Thursday, December 5, 2013

A December Break

I have overexerted myself and so I am taking off the next few weeks, and plan to return in January 2014, a new year with new promise.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

8 Things You Should Know About Mesothelioma

Cancer Awareness

No amount of exposure to asbestos is safe; and yet asbestos is still not banned in the United States. A good part of the industrialized world, notably the medical community, agree that asbestos is highly dangerous. So much so that the World Health Organization reports that more than 100,000 people die each year from lung cancer and other respiratory diseases due to asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer that usually develops in the pleura (lungs) or the peritoneum (abdominal cavity)Emily Walsh of Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance says“Mesothelioma is caused by asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that is invisible to the naked eye. Once inhaled, these fibers may infect the protective lining of the lungs, abdominal cavity, or cardiac cavity.”


by Emily Walsh

Displaying Did You Know Facts.jpg
Mesothelioma Fact Sheet:
Credit & Source: Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance; 2013

Mesothelioma—a long word you may have heard on a commercial or two, but do you know what it means? This rare and deadly cancer is sadly lacking awareness. In honor of Mesothelioma Awareness Day, which took place on September 26, read on for the top eight things you don’t know about this cancer, but should.

Then share them. The key to saving lives starts with education.
  1. Mesothelioma is caused by asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that is invisible to the naked eye. Once inhaled, these fibers may infect the protective lining of the lungs, abdominal cavity, or cardiac cavity.
  2. No amount of exposure is safe. Just exposing yourself once could put you at risk for developing the disease later on in life. If you were exposed today, you may not be aware until 2043, as the average latency period is about 30–40 years.
  3. Asbestos was once used in more than 3,000 consumer products. These include household items, some of which may still be in use. Some of these even include hair dryers, crock pots, and cigarette filters.
  4. It can be found in many older homes, schools, factories, and commercial buildings. Homes built prior to the 1970’s, along with a myriad of public buildings still could potentially contain asbestos because of the materials used in the original construction.
  5. Asbestos exposure is still the LEADING CAUSE of occupational cancer in the US. Even after 30 years since the United States government issued stern warnings about the continued use of asbestos, many workers who were once exposed are now at risk of developing the disease.
  6. United States Veterans are at the greatest risk. For many years, asbestos was used across all branches of the military. Many veterans and shipyard workers were exposed to high levels of asbestos from several different applications. US Navy veterans who served during World War II and the Korean Conflict unfortunately have the highest incidences of asbestos related disease, including mesothelioma.
  7. Asbestos is still not banned in the US. Federal law requires the newly manufactured products contain no more than 1% asbestos. Although its use is regulated, roughly 30 million pounds are still being used each year.
  8. Mesothelioma can be caused by secondary exposure. Family members of those who were directly affected by on-the-job asbestos exposure may also at risk of developing mesothelioma.
Want to do something to help this Mesothelioma Awareness Day? Our friend and seven-year survivor, Heather Von St. James, needs your help. Check out her campaign and share her message to help educate and save lives. Be a voice for the victims.

You can read more at [].

As the Community Outreach Director for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, Emily Walsh dedicates much of her time building cancer awareness through social media and blogging. She is passionate about helping veterans and their families learn more about the lesser-known health risks from military service.

Copyright ©2013. Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance at All Rights Reserved. This post was originally published in Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance on September 9, 2013. It is republished here with the author’s permission.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Cancer Blog: Recovery Month 5

On Wellness

Today is Day 350 since I have been diagnosed with cancer, and Day 140 living with chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN), a side-effect of chemo treatment.

The Ways Of Contentment

Who is rich? He who rejoices with his portion. 
Ben ZomaMishna: Pirkei Avot 4:1

Wealth and contentment go together; they are natural allies. A better or at least an equal match would be health and contentment. I have some good news to share. My neuropathy has subsided somewhat, or to put it another way, I have adapted to new environmental conditions imposed upon me by my illness and the resulting change in health: I can now do things that I couldn’t do last month, such as buttoning my shirt, tying my shoelaces and wearing leather dress shoes. I can also type with more ease and less pain; for my feet, however, I can report little change, and still retain the sensation of wearing a set of pads on my soles. But I have adapted to the changes.

I have a CT scan of my lungs scheduled for the 19th and an appointment with my medical oncologist on the 30th to discuss the results; good news would be a great start for the year 2014. If all goes well, I will not have to visit either Dr. Chan or the cancer centre for another six months. I see no reason why the news will not meet my expectations. I am very pleased that my taste buds have returned to their former fine form, and I can now enjoy all tastes and sensations while eating. The human body never ceases to amaze me on its ability to heal itself.

In terms of heath and treatment, there is exciting news coming out of Israel regarding an advanced cancer treatment by a company called IceCure, says the Israeli innovation site, NoCamels:
Two weeks ago, we published an article about Israeli company IceCure, known for its treatment that freezes benign and small malignant breast tumors into balls of ice, and which had just announced it would turn its sight on lung cancer. Now we can announce that the clinical trial on IceCure’s effectiveness with lung cancer, by far the world’s most prevalent cancer killer, has been successful.
IceCure has announced that, as part of the trial that was taking place at the Kameda Medical Center in Japan, two lung cancer patients were successfully treated with the company’s IceSense3 cryotherapy system.IceCure president and CEO Hezi Himelfarb said, “We’re pleased at the success in destroying lung cancer tumors because use of our cryoablation platform could open to us a potential market of hundreds of thousands of new cases in the US alone. Treatment with IceCure’s system, which is a minimally invasive procedure, has clear advantages over complicated and expensive surgical solutions for excising tumors, which involve hospital stays, surgery, and prolonged recovery. 
“We believe that further success in the breast cancer clinical trial in the US and the lung cancer clinical trial in Japan positions IceCure in a good place and paves the way to participating in these opportunities.”
On another note, a group of Montreal scientists led by Dr. Rima Rozen, a geneticist at the McGill University Health Centre, have discovered five genetic markers that might cause colorectal cancer, says an article, by Aaron Derfel, (“Discovery raises hopes of a new test for colorectal cancer”;  October 30, 2013), in The Montreal Gazette. 

