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Scientists Find a New Sixth Sense

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Are We Hard-Wired to Want Starch? 

Tempted by pasta, potatoes, bread and other starches?  Even the great chef Julia Child loved French fries, and she waxed poetic bout the joys of fresh bread.  Tastes and our reactions to them are more complex than we realized, and a newly discovered sixth sense of taste may help explain some common cravings.

Scientists have long known that our tongues register salty, sweet, sour and bitter tastes.  More than a century ago chefs and chemists recognized what the Japanese call umami, a meaty or savory taste that is generally recognized as pleasant and delicious.  In 1985 umami was recognized as the scientific term to describe the taste of glutamates and nucleotides, which have been common in cooking since Roman times. In 2009 umami was recognized as the fifth taste sense. 

A NewScientist story by Jessica Hamzelou describes research by Juyun Lim, an assistant professor of food science and technology at Oregon State University, who was curious about how taste works.  “Every culture has a major source of complex carbohydrate,” she told Hamzelou. “The idea that we can’t taste what we’re eating doesn’t make sense.”

Complex carbohydrate such as starch are made of sugar molecules, Lim explained, and because enzymes in saliva break them down into shorter chains and simple sugars, many food scientists have assumed we detect starch by tasting these sweet molecules. Lim and colleagues gave volunteers a variety of carbohydrate solutions and discovered they were able to detect a starchy taste apart from sweetness.  Asians would call it rice-like, and Caucasians would call it bread or pasta-like, she said. 

Some scientists think there may be many specific tastes that receptors on the tongue can register. Michael Tordoff at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia is investigating whether people can specifically taste calcium.  Other taste possibilities are also being studied, and researchers believe new understandings will have many health implications. However, food scientists say there are strict criteria for what can be called a new taste sense. 

One criterion, Lim said, is that the flavor has to be useful to us.  Starch is a valuable source of slow-release energy so it qualifies as useful.  “I believe that’s why people prefer complex carbs,” she said, adding that a little chocolate is nice but bread and rice are more useful as daily staples.




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Fixing the Frame Alters More than the View

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, September 5, 2016


Will We Ever Like the Lesser of Two Evils?  

How do we make decisions when we think none of the choices are good?

In a Fast Company story,  Art Markman says when we think we are presented with the lesser of two evils, our decision processes are subtly changed.  He cites research suggesting that when we are dissatisfied with all available options, we tend to look for reasons to reject one choice rather than select one.  When we are in rejection mindset, we focus on the most negative information about our options, and fixate on the one we identify as the least potentially awful. By contrast, he says, when we’re in a selection mindset, we focus on the most positive information available, and search for the choice with the greatest possible benefits.

  “How we feel about our choices alters what we think it is we are choosing—in our minds anyway, it changes their very substance,” Markman writes.  He also suggests the decision mind set will influence our satisfaction with the decision once it’s made.  If people chose on the basis of negative criteria, their feelings afterwards will be based on whether they look back on the drawbacks of the choice they made and feel bad, or on the drawbacks of the choice they rejected and feel relieved.   

Another Fast Company story by Heidi Grant Halvorson talks about what makes us like our decisions. She cites research by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, that shows once we make a final choice that would be hard to reverse, what he calls the psychological immune system kicks in. Once we've committed to the choice, we tend to stop thinking about alternatives and we like to think we were right. Gilbert’s studies suggest we are less satisfied with our choices if we keep our options open and make choices that we think we can reverse.

Researchers have studied how framing influences decision making. In a classic study,  Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman explored how different framing affected participants' responses to a choice in a hypothetical life and death situation. Participants were asked to choose between two differently presented but identical treatments for 600 people afflicted by a deadly disease. One treatment was predicted to result in 400 deaths, and the other was predicted to save 200 lives. The treatment framed as savings 200 lives was chosen by 72% of participants, but the choice dropped to 22% of participants when it was negatively framed as causing 400 deaths. 

In an article on rational choice and framing of decisions, Tversky and Kahneman described another study in which participant were asked to choose between two hypothetical treatments for lung cancer.  The preference for one treatment rose from 18% when it was framed in terms of survival to 44 % when it was presented as avoiding death. And when the risk of immediate death was presented as dropping from 10% to zero the advantage of that treatment was perceived as greater than when it was presented as increasing survival from 90% to 100%.  

