made to get this bill through the Senate–and as tempting it is to believe they may have gotten a better deal if they’d pursued a more aggressive strategy–they are on the verge of doing many other lawmakers have tried and failed to do. And if this effort fails, another generation may pass before another chance will come to try again.”

Here’s what Jacob Hacker, the policy expert and Yale political scientist who is credited with devising the original “public option” plan, wrote in the New Republic :

“Since the first campaign for publicly guaranteed health insurance in the early twentieth century, opportunities for serious health reform have come only rarely and fleetingly. If this opportunity passes, it will be very long before the chance arrives again. Many Americans will be gravely hurt by the delay. The most progressive president of my generation–the generation that came of age in the anti-government shadow of Ronald Reagan–will be handed a crippling loss. The party he leads will be branded as unable to govern…

The public option was always a means to an end: real competition for insurers, an alternative for consumers to existing private plans that does not deny needed care or shift risks onto the vulnerable, the ability to provide affordable coverage over time. I thought it was the best means within our political grasp. It lay just beyond that grasp. Yet its demise–in this round–does not diminish the immediate necessity of those larger aims. And even without the public option, the bill that Congress passes and the President signs could move us substantially toward those goals.

As weak as it is in numerous areas, the Senate bill contains three vital reforms. First, it creates a new framework, the “exchange,” through which people who lack secure workplace coverage can obtain the same kind of group health insurance that workers in large companies take for granted. Second, it makes available hundreds of billions in federal help to allow people to buy coverage through the exchanges and through an expanded Medicaid program. Third, it places new regulations on private insurers that, if properly enforced, will reduce insurers’ ability to discriminate against the sick and to undermine the health security of Americans.

These are signal achievements, and they all would have been politically unthinkable just a few years ago.”

Paul Krugman in the New York Times, Ezra Klein in the Washington Post, Paul Starr in the American Prospect, and many others echo versions of these same sentiments.

The bill that eventually winds up on Obama’s desk won’t be what we’d hoped for a year ago. There will be lots of articles and even some books diagnosing what went wrong and what went right. Some initial thoughts:

1. Lesson #1: We need major campaign finance reform, preferably mandatory “clean money” public financing plan (http://www.publicampaign.org), as an alternative to our current system of legalized bribery.

The biggest obstacle to more progressive reform is our system of campaign finance. The drug companies, insurance companies, the hospital lobby, and the American Medical Assn. have too much political influence because they’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions and lobbying — something I’ve written a lot about over the past year. The Republican Party is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the medical industrial complex, as they’ve shown during throughout the battle over health care reform. Unfortunately, a handful of moderate Democrats in both Houses are also in the pockets of the health industry lobby – most obviously Senators Max Baucus, Ben Nelson, Mary Landreiu, Blanche Lincoln, and Kent Conrad. And let’s not forget one-time-Democrat-now-Independent-who-acts-like-a-Republican Joe Lieberman, whose vanity, hypocrisy, and double-cross should be rewarded by the Democrats by stripping him of his committee chairmanship. Moreover, all people of conscience around the country should unite in defeating Lieberman when he runs for re-election for his Senate seat from Connecticut in 2012. I’ve written about Lieberman as the “Senator from Aetna” , but he’s worse than that.

2. Lesson #2: Kill the undemocratic filibuster rule.

Lefties have been too quick to criticize Obama and the Democratic Party for compromising with the moderate Dems and their sponsors, the insurance industry. The truth is that of the 58 Democrats in the Senate, 53 of them supported the public option and, later, even more supported the Medicare buy-in proposal (for people 55-64), as a way to create competition with the insurance industry. In a true democracy, 53 votes (out of 100) should be enough to pass a bill. So the second obstacle to real reform is the filibuster rule, which gave the five-member “Baucus Caucus” (who together represent states with 3 percent of the country’s total population), and then Lieberman, too much influence.

3. Lesson #3: Grassroots organizing saved health care reform from an early death.

Recall, at the end of the summer, pundits were already writing obituaries for major healthcare reform. Particularly during the August Congressional recess, an epidemic of right-wing anger against Obama and his policy agenda–of which healthcare reform was simply an immediate and convenient target–captivated the media, which reported disruptions at Congressional town hall meetings as though they were an accurate reflection of public opinion rather than a pep rally for extremists, encouraged by Fox News and talk-show jocks. The right-wingers stoked fear and confusion by warning that Obama’s “socialized medicine” plan would create “death panels,” subsidize illegal immigrants, pay for abortions and force people to drop their current insurance. Republican officials, including Senator Charles Grassley, Senator Jim Demint, and Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele, and conservative pundits Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Betsy McCaughey repeated these myths. And support for the public option tumbled over the summer in response. In June, 62 percent of Americans told Washington Post/ABC pollsters that they favored a public option. By mid-August, support had slipped to 52 percent. Obama’s popularly fell, too, as jobs continued to disappear and the administration’s proposals to bail out the banks and the auto industry met with right-wing attacks and public skepticism. The death in August of healthcare reform stalwart Senator Ted Kennedy bolstered Baucus’ influence as chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

As Marshall Ganz and I wrote in the Washington Post at the end of August , the grassroots momentum from the Obama campaign seemed to be stalled. To the rescue came Health Care for America Now (HCAN), a coalition of unions, community organizations, consumer groups, environmentalists and netroots groups such as MoveOn, that began spearheading the reform campaign since the group was launched in July 2008.