Derfel writes:
The discovery raises hopes of a new test to screen for colorectal cancer in people who have not developed symptoms of the illness. The test would probably not replace the gold standard for colorectal screening — the colonoscopy — but it would provide doctors with more accurate information and might even limit the extent of scoping in patients.
The colonoscopy — which requires that patients fast in preparation — is costly, time-consuming, and some Montreal patients are on years-long waiting lists for the procedure. What’s more, it has a false-negative rate of at least 10 per cent.
“So anything that would help to diagnose colorectal cancer more efficiently is useful,” said Dr. Rima Rozen, a geneticist at the McGill University Health Centre. “I think this could be a very important tool.
“In the near future,” she added, “while you are in for a colonoscopy, you may not need to do the entire colon, but (doctors) may take a small piece of tissue that could be examined for those particular biomarkers in conjunction with a colonoscopy.”
This is good news, indeed.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

One Jewish Family's History

The 20th Century

Arriving at Ellis Island in New YorkPhysicians examine a group of Jewish immigrants who are gathered in a small room, two with their shirts off. Note the eye chart with Hebrew letters that hangs on the wall.  
Photo CreditUnderwood & Underwood; 1907
Source: U.S. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div.

A book review article, by James McAuley, in The Daily Beast recounts the particular history of each of the three branches of one Jewish family and the choices they made in the 20th century against the general backdrop of the rise and fall of European Jewry; this is told in David LaskinThe Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century.

McAuley writes:
This is the essence of the writer David Laskin’s investigation of his own family tree, a family of Belorussian Kohanim—the Jewish priestly caste—caught in the chasms of the twentieth century and uprooted from their native Volozhin to the antipodes of the modern Jewish world.
In the wake of the brutal Tsarist pogroms in the Pale of Settlement and the Russian Revolution that followed shortly thereafter, one of the tree’s branches immigrated to tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side while another made aliyah to Kfar Vitkin, what was then a fledgling moshav in Palestine’s Hefer Valley. The third and final branch of the Kaganovich clan remained in Europe as European civilization burned to its bitter end: seventeen members of the family were murdered by the Nazis—two asphyxiated in gas chambers, the rest gunned down into ditches or incinerated in burning synagogues.
In that sense, The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century is Laskin’s own personal history, but it is also a local, microcosmic study of what he calls the three “great Jewish upheavals of the twentieth century”: the influx of some 23 million Eastern European immigrants to the United States between 1880 and the 1920s; the rise of Zionism against the tumultuous establishment of the state of Israel; and, of course, the Shoah in all its arresting finality.
“The historian’s essential creative act,” Dubnow wrote, “is the resurrection of the dead.” “History made and broke my family in the twentieth century,” Laskin writes. “My grandparents and their cousins were born into a world of tradition and religion that had lasted for centuries and died in the course of four years.”
Such became a common narrative for many families; and this one can serve as one story, among many, for the many others who have told similar stories to their families. Or for those who could not. The memories of immigrant experiences are important to collect and recollect; without memory, there is no history. Dubnow’s assertion of what historians do in their writing down history is both an accurate and a chilling account of what history is often about: death and resurrection, whether in a figurative or literal sense.

You can read the rest of the article at [DailyBeast].

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Our Move To Toronto: Reflections One Year Later

ReLocation & ReAdjustments

“Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, 
but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.”
W.H. Auden [1907–1973],
The Dyer’s Hand, and Other Essays: “Notes on the Comic”; p. 372

Downtown Toronto’s Chinatown: Wikipedia writes: “Toronto’s Chinatown is one of the largest in North America. It is centred on the intersection of Dundas Street West and Spadina Avenue, and extends outward from this point along both streets.” It is also southeast of Kensington Market, which is a popular tourist attraction and shopping point. The area along Spadina was once an area populated by Jews, who have been moving further north (uptown) during the last few decades, many now residing in Vaughan.
Photo Credit: chensiyuan; 2009;
Source: Wikipedia

It has been one year since we moved our family to Toronto, arriving on November 29th and moving into our current apartment a day later, after spending a night at a decent hotel not too far from here. My wife did all the driving, taking us from Montreal to Toronto in less than six hours (she will tell you it was five hours and 45 minutes), arriving at our hotel around 7:30 p.m. The trip was thankfully uneventful.

Everyone who has made Toronto their home, including former Montealers, invariably ask me how I am “enjoying Toronto.” My polite response has been, “I am adjusting to it.”  This is true in the sense that when one moves to another city, especially at an older age, there is a period of adjustment to meet the expectations and traditions of the new city. It is by far Canada’s largest city with a population of 2.79 million, and 5.5 million in what is called the GTA, or Greater Toronto Area—ranking it as the fourth most-populous city in North America, replacing Chicago in that position. (Montreal, by comparison, is smaller and geographically more compact and, in my view, more aesthetically pleasing and more livable of a city.)

No doubt, its tremendous growth has made Toronto what it is, what it has become. Toronto considers itself a large, hip, modern, cosmopolitan city with many people from various nations residing within its midst. A recent New York Times op-ed piece (“Toronto’s Hot Mess; November 5th) agrees with this view, the writer Stephen Marche saying, “Toronto is basically the model of what a postindustrial city can be.” Perhaps so, but I am not convinced that this is necessarily the case, despite the money, the multiculturalism and the many attractions that can be found here.

Truly, Toronto has much to recommend it, including but not limited to its many fine schools and universities, its libraries, its many condos under construction, its many cultural and sporting events, and its many beautiful and wealthy neighborhoods containing well-appointed mansions and people. I am particularly delighted by the Toronto Botanical Garden (i.e., Edwards Gardens), which I visit frequently for its beauty and aesthetic appeal. And, of course, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and its modern Odette Cancer Centre, and Gilda’s Club Greater Toronto for its beautiful building and its warm and welcoming presence. I can’t say enough good things about these places and of the many wonderful people that I have met. I also would like to thank the Toronto Fire Services for coming so quickly—within minutes—after we smelt smoke in the middle of the night in our apartment earlier this month (see An Early Morning Awakening).

And, yet, I do not feel a part of it in the same way that I do about Montreal, or for that matter New York or Tel Aviv (Note; we had a choice between Toronto and Tel Aviv, and we chose the former over the latter, chiefly for practical reasons; we hope to retire, however, in Israel in about 15 years). It might seem unfair to say so about a city that has worked so hard to change its image of “Hogtown”  or “Toronto the Good” of the Victorian era. Perhaps too hard, which might explain my current sentiments of Toronto. I certainly don’t hate it, but I don’t love it either. I say this without any intent to offend and without any malice, but take note of Auden. Apart from those I have met at Gilda’s Club, I have not met enough people in Toronto who laugh, who have a good sense of humor, who don’t take themselves too seriously. As well, November begins a six-month period where 80 percent of the days seem grey, overcast and filled with leaden skies, making Toronto a city affected by seasonal affective disorder (SAD), making it a sad city.

