Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Stuff of Nightmares

Time for a confession about an obsession. I am terrified of giant squid and have been since seeing the Disney film “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” when I was seven.

I suffered terrifying nightmares for weeks after seeing Kirk Douglas and James Mason battle the sea monster on the screen of my neighborhood theater. I could not sleep with the lights off because I was certain the horrid creature with its grotesque, beaked mouth was right outside the my bedroom windows, tentacles waving. 

The truth is, I have refused for fifty years to eat squid in any form. I cannot eat the stuff of my nightmares and, with this gesture, am paying homage to the terror suffered by that young boy in Michigan, living 600 miles from the nearest deep-sea creature.

(Photo at top is from the Disney movie, with a squid crushing one of Capt. Nemo's submarines. Scene at right shows James Mason as Nemo as the monster tries to destroy the Nautilus.)

This morning I read where marine scientists in New Zealand are thawing the corpse of the largest squid ever caught. They want to examine its anatomy, remove its stomach and beak and do DNA analysis. This particular monster weighs almost 1,100 pounds and is 26 feet long, although the species is known to reach nearly double that length. Technically, this one is a colossal squid, a breed even larger than the giant squid. Each of its two eyes is eleven inches across, making it the largest animal eye in the world.

The colossal squid’s usual habitat is more than a mile beneath of ocean’s surface, but fishermen netted this one in 2007 off the coast of Antarctica while it was dining on hooked toothfish. One scientist commented that if calamari rings were made from this squid’s suckers, each ring would be the size of a tractor tire.

To which I say, Let the nightmares begin!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Panther & the Villagers ~ Aesop Fable #76

A panther foolishly happened to fall into a pit. The villagers saw her there and some of them attacked her with sticks and pelted her with stones. There were others who felt sorry for the creature since she seemed sure to die even though she had not done any harm, so they brought her bread to keep up her strength. Night fell and everyone went home, knowing they would find the panther dead when the next day dawned. However, as soon as she regained her strength, the panther escaped with a mighty leap and hurried home to her den. A few days later she descended upon the village, slaughtering the sheep and even killing the shepherds as she laid waste to everything around her. Even the people who had shown mercy to the beast began to fear what lay in store for them and they begged the panther to spare their lives. The panther said, “I am well aware of who pelted me with stones and who gave me bread, so put aside your fears. I have returned as an enemy only to those who wanted to hurt me.”

A More Acceptable Hypothesis

A few years ago I spent some time climbing through the ruins of a pueblo constructed by a branch of the Anasazi, a tribe at the heart of one of North America’s most persistent archaeological mysteries. I defy anyone to study the architecture of these dwellings perched high on canyon walls, to stand silently as the hot afternoon sun passes over the cool adobe and to not admire the ancient people who dwelt there.

The mystery concerns why the Anasazi left their Colorado pueblos 700 years ago and traveled into Arizona and New Mexico and set up home in far less hospitable surroundings. There has been speculation that this creative and peaceful people were nearly destroyed in their original habitat by drought that decimated their food supplies and made them warlike, to the extent that they turned to cannibalism and fled their homeland in a mad stampede.

That's why I was relieved recently to read an account of the latest archeological theories. Researchers now are describing a far more orderly Anasazi migration that may have been motivated, at least in part, by a new religion. Early Anasazi religion had involved multi-story “great houses” for worship – round, subterranean structures with study roofs – frequently only by priests and a select few others.

By the mid-13th Century, however, the places of worship were uncovered and resembled amphitheaters. Serving bowls became larger and seem to have been designed for ritual communion. Some researchers contemplate that the tribe experienced its equivalent of the Protestant reformation, that the journey southward was something like the Mormon journey west, and that evidence of this newer, more evangelical religion resulted in the Kachina rituals that survive today on Hopi and Zuni reservations.

I admit, the idea of a new, more open religion appeals to me much more than warfare and cannibalism as we come closer to solving the mystery of the Anasazi.

(Photo “Anasazi Sunbeam” by Ian Parker, 2005)

Holy Bible ~ Proverbs 12: 17-22

He who speaks truth declares righteousness,
But a false witness, deceit.
There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword,
But the tongue of the wise promotes health.
The truthful lip shall be established forever,
But a lying tongue is but for a moment.
Deceit is in the heart of those who devise evil,
But counselors of peace have joy.
No grave trouble will overtake the righteous,
But the wicked shall be filled with evil.
Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord,
But those who deal truthfully are His delight.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Another musical interlude ~ Alessandra Celletti

I submit this one-minute video for your viewing pleasure.

