Zombie Like Caterpillars

Just in time for the Halloween season, a story of zombie-like gypsy moths. It has apparently been known for some time that among invertebrates, parasites are able to affect and change the behavior of their host in a zombie-like fashion. The exact mechanism through which this is accomplished, however, has not been known.

Now, in a study published in Science Magazine, scientists studying gypsy moths reveal that they have found a genetic basis for these aberrant behavioral changes. In particular, the study states that:

Gypsy moths infected by a baculovirus climb to the top of trees to die, liquefy, and “rain” virus on the foliage below to infect new hosts. The viral gene that manipulates climbing behavior of the host was identified, providing evidence of a genetic basis for the extended phenotype.

OK, so zombies are not just the stuff of science fiction. Somehow, not really all that surprising.

However, what really freaks me out about this story is that apparently the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and The Northern Research Station have in the past partnered up to produce this baculovirus to use in the control of gypsy moth populations.(See here.)

But if this genetic link is only now being discovered, it means that we have been playing Russian roulette with germ warfare without really knowing what we were doing.

Scary, but again, somehow not really all that surprising.

If At First You Don't Succeed

From the anthology The Best Advice I Ever Got: Lessons from Extraordinary Lives (edited by Katie Couric and published by Random House), as excerpted on Yahoo), an almost unbelievable tale of Kathryn Stockett's experience writing her best-selling book The Help, the long and difficult road to getting it published and her incredible capacity for stick-to-it-tiveness:

It took me a year and a half to write my earliest version of The Help. I’d told most of my friends and family what I was working on. Why not? We are compelled to talk about our passions. When I’d polished my story, I announced it was done and mailed it to a literary agent.

Six weeks later, I received a rejection letter from the agent, stating, “Story did not sustain my interest.” I was thrilled! I called my friends and told them I’d gotten my first rejection! Right away, I went back to editing. I was sure I could make the story tenser, more riveting, better.

A year and a half later, I opened my 40th rejection: “There is no market for this kind of tiring writing.” That one finally made me cry. “You have so much resolve, Kathryn,” a friend said to me. “How do you keep yourself from feeling like this has been just a huge waste of your time?”

In the end, I received 60 rejections for The Help. But letter number 61 was the one that accepted me. After my five years of writing and three and a half years of rejection, an agent named Susan Ramer took pity on me. What if I had given up at 15? Or 40? Or even 60? Three weeks later, Susan sold The Help to Amy Einhorn Books.

Such an amazing and inspiring story of unwavering perseverance and determination. This story was particularly poignant for me because I loved reading "The Help" so much and felt such gratitude towards the author for the gift of her work. And this was before I even knew the backstory of what she went through to get it published.

Thank you, Kathryn, for never giving up and for always believing in your passion!

(Note: The Help has now been published in 35 countries and three languages. As of August 2011, it has sold five million copies and has spent more than a 100 weeks on the The New York Times Best Seller List. (Source, Wikipedia.) The movie version of the book was released August 10, 2011.)

The Importance of Conscious Breathing In Creating Health


Breathing (or respiration) occupies a very distinctive place in life. It is probably the most familiar manifestation of the ebb and flow of the pulse of life. We know that animate life forms (human, animal and insect) breathe. But inanimate life forms (e.g. plants) also breathe and even minerals are known to "respire".

Breathing is innate and instinctual. We don't have to learn how to breathe. We come into the world already doing it. (Did you know that even fetuses are known to breathe amniotic fluid while in utero?) From the very first breath of air that heralds our arrival here on Earth to the last one that signals our passing from this lifetime, breathing is life itself. The need to breathe is the most immediate of our bodily needs, even before hunger. In this way it is also our very first, conscious awareness of the duality of life and death in our lives.

In human terms, we commonly think of breathing as as a way of taking in air and oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide. But the importance of breathing in our lives and in our development goes much further than just this physiological exchange of gases. Breathing is, in many ways, the foundation for establishing and maintaining all health. It is what allows health to happen.

But not all breathing is equal. Despite the fact that we come into the world breathing as we are meant to breathe, for most of us, it soon becomes something very different. We begin interfering with our innate capacity to breathe properly from the time of very early childhood. We quickly learn to regulate, modulate and sometimes even stop our breathing. Why? Because controlling the breath is one of the most effective ways of controlling how much we feel. Stop breathing even for just a few seconds and you will have effectively begun to numb yourself to your inner experiences.

As such, the type of breathing that is so important to health is not this commonly shallow and attenuated kind. It is something different, which I refer to as "conscious breathing".

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You Can Lead a Horse to Water

From an article entitled New Study Says "Food Deserts" Only Part of the Problem:

A new study confirms that being able to buy healthier food is only one part of a larger issue. According to research published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, improving access to fruits and vegetables does not necessarily result in better diets.

It is very difficult for healthier foods and methods of food preparation to compete with the variety, convenience, mass-marketing and ubiquity of processed foods. In a world of sound bites, immediate gratification and 15 minutes of fame, the comparatively understated simplicity of unprocessed natural foods faces a difficult uphill battle when it comes to winning over tongues and stomachs if not hearts and minds. And processed foods are, from a certain perspective, simply more palatable.

