January 2009

Israel’s military campaign in the Gaza Strip is failing, but there may be a silver lining. The war against Hamas is proving — once again — that the Middle East’s extremist movements cannot be eliminated by military means. If the incoming Obama administration absorbs that lesson, it will have a better chance of neutralizing Iranian-backed groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and of eventually brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.


Israel’s bet was that it could substantially reduce Hamas’s military capacity and then force it to accept a cease-fire with improved terms for Israel. Hamas, predictably, has refused to play by those rules. It has defined victory as its own survival; by that standard, it has no incentive to agree to a new truce unless it receives major benefits in return, such as an end to Israel’s economic blockade.


That means Israel must choose among attempting to drive the Islamic movement from power (which would be hugely costly and leave its troops stuck in Gaza indefinitely), making significant concessions to Hamas or withdrawing without any assurance that rocket fire against its cities would cease.


At best, outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert might win an agreement for international forces to help stop the smuggling of new weapons from Egypt into Gaza, something that doesn’t necessarily require Hamas’s consent. But that won’t stop Hamas from continuing to build its own rockets or from claiming that — like Hezbollah in Lebanon — it successfully resisted an Israeli invasion.


The trap that Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have created for themselves lies not just in Hamas’s ability to withdraw its fighters and rockets into mosques, schools and densely populated neighborhoods, where they could probably survive weeks of bloody fighting or go underground. The larger fallacy is the persistent conceit among Israeli leaders that Hamas can somehow be wiped out by economic strangulation or force of arms.


Unlike al-Qaeda, Hamas is not merely a terrorist organization but a social and political movement with considerable support. Its ideology, however repugnant to Israel and the West, is shared by a considerable slice of the population in every Arab country from Morocco to Iraq. Because it is extremist, it thrives on war, the suffering it inflicts on Palestinians, and the anger generated by the endless, graphic and one-sided coverage of the Middle East’s satellite television channels. Every day this war continues, Hamas grows politically stronger, as do its allies in other countries and its sponsor, Iran.


Though Israel must defend its citizens against rockets and suicide bombings, the only means of defeating Hamas are political. Palestinians, who have no history of attraction to religious fundamentalism, have to be persuaded to choose more moderate leaders, such as the secular Fatah. In the meantime, Hamas’s existence must be tolerated, and it should be encouraged to channel its ambitions into politics rather than military activity. That means, yes, elections — like those Hamas won in 2006, when it took control of the Palestinian legislature.


Those elections took place over Israel’s objections, and the outcome caused the Bush administration, which had championed democracy in the Middle East, to lose its nerve. But during the relative quiet of the past six months, when Israel and Hamas observed a semi-truce, politics was beginning to work. Polls conducted by Palestinians showed that Hamas’s support was falling in Gaza and the West Bank. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and Fatah leader, was beginning to talk about holding new elections for president and the legislature; he thought he could win both.


Egypt was working on brokering a deal between the two Palestinian parties. A split began to emerge in Hamas between leaders who wanted to make that deal and extend the peace with Israel, and Iranian-backed hard-liners who wanted to draw Israel into a fight. Israel probably could have ensured that the moderates won the argument by offering to lift its economic blockade of Gaza in exchange for a continued cease-fire. It then could have focused on negotiating a two-state settlement with Abbas and on improving life for Palestinians in the West Bank, while Hamas absorbed the blame for the unremediable misery of Gazans.


Instead, Israel took the Iranian bait and chose to fight. Now, bogged down, suffering casualties and inflicting many more, creating terrible pictures for television, it will have to accept an unsatisfying settlement — or prolong its agony indefinitely. It should settle so that the leaders chosen by Israeli voters in an election next month will have the chance to work with a fresh American administration on a smarter and more effective strategy for countering Iran and its clients — one grounded in politics rather than bombs.

* By Jackson Diehl (W.P.), January 9, 2009

I know from personal involvement that the devastating invasion of Gaza by Israel could easily have been avoided.


After visiting Sderot last April and seeing the serious psychological damage caused by the rockets that had fallen in that area, my wife, Rosalynn, and I declared their launching from Gaza to be inexcusable and an act of terrorism. Although casualties were rare (three deaths in seven years), the town was traumatized by the unpredictable explosions. About 3,000 residents had moved to other communities, and the streets, playgrounds and shopping centers were almost empty. Mayor Eli Moyal assembled a group of citizens in his office to meet us and complained that the government of Israel was not stopping the rockets, either through diplomacy or military action.


Knowing that we would soon be seeing Hamas leaders from Gaza and also in Damascus, we promised to assess prospects for a cease-fire. From Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who was negotiating between the Israelis and Hamas, we learned that there was a fundamental difference between the two sides. Hamas wanted a comprehensive cease-fire in both the West Bank and Gaza, and the Israelis refused to discuss anything other than Gaza.

We knew that the 1.5 million inhabitants of Gaza were being starved, as the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food had found that acute malnutrition in Gaza was on the same scale as in the poorest nations in the southern Sahara, with more than half of all Palestinian families eating only one meal a day.


Palestinian leaders from Gaza were noncommittal on all issues, claiming that rockets were the only way to respond to their imprisonment and to dramatize their humanitarian plight. The top Hamas leaders in Damascus, however, agreed to consider a cease-fire in Gaza only, provided Israel would not attack Gaza and would permit normal humanitarian supplies to be delivered to Palestinian citizens.

After extended discussions with those from Gaza, these Hamas leaders also agreed to accept any peace agreement that might be negotiated between the Israelis and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who also heads the PLO, provided it was approved by a majority vote of Palestinians in a referendum or by an elected unity government.


Since we were only observers, and not negotiators, we relayed this information to the Egyptians, and they pursued the cease-fire proposal. After about a month, the Egyptians and Hamas informed us that all military action by both sides and all rocket firing would stop on June 19, for a period of six months, and that humanitarian supplies would be restored to the normal level that had existed before Israel’s withdrawal in 2005 (about 700 trucks daily).

We were unable to confirm this in Jerusalem because of Israel’s unwillingness to admit to any negotiations with Hamas, but rocket firing was soon stopped and there was an increase in supplies of food, water, medicine and fuel. Yet the increase was to an average of about 20 percent of normal levels. And this fragile truce was partially broken on Nov. 4, when Israel launched an attack in Gaza to destroy a defensive tunnel being dug by Hamas inside the wall that encloses Gaza.


On another visit to Syria in mid-December, I made an effort for the impending six-month deadline to be extended. It was clear that the preeminent issue was opening the crossings into Gaza. Representatives from the Carter Center visited Jerusalem, met with Israeli officials and asked if this was possible in exchange for a cessation of rocket fire. The Israeli government informally proposed that 15 percent of normal supplies might be possible if Hamas first stopped all rocket fire for 48 hours. This was unacceptable to Hamas, and hostilities erupted.

After 12 days of “combat,” the Israeli Defense Forces reported that more than 1,000 targets were shelled or bombed. During that time, Israel rejected international efforts to obtain a cease-fire, with full support from Washington. Seventeen mosques, the American International School, many private homes and much of the basic infrastructure of the small but heavily populated area have been destroyed. This includes the systems that provide water, electricity and sanitation. Heavy civilian casualties are being reported by courageous medical volunteers from many nations, as the fortunate ones operate on the wounded by light from diesel-powered generators.


The hope is that when further hostilities are no longer productive, Israel, Hamas and the United States will accept another cease-fire, at which time the rockets will again stop and an adequate level of humanitarian supplies will be permitted to the surviving Palestinians, with the publicized agreement monitored by the international community. The next possible step: a permanent and comprehensive peace.

* By Jimmy Carter, January 8, 2009;W.P.

The writer was president from 1977 to 1981. He founded the Carter Center, a nongovernmental organization advancing peace and health worldwide, in 1982.

Experts Warn That Downturn Could Drive Discontent, Help Extremists Recruit. For 20 years, Bart McIntyre has tracked white supremacist movements, even spending two years undercover in Alabama to penetrate a violent young band of criminals who called themselves the Confederate Hammerskins.


Away from his wife and young daughter, McIntyre took the alias “Mark,” attended Ku Klux Klan rallies and educated himself in racist propaganda. He and a law enforcement partner ultimately helped build criminal cases that sent more than 10 men to prison for their involvement in the murder and vicious beatings of black men in the Birmingham area in the early 1990s.

