Monday, August 31, 2009

Coherence, Clarity, Beauty

Willam Shawn said: "Amid chaos of images, we value coherence. We believe in the printed word. And we believe in clarity. And we believe in immaculate syntax. And in the beauty of the English language.

Click text above to enlarge

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Five myths about health care around the world

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Five myths about health care around the world

by T.R. Reid, guest opinion
Tuesday August 25, 2009, 5:30 AM

As Americans search for the cure to what ails our health-care system, we've overlooked an invaluable source of ideas and solutions: the rest of the world. All the other industrialized democracies have faced problems like ours, yet they've found ways to cover everybody -- and still spend far less than we do.

I've traveled the world from Oslo to Osaka to see how other developed democracies provide health care. Instead of dismissing these models as "socialist," we could adapt their solutions to fix our problems. To do that, we first have to dispel a few myths about health care abroad:

1. It's all socialized medicine out there.

Not so.

Some countries, such as Britain, New Zealand and Cuba, do provide health care in government hospitals, with the government paying the bills. Others -- for instance, Canada and Taiwan -- rely on private-sector providers, paid for by government-run insurance. But many wealthy countries -- including Germany, the Netherlands, Japan and Switzerland -- provide universal coverage using private doctors, private hospitals and private insurance plans.

In some ways, health care is less "socialized" overseas than in the United States. Almost all Americans sign up for government insurance (Medicare) at age 65. In Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, seniors stick with private insurance plans for life. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is one of the planet's purest examples of government-run health care.

2. Overseas, care is rationed through limited choices or long lines.

Generally, no. Germans can sign up for any of the nation's 200 private health insurance plans -- a broader choice than any American has. If a German doesn't like her insurance company, she can switch to another, with no increase in premium. The Swiss, too, can choose any insurance plan in the country.

In France and Japan, you don't get a choice of insurance provider; you have to use the one designated for your company or your industry. But patients can go to any doctor, any hospital, any traditional healer. There are no U.S.-style limits such as "in-network" lists of doctors or "pre-authorization" for surgery. You pick any doctor, you get treatment -- and insurance has to pay.

Canadians have their choice of providers. In Austria and Germany, if a doctor diagnoses a person as "stressed," medical insurance pays for weekends at a health spa.

As for those notorious waiting lists, some countries are indeed plagued by them. Canada makes patients wait weeks or months for non-emergency care, as a way to keep costs down. But studies by the Commonwealth Fund and others report that many nations -- Germany, Britain, Austria -- outperform the United States on measures such as waiting times for appointments and for elective surgeries.

In Japan, waiting times are so short that most patients don't bother to make an appointment. One Thursday morning in Tokyo, I called the prestigious orthopedic clinic at Keio University Hospital to schedule a consultation about my aching shoulder. "Why don't you just drop by?" the receptionist said. That same afternoon, I was in the surgeon's office. Dr. Nakamichi recommended an operation. "When could we do it?" I asked. The doctor checked his computer and said, "Tomorrow would be pretty difficult. Perhaps some day next week?"

3. Foreign health care systems are inefficient, bloated bureaucracies.

Much less so than here. It may seem to Americans that U.S.-style free enterprise -- private-sector, for-profit health insurance -- is naturally the most cost-effective way to pay for health care. But in fact, all the other payment systems are more efficient than ours.

U.S. health insurance companies have the highest administrative costs in the world; they spend roughly 20 cents of every dollar for non-medical costs, such as paperwork, reviewing claims and marketing. France's health insurance industry, in contrast, covers everybody and spends about 4 percent on administration. Canada's universal insurance system, run by government bureaucrats, spends 6 percent on administration. In Taiwan, a leaner version of the Canadian model has administrative costs of 1.5 percent; one year, this figure ballooned to 2 percent, and the opposition parties savaged the government for wasting money.

The world champion at controlling medical costs is Japan, even though its aging population is a profligate consumer of medical care. On average, the Japanese go to the doctor 15 times a year, three times the U.S. rate. They have twice as many MRI scans and X-rays. Quality is high; life expectancy and recovery rates for major diseases are better than in the United States. And yet Japan spends about $3,400 per person annually on health care; the United States spends more than $7,000.

4. Cost controls stifle innovation.

False. The United States is home to groundbreaking medical research, but so are other countries with much lower cost structures. Any American who's had a hip or knee replacement is standing on French innovation. Deep-brain stimulation to treat depression is a Canadian breakthrough. Many of the wonder drugs promoted endlessly on American television, including Viagra, come from British, Swiss or Japanese labs.

Overseas, strict cost controls actually drive innovation. In the United States, an MRI scan of the neck region costs about $1,500. In Japan, the identical scan costs $98. Under the pressure of cost controls, Japanese researchers found ways to perform the same diagnostic technique for one-fifteenth the American price. (And Japanese labs still make a profit.)

