Archive | October, 2011

Wandering into Alzheimer’s: Could Your Thoughts Reduce Your Risk?

12 Oct

In theory, we know that the choices we make every day affect the fate of our bodies and brains. But the research keeps revealing unexpected, sometimes disconcerting, evidence to explain just how true this is. Recent studies are making major strides to uncover all the variables that put our brains at risk for Alzheimer’s disease. And it might have as much to do with our thoughts and behavior patterns as with our genes.

Alzheimer’s risk seems to have something to do with activity in the brain’s default mode network, a collection of brain regions that seems to be “on” when we’re not thinking of anything terribly profound (hence the term “default”). It seems to be be responsible for mind-wandering or “undirected mentation,” according to a new study, and to self-referential thoughts. These “me” thoughts aren’t necessarily positive, since they’re usually about personal stressors and worries. In fact, when queried randomly, people whose minds are wandering say they’re less happy while it wanders. (For a discussion of how the default mode network, or DMN, relates to chronic unhappiness, see last month’s post.)

But when we’re using our brains for serious business (solving problems, crunching numbers), the cells of the default mode quiet down, and the active, goal-directed areas of the brain take over. In this way, the default network is said to be “anti-correlated” with the problem-solving networks.

So how does this relate to dementia?

Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by plaque build-up in the brain, and it’s known that these amyloid plaques tend to accumulate in the DMN. But why and how they build up in this region has not been well understood.

But a recent study at Washington University has made some exciting discoveries about why plaques may build up in the default networks of Alzheimer’s patients. Using mice as subjects, the team found that the more lactate was present in certain areas (lactate is a product of neuronal activity), the more amyloid-beta peptide was also present. Amyloid-beta is a precursor of full-blown plaques and, ultimately, dementia.

In fact, the researchers also directly showed that when the mice’s whiskers were stimulated and certain neurons were more active as a result, more amyloid-beta was also present (the reverse was true too). These findings strongly link increasing neural activity to the buildup of amyloid-beta. The idea that more brain cell activity could lead to more amyloid-beta build up is an exciting, if sobering, finding.

David Holtzman, senior author of the study, says that the findings could mean that “people whose default mode networks have an average increase in activity relative to others may be at increased risk to get Alzheimer’s disease later in life and the converse may also be true (less activity in this network, less risk).” In other words, it’s possible that people vary naturally in the activity of their default networks. Now, of course, it’s just a matter of figuring out why some of us have more or less activity in these areas.

What specific variables could be responsible? Holtzman says that “some of the things that may be able to modify the amount of time the default mode is on are sleep and depression. So people with poor sleep or long periods of depression may be at increased risk for Alzheimer’s. This is not proved but is being actively studied.”

In fact, recent work has found that depressed people have significant changes in the ways their DMNs respond to certain stimuli. Certain parts of the DMN in depressed people fail to quiet down as normal people’s would when they are concentrating on specific images. The same study found that other areas in the DMN are turned on more than in controls. Intuitively, the idea that depression could change activity in the DMN makes sense, since depression is linked to problems with concentration and attention, as well as with the tendency for rumination.

Another possibility, as Holtzman suggests, is that sleep – or lack of sleep – affects DMN activity. In the current study, his team found that there was more amyloid-beta accumulation during the night hours, when mice are typically awake, compared to daytime hours. Alzheimer’s is well known to be linked to sleep problems. This connection, theoretically, could work both ways, such that the disease disturbs one’s sleep pattern, and lack of sleep in turn leads to more amyloid-beta buildup.

The authors also suggest that education could play a role, although this relationship is less clear-cut. In fact, earlier research has shown that more educated people appear to be at less risk for Alzheimer’s. Holtzman and his colleagues write that since “default network activity is suppressed during cognitively demanding tasks, one possibility is that education reduces Alzheimer’s disease risk by reducing neuronal activity and [amyloid-beta] generation within the default network.”

On the other hand, it’s hard to tease apart whether more education is actually reducing one’s risk or whether it’s just harder to see symptoms in more intellectual people. Holtzman points out that “it is possible that people who are more cognitively active might be able to delay the onset of dementia but this is still controversial. It may be that it is simply harder to detect dementia in the early stages the greater the intellectually ability.”