I’ve written about HCAN’s influence elsewhere. Suffice it to say that in late August, seeing defeat on the horizon, HCAN and other reform activists regrouped. They decided to act more like a grassroots movement and less like an interest group. That meant mobilizing voters, focusing attention on the insurance industry, humanizing the battle by giving insurance company victims an opportunity to tell their stories and using creative tactics to generate media attention. They sponsored rallies and protests, including civil disobedience, in cities around the country. They helped focus public attention on the insurance industry’s outrageous profits and executive compensation, its abuse of consumers and its outsized political influence. And they warned Democrats not to get duped by the industry’s pledges of cooperation. Public support for the public option recovered after taking a tumble over the summer. In late October, a Washington Post/ABC poll found that 57 percent favored a public insurance option, while 40 percent opposed it. If a public plan were run by the states and available only to those who lack affordable private options, support for it jumped to 76 percent. Under those circumstances, even a majority of Republicans, 56 percent, favored it. That kind of grassroots pressure helped the liberal Democrats in the Congress fight to keep a decent bill alive, even though eventually Lieberman forced the Dems to compromise on the public option and then the Medicare buy-in.

4. Lesson #4: Watchdog the media.

The mainstream media made it very difficult for Obama, the progressive Democrats, and health reform advocates. During the past year, the mainstream media gave right-wing activists a megaphone that gave them a much larger voice than they deserved. The ultra-right — including the “tea party” lunatics, and reactionary Republicans like Senators Jim DeMint and Charles Grassley, egged on by Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and their Fox News colleagues — got much more attention than they should have. As Todd Gitlin and I noted, the media covered the right-wing protests AGAINST health care reform, but barely reported on the protests sponsored by health care reform activists like HCAN.

The mainstream media acted like stenographers, repeating the right wingers’ lies about the health care plans, without trying to verify them or put their outrageous statements in context. At the same time, the mainstream media completely shut out the voices of the left wing of the health care debate, the advocates for a single-payer system. With a few exceptions, the media repeated the right wing’s lies about Canada’s health care system without correcting them, and allowed them to frame the mainstream Democrats’ public option plan as “socialism.” Trudy Lieberman, the nation’s best media critic, has been keeping tabs on the media’s misreporting of the health care debate all along. It is worth reading her regular columns and blogs to see how much the media set the public agenda and framed the debate in ways that undermined progressive activists and President Obama.

5. Lesson #5: This isn’t just about health care.

Last summer, Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina said out loud what most Republican members of Congress were thinking and plotting. DeMint called the president’s health care proposal “D-Day for freedom in America” and said that stopping Obama’s plan for health care overhaul could be the president’s “Waterloo,” a reference to the site of Napoleon’s bitter defeat in 1815. What DeMint meant, and what his Republican colleagues and their allies like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and others intend, is that defeating Obama’s health care reform would undermine his presidency, and set the stage for major GOP victories in the 2010 elections and again in 2012, including defeating Obama’s re-election bid. They understood that if the unholy alliance of medical industry muscle, right-wing mob tactics, Republican Party hardline unwillingness to compromise, and a handful of conservative Democrats’ obfuscation is able to defeat Obama’s health-care proposal, it will write the conservative playbook for blocking other key components of the president’s and progessives’ agenda — including action on climate change, immigration reform, marriage equality, a second jolt of economic stimulus, and updates to the nation’s labor laws. So those progressives, like Howard Dean, who say, “kill the bill” are doing more than dooming tens of millions of Americans to health care hell; they are setting the stage for a Republican resurgence.

Obama has certainly disappointed many progressives on a number of fronts, including the Wall Street bail-outs, the weak foreclosure program, the too timid stimulus plan, and most recently by expanding the war in Afghanistan. What’s missing from these criticisms is the failure of progressive forces to mount an effective grassroots movement to push Obama and the Democrats. Both grassroots groups (including unions, enviros, community organizing groups, gay rights groups, peace groups, and others) and the Obama administration haven’t yet learned how to play the inside-outside strategy game as effectively as they could. Like FDR, Obama’s success depends on the existence of a progressive movement that organizes, protests, influences public opinion, lobbies, and keeps the heat on so that the inevitable legislative compromises are stepping stones to further reform. When activists asked FDR to support progressive legislation, he told them, “I agree with you. Now go out and make me do it.” Obama has sent the same signals.

The Right understands this. That’s why Glenn Beck, Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Congressmembers King and Issa, and others have been so persistent at attacking SEIU, ACORN, Van Jones, and others. They want to destroy the progressive movement and make it more difficult for Obama to be a successful (and two-term) president.

For example, The Right’s persistent attack on ACORN over the past year and a half was effective. ACORN, with a strong constituency in Arkansas, was expected to play an important role in keeping the heat on Senator Blanche Lincoln, a moderate Democrat who seemed to be in bed with the insurance industry. ACORN did some effective grassroots organizing to hold Lincoln accountable, but it was weakened by the Right’s attacks, and so busy fighting for its own survival, that it couldn’t mount the kind of full-court press on Lincoln that was needed.