5. Health insurance has to be cruel.

Not really. American health insurance companies routinely reject applicants with a "preexisting condition" -- precisely the people most likely to need the insurers' service. They employ armies of adjusters to deny claims. If a customer is hit by a truck and faces big medical bills, the insurer's "rescission department" digs through the records looking for grounds to cancel the policy, often while the victim is still in the hospital. The companies say they have to do this stuff to survive in a tough business.

Foreign health insurance companies, in contrast, must accept all applicants, and they can't cancel as long as you pay your premiums. The plans are required to pay any claim submitted by a doctor or hospital (or health spa), usually within tight time limits. The big Swiss insurer Groupe Mutuel promises to pay all claims within five days. "Our customers love it," the group's chief executive told me. The corollary is that everyone is mandated to buy insurance, to give the plans an adequate pool of rate-payers.

The key difference is that foreign health insurance plans exist only to pay people's medical bills, not to make a profit. The United States is the only developed country that lets insurance companies profit from basic health coverage.

In many ways, foreign health care models are not really "foreign" to America, because our crazy-quilt health care system uses elements of all of them. For Native Americans or veterans, we're Britain: The government provides health care, funding it through general taxes, and patients get no bills. For people who get insurance through their jobs, we're Germany: Premiums are split between workers and employers, and private insurance plans pay private doctors and hospitals. For people over 65, we're Canada: Everyone pays premiums for an insurance plan run by the government, and the public plan pays private doctors and hospitals according to a set fee schedule. And for the tens of millions without insurance coverage, we're Burundi or Burma: In the world's poor nations, sick people pay out of pocket for medical care; those who can't pay stay sick or die.

This fragmentation is another reason that we spend more than anybody else and still leave millions without coverage. All the other developed countries have settled on one model for health-care delivery and finance; we've blended them all into a costly, confusing bureaucratic mess.

Which, in turn, punctures the most persistent myth of all: that America has "the finest health care" in the world. We don't. In terms of results, almost all advanced countries have better national health statistics than the United States does. In terms of finance, we force 700,000 Americans into bankruptcy each year because of medical bills. In France, the number of medical bankruptcies is zero. Britain: zero. Japan: zero. Germany: zero.

Given our remarkable medical assets -- the best-educated doctors and nurses, the most advanced hospitals, world-class research -- the United States could be, and should be, the best in the world. To get there, though, we have to be willing to learn some lessons about health care administration from the other industrialized democracies.

T.R. Reid, a former Washington Post reporter, is the author of "The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care."

Saturday, August 29, 2009


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Slow-Moving Vehicle

Published: August 10, 2008

Traffic jams are not, by and large, caused by flaws in road design but by flaws in human nature. While this is bad news for drivers — there's not much to be done about human nature — it is good news for readers of Tom Vanderbilt's new book. "Traffic" is not a dry examination of highway engineering; it's a surprising, enlightening look at the psychology of human beings behind the steering wheels.


Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us).

By Tom Vanderbilt.

402 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $24.95.

An alternate title for the book might be "Idiots." Vanderbilt, who writes regularly about design and technology, cites a finding that 12.7 percent of the traffic slowdown after a crash has nothing to do with wreckage blocking lanes; it's caused by gawkers. Rubberneckers attend to the spectacle so avidly that they themselves then get into accidents, slamming into the car in front of them when it brakes to get a better look or dig out a cellphone to take a picture. (This happens often enough for traffic types to have coined a word for it: "digi-necking.") Exasperated highway professionals have actually tried erecting anti-rubbernecking screens around the scenes of accidents, but the vehicle toting the screen typically gets caught in the traffic jam it's meant to prevent.

Moreover, Vanderbilt adds, "there is the interest in the screen itself." Drivers will slow down to look at anything: "Something as simple as a couch dumped in a roadside ditch can send minor shudders of curiosity through the traffic flow." "Traffic" is jammed with these delicious you've-got-to-be-kidding moments.

Even without home furnishings to distract us, we rarely seem to get anywhere fast at any time of day. One reason, Vanderbilt reports, is that people are driving to do things they once did at home or down the block. "It is not just that American households have more cars," he writes, "it is that they are finding new places to take them." They're going someplace to eat. They're driving to Whole Foods because they don't like the produce at their neighborhood supermarket. They're going out to get coffee. (So much of Starbucks's revenue now comes from drive-through lanes that the company will put stores across the street from each other, sparing drivers "the agony of having to make a left turn during rush hour.")

