as a weekly practice I listen to npr and do a little sketch on one of the stories. take a look, you can click on the illustration to make it bigger!

Monday, May 3, 2010

In London, A Stirring 'War Horse' Of A Drama

In London, a drama adapted from a children's book took the theater world by storm when it premiered at the National Theatre in 2007 — and it's been enough of a hit in its current commercial run in the West End that a visit to New York's Lincoln Center is in the works. Set during World War I, War Horse is the story of a boy, Albert, and the farm horse he raises from a foal. Book and play alike track the two from the bucolic English countryside to the bloody battlefields of France, through the cataclysmic events of the Great War.

The book, though, is narrated not by Albert, but by Joey — the horse — who details his adventures for the reader. That made for some challenges when it came to bringing War Horse to the stage. In fact, playwright Nick Stafford's version is a very different animal from the book, according to two of the performers who help create the character of Joey.

"The horse was never going to talk," says Matthew Burgess.

And that's how Burgess and his colleague Toby Olie — both puppeteers — came to be involved.

'It Had To Be Done Visually'

The challenge was to create a believable character, to get the audience to invest emotionally in Joey's journey, without tipping over into pantomime — or indulging the anthropomorphic impulse.

"It had to be something that was done visually," Burgess says.

What they've done visually sent London's critics and audiences into raptures. The puppets are wondrous — life-sized, made of cane and canvas and metal, designed by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa and each manipulated by a team of puppeteers. They gallop and trot, snort and whinny, carry human riders into battle. They're at once highly realistic and completely theatrical.

"What's exciting about it is, you are aware of ... the human machinery, as it were, that's helping bring these animals to life," says Matt Wolf, critic for the International Herald Tribune.

Creating the illusion is complicated. Each puppet weighs well over 100 pounds without a rider, and it takes three operators to bring each one to life. Burgess plays what he and his colleagues call Joey's "heart."

"We have the 'head' — who is outside the horse — the 'heart' and the 'hind,' " he explains. "The heart being the front legs, and the hind being the back legs, [both] inside the horse."

Adrian Kohler, co-founder of the company that made War Horse's puppets, uses the techniques and tools of shipbuilding — his father was a shipwright — to build his creations.
The movement of ears and head, the flicking of a tail, the stamping of the hooves — these all communicate a horse's emotions. The puppeteers spent a great deal of time learning about horse behavior, says Olie, who depending on the night is either the head of Joey or that of a thoroughbred cavalry horse, Topthorn.

He ticks off the various ways he and his colleagues did their research: "Two weeks puppet training before rehearsals with the actors start. A lot of YouTube videos. Visits to the King's Troop stables. Monty Roberts, the horse whisperer, came into rehearsals."

And the puppeteers don't just set out to move like a horse. They have sound like a horse: whickering, knickering; whinnies. "Snorty, blowy stuff," as Olie puts it.

After a while, Burgess says, the teams kind of become the horse.

"There are hours of work that we do — predominantly with breath," he says. "Breath is the key to making the team work. ... When we change breath, or we change the rhythm of the breath, we know that the horse has changed its emotional state."

An Emotional Story For Those Steeds To Bear

Of course, none of the work spent getting the horse puppets to behave like horses would mean anything without an emotional story to tell around them. Robert Emms plays Albert, the boy who loves his horse so much that he runs away to join the Army after his father sells Joey to the British cavalry. Albert — like Joey — learns about the horror of war.

"He goes on a massive emotional journey to find the horse again," Emms says. "It's not a happy ending, by any means. ... They've both been scarred."

Yet Albert, Emms insists, is a symbol of hope and courage. His faith that he'll locate Joey gets tested severely on the battlefield, but it doesn't falter. And he makes real sacrifices to pursue that reunion.

"I know that sounds incredibly corny," Emms says. "But it's one reason that the show, for me, every night is a joy to do."

Albert's sacrifices aren't the only ones the story honors and mourns. World War I marked a pivotal point in the evolution of warfare. Mounted cavalry began to disappear, and trench warfare and tanks increasingly made their mark. Horses became more and more redundant, and animals like Joey saw their roles reduced to beasts of burden. And still they died.

"Eight million horses died during the first World War," says puppeteer Matthew Burgess. "And that shouldn't be forgotten."

If War Horse has anything to do with it, London audiences — and starting next March, their counterparts in New York — will remember it for a long time to come.

-excerpt from NPR

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Life Without Fear

The drama class had just gotten out, and everybody was standing around talking when Jessica noticed her 9-year-old, Isabelle, making her way over to an elderly woman Jessica had never seen. The woman was neatly dressed, most likely just a well-meaning suburban grandmother who had come to retrieve a grandchild on behalf of an over-extended parent, most likely a perfectly harmless person.

Isabelle, as she usually did, exchanged hellos and struck up a conversation. It was the usual post-drama-class conversation until about two minutes in. Then Isabelle dropped the bomb.

"Will you take me? Can I go home with you?" Jessica heard Isabelle plead.

Driven To Trust

Jessica's daughter, Isabelle, has Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder with a number of symptoms. Children with Williams are often physically small and frequently have developmental delays. But also, kids and adults with Williams love people, and they are literally pathologically trusting. They have no social fear. Researchers theorize that this is probably because of a problem in their limbic system, the part of the brain that regulates emotion. There appears to be a disregulation in one of the chemicals (oxytocin) that signals when to trust and when to distrust.

This means that it is essentially biologically impossible for kids like Isabelle to distrust. (NPR is not using full names in this story for privacy and safety reasons.)

"They don't have that kind of evolutionary thing that other kids have, that little twinge of anxiety like, 'Who is this person? What should I do here?' " Jessica explains. "They just don't have it. She just doesn't have that ... early-warning system."

For Jessica, there are good and bad things about parenting a child with this kind of personality.

For instance, when Isabelle was younger, she was chronically happy. She smiled at anything. She loved everyone: family, friends, strangers. She reached for them all, and, in return, everyone loved her. Strangers would stop Jessica to tell about how adorably loving Isabelle was.

In those days, Jessica says, she and her family were more or less tolerant of Isabelle's trusting and loving nature. "We would try to restrain her, but it was somewhat half-heartedly, because we didn't want to embarrass her by calling her on the carpet about how open she was," Jessica says.

The Danger Of Unconditional Trust

But as Isabelle got older, the negative side of her trusting nature began to play a larger role. A typical example happened a couple of years ago, when Jessica and her family were spending the day at the beach. Isabelle had been begging Jessica to go to Dairy Queen, and Jessica had been putting her off. Then Isabelle overheard a lady just down the beach.

EnlargeJesse Neider for NPR
Isabelle practices training the family dog, "Betsy," with her dad.
"She was telling her kids, 'OK, let's go to the Dairy Queen,' " Jessica says. "And so Isabelle went over and got into the lady's van, got in the back seat, buckled up and was waiting to be taken to Dairy Queen with that family."

Jessica had no idea what had happened to Isabelle and was frantically searching for her when the driver of the van approached her and explained that she had been starting her car when she looked up and saw Isabelle's face in the rearview mirror.

The woman, Jessica says, was incredibly angry.

"She said, 'I am a stranger, you know!' " Jessica says. Essentially, the woman blamed Jessica for not keeping closer watch on her daughter -- for neglecting to teach her the importance of not getting into a car with someone she didn’t know. But the reality could not be more different. "It's like, 'My friend, you have no idea,' " Jessica says.

In fact, because of Isabelle, Jessica has had to rethink even the most basic elements of her day-to-day life. She can not take Isabelle to the dog park. She tries not to take Isabelle to the store. And when the doorbell rings, Jessica will leap over a coffee table to intercept her.

It's not just Jessica and her family who must be vigilant. Every teacher at Isabelle's public school has been warned. Isabelle is not allowed to tell them that she loves them. Isabelle is not supposed to tell other schoolchildren that she loves them. And there are other restrictions.

"She's not allowed to go to the bathroom alone at her school, because there have been numerous instances of girls with Williams syndrome being molested at school when they were alone in the hallway," Jessica says. "And these are like middle class type schools. So it's a very real problem. And, you know, I'd rather her be overly safe than be on CNN."

Raising A Child With Williams Syndrome

Jessica spoke with me for over an hour in the family's home in their woodsy, suburban neighborhood while we waited for her three children to come home from school. Then, just after I turned off my recorder to take a break, I felt two small arms circle my neck from behind. It was Isabelle. She had crept in from school and was giving me a hug.

I turned around, and quite suddenly, the room was filled with questions. Who was I? What was I doing here? Which TV show did I like? Did I know the Muppets?

Then Isabelle took my microphone in her hands. She had decided to sing me a song:

"You're my friend ... You're my friend in the whole world," she crooned. "You look so nice and so beautiful and so sweet."

