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Upstairs from one of my favorite Oakland dive bars, 10 people of varying ages and backgrounds are sitting in a circle, talking about their drinking problem.
“I make plans for my non-drinking days so that I’m not thinking about it so much – I work out, I schedule late work meetings, so it’s not even a temptation,” a tall, thin older woman says. Later, she explains that there was a time not long ago when the idea of getting through any day without five or six drinks seemed impossible to her.
“Go out later, hold off on that first drink, set up a game for yourself like ‘I can only buy one drink and then I have to get any others I want bought for me’,” adds a young man in stubble and a newsboy cap. “Hold off on your second drink, too,” adds the older man sitting next to him. “I used to order my next drink halfway through my first, so I’d be halfway through my second before the effects of the first one would kick in and then forget about it.”
This is Moderation Management (MM), a program whose rising popularity and success rate is posing the first real challenge in decades to the traditional, black and white approach to addiction. Continue reading...
In 2008, floods in Thailand forced the temporary closure of four Nike factories, costing the company millions of dollars. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy demolished Verizon’s copper-wire infrastructure on the U.S. eastern seaboard, costing thousands of Verizon customers service and the company $1 billion in repair costs.
Extreme weather events like these comprise just one category of the climate-change-driven risks that companies and governments are beginning to plan for. Others include water scarcity, sea-level rise, fuel shortages and shifting migratory patterns. To help companies and governments gauge which of these risks are most relevant to them, and figure out what they can do about it, a new breed of experts — climate adaptation specialists — is beginning to emerge. Continue reading...
Lately, it seems like a new study on the health impacts of phthalates comes out every week. The chemicals are everywhere: they’re used in everything from household cleaners to food packaging to fragrance, cosmetics, and personal-care products.
In 2003, researchers at the US Center for Disease Control documented widespread exposure to a high level of a group of chemicals called phthalates (pdf) across the general American public. The chemicals act as binding agents and also make plastics flexible.
The CDC recommended that the chemicals and their effect on human health be studied further, a recommendation that helped unlock funding for dozens of studies focused on phthalates, resulting in a tidal wave of recently published reports that largely indicate the CDC’s concern was warranted. Continue reading...
When we talk about digital media being more immersive, it's usually not good news for social skills. We worry about the kids. So when news first started coming out that virtual reality was making its way into universities and schools, some parents and pundits were, understandably, concerned. The idea of students at any age being encouraged to spend even more time in the digital world just seemed like another step on the road toward a future society filled with self-absorbed zombies, at turns aggressive and indifferent, lacking empathy and the ability to communicate with each other.
Recent and ongoing research, however, has found that immersive virtual reality scenarios—digital media that enables people to virtually experience something that feels more or less real—could actually encourage "pro-social" behaviors. Virtual reality has been shown to engender racial sensitivity in participants, as well as greater empathy for those with disabilities, respect for the environment, and an increased willingness to help others.
In the cleanest college library I’ve ever seen, women of various ages and ethnicities were seated around a long wooden table. A few were chatting, but most were nervously shuffling notebooks and pens or staring at the floor. The men – there were five, ranging in age from early 20s to mid-50s – showed up just before class began. I tried to divine, one by one, what horrible tragedy had brought them all there.
This was the Tuesday night forgiveness course at Stanford University. I was there strictly to observe. Formalised forgiveness training – complete with a reading list, lectures, practice sessions and homework – was for people who had survived genocide, not for me with my garden-variety baggage (even if I had read everything I could about forgiveness training, developing a not-unhealthy obsession with the topic). Professor Frederic Luskin told me I could sit in on his class, but would have to participate so it wouldn’t seem weird. No problem. I prepared an almost-true story about a fight with my mother.
Then, his large eyes flashing and greying hair standing on end, Luskin held his hands out in front of him like a zombie, palms down and spaced about a foot apart. ‘Most of our disappointment in life stems from wanting this,’ he jabbed at the air with his left hand, the higher of the two, for emphasis, ‘and getting this,’ he said, jiggling the lowered right hand. Then he stared at all of us, intently. ‘OK? And forgiveness is about what you decide to do with this space in the middle. Are you going to adjust what you expect and let the rest go, or are you going to live in this space? Because I’ll tell you what, living in there is miserable.’
Shit. Now all I could think about was living in that terrible, empty space between his two giant hands. How I’d been stuck there for years, waiting for things to change and then being angry and disappointed when nothing happened.
