Saturday, December 31, 2016


I hope I'm wrong, but . . .

I've been re-reading Naomi Klein's 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. In it, Klein details how for the last three decades powerful disciples of radical-free-market economist Milton Friedman have perfected the art of seizing on chaos, crises and disasters to implement their agendas of deregulation and free trade, privatization and the gutting of the social safety net while those who are impacted or might resist are still reeling and disorganized.

Klein opens the book with an enlightening story about Hurricane Katrina, which struck in August, 2005, killing more than 1200 people and wreaking more than $100 billion in property damage. Even while thousands of its victims were still struggling to survive, Friedman was urging his moneyed and powerful acolytes to seize the moment to advance one of their pet projects--privatizing education. The result was that most of New Orleans' public schools were never re-opened, thousands of teachers lost their jobs, their union and their legal protection, and the entire public education system of New Orleans was the victim of a quick and thorough takeover by voucherized charter schools. And that was only one of the many ways in which the catastrophe was turned into a fantastic profit opportunity for the few while the people of New Orleans were re-victimized.

Interestingly, Republicans are now using New Orleans as a poster child for school privatization nationwide.

Flooding from Hurricane Katrina--What a Great Opportunity!--Credit US Navy
Klein goes on to discuss many other instances of what she calls disaster capitalism, such as the murderous history of Chile under Pinochet; Russia under Yeltsin and Iraq after the 2003 "shock and awe" invasion by the United States under George Bush. Many of these forced transformations took place outside the U.S., but some, such as the surge of the surveillance state following 9/11, happened right here at home.

Shock and Awe: Operation Desert Storm/Credit
On January 20, 2017, all the pieces will be in place for a massive, multi-front assault on the entire public sphere. We will have a president who has a deep authoritarian streak, whose main motives seem to be self enrichment and self aggrandizement, and who has little or no respect for the rule of law; a cabinet filled with billionaire capitalists, a congress dominated by tea partiers and other conservatives drooling to demolish pretty much everything that's been implemented to help ordinary people since the New Deal, and a Supreme Court that will soon be dominated by the right.

How likely do you think is that this energized and empowered collection of conservatives will advance their programs in a studied, thoughtful way, for example consulting with stakeholders--that's all of us--considering implications and alternatives, and negotiating in good faith with the opposition?

It's much more likely--to my mind almost a certainty--that they will launch a simultaneous attack on every front with the most radical versions of their plans. Name an issue or program you care about--the environment, energy, climate change, healthcare, consumer protection, financial regulation, education, labor, immigration, civil rights, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, surveillance, torture, taxation, separation of church and state, freedom of speech, a free press, voting rights, gun control, Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare, Planned Parenthood, the EPA, NASA--and expect legislation, litigation or presidential fiat to slash it, gut it, kill it or push it as far to the right as can be imagined.

And not one issue or program at a time, but all at once and as soon as possible.

As I wrote in the days after the election:

. . . things appear normal. But in New York and Washington, angry, arrogant men and women are circling like wolves, salivating as their time draws near. For them, life is a zero-sum game that they have won. That makes the rest of us losers, and in their world losers deserve no more than scornWomen and childrenMuslims and Mexicansjournalists and Jews--and who knows who else--beware, because the knives are out.

The newly empowered threaten that undesirables will be registered and tracked, millions deported and the press whipped to heel. People will need to watch what they sayTorture-lovers will be re-empowereddrillersextractors and polluters will run freeclimate and environment be damnedSchools must be privatizedObamacare must go, along with MedicarePlanned Parenthood and women's right to chooseDiscrimination by Christians against the LGBTQ community or others will be legalized along with discrimination against Muslims. NASA will be ordered not to monitor the Earth, but the NSA will monitor us all. The rich will have their tax cuts and sooner or later the deficit hawks will have theirs. We know who will bleed; it will not be the billionaires.

Their goal is a simple one--use shock and awe to overwhelm and rout any resistance in order to radically reshape America. The means to do it are in their hands. And the people who will be in charge after January 20 are not the kind to use power with moderation.

I very much hope I'm wrong, but it sure looks like a deluge to me.

Storm Front Approaching / Credit Jonny Ross
Note (1/7/2017): I was wrong--thinking that the storm would hit after Trump's inauguration on January 20. Media Matters reports that Trump has scheduled his first press conference in months for January 11. His cohorts in the Senate, led by Mitch McConnell, have scheduled six confirmation hearings for the same day. A beautiful example of overloading the opposition, the press and the public. The Office of Federal Ethics points out that the early hearing date has overwhelmed their staff, leaving them with inadequate time for the necessary ethics reviews, made worse in that many of the nominees have not provided financial and other information.

Shock and awe has come home.