There are a couple of other peculiarities or particularities about this large city that are more of a nuisance than anything else; they both relate to human interactions, or a lack thereof. One is that few people or organizations, including government ones, return phone calls, perhaps reflecting their busyness or, rather, a sense of self-importance; and the second, similar to the first, is a propensity to have a problem with the truth in matters great and small, or, in other words, prevarication or equivocation seems to be an acceptable norm. I am not sure of the reasons why. Perhaps it is what Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: “Pretty much all the honest truth telling in the world is done by children.”

Perhaps that is the way it is, and my expectations are all wrong, outdated. It might be the case, and allow me to show by way of an example from physics what is currently taking place. Two sinusoidal waves can be either in phase or out-of-phase; the city of Toronto and I are out-of-phase; to be in sync I will have to undergo a phase change, or more accurately, a phase shift. For now we are oscillating at different frequencies.  I can say more, but I have been reminded by what one character said on that fine well-written  and -acted Canadian TV series, Murdoch Mysteries, set in the late 19th-century and the beginning of 20th-century Toronto (circa 1895–1901). Said Inspector Brackenreid, “Toronto is a Christian city.”  So it remains, culturally, at least in spirit—not so much the sharp two-edged sword of veritas, but the blunt instrument of indifférence.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Scientists Do Have Special Obligations To Society

Scientific Philosophy

An article, in Scientific American, by Janet D. Stemwedel, an associate professor of philosophy at San José State University in California, raises the valid question of whether scientists have a particular responsibility to society, that is ought scientists and their work be limited to what is essentially considered socially good or responsible. Perhaps it can be called scientific social responsibility.

Stemwedel writes:
In this post, we’re returning to a discussion we started back in September about whether scientists have special duties or obligations to society (or, if the notion of “society” seems too fuzzy and ill-defined to you, to the other people who are not scientists with whom they share a world) in virtue of being scientists.
You may recall that, in the post where we set out some groundwork for the discussion, I offered one reason you might think that scientists have duties that are importantly different from the duties of non-scientists:
The main arguments for scientists having special duties tend to turn on scientists being in possession of special powers. This is the scientist as Spider-Man: with great power comes great responsibility.
What kind of special powers are we talking about? The power to build reliable knowledge about the world – and in particular, about phenomena and mechanisms in the world that are not so transparent to our everyday powers of observation and the everyday tools non-scientists have at their disposal for probing features of their world. On account of their training and experience, scientists are more likely to be able to set up experiments or conditions for observation that will help them figure out the cause of an outbreak of illness, or the robust patterns in global surface temperatures and the strength of their correlation with CO2 outputs from factories and farms, or whether a particular plan for energy generation is thermodynamically plausible. In addition, working scientists are more likely to have access to chemical reagents and modern lab equipment, to beamtimes at particle accelerators, to purpose-bred experimental animals, to populations of human subjects and institutional review boards for well-regulated clinical trials.
Scientists can build specialist knowledge that the rest of us (including scientists in other fields) cannot, and many of them have access to materials, tools, and social arrangements for use in their knowledge-building that the rest of us do not. That may fall short of a superpower, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this doesn’t represent significant power in our world.
In her book Ethics of Scientific Research, Kristin Shrader-Frechette argues that these special abilities give rise to obligations for scientists. We can separate these into positive duties and negative duties. A positive duty is an obligation to actually do something (e.g., a duty to care for the hungry, a duty to tell the truth), while a negative duty is an obligation to refrain from doing something (e.g., a duty not to lie, a duty not to steal, a duty not to kill). There may well be context sensitivity in some of these duties (e.g, if it’s a matter of self-defense, your duty not to kill may be weakened), but you get the basic difference between the two flavors of duties.
It's a good time to be a scientist; it's a time when many don't understand what scientists really do, and yet many people look to Science to solve all of humanity's problems. Perhaps that explains why some hold the view that science ought not to be bound at all, that scientists ought to have unfettered freedom, taking them wherever their interests lie; this of course is nonsense, if you consider what this is suggesting or implying. One of the reasons this question is raised now is that we today live in a different moral universe than, say, 50 or 100 years ago.

Our world has changed, but not that scientists then did not care about money; they likely did, but there was little to be gained by such pursuits. What was more important was trying to find the Truth of the universe and from that gain fame, a pursuit of something noble that would be long remembered by humanity. A sense of immortality. This seems less important today in an age that has, to a large degree, become utilitarian and devoid of beauty and mystery. Money alone drives much of what today is called scientific research. So does lack of clarity, as if opaqueness equates to depth of knowledge.

Even so, in spite of this or because of this, much of science today has become an echo chamber, despite protests to the contrary, and has become about serving the needs of self-interest or narrow interests, whatever these might be. Much of science also speaks to itself, to a narrow field of specialists, not even accessible by other scientists and intelligent laymen, Science is an important undertaking, no doubt, but like all professions its work ought to fit in within the framework of general society and its interests.

There are scientists whose arrogance of material knowledge is similar to that of religious leaders in their arrogance of special spiritual knowledge. The former says that the knowledge comes directly from a deity; the latter from personally unraveling the secrets of the universe. The similarities are striking, but it also leads to another important question on the place of knowledge, or to know, within the framework of what is and how so. This reminds me of what Albert Einstein said, in 1931, in Cosmic Religion: With Other Opinions and Aphorisms: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.”

To its credit, science, notably the medical sciences in recent years, has shown itself capable of providing many important answers, and thus improve the lives of individuals. But to say or assert that it, and Science in general, are the only important fields of human endeavor is surely missing the mark. Without other fields like art, languages, literature, history, music, philosophy, political theory and religious studies, to name only a scant few that enrich our lives, science would not be as interesting or as important as it is today. Science stands on the shoulders of others, to quote a well-known scientific maxim. This is something to think about.

You can read the rest of the article at [SciAmer].

Thursday, November 28, 2013

New Atheism & The Unbelievers

Secular America

A search for meaning in a highly industrialized west has led to two competing streams of thought and being: one focuses on religion and faith, the other on secularism and rationalism. While these two streams have always been around and fought to capture the heart and minds of humanity, the battles are greater today, or at least seems so. Lorna Salzman writes: “Whether there is an actual revival of religion as opposed to a backlash against growing secularism and the striking diminution of religious practice is debatable. But both require the same response, because the root of religion, old or new, lies in the absence of reason.”

by Lorna Salzman

From Dec. 13–19, a documentary entitled The Unbelievers (2013) will be showing at the Quad Cinema on W. 13th St. in Manhattan. This is a film featuring Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist, and Lawrence Krauss, a physicist, on the “new” atheism. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of hearing Dawkins in person, you should run, not walk, to see it.