When Isabelle speaks, she has a slight nasal slur. She also has some cognitive issues. Though she goes to a regular school and sits in a regular third-grade class, her attention is very jumpy, and she needs aids to help her.

These cognitive issues make Jessica's job more difficult. Jessica has decided that the most important thing for her to do is to teach Isabelle how to distrust. For years, that has been her life project -- a battle pitched against biology itself.

Jessica and her husband have made Isabelle books about how to behave around strangers. They have rented videos, they have bought educational toys. They have modeled the right behaviors, constructed sticker charts and employed every other trick they could possibly think of. But distrust, it seems, is almost impossible to teach their child. Sometimes Isabelle manages to remember not to tell perfect strangers that she loves them. Mostly, she doesn't.

But Jessica is determined. "We just have to restart every time," she says. "It's just what we have to do."

It's what they have to do, Jessica reasons, because she won't be around to protect her daughter forever. And though Isabelle trusts the world completely, the world is not a place worthy of complete trust.

Even in their current life, Jessica says, there are moments when she realizes that she's just an instant away from something terrible.

"We live a very sheltered life, but I can think of times when we were at the pool and I turn around to talk to someone, and I see her practically sitting on some man's lap at the pool, and he looks very uncomfortable," Jessica says. "And I just think: This is not good."

Unconditional Love, And A Mother's Worry

Fortunately, Jessica says, the experts tell her it will eventually get better. She needs to just keep at it. One day, they tell her, Isabelle will be able to learn not to feel distrust, per se, but to master a set of algorithms that will allow her to safely navigate the world. She will learn, for example, not to get into a car with a stranger if she has become lost or disoriented, but to ask some person in a uniform for help instead.

In the meantime, Jessica says there are plenty of rewards to this life -- a life with a child with boundless love and trust.

"She'll ask me, 'So how are you today, my darling?' " Jessica says. "And it just makes you smile."

In fact, late in the afternoon on the day I visited, everyone in the family gathered in the kitchen to eat dinner. Isabelle, who loves music, decided to play a CD.

The CD player stuttered then came to life, and Isabelle approached her father.

"Will you dance with me, my sweetie?" she asked.

Her father picked her up in his arms. He spun her round and round.

-excerpt from npr

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Pollen Count Is At Its Highest In Years

Across the United States, the pollen count is at its highest level in years. Dr. Phillip Gallagher of Allergy and Asthma Associates of Northwestern Pennsylvania talks to Steve Inskeep about why the pollen count is so high, and what people can do to gain some relief.

-excerpt from NPR

Monday, April 19, 2010

Anger, Frustration Grow As Travel Crisis Spreads

As air travelers remained stranded Monday across Europe, airlines grounded for fifth day by a volcanic ash cloud said EU officials had made a costly overreaction to the crisis.

At a meeting in Paris, the International Air Transport Association said European transport officials had shown "no coordination and no leadership" during the crisis. Over the weekend, Air France, KLM, Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines carried out test flights without passengers and reported no damage from the ash eruption originating from a volcano in Iceland.

Heard On Morning Edition
April 19, 2010
Airlines Question Flight Ban Due To Volcanic Ash
[3 min 7 sec]

April 19, 2010
Cost Of Canceled European Flights Adding Up
[1 min 50 sec]

"It's embarrassing, and a European mess," IATA CEO Giovanni Bisignani told The Associated Press. "It took five days to organize a conference call with the ministers of transport and we are losing $200 million per day (and) 750,000 passengers are stranded all over. Does it make sense?"

French Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau said at a series of meetings on Monday officials would "try to outline corridors, if we can, based on the evolution of the cloud, to allow the reopening of as large a number of flight paths as possible, as quickly as possible and in good security conditions."

However, a senior Western diplomat told the Associated Press that several NATO F-16 fighters suffered engine damage after flying through the volcanic ash cloud. The official declined to provide more details on the military flights, except to say that glasslike deposits were found inside the planes' engines after they patroled over European airspace.

Some smaller airports reopened Monday but authorities in Britain, France, Germany, and the Netherlands - home to four of Europe's five largest airports - said their airspace was still closed. Britain said it was keeping flight restrictions on through early Tuesday, while Italy briefly lifted restrictions in the north then quickly closed down again after conditions worsened Monday.

Britain's Royal Navy said it was deploying warships to bring its citizens who have been stranded in the continent for the past week back to across the English Channel. For them, returning to Britain by sea is the only option.

European carriers have been the hardest hit, but flights from around the world are routed through major airports on the continent and the crisis was estimated to be costing the global aviation industry at least $200 million per day. IATA officials say the costs are higher than the three-day disruption of air traffic after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

London’s Heathrow was the first major airport to shut down and British Airways said it was losing $30 million a day. The airline said carriers have asked the EU for financial compensation for the closure of airspace, starting last Wednesday.

Officials are concerned that the ash can damage jet engines and could cause commercial jetliners to crash.

Air freight, a mainstay of many "just in time" assembly lines, also has been hammered by the shut down in traffic. Kenya's fresh flower industry is losing $2 million a day and fresh fruit from Africa destined for Europe is reportedly rotting in warehouses. Still economists say Europe's economic recovery should not be derailed unless the disruption lasts for many weeks or months.

The loss of air transport to Europe has also wreaked havoc in countless other ways.

Some U.K. schools may not be able to reopen after spring break because teachers and students are stranded in holiday destinations.

Motorists cannot get their cars fixed because foreign parts can't be shipped in.

Kenya's fresh flower industry is losing $2 million a day and fresh fruit from Africa destined for Europe is rotting in warehouses. Still economists say Europe's economic recovery should not be derailed unless the disruption lasts for many weeks or months.

The airlines are pressing European governments to loosen restrictions, but there is no indication that aviation authorities will immediately comply. Airspace over Paris and the north of France remained closed until Tuesday and British Airways and Lufthansa cancelled all flights on Monday.

Eurocontrol, the air traffic agency in Brussels, said less than one-third of flights in Europe were taking off Monday – between 8,000 and 9,000 of the continent's 28,000 scheduled flights.

About 63,000 flights have been cancelled since Thursday.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines said it had conducted four successful test flights Sunday through a "gap" in the layer of microscopic dust over Holland and Germany.

Lufthansa flew 10 empty long-haul planes Saturday to Frankfurt from Munich at low altitude, between 10,000 and 26,000 feet, said spokesman Wolfgang Weber.

"We simply checked every single aircraft very carefully after the landing in Frankfurt to see whether there was any damage that could have been caused by volcanic ash," Weber said. "Not the slightest scratch was found on any of the 10 planes."

Scientists say that because the volcano is situated below a glacial ice cap, magma is being cooled quickly, causing explosions and plumes of grit that can be catastrophic to plane engines, depending on prevailing winds.

In 1989, a KLM Boeing 747 that flew through a volcanic ash cloud above Alaska and briefly lost power to all four engines. They were restarted at a lower altitude and the plane landed safely.

-excerpt from NPR

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Turning Chicken Poop Into Power

In a dimly lit chicken house, John Logan stands surrounded by thousands of fluffy, yellow, week-old chicks. They're among 275,000 chickens he raises on his farm in Prentiss, Miss. Every 38 days, he ships off a batch to the chicken processor Tyson Foods.

Every year in the United States, 9 billion chickens are raised and sold for food. Their poop has become a problem for the environment.

Several years ago, Logan noticed the phosphorus content in his groundwater had become too high, because of chicken fecal contamination.

"I said, 'I got to do something,' " the farmer recalls. "I can't be putting this on the ground. Now, I have a river right here. What's to happen when that phosphorus overload washes into the river, which then ends up in the Gulf of Mexico?"

Logan considers himself a conservationist. So he turned to the idea of a manure digester, which is something cattle ranchers have been using to turn cow manure into energy. In the past, chicken manure had been mixed with other manure types and then converted into energy, but it had never been used on its own.

Logan worked with researchers and scientists at Mississippi State University to develop and patent the first successful chicken poop digester.

Now, every day, 4 tons of chicken manure are fed into the digester, which resembles a silo. The poop is heated, then mixed with bacteria, which produces the methane gas that is then converted into energy.

EnlargeCourtesy of Greg Gibson, Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation
A chicken digester on John Logan's farm heats chicken manure and mixes it with bacteria, producing methane gas that is converted into energy.
The Environmental Protection Agency has been promoting the use of manure digesters since 1993. But a complicated patchwork of local, state and federal energy policy rules has discouraged people from using them, according to Chris Voell, an EPA program manager. He says with some changes, "instead of 130 digesters around the country, there could be thousands of digesters."