Still, Holtzman says that “it is certainly possible there are environmental ways to decrease DMN activity such as meditation or by training, but this needs to be further studied to be proved.” In fact, meditation has recently been shown to decrease activity in the DMN, and it’s conceivable that other methods of changing thought patterns so that the mind is wandering less and focusing more could also help reduce risk over the long term. It seems like almost any activitythat forces the problem-solving areas of the brain to engage and DMN to quiet down (diving into work you love, or maybe even attempting a Sudoku) might be able to help keep the brain healthy for longer.

While much is still theoretical, the new evidence  is certainly beginning to change the way we think about brain diseases. And while researchers continue to explore how we can reduce amyloid-beta levels in the brain (whether by changing behaviors, thought processes, or by pharmacological methods), the best advice is probably to stay as cognitively active as you can, get some rest, and perhaps most importantly, be as happy as you can be.


Sunshine Break In Iraq, Anyone?

12 Oct

Sunshine Vacation In Iraq, Anyone? Or Trekking the ‘Swiss’ Mountains of Pakistan?

In November, the global travel industry convenes at World Travel Market in London, the leading world powwow for the travel industry and a chance for Valencia Region to speed-network with Miami CVB; This Is New York City to suss out the competition from Roma and Regione Lazio; and several hundred black turtleneck-clad travel industry sophisticates to strut about smoking Gitanes on the featureless concrete forecourt of ExCel London.

With all eyes on burgeoning outbound markets – notably China and India – the past few years have seen an upsurge in economically pressed, hard-sell destinations joining the exhibitors’ roster at WTM and similar industry events.

The big surprise of WTM 2010 was the arrival of a delegation of senior officials from Iraq, the country’s first delegation in ten years, with the stated aim of “positioning Iraq on the world tourism map again”.

You’d imagine they’d have their work cut out. But by some measures the prognosis is good. A WTM report with Euromonitor International cited the fact that, by 2014, 700 hotels will be online in Iraq; that key International travel agencies including Sharaf Travel (UAE) and Terre Entière (France) having returned to the country in 2011 (after departing in 2003, the year of the United State Invasion); and that Middle Eastern luxury brand Safir Hotels and Resorts have opened a 340-room property in Karbala.

Amongst the more unusual tourist destinations hoping to make a splash at WTM 2011 are Sarhad Tourtism Corporation, a public sector tourism organisation in the North Western Frontier Province of Pakistan (the tribal belt suspected by Global Intelligence Agencies to be the hotbed of Al-Qaeda). Last year Pakistan International Airlines made its first appearance at the World Tourism Trade Fair in Madrid, with airline rep Saleem Ullah Shahani saying at the time: “Before 2009 we used to take many tourists to Pakistan to go to the mountains, which are more beautiful than in Switzerland. Now there are still tourists but very few…. We wanted to show that Pakistan still exists for tourism, even if the situation is complicated right now.”

Uzbekistan: The U’s for UNESCO

Another unlikely destination making a bid to become a tourist magnet is are Uzbekistan. The country of 28 million boldly sets its sights on a tourist footfall of 28 million per annum, with the lure of the ancient Silk Road and four UNESCO-accredited cities and extreme sport heli-skiing, whereby participants are dropped onto the virgin snow of the Uzb mountains (also, predictably, likened to Switzerland) before skiing their way down.

Taj Dalview Srinagar

Jammu and Kashmir State are another prominent exhibitor for 2011. After a long slumber, what to 19th century travellers was ‘heaven-on-earth’ – a state draped across the peaks of Himalayan ranges – is exhibiting the tender shoots of five-star development, notably in the Taj group’s new-build Dalview Vivanta hotel, 20k from the shining new airport in Srinagar city. Set on a hill overlooking the Srinagar, Vivanta offers amusements that would raise a smile from a Victorian Britain’s moustaches: restored Mughal tulip gardens scenic lake rides, mountain trekking and trout fishing. In yes, a setting ‘that owes much to the Swiss Alps’.