Now, as McIntyre prepares to retire from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, he and other analysts are warning that the threat from hate groups and splinter organizations connected to the Klan should not be underestimated, especially at a time of economic unrest.
“In society, you have a very small number of people who are going to push the envelope and take it to the next step,” said McIntyre, the resident ATF agent in charge in Roanoke.
Veteran investigators say they have advocated for increased attention to the problem since late September, when the nation’s economic troubles widened, giving white supremacists a potent new source of discontent to exploit among potential recruits.

The number of U.S. hate groups has increased by 48 percent, to 888, since 2000, according to experts at the Southern Poverty Law Center, an independent organization that monitors racist movements.

Although questions persist about the ability of such groups to carry out violent plans, several recent national developments have combined to worry analysts, said Mark Potok, chief of the law center’s Intelligence Project. In addition to the economic downturn, he cited rising immigration, demographic changes that predict whites will not be a majority within a few decades, and what some might see as “the final insult — a black man in the White House.”

The election of Barack Obama, who will become the first African American president when he is inaugurated Jan. 20, prompted a short-term burst of hateful incidents including racist graffiti, cross burnings and violence from New York to California, according to news reports and criminal indictments. On Wednesday, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn indicted three Staten Island men on hate crimes charges, alleging that they assaulted black residents “in retaliation for President-elect Barack Obama’s election victory.”

Last week, intelligence officials assessing security threats to Obama’s inauguration found no evidence of an organized plot, although they expressed concerns about “individuals on the extremist fringe of the white supremacist movement” who might see the event as an ideal time to make a powerful statement.

Law enforcement officials declined to discuss the impact of Obama’s victory, but several recent criminal cases investigated by the FBI and the ATF touch on the issue. In Tennessee, two young men — one with ties to the Southern White Alliance, an offshoot of the Imperial Klans of America — were arrested in October and charged with conspiring to threaten and kill African Americans. Daniel G. Cowart and Paul M. Schlesselman carried a short-barreled shotgun, a .357-caliber handgun and cases of ammunition across state lines as part of the alleged plot.

Authorities say the men planned to overtake a predominately African American school, kill scores of people, and then attempt a drive-by attack on Obama while wearing white top hats and tails, according to government court filings. Cowart and Schlesselman have pleaded not guilty and are being held without bond until their trial.
“They sound crazy, like a really bad movie — Quentin Tarantino gone awry,” Potok said. “You listen to that, and you say, ‘In a hundred thousand years, they never would have reached Obama.’ But the reality is, they might have walked into a black high school and killed 20, 30, 40 people before anybody knew who they were.”

Last month, federal prosecutors in Roanoke lodged new criminal charges against William A. White, a prominent young movement leader who calls himself the commander of the American National Socialist Workers Party. White sent letters laced with racial epithets and swastikas to the homes of black tenants involved in a housing discrimination lawsuit, according to the seven-count indictment. He also posted threats on his Web site, Overthrow.com, and in Internet chat rooms visited by white supremacy supporters, authorities said.

Shortly before he was taken into custody in mid-October, White posted on his Web site a photo of Obama “with cross-hairs taking the form of a swastika” over his face, according to a sworn statement by FBI special agent Maureen E. Mazzola in the bureau’s Chicago field division. White had solicited $10,000 that would have allowed him to print 20,000 copies of the image and distribute them in 14 “major drops” before the November election, Mazzola reported.

White is one of many hate crime suspects who have used the Internet to connect with like-minded people, said Jim Cavanaugh, a 34-year veteran of the ATF. Cavanaugh said he based his observations on long experience, not any specific pending cases.

“These three things — the Internet, immigration and the economic crisis — that is the molten mixture for these guys,” said Cavanaugh, who leads the ATF’s Nashville office. “That is the furnace of hate. As we speak, this is happening.”
In recent years, the racist hate movement has veered away from large-scale, Klan-type gatherings as many of its most prominent leaders died, went to prison or buckled under personal and financial troubles, according to scholar Brian Levin. Instead, followers come together online at Web sites such as Stormfront.org, which attracts an estimated 150,000 registered users who view instruction manuals, learn movement history and exchange stories.

The Stormfront site allows users to share information about birthdays, dating preferences and “white nationalist demonstrations,” as well as self-defense tips. One recent day a headline about Jewish fund manager Bernard Madoff, the alleged mastermind of a $50 billion Ponzi investment scheme, ran across the top of the site.

“The number of real, hard-core hate-mongers is quite low,” added Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino. “The major risk is some splintered part of a hate group or an unstable person who uses the Internet to identify methods, targets, timing and opportunity.”
One of the ATF’s biggest recoveries came in 2007, when agents arrested seven members of a group calling itself the Alabama Free Militia.

A government informant met a militia member at a flea market, infiltrated the group and eventually reported that he saw grenades in a member’s home. The group allegedly stockpiled weapons while planning to attack a group of Latino residents near Birmingham. Ultimately, authorities seized 130 grenades, a grenade launcher, a machine gun and 2,500 rounds of ammunition. The trailer home of one suspect was booby-trapped with tripwires and hand grenades, according to law enforcement agents.
All seven men have pleaded guilty.

The FBI reported in October that the number of hate crime incidents dropped last year by a little more than 1 percent, to 7,624. But violence against Latinos and gay people slightly bucked the downward trend, bureau officials said.
At the same time, according to the Anti-Defamation League, “most sections of the country have seen a significant and troubling resurgence of racist skinhead activity” over the past five years.
The trick for investigators, the ATF’s Cavanaugh said, is separating hateful words from impending violence. “They all hate, they all go to rallies, but for the most part, most of them will not go out and plant a bomb or shoot,” he said. “Maybe four or five out of 100 will go out and do that. The hard part for us is to sort out the free speech and find the person who’s really going to make a bomb or shoot someone.”


* By Carrie Johnson, Washington Post Staff Writer,Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Alfred Hitchcock flick “Spellbound” was the year’s most popular movie, the Yankees finished in fourth place and failed to make the playoffs, and President Harry Truman made the decision to drop two atom bombs on Japan.

Not since 1945 has the hemorrhaging of jobs accelerated at such a record pace – bringing last year’s total job losses to a whopping 2.6 million and marking its highest levels since the end of World War II, the Labor Department said yesterday.

There were 2.75 million jobs lost in 1945.

At the same time, the unemployment rate rose to a staggering 7.2 percent in December – up from 6.7 percent the previous month – to its highest level since January 1993.

The total number of unemployed Americans rose by 632,000 and now stands at 11.1 million.

In another disheartening sign, the average workweek fell to 33.3 hours last month from 34.1 in December 2007 – the lowest level in history.

The Labor Department said 2 million of last year’s job losses occurred over the past four months – a sign that the recession accelerated in September as the Wall Street crisis intensified and the stock market plummeted.

“There is no silver lining here,” said Alan Krueger, professor of economics at Princeton University and a former economist for the Labor Department. “The only sectors that didn’t shrink are education, health care and government.”

The figures from last year do not take into account millions more that have reluctantly taken part-time work instead of full-time jobs or have become so discouraged that they’ve stopped looking for work, experts said.

New York’s unemployment rate topped 6.3 percent in November, up from 5.7 percent the previous month.


* By CLEMENTE LISI (AP-January 10, 2009)

Bernard Madoff didn’t even spare his own family.

The Ponzi schemer scammed millions from his sister, who is now desperately selling her Florida home, sources told The Post.


Sondra Wiener, 74, “has nothing,” said one of her neighbors in the BallenIsles Country Club, a gated Palm Beach enclave where she and her husband, Marvin, live alongside such celebrities as Serena and VenusWilliams.

“She lost millions in this whole thing,” said a source who estimated her loss at $3 million.

In response to questions about their financial straits, Wiener’s son, David, said, “Yes, my family’s a victim. More so than anybody else. It’s very painful.”

Wiener was one of five family members who received packages filled with pricey baubles allegedly mailed by Madoff and his wife, Ruth, on Christmas Eve. The riches were collected by lawyers in recent weeks.


That was around the time Wiener put her 3,409-square-foot home on the market. She and her husband are asking between $850,000 and $950,000 for the three-bedroom home, according to two separate listings.