For a similar, more detailed analysis of the coming "shock doctrine blitzkreig" by attorney and commentator Miles Mogulescu, click here.

And for an update on how the deluge has progressed in the first 10 days of Trump's reign, read this piece by William Rivers Pitt.

Thursday, December 22, 2016


When hundreds of scientists leave their labs and take to the streets to protest, you can bet that something serious is going on.

Scientists rally for climateSan Francisco, 12/13/16/Credit:
What led hundreds of scientists to rally in the streets of San Francisco on December 13 was the realization that president-elect Trump is filling his cabinet with climate-change deniers and fossil-fuel advocates

For the scientists, the risks of inaction, or worse yet, backward steps with respect to global climate change are simply to great to ignore. Floods, fire, famine, food shortages, forced migration and increased political instability loom if the US and the rest of the world fail to move aggressively away from our current carbon-based economy.

The technology is already available, it's the political will that's lacking. These courageous scientists went way beyond their comfort zone to alert us. Take a look at what they did and why they did it at this link:

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


As I discussed in an earlier post, "Officer Involved Deaths in Black and White," there's an enormous gap between justice as its administered in our courts and "justice" as it is meted out in the thousands of fatal encounters with police that take place in the US every year.

Justice in a court of law / Credit Slater and Zurz
First, a little background about capital punishment.

The US is the only western nation that currently enforces the death penalty. Thirty-two states and the US federal government apply it; 18 states and the District of Columbia do not. There were no legal executions in the US between 1967 and 1977. Since then, more than 1400 convicts have been executed, an average of about 40 people per year (just 20 in 2016, a 25-year low). The death penalty has not been shown to decrease murders or other crimes. The murder rate in non-death-penalty states is consistently lower--30 percent on average--than in death-penalty states. Nonetheless, capital punishment in the US retains strong popular support.

As you would expect, the death penalty is only applied for very serious offenses. These vary from state to state, for example intentional homicide with aggravating circumstances such as rape, multiple victims, or the killing of an on-duty police officer. At the federal level, treason, espionage and large-scale drug trafficking are also capital offenses. The constitutional right to due process guarantees that even after a fair trial, conviction and sentencing, convicts facing death have access to legal appeals that can delay their execution for years--currently an average of more than 14 years.

None of the above is true on the streets:

--Rather that 40 per year, 1000 to 2000 people die in encounters with police every year--25 to 50 times more than are legally executed.

--As multiple notorious cases have shown in recent years, a fatal encounter with police can stem from a broken tail-light, shoplifting, carrying a crucifix, or as minorities have been reporting for years, walking, driving or parking while Black, Hispanic or Native American.

--As a depressing number of videos show, "due process" is often reduced to minutes or even seconds between an officer's first contact with a suspect and a fatal barrage of shots.

--Fatal encounters with police are far from fair with respect to race or ethnicity. A recent study in the American Journal of Public Health analyzed 2,285 "legal intervention deaths" in the US between 2010 and 2014 and found that Blacks, Native Americans and Alaskan Natives were 2.7 times more likely to die in police encounters than Whites, and Hispanics 1.6 times more likely to die.

--The interactions between police and the people they are supposed to serve and protect vary greatly from state to state. Police in New Mexico, with a population just over 2 million, killed 28 people in the first half of 2016. Nevada, with a comparable population, saw just 4 police-related deaths. Arizona has a slightly smaller population than Washington, yet Arizona police killed more than twice as many people. Californians are three times more likely to die in an arrest-related event than New Yorkers. There's something wrong with this picture.

Justice on the street / Credit A Gude
Of course, this does not mean that all or most of those deaths are illegal or illegitimate. Police officers do represent the front line of our system of justice, place their own lives at risk (although not nearly as much as the public believes), and have to deal with many difficult and sometimes dangerous people and situations. University of South Carolina criminologist Geoff Alpert points out that in 98.9 percent of cases, killings by police are found to be justified.

However, justified does not mean necessary or just. The number of police killings places the US at the ragged edge of other developed countries. A few examples:

The US has about 6 times the population of England and Wales. Yet US police killed more people in the first 24 days of 2015 than police in England and Wales over the last 24 years.

The US has about 4 times the population of Germany. US police kill two or three times as many people every week as German police do in a year. Almost twice as many unarmed Black men (19) were killed by US police in 2015 than all the people killed by police in Germany that year (10).

The police in Kern County, California--population 875000--killed 14 people in 2015. That's almost three times as many as were killed that year by police in Germany and the UK combined--total population 145,000,000.

Police in my home town, Albuquerque, New Mexico, killed 28 people between January, 2010 and July, 2014. That's more than twice as many as police killed in Germany during the same time period. Albuquerque has a population of 556,000. Germany has a population of 80,620,000. That means that the citizens of Albuquerque were 300 times more likely to die at the hands of police than the citizens of Germany.