Markman’s Fast Company story discusses the decision processes of voters choosing between two major party presidential candidates they don’t like.  However, the impact of rejection or selection mindset and the influence of framing are applicable to nearly every decision in life, work and community. Don’t get careless just because you don’t perceive a wonderful gleaming option.

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman writing in the Harvard Business Review, report on their analysis of extensive feedback data from more than 50,000 business leaders on decisions they made that others had considered good and bad. Using statistical analysis, they identified nine of the most common paths to poor decisions. The most significant they wrote, is laziness:  This showed up as a failure to check facts, to take the initiative, to confirm assumptions, or to gather additional input,” they wrote. “Basically, such people were perceived to be sloppy in their work and unwilling to put themselves out. They relied on past experience and expected results simply to be an extrapolation of the past.”


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Resilience and Adaptation: Lessons from Coyotes

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, August 26, 2016

When their numbers are threatened, Coyotes have larger litters.  

Coyotes are the most common large predators in America, and despite intense government and private efforts to eradicate them, coyote populations have remained resilient and spread into cities and suburbs across the country.

In a New York Times story, Dan Flores, author of  “Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History,” writes that “no other wild animal has suffered the kind of deliberate and casual persecution we have rained down on coyote.”  Throughout the Twentieth Century coyotes were designated for eradication by the federal government and many states still hold coyote killing contests.  Project Coyote, an animal welfare organization, estimates we are still killing more than half a million coyotes a year.  Coyotes will kill and eat unprotected livestock and very rarely attack humans. 

Flores explains why coyote populations have grown and spread despite such relentless killing.  He reports the findings of biologists Fred Knowlton and Guy Connolly who researched the survival mechanisms the coyotes evolved when their numbers were threatened. They breed younger and have larger litters. If alpha females die, beta females breed.  They engage an adaptation called fission–fusion, in which packs break into pairs and individuals that range into new areas and start new colonies.  Flores reports scientists have found coyotes can withstand a 70 percent yearly kill rate without any loss in their total population. 

Ironically, he adds, left alone, they stabilize their own populations.  Though despised by ranchers and farmers, he writes, coyotes are intelligent social creatures that have played an important role in nature for five million years.  A New York Times story by Carol Kaesuk Yoon  notes Native American mythologies celebrated the coyote as the Trickster, a mercurial figure that could be god-like or perverse. In Navajo tradition the coyote was God’s dog.  Coyotes have interbred successfully with wolves and domestic dogs, Yoon reports, and their adaptability is also reflected in their eclectic tastes in food.

Dr. Laura Prugh, wildlife ecologist at the University of Washington, has noted the difficulty of studying these elusive creatures because of their their skill at evading humans, and she has also noted the uselessness of killing for population control.  “Killing coyotes is kind of like mowing the lawn,” she told the New York Times six years ago. “It stimulates vigorous new growth.”

Other animal populations remain robust despite eradication effort, according to several scientists who cite the “vacuum effect.”  The Humane Society of the U.S. and the Nevada Humane Society report when humans remove a portion of an animal population from its habitat, immigrant animals of the same species move in. Many researchers have statistics to show that killing feral cats does not reduce feral cat populations.   Dr. Kate Hurley, a veterinarian who began her career as an animal control officer and became an expert in animal shelter medicine, also became convinced that catching and killing feral cats is useless as well as cruel. She co-founded the Million Cat Challenge and works to spread the practice of trap, neuter and release, which she believes is more humane and more effective.  Dr. Hurley says lessons learned about coyotes also apply to cats, and that it was the work of the biologist Fred Knowlton  that inspired her to re-evaluate the futility of lethal cat control. Listen to the August 26 PlexusCall to learn more about the entwined complexities of changing organizational practices, and human attitudes and animal behavior.    

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Diapers Inspire Advances in Neuroscience

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, August 19, 2016

“A Constellation of Information About Life”


Neuroscientist Edward Boyden wants to know what is happening in the circuitous networks of the brain when thoughts and emotions are in process.  He has been working for years on new technologies for close examination of brain functions, and he recently unveiled a new tool called expansion microscopy.  He got some of the ideas from diapers.   