“It seems like she was a victim in this,” said the neighbor, who was told Wiener is selling off her property in the hopes of starting over. “It didn’t seem like she saw it coming. What kind of person scams their own sister?”

Although Wiener herself is not connected to Madoff Securities, her son Charles, 50, has worked there since 1978. He was listed as director of administration in 2000.

Wiener’s home is “in perfect condition” and features a pool, spa, granite counters, a golf cart and the “best water view with sunsets every evening,” according to a listing with real-estate firm Illustrated Properties.

Country-club membership – which costs from $35,000 to $115,000 – is a requirement for residency in the community.

The couple purchased the home for $650,000 in 2003, the year it was built, according to Palm Beach County property records.

Wiener appears to be close to her brother, who also owns a home in Palm Beach.

The package she received contained a total of $1 million in valuables, including Cartier and Tiffany watches.

The items were returned after Madoff’s sons alerted prosecutors to the mailings, which violated a federal order.

Authorities also discovered checks totaling $173 million that Madoff had made out to family and friends before his Dec. 11 arrest.

Prosecutors pushed to revoke his bail after the packages were mailed. A judge will decide tomorrow whether Madoff, currently under house arrest in his swanky Park Avenue pad, should go to jail.

Wiener declined comment.

* NYP-January 11, 2009

Man, what a terrible return on your investment. Of the $50 billion Bernard Madoff swindled, investigators have been able to uncover only about $1 billion in remaining assets.

If the number holds, that means the recovery of money from his massive Ponzi scheme may total only 2 percent of what his victims gave him.


So far, the trustee liquidating Madoff’s firm has found $830 million in liquid assets. When the value of Madoff’s real-estate holdings, boats, jewelry and other property is factored in, the figure rises to approximately $1 billion, according to Bloomberg News.

Madoff coughed up a list of his holdings when prosecutors demanded he be jailed without bail after he tried to send $1 million in jewelry to family and friends.

US Magistrate Judge Ronald Ellis yesterday considered arguments on whether Madoff, 70, should be allowed to remain under house arrest at his swanky East Side penthouse or be thrown in jail.

Ellis is set to deliver his ruling Monday at noon, officials said.

Prosecutors also received a 30-day extension yesterday to indict the alleged scammer after reaching a deal with the defense team.

The list of Madoff’s alleged victims include some of the world’s wealthiest people and the most sophisticated investment funds. One of his most high-profile victims, Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, called the swindle “extremely painful and humiliating for me.”

“It has done extraordinary damage to my philanthropy,” he told CNBC.

Katzenberg, who runs Dreamworks Animation, would not say how much money he lost, but the Los Angeles Times has reported it was at least $20 million.

Katzenberg, 58, had his funds invested with Madoff through his business manager, Gerald Breslauer, the LA Times reported.

“The first time I heard the name Bernie Madoff was about three weeks ago, when I found out that, you know, he had swindled all this money,” Katzenberg said.

In other developments, a Massachusetts-based hedge fund, GMB Capital Management, said it was shutting down a fund that was bilked out of more than $50 million by Madoff.

Also, investigators in Britain were trying to determine whether Madoff embezzled $150 million from his company’s operation there.

And Austria’s Bank Medici, which may have invested as much as $3 billion with Madoff, announced it was restructuring its board of directors and business strategy following the massive swindle. With Post Wire Services

* By LUKAS I. ALPERT and BRUCE GOLDING,January 10, 2009 (NYP)

You may never recite calculations like Rain Man, but you can still learn to improve cognitive performance with advice from this interview with a savant.


Daniel Tammet is the author of two books, Born on a Blue Day and Embracing the Wide Sky, which comes out this month. He’s also a linguist and holds the European record for reciting the first 22,514 decimal points of the mathematical constant Pi. Mind Matters editor Jonah Lehrer chats with Tammet about how his memory works, why the IQ test is overrated, and a possible explanation for extraordinary feats of creativity.

LEHRER: Your recent memoir, Born on a Blue Day, documented your life as an autistic savant. You describe, for example, how you are able to quickly learn new languages, and remember scenes from years earlier in cinematic detail. Are you ever surprised by your own abilities?

TAMMET: I have always thought of abstract information—numbers for example—in visual, dynamic form. Numbers assume complex, multi-dimensional shapes in my head that I manipulate to form the solution to sums, or compare when determining whether they are prime or not.

For languages, I do something similar in terms of thinking of words as belonging to clusters of meaning so that each piece of vocabulary makes sense according to its place in my mental architecture for that language. In this way I can easily discern relationships between words, which helps me to remember them.

In my mind, numbers and words are far more than squiggles of ink on a page. They have form, color, texture and so on. They come alive to me, which is why as a young child I thought of them as my “friends.” I think this is why my memory is very deep, because the information is not static. I say in my book that I do not crunch numbers (like a computer). Rather, I dance with them.

None of this is particularly surprising for me. I have always thought in this way so it seems entirely natural. What I do find surprising is that other people do not think in the same way. I find it hard to imagine a world where numbers and words are not how I experience them!

LEHRER: In Embracing the Wide Sky you criticize the IQ test as a vast oversimplification of intelligence. You write: “There is no such thing as proofs of intelligence, only intelligence.” Could you explain what you mean by that?

TAMMET: When I was a child, my behavior was far from being what most people would label “intelligent.” It was often limited, repetitive and anti-social. I could not do many of the things that most people take for granted, such as looking someone in the eye or deciphering a person’s body language, and only acquired these skills with much effort over time. I also struggled to learn many of the techniques for spelling or doing sums taught in class because they did not match my own style of thinking.

I know from my own experience that there is much more to “intelligence” than an IQ number. In fact, I hesitate to believe that any system could really reflect the complexity and uniqueness of one person’s mind, or meaningfully describe the nature of his or her potential.

The bell curve distribution for IQ scores tells us that two thirds of the world’s population have an IQ somewhere between 85 and 115. This means that some four and a half billion people around the globe share just 31 numerical values (“He’s a 94,” “You’re a 110,” ”I’m a 103”), equivalent to 150 million people worldwide sharing the same IQ score. This sounds a lot to me like astrology, which lumps everyone into one of twelve signs of the zodiac.

Even if we cannot measure and assign precise values to it in any “scientific” way, I do very much think that “intelligence” exists and that it varies in the actions of each person. The concept is a useful and important one, for scientists and educators alike. My objection is to thinking that any ‘test’ of a person’s intelligence is up to the task. Rather we should focus on ensuring that the fundamentals (literacy, etc.) are well taught, and that each child’s diverse talents are encouraged and nourished.

LEHRER: You also describe some recent scientific studies on what happens inside the brain when we learn a second language. Do you think this recent research should change the way we teach languages?

TAMMET: Thanks to the advances in modern scanning technology we know more today than ever before just how what’s happening inside the brain when we’re learning a language. That we can speak at all is nothing less than an astonishing cognitive achievement.

Learning a second language, particularly when that language is not one that the person has to use on a regular basis, is an extremely difficult task. I think it is a mistake to underestimate the challenges of it. Students should be aware that the difficulties they will face are inherent in what they are doing, and not any failing on their part.

One of the most interesting scientific discoveries about how language works (and how it could be taught) is “phonaesthesia”—that certain sounds have a meaningful relationship to the things they describe. For example, in many languages the vowel sound “i” is associated with smallness—little, tiny, petit, niño, and so on—whereas the sound “a” or “o” is associated with largeness—grand, gross, gordo, etc. Such links have been found in many of the world’s languages. These findings strongly imply that learners would benefit from learning to draw on their own natural intuitions to help them understand and remember many of the foreign words that they come across.

Another finding, by cognitive psychologists Lera Boroditsky, Lauren A. Schmidt, and Webb Phillips, might also offer a useful insight into an important part of learning a second language. The researchers asked German and Spanish native speakers to think of adjectives to describe a range of objects, such as a key. The German speakers, for whom the word “key” is masculine, gave adjectives such as “hard,” “heavy,” “jagged,” and “metal,” whereas the Spanish speakers, for whom “key” is feminine, gave responses like : “golden,” “little,” ”lovely” and “shiny.” This result suggests that native speakers of languages that have gendered nouns remember the different categorization for each by attending to differing characteristics, depending on whether the noun is “male” or ”female.” It is plausible that second-language learners could learn to perceive various nouns in a similar way to help them remember the correct gender.