Congress is also considering a fix to the Federal Clean Water Act, which would affect the way poultry operations deal with chicken manure. Bill Satterfield, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry trade group, says new rules would improve the way chickens are produced.

"The more options that chicken growers have in handling the manure in a proper and environmental manner, the better off they are, and the better off the industry is," he says.

As for Logan, he isn't just raising chickens anymore. He sells digesters through his company Eagle Green Energy. They cost $500,000 each, but Logan says they're worth it because the savings add up.

The month before he started using the digester, he says, his power bill was about $8,000. The next month, it dropped to about $200. And "the next month, I got a small check from the power company," he says.

Logan's operation has even gone global. In addition to four digesters operating in Mississippi, and two others in the works for customers in Maryland and Delaware, Logan is working with companies in Italy, Australia and India.

-excerpt from npr

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

India's Rag Pickers Compete For Lucrative Trash

In India's capital New Delhi, many impoverished people spend their days picking through garbage — looking for anything that can be recycled and sold. But now there is competition. A battle between rag pickers and new corporate "waste managers" is raging over the trash of the affluent.

-excerpt from NPR

Monday, April 12, 2010

Why The Animal Critic Gives The Panda An F

For too long, Jacob Lentz thinks, certain animals have gotten by on good looks and charm, while more impressive species are ignored by children and stuffed-animal manufacturers.

A couple of years ago, Lentz and friend Steve Nash set out to right this wrong. They began a blog called Animal Review.

It's exactly what the name implies: reviews of critters, not unlike reviews of cars or new gadgets, complete with letter grades. The ladybug gets an A-. The bald eagle gets a C+.

Their blog has now become a book, also titled The Animal Review. Lentz tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that being a good animal critic is "more of an art than a science."

"It takes at least two years of blogging to really get good at this," he says. "I can't expect laypeople to just start judging animals accurately. It's probably best left to me and Steve."

Part of that professional skill involves knowing which animals not to tick off. "I'm not going to be the one who gives the king cobra a B+," Lentz says. "And I have no interest in upsetting a great white shark. I only have good things to say about those animals.

"If they're listening, I just want to tell them that I think they're amazing. And whatever they want to do is great," he continues. "There's a ton to recommend them to anyone, whether they're planning to kill you or not."

Panda: F
"Pandas have absolutely no interest in reproducing. They rarely mate," Lentz says. That goes against the raison d'etre of a species. "We spend all this money flying these animals around the world, trying to convince them to mate, and we could spend it on a lot of other stuff.

"Second of all, they eat bamboo. They're not supposed to eat bamboo. Their bodies are not adapted to digest cellulose, but they hang in there with the bamboo. But the result of that is that they have to eat a ton of bamboo," he says. "They don't have a lot of energy to do things, like to mate.

"That could be Nature kind of hinting around the fact that they should collectively shuffle off this mortal coil."

Octopus: A
"We gave the octopus an A because it would make a great superhero. They're supersmart, they can solve puzzles, they can remember things.

"They can change their bodies, so they can slip through tiny crevices," Lentz adds, "and they shoot ink. There's all sorts of cool stuff with the octopus that doesn't get talked about enough — because we're spending all our time talking about pandas."

King Cobra: A+
"The king cobra, largest venomous snake, makes nests. It's the only snake known to make nests, and good for them. I mean, great. I think that's amazing. They can inject enough venom to kill an elephant. You have to respect that."

Great White Shark: A+
"The great whites, they're the largest predatory fish," Lentz says. "They sometimes jump out of the water. They're one of two shark species that will get airborne, which, I'm pretty sure, is because they're trying to attack airplanes. But that's awesome."

Rhinoceros: Not Yet Graded
Rhinos have yet to receive their grade, but preliminary findings look good. "Prima facie, I'd give a lot of credit to the rhino because it has a horn. That's impressive. It's big. It's really big. I've also read that they hate fire, which I think is interesting. Like, they'll try to put out fires if they can, so you know, they're trying to help.

"I'd probably be inclined to give them a pretty good grade."

Alpaca: F
"Some people really like alpacas, but they're dopey, dumb animals," Lentz says. "The reason they fail is because I blame them for the conquest of South America."

To explain, "The conquistadors show up with less than 200 men, and they have horses. And somehow they overthrow tens of thousands of Incan warriors in, like, two hours. Because the Incans, you know what animal they had? The alpaca. Not much help in a battle with conquistadors."

Lentz notes a particularly negative reaction when he failed the alpaca on the blog. "We got a lot of angry, angry, angry comments from people," he says. "Including a few threats, which I found delightful — which I don't think is the right reaction to something like that."

Clam: C
The clam doesn't get a great grade, Lentz says, "but given it's a clam, that's pretty good. The more we learned about how clams exist and stuff, the more you had to hand it to them, because they just kind of sit on the bottom of the ocean, they filter plankton, they live forever — I mean, the oldest clam was over 400 years old.

"We should all calm down about complaining about our lives," he concludes. "The clam's OK with it. I mean, you wouldn't want to filter plankton for 400 years. And the clam does it."

Jellyfish: C-
The jellyfish is one of the latest entries on the blog. "You gotta give it some credit, because it's kind of gotten a lot done — without a brain," Lentz says. "It literally does not have a brain. And yet they're still chugging along. Hanging in there and killing a lot of fish. And terrorizing bathers."

North American Mountain Goat: B+/A-
"The one animal that we were sort of blown away with was the North American mountain goat," Lentz says, "which doesn't seem that exciting, because it's a goat. But the truth is, it has a lot going for it." He gives it particularly good marks for "high altitude procreation."

"Mountain goats in other parts of the world," he adds, "are really gaudy. It's just too much. They have giant horns that look like corkscrews.

"But the North American mountain goat has very understated horns, keeps just a plain white coat, and it's very understated."

-excerpt from NPR

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Brand Obama: A Hit Abroad, But What About Loyalty?

During the 2008 presidential campaign, efforts to brand Barack Obama were ubiquitous. T-shirts, music videos and posters declared "HOPE" in big blue letters. The opposition tried to brand him, too — as a mysterious untested outsider and, although provably false, as a Kenyan citizen and a Muslim.

Since the Obama family moved into the White House, the Obama brand-management project has become more complicated.

'A Person, Not A Product'

White House officials have mixed feelings about describing the president of the United States in terms usually applied to shampoo or chain restaurants.

Political adviser David Axelrod has privately described his job to reporters as managing the Obama brand. Yet Axelrod once chided another top White House staffer for openly discussing the Obama brand. According to The New York Times, he told former social secretary Desiree Rogers, "The president is a person, not a product."

Harvard business professor John Quelch understands this ambivalence. "You certainly don't want to market the president as if he or she were a box of breakfast cereal," says Quelch. "However, the principles are relevant in both spheres."

Quelch recently wrote an academic paper, "Can Brand Obama Rescue Brand America?" He argues that the Obama brand matters, whether the White House openly acknowledges it or not.

For example, President George W. Bush tried and failed to persuade dozens of countries to accept Guantanamo detainees. But in the past year, many governments across Europe and the Middle East changed their position and agreed to take prisoners. The American request did not change, but receptivity did.

One senior official, who has worked on closing Guantanamo in both administrations and refused to be quoted by name, believes this is unquestionably the effect of the Obama brand and the boost it has given America's brand internationally.

"The general international view seems to be that it's OK to admire America again," says Simon Anholt, who consults with governments on their national identities.

Anholt conducts an annual survey of national identities. In his most recent one, taken after the 2008 election, the United States had risen from seventh place to first. Anholt argues that standing brings tangible financial and diplomatic consequences.

"If the country's name is in good health, then people are more likely to invest, to buy American products, to visit the United States to study and to work there," he says.

The White House has worked hard to leverage Obama's life story into a strong national brand for America. In his first year in office, Obama visited 21 countries, more than any first-year American president before him.

In Egypt last year, he addressed the Muslim world.

"I'm a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims," he told an audience at Cairo University. "As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the Azaan at the break of dawn and at the fall of dusk."

The Brand Does Not Equal Approval

But selling a brand and building longtime brand loyalty are different things. A presidency is built on thousands of specific decisions, every one of which can alienate people who believed in the Obama brand.

Environmentalists were disappointed in the president's decision to allow offshore drilling. Peace activists decried his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.

In Yemen, Khaled al-Anisi recently told NPR he lost hope when the president decided not to release any more Yemenis from Guantanamo prison.

If the country's name is in good health, then people are more likely to invest, to buy American products, to visit the United States to study and to work there.
- Simon Anholt, who consults on brand identities of various countries
"Obama give the people hope, and they live one year with this hope," said Anisi, who directs the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms, a legal organization that is pressing for the Yemeni detainees' release. "Now the people start to think this is not Bush problem or Bush administration mistake. It is the mistake for all American people, Democrats or Republicans. All of them are the enemy."