In a recent Ted Talk Boyden, a father of two young children, notes baby diapers can swell enormously when water is added, “an experiment done by millions of kids every day.”   Disposable diapers are cleverly designed, he explains, with an industrial polymer that promotes expansion when they get wet.

Boyden is an associate professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, where is also leads the synthetic neurobiology research group at the MIT Media Lab and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research.   

The brain is incredibly complex and dense, posing multiple challenges for researchers.  Very specialized cells called neurons are connected in networks, joined together by junctions called synapses that exchange chemicals and allow neurons to communicate, Boyden said.  “In a cubic millimeter of your brain,” he told the TED audience, “there are about100,000 of these neurons and maybe a billion of those connections…if you could zoom in to a neuron….what you’d see are thousands and thousands of kinds of biomolecules, little nanoscale machines organized in complex 3D patterns, and together they mediate those electrical pulses, those chemical exchanges that allow neurons to work together to generate things like thoughts and feelings.”    

If the brain could be made much bigger, Boyden and colleagues mused, all those connections and interactions could be observed and mapped in three dimensional detail.  Boyden has pioneered technological tools to try and discover which specific neurons in the brain govern specific kinds of behavior and emotion.  An MIT news story says Boyden’s group, working with the University of Vienna, recently developed a system that can generate 3D movies showing the simultaneous activities of the all parts of the brains of small animals. In an absorbing discussion, Boyden explained that researchers at Caltech used one of his group’s technologies to discover specific neurons associated with aggression in the brains of mice. When those neurons deep in the brain were activated by pulses of light, the mice attacked anything near them, even if it was only a rubber glove. He says an MIT colleague also discovered that activating certain brain cells with light could make the mouse recover a rewarding memory.    

In an extraordinary presentation, illustrated by artist’s graphics and video, Boyden showed a brain tissue sample infused with the polymer.  The specimen had been treated with a chemical that loosened the molecules from each other, and when water was added, and the sample massively expanded and the polymer chains moved apart, taking brain tissue biomolecules with them.  In an accompanying technological wonder, the scientists were able to distinguish different kinds of biomolecules with tags of glowing dyes in different colors. Scientists could see individual molecules in the 3D structure of the tissue.

The goal, Boyden said, is to make the invisible visible, to take tiny and obscure things and “blow them up until they’re like a constellation of information about life.”  Ultimately, he said, new detailed insights about the brain could help understand and treat such diseases as Alzheimer’s, epilepsy and Parkinson’s as well as yielding clues about what makes us human.

Steven Johnson, in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, describes how some brilliant breakthroughs arise from what he calls “the adjacent possible,”  a concept from biology introduced by Stuart Kauffman. Ideas, Johnson writes, are works of bricolage, in which some old or perhaps little unnoticed item or notion is jiggered into a new shape by someone seeking solutions for something else. So a neuroscientist’s curiosity about diapers could provide a part of the inspiration for the path-breaking brain research technologies


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Fire, Ice and Anthrax at 'The End of the World'

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, August 5, 2016

Fire Ice and Illnesses Frozen Undergound

In the windswept tundra of northern Siberia, the cascading and unpredictable consequences of climate change have brought huge holes in the earth, flaming explosions that burst through ice, and illnesses from ancient pathogens. 

Yamal, which means “the end of the world,” is the ancestral home of the Nenets, an indigenous nomadic people who raise and live among reindeer. Scientific American and The Washington Post report an outbreak of anthrax has killed at least one child, resulted in hospitalization of hundreds, and infected many more.  The Russian government has airlifted many families away from their homes to avoid the public health hazard of more than 2,300 reindeer infected with anthrax. Russian officials are vaccinating surviving reindeer and burying carcasses.  

Initially a mystery, scientists now believe a sudden heat wave with temperatures this summer in the 90s caused an unusually deep melt in the permafrost, bringing to the surface the carcass of a reindeer that died of anthrax more than 75 years ago.   Permafrost is a thick layer of subsoil that has stayed frozen trough at least two summers, and in some places can be hundreds of yards deep.  Much of the Siberian and Arctic permafrost has been frozen for millennia.  Jean-Michel Claverie at the National Center for Scientific Research in France says anthrax and other bacteria and viruses can remain alive in frozen soil for a very long time. 