And they're parking. Or trying to. In a study of one 15-block area near U.C.L.A., cars were logging, on an average day, 3,600 miles in pursuit of a place to park. It's not only the number of parkers on the roads that slows things down. It's the way they drive, crawling along, sitting and waiting and engaging in other irritating examples of what one expert calls "parking foreplay." The answer? Sorry: more expensive street parking to encourage the circling hordes to use pay lots.

Click on Image to take interactive quiz.

Traffic does not yield to simple, appealing solutions. Adding lanes or roads is a short-lived fix. Widen one highway, and drivers from another will defect. Soon that road is worse than it was before. The most effective, least popular solution — aside from the currently effective, unpopular solution of $5-a-gallon gasoline — is congestion pricing: charging extra to use roads during rush hours. For unknown reasons, Americans will accept a surcharge for peak-travel-time hotel rooms and airfares but not for roads.

If it's any consolation, traffic has always been bad. Vanderbilt begins with a short (I longed for more!) section on the history of traffic congestion. By studying chariot "rutways" and "wear patterns on curbstones," archaeologists have determined that the citizens of Pompeii had to contend with construction detours and one-way streets. Meanwhile, in ancient Rome, "the chariot traffic grew so intense that Caesar ... declared a daytime ban on carts and chariots, 'except to transport construction materials for the temples of the gods or for other great public works or to take away demolition materials.'"

I was less surprised by all that than by the existence of so many traffic professionals. Given the seeming anarchy of traffic, there are a surprising variety of experts employed to manage it. Vanderbilt has interviewed them all, from traffic "vision specialists" (who have, of late, taken to making road signs in "incident pink") to "one of the world's leading authorities on queues." (One of!) The author is an impressively energetic researcher, even, at one point, tracking down the person who programs the Hebrew calendar into about 75 signal lights in Los Angeles. This is done to enable Sabbath-observant Jews to cross the street without pushing a button and violating the ban on operating machinery. (In New York it isn't necessary, as most crossing buttons long ago stopped working.)

Vanderbilt spends much time deconstructing crashes — a problem even before there were cars. "In the New York of 1867," he writes, "horses were killing an average of four pedestrians a week (a bit higher than today's rate of traffic fatalities)." Nowadays, the cause of collisions, or one of them, is people believing they're better drivers than they are. We base our judgment on the number of crashes we've been in, rather than on the number of accidents we narrowly avoid, which, if we're being honest (or we're being me), happen just about every time we drive. Compounding this vehicular hubris is the fact that most of the driving we do appears to be safer than it is. Driving rarely commands 100 percent of our attention, and so we feel comfortable multitasking: talking on the phone, unfolding a map, taking in the Barca-Lounger on the road's shoulder. Vanderbilt cites a statistic that nearly 80 percent of crashes involve drivers not paying attention for up to three seconds. Thus the places that seem the most dangerous — narrow roads, hairpin turns — are rarely where people mess up. "Most crashes," Vanderbilt writes, "happen on dry roads, on clear, sunny days, to sober drivers." For this reason, roads that could be straight are often constructed with curves — simply to keep drivers on the ball.

This basic truth — feeling safe kills — lies beneath many of the book's insights. Americans think roundabouts are more dangerous than intersections with traffic lights. Roundabouts require you to adjust your speed, to merge, in short, to pay attention. At an intersection, we simply watch the light. And so we may not notice the red-light runner coming at us or the pedestrian stepping off the curb. A study that followed 24 intersections that had been converted from signals or stop signs to roundabouts showed an almost 90 percent drop in fatal crashes after the change.

For similar reasons, S.U.V.'s are more dangerous than cars. Not just because they're slower to stop and harder to maneuver, but because — by conferring a sense of safety — they invite careless behavior. "The safer cars get," Vanderbilt says, "the more risks drivers choose to take." (S.U.V. drivers are more likely to not bother with their seat belts, to talk on cellphones, and to not wear seat belts while talking on cellphones.) So it goes for much of the driving universe. More people are killed while crossing in crosswalks than while jaywalking. Drivers pass bicyclists more closely on a road with bike lanes than on one without.

My solution to the nation's vehicular woes would be to make this good book required reading for anyone applying for a driver's license. Though you could then be sure that some percentage of car crashes in America would be caused by people trying to skim "Traffic" while stuck in a bottleneck on their way to the D.M.V.

Mary Roach's most recent book is "Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex."


Karl Popper: " Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve."

News at night

6. News Will Arrive From Far Away

by Dana Gioia

News will arrive from far away: the phone
rings unexpectedly at night,
and a voice you almost recognize
will speak. Soft and familiar,
it mentions names you haven't heard for years,
names of another place, another time,
that street by street restore
the lost geography of childhood.
Half asleep you listen in the dark
gradually remembering where you are.
You start to speak. Then silence.
A dial tone. An intervening voice.
Or nothing. The call is finished.
Not even time to turn the lights on.
Now just the ticking of the clock,
the cold disorder of the bed.