The artist Shepard Fairey helped establish the Obama brand, designing the iconic red and blue poster of Barack Obama gazing into the distance with the word "HOPE."

"The brand is promised utopia almost," says Fairey.

He views a brand as a simplistic invitation to learn more about a complicated person or a product. Whether people like what they learn is a different question.

"When you look at all the different warring ideologies and complexities of different people's needs and agendas," says Fairey, "it is impossible to please everyone in the way that "Have a Coke and a Smile," or any other great slogan, can."

And Quelch of Harvard says that even if everyone identifies Barack Obama with "hope," "change" and "Yes We Can," "the approval rating and the strength of the brand may not be quite the same thing."

"When we're talking about brand, we're talking about what does the brand stand for," Quelch says. "And when we're talking about approval, we're talking about whether or not I approve of what the brand stands for."

If people believe that Obama equals change, that is good branding. If they hate the change that the health care overhaul represents, good branding could equal bad approval ratings.

-excerpt from NPR

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Pope Stays Silent On Sex Abuse Scandals

As allegations of child sex abuse charges continue to mount against the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict has avoided any mention of the scandal. There are allegations that the Vatican tried to cover up the abuse claims. At the start of Easter Sunday Mass in St. Peter's Square, the dean of the College of Cardinals said Benedict was the target of what he called "petty gossip."

-excerpt from NPR

Thursday, April 1, 2010

New England Struggles After Record Flooding

Parts of New England are still underwater after heavy rains. March was one for the record books in much of the region.

Three days of steady rain in Rhode Island caused the Blackstone River to swell dramatically — sending waves of water crashing down Valley Falls in the town of Cumberland, just north of Providence.

"Wet, scary, rushing beyond my imagination of what a river can do," said Laurie Levebvre of Cumberland, who was stunned by the sight.

"This might impress some of these young guys out here that don't underestimate Mother Nature," Levebre added. "Mother of all mothers."

The Blackstone had crested at 15 feet by Wednesday and caused only minor flooding. But the situation was much more serious to the south, where the Pawtuxet River crested at a record of more than 20 feet.

The high water also shut down parts of Interstate 95, which links Boston and New York.

Schools and government offices have been closed for business, and some neighborhood roads remain submerged.

"We're setting new records as we speak," said Don Carcieri, Rhode Island's governor. "We have set a record for rainfall in the month of March — over 16 inches of rain. This is historic in our state."

The flooding ends a month of unprecedented rainfall across the Northeast. Boston, New Jersey, New York City and Portland, Maine, recorded record rainfalls in March.

In Cranston, R.I., David Alviano used a wet-vac to suck up water in his basement, which has leather furniture, children's toys and a new tile floor.

"Just remodeled it about a month ago," he said. "All new furniture, all the kids toys are soaking wet, all the new rugs — they're all trash."

Alviano has been fighting a losing battle against the water since Tuesday.

"It doesn't stop — it just keeps coming," Alviano said. "It's still coming through the floor. The ground's saturated and it's got nowhere to go, and it's just pushing through every little crack it can get through."

Those without wet-vacs or sump pumps have as much as 6 feet of water in their basements. Outside Alviano's house, the rain-swollen Pawtuxet River turned many lawns into lakes.

According to Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, 140 homes have been evacuated, and city workers have been working without a break since Monday.

"They've been sandbagging, making sure the residents have access to sandbags," the mayor said. "My fire department is exhausted. They've been on the go with a lot of rescues, moving people out of their homes. My police are exhausted too — so it has a big impact on all the services that we provide."

Then, in a cruel irony, a state that has seen nothing but rain and water for days is being asked to conserve water. That's because the floodwaters are overwhelming sewage treatment plants in several cities and towns.

Mayor Fung asked Cranston residents to cooperate. "We're asking them to try not to do their laundry, no dishwasher, try to limit toilet flow as much as possible — that can help out with conservation of water."

Elsewhere in Rhode Island, hundreds of people were evacuated from a neighborhood in Coventry because of fears that a bridge upstream would collapse.

That's just one of 185 bridges that civil engineers need to inspect. They'll be able to do that when the waters recede after some of the worst flooding the state has seen in more than a century.

-excerpt from npr

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Finding A Job Is Hard For Even The Most Educated

Getting a degree in down times can be a liability for some who can't find jobs and have massive loans.

The conventional wisdom that getting a degree helps your career is not quite panning out for Shana Berenzweig.

The 33-year-old quit her job at the Texas Medical Association to get a master's in public administration at New York University. She worked part time, graduated nearly two years ago and moved back to Austin, Texas. So far, she hasn't been able to find a job.

A Rarified Elite

"It's very scary to be in this position," says Berenzweig, who is trying to make payments on her six-figure school loans with some assistance from her parents and by cobbling together babysitting gigs.

Berenzweig's education puts her in the rarefied elite among job seekers. The unemployment rate for college graduates is 5 percent, which is less than half of the 10.5 percent rate for high school grads. But now she sometimes considers that degree she paid so dearly for a liability, at least when it comes to some jobs. She takes it off her resume when applying for waitress jobs.

"It's almost like people are just going to assume that because I have a master's degree, I'm going to ask for money," she says. "Or if something better comes along, I'm just going to jump ship."

With the unemployment rate at 9.7 percent, sustained unemployment is afflicting even some of the most educated. Some fled to graduate school recently as a temporary safe haven from the economy, only to find themselves still without jobs. Many are applying for low-paying or nonpaying internships to try to fill in gaps in their resumes.

A lot of people who are qualified for more higher level jobs are settling for more entry positions, and so that's a roadblock for new graduates.
- Blair Coward, an American University senior
New Graduates At A Disadvantage

American University senior Blair Coward visited several employer booths at a recent job fair. She has a couple of summer internships lined up, but is finding that few employers have any full-time, entry-level jobs open.

"A lot of people who are qualified for more higher level jobs are settling for more entry positions, and so that's a roadblock for new graduates," Coward says.

In August, Coward, who will graduate magna cum laude with a degree in international economic relations, will not only be unemployed, she'll lose her housing. "I'm quite terrified," she says.

Instead of standing in line alongside her, many of her classmates are opting for more schooling, Coward says.

Higher education comes, of course, with many benefits. Some degrees are still in demand and command high salaries, especially engineering.

Still, today's economy will force many graduates to settle, says John Irons, policy director at the Economic Policy Institute. Young people who start their careers in a bad economy tend to accept jobs at lower wages, and that leaves them at a disadvantage with their salary for about a decade, he says.

The scarring has another effect — in the same way that people who lived through the Great Depression might hoard food, people affected by this Great Recession might feel less willing to leave their jobs. They might stay in jobs that aren't a great fit.

EnlargeYuki Noguchi/NPR
Recent and soon-to-be college grads attend a job fair at American University. With the unemployment rate at 9.7 percent, sustained unemployment is afflicting even some of the most educated.
"I think the recession in a way is pretty traumatic," says Max Caldwell, managing principal for Towers Watson, an HR consulting firm. The healthy response, he says, is for graduates to start managing their own career development, and rely less on employers to provide training and advancement.

Is More School The Right Choice?

Matt Jones wishes he had a career to manage. Right now, he'd take a job even if it didn't make use of his new law degree.

Jones graduated from Michigan State University's law school two years ago and has not been able to find work outside of AmeriCorps, where he worked for several months. He has the financial and emotional support of his family, his fiancee and her family, but he still thinks "many times a day" about how and when he might find a job.

Jones says he's cut back on as many expenses as he could. And he thinks the austerity has also made him a more spiritual person. "That's been a nice source of comfort," he says. "But it hasn't gotten any easier."

"There's been a lot of soul searching, especially in the last six months," he says. "Did I make the right decision going to law school?"

-excerpt from NPR

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Click! Polaroid Snaps Back On The Scene

One of the most famous names in photography is trying to make a comeback.

Polaroid, the company that popularized instant photography, has struggled in recent years and even announced it would stop making its famous instant film. But starting Thursday, a partner of Polaroid is selling instant film and Polaroid is selling a new image.

When it comes to image, it's hard to top Lady Gaga: singer, fashion maven and self-marketing dynamo. She's been recruited by Polaroid to helps spice things up.

A Polaroid instant camera makes a strategically placed cameo in Lady Gaga's latest music video for the song "Telephone"; Lady Gaga snaps a photo of Beyonce with it.

Polaroid Corp. Collection, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School
When Polaroid's creator, Edwin Land, debuted his first instant camera in 1948, people thought it was a miracle.
Earlier this year, Lady Gaga signed a deal to be a "creative director" for the company. She also reportedly has an equity share in the company. It's a good deal for both sides. Lady Gaga might get some money, and Polaroid gets a big boost in its effort to be cool again.