Scientific American reports Arctic zones are warming at unprecedented speed. The summer of 2014 was hotter than average by 9 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat that melted the ice also activated the dormant anthrax bacteria, allowing growth of spores that spread across the tundra and infected grazing reindeer. Brigitta Evengard, a microbiologist at Umea University in Sweden, a scholar of diseases and climate, notes people and animals that could be infected with all kinds of pathogens have been buried in permafrost for centuries. Scientists are just beginning to investigate that, and Evengard things more anthrax is likely to surface in Siberia. Researchers have already found bits of the 1918 Spanish flue virus in corpses buried in Alaska’s tundra.   “So we really don’t know what’s buried up there,” Evengard told NPR.  “This is a Pandora’s Box.

In addition to the unexpected anthrax outbreak, The Siberian Times reports, scientists have been examining several huge, deep craters that have appeared recently on the Yamal Peninsula. Several theories, including asteroids and underground missiles, were considered before scientists concluded the likely culprit was temporary warming and long term climate change.   A story in Nature explains that with low temperature and high pressure, hydrogen, methane and water can freeze together into what’s called methane hydrate locked within permafrost.  Melting permafrost triggers the accumulation and release of volatile “fire ice” gases that create giant funnels of flame with they explode.  Methane is a greenhouse gas vastly more powerful than carbon dioxide, and many scientists believe the Arctic will become the epicenter of global climate change.  Watch a YouTube video of a fireball breaking through Arctic ice.


Remembering Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice”


Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.


 Attached Thumbnails:

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The Contagion of Kindness

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Saturday, July 30, 2016

We Can Also Catch the Spirit


Witnessing kindness spreads kindness, and that diffusion involves more than repetition of benevolent actions.  Research suggests the underlying spirit of kind actions can cascade through individual and group encounters, evolving new forms as it travels.

Scientists have documented many types of social, behavioral and emotional contagion, both positive and negative. Drug addiction and obesity can travel through networks and so can happiness and cooperation. People who know that neighbors recycle, or donate to a charity, are likely to do the same.  Jamil Zaki, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, and colleagues explored whether such contagion extended more flexibly beyond replication of similar actions.  In a Scientific American story Zaki says their work suggests one individual’s kindness can “trigger people to spread positivity in other ways.” Zaki is also director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab.

In one study described in the article, participants received a $1 bonus in addition to payment for completing the study.  They were then shown descriptions of 100 charities and asked if they wanted to donate any of their bonus. After each donation, participants were shown what purported to be the average donations of the last 100 study participants.   Actually, some participants were told the average donation was a generous three quarters of the bonus, and others were told it was a stingy one quarter.  Participants who thought others were generous became more generous themselves.  

In a follow up study, participants witnessed generous and stingy donations, and were then asked to do what they thought was an unrelated follow up task.  They read a note that related the recent ups and downs in another person’s life and wrote back. Those who had witnessed generous behavior wrote friendlier, more empathetic and more supportive notes than those who has witnessed stingy behavior.  In another follow up, people read stories of the suffering of the homeless, and then saw reported reactions of past study participants. Some saw reported responses that were kind and empathetic, others saw callous ones.  Given the chance to donate a test bonus to a homeless shelter, those who saw empathetic responses donated twice as much as those who were led to believe their fellow test subjects were callous.

While all the psychological forces that power kindness contagion are not fully understood, Zaki writes, people like to “be on the same page” with others. Studying social norms and neural responses to food preferences, Zaki and colleagues found that when people discover their opinions match those of a group, the brain area associated with rewards is activated.  They also found that alignment with group norms can influence opinions and preferences.  


“The battle between dark and light conformity likely depends on which cultural norms people witness most often,” Zaki writes. “Someone who is surrounded by grandstanding and antagonism will tend toward hostile and exclusionary attitudes herself. Someone who learns that her peers prize empathy will put more work to empathize herself.” 