Regardless of how exactly a person learns a second language, we do know for sure that it is very good for your brain. There is good evidence that language learning helps individuals to abstract information, focus attention, and may even help ward off age-related declines in mental performance.

LEHRER: You advocate a theory of creativity defined by a cognitive property you call “hyper-connectivity.” Could you explain?

TAMMET: I am unusually creative—from visualizing numerical landscapes composed of random strings of digits to the invention of my own words and concepts in numerous languages. Where does this creativity come from?

My brain has developed a little differently from most other people’s. Aside from my high-functioning autism, I also suffered from epileptic seizures as a young child. In my book, I propose a link between my brain’s functioning and my creative abilities based on the property of ‘hyper-connectivity’.

In most people, the brain’s major functions are performed separately and not allowed to interfere with one another. Scientists have found that in some brain disorders however, including autism and epilepsy, cross-communication can occur between normally distinct brain regions. My theory is that rare forms of creative imagination are the result of an extraordinary convergence of normally disconnected thoughts, memories, feelings and ideas. Indeed, such “hyper-connectivity” within the brain may well lie at the heart of all forms of exceptional creativity.

LEHRER: How were you able to recite from memory the first 22,514 numbers of Pi? And do you have advice for people looking to improve their own memory?

TAMMET: As I have already mentioned, numbers to me have their own shapes, colors and textures. Various studies have long demonstrated that being able to visualize information makes it easier to remember. In addition, my number shapes are semantically meaningful, which is to say that I am able to visualize their relationship to other numbers. A simple example would be the number 37, which is lumpy like oatmeal, and 111 which is similarly lumpy but also round like the number three (being 37 x 3). Where you might see an endless string of random digits when looking at the decimals of Pi, my mind is able to “chunk” groups of these numbers spontaneously into meaningful visual images that constitute their own hierarchy of associations.

Using your imagination is one very good way to improve your own memory. For example, actors who have to remember hundreds or even thousands of lines of a script do so by actively analysing them and imagining the motivations and goals of their characters. Many also imagine having to explain the meaning of their lines to another person, which has been shown to significantly improve their subsequent recall.

Here is another tip from my book. Researchers have found that you are more likely to remember something if the place or situation in which you are trying to recall the information bears some resemblance—color or smell, for example—to where you originally learned it. A greater awareness therefore of the context in which we acquire a particular piece of information can help improve our ability to remember it later on.

* Mind Matters -A.S.- January 8, 2009

Actor John Travolta says that his son, who was found dead last week, suffered from this inflammatory disorder. Did it play a role in the teen’s death?


Doctors today performed an autopsy on Jett Travolta, the 16-year-old son of actors John Travolta and Kelly Preston, who died Friday. The results were not immediately released, but family attorney Michael Ossi told TMZ that the teen died after suffering a seizure and hitting his head on a bathtub or toilet seat in the family’s home in the Bahamas, where they were spending the holidays.

Preston said six years ago that Jett became very ill at age two and was diagnosed with Kawasaki syndrome, a rare inflammatory condition most common in young children. She and Travolta blamed Kawasaki syndrome for what they described as Jett’s developmental disabilities, according to CNN.

In 2007, restaurant manager Tim Kenny, the parent of an autistic child, charged on the entertainment news site HollywoodInterrupted.com that Jett was autistic but was not being treated for problems associated with the disorder. The Travolta family had maintained that the teen did not suffer from autism and, after the item appeared, attorney Marty Singer told the New York Post that Travolta and Preston “have [taken] and they continue to take the best possible care of their children. To suggest anything to the contrary is very hurtful to a loving family and also would be false and defamatory.”

Ossi told TMZ that Jett had been taking meds to control seizures.

Kawaski syndrome is most common in Japan, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and is 1.5 times more common in boys, a University of California, San Diego historical review of the disease notes. In the continental U.S., it affects nine to 19 in 100,000 children, 85 percent of them younger than five years old, the CDC says.

We asked Walter Molofsky, chief of pediatric neurology at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, about Kawasaki syndrome and its possible role in Jett Travolta’s death. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

What is Kawasaki syndrome?
It first presented in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Japan, with the first case studies published in 1974. It’s an inflammatory, autoimmune disorder (in which the immune system attacks healthy tissue in the body), but we’re not quite clear of the cause. It could be a specific reaction to a virus or some sort of infectious agent, but none has been identified. However, it has some features consistent with an infectious cause: It occurs mostly in winter and spring, it’s usually among toddlers and rarely in children under three months or in adults.

What are the symptoms?
A high fever above 101 for more than five days, severe redness in the eyes, a rash on the stomach and chest, red, cracked, dry lips, swollen tongue, sore throat and swollen lymph nodes.

How often does Kawasaki syndrome cause serious health problems? Are seizures among them? What about autism and other developmental disabilities?

The main, long-term side effects are cardiac problems, such as aortic aneurysms (a bulge in the blood vessel leading away from the heart that is dangerous, because it may burst, spilling blood and potentially causing hemorrhaging), cardiac arrythmias (irregular heartbeats), inflammatory disease of the heart and abnormalities in the heart valves. Twenty to 25 percent of patients develop a coronary artery aneurysm afterwards. The mean age at presentation for cardiac damage is 24, plus or minus 8 years. It’s recommended that Kawasaki patients be followed for 10 or 20 years.

Seizures are very uncommon. Maybe during the acute episode during a high fever; fevers themselves can cause seizures sometimes. But Kawasaki syndrome is rarely a cause of encephalitis (swelling of the brain) or residual brain problems. I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule, but I can’t speak to that.

Kawasaki syndrome is not believed to be one of the etiologies of autism. Autism is a congenital, neuro-developmental disorder, which means you are born with it. It emerges between ages one and three. Because it starts during early infancy and because these children can look normal initially, a whole host of things have been attributed to causing autism: vaccines, infections, lead and other toxins. And because we can’t point to a cause of autism, there’s an impression that these temporally related issues must have caused it.

What happened in this case is that, unfortunately, this child probably had an episode of Kawasaki disease and, because it occurs between ages one and three, that was a time they noted neuro-developmental disorders, and seizures are more common in autistic children. I never heard of Kawasaki syndrome as a cause of autism till I read about Jett Travolta [allegedly having the disorder].

What is the treatment for Kawasaki?
The main treatments are to prevent cardiac disease. Patients are usually put on IV gamma globulin, a mixture of antibody proteins that fights inflammation and help fight infection by boosting the immune system, for a week to 10 days, and usually put on aspirin, to prevent inflammation, for years.

While aspirin has been linked to Reyes syndrome (a potentially fatal condition that can cause brain and liver damage) in young children, there’s a risk-benefit ratio. If you have a reason, that would outweigh any potential risks. Aspirin has a specific inflammatory effect that’s different from ibuprofen. It has anti-platelet function and is used for stroke prevention, as well. Ibuprofen doesn’t have those properties.

Most children recover, are put on aspirin and are followed for years to make sure they’re stable. And that’s it. The main problem is follow-up for cardiac disease.

How often is it fatal?
Rarely. Most children tend to recover. Death may occur if the cardiac complication is unrecognized.

* By Jordan Lite (January 5, 2009: A.S.)

Patrick Swayze — in the first interview since his diagnosis with pancreatic cancer last year — discussed his battle with the disease yesterday with Barbara Walters. Swayze has Stage IV pancreatic cancer, the most advanced level, in which the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.


Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms in the U.S. Just 20 percent of those who are diagnosed are still alive a year later.

“You can bet that I’m going through hell,” Swayze, 56, told ABC’s Walters. “And I’ve only seen the beginning of it.”

Swayze, who was diagnosed last March, has taken an experimental drug called vatalanib.

He didn’t dance around his chances last night. In an echo of the famous “watch me now!” lyric from Dirty Dancing’s “Do You Love Me?” he responded to the tough odds: “Watch me! You watch what I pull off.”

Another public figure who was treated for pancreatic cancer, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, has been back in the health headlines this week. His 2004 treatment for an early stage of the cancer was reported successful. But Apple said this week that Jobs was suffering from a “hormone imbalance” that was starving his body of necessary nutrients. Experts told ScientificAmerican.com that the imbalance could be linked to problems with his pancreas.