Last weekend I attended a two day series of panels at New York University (NYU) on the theme of “Global Secularism(s)” (Try to overlook the postmodernist use of the plural). One main theme was what was called “post-secularism,” which was intended to refer to the purported revival of religious faith, reflecting perhaps a reaction to the vigorous growth of secularism, agnosticism and atheism, for which Dawkins must be thanked, along with Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens.

Whether there is an actual revival of religion as opposed to a backlash against growing secularism and the striking diminution of religious practice is debatable. But both require the same response, because the root of religion, old or new, lies in the absence of reason. Why at this point in time we are seeing so many facets of irrationality is an interesting topic, but it should not be relegated to academic discussions. It requires special attention on the part of secular society, not only because of its inferred suspicion and distrust of science but because it is being strengthened by radical Islam through both terrorist and “stealth” jihad, in a campaign to subvert the principles that underly secularism which got passed down to western civilization from the Enlightenment, and which give meaning to our own society and Constitution.

On a smaller scale we see the anti-evolution, the anti-vaccination and the conspiracy theory movements which have reverted to the human default position of irrationality by rejecting the information, evidence and proofs of modern science in favor of imaginary, fictional and supernatural forces. On the larger scale we see a reactive conspiracy: one headed by religious leaders of all faiths who have seen the secular handwriting on the wall and fear, quite rightly, for their influence and power, which continue to be on the wane in all western countries. At least one conference was convened in France a couple of years ago, resulting in a consensus of those present that secularism posed a greater threat to humanity than Islamist terrorism. And at the extreme right there are the jihadist offspring of Islamic fundamentalism, determined to blow modern nonMuslim society to smithereens body by body.

This is not surprising of course, because in a secular sandstorm like the one blowing around us all religious leaders quickly gather together behind the camels because they realize that all of their faiths are threatened. Personally I find this gratifying because it is a confirmation of the desertion of religion by millions of people. In the U.S., the most religious country in the west, 20% now profess to be non-practitioners if not outright nonbelievers, up from about 8% a decade ago. This is just about the only comforting trend today, and it is not about to reverse itself, notwithstanding the predictions about “post-secularism.”

One of the outstanding speakers at the NYU conference—in fact the only one to directly and loudly condemn Islamism—was Maryam Namazie, an Iranian leftist and founder of One Law For All in Great Britain. An activist rather than an academic, her presentation on the poison of shariah law and the oppression of Muslim women was powerful and unchallengeable. Two Muslim women on the same panel had to sit there and listen to her, after presenting their own remarks about how the hijab was “empowering” for women and why the resistance of Muslim women to the “authority” of the Canadian state to ban it in public was really resistance to “state authority.” (I challenged both of them on their statements in the question period).

It is easy to despair, but there is hope from many quarters: the annual Women in Secularism conference in Washington DC; Free Inquiry, published by the Council on Secular Humanism; One Law For All; the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason; the web sites and blogs of Dawkins and Sam Harris; Freedom from Religion Foundation; The Evolution Institute; The Lawfare Institute which defends free speech and fights against the efforts of Muslim leaders to impose Islam on our society; the Council of ExMuslims; the Discourse the important public discourse of exMuslims like Ibn Warraq, Tafiq Hamid, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Wafa Sultan, Nonie Darwish, and important French and Canadian intellectuals and activists (including Tim Murray and Madeline Weld). Not least is Dr. Zuhdi Jasser’s American-Islamic Forum on Democracy, dedicated to persuading American Muslims of the imperative of religion-state separation. Ten years ago most of these did not exist. Today, despite the Obama effort to ban the use of pejorative terms when discussion Islamist terrorism or shariah law, one now finds the words “Islamic terrorists” even in the New York Times. The Times they are a-changing.

Both of these trends—anti-clericalism/atheism and the public discussing of Islamism—are now fixed and new efforts are flowing into the current that constitutes the growing secularism of our time. Now we must hope that the morally misguided post-modern and Marxist influences that have taken over many of our universities will be counteracted and demolished.

You can view a promo clip of The Unbelievers here.

The author, a graduate of Cornell University, has been an environmental writer, lecturer and activist since the 1970s. Her articles on environment, energy, biodiversity and natural history have appeared in leading journals here and abroad, including The Ecologist, Index on Censorship, Resurgence, New Politics, and Business & Society Review. Her professional career began when David Brower, the leading conservationist of the 20th century in the USA, hired her as mid-Atlantic representative for Friends of the Earth, where she worked on wetlands, coastal zone and nuclear power issues for over a decade. In this period she was instrumental in the preservation of two key wildlife habitats (Swan Pond and Maple Swamp) in Suffolk County, NY.

Later she became an editor at the National Audubon Society's journal, 
American Birds, followed by directorship of the anti-food irradiation group, Food and Water. In the mid 1980s she co-founded the New York Greens, later the New York Green Party, on whose state committee she served for several years, and became active in the national green movement.

She worked for three years as a natural resource specialist in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection, focusing on wetlands and coastal zone protection. In 2002 she was the Suffolk County Green Party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1st CD on eastern Long Island, and in 2004 she was a candidate for the U.S. Green Party's presidential nomination. Her hobbies are mushroom hunting, classical music and birding around the world with her composer-husband Eric. They have twin daughters, one a pop composer and lyricist in NYC and the other a poet and writer based in England. They live in Brooklyn Heights, NY, and East Quogue, NY, and have lived for extended periods in Italy and France.

Copyright ©2013. Lorna Salzman. All Rights Reserved. It is published here with the author’s permission. More of her writing can be found at

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Veronica Monica & The Story Of Chanukah

Shalom Sesame with  Veronica Monica & The Story Of Chanukah. Tonight marks the first night of Chanukah, the eight-day “Festival of Lights” or  more accurately, “Feast of Dedication.” The story is well known and often told of how a small band of fighters, led by Judah Maccabee, were able to defeat a large army of the Seleucid Empire in the 2nd century BCE. This was a miracle in itself, it seems, but the greater miracle, the Talmud says, was that a small flask of oil for the temple rededication lasted eight days instead of only one.

Wikipedia says:
By 165 BCE the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was successful. The Temple was liberated and rededicated. The festival of Hanukkah was instituted to celebrate this event.[18] Judah ordered the Temple to be cleansed, a new altar to be built in place of the polluted one and new holy vessels to be made. According to the Talmud, unadulterated and undefiled pure olive oil with the seal of the kohen gadol (high priest) was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was required to burn throughout the night every night. The story goes that one flask was found with only enough oil to burn for one day, yet it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of kosher oil for the menorah. An eight-day festival was declared by the Jewish sages to commemorate this miracle.
There are many wonderful things about Chanukah, including how to spell the name of this holiday: in Hebrew (חנוכה), but in English there are many variants (i.e., Hanukah, Chanukah, Hanukkah and Chanukkah). Then there is the food associated with it, including latkes (i.e., potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (i.e., jelly-filled doughnuts), of which we’ll eat our fill for the next eight days. And we’ll give our two boys so much Chanukah gelt (i,e., chocolate coins), they’ll plotz. Thay will also play dreidel, a four-sided top that has on each side one Hebrew letter: נ (Nun), ג (Gimmel), ה (Hay) and ש (Shin),which translates to “Nes Gadol Haya Sham.” This phrase means, “A great miracle happened there [in Israel].” This reminds me of that most Jewish holidays can be summed up in nine words: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.”