Real widespread change in people's eating habits can only come, like everything else in life, through inner change. The value of a healthy diet cannot be either imposed or instilled through fear, will, exposure or accessibility. Its appeal and its strength rest primarily in an appreciation for the sense of goodness evoked when we take care of ourselves. In other words, it's how it makes us feel on the inside, not how delicious or appealing it looks on the outside, that matters. As such, it is our relationship to how we nurture ourselves that must change if we are to be healthier.

War and Prejudice

From an Associated Press article that appeared on Yahoo last week:

Two Muslim religious leaders say they were asked to leave a commercial airliner in Memphis on Friday and were told it was because the pilot refused to fly with them aboard.

Both passengers are Memphis-area residents. Rahman said he was dressed in traditional Indian clothing and his traveling companion was dressed in Arab garb, including traditional headgear.

Rahman said he and Mohamed Zaghloul, of the Islamic Association of Greater Memphis, were cleared by security agents and boarded the plane for an 8:40 a.m. departure.

The aircraft pulled away from the gate, but the pilot then announced the plane must return, Rahman said. When it did, the imams were asked to go back to the boarding gate where Rahman said they were told the pilot was refusing to accept them because some other passengers could be uncomfortable.

Rahman said Delta officials talked with the pilot for more than a half-hour, but he still refused.

As abhorrent as I find this type of profiling behavior, once I got beyond my initial outrage after reading the article, I began to think about how particularly common this kind of behavior is during times of "war". Whether the war is a military one fought on battlefields or an ideological one fought in the space of individual and public opinion (or both, as we seem to be living through at the present time), war urges us to judge and separate the bad fromt the good.

The human ego is inherently disposed to fear and be suspicious of that which is "different," which is ultimately what gives rise to bias. And superficial segregation and broad-brush stereotyping are among its most preferred tools for dealing with this kind of fear.

In this sense, profiling is not just about bias. It is also about efficiency and expediency. The broader the brush, the less the ego has to think about or ponder the limitations of its decision making process (let alone the consequences of that process) and therefore the quicker it can get back to a state of presumed security and control. A strictly black or white outlook is very effective at settling the mind,  if not the emotions. And during times of war, in our desire to feel right, safe and most of all normal, we often take whatever relief or salve we can get.

From a moral and philosophical perspective, I do not agree with, and choose not to condone, the process of profiling. Yet from a purely human ego perspective, I not only understand it but I also deeply appreciate its appeal.

My inner sense of inspiration to love more openly always seems to inevitably run into my also compelling desire to feel free of danger.

And in the midst of that conflict I find myself over and over needing to take sides and having to choose.

We all must choose...

love or fear?

Get Up On Your Feet

This in today, from an article in the Yahoo Health blog entitled The Most Dangerous Thing You'll Do All Day:

Scientists at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana analyzed the lifestyles of more than 17,000 men and women over about 13 years, and found that people who sit for most of the day are 54 percent more likely to die of heart attacks.

What makes this particularly interesting is that sitting appears to be a causal factor for heart attacks regardless of any other lifestyle considerations, i.e. it doesn't matter how much a person otherwise exercises or how fit they may otherwise be. Other factors such as diet and whether you smoke or not were also irrelevant. If you sit for much of the day, it is a factor.

For a long time, I have thought about the possibility of incorporating a standing desk into my work routine, mostly because of the negative impact of sitting for long periods on posture and back health. Looks like there's another good reason to start checking out some standing desks.

If you don't know what they are, just google "standing desk" to find lots of resources about them. You can also find one person's informative account of her experience switching to a standing desk here.

A Statistic About Cancer Worth Remembering

It is estimated that about 1/3 of the most common cancers can be avoided simply through changes in behavior, diet and exercise. (See here.) Among the recommended changes are avoiding sugary drinks, being physically active for at least 30 minutes a day and eating a larger variety of fruits, vegetables and WHOLE grains. It is never too late to start making changes, and you don't have to change everything at once. Any change, no matter how small, is change for the better. In fact, baby steps are encouraged...  you just need to keep making them.

Flying the Coop in the Wrong Direction

Flamingos usually conjure images of lush, tropical paradises. But in this case, these flamingos ended up in Siberia when they flew North instead of South. And apparently it is not the first time it has happened -- flamingos were were also reported to have made their way to Siberia about 100 years ago. Here is an interesting story entitled Flamingos Drop From Siberian Sky: Locals Mystifiedabout how birds are apparently known to sometimes get their wires crossed and fly in the opposite direction of their normal migration route.

Almost as interesting as the story of the flamingos itself is the tale of how Siberian locals took the birds in and cared for them until they were eventually relocated to zoos.

So, next time you're feeling all "turned around," just remember that it is natural and happens to the best of us!

Just Take A Pill

From The New York Times today comes an article entitled Talk Doesn't Pay, So Psychiatry Turns to Drug Therapy.

It takes a look at current trends in the psychiatric profession that have led psychiatrists to forego talk therapy altogether and rely solely on drugs to treat their patients.

Here's the understatement of the week:

Medicine is rapidly changing in the United States from a cottage industry to one dominated by large hospital groups and corporations, but the new efficiencies can be accompanied by a telling loss of intimacy between doctors and patients. And no specialty has suffered this loss more profoundly than psychiatry.

It is sad that not only are they giving up on the potential to actually heal rather than treat patients, but that it is probably indicative of the direction in which the practice of medicine is moving as a whole.