"6. News Will Arrive From Far Away" by Dana Gioia from Daily Horoscope. © Graywolf Press, 2002.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Daikon: Unearthing The Radish With Soul

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Daikon: Unearthing The Radish With Soul

August 28, 2009

To listen to the story Click Here.

You may have noticed a vegetable at your local farmers market that looks kind of like an albino carrot on steroids. It's a daikon radish. Kazu Yoshimoto, who runs a daikon farm in Massachusetts, says that unlike regular radishes, daikon has kick.

Tina Antolini reports from member station from WFCR in Amherst, Mass.

A daikon radish with miso paste
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August 28, 2009 - STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's return to the United States now, where we have spent part of this summer sampling what's available at some of America's farmer's markets. And today, we'll explore a vegetable that looks like a kind of albino carrot on steroids. It's not a carrot, not a turnip. It's a radish. Tina Antolini from WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts tells us about the daikon.

TINA ANTOLINI: Compared to usual cute, rosy radishes, Michael Byrnes says daikon looks a little bit like an alien.

Mr. MICHAEL BYRNES (Daikon Farmer): It's a long, white radish - sometimes as big as your arm, sometimes as big as your leg. Apparently, that's how they grow it in Japan. We find that our customers maybe like it a little bit smaller than leg size.

ANTOLINI: Byrnes is standing in the daikon field where he works. The one he's holding reaches from his fingertips to his elbow, not counting a top of vibrant green leaves.

Byrne's boss, Kazu Yoshimoto, says the daikon's size is what gives it its name.

Mr. KAZU YOSHIMOTO (Owner, Sunbow 5 Foundation Farm): The literal translation is fat root.

ANTOLINI: When Yoshimoto came here from Japan to start Sunbow 5 Foundation Farm, daikon was a must among his crops. Raw, he says, it gives you more oomph than your typical radish.

Mr. YOSHIMOTO: Regular radish may be more mild, soft, you know, gentle to you. But daikon radish, like, beating you or fighting you, like, a little bit sharp. They have lots of energy. More - we call it ki. Ki means spit, or soul.

ANTOLINI: So the daikon has lots of soul?

Mr. YOSHIMOTO: Yeah, yeah. That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANTOLINI: Cooked, he says, it can be more mild and sweet and can go into anything, from stir-fries to soups. The easiest way to enjoy daikon is just slicing it up.

(Soundbite of slicing daikon)

Mr. YOSHIMOTO: I'm peeling off the skin. The skins get a little bit, you know, hard.

(Soundbite of slicing daikon)

ANTOLINI: And dipping it into a little bit of miso paste.

Mr. YOSHIMOTO: Now you eat it.

ANTOLINI: Well, this sort of salty sweetness of miso is really nice for the spicy daikon. The heat kind of blooms in your mouth at the end.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANTOLINI: Some of that heat is tempered when Yoshimoto makes the traditional daikon pickle, called takuan. It tastes almost like Korean kimchi, with a satisfying crunch. It's made by burying sun-dried daikon in a bucket of salts for months. And when selling it at the farmer's market, Yoshimoto says slices of takuan are a little bit more approachable than a daikon the size of your arm.

For NPR News, I'm Tina Antolini in western Massachusetts.

INSKEEP: You can explore the rest of our Farm Fresh series at the, where you can also find recipes and share your own.

1 Brain + 2 Eyes = 3D: Closing Soon

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1 Brain + 2 Eyes = 3D

Oregon Historical Society
Experience History in 3D!

March 12, - September 6, 2009

10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Tuesday - Saturday
Noon - 5 p.m. Sunday


Follow the history and development of 3D photography from its early use to chronicle the American Civil War to its current use in the Space Program. See vintage 3D photos, cameras, projectors, and viewing devices as well as the most up-to-date 3D cameras on the market today.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


It's the birthday of the world's only academically accredited enigmatologist, Will Shortz, (books by this author) born on an Arabian horse farm in Crawfordsville, Indiana (1952). He's the current crossword editor of The New York Times, the puzzle master of NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, and the author or editor of dozens of books.

Shortz sold his first puzzle to a magazine when he was 14 years old, and within a couple years, he was a regular contributor to puzzle publications. In college, he designed his own degree program in enigmatology, which he describes: "Literally, it's the study of riddles, but at Indiana I defined it as the study of puzzles." He drew himself up an undergraduate curriculum of classes in English, math, philosophy, journalism, and linguistics, and wrote a thesis on the history of American word puzzles before 1860. He went to law school, thinking he'd work for 10 years and earn a bunch of money so that he could pursue his avocation of puzzlemaking.