History Of Polaroid

In the 1960s and '70s Polaroid was the height of cool. It was the Apple of its day. The company was known as a creative innovator and its founder, Edwin Land, is often compared to Apple's CEO Steve Jobs. When Land debuted his first instant camera in 1948, people thought it was a miracle.

"It completely changed the relationship between people and photography and cameras. The impact of something like that, I think, is difficult to understand today," says David Bushman of the Paley Center for Media in New York.

When digital photography came along, Polaroid struggled to keep up. It came up with its own digital camera, but the camera wasn't very good, according to Mark McClusky, a senior editor at Wired magazine.

"When you think about digital cameras you think about Canon and Nikon, and then you think Sony and Panasonic and Kodak. Polaroid sort of never enters the conversation. They aren't a player," he says.

In 2001 Polaroid went bankrupt. The company was sold only to go bankrupt again. The biggest blow to Polaroid fans came in 2008 when the company stopped making instant film. By then, Polaroid was little more than a name. But in business, names have value, and the right to that name was purchased by a holding company, which licenses the Polaroid name to manufacturers that make things like TVs, picture frames and digital cameras.

But instant film was not dead yet. A group of Polaroid fans and ex-employees formed a company called "The Impossible Project." They took over an old Polaroid factory in the Netherlands and started making instant film again, using a different process because the original Polaroid chemicals were no longer available.

"I'm sure if you made a phone call to some of the old research people from Polaroid, they would assure you that we were mad," says Andre Bosman, who heads The Impossible Project.

New black-and-white film is now on sale, and color film is coming soon. Bosman says the new film is clearer and crisper than its original film. But that may not be what Polaroid enthusiasts want. Photo historian Claude Cookman says part of the appeal of the classic Polaroid film is its less-than-perfect images.

"The colors feel quite different," Cookman says. "They are not crisp and clear and [it] has a certain retro feel to it in terms of its color and its size. And I think this is a really important dimension of it."

Bushman of the Paley Center for Media agrees. He says in this day of HDTVs and digital photography, there's something quaint, otherworldly to traditional Polaroid film.

"It has a very nostalgic value to it for that reason," he says.

Eking Out A Market

Polaroid's Scott Hardy says there is a market for instant film — even if it's a small one. But the company's not banking on film alone. It sells other products, including a digital camera with a built-in instant printer. But McClusky is skeptical that Polaroid will become a household name again.

"It seems unlikely to me that Polaroid's going to regain that status in the marketplace. You know, stranger things have happened in this world but they have a long road ahead of them," he says.

Whatever happens with Polaroid, at least it's got Lady Gaga along for the ride.

-excerpt from npr

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Bump For Cash: Phones As Virtual Wallets

The use of mobile phones to exchange money is a main theme at this week's wireless industry conference in Las Vegas. Last week, PayPal introduced an iPhone app that lets users pay for items by tapping their handset against another phone.

As Mario Armstrong tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer, the PayPal app is similar to the old days, when people with Palm Pilots used an infrared beam to share contact info between devices. Bump Technologies introduced software to simplify that process. The new app uses software from PayPal and Bump to let registered users conduct a transaction via their phones.

To prevent unauthorized use, the app requires a password for every transaction. But, Armstrong said, "as mobile payments and using mobile devices to pay for transactions rises, we will obviously see more types of security threats in this area."

So, with sophisticated phones that can use this software becoming more prevalent, will shoppers soon be tapping their phones against the cash register at stores, instead of using a credit card? That's already happening in some countries, from Austria to Korea, Armstrong says.

In the United States, Starbucks is running trials in some markets, allowing customers to use their phones as their Starbucks card. And Arkansas has become the first U.S. state to let people use their phones to pay for e-government services — everything from probation fees to property taxes.

As for Bump, Armstrong says he's given it a try — and he concedes that the idea of zapping real money around by using virtual gestures can take some getting used to.

But, he said, "the convenience is really incredible — the ability to transfer funds on the spot, or look at multiple accounts on the spot — to be able to have almost a virtual wallet at your fingertips."

-excerpt from npr

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Boomerang Kids Drive Rise Of Extended Family Living

As jobs have disappeared and houses have been foreclosed on, many Americans are sharing space to save money. A new study by the Pew Research Center found the number of people in multigenerational households grew by 2.6 million between 2007 and 2008.

But the bad economy isn't the only reason more homes are filled with several generations; the trend has been under way since 1980.

In a roomy townhouse in Northern Virginia, the Anderson family exemplifies what demographers say is a cultural shift. Jackie Anderson, 23, graduated from Penn State last year. Given the horrendous job market, she pretty much planned on ending up back with her mom and dad. These days, she certainly sees no shame in that.

U.S. Population Living In Multigenerational Family Households

Source: Pew Research Center
Credit: Stephanie d'Otreppe/NPR
"Most of my friends that are from high school are still around this area, and most of them do live with their parents as well," Jackie says. "And I know a good number of them up in Pennsylvania do the same thing."

The recession has hit young workers especially hard. But Jackie's mother, Chris, says long before the bad economy, she had always expected her daughter to move back in.

"I thought when she graduated she would want to build up enough money to get a place of her own, to get a car, all the things she wanted to live comfortably," she says.

Generation Gap Closing

The Pew study found that the share of people in multigenerational households has grown by a third since 1980 — to 16 percent of the population — and young adults like Jackie are leading the way. The center's Paul Taylor says baby boomers may have come of age protesting just about every conviction their parents held. But, he says, that generation gap has virtually disappeared among their children, the so-called "millennial" generation.

"It seems rather admiring of older adults," Taylor says. Millennials "believe older adults have values that are better than their own. At some level they're becoming buddies with mom and dad, and they may not find it so unusual to still be living in their childhood bedroom."

These so-called "boomerang kids" aren't the only ones driving the trend of extended family living. Older adults are also slightly more likely to share such households. Demographers say the generation that gave birth to the baby boomers has a lot more kids to potentially move in with.

Another big factor is the increasingly large share of the population made up of immigrants, who are far more likely than native-born whites to live with grandparents and grandchildren.

"Particularly among Hispanic families, they are looking for larger-sized homes," says Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors. "And some of the Asian communities are just accustomed to living with grandparents in their home countries, so they're adopting it here as well."

Yun says home sales were the same last year as in 2000, even though the U.S. population grew by nearly 30 million. Clearly, he says, people are moving in with each other instead of buying their own place.

Jackie Anderson recently found a job and is planning to move out … sometime.

"I'm kind of playing it by ear," she laughs. "I'd like to do it maybe around the summer — that's a tentative date."

Her dad says she'll have her parents' blessing when she goes, but they like having her around, and they're not going to give her the shove.

-exerpt from npr

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The End Of 9-To-5: When Work Time Is Anytime

When you think of cutting edge, 21st-century workplaces, chances are a county government bureaucracy does not come to mind. But the Human Services and Public Health Department of Hennepin County, in Minneapolis, Minn., is engaged in about as radical an experiment with flexible work as exists.

One morning late last year, the lobby was packed with people applying for food, housing and other public assistance. But down a hall, in a grayish-beige cubicle farm, it feels like a ghost office.

"Here's another one, empty," says supervisor Ann Zager as she guides me among vacant chairs and black computer terminals. Her staff of 13 determines eligibility for assistance, and half of them are not here.

"I mean sometimes I don't see or hear from them for days," Zager says.

Zager has figured out that she needs only five or six staffers at a time to handle face-to-fact client meetings. Everyone takes turns being in the office, and otherwise schedules themselves as they wish.

"At first it was really hard for them," she says. "They would come to me and say, 'Ann, I need to take off next week, or I need to do this.'" Zager would remind them that if they were not scheduled to be in the office, they did not owe her any explanation.

"It was hard for them to believe I really don't care!" she says.

Hennepin County is practicing what's called a results-only work environment, or ROWE, which gives everyone in a company the freedom to do their job when and where they want, as long as the work gets done. The state of Minnesota signed a contract for the program last year as part of a campaign to reduce rush hour traffic on 35W in Minneapolis. Nationwide, 3 percent of businesses now say they have a ROWE, though as far as participants here in Hennepin County know, theirs is the first public agency to adopt it. Many are ecstatic at the way it's working so far.

Non-Traditional Time

More In This Series
PART 1: More Employers Make Room For Work-Life Balance
March 15, 2010
Can Working Moms 'Have It All'? Ha!
March 14, 2010
In a northern suburb of Minneapolis, county program manager Kara Terry has made her kitchen table a home office. Nearly every evening after dinner she brings out her laptop, typing away as she oversees her three sons doing their homework. They are in elementary and middle school, and Terry says she's never been able to spend so much time with them.