The failure of many Democrats, even many liberal Democrats, as well as many liberal funders, to stand up for ACORN when it was under attack made it more difficult to pass health care reform, and to build the kind of progressive grassroots movement that is necessary to pass reform legislation. Their behavior is even more shameful in light of a new report, released this week by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, documenting that the various accusations against the group by Republicans and the right-wing media echo chamber — especially about alleged “voter fraud” — are totally bogus. Here are some of the report’s key findings:

  • There were no instances of individuals who were allegedly registered to vote improperly by ACORN or its employees and who were reported “attempting to vote at the polls.” Memorandum from the Congressional Research Service to the House Judiciary Committee, “ACORN Investigations” (December 22, 2009), at 1.
  • As of October 2009, there have been 46 reported federal, state, and local investigations concerning ACORN, of which 11 are still pending. “ACORN Investigations,” Table 1.
  • No instances were identified in which ACORN “violated the terms of federal funding in the last five years.” “ACORN Investigations,” at 1.
  • Recently enacted federal legislation to prohibit funding to ACORN raises significant constitutional concerns. The courts “may have a sufficient basis” to conclude that the legislation “violates the prohibition against bills of attainder.” Congressional Research Service, “The Proposed ‘Defund ACORN Act’ and Related Legislation: Are They Bills of Attainder?” (November 30, 2009), at 25. [A recent court ruling did, in fact, find that the legislation violated the law]
  • Concerning recent “sting” operations relating to ACORN, although state laws vary, two relevant states, Maryland and California, “appear to ban private recording of face to face conversations absent the consent of all the participants.” Memorandum from the Congressional Research Service to the House Judiciary, “Allegations of Recording Conversations with Various ACORN Affiliated Individuals without Their Consent” (October 9, 2009), at 1.

Peter Dreier is Professor of Politics and director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College.

More on Max Baucus


Mort Zuckerman: God Bless America

December 25th, 2009 admin No comments

The end of a year always provides an opportunity to think about the true joys of living in this wonderful country we call America.

One quality integral to the American sense of community is giving. It has traditionally been a key characteristic of our society — “the spirit of mutual helpfulness” that so impressed the young French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville early in the 19th century. Private philanthropy in the United States has long been far greater in proportion to either our population or our total economic output than philanthropy anywhere else in the world. Last year, the gifts of Americans across the whole range of income groups added up to approximately $308 billion or 2.2% of our annual gross domestic product.

Twenty-one individuals or couples have made philanthropic pledges in excess of $100 million, and we have observed the largest single pledge ever made — the $30 billion ($30,000,000,000!) to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation from Warren Buffett. The Sage of Omaha might have left his fortune to his family, but he pithily explained why he didn’t: He wanted to give his children “enough money so that they would feel they could do anything, but not so much they could do nothing.” Amen to that.

The urge to give and to be seen giving is almost as universal as our urge to acquire, something else de Tocqueville noted. Sometimes this urge goes overboard–witness the excesses of Wall Street. At the heart of American capitalism there seems to be an unwritten contract that those who acquire the most wealth will share it with those who have the least. We give to causes ranging from medical research to scholarships for disadvantaged minority students, from supporting opera houses to preserving our historic landmarks. And we do this not only for our citizens but also for those of other countries-witness the extraordinary work of Bill and Melinda Gates to wipe out malaria in Asia and Africa, and the millions of dollars raised here to halt the rampant AIDS epidemic in Africa.

We are blessed by our history. The early immigrants came mostly from countries with a strong, central government, a dominant church, and an energetic aristocracy. Central government assumed the responsibility for the public good, with its costs underwritten by taxes. America, by contrast, was a young, frontier society with no tradition of strong, central government, with no state religion and no established aristocracy. When American pioneers wanted to raise a church or a school or a hospital in their new communities, they had to build it themselves. One farmer couldn’t put up a barn by himself, so individual farmers called on friends and neighbors, and when they needed help, the favor was promptly returned. The party the farmer threw for his neighbors after the barn was completed lives on in the wonderfully American phrase “raising the roof.”

Other rich countries have a far higher proportion of hospitals, libraries, and universities-all funded by the state. This reduces the sense of community. The commonplace cry is “Why don’t they do something about it?” instead of “Why don’t we do something about it?” Many Europeans believe that simply paying taxes absolves them of any further responsibility to their fellow citizens. It is an attitude that is beginning to change somewhat, given the American successes-the “thousand points of light” that the elder President Bush commended. But European governments vary from the stingy to the downright mean in their attitude to philanthropy.

Of course, government has hardly been rendered redundant in the United States, but its role in relation to philanthropy is a positive one. Our government, irrespective of political control, encourages giving, with indirect subsidies and tax exemptions for cultural institutions and tax relief for individuals. This jibes with the American instinct for individualism. We don’t want government to make all moral or aesthetic judgments. But studies have shown that the tax relief Americans enjoy from giving doesn’t explain the impulse to give. Happily, that is something deeply ingrained in our national psyche.

It has to be admitted that this system works well for middle — and upper-income Americans who can take advantage of tax deductions and arts subsidies but functions less well for lower-income groups. That’s why our universities, hospitals, and art museums are among the world’s finest, while healthcare and preschool education for poor Americans are below European standards. Here, still, is a challenge to the American spirit we celebrate as we give thanks for our blessings.

Thomas Wolfe put what America is all about well:

“So then, to every man his chance… his shining golden opportunity… to live, to work, to be himself, and to become whatever thing his manhood and his vision can combine to make him — this, seeker, is the promise of America.”

This is the very promise that binds into one society so many races, languages and national cultures. The vision of what we might become enables us to endure the injustices and inequalities of American society today. We do not feel embedded in the past or trapped by the present. We feel we have a future, not for the purpose of glorifying the state, but rather to realize our private ends in peace and freedom.

At this time of celebration of family and community, we can all sing ” America! America! God shed his grace on thee.”

More on Christmas


Mort Zuckerman: God Bless America

December 25th, 2009 admin No comments

The end of a year always provides an opportunity to think about the true joys of living in this wonderful country we call America.

One quality integral to the American sense of community is giving. It has traditionally been a key characteristic of our society — “the spirit of mutual helpfulness” that so impressed the young French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville early in the 19th century. Private philanthropy in the United States has long been far greater in proportion to either our population or our total economic output than philanthropy anywhere else in the world. Last year, the gifts of Americans across the whole range of income groups added up to approximately $308 billion or 2.2% of our annual gross domestic product.