A woman peers through goggles embedded in a large black helmet. Forest sounds emanate from various corners of the room: a bird chirping here, a breeze whispering there. She moves slowly around the room. On the wall, a flat digital forest is projected so observers can get a rough idea of her surroundings, but in her mind’s eye, this undergrad is no longer pacing a small, cramped room in a university lab. Thanks to that black helmet, she's walking through the woods.
In a minute, she's handed a joystick that looks and vibrates like a chainsaw, and she's asked to cut down a tree. As she completes the task, she feels the same sort of resistance she might feel if she were cutting down a real tree. When she leaves this forest, and re-enters the "real" world, her paper consumption will drop by 20 percent and she will show a measurable preference for recycled paper products. Those effects will continue into the next few weeks and researchers hypothesize it will be a fairly permanent shift. By comparison, students who watch a video about deforestation or read an article on the subject will show heightened awareness of paper waste through that day—but they will return to their baseline behavior by the end of the week.
The tree-cutting study is one of many that Stanford University has conducted in its Virtual Human Interaction Lab over the last several years in an attempt to figure out the extent to which a simulated experience can affect behavior. And it’s part of a growing body of research that suggests virtual experiences may offer a powerful catalyst for otherwise apathetic groups to begin caring about issues and taking action, including on climate change. That's important because while time spent in nature has been proven to be quite beneficial to human health, whether or not humans repay the favor tends to rely on the type of nature experiences they have in their youth. In a 2009 study published in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers from the University of Pretoria in South Africa found that while people who spent time hiking and backpacking were more willing to support conservation efforts a decade or more later, those who had visited national parks or spent time fishing as kids were actually less inclined to do anything to support the environment. An earlier (2006) study on the relationship between nature experiences and environmentalism found that while those who had spent their youth in "wild" nature, defined as hiking or playing in the woods, were more likely to be environmentalists as adults, those who had been exposed to "domesticated" nature—defined as visits to parks, picking flowers, planting seeds, or tending to gardens—were not. Given the unlikelihood of every child having a "wild" nature experience, researchers are on the hunt for other ways to cultivate environmentally responsible behavior.
On an average day in 1998, statistician David Fairley was walking up a busy San Francisco street to pick up his son from preschool. Traffic was heavy, and halfway to the school, he started to feel weak and dazed.
“Actually, a homeless guy saw me and helped me to the school,” Fairley said. “[People at the school] had me lie down for a bit.”
Fairley felt better after a rest, but the school administrators insisted he go to the hospital. On the way there, he had a heart attack.
Years earlier, as a newcomer to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Fairley had been asked to vet new research that correlated exposure to particulate matter and increased mortality rates—particularly deaths related to cardiovascular and respiratory incidents. At the time, all of the available science had been conducted by one researcher in London.
“I thought, the Bay Area isn’t like London at all; it’s much colder and wetter there, and people there might already have respiratory issues,” Fairley said. “And honestly I set out thinking, I’m gonna prove this guy is wrong.” Fairley repeated the study in California’s Santa Clara County and, to his amazement, his results were almost exactly the same as the London researcher’s.
Since that time, several other studies have replicated Fairley’s results, including a long-term American Cancer Society study. There is now conclusive evidence that correlates particulate matter levels and daily mortality rates. Shortly after his heart attack, Fairley also uncovered studies that linked exposure to ultrafine particulate matter—the sort you get next to a busy street with a lot of traffic— and a coronary episode within one to two hours.
“Even though there were, of course, other factors, I believe walking up that street might well have contributed [to my heart attack],” he said. “Ultrafine particles are so small that they’re fairly unstable. They don’t stick around. They agglomerate into bigger particles or else diffuse out. If you look at the gradient from roads, concentrations of ultrafine particles are really a lot higher on a busy street. So it really could make a difference to move one or two streets over.”
Nonetheless, Fairley continued to walk the same busy route between his home, work, and his kid’s school for years. “It finally dawned on me after several years that I really should shift my route to less busy streets, so I did,” he said.
Did you catch that?
Even as an expert in particulate matter who had experienced its impact first-hand, it took Fairley years to adjust his routine according to the information he had. That is a fundamental issue when it comes to myriad decisions affecting both health and the environment in cities around the world. It’s not necessarily enough to have all the information we need to make good choices; rather, we need to have the right information in the precise moment in which we are making a decision.
Wearables—wristbands, watches, clothing, or in some cases, pollution masks with built-in wireless sensors—may be part of the solution. Capable of unobtrusively collecting all sorts of data on the street, comparing them with historical data from government, academic, and other sources, and pushing information to the user at relevant times, this new generation of gadgets promises to provide more current, actionable information than laptops or even smart phones.