Clearly, there's something different about how US police are trained, governed and see their relationship to the rest of us, compared to police in other countries. You can read a thoughtful expert commentary by criminal justice professor Paul Hirschfield at this URL.

Hirschfield identifies a variety of contributing factors, but emphasizes that police in other developed countries receive significantly more training than in the US, including  much more training in how to manage critical situations--for example dealing with agitated or mentally ill people--without resorting to lethal force.

He also focuses on national and international standards which typically permit lethal force only as a last resort and when absolutely necessary. In the US, standards are far more lax. Most states empower police to use lethal force if they reasonably believe they or someone else is at risk of imminent or grave harm. In the vast majority of cases, review boards, district attorneys, judges and juries give police officers enormous leeway concerning the circumstances or behavior that could have justified their perception of risk, resulting in a lack of accountability. A recent in-depth study by Reuters reveals how police union contracts across the country can shield officers who repeatedly use excessive force or even engage in clearly criminal acts, for example by expunging their records every few years. A recent Pew Research Center survey finds that 72 percent of police officers nationwide agree that badly performing fellow officers are not held accountable.

It's in large part that very low bar to the use of lethal force in the US that leads to the kinds of killings that outrage us all too frequently. Both training and the legal standards for the use of lethal force need to be improved if the police are to be seen not as soldiers on the front line of a war, but as the face of justice in our communities and on the streets.

Monday, December 19, 2016


Women doctors treat differently, save lives

Male and female physicians practice medicine differently. For example, women doctors spend more time with their patients, communicate more, offer more encouragement, and are more likely to adhere to the latest clinical guidelines.

A major new national study shows that those or other differences save lives. The study found that hospitalized elderly patients treated by female rather than male internists were 4 percent less likely to die and 5 percent less likely to be re-hospitalized within 30 days of admission. This was true across a wide range of conditions. And the sicker the patient, the bigger the difference between patient outcomes for female vs. male physicians.

Female physicians practice medicine differently--and more effectively
Credit: Ilmicrofono Oggiono

"The difference in mortality rates surprised us," said Yusuke Tsugawa, a researcher at Harvard University's T. H. Chan School of Public Health and the study's lead author. "The gender of the physician appears to be particularly significant for the sickest patients."

A four or five percent difference in survival rates may not seem like a lot, but since 10,000,000 patients like those in this study are hospitalized in the US every year, the authors estimate that if male physicians performed as well as their female colleagues, 32,000 lives would be saved--more than the number of Americans who die in traffic accidents every year.

The study, published today in the prestigious JAMA Internal Medicine, tracked the outcomes of more than 1.5 million Medicare hospitalizations from 2011 through 2014. All of the patients were 65 years old or older, 40 percent were men, 60 percent women. These were seriously ill patients--within 30 days of being admitted to the hospital, more than 15 percent were re-hospitalized and more than 11 percent died. About one third of patients were treated by female internists or hospitalists, two thirds by male physicians. Although earlier research has identified a number of differences between how female and male physicians practice, this is the first national study to see if those differences impact patient outcomes.

Although this study shows conclusively that the physician's gender does affect the risk that hospitalized elderly patients will die or be re-hospitalized, it does not pin down just what produces those differences.

"There was ample evidence that male and female physicians practice medicine differently," says Ashish Jha, Director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. "Our findings suggest that those differences matter and are important to patient health. We need to understand why female physicians have lower mortality so that all patients can have the best possible outcomes."

In the meantime, an accompanying editorial in the same journal points out that the medical profession needs to take a hard look at the gap in both pay and career advancement between female physicians and their male colleagues.

You can listen to an interview with the authors at this URL.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016


According to the Atlas of U.S. Presidential Election Results, as of December 19, 2016--the day the Electoral College votes to elect the new President--Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 2,871,974 votes (and still counting). With just over 137,000,000 votes cast, that means she won the popular vote by more than two percent. Nonetheless, Trump will be sworn in as President (OMG), but to claim that he has a mandate is a travesty.

But because of the Electoral College, it just didn't count/Credit Vox Efx

Remarkably, despite Hillary Clinton's 2.8 million vote lead, more than half of Republicans think Trump won the popular vote, as do 60 percent of Republicans with no college education. Trump clearly has millions of reasons to back up his famous "I love the poorly educated" quote.

As Abraham Lincoln said, "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time. . . " Trump lives by those words.

Let's hope that Lincoln was also right in concluding, ". . . but you cannot fool all the people all the time."