Twenty-one individuals or couples have made philanthropic pledges in excess of $100 million, and we have observed the largest single pledge ever made — the $30 billion ($30,000,000,000!) to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation from Warren Buffett. The Sage of Omaha might have left his fortune to his family, but he pithily explained why he didn’t: He wanted to give his children “enough money so that they would feel they could do anything, but not so much they could do nothing.” Amen to that.

The urge to give and to be seen giving is almost as universal as our urge to acquire, something else de Tocqueville noted. Sometimes this urge goes overboard–witness the excesses of Wall Street. At the heart of American capitalism there seems to be an unwritten contract that those who acquire the most wealth will share it with those who have the least. We give to causes ranging from medical research to scholarships for disadvantaged minority students, from supporting opera houses to preserving our historic landmarks. And we do this not only for our citizens but also for those of other countries-witness the extraordinary work of Bill and Melinda Gates to wipe out malaria in Asia and Africa, and the millions of dollars raised here to halt the rampant AIDS epidemic in Africa.

We are blessed by our history. The early immigrants came mostly from countries with a strong, central government, a dominant church, and an energetic aristocracy. Central government assumed the responsibility for the public good, with its costs underwritten by taxes. America, by contrast, was a young, frontier society with no tradition of strong, central government, with no state religion and no established aristocracy. When American pioneers wanted to raise a church or a school or a hospital in their new communities, they had to build it themselves. One farmer couldn’t put up a barn by himself, so individual farmers called on friends and neighbors, and when they needed help, the favor was promptly returned. The party the farmer threw for his neighbors after the barn was completed lives on in the wonderfully American phrase “raising the roof.”

Other rich countries have a far higher proportion of hospitals, libraries, and universities-all funded by the state. This reduces the sense of community. The commonplace cry is “Why don’t they do something about it?” instead of “Why don’t we do something about it?” Many Europeans believe that simply paying taxes absolves them of any further responsibility to their fellow citizens. It is an attitude that is beginning to change somewhat, given the American successes-the “thousand points of light” that the elder President Bush commended. But European governments vary from the stingy to the downright mean in their attitude to philanthropy.

Of course, government has hardly been rendered redundant in the United States, but its role in relation to philanthropy is a positive one. Our government, irrespective of political control, encourages giving, with indirect subsidies and tax exemptions for cultural institutions and tax relief for individuals. This jibes with the American instinct for individualism. We don’t want government to make all moral or aesthetic judgments. But studies have shown that the tax relief Americans enjoy from giving doesn’t explain the impulse to give. Happily, that is something deeply ingrained in our national psyche.

It has to be admitted that this system works well for middle — and upper-income Americans who can take advantage of tax deductions and arts subsidies but functions less well for lower-income groups. That’s why our universities, hospitals, and art museums are among the world’s finest, while healthcare and preschool education for poor Americans are below European standards. Here, still, is a challenge to the American spirit we celebrate as we give thanks for our blessings.

Thomas Wolfe put what America is all about well:

“So then, to every man his chance… his shining golden opportunity… to live, to work, to be himself, and to become whatever thing his manhood and his vision can combine to make him — this, seeker, is the promise of America.”

This is the very promise that binds into one society so many races, languages and national cultures. The vision of what we might become enables us to endure the injustices and inequalities of American society today. We do not feel embedded in the past or trapped by the present. We feel we have a future, not for the purpose of glorifying the state, but rather to realize our private ends in peace and freedom.

At this time of celebration of family and community, we can all sing ” America! America! God shed his grace on thee.”

More on Christmas


Mort Zuckerman: God Bless America

December 25th, 2009 admin No comments

The end of a year always provides an opportunity to think about the true joys of living in this wonderful country we call America.

One quality integral to the American sense of community is giving. It has traditionally been a key characteristic of our society — “the spirit of mutual helpfulness” that so impressed the young French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville early in the 19th century. Private philanthropy in the United States has long been far greater in proportion to either our population or our total economic output than philanthropy anywhere else in the world. Last year, the gifts of Americans across the whole range of income groups added up to approximately $308 billion or 2.2% of our annual gross domestic product.

Twenty-one individuals or couples have made philanthropic pledges in excess of $100 million, and we have observed the largest single pledge ever made — the $30 billion ($30,000,000,000!) to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation from Warren Buffett. The Sage of Omaha might have left his fortune to his family, but he pithily explained why he didn’t: He wanted to give his children “enough money so that they would feel they could do anything, but not so much they could do nothing.” Amen to that.

The urge to give and to be seen giving is almost as universal as our urge to acquire, something else de Tocqueville noted. Sometimes this urge goes overboard–witness the excesses of Wall Street. At the heart of American capitalism there seems to be an unwritten contract that those who acquire the most wealth will share it with those who have the least. We give to causes ranging from medical research to scholarships for disadvantaged minority students, from supporting opera houses to preserving our historic landmarks. And we do this not only for our citizens but also for those of other countries-witness the extraordinary work of Bill and Melinda Gates to wipe out malaria in Asia and Africa, and the millions of dollars raised here to halt the rampant AIDS epidemic in Africa.

We are blessed by our history. The early immigrants came mostly from countries with a strong, central government, a dominant church, and an energetic aristocracy. Central government assumed the responsibility for the public good, with its costs underwritten by taxes. America, by contrast, was a young, frontier society with no tradition of strong, central government, with no state religion and no established aristocracy. When American pioneers wanted to raise a church or a school or a hospital in their new communities, they had to build it themselves. One farmer couldn’t put up a barn by himself, so individual farmers called on friends and neighbors, and when they needed help, the favor was promptly returned. The party the farmer threw for his neighbors after the barn was completed lives on in the wonderfully American phrase “raising the roof.”