It was filmed at a nighttime outdoor concert performed by Italian composer/pianist Alessandra Cellitti and is superb in its union of music and atmosphere. The evocative strains of Erik Satie's Gnossiences #4  ... her hair in the wind ... the peculiar shifts in lighting reminiscent of thunderstorms in the distance. Absolutely haunting.

I became acquainted with Alessandra Celletti some time ago via my MySpace page and learned we share some musical preferences. Today she's regarded as one of Europe's foremost interpreters of Satie's music and of the music the mystic G.I. Gurdjieff co-wrote with Thomas DeHartmann. She recently released two more CDs of her own compositions: The Golden Fly and Way Out. Several of her CDs recently became available on and iTunes. I wish her continued success. (To view her MySpace page, click here.)


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Knowing Too Little

As time goes on, the widespread use of antidepressants may come under more scrutiny, which I would personally welcome. I have too many friends taking them. Some days it feels like the people on “serotonin reuptake inhibitors” significantly outnumber those of us who chose to suffer our demons.

Antidepressants are now, in fact, the most widely prescribed drugs in the world.

I am not “against” antidepressants. There are people who desperately need them, both for their own well-being and the well-being of those around them. But I know of too many cases of pharmaceutical shopping – “if you won’t prescribe it, I’ll go to somebody who will” – in hopes of scoring this latest wonder drug. (Unless painkillers have now taken over the top slot on the drug shopping list.)

In a column in today’s New York Times, Dr. Richard Friedman, professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, brought out two points about antidepressants that further unnerved me.

First, the fact that antidepressants – because they emerged during the 1980s – have not been subjected to long-term testing and nobody knows the effects of people using antidepressants for major portions of their lives. The longest maintenance study so far of one of these drugs, in this case Effexor, lasted two years “and showed the drug to be superior to a placebo in preventing relapses of depression.”

It’s true that Congress has reauthorized the Prescription Drug User Fee Act expanding the FDA’s drug surveillance. But that points to the second fact Dr. Friedman mentioned that’s scariest of all: The suppression of negative clinical information about antidepressants.

A study in January’s New England Journal of Medicine pointed out that of 74 clinical trials of a dozen antidepressants, 97 percent of the studies with positive findings got published. Only 12 percent of the studies with negative findings have ever been published.

Put simply, bad news about antidepressants seldom sees the light of day.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Dancing Monkeys ~ Aesop Fable #352

It is said that the king of Egypt once taught some monkeys how dance the Pyrrhic dance. Since monkeys are creatures that readily imitate human behavior, they quickly learned their lessons and did the dance, dressed in purple robes and little masks. For a while everyone was impressed by the sight, until a more discerning member of the audience threw some nuts he had in his pocket into the midst of the dancers. When the moneys saw the nuts they forgot all about their performance. Instead of dancing, they started acting like monkeys again. They crushed their masks and ripped their robes, fighting each other for the nutmeats. The whole pattern of the dance was thrown into confusion, much to the audience’s amusement.

"The Silent World" is Far from Silent

Jacques Costeau was wrong about one thing. The oceans aren’t “The Silent World,” as he entitled his world-famous 1956 documentary. In fact, some 1,200 species of fish produce sounds – some uncomfortably audible to the human ear.

(The New York Times explored the topic of fish communications a few days ago, including a fascinating demonstration of the sounds produced by various sea creatures. This post summarizes the main points of the full Times article.)

A couple of years ago, residents along the peaceful Gulf Coast canals and estuaries of Cape Coral, Florida, were baffled by a mysterious racket penetrating their homes. That is, until a marine scientist named James Locascio told them they were hearing the mating call of a fish called the black drum.

“The most vocal and persistent complainers said there was no way a fish could produce a sound that could be heard inside a house,” he told the New York Times. “Black drum have taken a liking to the canal system in Cape Coral, and their nightly booming is like a water-drip torture that lasts for months.”

According to the Times, the same thing happened a few years ago in Sausalito, California, caused by the toadfish (at left). The local newspaper editorialized: “We don’t believe for an instant that the drone keeping Sausalito houseboaters awake at night is caused by a bunch of romantic toadfish humming their version of the Indian Love Song.” But it was.