Sunday, December 11, 2016


Nate Silver's website, isn't just about sports and political polls. It also hosts statistics-based commentaries on a variety of important subjects. A recent post by Ben Casselman entitled "Inequality is Killing the American Dream," is well worth reading.

Casselman presents statistics supporting three main points:

1. The dream that each generation of Americans would do better than the last has been fading since around 1970. At that time, nearly nine out of ten 30 year olds were earning more than their parents had at the same age. By 2014, that was true for less than half of 30 year olds.

2. Another way of documenting the erosion of economic progress is the finding that, adjusted for inflation, the lower half of American wage earners today aren't earning any more, pre-tax, that the same segment of earners did in the 1970s. Zero progress in 45 years.

3. The key factor is not lack of growth in the overall economy, but too much growth in economic inequality. Only the topmost rungs of the economic ladder have stretched, carrying a few to great wealth while leaving most of the population behind.

Getting ahead has become out of reach for many/Graphic credit: Peggy_Marco

Again, the full story is worth reading for anyone who wants to understand what's really happening to America.

Monday, December 05, 2016


Meeting in Paris last year, representatives from 195 nations agreed to work together to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) above the temperature that prevailed before the industrial revolution. Scientists and policy members agreed that global warming beyond that level creates unacceptable levels of risk to the environment and civilization--much like revving your car's engine into the red zone. The Paris Agreement (Accord de Paris) went into effect in November of 2016.

Negotiators celebrate Paris Agreement 4/22/16
Credit: UN

In what should serve as a three-alarm wake-up-call, researchers at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, a prestigious independent intergovernmental organization, reports that Earth hit that 1.5 degree C ceiling for the first time in February of 2016 (see section 10 in the above link).

Global Temperatures 1880 to Present

The researchers are quick to note that the early months of 2016 were exceptionally warm, following a strong El Niño, and that Earth has cooled approximately 0.3 degrees C (0.5 degrees F) since then. However, with the levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere continuing to rise, it's only a matter of time before we don't just bump against the 1.5 degree ceiling, but crash through it.

And not much time. The Berlin-based Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) calculates that under the most optimistic assumptions, we have only 4 years before we lock in more than 1.5 degrees C of warming, and under the most pessimistic assumptions, just one year.

Atmosperic CO2 levels over the last 500,000 years/Credit NASA

"It is salutary that the world touched the 1.5 degree C level less that twenty years after touching the 1 degree C level in the record-breaking year of 1998," says Adrian Simmons, the study's lead author. 

"Salutary" is a polite, understated, British way of saying that if we value Earth's health and our own, we'd better pay attention and take action.

(Note 1/10/17: I hate to be pessimistic, but it's clear from Trump's own statements and his appointees that the US government will be leading a climate-change charge, but in exactly the wrong direction--away from wind and other renewable sources of energy, and back towards coal and other greenhouse-gas belching technologies.)

Tuesday, November 29, 2016


On a recent trip to Bonn, Germany, our guide led us to a powerful memorial in the city’s Market Square where the Nazi Party had carried out one of the first of the regime’s Bucherverbrennung or Book Burnings on May 10, 1933.

To mark the 50th anniversary of that infamous event, in May 1983, the then West German Capital unveiled a muted, but striking display of bronze book spines vertically placed amidst the rebuilt Square’s cobblestones. Recording the authors and titles of many of the volumes tossed onto the pyre, the density and impact of the display increases near the Rathaus or Town Hall steps where the actual book burning took place.

To keep the memorial ritually alive, on every May 10 since then, citations from burned books are read at a commemorative ceremony and copies of different books destroyed there are handed out to passer-byes.

As I scanned the Square for recognizable titles, one in particular seemed to leap out at me amidst the scatter of famous works lying among the stones. There was the very familiar Sonoma County name of Jack London engraved on the bronze spine of one of his most significant and radical works, The Iron Heel.

 Memorial to Jack London's The Iron Heel, Bonn, Germany
Credit: Les Adler

Suddenly the events of more than eighty years ago became even more intensely real and close to home. These were not simply random volumes tossed on the flames by Nazi fanatics or those caught-up in the fervor of the moment, but works deliberately chosen because of the ideas they carried. Ideas which, in fact, were truly subversive to the single-grained, hate-filled ideology of the Third Reich particularly because they expressed a belief in the indomitable human spirit and its continuous struggle for freedom and dignity.

This seems particularly significant now as we pause to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the life and work of Sonoma County’s and one of America’s most famous authors, Jack London, who died at the young age of 40 at his Glen Ellen ranch in November of 1916.