Not on the WTM roster, but another offbeat one-to-watch is Hainan. Dubbed the ‘Chinese Las Vegas’, Hainan has been attracting inward investment from major international tourism brands, including Caesar’s Entertainment, who this month announced the construction and 2014 launch of their first non-casino luxury resort on the sun and sand-blessed island (also notable for its tax-free status). They’ll be preceded by competitor MGM resorts, who unveil their Yalong Bay Hotel in the forth quarter of 2011.


New Book: Nostalgia In Vogue

12 Oct

Anna Wintour
 writes in the forward of the new book “Nostalgia In Vogue” that “I had read too many stories about magazines’ losing image troves, whether because they were poorly maintained, thrown out by accident, or deemed unimportant to posterity. But you need only visit any designer’s studio and see the vintage portraits and fashion photographs pinned to the wall to understand that these pictures carry weight; that they are points of reference and inspiration, not simply commercial images made to sell dresses.”

Edited by Vogue Features Director Eve MacSweeny, the book is made up of a collection essays by authors including Joan Didion, Margaret Atwood, Patti Smith, Karl Lagerfeld, Carly Simon, George Plimpton, Manolo Blahnik, Anjelica Huston and Joyce Carol Oates paired with iconic images that appeared in Vogue. These pages are  mined from the decade old Vogue column “Nostalgia,” in which writers choose archival images that inspired them.

The sixty-three essays are based on the work of  Vogue photographers including Helmut Newton, Henry Clarke, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Horst P. Horst, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

In one Helmut Newton photograph, two models pump gas at a QueensSafeway station into what appears to be a late ’60s model Cadillac. Irving Penn captures a dashing Leonard Bernstein wearing a tuxedo, posed on a group of carpeted boxes, dated 1948. In a more obscure image by Penn of Tai Chi master Da Liu instructing 80 year old Bertie Donnelly and New York City Ballet dancer Suki Schorer, author Joan Didion recalls coming of age as an assistant editor at Vogue. Schorer wore Didion’s blue shift for the shoot —  she had studied with the dancer’s father at Berkeley. The impression of a ballerina chasing her dreams moved the author, who soon after sent off the first pages of a novel. “Memory fades, and the full cast list has vanished, but there was more going on than meets the eye in that studio facing Bryant Park,” writes Didion.

Each page offers whimsical recollections by interesting people. Behind these images are fascinating stories, meaningful reflections, and a rare candor that are evocative of times gone by. This book is a gentle reminder of why we save our stacks of magazines.

Mitt Romney Commits to Repealing Obamacare via Reconciliation

12 Oct

One thing Mitt Romney has focused on this year is consistency. He says the same thing, using the same phrasings and formulations, at nearly every venue. At last night’s Bloomberg / Washington Post GOP presidential debate, however, Romney said something he hadn’t said before: that he would use the reconciliation process to repeal Obamacare.

Last week I asked the question: is Mitt Romney committed to repealing Obamacare? Jeff Anderson had notedin a National Review article that Romney’s “Believe in America” policy manifesto contained five bills for Day One of a Romney presidency, none of which was an Obamacare repeal bill.

The Romney team responded to my piece by saying that the absence of a Day One repeal bill was due to the possibility that a full repeal couldn’t get through Congress. The Romney advisor I spoke to said that Romney was open to using the reconciliation process to repeal the law, but that “specific hypotheticals [around how to repeal the law] are hard to discuss.” (For those who don’t know, the reconciliation process allows certain types of deficit-reducing provisions to pass the Senate with 51 votes instead of the usual filibuster-proof 60.)

Well, scratch that hypothetical off your list. Last night at the debate, Romney said that on “Day Two,” he would send a repeal bill to Congress designed to pass the Senate via reconciliation:

On day one, granting a waiver for—to all 50 states doesn’t stop in its tracks entirely Obamacare. That’s why I also say we have to repeal Obamacare, and I will do that on day two with a reconciliation bill, because, as you know, it was passed by reconciliation, 51 votes.  We can get rid of it with 51 votes. We have to get rid of Obamacare and return to the states the responsibility.