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Wisdom of Crowds Works Best for Easy Choices

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, July 29, 2016
Small Groups May Make Wiser Choices
But Don't Abandon Need for Elections
The wisdom of crowds apparently works best when there is a pretty straight forward correct answer.   What it the weight of the ox? How many jelly beans in the a jar? Or a tougher problem, but one that still had specific right answers: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) placed 10 red weather balloons at different locations around the continental U.S. and launched a public competition to find them. Where were they?
Santa Fe Institute Professor Mirta Galesic and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin have investigated how many people make a wise crowd, and their research suggests when it comes to qualitative decisions, a small to moderate group may be better.    
A story in the Santa Fe Institute newsletter Parallax explains, for example, that a team of five to seven doctors is likely to do better than a much larger group of doctors at identifying a diagnosis that fits patient symptoms. Financial official forecasting unemployment, economic growth and inflation, and panels of forecasters predicting political victories are also likely to perform best in small to moderate sized groups.
While past research on wisdom of crowds has looked at decisions about how much or how many, the current research examined more difficult decisions that combined an unpredictable mix of easy and hard choices. The researchers mathematically modeled group accuracy with groups of different sizes and different combination of decision difficulties. The smaller groups did better. Galesic says the reason is a matter of probabilities. A group of experts of any size will probably get an easy decision right. For more difficult decisions, the story explains, "moderate sized groups are more noisy representations of the overall population of experts," and can by chance arrive at a correct answer even if most of the experts in the larger population wouldn't.
What about democracy? Galesic doesn't think we should abandon large scale referendums and national elections. Those choices, she says, represent preferences, with a whole spectrum of consequences, rather than a right or wrong answer.
Mark Buchanan, a physicist, author and columnist for BloombergView, contemplating this question and the new research, notes that decision making bodies around the world tend to work with small numbers-juries, parish or municipal councils, central bank boards and parliamentary committees, which usually have five to 40 participants. Buchanan suggests U.K. voters who expressed clear discontent on matters of globalization and immigration may not have reached the wisest decision on Brexit.
Arguably, he writes, the referendum didn't have a right or wrong answer, but he says it was a "crude instrument for deciding such an important and difficult issue," especially because much of the British public has adopted some inaccurate ideas, such as believing there are twice a many immigrants in the country as there actually are. He says U.K. leaders will need to examine carefully how to respect the will of the voters and determine whether that respect demands invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which begins the process of taking the U.K. out of the European Union.
The MIT team that got the right answers on the balloon locations had help from 4,400 volunteers quickly recruited from across the country. Click here to read how the team won the DARPA challenge.

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Citizen Groups Welcome Refugees to Canada

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, July 18, 2016

Grass Root Efforts Aid Syrian Refugees

When Liz Rykert was working as a consultant a hospital in Oswego, New York, she and colleagues visited the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum, which preserves the memories of nearly 1,000 European refugees rescued from the Nazis in World War II and housed in what was then the Fort Ontario Army barracks. She also learned of the work of Ruth Gruber, the woman whose book Havendescribes the harrowing work of getting the refugees from war zones to a military ship for transport to the U.S. and safety.  

Rykert and her husband, John Sewell, who had accompanied her, thought of what refugees endure: dangers and hardships, loss of their worldly goods and comforts, fear of the future, and endless struggle to stay alive keep their children safe. Rykert recalls her husband saying: “We have to do something about Syrian refugees, being displaced by the millions, taking terrible risks.” His reaction was no surprise. Sewell, a life-long activist for progressive causes and a recognized urban affairs expert, formerly taught law and social and political science at York University and has held several posts in Toronto government.  As Toronto’s Mayor from 1978-1980, he helped organize Operation Lifeline, a citizens’ organization that helped bring refugees from war-ravaged Vietnam to Canada. Nearly a third of the 60,000 who arrived settled in Toronto. The insights learned and networks formed more than three decades ago have been a factor in the effort to welcome today’s victim of war and violence.  Sewell has now spearheaded a new group, LifelineSyria, and a new website, Toronto4Refugees (can’t find this) to foster the Syrian initiative.    

Rykert and Sewell are part of a group of 21 friends and neighbors sponsoring a refugee family who fled their home in Aleppo, Syrian, fearing for their lives. They spent two years in emergency quarters in Turkey before their arrival in Canada.  Omer Suleyman, a cook, his wife, Aliye El Huseyin,  nurse, and their three children, daughters Esra, 13, Marem, 8, and son Suleyman, 6,  are now in an apartment in Toronto, adjusting to new and very different lives.  A Toronto Globe and Mail story by Ian Brown describes the family, the sponsors, and their experiences.  