The Iron Heel, written in 1908, was one of London’s most radical and ultimately influential works. Written from the perspective of the far future, it described the doomed revolt of a band of rebels, based here in Sonoma County, struggling against the crushing weight of what he called ‘The Oligarchy’, essentially a corporate state dominated by ruthless capitalist forces. Recognizing the danger of concentrated wealth and power overwhelming the working class in his own time, London chronicled the potential triumph of modern authoritarian state power over the lone individual. His prescient work became the first and, arguably, the most influential in what later became the list of twentieth-century dystopian novels culminating in such classics as Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984.

Standing in Bonn’s Market Square in 2016, long after the flames meant to obliterate their words and ideas were doused--and even while still immersed in similar struggles for human rights and dignity--one could only feel thankful to London and those memorialized around him for the still vital testaments to the human spirit they left behind.

--Les Adler

Les Adler is Emeritus Professor of History
in the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies at
Sonoma State University.

This commentary first appeared in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, November 27, 2016.


Let's do a little math:

The number of electors each state sends to the electoral college is equal to the number of Representatives it sends to Congress plus the number of senators. The number of representatives is proportional to each state's population, but every state has two and only two senators. Every state gets at least one Representative. This arrangement strongly favors smaller states when it comes to electing the President. Here's by how much:

If you live in California, with a population of 38 million, your vote helps elect one of 55 representatives to the Electoral College. That works out to slightly more than 677,000 votes per elector.

If you live in Texas, population around 27 million with 34 electoral votes, it takes 686,000 votes to send someone to the Electoral College.

In Florida or New York, with populations around 20,000,000, it takes around 670,000 votes per elector.

Electoral College Votes by State
Credit: Wikimedia

Switching over to the states with the lowest population:

Wyoming, with a population less than 600,000 and 3 electoral votes: 192,000 votes per elector.

Vermont, just over 600,000 and 3 electoral votes: around 209,000 votes for each elector.

Alaska and North Dakota with around 740,000 citizens and 3 electoral votes each, around 240,000 votes per elector.

You get the idea, states with large population are strongly disenfranchised in the Electoral College, while the states with the fewest people are strongly favored.

This isn't a trivial effect. Joe Smith's vote in Wyoming is 3.6 times more powerful in terms of electing the President than John Smith's vote in California. 

Or, looking at it another way, slightly more than half of all Americans live in the 9 most populous states. Yet those states get just 240 electoral votes. The other half of the U.S. population, spread among the 41 less populous states, gets 298 electoral votes. That makes an average voter in a lower-population state about 1.25 times as powerful as an average voter in one of the 9 largest states.

In an excellent piece about how poorly the Electoral College works for most Americans, constitutional law professor Jamie Raskin points out that the combined population of the 12 smallest states is about the same as the population of Ohio. Those states get 40 electoral votes. How many does Ohio get? Eighteen. So an Ohio vote counts less than half of a vote in those states. Please tell me how that makes any sense in electing a President for all of us.

And in brief, that's why Donald Trump will be taking the oath of office on January 20 even though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2.8 million (and counting)--a bigger margin than 10 earlier presidents! Reportedly spurred on by wealthy backer, hedge-fund CEO Robert Mercer, Trump hired British-based Cambridge Analytica, a high-powered marketing firm that identified the urban-rural split and honed the rust-belt strategy that gave Trump his 290-to-232 electoral vote "landslide" despite the fact that 2.8 million more voters chose Clinton.

Please explain to me why in the world we should let this incredibly unfair and undemocratic system continue.

Saturday, November 26, 2016


Everything seems the same. Thanksgiving has come and gone; tables were set, friends and family gathered, turkeys carved and served. Weddings are being planned, babies are being born, children play in the schoolyard. People rush to work, friends chat over lunch, lovers embrace. Life goes on. But, for the 64 million of us who voted for Hillary Clinton—actually for all of us--nothing is the same, or will be.

Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want, 1943
Credit: Normal Rockwell Museum
Gandalf's Gallery

I think I know now what people across Europe must have felt during the eight months of the Phoney War. Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and on September 3 the UK and France declared war. But between then and May 10, 1940, when the Nazi blitzkrieg blasted into France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, life went on as if nothing had changed. A second world war was looming, there were weighty conclaves and the pondering of plans in London, Paris and Berlin, forces were marshaled and moved, but during those strange, tense months, nothing much happened. And then, as Winston Churchill had prophesied to a wary America a year before in his brilliant speech "The Defence of Freedom and Peace," the lights went out.

German troops, Paris, June, 1940
Credit: Bundesarchiv

Like then, things appear normal. But in New York and Washington, angry, arrogant men and women are circling like wolves, salivating as their time draws near. For them, life is a zero-sum game that they have won. That makes the rest of us losers, and in their world losers deserve no more than scorn. Women and children, Muslims and Mexicans, journalists and Jews--and who knows who else--beware, because the knives are out.