The Times also quotes retired high school science teacher Greg Coppa, who heard noisy fish in Rhode Island. “Some people even asked what I drank before hearing the sounds or gave me that look reserved for a good, but pathetically impaired, friend.” Coppa believed he was hearing a huge fish, but it turned out to be the striped cusk eel – a tiny creature with the voice like a jackhammer.

Perhaps strangest of all, researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego recorded fish “chorusing” along 70 miles of the California coast, much like a “wave” at a stadium where fans stand and cheer like a wave moving along the bleachers. The aquatic chorus was transferred from fish to fish nearly five times as fast as sound travels in air.

Most fish create sounds by vibrating a gas-filled bladder thousands of times a minute – up to three times as fast as a hummingbird’s wings - while others bang bones against the bladder or just plink different bones together like the teeth of a comb. Other species have kept their audio mechanism a secret despite countless meticulous dissections.

“They have a fairly sophisticated mechanism of sound communications, with different meanings depending on the social context of the sounds,” says Andrew Bass, a professor of neurobiology at Cornell. “Sound communications probably first evolved among fishes.”

I Ching #62 ~ Preponderance of the Small

Preponderance of the small. Success.
Perseverance furthers.
Small things may be done; great things should not be done.
The flying bird brings the message:
It is not well to strive upward,
It is well to remain below.
Great good fortune.

Exceptional modesty and conscientiousness are sure to be rewarded with success; however, if a man is not to throw himself away, it is important that they would not become empty form and subservience, but be combined always with a correct dignity in personal behavior. We must understand the demands of the time in order to find the necessary offset for its deficiencies and damages. In any event, we must not count of great success, since the requisite strength is lacking. In this lies the importance of the message that one should not strive after lofty things but hold to low things.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Early Just Keeps Getting Earlier

In the world of archaeology, early is going backward by millennial leaps. In the past week we learned of two notable discoveries that place events at least a thousand years earlier than had been previously thought.

In a dramatic find, an Oregon archaeologist discovered an area of a coastal cave that prehistoric people had used as … well, an outhouse. The fossilized feces contained 14,000-year-old human protein and DNA. The discovery means humans were in North America at least a thousand years before the so-called Clovis people. Scientists have dated the Clovis culture – named for the town in New Mexico where artifacts have been unearthed – at around 13,000 years ago.

Sites in Florida and Wisconsin also have prompted speculation that humans were in North America at periods earlier than Clovis. “Other pre-Clovis sites have been claimed, but no human DNA has been obtained, mostly because no human organic matter had been recovered,” says Dr. Eske Willerslev, who performed the DNA analysis on the Oregon discovery at the University of Copenhagen.

Scientists still assume these early humans were Asians who crossed the Bering land bridge and migrated southward along the Pacific coast and then spread inland.

In a second archaeological announcement this week, we learned that a 4,000-year-old gold necklace was unearthed in a Peruvian burial pit. The nine cylindrical beads are the oldest example of worked gold found in the Americas.

The beads, resting at the base of a skull in a grave, are provoking a rethinking of human society. Archeologists and historians have traditionally considered gold ornaments to signify a well-developed society capable of producing items of high status. This new finding, however, indicates that gold ornamentation existed in a society in the early stages of transitioning from hunter-gatherer to a more agrarian community, at least in the southern portion of the Americas.

Mindful Walking

[Today’s post is again from The Daily OM, a site rich in insights. Check out its archives and articles sections for spiritually meaningful pieces on many topics.]
Many of us take the benefits of walking for granted. Each day we limit the steps we take by driving or sitting for long periods of time. But walking even a few blocks a day has unlimited benefits, not only for our health but for our spirit. As we walk, we connect with the earth. 

Even when walking on concrete the earth is still beneath us, supporting us. Walking lets our body remember simpler times when life was less complicated. This helps us slow down to the speed of our body and take the time to integrate the natural flow of life into our cellular tissue. Instead of running from place to place or thinking about how much more we can fit into our day, walking allows us to exist in the moment.

Each step we take can lead us to becoming more mindful of ourselves and our feelings. Walking slows us down enough not only to pay attention to where we are in our body but also to our breath. Taking time to simply notice our breath while we walk, through the length of our inhales and exhales, and becoming attuned to the way in which we breathe is taking a step toward mindfulness. When we become more mindful, we gradually increase our awareness of the environment around us and start to recognize that the normal flow of our thoughts and feelings are not always related to where we are in the present moment. Gradually we realize that the connection we have with the earth and the ground beneath our feet is all that is. By walking and practicing breathing mindfully, we gain a sense of calm and tranquility. The problems and troubles of the day slowly fade away because we are in the "now."