Find out more about what makes pancreatic cancer so difficult to beat here.

* By Katherine Harmon (A.S.)

(Image courtesy of MoonSoleil via Flickr)

Some Comments:

* I agree with every word you said here. I don’t ever comment on these things either. But Patrick is an angel example on earth for us all to look at and realize what is most precious.

* The most elegant interview by an actor in Hollywood with a true human spirit I have ever seen!

* Patrick has been an idol of mine since he so graciously invited my granddaughter to visit him in Albuquerque, NM during a horse show in 1991. He had read an article about her fighting cancer. She was eleven years old at the time. Priscilla was so thrilled and upon meeting him she sat on his lap but would NOT kiss him, so he gave her a big kiss on the cheek.
She said she would never wash that little area ever. Well, she did not win her fight, she passed away five years later in Charleston SC. But all these years her family has never forgot about the wonderful man Patrick. I can only pray he wins the battle he is fighting…
Thank You Patrick
for making this grandma’s little angel happy for a short time..
Sincerely Priscilla S.

* Swayze and many others who suffer cancer, MS, and a host of immune deficiency diseases can be helped with a miracle drug called low dose naltrexone. This drug is not new but has been around for over 25 years. The reason that most, including doctors know nothing about it is because the patent has long since expired, which means the drug companies will not get rich off of it. Secondly, the drug was originally used to treat drug addiction but now is being used “off-label” in much smaller amounts and it is helping those with over 50 immune deficient diseass.
Low dose naltrexone or LDN for short works, is inexpensive, does not develop drug resistance, has virtually no side effects, and can be taken long term. This one tiny pill has helped to save the lives of so many.

My pharmacist compounds 15,000 prescriptions for it each month. For those who would like to learn about this truly miraculous drug, go to lowdosenaltrexone.org, go to You Tube, read stories on Case Health of those who take it, and finally join the Yahoo Support Group for LDN. On this site you can ask if anyone knows a doctor in your town who will prescibe LDN.
Those of us whose lives have been saved by this drug cannot say enough about it! You can view my You Tube video under Low Dose Naltrexone or Noreen Martin. I hope that you will take the time to learn about LDN, as it could save your life or the life of someone that you love!

* I pray for Patrick, and admire his courage. He’s a terrific actor, and even more so, a most wonderful human being. I love you Patrick, and may God bless you and you family.
Sandra Hobbs

Paul McCartney, 67, strolls with his super-svelte gal pal, Nancy Shevell, 49, on a Mexican beach. She was taking a break from the stress of her job on the MTA board, now wrestling a budget crunch.


*  NYP (Dec. 2008)

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) late this year released its new Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, calling for adults between the ages of 18 and 64 to exercise moderately (such as brisk walking or water aerobics) for at least two hours and 30 minutes or vigorously (running, swimming, or cycling 10 mph or faster) for at least an hour and 15 minutes weekly.


The longer, harder and more often you exercise, the greater the health benefits, including reducing the risk of diseases such as cancer and diabetes, according to the recommendations, which were based on a decade of scientific research.

Studies have shown that people who engage in the amount of exercise recommended by the feds live an average of three to seven years longer than couch potatoes, according to William Haskell, a medical professor at Stanford University who chaired the HHS advisory committee. But how exactly does exercise accomplish this? And what about claims by naysayers that exercise not only isn’t healthy but may actually be bad for you? Is there any truth to them?

Good for the heart and blood vessels
In the past decade or so, various studies involving thousands of participants have shown that workouts lower the risk of heart disease. “Exercise has a favorable effect on virtually all risk factors of cardiovascular disease,” says Jonathan Meyers, a health research scientist at the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Health System in California. The reason, he says: when a person exercises, the heart muscle contracts forcefully and frequently, increasing blood flow through the arteries. This leads to subtle changes in the autonomic nervous system, which controls the contraction and relaxation of these vessels. This fine-tuning leads to a lower resting heart rate (fewer beats to pump blood through the body), lower blood pressure and a more variable heart rate, all factors that lower the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, he says.

Meyers says that exercise also limits inflammation associated with heart trouble, such as arteriosclerosis or hardening of the arteries around the heart, which may lead to heart attacks. Many recent studies have focused on C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation. Meyers says that research showed that sedentary folks who embarked on three- to six-month exercise programs, on average, experienced a 30 percent dip in their C-reactive protein levels – about the same drop as someone given a statin (a cholesterol and inflammation-lowering drug). In other words, in many people, exercise might be as effective as an Rx in tamping down inflammation, one of the key risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Exercise also boosts cardiovascular health by decreasing the amount of plasma triglycerides—fatty molecules in the blood that are associated with plaque build-up in the arteries— notes Haskell. What’s more, he adds, physical activity helps reduce the particle size of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or so-called bad cholesterol in the blood, and increase amounts of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), aka good cholesterol, which translates to less artery clogging.

But exercise may not have the same effect on every person’s cardiovascular system, notes Arthur Leon, chief cardiologist at the University of Minnesota’s Heart Disease Prevention Clinic in Minneapolis. “On average, there is a response but there is great variability, and that variability runs in families,” he says. Take, for example, HDL cholesterol. Most broad studies show physical exercise leads to up to a 5 percent increase in HDL levels, but a closer examination shows that the percentages vary from zero to 25 percent, depending on the study subject, he says, noting that only about half of the population seem to experience HDL increases as a result of exercise.

Less cancer
Several studies (including the ongoing federal National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) following thousands subjects for several years, show that regular exercise lowers the risk for certain cancers, particularly breast and colon cancer, says Demetrius Albanes, a researcher at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md. Scientists have yet to pinpoint the mechanisms involved but have come up with several plausible explanations.

“Physical activity beneficially affects body weight,” says Albanes, noting that leaner people have lower circulating levels of insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps cells absorb glucose, their primary energy source. Obese and overweight people, are more likely to develop insulin resistance, a condition in which the cells no longer respond to the hormone and absorb glucose. When this happens, the pancreas produces greater amounts to compensate, flooding the bloodstream with insulin; high levels of insulin in the blood have been linked to [some types of] cancer. “Insulin is essentially a growth hormone,” Albanes says. “Insulin could create new tumors by increasing rates of cell division, or it could just make small tumors grow.”

Albanes says that exercise may also ward off cancer and other diseases because it appears to beef up the body’s immune system. Exercise may also help reduce levels of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone in the blood, potentially also lowering the risk of developing breast and uterine cancers linked to high levels of those hormones.

Despite the apparent link between physical exercise and lower odds of cancer, Albanes acknowledges that there could be other factors at work. “[Because] most of these studies are not controlled trials, it could be some other lifestyle factor [that helps explain the lower cancer risk], ” he says, noting that people who exercise may also eat healthier diets.

Builds strong bones
Robert Recker, an endocrinologist and current president of the National Osteoporosis Foundation in Washington, D.C., says research indicates that moderate exercise increases and maintains bone mass and reduces the risk of osteoporosis. “The most compelling evidence,” he says, “is that if you don’t do anything, your fracture risk is much greater.”

Like muscles, bones become stronger when forced to bear more weight than normal. “The skeleton is a smart structural organ and knows how much load [force] is being put on it,” Recker says. “Pick up a pail of water, and you’re loading your arm, your shoulder, your spine, your legs and your hips.” That means muscles are contracting, exerting forces on the bones supporting those body parts. This force stimulates the bone to maintain or even build new tissue. But scientists have yet to figure out why. “That’s a focus,” he says, “of incredibly aggressive research.”

Recker says that researchers speculate, however, that it has to do with exercise triggering osteocytes (the most mature bone cells) to instruct bone-building cells called osteoblasts to increase bone formation.

Wards off diabetes
According to Gerald Shulman, a cellular and molecular physiologist at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn., exercising may prevent and even reverse type 2 diabetes.

Diabetes type 2 is a disease in which the body begins to ignore or fails to produce enough insulin (a condition called insulin resistance). If muscles and other tissues cannot absorb glucose from the blood, nerve and blood vessel damage ensues, paving the way for heart disease, stroke and infections.