But after graduating from law school, he skipped out on taking the bar exam and went straight into enigmatology, earning a living by creating puzzles for publications like Penny Press and Games magazines. In 1993, he became the crossword puzzle editor for The New York Times, only the fourth person to hold that position in the newspaper's history. He has made some changes to the Times puzzle page in his 16 years of editorship: The crossword puzzles now have constructor bylines (before the contributors weren't acknowledged), and the puzzles contain more references to contemporary pop culture (stuff like rock and roll and what's on television). Puzzles also now have more tricks and ambiguities, he said. He has also "increased the slope of difficult further," as he claims, between the daily puzzles so that Mondays are slightly easier than before he took over — while Friday and Saturday crosswords are even harder than they used to be. He said that the idea is "to have something for everyone, both beginners and veterans."

His all-time favorite crossword clue is "It might turn into a different story," with the answer "SPIRALSTAIRCASE."

His favorite crossword puzzle is the one that was printed on Election Day 1996, designed by Jeremiah Farrell. The puzzle had two different correct solutions with the same set of clues. The clue whose answer formed one of the middle rows across read, "Lead story in tomorrow's newspaper." The answer seemed to be CLINTON ELECTED, but Jeremiah Farrell had carefully constructed ambiguity in all of the crossing clues, so that the answer to that middle-across clue could also be "BOB DOLE ELECTED." Either answer worked perfectly in the puzzle.

The first downward crossing clue, for instance, was "Black Halloween animal." Either "bat" or "cat" would be correct, with the C for the start of CLINTON or the B for the start of BOB DOLE. Will Shortz later said, "It was the most amazing crossword I've ever seen. As soon as it appeared, my telephone started ringing. Most people said, "How dare you presume that Clinton will win!" And the people who filled in BOB DOLE thought we'd made a whopper of a mistake!"

More than 30 years ago (in 1978), Shortz founded the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, an event he still directs. Will Shortz and the Tournament were the subjects of a 2006 documentary by Patrick Creadon, called Wordplay. The film also featured a string of prominent puzzle-solvers, like Bill Clinton, Ken Burns, Jon Stewart, and the Indigo Girls.

When asked why people are so drawn to puzzles, Shortz said, "We're faced with puzzles every day in life. What's the fastest way to run some errands? What's the lowest price we can get on home repair? Most problems we're faced with, we just do the best we can — we muddle through. We never know if it's the best solution or not. With a human-made puzzle, when you answer the challenge, you know you have a perfect solution. It's satisfying."

Here are a couple of the many brain-teasers that Will Shortz has come up with:

1) What part of the body can be spelled by rearranging the letters of the word "ELATION"?
2) Change one letter of the word SHUFFLE to make something to eat.

1) Answer: Toenail

2) Answer: Soufflé

Monday, August 24, 2009

Book Review: Stubborn Twig

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The Asian Reporter's

From The Asian Reporter, V19, #4 (January 27, 2009), page 16.

Stubborn Twig: Three Generations in

the Life of a Japanese American Family

By Lauren Kessler

Oregon State University Press, 2008

Paperback, 308 pages, $18.95

By Josephine Bridges

Oregon will celebrate 150 years of statehood in 2009, and to commemorate this event, almost every library in the state will encourage reading and discussion of Lauren Kessler's monumental pageturner, Stubborn Twig, the story of three generations of the Yasui family and their century in Oregon.

As Lauren Kessler writes in her preface, "We want to be proud to be Americans — not with aggressive jingoism but with sincerity, with respect for land, people, and principle. But it is sometimes difficult, for our past is clotted with ugly episodes: invasions, land-grabbing, forced marches, slavery, lynchings, mass internment." Lauren Kessler asks the reader to confront this difficulty and consider who we are, as Americans and as Oregonians.

Stubborn Twig is divided into three sections: issei, nisei, and sansei.


"Issei: The First Generation" begins in the Hood River Valley, where 21-year-old Masuo Yasui has just arrived by train in 1908. He left Japan five years earlier, "riding the crest of the country's greatest wave of emigration." He had worked on the railroads of the Pacific Northwest, "a minor hero for his skill at throwing a monkey wrench from the moving handcar, striking unwitting jackrabbits that — much to the joy of the meat-starved crew — made it into the next day's soup." Thirty-eight years later, at age 61, he "lost his house, his business, and all but one of his farms," and "missed the birth of his first two grandchildren and the wedding ceremonies of a daughter and a son."