"Oh gosh, I can go and have lunch with Brandon," she says, "or volunteer at the kids' school, and still get my 40 hours in. I just do it at a non-traditional time."

Back at the county offices, human services representative Anna Reynolds is giddy about not having to make her 50-mile commute every day, which often meant arriving home past dinnertime.

"I don't have to come home and find my little bit of cold leftover sitting aside," she says. "It's really nice to have hot food, and fresh food, and to eat with my family."

Making Flex Time Work

So where did this radical work system come from? It was created by two human resource workers who became frustrated that the daily grind wasn't only constraining, it was also inefficient.

"There's this belief that if you're at work, you're doing work — and people are not," says co-creator Jody Thompson. She says 80 percent of companies' lost productivity is from "presenteeism" — when someone is physically in the office but mentally somewhere else.

In the early 2000s, Thompson and her colleague Cali Ressler were working at Best Buy and charged with creating a flexible work strategy there. They soon decided that letting some employees telecommute or have a four-day week wasn't working. Ressler says when managers grant these special favors to some but not others, co-workers become jealous, and the work atmosphere can be hostile. What's more, she says those who get the flexibility are stigmatized, since a lot of managers don't actually believe the employees are working if they can't see them.

Their solution was to give everyone — from managers on down — the same flexibility. Best Buy adapted this results-only program at its headquarters, and Thompson and Ressler later left to create their own consulting firm.

Productivity Spike

At Hennepin County's social services agency, not everyone welcomed the dramatic change.

"I didn't like it at all because I feel we're accountable to the taxpayer," says Bob Brinkhouse, a child-support officer who's been with the county for 17 years. He admits he's "old-school," and felt that "someone should know where we're at during our eight hours a day."

ROWE Basics
Want the extreme flexibility in your workplace? Here are a few things to expect from a results-only work environment:

All meetings are optional. Read that again if you need time to absorb it. ROWE's creators insist on it, even though plenty of managers have backed out of the program when they learned of this. Staff are still responsible for what happens in meetings. They say if it's worth it, they'll come. But they also soon discover how many hours they'd previously wasted in unnecessary meetings.

Results have to be defined. When you can't judge someone's effectiveness by how many hours a day they show up, you are forced to look at what they produce. Managers and staff say they've had to jointly spell out explicit tasks or achievements and specific dates for them to be completed.

You must change the way you communicate. You may get more work done at home without all those office distractions, but if you need to communicate something, it's a lot easier when your colleague is in the next cubicle. Before the Human Services and Public Health Department of Hennepin County, in Minneapolis, Minn., launched ROWE, staff did a test run: They spent one day in the office pretending they were all working alone, communicating only via e-mail, instant messaging or phone.

Every day feels like Saturday. This is a favorite ROWE tenet, though it begs the questions: When does the work happen, and couldn't every day also feel like Monday? ROWE's creators point out that many of us are incredibly busy on weekends, but we feel more relaxed because we are in control of our schedule. So ROWE lets you set your schedule every day, fitting in laundry, conference calls and errands as needed.

Brinkhouse also worried that some colleagues would fall behind in their work, or worse, take advantage of the freedom, a sentiment echoed in snarky letters to the local newspaper. (One essentially asked, "How are you going to waste my tax dollars now?")

But Brinkhouse and the two child-support colleagues on his team forward their phones and use instant messaging to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. To his own surprise, he's come around.

"The way it works," he says, "all three of us could be home and it wouldn't affect anybody. Now, one drawback is, I get lonely at home. It's too quiet!"

Clearly, something is lost in a ROWE workplace: Call it an intangible synergy, or that spontaneous brainstorming that can accomplish more than a dozen e-mails ever could. But there is a strong business case for a results-only work environment.

Zager, whose staff processes Hennepin County's public support cases, says her unit receives about 8,000 pieces of mail a month.

"Before we started ROWE," she says, "we were about two, 2 1/2 weeks out on processing. We are now down to five days or less," she says. People were just more productive.

In fact, productivity jumped so much, rumors flew about possible layoffs.

Work-Life Balance

In a pure results-only workplace, no one needs to track their hours, and paid time off disappears. Who needs it if you set your own schedule?

Flex Work Options

Chart: What Are Flexible Working Options?
For those who lament that working 9 to 5, as Dolly Parton once sang, is all takin' and no givin', there are options for a more flexible arrangement. Don't know your flextime from your job share? Here, a quick primer.

But as a public agency, Hennepin County employees must still put in 40 hours a week. And as a union shop, no one has tossed out carefully negotiated vacation and sick leave benefits. Employees, though, say their leave time is piling up, so this might force the issue.

Another hitch: Old attitudes about work die hard, so a lot of time is spent trying to change them. In a basement conference room, two dozen county workers line a U-shaped table as trainer Ashley Everett engages volunteers in a role-playing exercise.

"Tina, let's talk about Tammy," she says. "Oh my gosh. Tammy only shows up at maybe 10 o'clock during the day. I mean, geez, does she ever work?"

Taking her cue, Tina shakes her head, "No, not really." The others erupt in peals of laughter as they recognize such routine office gossip. But Everett says in a results-only system, for all they know Tina was up until midnight finishing a company report.

In another role play, Everett pretends she's just entering the office, as a colleague says, "Ten o'clock and you're barely getting in?"

Everett turns around and delivers a devastating comeback line: "Is there something you needed from me before 10?"

The others laugh even louder and offer up a round of applause.

Sometimes at sessions like this, as the possibility of a new way of work sinks in, results-only co-creator Ressler says she's seen boomer-aged men break down and cry.

"They realize they've not seen their children grow up," she says. "They've given up hobbies, they've given up dreams to play the game. We don't want future generations to look back on their lives and have so many regrets that they cry."

-excerpt from npr

Monday, January 25, 2010

How 'The Hidden Brain' Does The Thinking For Us

After making a silly mistake, it's not uncommon for a person to say, "Oops — I was on autopilot." In his new book, The Hidden Brain, science writer Shankar Vedantam explains how there's actually a lot of truth to that.

Our brains have two modes, he tells NPR's Steve Inkseep — conscious and unconscious, pilot and autopilot — and we are constantly switching back and forth between the two.

"The problem arises when we [switch] without our awareness," Vedantam says, "and the autopilot ends up flying the plane, when we should be flying the plane."

The autopilot mode can be useful when we're multitasking, but it can also lead us to make unsupported snap judgments about people in the world around us. Vedantam says that when we interact with people from different backgrounds in high-pressure situations, it's easy to rely — unconsciously — on heuristics.

Racial categorization begins at an extremely early age. Vedantam cites research from a day-care center in Montreal that found that children as young as 3 linked white faces with positive attributes and black faces with negative attributes.

"Now, these were children who are 3 years old," Vedantam says. "It is especially hard to call them bigots, or to suggest that they are explicitly racially biased or have animosity in their hearts."

Vedantam says the mind is hard-wired to "form associations between people and concepts." But he thinks that the links the children made between particular groups and particular concepts were not biologically based — those judgments came from culture and upbringing.

"We tend to think of the conscious messages that we give children as being the most powerful education that we can give them," Vedantam says — but the unconscious messages are actually far more influential.

He says that for every 50 times a year a teacher talks about tolerance, there are many hundreds of implicit messages of racial bias that children absorb through culture — whether it's television, books or the attitudes of the adults and kids around them.

"And it's these hidden associations that essentially determine what happens in the unconscious minds of these children," Vedantam says.

'Take Back The Controls'

In American society, colorblindness is often held up as the ideal. And though it's a worthy aspiration, Vedantam says it's a goal that isn't rooted in psychological reality.

"Our hidden brains will always recognize people's races, and they will do so from a very, very young age," Vedantam says. "The far better approach is to put race on the table, to ask [children] to unpack the associations that they are learning, to help us shape those associations in more effective ways."

Most of us think of ourselves as being conscious, intentional, deliberate creatures. ... I have become, in some ways, much more humble about my views and much less certain about myself.
- Shankar Vedantam
Going back to the autopilot analogy, Vedantam says it's not a problem that the brain has an autopilot mode — as long as you are aware of when it is on. His book, The Hidden Brain, is about how to "take back the controls."

So if the human psyche is just a big constellation of conscious and unconscious cognition — which thoughts represent the real you?

"Most of us think of ourselves as being conscious, intentional, deliberate creatures," Vedantam says. "I know that I think of myself that way: I know why I like this movie star, or why I voted for this president, or why I prefer this political party to that."

But doing research for this book changed all that, Vedantam says.

"I have become, in some ways, much more humble about my views and much less certain about myself. And it may well be that the hidden brain is much more in charge of what we do than our conscious mind's intentions."