Other rich countries have a far higher proportion of hospitals, libraries, and universities-all funded by the state. This reduces the sense of community. The commonplace cry is “Why don’t they do something about it?” instead of “Why don’t we do something about it?” Many Europeans believe that simply paying taxes absolves them of any further responsibility to their fellow citizens. It is an attitude that is beginning to change somewhat, given the American successes-the “thousand points of light” that the elder President Bush commended. But European governments vary from the stingy to the downright mean in their attitude to philanthropy.

Of course, government has hardly been rendered redundant in the United States, but its role in relation to philanthropy is a positive one. Our government, irrespective of political control, encourages giving, with indirect subsidies and tax exemptions for cultural institutions and tax relief for individuals. This jibes with the American instinct for individualism. We don’t want government to make all moral or aesthetic judgments. But studies have shown that the tax relief Americans enjoy from giving doesn’t explain the impulse to give. Happily, that is something deeply ingrained in our national psyche.

It has to be admitted that this system works well for middle — and upper-income Americans who can take advantage of tax deductions and arts subsidies but functions less well for lower-income groups. That’s why our universities, hospitals, and art museums are among the world’s finest, while healthcare and preschool education for poor Americans are below European standards. Here, still, is a challenge to the American spirit we celebrate as we give thanks for our blessings.

Thomas Wolfe put what America is all about well:

“So then, to every man his chance… his shining golden opportunity… to live, to work, to be himself, and to become whatever thing his manhood and his vision can combine to make him — this, seeker, is the promise of America.”

This is the very promise that binds into one society so many races, languages and national cultures. The vision of what we might become enables us to endure the injustices and inequalities of American society today. We do not feel embedded in the past or trapped by the present. We feel we have a future, not for the purpose of glorifying the state, but rather to realize our private ends in peace and freedom.

At this time of celebration of family and community, we can all sing ” America! America! God shed his grace on thee.”

More on Christmas


Midday Open Thread

December 25th, 2009 admin No comments
  • Worldometers is a fun tool full of world statistics updated in real time. Among other things, you’ll discover how many people are being born and dying today, how many blog posts are being made, how many species are going extinct and how much global militaries are spending right this second: $1,951,401,387…er…$1,959,319,211…er…
  • NORAD has Twitter? Apparently so, and you can follow Santa’s flight path by popping in @noradsanta, courtesy of @noradnorthcom.
  • Since more nukes are apparently in our future, it’s good to see the administration is considering maybe doing something about nuclear waste:

    The Energy Department is close to naming a blue-ribbon committee to consider new policies for dealing with spent nuclear reactor fuel but has further to go in completing negotiations on loan guarantees for a first group of new nuclear reactors, Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman said.

    – Plutonium Page

  • “Bipartisanship is another name for date rape,” Grover Norquist has told the Denver Post. “We are trying to change the tones in the state capitals – and turn them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship.” That’s good to know.
  • Michelle Goldberg laments beauty myths:

    Thinking about what the last year and the last decade has meant for American women, I kept coming back to the increasingly cruel physical scrutiny that they’re subject to. Impossible beauty standards seem like a subconscious cultural reaction against women’s growing power. It’s fine for women to do everything men do — as long as they stay skinny, sexy, young, and soignée at the same time. The surveillance culture of the Internet and the tabloids sends a message to all women that to let oneself go for even a moment is to open oneself up to a psychotic Greek chorus of abuse. Even as our politics get a little bit better for women, the broader public climate grows more unforgiving by the day.

  • Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story explained how Goldman Sachs played dodgy with its own clients by bundling bad debt, then betting against the bundles and making out like…well…bandits. What Goldman did, according to confidential sources, was sell complicated securities known as collaterized debt obligations that were based on its own mortgage-backed securities. Then it bought credit default swaps as insurance in case the CDOs soured. Which they did. And as the souring began, Goldman created more of these securities and reaped huge profits from them. Investors who thought they were getting solid investments – largely because Goldman told them they were – wound up losing billions.
  • Noam Schreiber asks and answers the big question Upper Mismanagement: Why can’t Americans make things? Two words: business school.
  • D. Aristophanes at Sadly, No! posted the The Top 10 Years Of The Decade. Here are the bookends:

    10. 2001: The year started ominously with a peasant blouse revival and only got worse with the worst thing that ever happened ever. Thankfully, a new generation of wiser heads with larger nutsacks would prevail in the cauldron of the very next year, and both transgressions would be avenged to this very day.
    [...]
    1. 2008: An energetic young politician was poised to replace an aging failure. A corrupt financial system came tumbling down to make way for a new era of reform. In the distance, if you squinted your eyes just so, the rainbow coats of the gathering ponies could be glimpsed by the pure of heart. And as the whisper of their whinnies came to you on winds of change, you swore they formed the words, ‘You betcha.’

  • War Vet: I Served 40 Months in Iraq, After Which I Didn’t Want to Go Back Home:

    We got the country back on its feet after we bombed it back into the Stone Age. We did a lot of good, and our efforts were not all wasted.

    Just understand that none of us came back the same as when we left.

  • Let’s break the McMegan Cycle.

    – Laura Clawson

  • Gallup looks at four key political stats, and how they have twisted and turned through the past decade.