"Growing up nisei anywhere was difficult. Growing up nisei in Hood River, epicenter of anti-Japanese agitation, was even more trying. But growing up a Yasui nisei in Hood River, the offspring of the city's only Japanese businessman and the valley's undisputed nikkei leader, was the toughest of all." Tough enough that tragedy strikes one of Masuo Yasui's eight children in the second section of Stubborn Twig. There is triumph as well, particularly in the story of one son's escape to Denver, and freedom, in 1942. Lauren Kessler calls it "a scene that could not have been better scripted by Hollywood." But by the time "Nisei: The Second Generation" draws to a close with the signing into law of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, another member of the Yasui family has been lost.


Two Yasui grandchildren still live and work in the Hood River Valley, growing pears, cherries, and apples on land Masuo Yasui bought in 1932, but the Yasui sansei are in many ways "as diverse as the baby-boomer generation of which they are a small part." One has written a play about her father's struggle for justice; another has made a documentary "of her own journey of discovery as she learned about her family's past." It is also in "Sansei: The Third Generation" that tragedy strikes the Yasui family once more.

Stubborn Twig is not only the story of one family, but also a look at the family's neighbors, one of whom "sicced her dog on [a] terrified eighth-grade girl." There was also a gas-station operator who "reasoned aloud that there was no difference between a 'nisei Japanese and a nisei German' — and he was a nisei German," and took down his racist sign. Lauren Kessler never asks the reader: Would you give a pregnant internee craving fruit juice the only thing you could find — syrup from a can of peaches; or would you use a child's drawings of the Panama Canal as evidence of his father's espionage; or would you, like "the vast majority" of citizens of Hood River, keep silent? She doesn't have to; these are questions we readers are bound to ask ourselves as we consider our history and ponder the question of who we are.

* * *

Oregon Reads 2009

Lauren Kessler's Stubborn Twig: Three Generations in the Life of a Japanese American Family has been selected as the Oregon Reads book for 2009. Many events are scheduled throughout Oregon. To learn more, visit <>


Fyodor Dostoevsky said, "You are told a lot about your education, but some beautiful, sacred memory, preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all. If a man carries many such memories into life with him, he is saved for the rest of his days."

Friday, August 21, 2009

Carbon Offsets

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Flying into a cloud of questions about carbon offsets

Posted by Carrie Sturrock, for The Oregonian August 20, 2009 20:00PM

17,089 pounds of CO2.

That's how much a planned trip to China for a close relative's wedding will generate for my family of four to fly there and back.

Let's say, by comparison, I drive my 2001 Honda Civic 10,000 miles a year. That generates just 6,521 pounds of CO2. Taking my family to China and back generates as much CO2 as driving my car for more than two years?

Holy cow.

That. Gives. Me. Indigestion.

Part of me would rather not know.

Here I am constantly turning off lights, driving less and figuring out other ways to reduce my carbon footprint. Yet looming in the background, dwarfing many other CO2-rich activities, is airline travel.

Honestly, until now I had avoided those online carbon calculators, vaguely understanding that flying was somehow an environmental no-no.

We fly several times a year, since like many families our close relatives are scattered around the United States, and, in some cases, the world.

I think of carbon offsets as one more expense in a down economy in which I'm watching my budget. Add to that the nagging question of whether a carbon offset actually does something.

The idea is that you give money to a project that removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere -- reducing methane from landfills, for example.

Carbon offsets aren't cheap. Offsetting that trip to China by using TerraPass, on the Internet, would cost roughly $26.75 a person, or $107 total. Offsetting a Wisconsin trip to visit grandparents would cost $47.50.

That's not as expensive as I had thought. But if I used NativeEnergy, which comes highly recommended, it would cost $280 to offset that trip to China and $112 for the one to Milwaukee.

How to choose? And: Is it really worth it?

I keep bumping into the notion that maybe it's just a way for us to assuage guilt without changing our habits.

Portland State University accounting professor Darrell Brown has a considered view: It's like in medieval times, he says, when people bought their way out of purgatory by purchasing indulgences. Brown teaches a bit about carbon offsets in his classes but hasn't bought many. Still, he considers some offsets good -- as long as they fund projects that wouldn't happen otherwise, something that's referred to in the industry as "additionality."

"That's really the key," says Bill Burtis, a communications manager with Clean Air-Cool Planet based in New Hampshire. "This is an effort that wouldn't have gone forward without the existence of this market for carbon offsets."

Burtis considers carbon offsets an important part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions but only after people have squeezed the excess CO2 out of their lives. His organization works with campuses and communities to inventory their greenhouse gas emissions and then set goals to reduce them 80 percent by 2050.

"The real deal is to cut carbon," and once you've cut as much as you can, there are offsets, he says.

The voluntary carbon offset market in this country is largely unregulated, although that may change.

Burtis says a provider's Web site should make clear that the projects credited needed the offsets to move forward. And it should be clear whether a third party has verified and certified them as such.