To be technically accurate, the bulk of Obamacare was not passed through reconciliation. That was Democrats’ original intent; but once Scott Brown won the special Senate election to replace Ted Kennedy, the Senate bill that passed with 60 Democratic votes in December 2009 was passed whole-hog by the House in March 2010—a highly unusual procedure—and then a few loose ends were altered via the reconciliation process.

But what’s new is that Romney has committed to using the reconciliation process: something he hadn’t promised previously. He clearly wants to make sure that Republicans have no doubts about his determination to repeal the law. And as I wrote in National Review earlier today, it appears to be working.

The Most Anticipated Cars of 2012

12 Oct

Pent-up demand for automobiles, coupled with a comeback in production for Japanese carmakers,  means the auto industry is heating up. Car sales in September sold at a seasonally-adjusted rate of 13 million units, well above last year and higher than most analysts had expected.

For car buyers hopping off the fence and into showrooms, there are plenty of great models to choose from, from domestic as well as import brands. Yet there’s always that nagging feeling: is it worth waiting for something even better just around the corner?

If you’re looking for a mid-sized family car, you just might want to wait until 2012, when most of the biggest sellers in this category will be redesigned and updated with more efficient engines and advanced technologies. Toyota Motors is just now rolling out a new version of  its flagship Camry, and next year, virtually all of its major rivals will be updated too. That will be the best opportunity to shop around.

General Motors is aiming to get a jump on the rest of the pack by moving up the debut of the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu ECO by three months, to early 2012. It’s a so-called “mild hybrid” that gets 38 miles per gallon through the use of an electric-motor generator and features like regenerative braking and start-stop technology,  providing nice fuel economy without the price premium of some other hybrids on the market. Other versions of the restyled Malibu, featuring an all-new, high-powered four-cylinder gas engine, go on sale next summer.

Then there’s the new Ford Fusion, featuring a sleek design previewed in the EVOS concept from Ford Motor.  The production version will debut in January at the Detroit auto show, and will go on sale later in 2012. Also expected next year are redesigned versions of the Honda Accord and Nissan Altima, two other big players in the mid-sized segment. No doubt it’ll be a buyers’ market for mid-sized cars.

There will also be a lot of action in the compact crossover-utility segment. Later this year, Honda will be rolling out its 2012 CR-V, with more aggressive styling and better fuel economy, and Ford will be introducing a redesigned 2012 Escape, with three new fuel-efficient engine choices, including a 1.6-liter EcoBoost engine that is expected to get better highway mileage than the current 31-mpg Escape Hybrid. Toyota is also expected to introduce a new version of the Rav4, including a plug-in version developed with electric vehicle maker Tesla Motors.

Speaking of Tesla, the creator of the $100,000 plug-in Tesla roadster will start selling a more affordable electric sedan, the $50,000 Model S, in mid-2012. It’ll debut with a 300-mile range battery, followed by smaller batteries later next year. The Model S will go a long way toward establishing whether Tesla has staying power as an independent carmaker.

There are a number of other plug-ins and hybrid-electric vehicles coming to market in 2012, including a plug-in version of Toyota’s Prius hybrid. It goes on sale in early 2012, operating on electricity alone for the first 15 miles after which Toyota’s hybrid powertrain kicks on. Toyota has two other Prius derivatives also launching in 2012. Meanwhile Ford, which is launching its Focus EV before the end of the year, will add two new plug-in vehicles in 2012, the C-MAX Hybrid and C-MAX Energi. Both are small, five-passenger minivans.

If  it’s speed you want, you won’t have to wait long for the redesigned 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera. It goes on sale starting in February. Chevrolet is also introducing the fastest Camaro convertible ever, the 2013 ZL1, with 580 horsepower, but it won’t be in showrooms until late 2012. Also coming in 2012 is a new Dodge Viper, which was resurrected from the dead when Fiat took control of Chrysler. Also heavily anticipated are the first Chrysler and Dodge small cars built on Fiat underpinnings.