Since the Jews follow a lunisolar calendar to calculate the holidays and festivals, the question invariably comes up (outside Israel) on when that holiday falls on the Gregorian calendar. This brings up another joke:
Q: When does Chanukah take place this year?
A: The same as every year, on the 25th of Kislev.
And, finally, another Jewish joke:
Last year, just before Hanukkah, Miriam, a grandmother was giving directions to her grown up grandson who was coming to visit with his wife. You come to the front door of the condominium complex. I am in apartment 2B.
Miriam continued, There is a big panel at the door. With your elbow push button 2B. I will buzz you in. Come inside, the elevator is on the right. Get in, and with your elbow hit 2. When you get out I am on the left. With your elbow, hit my doorbell.
Grandma, that sounds easy, replied Jonathan, the grandson, but why am I hitting all these buttons with my elbow.
To which she answered, You're coming to visit empty handed?
That’s it. I wish everyone a Happy Chanukah and all the best.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Western Yiddish In Orange County, New York State

On The Farm

Many professions have their arcane language, including those practicing science and law, as a shorthand way of communication. There are also particularities related to other professions that have taken hold because of the combination of immigration and adaptation of the native language to the mother tongue. This is often the case with a regional dialect, Yiddish being no exception. In this article Prof. George Jochnowitz looks at the profession of cattle dealers and the language in which they conducted business: “In 1948, there were perhaps 15 families in the cattle-dealer community. In 1997, there were no more than five German-Jewish cattle dealers in the Middletown area, only one of whom was in the business full time. The decline was caused by two factors: the increasing suburbanization of the United States in general and of Orange County in particular, and the tendency for Jews to leave the businesses of their parents and enter the arts and the professions. The language of the cattle-dealer households became predominantly English, replacing regional varieties of German or Western Yiddish.”

by George Jochnowitz

Middletown, New York, is a city of 20 or 30,000 people about 70 miles northwest of New York City. It is located in the center of Orange County, in an area of dairy farms and onion farms. In the 1930s, Orange County attracted a number of German Jewish cattle dealers fleeing Hitler, who had succeeded in reaching America. Dealing in cattle was a traditional occupation among Jews in central and southern Germany. Immigrants tend to move to cities. My own maternal grandfather was typical. Although he had been a cattle dealer in Poland, when he arrived in the United States in 1930 he moved to Brooklyn, where he owned and ran a kosher butcher store. Some of the German Jewish cattle dealers, on the other hand, did not follow the pattern of abandoning their profession and living in cities. They were able to rebuild their careers in Orange County, and they became an important part of the Middletown Jewish community, where most of them were active members in Temple Sinai, a Conservative congregation.

In 1948, there were perhaps 15 families in the cattle-dealer community. In 1997, there were no more than five German-Jewish cattle dealers in the Middletown area, only one of whom was in the business full time. The decline was caused by two factors: the increasing suburbanization of the United States in general and of Orange County in particular, and the tendency for Jews to leave the businesses of their parents and enter the arts and the professions. The language of the cattle-dealer households became predominantly English, replacing regional varieties of German or Western Yiddish. Nevertheless, I was able to elicit a number of lexical items, some specifically belonging to the world of cattle dealing, others that were survivals of Western Yiddish. I was able to interview two informants: L, who was born in Bavaria, near Bad Kissingen, in 1911, and arrived in America in 1937; and R, born in Ulrichstein, Hesse, in 1931, who arrived in America in 1934.

A third informant died suddenly before an interview could be arranged. Both informants stated that their cattle dealer language—to an extent, a secret language—was not Yiddish, which for them meant the Eastern Yiddish spoken by American Jews, a language more distinctly differentiated from German. Neither had any name for the speech of cattle dealers, although both recognized it as something that existed and was worthy of study. Florence Guggenhein-Grünberg (1954) describes a community of horse dealers in Switzerland somewhat similar to the one in Orange County. "Living in a kind of rural ghetto, the Surbtal Jews preserved this language nearly unchanged down to the 20th century" (48). Yet she says it was only with great difficulty that one could find people speaking it among themselves. In the America of 1997, in a community where it is common to drive to synagogue on the Sabbath, it may be impossible.

Guggenheim-Grünberg tells us that there is a distinction between loshn ekoudesh, the secret language of the cattle dealers, and yidishdaytsh, the ordinary vernacular (51). My own small sample of informants had no name at all for the language and offered no indication that they were dealing with two different, albeit overlapping, forms of speech. What they did have was an inventory of lexical items. R provided me with about 45 words; L with about 125. Many of the words were numbers. R volunteered dales '4', tes vof '16', yus alef '11', me:ye '100', and he me:ye '500' as soon as he knew I was going to interview him about his language. As for L, when I asked him how he pronounced the names of the letters of the alphabet, he produced this astonishing sequence: olf beys gimel dalet hey vov zoyen xes tes yut kaf lames mem nun samekh shive shmone tishe meye. 

Apparently the letters exist primarily as the names of numbers. After the letter samekh, equivalent to '60', we move directly into the Hebrew words for '70', '80', '90' and '100'. The alphabet—the names of the letters—-has gotten lost in the process. I am sure, however, that had I persisted in my questioning, L would have recited the complete alphabet. In addition to the names of the numbers, L volunteered the word rat 'three times the number of marks or dollars cited'. Thus, meye rat is $300 or marks; kaf rat is $60 or marks. Otherwise, shuk was used for 'mark'. It could also be used as a verb: es shukt, 'it costs'.

