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/NotionsCapital.com
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) en.wikimedia.org

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!

Wednesday, November 02, 2016


If your children are among the 80-plus percent who have one or more media-linked devices in their bedrooms, they are also likely not to be sleeping long enough or deeply enough at night, and to be drowsy during the day.

Sleeping students/Credit: L. Krittaya
Public health researchers at Cardiff University, in Wales, scoured the research literature and found 20 studies involving more than 125,000 students that examined the link between sleep and the presence and use of screen media by children and adolescents worldwide. The results were unequivocal--use of such media at bedtime significantly reduced both the quality and quantity of sleep, and showed up in daytime drowsiness as well, compared to children without access to media at bedtime.

Writing in the October 31, 2016 issue of JAMA Pediatrics, the authors point out that degraded sleep isn't just a matter of a grouchy, hard-to-wake-child or nodding off in class. Impaired sleep in children is linked to poorer nutrition, obesity, weakened immunity, stunted growth and a variety of mental health issues.

“Sleep is an often undervalued but important part of children’s development," says lead author Ben Carter, from the Cardiff University School of Medicine. "With the ever growing popularity of portable media devices, such as smartphones and tablets, the problem of poor sleep amongst children is set to get worse."

Dr. Carter's prescription-- " . . . an integrated approach involving parents, teachers, and healthcare professionals . . . to improve sleep habits near bedtime.”

If you'ld like to read the full article, it's available for free here.


It's common knowledge that income and wealth inequality--the gap between the rich, the very rich and the rest of us--has soared in the U.S. from the 1980s on.

M/Y Eclipse Superyacht 9 August, 2012: Credit Moshi Anahory

There's no shortage of statistics to paint this increasingly bleak picture. To list just a few:

Percentage of total wealth owned by the richest 0.1%:

2007            17%

2011             22%

Percentage of total wealth owned by the richest 1%:

2007            35%

2011             43%

Percentage of total wealth owned by the richest 20%:

2007             86%

2011              93%        

Percentage of total wealth owned by the lowest 80%:

2007             15%

2011               7%

You get the idea.

New findings reported in the American Journal of Sociology--which must come as a huge surprise to academics and conservative ideologues who believe that such wealth disparities result from inevitable economic forces--show that the most powerful factor determining how wealth gets distributed is political, especially who occupies the oval office.

"You can't explain income inequality without looking at political factors," concludes David Jacobs, the study's lead author. Or, as George Orwell put it, ". . . economic laws do not operate the same way as the law of gravity."

Sociologists at the Ohio State University analyzed 33 years of data at both the national and state level. That gave them 1615 cases that they subjected to careful statistical analysis. They measured the impact of more than 20 factors that economists have proposed to explain the distribution of income and wealth.

Their key finding: the presidential administration in power is by far the dominant factor driving inequality. The Reagan administration alone fostered an 18 percent increase in inequality, they found. The research did not pin the blame on any one policy, but rather on the cumulative impacts of changes to the tax codes, deregulation of financial markets and other businesses, weakened unions, and truncated anti-poverty programs.

"I believe it was a lot of policies that each contributed a little bit to growing inequality, and when you added them all up the results were large," Jacobs said.

To those of us who remember the Reagan administration, noted for its anti-labor union-busting zeal, this comes as no surprise. I recall noting the simultaneous appearance of more and more chauffeur-driven limousines and sidewalks full of homeless people.

Homeless group: Credit Franco Folini

In other words, money doesn't flow from one segment of the population to another by accident or by magic. There's no invisible hand prestidigitating dollars out of your pocket into the coffers of the one percent. The hand is quite visible, greased of course by an army of lobbyists and their bosses, who I'm sure already knew in their bones what Jacobs has now shown us. Investing a few tens of millions (or, so far this election year, $2.3 million per day!) in the right politician can result in policies that transfer billions or trillions to the rich. What a great investment!

For an in-depth look at this issue, take a look at the book Rigged by economist Dean Baker.