“We’ve shown that in insulin-resistant individuals… build up of fat leads to biochemical reactions that interfere with the glucose-transport mechanism [leading cells to block the activity of insulin],” Shulman says. But physical activity helps reverse this process. He notes that when someone runs, cycles or does other vigorous exercise, muscle contractions ramp up production of adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase (AMPK), an enzyme that promotes the breakdown of the fats interfering with the cells’ glucose transporters.

“It is very likely that there are differences in the extent to which individuals respond to exercise, just as there are in responses to medications,” says Ronald Sigal, a clinical epidemiologist at the Ottawa Health Research Institute in Canada. Leon agrees, pointing to research demonstrating that exercise leads to varying decreases on visceral body fat (the fat surrounding organs), one of the key risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes.

Makes you smarter
Researchers have long believed that exercise boosts smarts but there was not any hard scientific evidence until a few years ago. Now, says Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a neurosurgery professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, it’s known that exercise increases levels of some molecules in the brain that are very important for cognition.

One such chemical is brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a molecule that promotes the growth and survival of brain cells as well as communication between them. Studies in rats show that physical exercise boosts BDNF levels in the hippocampus, a brain structure critical for learning and memory formation, which in turn helps them remember how to navigate their way through underwater mazes. “The more exercise, the more changes in the brain; we found almost a linear relationship,” Gomez-Pinilla says. “If we block the BDNF gene, we block this capacity of exercise to help learning and memory.”

Numerous studies suggest that fitness enhances cognition in humans as well. A randomized clinical trial published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people 50 years and older with memory problems scored higher on cognitive tests after a six-month workout regimen. Those study participants assigned to exercise programs scored 20 percent higher than their sedentary peers at the end of the six months, and maintained a 10 percent edge one year after the trial ended.

But skeptics warn that not enough research has been done to confirm a link between exercise and human brain power. A recent review of studies on cognition in older adults (primarily those age 65 and older) by Dutch scientists published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine concluded that “beneficial effects of various exercise programs on aspects of cognition have been observed in studies among subjects with and without cognitive decline. The majority of the studies, however, did not find any effect.”

Weight Loss
The relationship between exercise and weight loss is complicated. Contrary to popular belief, working out at the gym every day will not necessarily lead to weight loss. “It is reasonable to assume that persons with relatively high daily energy expenditures would be less likely to gain weight over time, compared with those who have low energy expenditures,” write the authors of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the American Heart Association’s (AHA) 2007 guidelines. “So far, data to support this hypothesis are not particularly compelling.”

“Increasing physical activity—if people control caloric intake—will lead to weight loss,” says William Haskell of Stanford University who helped craft the HHS, ACSM and AHA guidelines. But he cautions that exercise alone is unlikely to lead to the instant results most people want, leading them to become frustrated and give up. “[Suppose I do] 30 minutes of brisk walking five days per week,” says Haskell. “If you say walking a mile expends 100 calories, and if I walk at 3 miles per hour, I burn an extra 150 calories per day,” he says. “[Since one pound of fat is equivalent to about 3,600 calories], it could take three weeks to lose one pound. For most people, they are going to find this disappointing, [and] probably won’t stick with it.”

So for the average person, caloric intake—rather than calorie burning from exercise—appears to be the most important factor in weight loss. But even if calorie intake trumps exercise, this does not mean exercise does not play a key role in helping people stay trim.

“If you talk about energy balance [when calories consumed equal calories burned], definitely there is evidence that exercise contributes to energy balance,” says David Stensel, an exercise physiologist at the School of Sport & Exercise Sciences at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, England. A study published this month by Stensel’s team suggests that vigorous exercise suppresses the key hunger hormone, ghrelin, for up to 30 minutes after workouts and increases levels of the appetite-suppressing hormone peptide YY for as long as three hours after exercise.

Stensel also points to studies showing that exercising may encourage people to crave healthier fare, such as unrefined foods (like fiber-rich beans and veggies) rather than foods loaded with refined sugar (such as cookies and cakes).

Some past researchers claimed that exercise would lead to weight gain in the long run because it ups one’s appetite. But Arthur Leon of the University of Minnesota says that theory has been shot down over the past decade. Some research suggests that it might lead to greater caloric intake, Stensel notes, but that does not necessarily translate into extra pounds. The increased calories, he says, are not enough to offset the calories burned—or energy consumed—during exercising.

The bottom line: couch potatoes may applaud the exercise naysayers but the bulk of research suggests that workouts make us physically and perhaps mentally healthier.


By Coco Ballantyne (American Scientific)

The six souls claimed by the New Year’s Day fire at Oscar and Michelle Smith Wilson’s Brookland home were part of an extended family, bound by blood, love, struggle and hope. Yesterday, for a few hours, that family grew into the thousands who came to pay their respects.


They filled Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church on Rhode Island Avenue NE to say goodbye to the Wilsons’ youngest son, Oscar Wilson III, 11; to his 10-year-old cousin, Joseph Wilson Jr; to Kaniya Gantt, 4, and her parents, Tawana Gantt, 22, and Keith Nelson, 23; and to Charles Smith, Michelle Wilson’s father, who was 72.
A single tragic death can send ripples of grief deep into a community. Six at once forms a wave that can devastate.
“Do I have any believers in the room? Do I have any believers in the room?” asked Bishop Alfred A. Owens, shortly after funeral directors gently closed the six white coffins lined up under the pulpit for a viewing that lasted almost three hours.
“This is still the day the Lord has made,” Owens said.
A full-throated wail rang from near the front row. Church ushers dressed in white walked the aisles with fans and tissue boxes.
As family, friends, clergy and dignitaries spoke, it was a chance for the more than 2,000 in attendance to remember the dead, both as a group and as individuals with their own hopes, dreams and challenges.

Charles Smith, a retired auto mechanic, was a generous man who liked to travel. He struggled with dementia in his final years, but daughter Michelle refused to place him in a nursing home, wanting him instead to stay with his grandchildren and other loved ones.


Keith Nelson was the life of the party who dressed up as the Joker at Halloween and dreamed of a music career. Born in the depths of the District’s crack wars in the mid-1980s, he easily could have been one of its victims.
“He could have chosen the devilish path, but he decided to choose the path of God,” said his uncle, Michael Brooks. “It wasn’t easy in D.C. to walk the right road.”
He was devoted to his partner, Tawana Gantt, the daughter of one of Oscar Wilson’s best friends. “Wani Wan” to those who knew her best, she’d begun a promising career in District government as an aide to D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5).
“I used to call her my little chocolate chip with a smile,” Thomas said.
Their daughter, Kaniya, brought her mother’s infectious smile to Noyes Elementary School. “Just give us the strength to get through this,” said her godmother, Erica Davis.
Joseph Wilson Jr., the adopted son of Oscar and Michelle, loved to wrestle and talk trash. He’d also discovered girls by age 11, and family members joked that they could smell his cologne from a mile away. Oscar Wilson III, Oscar and Michelle’s son, loved to dominate the video game controller and stand in the kitchen while his mother was cooking and sneak food when she wasn’t looking.
It was a family that held together when falling apart would have been understandable. The Wilsons’ 17-year-old daughter, Taleshia Ford, was killed in 2007 by a stray bullet from a gun brought to a Northwest nightclub by another patron. It happened during a scuffle with a bouncer.
Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) told mourners that many people would have cut themselves off from the community after such a loss. Instead, the Wilsons fought for passage of a District law that required tightened security in clubs that serve alcohol and admit anyone younger than 21.
“They didn’t withdraw,” Graham said. “They stayed with the issue at the council. They came to hearing after hearing, and hearing after hearing.” The Taleshia Ford Memorial Amendment Act of 2007 passed under Graham’s sponsorship.

The funeral had the trappings of a state affair. Traffic up and down Rhode Island Avenue slowed to a crawl for a mile in each direction from the church. A D.C. police honor guard was on hand. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who attended the viewing, ordered flags on District government buildings flown at half-staff. D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who attended the funeral, dedicated his monthly youth hearing yesterday afternoon to Tawana Gantt.
At 2 p.m., after a two-hour service, the coffins were transported to Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Brentwood. More than 150 vehicles followed the hearses in the chilly, overcast afternoon.

* By Bill Turque ;Washington Post Staff Writer,Sunday, January 11, 2009

IS THE KING OF POP AILING?: A journalist says that Michael Jackson, pictured here in 2001, is suffering from a debilitating disease and needs an emergency lung transplant to survive.