Dr. Tian Dayton: Forgiveness Around the Holidays

December 24th, 2009 admin No comments

I have always felt that the field of psychology has divided itself too much from the spiritual nature of people. You cannot look into the DSM1V (our psychological diagnostic manual), for example, and find “soul sickness”, even though many of the people I see are sick at heart and feel a loss of purpose and meaning in their lives.

Forgiveness is something that people grapple with around the holidays. Interpersonal losses are felt more keenly during a time of year when family and friendship are in every song and on the tip of everyone’s tongue. So many of us are caught up in being hurt, in fantasies of revenge, in trying to regain a sense of self that someone who has hurt us seems to have taken away. Forgiveness in these moments can seem like lying down and being walked all over, it can feel passive and compromising.

But if we read The Sermon on the Mount, it is after all Christmas, “going the extra mile” or “turning the other cheek” may have other possible interpretations. It seems that Christ may be talking about standing up to someone, in an active and strong way, who has hurt us or who wants to take from us. Not to lie down and take it but to walk through and beyond it, to be bigger than it, to remain standing and strong rather than retreat and collapse; to be stronger spiritually speaking, than another person’s avarice, greed or hate.

I work in the addictions field where wrong doing is often denied and minimized. Rather than call a wrong a wrong and forgive it, people in alcoholic families often try to rewrite the wrong into something that is less distasteful, they twist around their sense of right and wrong to make wrong more palatable so that they can live with it more easily. Eventually they can even lose their ability to discern which is which. Alcoholic and dysfunctional families, in other words, learn to minimize wrong doing rather than look it straight in the face and “forgive” it. One of the things that I like about the concept of forgiveness is that forgiving someone implies that there actually has been wrong doing; that someone’s actions have in fact been hurtful or inappropriate.

Forgiving then, it seems to me, leaves choice in our own hands. I can choose to acknowledge that something was wrong and forgive it or not. For me, it beats minimizing and denying or their dark opposites, staying stuck in anger and a desire for revenge.

So if this holiday season you are contemplating forgiving someone who has hurt you but you are afraid that doing so will leave you feeling weak and vulnerable, consider this interpretation, that forgiveness is an act of strength, empowerment and self love. It means that you value your peace of mind more than hanging onto a resentment. And if it yourself who you are contemplating forgiving….why not….go ahead, you will be a better friend, father, sister, brother or mother if you are spiritually well!

Merry Christmas and may this be a moment of spiritual growth because ultimately it is spiritual wellness from which psychological wellness comes.


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Sara Schonhardt: Learning from Aceh’s recovery: tsunami lessons five years on

December 24th, 2009 admin No comments

Emotional aftershocks struck the world in the wake of the December 26 tsunami that killed nearly 230,000 people across 13 countries. The disaster unleashed an unprecedented outpouring of aid amounting to more than US$7 billion for Indonesia alone.

Five years later, those who witnessed the disaster or took part in recovery efforts are reflecting on the lessons learned.

In Aceh, the area hardest hit by the giant wave, homes have been rebuilt, families reunited and a stable government installed in a province that was battling a deep separatist conflict prior to the tsunami. The city has recovered so well that most of the international aids organizations have pulled up stakes and gone home.

Some aid workers still idle about town, bringing small dollars to the dozens of businesses born when volunteer numbers reached into the thousands. But among Aceh’s residents, concerns have shifted from fears of another disaster to fears about job opportunities.

When I met with him last year, Jonathan Papoulidis, then-chief of the UN Office of the Recovery Coordinator (UNORC), said development progress had been a “stabilizing” force that allowed the new government to get its grounding. A lack of employment, however, creates different worries about Aceh’s stability.

Uneven aid distribution and cash-for-work programs that create a culture reliant on handouts have in many ways broken down Aceh’s social fabric. The head of the psychosocial program at the American Red Cross expressed concern that financial fears could lead to violence.

These effects have become part and parcel of aid and recovery efforts, but some groups have established a lasting presence in Aceh and have gone far to support economic development. Mercy Corps, for instance, has helped train farmers in rice cultivation techniques and provided them with access to micro-finance.

Accomplishments in structural rebuilding also are noteworthy, said the former UNORC chief, whose office was created to streamline aid efforts. But rebuilding can often serve to legitimize progress this long after a disaster, when what is important is the kind of society being created.

In Lambung village, one of the UN’s models of development, houses resemble cookie cutouts, each one a square concrete box replicated into the hundreds. Neighborhoods have been rebuilt for ease of escape rather than incorporating the winding, jungle roads that community residents once liked to stroll.

As the world marks the five-year anniversary of the tsunami, it is finding most victims have picked up the pieces of their lives and are moving forward. Most of the 127,000 houses destroyed by the tsunami have been rebuilt with the $6.7 billion in aid that did eventually flow in, according to the Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency for Ache and Nias.

But “building back better,” former President Bill Clinton’s slogan for the rebuilding effort, requires more than sturdy homes and evacuation routes. It requires listening to and fulfilling the needs of communities that are forever altered by natural disasters.

A test came in September, when a 7.6-magnitude quake struck off the coast of western Sumatra, sparking a rapid emergency relief response. Affected villagers later said too much time was taken up with needs assessment, preventing aid from reaching their communities. They also said more thought needs to go into aid distribution, explaining that instant noodles provide little assistance when communities lack clean water.

Earthquakes and tectonic activity have become increasingly commonplace in Indonesia. Over the past two decades more than 40 large-scale earthquakes have hit the country, with 15 of them generating tsunamis.

To mitigate the extent of such disasters, the Red Cross and Red Crescent have helped create community-based risk reduction programs that perform small-scale prevention efforts, such as drainage maintenance to prevent flooding during monsoon season.