The newly empowered threaten that undesirables will be registered and tracked, millions deported and the press whipped to heel. People will need to watch what they say. Torture-lovers will be re-empowered; drillers, extractors and polluters will run freeclimate and environment be damned. Schools must be privatized. Obamacare must go, along with Medicare, Planned Parenthood and women's right to choose. Discrimination by Christians against the LGBTQ community or others will be legalized along with discrimination against Muslims. NASA will be ordered not to monitor the Earth, but the NSA will monitor us all. The rich will have their tax cuts and sooner or later the deficit hawks will have theirs. We know who will bleed; it will not be the billionaires.

The die was cast on November 8. This strange, tense time--our phoney war--will end with the inauguration of Donald Trump on January 20. The event will be celebrated and reported as if he were just another president. If you believe that, then you'd best hope that God does protect the innocent.

Never have Benjamin Franklin's words on leaving the Constitutional Convention in 1787 rung truer. "Well, Doctor, what have we got--a republic or a monarchy?" a woman asked. "A republic," Franklin replied, "If you can keep it."


For another commentary on what to expect after Trump's inauguration, click here.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Monday, November 14, 2016


If you type "brain training exercises" or "brain training games" into a search engine, you'll get millions of hits. Companies offering games and exercise promising to ward off failing memory, loss of concentration and other signs of cognitive decline have become big business. These exercises have also become controversial, with some studies and experts highly critical of their usefulness.

Brain-training research, Brain and Mind Centre/Credit: University of Sydney
A new study published today in the American Journal of Psychiatry can shed some light on this issue. Researchers at the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia, reviewed more than twenty years worth of research on the effects of computerized cognitive training (CCT). They selected only randomized clinical studies, and used the statistical technique of meta-analysis to combine the results. 

Their findings are surprisingly clear--for people with mild cognitive impairment, structured brain training can boost general thinking skills, attention, working or short-term memory, verbal long-term memory, learning and mood. 

Mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, represents a kind of middle ground between the kinds of memory and other cognitive problems that occur with normal ageing and the more severe changes seen in Alzheimer's disease and other full-blown dementias. Typically about 10 percent of people diagnosed with MCI develop Alzheimer's or another form of dementia within a year.

In general, the kinds of computerized games and challenges studied did not help after people had already been diagnosed with dementia. Intriguingly, however, three studies that used more immersive technology such as Nintendo's Wii or virtual reality did show positive results even then--a lead well worth following.

Although emphasizing that further research is needed to see if the clear improvements caused by these cognitive exercise programs delay or perhaps in some cases prevent dementia, the researchers are encouraged. "Our research shows that brain training can maintain or even improve cognitive skills among older people at very high risk of cognitive decline," says neuroscientist Amit Lampit, who lead the study. "and it's an inexpensive and safe treatment."

With recent research also showing that structured physical exercises can also improve cognitive functioning in people with MCI (see my blog entry for 10/25/16), we can see the outline of safe and inexpensive interventions that may keep people's brains healthy and functioning well even as they age.


I'm tired of hearing that minds are made up not by facts but by feelings, that millions of people are locked into echo chambers that tell them over and over again just what they want to believe, and that we live in a world made of competing narratives and memes rather than a palpable reality. I still believe in facts, and trust that you do too.

With that in mind, here are some facts about guns and homicide:

In 2005, Florida became the first state to pass new "stand-your-ground" legislation that pushed beyond the traditional right to defend oneself, if need be with lethal force, against a serious threat in one's own home. State Bill  436, signed into law by then governor Jeb Bush, granted people in Florida the right "not to retreat" from a perceived threatening situation in private or public spaces. Before then, based on common law, someone feeling threatened outside the home had the responsibility to use every reasonable means to avoid the danger, including to retreat, before being justified in using lethal force.

Here is the relevant section of the Florida law with the "stand-your-ground" clause underlined:

A person is justified in using or threatening to use deadly force if he or she reasonably believes that using or threatening to use such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony. A person who uses or threatens to use deadly force in accordance with this subsection does not have a duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground if the person using or threatening to use the deadly force is not engaged in a criminal activity and is in a place where he or she has a right to be.

Credit: Daniel Oines, Creative Commons
Whatever your feelings about guns, the Second Amendment, gun control, or about just where self defense legitimately starts and ends, you can view the passage of this law as an experiment, with a clear dividing line between before (1999-2004) and after (2005-2014).

The results of that experiment, detailed today in JAMA Internal Medicine, are clear: the homicide rate in Florida went up by just under a quarter--24 percent--and the rate of homicide using guns went up by just under a third--31 percent.