Michael Jackson, the moonwalking pop star whose health problems have often shared the spotlight with him, is reportedly wracked with severe emphysema and potentially deadly internal bleeding.

According to Ian Halperin, an investigative journalist who is writing an unauthorized biography of the singer, Jackson, 50, has been fighting the genetically inherited disorder alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency for several years.

Last year he was seen in a wheelchair near his home in Las Vegas. And earlier this month, photographers snapped a shot of him outside a doctor’s office with his face hidden beneath a mask and a fedora.

If Jackson has alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, it means he cannot protect his lungs from his body’s own defenses against bacteria. The disease eventually leads to difficulty breathing, and some forms of the illness can affect the liver and skin. Halperin told the British newspaper Sunday Express that Jackson needs a lung transplant to survive but that he may be too physically frail to endure such an operation. The biographer did not describe his sources in the article but said that the singer can barely speak and has lost 95 percent of the vision in his left eye.

Jackson’s public health troubles began soon after the release of his chart-topping album Thriller in the early 1980s when the 5′ 11″ singer reportedly weighed just 105 pounds, and some speculated that he was suffering from anorexia. He was later diagnosed with vitiligo—which results in a loss of skin pigmentation—and the potentially lethal autoimmune disease lupus in which the body’s immune system gets out of whack and attacks healthy tissue. In 2005, when he was tried and cleared in California of child molestation charges, he became dependent on morphine and the painkiller Demerol, according to his attorneys.

The star’s older brother Jermaine told Fox News that the singer is not doing well, but on Monday a Jackson rep issued a statement dismissing the alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency reports as “total fabrication.”

“Mr. Jackson is in fine health,” the statement said, “and finalizing negotiations with a major entertainment company and television network for both a world tour and a series of specials and appearances.”

To find out more about the condition, we spoke with James Stoller, a pulmonary critical care doctor at the Cleveland Clinic who has studied alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency for more than 20 years.

An edited transcript of the interview follows.

What is alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency?

It is a genetic defect in the production of a protective protein called alpha-1 antitrypsin, which is made in the liver and circulates in the bloodstream. This protein primarily protects the lungs against an enzyme known as neutrophil elastase, which our body uses to break down bacterial cell walls, but it also has the collateral damage of breaking down elastin, the support protein of the lung. This results in the development of emphysema. Some individuals with a genetic disposition for the disease go through life and never develop emphysema; others develop early-onset severe emphysema in their 40s and 50s. The disease is exacerbated by smoking and exposure to other noxious inhaled stimuli that lead to inflammation of the lungs.

How common is it, and how is it diagnosed?

It is very much under-recognized. The best estimate in the U.S. is there are probably about 100,000 severely affected Americans. If one looks at carriers of the disease, that probably affects 3 percent of Americans. It’s quite common—one of the most common genetic variants in the U. S.

It can be diagnosed by checking blood at birth, but that has not been the usual practice here. It is usually diagnosed because one presents manifestations of the disease, most commonly emphysema and liver disease, or because one has a family member who is affected.

If confirmed, does Michael Jackson’s case sound serious?

It’s hard to know. I’m not aware of any association with eye disease, at least any direct link. The gastrointestinal bleeding may be unrelated to alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, but to the extent that the deficiency is associated with liver and lung disease, one could develop stomach bleeding.

If he needs a lung transplant on the basis of alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, it would bespeak of a fairly advanced degree of emphysema. Such transplants are regrettably not very rare. Of all lung transplants listed in the database of the International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation, 8 to 11 percent are performed on the basis of emphysema for alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency.

What type of medications would Jackson have been taking to treat it?

The treatment of emphysema related to alpha-1 includes all the usual medications: medicines to open up the airways, broncodilators; preventive strategies like influenza vaccine, pneumonia vaccine; occasionally oxygen when the individual’s oxygen level is specifically low enough to justify using oxygen pulmonary rehab; sometimes inhaled cortical steroids [to reduce inflammation]. There are also some specific therapies for alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, including so-called augmentation therapy. This involves the weekly or monthly intravenous infusion of purified human alpha-1 antitrypsin, which causes the levels in the blood to rise above the protective threshold. The best available studies suggest that this medication can slow the rate of decline of lung function.

* By Brendan Borrell  (Dec. 2008)

That might be stretching things but, as an expert on animal cognition discusses, certain birds display startling abilities and intelligence


Irene Pepperberg is associate research professor at Brandeis University and the author of a new book, Alex and Me. She and Jonah Lehrer, the editor of Mind Matters, discuss what Alex and other African Grey Parrots can teach us about the evolution of intelligence and the concept of zero.

LEHRER: What first got you interesting in study avian intelligence? After all, to say someone has a “bird brain” is insulting.

PEPPERBERG: I had parakeets as pets as a child, and I knew they were quite smart. For instance, they could learn to say words and phrases in context. But I didn’t connect that to science at the time. I trained in chemistry at MIT and chemical physics at Harvard, not even knowing that a new field, animal cognition, was developing in psychology. It wasn’t until I saw the first NOVA programs, in 1974, on ape signing, dolphin intelligence and the one on “Why Do Birds Sing?” that I realized that one could look at animal-human communication and animal intelligence in a scientific way. That’s when I realized that no one was looking at parrots, which could actually talk. I decided to use their ability to produce human speech sounds to examine their cognitive processes.

LEHRER: Were you surprised by Alex’s talents?

PEPPERBERG: In general, no. But occasionally he would do something that was really impressive, jumping beyond the task at hand, transferring his knowledge unexpectedly from one domain to another. That’s when I’d get surprised.

LEHRER: What do you think was Alex’s most impressive cognitive feat?

PEPPERBERG: The work on the “zero-like” concept. He had shown that he could label the number of a subset of items in a heterogeneous mixture (for example, tell us the number of blue blocks in a mixture of red and blue balls and red and blue blocks), but we hadn’t tested his comprehension of number. That task was important, because young children, at a particular stage in number learning, can label a set but can’t, for example, remove a specific number of marbles from a big heap.


So we were testing him on number comprehension, again showing him heterogeneous mixtures of different numbers of objects of different colors (for instance, two blue keys, five purple keys, six green keys and asking, “What color is six?”). As was his wont, he was at about 90 percent accuracy on the first dozen or so trials, but we needed far more for statistical significance. The problem was that he just did not want to comply. He began to turn his back to us, throw the objects on the floor, or give us all the wrong answers and repeat the wrong answers so that, statistically, we knew he was avoiding the correct response. We started bribing him with candies and treats to get him to work. One day, in the midst of this, I’m testing him with a tray of three, four and six blocks of different colors, and I ask, “What color three?” He replies, “Five.” At first, I was puzzled: there was no set of five on the tray. We repeat this interaction several times, and he consistently says, “Five.” Finally, in frustration, I ask, “OK, what color five?” He says “none”! Not only had he transferred the use of “none” from a same-different task, where “none” was the response if nothing about two objects was indeed “same” or “different,” to the absence of a numerical set, but he had also figured out how to manipulate me into asking him the question he wanted to answer!

LEHRER: What can bird intelligence teach us about the evolution of human intelligence? Birds and primates parted ways a long time ago.

PEPPERBERG: Yes, primates and birds separated about 280 million years ago. But Alex’s abilities show us that it’s important to examine parallel evolution and to be willing to examine how a brain functions, not only how it looks. The cortical-like area of the parrot brain looks nothing like human cortex, but it is derived from the same pallial areas as is human cortex, functions in a similar manner and takes up roughly the same proportion of space. We also must examine the conditions that likely selected for intelligence in evolution. Grey parrots, for example, like nonhuman primates, are long-lived and exist in a complex ecological and social environment. Likely the same conditions that selected for intelligence in nonhuman primates were at work in the parrot lineage.

LEHRER: In your book, you describe repeated examples of scientists and journals ignoring and discounting your results. Why do you think people are so resistant to the idea of bird intelligence? And have things improved?