That is a positive step, but Hening Parlan, executive director of Humanitarian Forum Indonesia, which is made up of NGOs dealing with disaster management, said priority still goes to emergency warning systems rather than disaster prevention.

For three years following the December 26 tsunami the Indonesian government had no budget for disaster management, with the national coordinating board that headed the country’s disaster management program focused on emergency response. A 2007 law changed that focus to risk management, but a related regulation that requires local governments to establish disaster management units has been slow to take hold.

Some blame increased regional autonomy and protectionism for holding up volunteer access to disaster sites. Dr. Josia Rastandi, chairman of the Structural Reliability Testing Division at the University of Indonesia, blamed human error for the massive loss of life in Indonesian earthquakes.

“Many houses and public buildings did not meet quake-proof regulations,” Rastandi said at a press gathering following the Padang temblor. If the buildings in Padang had been constructed according to 2002 building codes, the extent of the damage might have been minimal.

For now, Jakarta is the only city that has a body tasked with checking the structural design of buildings – and even this is only done for structures over eight stories tall. In 2006 the Ministry of Public Works produced a proper building guidance, but the publication has reached few eyes outside the country’s capital.

Some groups have called for a ministry dedicated to disaster mitigation and relief, while others continue to advocate stricter building codes. It’s true that progress has been made, but lessons about combating inequality and bureaucratic delays are still surfacing in Aceh.

At Sebagai Cobaan, one of the province’s mass burial grounds, a lose sign board spins in the wind, repeating the Koranic verse “Every soul shall have a taste of death.” An astounding 14,264 people are buried beneath a grass enclosure the size of two tennis courts. In nearby Lambung village, life takes on a picture of normalcy. This community benefited from high levels of education and community support that made redevelopment easier. Others communities were not so lucky.

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Open Thread and Diary Rescue

December 24th, 2009 admin No comments

Tonight’s Diary Rescue’s Rangers who bring us the amazing selection of efforts which deserve your attention are Louisiana 1976, blank frank, dopper0189, shayera, ItsJessMe and jennyjem. All dadanation did was sing songs from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” all the while faking editing.

Rescued (The Diaries)

Extras (The Usual)

jotter brings us High Impact Diaries: December 22, 2009.

virgomusic has tonight’s Top Comments – Carols from Hell Edition.

Closing (The Paragraph)

Please use this as an Open Thread as well as your chance to promote your favorite diaries of the day. Respectful engagement is most welcome here. Please keep in mind that each Diary Rescue’s daily purview extends from 3pm PST yesterday to 3pm PST today. Shamelessly self-promote or pimp for a friend in this Open Thread!


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Alvaro Fernandez: Why You’ll Need A Personal Brain Trainer

December 23rd, 2009 admin No comments

Recently I had the fortune to interview Dr. Michael Merzenich, a leading pioneer in brain plasticity research, in his office at UCSF. In the late 1980s, Dr. Merzenich was on the team that invented the cochlear implant, and later founded Scientific Learning Corporation and Posit Science. You may have learned about his work in one of PBS TV specials, multiple media appearances, or neuroplasticity-related books. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1999 and to the Institute of Medicine this year.

Neuroplasticity-based Tools: The New Health And Wellness Frontier

Dear Michael, thank you very much for agreeing2009-12-20-sharpbrains_summit_logo_web.jpg to participate in the inaugural SharpBrains Summit in January, and for your time today. What are, in your mind, the likely implications of your work and that of other neuroplasticity research and industry pioneers? specifically, given that there are many different technology-free approaches to harnessing neuroplasticity, what is the unique value of technology?

It’s all about efficiency, scalability, personalization, and assured effectiveness. Technology supports the implementation of near-optimally-efficient brain-training strategies. Through the Internet, it enables the low-cost distribution of these new tools, anywhere out in the world. Technology also enables the personalization of brain health training, by providing simple ways to measure and address individual needs in each person’s brain-health training experience. It enables assessments of your abilities that can affirm that your own brain health issues have been effectively addressed.

Of course substantial gains could also be achieved by organizing your everyday activities that grow your neurological abilities and sustain your brain health. Still, if the ordinary citizen is to have any real chance of maintaining their brain fitness, they’re going to have to spend considerable time at the brain gym!

Having said this, there are obvious obstacles. One main one, in my mind, is the lack of understanding of what these new tools can do. Cognitive training programs, for example, seem counterintuitive to consumers and many professionals – why would one try to improve speed-of-processing if all one cares about is “memory?” A second obvious problem is to get individuals to buy into the effort required to really change their brains for the better. That buy-in has been achieved for many individuals as it applies to their physical health, but we haven’t gotten that far yet in educating the average older person that brain fitness training is an equally effortful business!

Tools for Safer Driving: Teens and Adults

Safe driving seems to be one area where the benefits are more intuitive, which may explain why.

Yes, we see great potential and interest among insurers for improving driving safety, both for seniors and teens. Appropriate cognitive training can lower at-fault accident rates. You can measure clear benefits in relatively short time frames, so it won’t take long for insurers to see an economic rationale to not only offer programs at low cost or for free but to incentivize drivers to complete them. Allstate, AAA, State Farm and other insurers are beginning to realize this potential. It is important to note that typical accidents among teens and seniors are different, so that training methodologies will need to be different for different high-risk populations.

Yet, most driving safety initiatives today still focus on educating drivers, rather that training them neurologically. We measure vision, for example, but completely ignore attentional control abilities, or a driver’s useful field of view. I expect this to change significantly over the next few years.