-excerpt from NPR

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Death, Desperation Mark Haiti's Dark Hours

The lone morgue in Port-au-Prince is filled to overflowing, while a mass grave outside the city holds thousands of bodies. Yet three days after a titanic earthquake, the death count has barely begun in Haiti’s capital.

Hundreds of U.S. troops reached the city on Friday, but the nascent international aid effort had yet to show much impact and residents were becoming increasingly angry and impatient.

Photos: Rescue And Heartbreak In Port-Au-Prince

Amid reports of scattered looting, Haitians were in a desperate search for food and water, even as bodies still litter the streets.

Vox Haiti
Voices Heard Above The Earthquake's Roar
Urgent needs are being met in piecemeal fashion. Makeshift medical clinics — most of them outdoors — are struggling to cope with the injured, often with few or no medical supplies.

"Haiti is dead, is dead, is dead, is dead, is dead. Everything is breaking down," Philippe Mercier told NPR's Greg Allen. "It's like somebody who lives in the street, you know? Eat on the street, drink water on the street. There's no pure water."

Hundreds of thousands of survivors in this desperately poor Caribbean nation are believed to be homeless. Many have fashioned makeshift shelters on the sides of city streets, in parks, and wherever else they can take refuge as aftershocks continue to rattle the city.

Heard On 'All Things Considered'
January 15, 2010
NPR's Carrie Kahn Reports From The Port-Au-Prince Morgue
[5 min 3 sec]

January 15, 2010
Haitians Shaped By Years Of Poverty, Corruption
[2 min 40 sec]

January 15, 2010
NPR's Greg Allen Reports On A Woman Pulled From The Rubble
[2 min 56 sec]

"There are just thousands of people out on the streets," said NPR's Jackie Northam from Port-au-Prince. "Every inch of the grass in this city is now taken up with people who are just huddled down because they have nowhere to go."

People trapped under rubble are being rescued in many cases by their neighbors, as Haitians pull together. Roberta Joachim, a worker at Haiti's National Library, was carried into the hospital by several men whom she had never met. Another former stranger made calls to her hometown in Gonaives, a place far from Port-au-Prince and largely unaffected by the earthquake, in an effort to let someone know that the young woman from the provinces was still alive.

In the ruins of the Montana Hotel, American Dan Wooley and Haitian Lucson Mondesir were trapped side by side in adjacent elevator cars. In the darkness, they talked and encouraged each other until a rescue team from Fairfax County, Va., arrived.

There is still no firm count of how many people perished in Tuesday's magnitude 7.0 earthquake. The international Red Cross has estimated that between 45,000 and 50,000 people were killed in the quake, but U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday there was no point in speculating about the scope of deaths or injuries until more information was available.

At least six Americans have been confirmed dead, including one U.S. diplomat, but the U.S. casualty count is expected to rise.

So many corpses have been brought to the morgue at the national hospital that hundreds have been stacked up outside in piles that snake around the corner of the building.

"There are dozens of people lined up to try and attempt the gruesome task of identifying their loved ones," NPR's Carrie Kahn reported from the scene. "It's a horrific sight to go in and experience that many dead people in all levels of decomposition."

U.N. peacekeepers and Haitian government officials have begun to collect some of the corpses and taken them to a mass grave on the outskirts of the city. Haiti's president has said that 7,000 bodies already have been buried there.

The Two-Way Blog
Find Maps, Videos, Links To Aid Agencies And More

"It's not enough, so other sites must be created," David Wimhurst, spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission, told NPR's All Things Considered.

But the needs of the dead are simple compared with the care required by a staggering number of injured survivors. And many obstacles exist. Taking a lesson from the South Asian tsunami, governments and humanitarian agencies have been quick to rush sophisticated, pre-packaged field hospitals to the earthquake zone, but there’s a real danger they could simply stack up at the overtaxed Port-au-Prince airport.

Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, urged well-meaning donors to send something other than mobile hospitals, at least for now.

Haiti Quake
Complete NPR Coverage

"We need to avoid gaps and duplication and not waste the money of the donors," Byrs said.

Among Haiti's chief needs: surgeons who specialize in crush injuries, and nurses. Many of Haiti's medical personnel were killed or injured in Tuesday’s quake.

The human help on the way is moving slowly.

Interactive: Quake Damage From Above
Hundreds of U.S. troops already have arrived in Haiti, and several thousand are coming over the weekend after President Obama ordered an initial $100 million relief effort.

The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier also arrived offshore, with 19 helicopters and the capacity to produce hundreds of thousands of gallons of desperately needed drinkable water.

"There are going to be many difficult days ahead," President Obama said on Friday, after speaking with Haitian President Rene Preval. "As I told the president, we realize that he needs more help and his country needs more help — much more."

Bowing to pressure from Congress, the Obama administration said Friday that tens of thousands of Haitian immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally will be allowed to stay for the next year and a half. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said they're being granted temporary protected status, or TPS. That means that none will be deported to their devastated homeland for now. But any Haitians who attempt to flee to the U.S. will be sent back.

Back in Haiti, U.N. peacekeepers have seen "sporadic episodes of looting," according to Wimhurst. The Brazilian military, which makes up the largest contingent in the United Nations peacekeeping force, warned aid convoys to add security to guard against looting.

Indeed, some looters — young men and boys with machetes — roamed downtown streets on Friday.

"They are scavenging everything. What can you do?" said Michel Legros, 53, as he waited for help to search for seven relatives buried in his collapsed house.

There was still little evidence of aid being distributed downtown, and U.N. officials warned that Haitians are becoming increasingly fed up.

"Unfortunately, they're slowly getting more angry and impatient," Wimhurst said of the Haitians. "I fear we're all aware that the situation is getting more tense as the poorest people who need so much are waiting for deliveries. I think tempers might be frayed."

On the streets, Haitians expressed growing fears about their safety, particularly as there continues to be little sign of local police presence. Fueling these concerns, an estimated 4,000 prisoners were believed to have escaped from the collapsed main prison.

"We're worried that people will get a little uneasy," said gas station attendant Jean Reynol, 37, explaining his station was ready to close immediately if violence breaks out.

Haitians also complained that they see little evidence that their government is functioning, but U.N. officials insisted that the Haitian officials were working behind the scenes.

"The Haitian government is functioning on a daily basis, believe it or not, even though the prime minister's office has been demolished and the president's palace has gone down and the ministries have collapsed," Wimhurst told NPR's Melissa Block. "In spite of all that, they've regrouped very fast. They meet every day at 7 o'clock in the morning."

U.S. officials said that U.N. peacekeepers will have the main responsibility of maintaining security in the capital, but the U.S. military will take a lead role in coordinating relief efforts. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that he does not expect a hostile reception.

"Particularly given the role that we will have in delivering food and water and medical help to people, my guess is, the reaction will be one of relief at seeing Americans providing this kind of help," Gates told reporters on Friday.

The full extent of the damage is becoming clearer as relief workers fan out into more corners of the capital. Some 15 areas of the city have been hit particularly hard, with at least 70 percent of the buildings destroyed, according to assessments by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

One empty lot in the Bel Air neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, where a building stood only a few days earlier, has been turned into an impromptu bathhouse where people gathered around a hose, filling buckets.

Rescue teams were continuing to extract survivors from crumpled buildings, but a lack of heavy equipment means that many people remain trapped. Rescuers from the Dominican Republic stood outside the wrecked Interior Ministry building where at least two people were believed to be alive amid the rubble.

"We can't do anything because it's a difficult situation there," said Miguelina Tactou, one of the rescue workers. "Our people can be in danger."

Gerald Emil Brun survived a three-story fall after the collapse of the building that housed his architectural and engineering firm, Tecina. His colleagues were not so lucky.

"We are recovering about eight cadavers so far from our building — senior engineers and architects, a lot of them are gone," he said. "The way the construction industry goes in Haiti, we are probably responsible for 3,000 families. Now it's all down. It's all gone."

In what has long been the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, shock was giving way to despair.

"We need food. The people are suffering. My neighbors and friends are suffering," said Sylvain Angerlotte, 22. "We don't have money. We don't have nothing to eat. We need pure water."

Aid flights have been landing steadily at the Port-au-Prince airport. From Europe, Asia and the Americas, more than 20 governments, the U.N. and private aid groups were sending planeloads of high-energy biscuits and other food, tons of water, tents, blankets, water purification gear, heavy equipment for removing debris, helicopters and other transport.

In all, governments and international agencies have pledged more than $400 million in aid. The American Red Cross also reported a dramatic outpouring of support from the American public, saying that it received nearly $35 million in donations in the first 48 hours after the quake struck.