R and L differ on the pronunciation of the final consonant of two letters: R saysyus and dales; L says yut and dalet. Both agree on lames, however. L's use of lames is thus inconsistent with his pronunciations yut and dalet. When we leave the alphabet and consider the word yad, used to mean 'pointer for reading the Torah', not 'hand', L and R agree. Furthermore, the final consonant is at least partially voiced, suggesting that this lexical item has been influenced by the pronunciation of American Whole Hebrew. There is no t-d distinction in the German or the cattle dealer language of either L or R, although there is in their English. R's English sounds basically native. In Provencal, intervocalic d became z

In Judeo-Provencal, the letter daled was apparently pronounced z in medial position and z or s in final position (See Jochnowitz 1978, 66; Pansier 1927, Vol. 3, 181; Saboly 1824, 84-85). Forms such as asar for the month of Adar and talmus, apparently for 'Talmud', have been reported. Encyclopedia Judaica, however, in its list of pronunciations for letters of the Hebrew alphabet in the article "Hebrew Grammar," shows no z or s for daled, since it does not list the Jewish community of Provence (Vol. 8, pp. 85-86). When Jews were expelled from southern France in 1498 (the order was not completely carried out until 1501), could they have brought the pronunciations yus and lames with them to Germany?

The existence of a separate system of words for numbers reflects the fact that the cattle dealers are speaking a trade language. They wanted to have a private way of discussing price among themselves. Nevertheless, L reports that in Germany, the non-Jewish cattle dealers understood the language quite well. In fact, Guggenheim-Grünberg reports the existence of a book published in 1764 (von Reizenstein) that "offers the reader a large vocabulary and several dialogues on matters of horse trade, accompanied by German translations. The pronunciation of Yiddish in this book is that of the Jews of central Germany--a western Yiddish dialect, too, but different from Swiss Yiddish" (49).\

In addition to price, there needed to be words for the products. Although horses are not used as farm animals in Orange County, L reported sus for 'horse'. R, who grew up in the United States, knew only gaul and fert. Both, to be sure, reported bo:re (Heb. parah) for 'cow'. Both had a word for 'pregnant cow', pronounced padesh by R and badesh by L, who added that one could say "five months badesh". Guggenheim-Grünberg gives the etymology as Heb. pe-tet-resh, perhaps 'first-born' plus Ger. -isch (56).

'A good cow', according to R, is tof bo:re. There is no agreement for gender, and the adjective precedes the noun, as in German. A bad or a sick cow, according to L, is kholne. Both informants defined khoule as 'sick'. me:genen, according to L, meant 'cough' when used for a cow. An animal that had died, according to L, had gepeyert. R, on the other hand, defined beyern simply as 'die'. Similar verbs are found in standard Yiddish (peygern) and Judeo-Italian (pegare).

Other words had nothing to do with dealing in cattle at all, but had an emotional or comic connotation that could be expressed effectively. Jewish languages generally have words of Hebrew origin for 'fear'. R used eyme and mo:re; L just volunteered mo:re. Both offered dayes for 'worries'. L changed the vowel in moy do:ye, 'not my worry'. L used broukhes to mean both 'angry' and 'anger'. R said rökhes for 'anti-Semitism' and L and R said ro:she for 'anti-Semite'. L used rishes for 'anti-Semitism'.

Both informants agreed that a conceited person had geyes. L pointed out the homophony of dales meaning 'prayer shawl', poverty, and 'dollars' when said with a German accent. Thus, a man with dales had no dales, although he might wear a dales.

L used fi:vere meaning 'let's go'. Guggenheim-Grünberg cites fi:efrekhhoulekhe 'to flee', and notes its similarity to standard Yiddish makhn vayivrakh(59). R volunteered low lonu with the meaning of "we won't make this sale'. L produced low lonu shteyt in Hallel meaning 'there is nothing at all'. A friend of mine who grew up in Flensburg and whose family was so assimilated that he didn't know there was a Jewish New Year until he got married, told me he had heard law lone from other German Jews.

Some words of Romance origin have religious implications. layenen means 'read from the Torah' (leyenen is also possible, according to L). R produced o:rn meaning 'to pray', but L knew only awsgeort, 'finished praying'. Otherwise, L said davenen. The religious and comic meet in the saying L told me: "Anybody who doesn't oumer every night doesn't get cheesecake on Shavuos."

What does all this mean? Can we say there is a cattle-dealer language in Orange County if I was not able to interview more than two informants? Max Weinreich would have agreed that there is. Any form of any language used by Jews with any degree of consistency is a Jewish language. Speaking of Judeo-Greek, which he called "Yavanic," he referred to it as follows:
A fusion language, the stock of which was mostly Greek, but in which the "mistakes" vis-a-vis standard Greek are not individual, but characteristic of Jews. In other words, the deviations are systematized, and it is therefore necessary to speak of a separate language of the Jews, however similar to Greek. (1980: 62)
Certainly we can agree that any form of speech is worthy of description, of historical analysis, and of comparison with other varieties. However, can we agree that there is a language if no one uses it unless a visiting linguist comes by? Is it enough to say that if an occasional word, pronunciation or intonation survives, the language has survived? Then what are we to say when these words are borrowed by speakers of surrounding languages? A friend of mine from China had used the following expressions: "Every Monday and Thursday"; "Enough already"; "Hurry shoyn"; "Should we eat after the exhibition or will you khalish?" The last example was addressed to an Italian-American friend, who understood it. What language is he speaking? Can we say he has learned Judeo-English? Is there a Judeo-English? Can we say that when a language has spread outside of the Jewish community that originally used it, it is no longer entirely a Jewish language? Perhaps we need a term to describe a dialect that is nobody's primary language and whose boundaries cannot be defined.

Is cattle-dealer language a dialect of Western Yiddish? Max Weinreich is reputed to have defined a language as a dialect with an army and navy. His definition doesn't help when none of the varieties is spoken by people with firearms. Should Western Yiddish be considered Yiddish because of its historical and geographical connections with Eastern Yiddish, or should we take the word of its speakers? My two informants did not consider their language Yiddish, although they did consider it Jewish.

Is the language alive? According to Hutterer (1969) "In western and central Europe the WY dialects must have died out within a short time during the period of reforms following the Enlightenment" (4). Yet one of my informants, R, grew up in the United States. He described his first language, the language of his parents, as German, but now he is most at home in English. Neither informant, I must point out, expressed any trace of embarrassment or discomfort about using Jewish words or a Jewish way of speaking.

Judeo-Italian has been described as moribund or dead for the last century or so. Yet there is a theater group in Rome that not only performs plays in Giudaico-romanesco but writes new ones. Jana DeBenedetti (1997) has written a dissertation on this group and on the survival of the Jewish language of Rome. There are no simple answers. There is variation and fuzzy boundaries. Nancy Dorian (1981) has written, "It is not certain how widespread a phenomenon the semi-speaker is in language death settings. . . . But it is evident in a number of reports on dying language communities that a semi-speaker group does exist" (115).

Dorian takes it for granted that the Scottish Gaelic dialects she has studied are dying. Languages do indeed die. Judeo-Provencal died with its last speaker, Armand Lunel, in 1977. On the other hand, languages in general, and Jewish languages in particular, occasionally show that reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated.