Another kind of certification now exists: The Center for Resource Solutions in San Francisco last year launched a voluntary program to certify that the offset a consumer buys meets quality standards and is not sold twice. So far, only a handful of providers have signed on for the rigorous process. Bottom line: The carbon offset market is still evolving.

That doesn't stop David Ervin, an environmental economist at PSU, from buying offsets for airline travel and everything else he and his wife deem necessary.

"We think it's the right thing to do," he said. "Society is not paying the full price of burning carbon."

But while he believes voluntary offsets are good, he feels it would be better if the price of airline tickets and gasoline reflected their environmental toll. Maybe people would take the bus more or video-conference instead of flying to meetings.

But that's not our system. And until it is, people like me are going to have to figure out what to do. It seems carbon offsets are good. But Burtis is right: People need to change their behavior, too. So what do I do?

I'm not going to stop flying. But maybe I eliminate one flight a year. Maybe instead of traveling to Hawaii or Mexico this fall, we stick closer to home. And maybe I buy a carbon offset.

I just returned from a wedding in the Bay Area. The flight was 1,288 pounds of carbon dioxide. Offsetting that for me and my husband costs $11.90 on TerraPass.

There, I just bought it. My first one.

We'll see about China.



by Jo McDougall

Growing up in a small town,
we didn't notice
the background figures of our lives,
gray men, gnarled women,
dropping from us silently
like straightpins to a dressmaker's floor.
The old did not die
but simply vanished
like discs of snow on our tongues.
We knew nothing then of nothingness
or pain or loss—
our days filled with open fields,

turtles and cows.

One day we noticed
Death has a musty breath,
that some we loved
died dreadfully,
that dying
sometimes takes time.
Now, standing in a supermarket line
or easing out of a parking lot,
we realize
we've become the hazy backgrounds
of younger lives.
How long has it been,
we ask no one in particular,
since we've seen a turtle
or a cow?

"Straightpins" by Jo McDougall, from Satisfied with Havoc. © Autumn House Press, 2004.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

This Kilogram Has A Weight-Loss Problem

clipped from
August 20, 2009

To Listen to the Story Click Here.

More than a century ago, a small metal cylinder was forged in London and sent to a leafy suburb of Paris. The cylinder was about the size of a salt shaker and made of an alloy of platinum and iridium, an advanced material at the time.

In Paris, scientists polished and weighed it carefully, until they determined that it was exactly one kilogram, around 2.2 pounds. Then, by international treaty, they declared it to be the international standard.

Since 1889, the year the Eiffel Tower opened, that cylinder has been the standard against which every other kilogram on the planet has been judged. But that's creating problems. According to scientists, the cylinder's mass appears to be changing.

The International Prototype of the Kilogram

The international prototype of the kilogram is inside three nested bell jars at the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures in Paris.

The solution is a new kilogram, one that is based on a constant number instead of a physical object. To get that number, scientists have had to build a special kind of scale, one that measures the kilogram without balancing it against another mass. It has been a long, slow process, but today they are close to redefining the kilogram once and for all.

Please Don't Sneeze On The Kilogram

As it stands, the entire world's system of measurement hinges on the cylinder. If it is dropped, scratched or otherwise defaced, it would cause a global problem. "If somebody sneezed on that kilogram standard, all the weights in the world would be instantly wrong," says Richard Steiner, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md.

For that reason, the official kilogram is kept locked inside a secured vault at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures near Paris. Scientists are so paranoid that they've only taken it out on three occasions: in 1889, 1946 and 1989. Each time, they've compared it to a set of copies. In 1889, the copies and the kilogram weighed the same, but by 1989, they had drifted apart. Based on the data, the kilogram appears to weigh slightly less than the copies.

The real crux of this problem is that it's impossible to tell what has changed over the past 120 years. The copies may have grown heavier over time by absorbing air molecules. But it's equally possible that the kilogram is getting lighter. Periodic washings, for example, may have removed microscopic quantities of metal from its surface.

Or it could be that both the copies and the kilogram are changing, but at different rates. There is no way to tell what's happening because mass is always calibrated against another mass, says Peter Mohr, a theoretical physicist at NIST who is working on the kilogram problem.

That's the bad news. The good news is that the change is extremely small, around 50 micrograms (billionths of a kilogram). "The actual ramifications for somebody going to the store will be negligible," Mohr says. But "for scientific work, it makes a difference."

In Search Of A Constant

For that reason, scientists have embarked on a quixotic quest to redefine the kilogram in terms of a fundamental constant. Constants are used by physicists to describe the natural world. They are both precise and unchanging — the perfect instruments for setting standards.