The massive international effort also yielded a rare diplomatic detente between the United States and Cuba, after Havana agreed to allow U.S. medical evacuation flights to fly through Cuban airspace to reach the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay.

But the port in Haiti's capital is too badly damaged to be used for aid deliveries, which has severely restricted the pace of relief supplies. Some flights into Port-au-Prince had to be diverted — and the airport had been forced to halt flights several times on Thursday and Friday — as the tarmac filled up with airplanes and jet fuel ran short.

Aid workers are beginning to worry that they are running out of time.

"There is a huge amount of people in need, but my fear is now how we're going to get to them all," Hauke Hoops, the regional emergency coordinator in Haiti for CARE, an international aid group, wrote in a dispatch from Port-au-Prince. "This is one of the biggest disasters I've ever seen, and it is a huge logistical challenge."

The WFP began organizing distribution centers for food and water, but by Friday, it was only managing to feed about 8,000 families a day, according U.N. officials. The U.N.'s Ban acknowledged this was just a drop in the bucket. The WFP is planning to scale up its efforts in to feed 1 million people within 15 days, and 2 million within a month.

But aid workers have been blocked by debris on inadequate roads and by survivors gathered in the open out of fear of aftershocks and re-entering unstable buildings.

"The physical destruction is so great that physically getting from Point A to B with the supplies is not an easy task," Emilia Casella, a WFP spokeswoman in Rome, said at a news conference.

- NPR's Greg Allen, Jason Beaubien, David Gilkey, Jackie Northam, Carrie Kahn and Michele Kelemen contributed to this report, which also includes information from NPR wire services

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Race Against Time For Aid In Haiti

Aid was trickling in slowly to earthquake-ravaged Haiti on Thursday, but the magnitude of the disaster was overwhelming the relief efforts.

Several planeloads of medics and search-and-rescue teams have already landed in the devastated capital of Port-au-Prince, and as many as several thousand U.S. troops were on their way to the Caribbean nation.

President Obama said Thursday that the U.S. government was launching "one of the largest relief efforts in our recent history" to help stricken country, but that it would take "hours, and in many cases, days" to get the aid there. He authorized $100 million in emergency aid for Haiti.

But in Port-au-Prince, there were few apparent signs so far of an organized plan to bring food and water to the 3 million or so Haitians that the International Red Cross estimates need emergency assistance.

"There is no government aid out here bringing anything to the people," said NPR's Carrie Kahn, reporting from Port-au-Prince. "They've been three days now without food and water."

Kahn said survivors were wandering the streets in desperate search of water, food and medical care.

The Two-Way Blog
Find Maps, Videos, Links To Aid Agencies And More

"You go into every building, you do down every corner, and there are people wailing, crying, bandaged up, and there are no doctors to help them," Kahn said.

She visited one clinic packed with several dozen patients lying on mattresses on the floor, many of them bleeding and moaning, but there were no doctors in sight. One 8-year-old girl lost her whole family —11 people — in the quake.

At least eight of Port-au-Prince's hospitals have been heavily damaged. The aid group Doctors Without Borders treated the wounded at two hospitals that withstood the quake and set up tent clinics elsewhere to replace its damaged facilities. Many of the hundreds of Cuban doctors stationed in Haiti also worked to treat the injured in field hospitals.

"This is much worse than a hurricane," said Jimitre Coquillon, a doctor's assistant who was working at a separate makeshift triage center set up in a hotel parking lot. "There's no water. There's nothing. Thirsty people are going to die."

There's no water. There's nothing. Thirsty people are going to die.
- Jimitre Coquillon, a doctor's assistant at a makeshift triage center
But aid will likely be slow to arrive. Deliveries of supplies by ship to Port-au-Prince were impossible because the capital's port was so badly damaged, according to United Nations officials. The city's airport is open but straining to handle dozens of incoming flights of supplies and rescuers.

Meanwhile, bodies were strewn on almost every street. The body of one mother was covered with the corpses of her children.

"People have nowhere to put them, so they wrap them in sheets and cardboards in the hope that the authorities will pick them. People have also piled bodies in front of the city's main hospitals," Cedric Perus, the humanitarian coordinator in Haiti for Oxfam, an international aid group, said in a statement from Port-au-Prince. "Bodies may stay under the rubble for a long time because it is difficult to access some sites and heavy lifting equipment is in limited supply."

There was still no reliable estimate on how many people were killed by Tuesday's magnitude-7.0 quake. On Thursday morning, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told several TV networks that she feared that tens of thousands of Haitians had died. Earlier, Haitian President Rene Preval had said the toll could be in the thousands. Leading Sen. Youri Latortue told The Associated Press the number could be 500,000, but conceded that nobody really knew.

"Let's say that it's too early to give a number," Preval told CNN on Wednesday.

Erika Santelices/AFP/Getty Images
A U.N. soldier walked along a street a day after it was destroyed by the massive 7.0-magnitude earthquake Tuesday in Port-au-Prince.
The first American death in the quake was confirmed by a State Department official, who said that at least 164 U.S. citizens have been evacuated. Hundreds more are awaiting flights out on Thursday.

Obama promised an all-out rescue and humanitarian effort including military and civilian emergency teams from across the U.S. The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was expected to arrive off the coast Thursday, and the Navy said the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan had been ordered to sail as soon as possible with a 2,000-member Marine unit. An advance group of more than 100 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division will leave Fort Bragg in North Carolina on Thursday to prepare for the arrival of about 3,500 more from the division by Sunday.

Speaking directly to Haitians, Obama said, "You will not be forsaken."

A U.S. military assessment team was the first to arrive, to assess Haiti's needs.

"We are going to do everything we can to maintain order," Clinton told CNN.

The global relief effort did pick up some steam Thursday with the arrival of an Air China flight carrying search-and-rescue teams, medics, trained search dogs and aid supplies. But it took six hours to unload the aircraft because the airport lacked the needed equipment, a possible sign of more bottlenecks ahead.

A British flight with a government assessment team and 71 rescue specialists along with heavy equipment arrived in the neighboring Dominican Republic. The crew prepared to head to Haiti. A Los Angeles County Fire Department 72-member search team left for the Caribbean island nation late Wednesday.

The United Nations released $10 million from its emergency funds, even as U.N. forces in Haiti struggled with their own losses. The U.N. headquarters building collapsed in Port-au-Prince, and at least 16 personnel are confirmed dead, with up to 150 still missing, including mission director Hedi Annabi of Tunisia and his chief deputy, Luis Carlos da Costa.

"We'll be using whatever roads are passable to get aid to Port-au-Prince, and if possible we'll bring helicopters in," said Emilia Casella, a spokeswoman for the U.N. food agency in Geneva.

Aftershocks continued to rattle the city overnight, jolting people awake.

Doctors stitched up head wounds on several children at a hotel compound where many surivors gathered for the night. "It was just excruciating to hear them screaming out in pain, calling out to their parents for help," reported NPR's Kahn. "You hear moans throughout the night."

At another site, about 200 survivors, including many children, huddled in a theater parking lot using sheets to rig makeshift tents.

Police officers carried the injured in their pickup trucks. Wisnel Occilus, a 24-year-old student, was wedged between two other survivors in a truck bed headed to a police station. He was in an English class when the quake struck at 4:53 p.m. and the building collapsed.

"The professor is dead. Some of the students are dead, too," said Occilus, who suspected he had several broken bones. "Everything hurts."

Around the city, ad hoc medical centers sprung up, including one at the airport where U.N. workers, foreigners and Haitians were being frantically treated.

Hundreds of patients were lined up in cot after cot in covered hangers, NPR's Kahn reported. One man arrived in a wheelbarrow; another made it after being trapped in rubble for 16 hours.

Doctors who arrived from Miami on Wednesday evening hustled to treat the injuries, which included broken limbs, spinal damage and internal bleeding. In the space of just a few hours, at least four people died of relatively minor injuries that doctors said would have been treated easily in a more advanced facility.

But calls from other victims seeking help from emergency services weren't getting through because systems that connect different phone networks were not working, according to officials from a telecommunications provider in Haiti.

Calls were being placed sometimes 15 to 20 times from the same phone, which was "painful to watch," said Jyoti Mahurkar-Thombre, Alcatel-Lucent's general manager of wireless voice.

About 3,000 police and international peacekeepers worked to clear debris, direct traffic and maintain security in the capital. But law enforcement was stretched thin even before the quake and would be ill-equipped to deal with major unrest. The U.N.'s 9,000-member peacekeeping force sent patrols across the capital's streets while securing the airport, port and main buildings.

Looting began immediately after the quake, with people seen carrying food from collapsed buildings. Inmates were reported to have escaped from the damaged main prison in Port au Prince, said Elisabeth Byrs, a U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman in Geneva.

-excerpt from NPR