The researchers noted that Florida's homicide rate rose while rates were generally declining throughout the US, and remained roughly unchanged in four comparable eastern states.

Co-author Douglas Wiebe. at the University of Pennsylvania, concludes, "The findings are strong evidence that by extending the 'no duty to retreat clause', this change to the law in Florida led to deaths that otherwise would not have occurred. We need to think about the implications of these findings and Florida should consider reversing this decision that appears to have increased the use of lethal force."

His suggestion that we need to think about the implications of these findings seems particularly cogent given that 30 states followed Florida's lead and currently have similar stand-your-ground laws.

And as long as we're talking about guns and homicide rates, another new study, also in today's issue of JAMA Internal Medicine, finds, not all that surprisingly, that stronger gun-control laws cut the homicide rate.

A team of researchers at Boston Children's Hospital reviewed all available peer-reviewed studies of the relationship between firearm laws and firearm deaths. From among more than 500 studies they selected 34 that met strict criteria for the quality of the data used, the time span of the study, and the quality of analysis.

They found a clear relationship between gun-control laws and lower homicide rates. In particular, laws requiring background checks before a gun purchase, and laws requiring a permit to own a gun had the greatest impact.

"Gun legislation is a very important and controversial issue right now, but our findings show that some laws, specifically those to strengthen background checks and require a permit to purchase a firearm, will not deny people the right to bear arms, but will help protect the public," says emergency medicine specialist Dr. Lois Lee, the paper's lead author.

And in case you would like children to be safe at school, a just-published study finds that states with mandatory background checks for the purchase of guns and ammunition have fewer school shootings. Florida, the first stand-your-ground state, earned the dubious honor of a tie for second place for the number of school shootings in the three years studied, 2013-2015--14 in all. They were beaten by Georgia, another stand-your-ground state, with 15.

From a public health viewpoint, the case against stand-your-ground and the case for well-chosen gun-control laws is clear.

To quote tough-guy Joe Friday, "just the facts, ma'am."

Saturday, November 12, 2016


A few years ago I was backpacking in California's Sierra Nevada. Sitting by an alpine lake late in the afternoon, I noticed something interesting. On the hillsides rising up from the lake the stands of pine trees showed a striking pattern. On the lower slopes there were only the remains of dead trees--tall, scraggly skeletons with a few bare branches. A bit higher up the slope was populated by clusters of trees, not the age or height of the dead giants below, but a substantial, growing population. And above them were saplings, staking out still higher ground. "Look at that," I said to my hiking buddies, "the trees are migrating up the slope."

June Lake, Sierra Nevada Range/Credit: Don Graham

At the time, we were pretty sure that we had stumbled upon one, small, local impact of climate change, although of course we knew that what we were seeing could be explained in other ways, and that one case doesn't prove anything.

However, our intuition was probably right. A new study in the prestigious journal Science surveys multiple studies from around the world and finds that 82 percent of the vital biological functions they examined showed clear changes in response to the 1 degree C the Earth has warmed since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

"Genes are changing, species' physiology and physical features such as body size are changing, species are shifting their ranges and we see clear signs of entire ecosystems under stress, all in response to changes in climate on land and in the ocean," says wildlife ecologist Brett Scheffers, at the University of Florida.

Climate change impacts on ecological processes in marine, freshwater, and terrestrial ecosystems/Credit: Scheffers et al., Science, 11 November, 2016

The authors explain that the genetic, physical and population changes they documented represent crucial aspects of the healthy functioning of Earth's ecosystems, biological systems on which human well-being depends. These impacts varied from 60 percent for genetic changes to 100 percent for changes in species distribution. And, these wide-ranging impacts are happening sooner than many experts expected.

"Some people didn't expect this level of change for decades," said environmental researcher James Watson, at the University of Queensland, Australia. "The impacts of climate change are being felt with no ecosystem on Earth being spared."

It's important to recognize that these changes are not just abstractions of interest to scientists and nature lovers. They impact us all directly. The authors write:

Disruptions scale from the gene to the ecosystem and have documented consequences for people, including unpredictable fisheries and crop yields, loss of genetic diversity in wild crop varieties, and increasing impacts of pests and diseases. 

Since we're seeing these across-the-board changes sooner than expected, and with only one degree C of human-caused warming, it becomes all the more urgent to do everything we can to reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gases, and to move as quickly as possible to alternative energy sources such as solar, wind and hydro.

With the coming Trump administration threatening to do everything it can to reverse the progress towards climate-change mitigation that the US has made in recent years, we will have to look to the rest of the world to recognize the need to sustain a healthy and habitable planet, and act to preserve it.

Thursday, November 10, 2016


. . . to quote a recent Nobel Prize winner.