DeBenedetti, Jana L. 1997. Dabbera in Scionaccodesce (Speak Giudaico-Romancesco): Keeping the Jewish-Roman Dialect Alive. Dissertation. State University of New York at Albany.

Dorian, Nancy C. 1981. Language Death: The Life Cycle of a Scottish Gaelic Dialect. Philadelphia:U. of Pennsylvania Press.

Guggenheim-Grünberg, Florence. 1954. "Horse Dealers' Language of the Swiss Jews in Endingen and Lengnau." The Field of Yiddish. Uriel Weinreich, ed. New York: Publications of the Linguistic Circle of New York (now the International Linguistic Association).

Hutterer, C.J. 1969. "Theoretical and Practical Problems of Western Yiddish Dialectology." The Field of Yiddish, Third Collection. Marvin I. Herzog, Wita Ravid, and Uriel Weinreich, eds. The Hague: Mouton.

Jochnowitz, George. 1978. "Shuadit: la langue juive de Provence." Archives juives 14, 63-67.

Saboly, N. 1824 (nouvelle edition). Noues Juzioou (Noels juifs). Avignon.

von Reizenstein, Wolf E. 1764. Der vollkommene Pferd-Kenner. Uffenheim, Germany.

Weinreich, Max. 1980. History of the Yiddish Language. Tr. of Geshikhte fun der Yidishe Shprakh (New York: YIVO Institute 1973). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

I have used the YIVO system of Romanization, with the addition of : to indicate length. I am grateful to Marvin I. Herzog and to Steven Lowenstein for their help and advice.

George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937. He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects. As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached

Copyright ©2013. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This article was originally published in  in Les Cahiers du CREDYO No. 5 (2010), published by the Centre de Recherche, d'Etudes et de Documentation du Yidich Occidental. This article can also be found on George Jochnowitz. It is published here with the permission of the author.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Human Spirit Remains Strong In The Philippines

An article, by Ker Than, in National Geographic shows that the human spirit is alive and well in the Philippines in a photo essay documenting the destruction and the beginning of the rebuilding phase of the island nation by NatGeo's photojournalist in Asia.

Than writes:
Photojournalist David Guttenfelder was on assignment in North Korea when he first learned about the catastrophic damage that Super Typhoon Haiyan had inflicted on the Philippines.
Guttenfelder, who is the chief Asia photographer for the Associated Press news agency and a frequent National Geographic contributor, read about it on Twitter while traveling in a car from the capital city of Pyongyang to the far northeast corner of the country, near the Russian border.
"There's 3G service in North Korea now, weirdly ... [and] I started to read about the scale of the destruction," Guttenfelder said. "I saw a picture someone had tweeted of the typhoon taken from space, which was really amazing."
But it wasn't until he saw another tweet, about the death toll from the typhoon, estimated to be in the thousands, that Guttenfelder knew he needed to see the devastation firsthand. "My job was to cover major events in Asia, so I knew I had to go," Guttenfelder said.
Shortly after, Guttenfelder was on a flight from Pyongyang to China, then to Japan, then to the capital city of the Philippines, Manila. From there, he hitched a ride with a military aid aircraft to Tacloban, the city hardest hit by the typhoon.
Nature has the capacity to quickly destroy what man has taken years to build; the people of the Philippines will now begin the long process of rebuilding what was destroyed; it will take billions of dollars. There were too many lives lost, too much damage to property, and yet the indomitable human spirit will prevail, with the help of other nations like Canada, the U.S., Australia and Israel, who always seem on the front lines of humanitarian aid. The silence from many wealthy nations is telling, but then again these nations are always silent on important universal human matters.

You can read the rest of the article and see the photos at [NatGeo].

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Kirov Ballet: Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake

The Kirov Ballet performs Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, where Yulia Makhalina dances the part of Odette/Odile and Igor Zelensky the part of Prince Siegfried. Viktor Fedotov conducts the Kirov Theatre Orchestrea at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg in this 1990 production. The choreography is by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, and the dancers perform to the familiar happy ending of Konstantin Sergeyev's 1950 version in this production by Oleg Vinogradov. This is among the best performances of Swan Like you will encounter.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky worked on the composition in 1875-76, completing it in April 1876. Vladimir Petrovich Begichev, the director of the Russian Imperial Theatres in Moscow, had commissioned the music, offering Tchaikovsky a modest fee of 800 rubles. It made its premiere, with the Bolshoi Ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Russia, on March 4, 1877, originally billed as The Lake of the Swans. A synopsis of the four-act ballet can be found here.

Swan Lake, a perennial favourite, is essentially a story of love and redemption. But it was not initially well-received. In "The History of Swan Lake," for, Aaron Greene writes:
Like The NutcrackerSwan Lake was unsuccessful after its first year of performance. Conductors, dancers and audiences alike thought Tchaikovsky's music was too complicated and hard to dance to. The production’s original choreography by German ballet master, Julius Reisinger, was uninspiring and unoriginal. Much is unknown about the original production of Swan Lake – no notes, techniques or instruction concerning the ballet was written down. Only little can be found in letters and memos. It wasn’t until after Tchaikovsky’s death that Swan Lake was revived. Much of the Swan Lake we know of today was a revision by the famous choreographers Petipa and Ivanov.
Tchaikovsky died on November 6, 1893, leaving many versions of the ballet. Within two years after his death, however, most ballet companies came to accept the version, both choreographically and musically of the 1895 revival of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. This was first performed for the Imperial Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on January 15, 1895. For this revival, Riccardo Drigo, chief conductor and composer of the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg, also revised Tchaikovsky's score. This continues today, notably with the choreography, with various companies making  modifications to the production, often in keeping with modern sensibilities and regional tastes.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Retrospective: John F. Kennedy Inaugural Address

John F. Kennedy‘s Inaugural Address as president of the United States took place on January 20th, 1961, which he gave immediately after taking the presidential oath of office from Chief Justice Earl Warren. (The second part of the speech can be viewed here.)

Here are some particulars of the speech, Wikipedia informs us:
Kennedy took the oath of office at at 12:51 (ET) Friday, 20 January 1961,[1][6] and gave the speech afterwards.[2]. The address is 1364 words and took 13 minutes and 42 seconds to deliver, from the first word to the last word, not including applause at the end, making it the fourth-shortest inaugural address ever delivered. The speech was also the first inaugural address delivered to a televised audience in color.[7] It is widely considered to be among the best presidential inauguration speeches in American history.[8]
With good reason; it was a hopeful speech from a young, charismatic president who understood the then-new medium of TV. No one knows what  President Kennedy would have accomplished had he not been assassinated 50 years ago, on Friday November 22, 1963, and completed his full term. I was only six when that tragic event took place, and yet understood from looking at the faces of my parents and other adults that this was indeed a horrible nation-altering event. That weekend. my parents and I were glued in front of our black-and-white TV watching preparations for the state funeral, which took place on Monday the 25th, which we also watched. Our household was saddened by the loss of a president and what he represented.