While the Obama Administration has pledged to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees, only about 5,000 had been admitted to the U.S. as of June. Governors of many states oppose their arrival and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has proposed a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. Canada had admitted 25,000 Syrian refugees by last February, and expects 10,000 more.  

As of last February8,527 Syrian refugees had private Canadian sponsors, an unusual system unmatched elsewhere in the world. Sewell says some 10,000 private groups like the ones he and Rykert helped form have organized to welcome refugees and many are frustrated with national and international bureaucracies that have delayed arrival of their families. Immigrations officials, observing the doors closing to refugees across the world, have been surprised to find Canadian citizens impatient for more to arrive.

The sponsors commit to paying all their family’s expenses for a full year. Sewell explains the groups collect money (his collected some $45,000 and members don’t know amounts of individual contributions), make arrangements and help meet individual needs. Some sponsors take classes in how to help without smothering, and how to help foster eventual independence.  “It’s a brilliant system,” Sewell said. “We find them places to live, find doctors, get their kids into schools, and a network of people gets them into society, all at small expense to the government, which does pay for healthcare.” Rykert explains the groups introduce newcomers to others who speak Arabic, find banks and other businesses where someone speaks Arabic, locate mosques and grocery stores that sell halal meat and other foods they need, find tutors for children who have missed years of schooling, and free language classes for all.  While Suleyman and his wife were anxious to find jobs immediately, their sponsors encouraged them to focus on their new language for the sake of more success later. Five core people in the sponsoring group regularly visit the family, which can benefit from all their connections. “It make them feel welcome, and if there are problems, we’ll know and help,” Sewell said.  He said studies have shown privately sponsored refugees adjust more easily than those who are government sponsored because of the personal connections and relationships they develop.

The couple says many newcomers suffer from dental problems that result from the often-chaotic lives and erratic diets of refugee existence. Canadian health care doesn’t cover dentistry, so they found a friendly dentist who discounts rates. Treating their family.  Sewell recently took the Suleyman youngsters on a downtown outing, where they were delighted with their first escalator ride.

Sponsors benefit a much as the families they help, Sewell observes. “This is extraordinary community building,” he said. “We have gotten to know our neighbors in more ways than we’d have thought. You think you know your neighbors until you start something like this.  This expresses the best about being Canadian. We do this.” For the last 120 years, Sewell said, Canada has had immigrants and refugees equaling about one percent of the population annually.  “That means we are very adaptable, and very accepting of new people and different cultures,” he said. “That has been our history.”   

Canadians who came from Vietnam as refugees have integrated well, Sewell said, and many kept strong ties with their sponsors. Many have also maintained the spirit of their communities. Marianne Nguyen, who came to Canada from Vietnam as a 12-year-old without her parents nearly 40 years ago, now wants to help a Syrian family find a new home. A designer who was trained as an architect, Ms. Nguyen is heading one of 11 teams from Ryerson University that are part of Lifeline Syria’s effort tosecure private sponsorship for 1,000 Syrian refugees.  Read the story here.  Read a New York Times story on Syrian refugees in Canada here.  An accompanying story tells of efforts to bring Syrian refugees to the U.S.

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Is the Future Out of Date?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, July 18, 2016

Evolution Didn't Equip Us to Contemplate the Future

 With continuing technological advances that have brought us big data, robotics, virtual reality, gene editing, artificial intelligence, and cyber crime, and geopolitical upheavals represented by ISIS, an international refugee crisis and Brexit, change is inevitable. Paradoxically, some observer say, this recognition hasn't made us very good at thinking about the future.

 FarhadManjoo, writing in the New York Times, says the late Alvin Toffler was right when he predicted in his 1970 book Future Shock that the dizzying pace of technological change would make us disoriented and progressively incompetent in dealing rationally with our environments. Manjoo says today's local and global crises arise from our "collective inability to deal with ever-faster change."

 "All around, technology is altering the word," Manjoo writes. "Social media is subsuming journalism, politics and terrorist organizations. Inequality, driven in part by techno-abetted globalization, has created economic panic across much of the western world. National governments are in a slow-moving war for dominance with a handful of the most powerful corporations the world has ever seen-all of which happen to be tech companies."