The simplicity and ease of a walking practice allows us to create time, space, and an awareness of our surroundings and of the wonders that lie within. Taking a few moments to walk each day and become more aware of our breath will open the door for the beauty of the world around us to come in.

From the Tao Te Ching

When a superior man hears of the Tao,
he immediately begins to embody it.
When an average man hears of the Tao,
he half believes it, half doubts it.
When a foolish man hears of the Tao,
he laughs out loud.
If he didn't laugh,
it wouldn't be the Tao.

Thus it is said:
The path into the light seems dark,
the path forward seems to go back,
the direct path seems long,
true power seems weak,
true purity seems tarnished,
true steadfastness seems changeable,
true clarity seems obscure,
the greatest art seems unsophisticated,
the greatest love seems indifferent,
the greatest wisdom seems childish.

The Tao is nowhere to be found.
Yet it nourishes and completes all things.

Monday, April 7, 2008

I Ching #24 ~ Return (The Turning Point)

Return. Success.
Going out and coming in without error.
Friends come without blame.
To and fro goes the way.
On the seventh day comes return.
It furthers one to have somewhere to go.

“After a time of decay comes the turning point. The powerful light that has been banished returns. There is movement, but it is not brought about by force. The movement is natural, arising spontaneously. For this reason the transformation of the old becomes easy. The old is discarded and the new is introduced. Both measures accord with the time; therefore no harm results. Societies of people sharing the same views are formed. But since these groups come together in full public knowledge and are in harmony with the time, all selfish separatist tendencies are excluded and no mistake is made.”

Friday, April 4, 2008

Double Whammy

Pity the wooly mammoth. Scientists have had raging arguments for decades whether this majestic creature was driven to extinction by an earlier wave of global warming, or whether humans slaughtered the beast into oblivion a’la the American bison.

Turns out it was both.

A team of Spanish researchers have analyzed periodic climate changes going back 126,000 years and determined that global warming steadily diminished the near-Arctic climate in which the wooly mammoth thrived. By about 4000 BC, the wooly mammoth population was decimated by the warmth and the survivors had retreated to the colder regions of the Siberian tundra.

And that’s when human hunters moved in. Researchers estimated that each of the region’s hunters needed to kill one wooly mammoth every three years to make the species extinct.

“Our analysis suggests that the humans applied the coup de grace and that the size of the suitable climatic area available in the in the mid-Holocene was too small to host populations able to withstand increased human hunting pressure,” the researchers stated in the journal PLoS Biology.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Neuromarketing ~ Your Brain on Ads

It was inevitable that the dramatic advances in neuroscience would be employed to sell things. It’s the type of thinking that makes free enterprise tick. So it should come as no surprise that the Nielson Company recently bought a stake in NeuroFocus, a Berkeley, California, company specializing in brainwave research.

Plus, there's even a hip new term to describe what’s happening: Neuromarketing.

Neuromarketing involves exposing people to advertisements and measuring their brain activity, eye movements, pulse rates and other physiological indicators to determine what messages and images are – forgive the expression – striking a nerve.

“We measure attention, second by second – how emotionally engaged you are with what you’re watching, whether it’s a commercial, a movie or a TV show,” A.K. Predeep, NeuroFocus’s CEO told the New York Times this week.

Neuromarketing, as it comes into its own, will rely on sophisticated brain-measuring techniques to determine what advertising content strikes deeply into the target areas of the brain so that future advertising can avoid hit-or-miss creative approaches. Research has shown that viewers become engaged with a typical television ad in from five to seven seconds, but other ads can snag you in as little as 1.5 seconds – and those are the ads neuromarketing wants to identify and replicate.

Of course the proponents of neuromarketing see nothing wrong with this. “We’re not trying to predict an individual’s thoughts and actions and we’re not trying to input messages,” says Robert E. Knight, director of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, and who coincidentally also serves as chief science advisor at NeuroFocus.

“The role of neuromarketing is to understand how people feel and react,” echoes Elissa Moses, chief analytics officer at EmSense of Westport, Conn., which does ad testing for clients such as Coca-Cola. “It in no way sets out to meddle with normal, natural response mechanisms.”

No, of course not. That would be a no-brainer.