We'll no doubt be dealing with the fallout from the election of Donald Trump for many years, if not decades. One of the first, and possibly one of the worst impacts of his presidency may be an about-face by the US concerning greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

The Paris Climate Agreement may soon be jettisoned by Trump
Credit: UN
Writing in New Scientist, editor Michael Le Page points out that if Trump follows through on his campaign promises, he's likely to derail the fledgling Paris Climate agreement, which will lock the world into at least 3 degrees C of warming, well beyond what scientists tell us is safe.

You can read his commentary here.

And a more in-depth analysis from the Guardian here.

And a piece reaching the same conclusion from the New York Times.

You can read another post about what to expect after Trump's inauguration here.

You get the idea.

Sunday, November 06, 2016


We've known for many years that raising animals for meat is an incredibly inefficient way to feed people. Meat production uses a huge amount of land, water and energy, and produces a huge amount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and other forms of pollution.

Grazing cattle/Credit: USDA

Now, for the first time, consumers can compare the environmental impact of different kinds of food.

Researchers at Lancaster University, in the UK, and RMIT University, in Melbourne, Australia, reviewed 369 studies concerning the global warming impact of the production and distribution of a wide variety of foods. To help consumers, they've summarized their findings in a simple table.

The gist of what they found is that meat from ruminants such as cattle and sheep has the worst impact on the climate. Worldwide, one kilogram (2.2 lbs.) of greenhouse gas emissions only yields 38 grams of beef (that's just .08 pounds). Pork was better, but far from ideal, with one kg of greenhouse gas production yielding 174 g (.38 lb.) of pork. Chicken was better still, with a 270 g (.6 lb.) production of chicken at the cost of 1 kg of greenhouse gases. Fish and eggs were in the same intermediate range.

However, the winners by far were in the veggie department. For example, 1 kg of greenhouse gas emissions came from the production of 1 kg (2.2 lbs.) of lentils or 2.6 kg (5.7 lb) of oats.

And, getting back to the title of this piece, you can produce and distribute 20 medium-sized apples (3.5 kg, 7.7 lb.) at the cost of 1 kg of greenhouse gas. By weight, that's a whopping 92 times better than beef. (Onions were an even better buy for the environment, but I figure that an onion a day would keep everyone away).

Now that 193 nations have signed the Paris Agreement, vowing to do their part to combat global climate change, one thing each of us can do is shift our diets away from meat and towards more fruits and vegetables. How hard can that be?

A child eating an apple/Credit: USDA

Saturday, November 05, 2016


As a psychologist, it's obvious to me (and every colleague I've talked to) that Donald Trump suffers from a serious and dangerous personality disorder. However, there's nothing like first hand experience. So please read this piece by Helene Stohne telling us what it was like to live with (and survive) a sociopath, and what all of us are in for if Trump wins.

 Credit: Mike Licht/
Remember, in this extremely close election, not voting or voting for a third-party candidate is actually a vote for Trump. This is especially true if you live in a swing or toss-up state, including Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Friday, November 04, 2016


If you've had a chance to drive or ride in a Prius, you know how you can watch the flow of energy to and from the battery, motor and brakes. it's a great feeling, for example, to see the battery being charged by the regenerative braking system--free energy!

Prius energy display/Credit: Kmf164 (at)

Now imagine watching a similar visualization for the entire world, and a 100% sustainable one at that. Its designers call it the internet of energy. You can view it in action right here. It's great fun to play around with. 

Screenshot of renewable energy flows in European region/Credit: Neo Carbon Energy
You might think this is just a lovely fantasy, but it's not. The worldwide and region-by-region visualizations are the result of extensive and detailed research. Christian Breyer and colleagues at Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT), in Finland, analyzed exactly what it would take to provide 100% renewable electricity worldwide using the most appropriate and efficient regional mix of solar, wind, hydro, biomass and other sources of renewable energy, along with the needed resources for transmission and storage. 

Contrary to those who argue that we must continue to depend on fossil fuels, the researchers found that renewables can provide ample energy anywhere on Earth, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, conceivably by 2030.

The model was presented for the first time on November 4 at the World Clean Energy Conference in Geneva, Switzerland.

'The visualization shows exactly how a fully renewable electricity system operates. So let’s just build it,” urges chemical engineer Pasi Vainikka, a member of the research consortium. 

So far the group has only modeled a 100% renewable electrical system. Their next goal is to expand their work to include the entire energy system including heating, cooling and transportation. They also plan to map a feasible transition from our current unsustainable situation to a 100% sustainable future.

“Every country in the world has to find pathways to achieve the Paris agreement targets and to avoid stranded assets," says Breyer. "This model can provide the help for policy-makers, industrial decision-makers and societal stakeholders to do that."

It's do-able. Let's do it!