 Despite that, Manjoo says, we have short-sighted politics where vision is limited to the next election, and our crumbling roads and bridges reflect a lack of investment in our future. Critics say too many business leaders trade long-term benefit for short- term profit. Economic and social policies haven't kept up with an aging population that includes longer life spans. Laura Carstensen, founder of the Stanford Center on Longevity, observes in a Time essay that during the 20th century the numbers of Americans living into their 80s, 90s, and beyond began to exceed the cultural changes needed to accommodate longevity.   She notes that long term planning doesn't come naturally to humans, that nothing in our evolutionary heritage prepared us to think about the distant future, and that research shows humans are ill-equipped to envision negative consequences of routine daily behavior.

 In mid 20th century the government and several independent research institutes were working on long-range projection in many fields. The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA)was created in 1972 to analyze impact of new science and technology, and analyze proposed legislation for its future effects. But Manjoo says "futurism" fell from grace in the 1980s after it became associated with marketers pushing products. Manjoo says the elimination of the OTA in 1995 left the government without a place for futurists, and left every decision about the future "viewed through the unforgiving lens of partisan politics."  

 Certainly, many initiatives examining the future of technology still exist at universities and think tanks. Many researchers are expanding the discoveries in big data that have already brought improvements in healthcare. The Good Judgment Project, founded by scientists from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California-Berkeley, with government funds initially as a way to help CIA analysts be better at their work, continues to examine predicting, forecasting and new ways of thinking about the future.  

But Manjoo thinks we have become collectively short-sighted. In his view, we've traveled from Toffler's future shock to having "future blindness" today. He quotes Amy Webb, a futurist who founded the Future Today Institute, who believes future studies have diminished. "I don't know of many people any more whose day to day pursuit is the academic study of the future," she said.

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The Art of Hacking: Boundaries and Selectivity

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 7, 2016

Kevin Kelly:The Amish Make Hacking an Art

The Amish don’t usually have computers or high-speed internet access in their homes, and they’re rarely big users of social media.  But they’re not Luddites. In fact, Kevin Kelly, a renowned tech aficionado, thinks we can learn a great deal from the creative ways the Amish use technology.

For example, he says, the strictest among the Amish don’t use public electricity in their homes. But they can get creative use from an electrical appliance, such as a kitchen blender, because they’ve learned to transform it so that it runs on air pressure.  They have also developed refrigerators that run on natural gas and tools that operate pneumatically.  Most don’t own or drive cars and ingeniously crafted battery operated lights and turn signals can make buggies safer.  

Kelly was a co-founder of Wired magazine, where he is now Senior Maverick, and the author of several books on technology and society. In a recent book What Technology Wants, in which he argues that development of technological innovations is similar to biological evolution, Kelly includes a chapter called “Lessons from Amish Hackers.”  He also discusses Amish technological adaptations in his blog The Technium. 

An eWeek story by Todd R. Weiss explains Kelly became inspired by the Amish some 35 years ago when he visited small villages and towns in Lancaster County PA during a cross-country bike ride. He has developed friendships and spent years studying Amish history, beliefs, and lifestyles, which can vary from one region to another.    “I find (the Amish) to be incredibly technology oriented,” Kelly told Weiss. “They’re using technology to hack their own rules.”  He adds that in this case the term “hacking” implies no negative connotation. Originally, he explained, the term meant subverting a rule or exploring a loophole, and that doesn’t have to be bad. The Amish, he suggests, hack within the boundaries of their beliefs, while some other hackers have no boundaries.   

“It makes them artists,” Kelly said. “Regular hackers are hacking because they can while Amish hackers are hacking with more of a goal.”  They evaluate new ideas, try adapting new things and decide what fits with their lives and values.  Kelly says they use technology minimally and selectively, which might be good strategy for the rest of us.  He imagines that Amish communities will become increasingly diverse in their technological adaptations, and that cell phones will impose greater pressure on tradition than past technologies.   Kelly has presented at the Young Center for Anabaptist and  Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, PA. The Center fosters scholarship on the heritage and culture of Anabapist and Pietist communities, which include the Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, and Moravians.  The Center conducts events that include lectures, exhibits, seminars and conferences.


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