PEPPERBERG: When I started my research, very few scientists studied any bird other than the pigeon, and used any technique other than operant conditioning. Pigeons did not perform very well compared to other animals (such as rats and nonhuman primates), and were thus considered to be lacking in intelligence; scientists extrapolated their findings to all birds. At the time, scientists didn’t understand how the avian brain functioned, and thought it lacked any significant cortex. And, of course, when I began my research, some scientists started discounting much that had been done in the field of human-animal communication. So, when I started working with a parrot, and chose to use a nontraditional training method, few in the scientific community would give credit to Alex’s achievements.


Whether or not things have improved depends a lot upon whom you ask. Many scientists do appreciate what Alex did and have been inspired to further investigate the abilities of all birds—not only parrots and corvids, but also to perform new research with pigeons.

Other scientists, intent on proving the uniqueness of humans, tend to discount my research. Much of the work in avian cognition has shifted to Europe now, with large grants going to researchers in the U.K. (St. Andrews, Cambridge, Oxford) and other countries in the E.U. (such as Austria). Unfortunately, very little funding is available here in the U.S.

After a loved one dies, most people see ghosts


Carlos Sluzki’s cat died a while ago now, but he still sometimes visits. Now more of a shadow cat, the former pet seems to lurk at the edges of Sluzki’s vision, as a misinterpreted movement amid the everyday chaos of domestic life. All the same, the shadow cat is beginning to slink away and Sluzki notes that as the grief fades his erstwhile friend is “erasing himself from the world of the present and receding into the bittersweet world of the memories of the loved ones.”


The dead stay with us, that much is clear. They remain in our hearts and minds, of course, but for many people they also linger in our senses—as sights, sounds, smells, touches or presences. Grief hallucinations are a normal reaction to bereavement but are rarely discussed, because people fear they might be considered insane or mentally destabilised by their loss. As a society we tend to associate hallucinations with things like drugs and mental illness, but we now know that hallucinations are common in sober healthy people and that they are more likely during times of stress.

A Common Hallucination
Mourning seems to be a time when hallucinations are particularly common, to the point where feeling the presence of the deceased is the norm rather than the exception. One study, by the researcher Agneta Grimby at the University of Goteborg, found that over 80 percent of elderly people experience hallucinations associated with their dead partner one month after bereavement, as if their perception had yet to catch up with the knowledge of their beloved’s passing. As a marker of how vivid such visions can seem, almost a third of the people reported that they spoke in response to their experiences. In other words, these weren’t just peripheral illusions: they could evoke the very essence of the deceased.


Occasionally, these hallucinations are heart-rending. A 2002 case report by German researchers described how a middle aged woman, grieving her daughter’s death from a heroin overdose, regularly saw the young girl and sometimes heard her say “Mamma, Mamma!” and “It’s so cold.” Thankfully, these distressing experiences tend to be rare, and most people who experience hallucinations during bereavement find them comforting, as if they were re-connecting with something of the positive from the person’s life. Perhaps this reconnecting is reflected in the fact that the intensity of grief has been found to predict the number of pleasant hallucinations, as has the happiness of the marriage to the person who passed away.

There are hints that the type of grief hallucinations might also differ across cultures. Anthropologists have told us a great deal about how the ceremonies, beliefs and the social rituals of death differ greatly across the world, but we have few clues about how these different approaches affect how people experience the dead after they have gone. Carlos Sluzki, the owner of the shadow cat and a cross-cultural researcher at George Mason University, suggests that in cultures of non-European origin the distinction between “in here” and “out there” experiences is less strictly defined, and so grief hallucinations may not be considered so personally worrying. In a recent article, he discussed the case of an elderly Hispanic lady who was frequently “visited” by two of her children who died in adulthood and were a comforting and valued part of her social network. Other case reports have suggested that such hallucinations may be looked on more favorably among the Hopi Indians, or the Mu Ghayeb people from Oman, but little systematic work has been done.

And there, our knowledge ends. Despite the fact that hallucinations are one of the most common reactions to loss, they have barely been investigated and we know little more about them. Like sorrow itself, we seem a little uncomfortable with it, unwilling to broach the subject and preferring to dwell on the practicalities—the “call me if I can do anything,” the “let’s take your mind off it,” the “are you looking after yourself?”

Only a minority of people reading this article are likely to experience grief without re-experiencing the dead. We often fall back on the cultural catch all of the “ghost” while the reality is, in many ways, more profound. Our perception is so tuned to their presence that when they are not there to fill that gap, we unconsciously try to mold the world into what we have lived with for so long and so badly long for. Even reality is no match for our love.


By Vaughan Bell, Scientific American

A senior HSBC banker found hanged in a five-star London hotel is believed to have spent tens of thousands of pounds on cocaine and women in the months leading up to his death.

Christen Schnor, who was independently wealthy, had regularly gone missing from his six-figure post as he embarked on a personal journey of destruction.


Sources say Mr Schnor, who was a close friend of the Danish royal family, had been squandering large chunks of his family’s fortune.

High-flying career: Smiling HSBC executive Christen Schnor and a friend in a picture posed on Facebook
A hotel worker found Danish-born Mr Schnor, 49, in his £500-a-night suite at the Jumeriah Carlton Tower Hotel in Knightsbridge a fortnight ago. A suicide note written in Danish was by his side.

The millionaire father of four, who drove an Aston Martin to work, is said to have started using expensive prostitutes and cocaine after moving to London in June 2007 to take up his post.

His wife Marianne allegedly discovered that he had been siphoning their bank accounts and repeatedly tried to track down Mr Schnor at his office in Canary Wharf, but he was rarely there.

Sources say the bank thought he was off with Legionnaire’s Disease. Mr Schnor was HSBC’s head of insurance for the UK, Turkey, the Middle East and Malta – an arm of the business worth an estimated £750million in profit.

He sat on the executive committee of HSBC Bank plc, which runs the UK and European side of the global bank.

A source at HSBC said: ‘Christen was a big player at the bank. He was one of the most senior executives in Europe for HSBC and it was quite a coup to have brought him over from the Winterthur Group, where he had been an executive board member.


HSBC banker found hanged by belt at 5-star London hotel after ‘committing suicide’

‘Senior management became concerned by his erratic behaviour and appearance but he claimed he was ill with Legionnaire’s Disease. This now seems doubtful. Instead, he appears to have been spending a small fortune booking prostitutes through an
escort agency and buying drugs.’

The source added: ‘He had lost almost two stone in weight and when he did turn up at work he looked a shell of the man who had first arrived at the bank. His poor wife Marianne made many attempts to find him.

‘She had discovered he had been draining their bank account and spending the money on Russian prostitutes and cocaine. The amount of money he had withdrawn had even made it difficult for her to pay the bills by the end.’

Mr Schnor’s wife and children were believed to be back home in Copenhagen at the time of his death on December 17 last year.

Marianne had spent time living with her husband and two of their children at a £390-a-day rented four-bedroom flat in Wellesley House, Lower Sloane Street, Chelsea.

But Mr Schnor told bank bosses that he had to move out of his flat due to ‘refurbishment’ work. HSBC helped relocate him to the Jumeriah Carlton Hotel, which he paid for himself. It now appears there was no work being carried out on his flat and he had just left of his own accord.

Luxury lifestyle: The Schnors owned this villa in France and were friends of Danish royalty
The bank source said: ‘What happened came as a complete shock to management. Some were aware that he was undergoing personal problems but nothing like what was happening in reality.

‘They had tried to support him as much as they could, with the bank later helping to book him the hotel where he was staying but which he paid for himself, and put his absence at work down to him meeting business contacts as he built up their insurance arm.’

Mr Schnor also told bank bosses he had been burgled just weeks before he died. But he was unable to detail what was taken and the Metropolitan Police have no record of any break-in. They are not treating his death as suspicious.

An inquest is due to take place into his apparent suicide and his funeral is expected to be held this week.

The Schnors, who also owned a seven-bedroom villa in Cannes, France, which they let for up to £10,000 a week, were close friends of the Danish royal family, especially Crown Prince Frederik, who is heir to the Danish throne.

The banker had also been one of the elite who dined with Denmark’s Queen Margrethe, 68.

Mr Schnor spent five years in the Danish army after graduating and belonged to the country’s military reserve, recently attaining the highest position of Lieutenant Colonel.

A spokesman for HSBC refused to comment about Mr Schnor’s activities, but said: ‘The bank’s thoughts are with Christen’s friends and family following their tragic loss.’

By James Millbank, 4th January 2009

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