JFK might have been elected for another four years, and changed the course of history. We can only speculate, which is within the realm of political pundits and commentators. Those who liked him said he was great; and those who did not said he was horrible. This was expected then, and even more so today in an America that is highly polarized and cynical.

JFK's inaugural speech represents everything good and positive about America and its history and its people. That is why, as a Canadian who has always respected and appreciated the U.S., I look at it as a hopeful and great speech. Some will agree with me; others will not. Such is the beauty of democracy and what made America the great nation it became. Perhaps one day soon, I will recognize that America.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

An Early Morning Awakening

This morning, at around 3:30, I awoke with a feeling of nausea, something I haven't had since my chemo treatments. I attributed it to eating too much stuffed cabbages (i.e., holishkes). After walking to the bathroom, I smelt smoke in our apartment, although saw no fire. I awoke my wife, who awoke our two boys. We immediately called 911 for the fire department. We opened the door to the balcony to let in some fresh air, and then went downstairs to the lobby of our building, bundling our sleepy five-year-old in a blanket.

The firefighters were already in the building, arriving within minutes of our call; the police also came a few minutes later. In all, about two dozen firefighters walked up and down our building trying to locate the source of the smoky smell, which they attributed to either a "burning pot on the stove or some paper."

After about 45 minutes of searching, they had no luck in finding the source. We returned to our apartment at about 4:30 am, and there remains a faint smoke smell: I would have been happier if they had found the source. The youngest and my wife went back to sleep; the oldest couldn't and is now watching TV. And I writing.

We thank the Toronto firefighters for their professionalism. I am still a little shaken, recalling memories of a fire that destroyed our residence when I was 12. But we are all well, although tired.

The Oldest Big Cat Fossils Found

The Fossil Record

Big Cat: The Panthera blytheae resembles a modern snow leopard shown here.
Credit: Mauricio Anton 
Source: Nature

An article, by Sid Perkins, in Nature News says that big cats that are in some ways similar to today's snow leopards have been moving around the Himalayas in Asia for six million years; so shows  the fossil evidence.

Perkins writes:
The remains of Panthera blytheae extend the known lineage of pantherine cats by at least 2 million years and bolster the notion that this group of carnivores originated in Asia. 
Researchers unearthed bones representing at least three individuals in southwestern Tibet. The most complete remnants include a partial adult skull with several teeth still embedded in the upper jaw, says Jack Tseng, a vertebrate palaeontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Those fragments were excavated from rocks about 4.42 million years old, but other fossils belonging to the same species came from nearby strata that were laid down about 5.95 million years ago, he and his colleagues report today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B1.
“These are beautiful fossils of great significance,” says Zhe-Xi Luo, a vertebrate palaeontologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois who was not involved in the study. “They add an evolutionary root to the pantherine family tree.”
Many features of the P. blytheae’s teeth are similar to those of the snow leopard, but some ridges and cusps are distinct, indicating that the fossils represent a new species. Judging from the size of the partial skull, the big cat was about the same size as the clouded leopard and about 10% smaller than the snow leopard, both of which live in the Himalayas today. A comparison of dozens of anatomical features for 12 living and extinct species of felines indicates that the snow leopard is P. blytheae’s “sister species”, says Tseng. Today’s tiger is also a very close relative, he adds.
This is interesting for two reasons, say the paleontologists: the first is that their original expectation was that the P. blytheae would show less development, or evolution, than current species of big cats like the snow leopard; and the second is that the fossil record is incomplete, missing intermediate forms, which go back to the progenitor. We’d need quite a lot of intermediate fossils to know how the lineage developed.” says Lars Werdelin, a vertebrate palaeontologist at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. 

These pieces form the larger puzzle of how a species developed over a period of millions of years. Without them, scientists have to rely on educated guesses and the current fossil record on how a species came about. So far, the results have been astonishingly good and accurate, if not fascinating.

For the rest of the article, go to [Nature].

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Disaster Is On The Way

Science & Predictions

An article, by Nathaniel Rich, in The New Yorker says that advances in science have made it easier to predict disasters, such as the recent typhoon in the Philippines. Predictions, however accurate, are not the same as preparation, which are necessary to avoid the greatest possible damage to humans, animals and property.

Rich writes:
Nevertheless, our knowledge of how disasters occur, and how they will occur in the future, has never been more sophisticated. We are now able to prophesy impending cataclysms with a specificity that would have been inconceivable just several years ago. Several factors have contributed to this progress: a growing public anxiety about disasters; advances in disciplines as disparate as computer science, fluid mechanics, and neuroscience; and an infusion of funding from governments, universities, and especially corporations, which have figured out that disaster planning saves money in the long run. But the field remains in its infancy. Disaster prediction—like disaster science, disaster economics, disaster-response technology, disaster art, disaster cinema, disaster lit—is a growth industry. All indications suggest a growth curve that will continue to steepen well into the next century. Disaster is big business, and its prophets will profit.

Milestones in the past year include the March publication, by a team of U.C.L.A. scientists, of a new computer model that predicts where the next global pandemic will originate. The model gives the most favorable odds to Egypt’s Nile Delta and several areas in coastal and central China. One of these places is the most likely site for a particularly virulent strain of bird flu to jump species to human beings, creating a globetrotting virus that would kill more than six million Americans, according to a 2009 Department of Defense report that was declassified in September. In June, at a conference in Brisbane, an emergency-management specialist explained that Geographic Information Systems technology—which collects exhaustive data on land elevation, the condition of roads and buildings, water levels, population density, and meteorology—will help governments prepare for a flood years before it occurs. The technology will be used to determine when a flood is likely to happen, whether your house will be submerged, and whether you will survive if you don’t evacuate.
Such sophisticated modeling, using data and mathematical algorithms, seems useful in giving out warnings to residents of an upcoming weather event, like a hurricane, a flood or a typhoon. Human nature, being what it is, however, often ignores such warnings; all it would take is one error in the model, one wrong prediction, and all future predictions will be ignored by many people. The larger problem is that many people now reside in areas that such predictive models say will eventually be the target of some natural disaster. Such is human nature, which differs from the forces of nature in so many ways.

You can read the rest of the article at [New Yorker].