Is What’s Good For Bob Pittman Good For Meg Whitman? CEO Annoucements Compared

12 Oct

CEO Announcements are frequent. But is this news is covered differently depending on whether the new CEO is male or female?

Let’s compare two recent announcements: Meg Whitman and Bob Pittman.

I want to point out that this should in no way be seen as a business analysis of any of the companies mentioned. My experience with eBay is limited to buying and selling a few things (I do have an excellent rating, which I am quite proud of). As for ClearChannel, I prefer to listen to satellite radio via SiriusXM, mostly because of Howard Stern. (OK, entirely because of Howard Stern. But the other stations are good too.)

I was struck by what I felt was a largely negative media reaction to the Whitman announcement, and the largely positive notices Pittman received. Also, although this is a blog post and not a scientific study, I will try to be somewhat fair and compare coverage from the same news outlet, The New York Times.

Right before Whitman was announced as the new head of HP, the Times ran an article that begins with the following: As speculation swirled Wednesday that Meg Whitman might be brought in to save the troubled Hewlett-Packard, the tech world rendered a verdict: You have got to be kidding.

Guess you can only go up from there, right?

For some deeper analysis, let’s look at an article published the following day. The author opens by wondering “what kind of leader [Whitman] will be.” The writer lauds her for growing eBay “from a 30-employee minnow of a company to a 15,000-employee whale with $8 billion in annual revenue.” Yeah, that sounds like she did a nice job.

It then goes on to praise Whitman for her acquisition of PayPal, and bash her for buying Skype, claiming that a subsequent sale to a private investor group has “the ignominy of what Silicon Valley denizens called one of the worst deals of all time.”

Now let’s look at this Times article about Robert Pittman being named the new CEO of ClearChannel.

Pittman has a long career in the media business, including being a major player in the disastrous AOL Time Warner merger. Here is what the Times piece says about his role in that deal: [Pittman] became the chief operating officer of the newly merged AOL Time Warner in 2001, but left the next year.

No “that deal is considered one of the biggest failures in the history of failure.” Not even “the two companies were eventually split up, putting them back where they started.”

Regardless of whether you think there is any difference between these two CEO announcements, I think it is fair to say that the AOL Time Warner merger was a far bigger disaster than eBay’s acquisition of Skype. If I were writing about Pittman, I would feel a need to mention his involvement with AOL beyond simply stating that he was the CEO…and then he wasn’t.

Again, I want to make something very clear: this is not in any way a judgment of the merits of either company or their new CEOs. But it seems to me that in this case, a female leader is being viewed through a different lens than a male one.

How to ‘Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish:” Fixing Steve Jobs Commencement Advice

12 Oct

With just about every Apple product I’ve bought, from my first Mac—a 512, I go way back almost to the beginning—to the iPad2 I got last week, just opening the box filled me with optimism. In my hands was this great new thing that was really going to change my life; happiness, organization, efficiency, and, yes, even a little coolness were just around the corner. Sometimes, like with my iPad, even before turning it on I’d marvel at the sleek contours and fully expect that I too would soon feel myself to be a sleek hipster riding the crest of the future.

But, it was not to be. While these devices have changed how we all live in so many ways, my feelings always adapted to the new functions and experiences so that soon I pretty much felt like the same me I’d always been. Of course, there’s always some residual hope that maybe all that happiness would come with the next upgrade.

Same thing with loss. We adapt. Shock, sadness, grief all dissolve in time, like a drop of oil in soapy water. That doesn’t mean those feelings aren’t meaningful and painful, they surely are. It’s just that they won’t last. Since saddened by Steve Jobs’ tragically early death, I’ve been watching public grief and thinking about what will last, what do we get to keep after we emotionally adapt to the loss of a creative visionary, what remains after the flickering touch-screen memorial candles go out and the make-shift memorials in front of Apple Stores are cleared to make room for more commerce.

What will last is what works, and what of his works is more than just the “insanely great” things he built. He didn’t just leave stuff, he left inspiration. And of a particular kind. Steve Jobs inspired people to make things work. And in that spirit of making it work and thinking about what will last, I’m going to take his now iconic 2005 Stanford commencement address and, well, fix the psychology. I’m going to do to it what he did with so many prototypes: make it work (links to full speech at end).