Scientists have already used constants to redefine other units of measurement, like the meter. Originally the meter was equal to the length of a piece of metal kept alongside the kilogram, but in 1983 it was redefined as the distance light travels in a vacuum over 299,792,458ths of a second. Because the speed of light is constant, this new definition means that the meter will never change.

Fixing the kilogram is more complicated. Scientists would like to express it in terms of a fundamental constant called Planck's constant. Planck's constant is a vanishingly small number used in atomic-scale quantum mechanical calculations.

Relating a number that small to something you can hold in your hand, like a kilogram, "is not easy," says Ian Robinson, a physicist at the National Physical Laboratory in the United Kingdom.

Watt's The Difference

Some researchers believe the best hope for redefinition comes from a new kind of scale called a watt balance. "It's basically just a very highly calibrated bathroom scale," says Steiner, who is in charge of the watt balance at NIST.

Rather than using another mass, watt balances measure the mass of a kilogram in terms of electrical and magnetic forces. Those forces can be translated into a number that is related to Planck's constant.

The scale is so sensitive that it can detect changes as small as ten-billionths of a kilogram. "If you pulled a hair out of a person's head and then weighed them, we could tell the difference," Steiner says.

Unfortunately, scales that sensitive are sensitive to a lot of other things, too. Lawnmowers, the tides, and even earthquakes on the other side of the world are able to upset the balance. There are many other sources of noise as well.

Robinson admits that when he started working on watt balances in the 1970s, he thought it would take just five or six years to redefine the kilogram. Today, after decades of work, scientists believe they are still five or six years away from setting a new standard.

Yet most expect that the change will happen. When it does, the metal cylinder in Paris will be replaced by an eight-digit number. Anyone with a watt balance, and a lot of spare time, will be able to measure it for themselves.

Mohr says the new kilogram will be worth all the trouble. "People have worried about mass standards for thousands of years," he says. The new, unchanging number would be a significant improvement over the past: "I think it's just the right thing to do."

Urban Blackberry Pickers

clipped from

Urban Blackberry Pickers Score Big In Seattle

This is the time of year when Seattleites go foraging for their food. You see them in parks and along roadsides picking blackberries off the bushes that run rampant throughout the city. The state considers the bushes a "Class C noxious weed." To listen to the story Click Here.

Blackberries (Wide)
NPR's Martin Kaste sends us this ode to the urban blackberry.

MARTIN KASTE: This is the time of year when you see Seattleites foraging for their food. You see them in the parks and along the roadside…

(Soundbite of leaves crunching)

KASTE: …as they wade into the thorny overgrowth, plastic pails in hand.

Ms. SARAH CAMPBELL: This one is six cups and this one is 12.

KASTE: Sarah Campbell is in Seattle's Magnusson Park, filling her pails with blackberries.

How fast can you fill those?

Ms. CAMPBELL: I'm hoping I can do both of them in a hour. And then go home and I'm going to make a pie and an apple-blackberry crisp.

KASTE: There's something about urban berry-picking that appeals to the northwestern soul - with a little taste of life off the grid on your way to Starbucks, free dessert on a street where parking meters charge two bucks an hour. Plus, those prickly bushes owe us.

Ms. CAMPBELL: Three seasons out of the year it's just the bane of our existence.

KASTE: The state of Washington calls the Himalayan blackberry bush a Class C noxious weed.

Ms. CAMPBELL: In the winter it's ugly and rangy and, like, dead, you know. And in the spring it crops up all over your yard where you don't want it. It's prickly. You know, in the fall it's just there. But in the summer, it's all it's the glory. You get, like, three weeks when you love the blackberry plant.

KASTE: All it takes is one bite of the perfect berry - one of those from the top of the bush - one that's nothing but sweet globules of juice and all is forgiven. Of course, that doesn't mean a let-up in the war against the bushes.

(Soundbite of goats baaing)

KASTE: One hundred and twenty goats attack a ten-foot wall of blackberry bushes, infesting the property of a local aerospace company.

Ms. TAMMY DUNNACAN(ph): Blackberry - the whole plant is one of their favorite foods.

KASTE: Tammy Dunnacan owns this herd. Her goats are professional blackberry bush eradicators. She calls her business Rent-a-Ruminant. These eating machines can be hired to clear an acre of blackberry bushes in less than a week. Does she ever get complaints from the human berry pickers?

Ms. DUNNACAN: Sometimes. Then sometimes they'll be like, oh, don't, you know, don't eat that one spot. That's my favorite place to pick. But, you know, there's so many here, we have so many blackberries, that there's totally enough to go around, there really is.

KASTE: And in these economic times, there's some comfort in that thought. No matter what happens at Boeing or Microsoft, we can always count on a steady supply of free blackberries.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.