Long-term care and health insurance companies will ultimately see similar benefits, and we believe that they will follow a similar course of action to reduce general medical and neurodegenerative disease- (Mild Cognitive Impairment and Alzheimer’s- and Parkinsons-) related costs. In fact, many senior living communities are among the pioneers in this field.

Boomers & Beyond: Maintaining Cognitive Vitality

Mainstream media is covering this emerging category with thousands of stories. But most coverage seems still focused on “does it work?” more than “how do we define It”, “what does work mean?” or “work for whom, and for what?” Can you summarize what recent research suggests?

We have seen clear patterns in the application of our training programs, some published (like IMPACT), some unpublished, some with healthy adults, and some with people with mild cognitive impairment or early Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). What we see in every case: 1) despite one’s age, brain functioning can be improved, often with pretty impressive improvement in a short-time frame and limited time invested (10 or 20 or 30 or 40 hours over a period of a few weeks up to two or three months). 2) Basic neurological abilities in 60-90 year olds that are directly subject to training (for example, processing accuracy or processing speed) can be improved to the performance level of the average 20 or 30 or 40 year old through three to ten hours of training at that specific ability. 3) Improvements generalize to broader cognitive measures, and to indices of quality of life. 4) Improvements are sustained over time (in different controlled studies, documented at all post-training benchmarks set between three to 72 months after training completion).

In normal older individuals, training effects endure — but that does not mean that they could not benefit from booster or refresher training — or from ongoing training designed to improve other skills and abilities that limit their older lives. Importantly, a limited controlled study in mildly cognitively impaired individuals showed that in contrast to normal individuals, their abilities declined in the post-training epoch. These folks had improved substantially with training. Even while there abilities slowly deteriorated after training, they sustained their advantages over patients who were not trained. We believe that in these higher-risk individual, continued training will probably be absolutely necessary to sustain their brain health, and, if it can be achieved (and that is completely unproven), to protect them from a progression to AD. Moreover, for both these higher-risk and normal individuals, interventions should not be thought of as one-time cure-alls. Ongoing brain fitness training shall be the way to go.

A major obstacle is that there is not enough research funding for appropriate trials to address all of these issues, especially as they apply for the mildly cognitively impaired (pre-AD) or the AD populations. We’d welcome not only more research dollars but also more FDA involvement, to help clarify the claims being made.

Next Generation Assessments

A key element for the maturity of the field will be the widespread use of objective assessments. What do you see in that area?

Unfortunately, most researchers and policy initiatives are still wedded to relatively rudimentary assessments. For example, I recently participated in meetings designed to help define a very-well-supported EU initiative on how cognitive science can contribute to drug development, in which most applied assessments and most assessments development were still paper-based. This is a major missed opportunity, given the rapidly growing development and availability of automated assessments.

I believe we will see more independent assessments but also embedded assessments. For instance, in Scientific Learning we routinely use ongoing embedded assessments and cross-referenced state test achievement scores to develop models and profiles designed to determine the regimes of neuroplasticity-based training programs that must be applied so that individual students, school sites and school districts may achieve their academic performance goals.

What’s Next?

This has been a fascinating conversation, and a great context to the themes we will cover in depth in the summit. What else do you think will happen over the next few years?

First, I believe we’ll need to focus on public education, for people to understand the value of tools with limited “face value”. One important aspect of this is the need to find balance between what is “fun” and what has value as a cognitive enhancer — which requires the activities to be very targeted, repetitive and slowly progressive. Not always the most fun — people need to think “fitness” as much or more than “games.”

Second, I believe the role of providing supervision, coaching, support, will emerge to be a critical one. Think about the need for having a piano teacher, if you want to learn how to play the piano and improve over time. Technology may help fill this role, or empower and richly support real “coaches” who do so.

Which existing professional group is more likely to become the “personal brain trainers” of the future? or will we see a new profession emerge?

Frankly, I don’t know. To give you some context, at Scientific Learning we experimented with offering free access to therapists for a two-month training. At Posit Science we first experimented with virtual ‘coaches’ that many people seemed to hate, and later encouraged people who had completed the program to volunteer and coach new participants. Results were mixed. We’re now exploring other possibilities.

Let me mention a few other aspects. I believe we will also see a growing number of applications in languages other than English, which will be key given growing interest in South Korea, Japan and China on aging workforce issues (until now they have been mostly focused on childhood development, using English-based programs). We will also see the programs widely available to people who may not have computers at home. For example, Posit Science recently donated software equivalent in value to one million dollars to the Massachusetts public library system, as a model of how wider access (in this case, to help older drivers) might be provided.

My dream in all of this is to have standardized and credible tools to train the five to six main neurocognitive domains for cognitive health and performance through life, coupled with the right assessments to identify one’s individual needs and measure progress. For example, I’d like to know what the 10 things are that I need to fix, and where to start. Assessments could either measure the physical status of the brain, such as the degree of myelination, or measure functions over time via automated neuropsych assessments, which is probably going to be more efficient and scalable and potentially be self-administered in a home health model.

Mike, thank you very much once more for your time and insights.

My pleasure. I am looking forward to the very innovative Summit that SharpBrains is putting together to convene our little growing community.

______

Please note that this is an excerpt of the full interview published on December 17th by SharpBrains. If you want to read full interview (with extended focus on medicine, mental health and clinical aspects) you can read Michael Merzenich on Brain Training, Assessments, and Personal Brain Trainers.

To learn more about the inaugural global and virtual summit 2009-12-20-sharpbrains_summit_logo_web.jpgon Technology for Cognitive Health and Performance, January 18-20th, 2010, click on SharpBrains Summit. The Summit will gather over 30 speakers from leading universities and companies.

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