He memorably closed his speech by advising graduates to follow the advice Stewart Brand offered when Brand finished the final edition of The Whole Earth Catalog: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” Great advice. Psychologically sound, and with inter-generational poetry.

But how to do it? How to stay hungry, stay foolish? Framed by his brush with death, he advised his listeners to make the most of our time on the planet. He counseled eager graduates to look in the mirror each morning and ask themselves whether or not they were living the life they wanted:

“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

However moved and inspired I was—and am—by his comments, when I put on my geek hat and read this as a procedure to follow rather than just inspiration, I find that it might just not be the best way to achieve the goal. We need to fix the algorithm and really ask whether anyone would really be able to “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish” by checking in with themselves each morning during water rituals. And the answer is, probably not. In fact, he got the psychology wrong in two important ways, ways that are easy to fix and, once fixed, can help make his inspiration last beyond the immediate moments of either techno-optimism or sadness and grief.

The first problem is doing an existential audit in the morning before what is being audited actually happens. We’ve learned that people are terrible predictors of their own happiness. Trying to say in advance whether or not one would want to do what one is about to do is an activity that will inevitably yield profoundly unreliable information. It’s biased by what psychologist Daniel Gilbert has called the “impact bias,”  i.e., our human tendency to predict (imagine?) that future emotional experiences will be more intense and last longer than they really will.

What this means on the positive side of the emotional ledger is that we expect experiences—like that new iPad2 or that new job or that ice cream—will make life feel better than it really will. You may be looking forward to knocking it out of the park at an afternoon meeting, but the prediction will feel better and last longer than the actual experience.

And we do this with negative feelings as well, often to our detriment. In fact, sometimes the most satisfying, richest experiences are those that have significant “start-up costs.” Perhaps you avoid completing some mundane task because you expect doing it will feel much worse than the experience of actually doing it will prove to be. Then you get stuck in a loop of procrastination. Or, you choose not to engage with some potentially meaningful experience, preferring the quick-and-easy instead, because you predict getting started will be much more difficult than the actual experience proves itself to be.

Luckily, there’s a fix. A much better strategy for staying hungry, staying foolish would be to evaluate your day at the end, to ask Steve Jobs’ question in the past tense: “If today were the last day of my life, would I be grateful to have done what I did today?” Of course, memory is not perfect. But it is more accurate than imagination.

Second, isolated introspection is an over-valued and highly unreliable road towards self-knowledge. You really don’t want to look in the mirror as a way to conduct your existential audit. Learning how many days of not being grateful are too many is pretty much impossible when it is just you and your reflection. Psychoanalysts (Eisold) and cognitive scientists (nicely reviewed in recent books by DiSalvo andHerbert) have described how our minds use various strategies, biases, and heuristics to make our way in the world. And these processes make the mirror one of the last places where you should look for self-knowledge.

For example, we overestimate the importance and power of recent experiences. You might have had a pretty great day.  But if it ends with a frustrating, annoying experience, the recency of that experience might lead you to think the entire day was sort of a wash. Another bias is that we overestimate the value of those experiences that are most perceptually salient. We act as though the loudest is the truest. So, even if you had a pretty great day, a loud argument with a loved one might cause you to undervalue an interesting day spent in the flow of good work.

Again, there’s a fix. Don’t do it alone. Any existential audit that has a chance of being appropriately accurate needs a partner. Self-knowledge happens in dialogue, not isolated introspection. Sometimes, because of language, that other person does not need to be there in the flesh. They can even be present as the author of a book, or an imagined reader for those who like to write. Sometimes it can even be in an interior dialogue with an imagined other. But sooner or later, you’ll need intimate dialogue with an actual other person if you want to know yourself.

So, listen to Steve, he really knew what he was talking about: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” Just don’t do it all alone by looking in the mirror in the morning. Instead, find and engage others about your day.  Ongoing dialogue about your sources of gratitude is where you’ll find the information you need.


If you haven’t seen the speech or read the transcript, you should: