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September 27, 2004

Buy a generator from G.M. and they'll throw in a truck


From Spike Gillespie's story on hybrid vehicles in yesterday's New York Times magazine:

But the secret, entirely inauspicious appeal of hybrid trucks and S.U.V.s may just be that most ubiquitous of domestic necessities: the electrical outlet.

The Ford Escape comes with a 110-volt outlet (for an extra $110), which is perfect for those days when the car pool is running late and you need to take along a toaster or hair dryer.

More impressive, G.M.'s Siverado and Sierra have four 120-volt outlets (two interior, two exterior), which in effect turn them into generators as well as a means of transportation.

Four appliances can run off the engine for up to 32 hours.

This capability earned G.M. some favorable attention recently during a power outage at a Nascar event in Indianapolis.

While the crowd waited for the electricity to be restored, a Silverado hybrid kept fans happy by running the M.C.'s audio system and XM radio sound panels.

G.M. also sent a fleet of 50 hybrid pickups to Florida after Hurricane Charley.

"They're being used as work and rescue trucks," said Matt Kester, assistant manager of communications for Hybrid Powertrain Systems at G.M.

"One is capable of powering four 20-cubic-foot household refrigerators. They can cool plasma or medicine."

I think this is huge.

I remember some months back, during one of Charlottesville's routine power outages after a thunderstorm, wondering if one couldn't use a regular gasoline-powered vehicle as an emergency generator.

You'd fill up your tank with gas, park your car outside as close to your house as possible, start the engine, put the car in "park," put the emergency brake on, connect an AC-DC power inverter, then run a heavy-duty extension cord into your house and connect up any appliances you wanted to use.

TV, computer, lamps, small stuff rather than refrigerators or the AC.

Why wouldn't it work?

I asked around but no one could give me a good answer as to whether it was feasible.

The use of a hybrid vehicle would appear to take my idea to the practical level.

Hybrids are designed to be emergency generators, in effect.

I will seriously consider one of these vehicles the next time I shop for a new car, for this reason alone.

September 27, 2004 at 09:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'It's expensive to be poor'


James Surowiecki's penetrating, succinct comment on living at the bottom of the economic ladder.

The always original and interesting financial columnist for the New Yorker wrote this week about the enormous opportunity that lies hidden in plain sight for anyone willing to turn her profit-seeking eye on the poor.

Surowiecki notes that buying in small amounts, which is all a poor person can do, is always more expensive than buying in bulk.

And of course, we all know that people with tons of assets get the lowest interest rates, whereas those with nothing pay exorbitantly for the privilege of borrowing.

Put $50 in a savings account at the bank, and they'll take 10% of your assets a month as a maintenance fee.

Put $50,000 into that account, and suddenly not only are there no maintenance fees, but you're getting a nice chunk of change as interest every month, along with free checking, etc.

Put $500,000 into that bank, and suddenly the bank's increased the interest rate it's paying you.

And so it goes.

Richard P. Feynman, in his legendary remark to one of his classes at Cal Tech ("There's plenty of room at the bottom") jump-started the field of nanotechnology.

Surowiecki notes that there's plenty of profit to be made at the bottom as well.

Who's gonna collect it?

Here's his column.


The notion that we live in a global economy is now a commonplace.

Supply chains extend halfway around the planet, and no respectable corporation would dare show its face without at least pretending to have well-defined global strategy.

The funny thing about the global economy, though, is how much of the globe has been left out of it.

Four billion people still earn less than four dollars a day, and as far as the global economy is concerned they hardly exist - except, of course as cheap labor.

After all, if you were the C.E.O. of a big company, whom would you rather have as customers: the rural poor in Uttar Pradesh or upscale suburbanites in greater Phoenix?

But perhaps it makes better sense for companies to see the poor as patrons worthy of their solicitations.

Though developing nations don’t have much money on a per-capita basis, together they control enormous sums; the ten biggest developing countries have about fourteen trillion dollars in annual purchasing power.

Most corporations assume that the world’s poor are so preoccupied with getting by that they’re indifferent to the allure of consumer goods or new technology, but the evidence suggests that poor consumers are similar to rich ones: they like to shop.

"Poor people want quality services, they want high standards for their products, and they want them at an affordable price," C. K. Prahalad, the author of a new book about fighting global poverty called "The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid," told me recently.

"This is a huge opportunity for businesses."

It may seem improbable that you can make money by selling to people who don’t have much, but, as Prahalad demonstrates, companies that have actually bothered to try are flourishing.

Unilever helped create the shampoo market in India, and now owns a large share of it.

Hindustan Lever has built a lucrative business in Africa and India selling brand-name consumer goods, from lotion to salt.

Casas Bahia, a department-store chain, now sells more than five billion dollars’ worth of brand-name electronics and appliances to working-class Brazilians every year.

Big companies often disdain what they think of as the low-end market, because they make a lot less money on each sale than they do selling high-end goods.

But, because of the sheer size of that market, they can still make a lot of money on it.

This isn’t exactly a radical concept: it’s what companies like Pillsbury, Quaker Oats, and Singer Sewing Machine did in America in the nineteenth century and, to a certain extent, what Wal-Mart is doing now.

Bringing technology to local farmers and merchants in developing countries has proved lucrative as well.

In South Africa, Standard Bank has set up an A.T.M. banking network for low-income customers, which has widely expanded their access to credit.

The Indian conglomerate I.T.C. has equipped hundreds of homes in the rural province of Madhya Pradesh with computer kiosks that are hooked up to the Internet; soy farmers use them to monitor prices and sell their crops.

These are subsistence farmers, many with tiny plots of land and little bargaining power.

The computers enable them to circumvent middlemen, who tend to charge excessive commissions, and consult the Chicago Board of Trade to determine what prices to charge.

It isn’t altruism that inspires companies to make these investments; it’s the prospect of profit.

The profit motive, indecorous though it may seem, may represent the best chance the poor have to reap some of globalization’s benefits.

Through the years, the poor have received assistance from innumerable government agencies and nonprofit organizations, and they’ve been an exploitable labor source, but they have almost never been treated simply as customers.

And that’s a pity, not because the private sector is inherently superior to the public sector but because, in the world we live in, businesses control an enormous amount of skill, manpower, and capital.

If you’re a customer, you reap the benefits of all that. If you’re not, you don’t.

Critics of consumer capitalism like to think that consumers are manipulated and controlled by those who seek to sell them things, but for the most part it’s the other way around: companies must make what consumers want and deliver it at the lowest possible price.

In a market economy, the best thing to be - aside from an oil company, perhaps - is a customer.

Consumerism, of course, has its pitfalls and is hardly a cure-all.

But if companies started trying to sell things to the poor it would have immediate consequences, chief among them a reduction of the so-called poverty penalty.

It’s expensive to be poor.

Poor people pay more to eat, buy, and borrow, because they have so few choices and so little bargaining power, especially in the developing world.

Moneylenders, purchasing agents, and retail stores typically have local monopolies that allow them to gouge their customers.

If more companies reach these customers, prices will fall.

There are, as ever, monumental prejudices and impediments to overcome.

Executives scoff at pennies.

Anti-globalization activists take customerization to mean McDonaldization.

Then, you have to contend with the local monopolists who make huge sums of money selling to the poor, and the local government officials who profit from helping keep those monopolies in place.

To tap the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, we may have to "save capitalism from the capitalists," as the economists Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales put it.

Oddly, it’s corporations like Unilever and I.T.C. that are best positioned to do so.

Big business has spent a lot of time pretending to make up for all the bad things it’s done in the developing world.

Now it should try to make up for all the good things it hasn’t.

September 27, 2004 at 09:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'After all, we all come from the sea' - Kathy Yard, commenting on why she was delighted to pay $2,000 to have her mother's ashes put into a concrete reef ball


Ivar Peterson wrote an interesting article for Saturday's New York Times about the latest thing in concrete overcoats.

Lucky for you et moi, this new wrinkle's not limited to those who've transgressed against Tony Soprano and his ilk.

Now anyone can swim with the fishes, with one catch: you've gotta pay for the privilege.

We are reminded of China's style of capital punishment: the family of the executed is sent a bill for the bullets.

Here, the family pays up front.

The story, then, without further ado.

Eternal Rest With the Fishes, as a Part of an Artificial Reef

To the many ways Americans can honor the remains of the dearly departed - blasting their ashes into space or freezing the remains or simply sealing the body in a coffin, among others - add one more option: mixing the cremation ashes with marine-grade concrete and forming an artificial reef, a home for the fish and the coral.

So it was that on Tuesday, along with decommissioned Army tanks that have already been lowered to the sandy ocean floor off South Jersey, the mortal remains of three people were interred: Robert I. Aronson, an avid ocean fisherman; Cecelia Schoppaul, who could watch the surf for hours; and Charles M. Wehler, who hated swimming but loved the South Jersey shore.

Their ashes, and those of several others, were mixed with concrete and formed into reef balls, which are hollow concrete cones cast with grapefruit-size holes in them.

The balls are widely bought by coastal states - but without human remains - and are used to create fish habitats offshore.

As members of the Aronson, Schoppaul and Wehler families watched from a chartered fishing boat about seven miles off Atlantic City's casino skyline, the towboat Defiant slowly slid the reef balls over the stern and into 50 feet of water.

They became part of the Great Egg Reef, one of 14 artificial reefs created by the state.

"I couldn't let go of his ashes - they were the last physical part of him that I had," said Jamie Wehler of Westminster, Md., the widow of Charles Wehler, who died a year ago at 53.

"But when I saw an article about this, there was no question in my mind. I don't believe in strange things happening, but everything about this entire trip has been right for me."

Others who had loved ones' ashes cast in reef balls that day spoke of the same sense of wanting to do something tangible with the ashes, besides simply storing them on a mantel or scattering them on the sea.

Kathy Yard recalled the wishes of her mother, Virginia B. Yard, who died on Christmas Eve 2000: "I have dogs that get on my shelves, and she made me promise that I wouldn't make her sit on my shelf. So when we read about this in the paper, we were immediately excited. After all, we all come from the sea, and we're all made up of salt water."

The cost of putting the ashes into the reef balls for those who buried a loved one on Tuesday ranged from $1,000 to $2,000, plus $50 for the charter boat rental.

It can run as high as $5,000 depending upon the model of reef ball chosen.

The idea of adding human ashes to commercial reef balls came to Don Brawley of Atlanta when his father, late in life, expressed a wish to be buried at sea.

An accomplished diver, Mr. Brawley knew that putting bodies into coastal wasters is illegal, though scattering ashes is not.

But he also knew of a company, Reef Ball Development Group, that cast reef balls of a patented design for sale to state fisheries departments.

He wondered: Why not add human ashes and make the reef balls into memorials?

"Most states with reef programs buy artificial reefs," said George Frankel, co-owner of Eternal Reefs, the Decatur, Ga., company he founded with Mr. Brawley in 2001.

"We like to think that we're buying public reef balls with private money."

Eternal Reefs has placed about 200 reef ball memorials since its founding, mostly along the Gulf Coast states. Tuesday's "placement," as they call it, is their farthest north.

But the company is eager to begin selling in vacation and resort areas off the mid-Atlantic coast, since vacation spots - perhaps like cemeteries - are places that families return to time and again.

The company offers three sizes, of 400, 1,500 and 2,000 pounds, costing between $1,000 and $5,000.

There are also two models for pets, for $400 and $500.

The reef balls are cast with most of the weight at the bottom, to provide stability as the hollow design and holes dissipate energy from currents.

The concrete used is nonacidic and the surface is roughened and dimpled, to encourage coral growth.

A brass plaque marking the name and dates for the person being memorialized is included in the price.

Eternal Reefs also offers a "viewing," as they call it, when family members can make rubbings or write notes, in sidewalk chalk, on the smooth interior of the shell before it is put in the ocean.

Jessica Yard, 16, wrote, "I will make you proud" in pink chalk on the reef ball of her grandmother Virginia Yard, who raised her.

Eternal Reefs obtained approval from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to include human ashes in the reef installations.

Great Egg Reef is already a strange collection of army tanks and concrete casings, and a great number of "tire units," which are old tires cabled together, a spokesman for the department said.

The company, though, discourages families from slipping crosses, wedding rings or other valuables into the concrete, fearing that might tempt divers.

The artificial reefs may be one of the latest developments in memorializing human remains, but it is hardly the most unusual.

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of "Star Trek," and Timothy Leary, pioneer in alternate universes, had lipstick-sized vials of their ashes shot into outer space in 1998.

Families with more modest goals have mixed human ashes with fireworks, or loaded them into shotgun shells and gone duck hunting.

A comic book editor had his mixed with ink, and artists have asked that theirs be mixed with paint.

There is even a company, Mr. Frankel said, that extracts the carbon from human ash and presses it into an artificial diamond.

"But those solutions only take a fraction of the ashes," Mr. Frankel said.

"Our motto is all, some or none - we can dedicate a reef ball alone to someone. We get husbands and wives, we get people and their pets - one family had to wait until the last of their three dogs died."

As with the families watching the Defiant lower each reef ball to the ocean floor on Tuesday, most of these choices for disposing of cremains, or human ashes, were motivated by a desire to have a sense of location and permanence, even if it was seven miles out and under 50 feet of water.

That is something that scattered ashes do not provide.

"Down here, it's very common to scatter someone's ashes on the beach," said Ruth Townsend, a seventh-generation resident of Cape May County and a close friend of Kit Aronson, who had come to bury the ashes of her husband, Robert, in a reef ball, along with those of her sister, Marion Mulligan.

"But for Bobby, it wasn't about the beach, it was about the ocean and fishing," Mrs. Townsend said.

"This man would fish in the snow, and this way, he's part of the sea, and part of its renewal."

Mrs. Aronson said she did not even start to think about what to do with her husband's remains until a year or more had passed since his death two years ago.

"I thought we would get my three kids together and we would sprinkle them on the ocean," she said.

"But this is doing it in a more identifiable fashion, where the kids can see where he is. Not in a mausoleum or Arlington Cemetery, but outdoors."

September 27, 2004 at 06:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The five essentials for a perfect home










•A view

Bonus: near water


Because my house has all six of these things, I will be carried out of it when my


cold, dead hands finally stop moving on my keyboard.

September 27, 2004 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Degradation through Work - by E.M. Cioran


Men generally work too much to be themselves. Work is a curse which man has turned into pleasure. To work for work's sake, to enjoy a fruitless endeavor, to imagine that you can fulfill yourself through assiduous labor - all that is disgusting and incomprehensible.

Permanent and uninterrupted work dulls, trivializes, and depersonalizes. Work displaces man's center of interest from the subjective to the objective realm of things. In consequence, man no longer takes an interest in his own destiny but focuses on facts and things.

What should be an activity of permanent transfiguration becomes a means of exteriorization, of abandoning one's inner self. In the modern world, work signifies a purely external activity; man no longer makes himself through it, he makes things.

That each of us must have a career, must enter upon a certain form of life which probably does not suit us, illustrates work's tendency to dull the spirit.

Man sees work as beneficial to his being, but his fervor reveals his penchant for evil. In work, man forgets himself; yet his forgetfulness is not simple and naive, but rather akin to stupidity.

Through work, man has moved from subject to object; in other words, he has become a deficient animal who has betrayed his origins. Instead of living for himself - not selfishly but growing spiritually - man has become the wretched, impotent slave of external reality.

Where have they all gone; ecstasy, vision, exaltation? Where is the supreme madness or the genuine pleasure of evil? The negative pleasure one finds in work partakes of the poverty and banality of daily life, its pettiness.

Why not abandon this futile work and begin anew without repeating the same wasteful mistake? Is subjective consciousness of eternity not enough?

It is the feeling for eternity that the frenetic activity and trepidation of work has destroyed in us. Work is the negation of eternity.

The more goods we acquire in the temporal realm, the more intense our external work, the less accessible and farther removed is eternity. Hence the limited perspective of active and energetic people, the banality of their thought and actions.

I am not contrasting work to either passive contemplation or vague dreaminess, but to an unrealizable transfiguration; nevertheless, I prefer an intelligent and observant laziness to intolerable, terrorizing activity.

To awaken the modern world, one must praise laziness. The lazy man has an infinitely keener perception of metaphysical reality than the active one.

I am lured by faraway distances, the immense void I project upon the world. A feeling of emptiness grows in me; it infiltrates my body like a light and impalpable fluid.

In its progress, like a dilation into infinity, I perceive the mysterious presence of the most contradictory feelings ever to inhabit a human soul.

I am simultaneously happy and unhappy, exalted and depressed, overcome by both pleasure and despair in the most contradictory harmonies.

I am so cheerful and yet so sad that my tears reflect at once both heaven and earth. If only for the joy of my sadness, I wish there were no death on this earth.

September 27, 2004 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wash TV - a mirror that becomes a television in your bathroom


Stacy Downs wrote an interesting piece for Knight-Ridder last month on the rise of the television-mirror as a bathroom accessory.

More and more people are taking TVs they already own and putting them within the wall, covering them with a two-way mirror so that you can barely notice the TV when it's not on.

Of course, you could go the deluxe route and order a Mirror TV from Philips, available with 17-30-inch LCD screens.

Here's Downs' article.

Mirror, mirror what's on TV?

New bathroom accessory entertains and informs as you shave, brush teeth

Sharing the bathroom mirror with Oprah, Tiger Woods and SpongeBob SquarePants seems like such an alien concept.

But these days, people are watching television through the same glass they use for studying their reflections when they brush their teeth or apply makeup.

House builders, TV manufacturers and homeowners have started installing televisions behind mirrors because it's a novel yet useful concept.

Inside the McNett household in Lee's Summit, Mo., ESPN SportsCenter, the Today show or a Nickelodeon cartoon is on display nearly every morning in the master bathroom mirror upstairs.

Kerri McNett thought her husband, Matt, would be the only one watching their television behind the mirror - the apparent pinnacle of guy gadgetry.

To watch a home-run replay during a clean, close shave, all it takes is the click of a remote control.

When the television is off, it seemingly disappears, and the mirror goes back to looking like any other mirror.

But she watches it probably more than he does.

"With three kids, it ends up that the best time I can catch up on my news is while I'm getting ready,'' says Kerri McNett, whose daughters Kailey, 6, and Riley, 4, and son Gage, 2, follow her from room to room.

"I didn't think I'd use it much, but I do.''

The McNetts got the idea as they were touring a model home several years ago.

They saw a glowing screen that seemed to magically float in a mirror like something out of The Jetsons.

They asked how to duplicate the concept.

So when the McNetts were building a house, Kerri McNett indulged her husband by designing his bathroom vanity against a closet.

"His eyes lit up like Christmas,'' she says.

Since they've had a television behind a mirror, her parents, her brother and his wife and her uncle have copied the setup.

Now, friends are doing the same.

For the most part, all have installed the system themselves using televisions they already had - the McNetts used one with a 13-inch screen.

The biggest expense is a two-way mirror, called mirror/pane glass by those in the industry.

The material has a reflective coating fused inside and costs $11 to $16 per square foot compared to $4 to $6 for standard mirror glass.

The special glass usually has a slight amber or bluish tint to it.

In the master bathroom of David and Sonja Mitchell's Independence, Mo., home, her two-way mirror is hung next to his standard-glass vanity.

"You can barely tell it isn't the same,'' says David Mitchell, a seventh-grade school principal.

He and Sonja, who teaches second grade, paid $300 for the special-glass mirror.

When friends visit the Mitchells' new home, they compliment the rest of the house but go wild when they see the TV behind the mirror.

"That's the thing they notice first,'' says Sonja Mitchell of their system that's in perfect view from the sunken tub.

"They say 'Oh, we're definitely figuring out how to do this in our house.'"

Televisions have made their way into the bathroom in many other ways - on counters and ledges and mounted to ceiling brackets.

As more bathrooms include dressing rooms and even fitness areas, people also are installing entertainment cabinets.

On the truly luxurious side, Dorfman Plumbing Supply in Kansas City, Mo., sells a Jacuzzi with built-in TV for $10,476.

Jacuzzi also makes a $31,000, 7-foot version with a 42-inch plasma screen called LaScala, inspired by the request of a professional basketball player whom a company spokeswoman would not name.

"You're seeing more TVs in today's bathrooms - master bathrooms in particular - because they're huge,'' says Charlie Dorfman, owner of the supply company.

Although it may seem like a quirky, pie-in-the-sky notion, having a television behind a mirror is the configuration that makes the most sense in the bathroom, he says.

For starters, it doesn't have to share space among all the toiletries on the counters.

"You're looking in that direction anyway, so you don't have to crane your neck,'' says Dorfman, who doesn't sell systems but has heard from customers who've installed them.

"They're great for people who are always on the run while they're getting ready to go to work. I can see the latest financial news being especially useful to people.''

Television manufacturers have run with the trend and upped the ante.

This year, the Wisconsin company Seura introduced its television mirror at the International Builders' Show in Las Vegas.

With Seura's version, people don't need a special room to make the concept work.

A flat-screen liquid crystal display (LCD) monitor is already behind the mirror.

A 13-inch-screen model starts at $2,700.

So far, the TV mirror has appealed to upscale working women, says Tim Gilbertson, Seura president.

"They like that when it's off, they don't see it or any unsightly cords,'' he says.

Hair salons and restaurant bars also have had them installed.

Home builders, who got the idea from the hotel industry, are starting to create space in new homes for televisions behind mirrors.

SAB Construction, a Lee's Summit, Mo., company that builds homes that sell for $150,000 to $1 million, gives customers the option.

About one-third request it, says Kim Boswell, the company's design and operations manager.

They charge at least $800 and up to $10,000 for sophisticated television and stereo equipment.

"We get calls all the time from people asking how to do it,'' Boswell says, adding that SAB owner Scott Bamesberger uses the concept as a marketing tool so potential buyers will remember the company's model homes.

The Mitchells, who hired a company to construct a wooden cabinet for their TV behind the mirror, have plans for their system.

David Mitchell wants to wire speakers and headphones to it because the jets in the tub can be too loud to hear the TV.

But other than that, they say it has been convenient.

Mitchell turns the TV on while he irons.

Sons Trent, 5, and Cole, 3, pop in occasionally for Dragon Tales.

And Sonja looks for the weather report on morning programs as she multitasks, getting herself and the boys ready for their day.

"It's been nice,'' she says. "It helps me feel a little more connected to the world. And it's fun to have something new and interesting.''

September 27, 2004 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: Can dogs detect bladder cancer in humans?


It would appear so.

The British Medical Journal this week published the results of a study in which dogs - ordinary pets - were able to distinguish the urine of patients with bladder cancer from that of healthy people.

Doctors believe the animals detect the scent of the abnormal proteins present in the urine of the patients with cancer.

It's thought that a dog's sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times better than a human's.

The idea that dogs may be able to smell cancer was first put forward in 1989 by two London dermatologists, who described the case of a woman asking for a mole to be cut out because her dog would constantly sniff at it, even through her pants, but ignore all her other moles.

One day, the dog, a female border collie-Doberman mix, tried to bite the mole off when the woman was wearing shorts.

The mole turned out to be malignant melanoma, caught early enough to save her life.

Here's the recent news, as reported last week by the BBC.


Dogs 'sniff out' bladder cancer

There have been anecdotal reports of dogs spotting cancer in their owners, but now researchers say they have proved this phenomenon scientifically.

The scientists at Amersham Hospital, Buckinghamshire, ultimately hope to build a tool that is as good at discerning these smells as dogs' noses.

Their findings appear in the British Medical Journal.

In 1989, researchers wrote a letter to the Lancet medical journal about how a woman claimed to have sought medical help as a direct result of her dog's inordinate interest in a skin lesion that turned out to be skin cancer.

Similar anecdotal claims have been made about cancers of internal organs like the breast and lung.

Cancers are thought to produce distinctive odours.

Even when present in minute quantities, it is possible that dogs, with their exceptional sense of smell, might be able to detect these odours.

Dr. Carolyn Willis and colleagues conducted a carefully controlled experiment to see whether dogs could be trained to spot bladder cancer based on the odour of urine samples.

Over seven months, they trained six dogs of varying breeds and ages to discriminate between urine from patients with bladder cancer and urine from patients without bladder cancer.

On nine different occasions, each dog was offered a set of seven urine samples, of which only one came from a patient with bladder cancer.

Overall, the dogs correctly selected the bladder cancer urine on 22 out of 54 occasions.

This success rate of 41% was significantly more than the 14% that could be expected by chance alone.

Also, all of the dogs indicated one of the "bladder cancer free" samples as positive.

This patient had been investigated prior to the study and no tumour had been found.

The patient's doctor was sufficiently concerned by the dogs' behaviour to do further tests.

These revealed a tumour in the patient's right kidney which had escaped diagnosis by usual medical tests.

Lead researcher Dr. Willis said: "We are very excited because this is the first time this has been scientifically proven.

"Dogs have these fantastic olfactory abilities."

"They are recognising a signature smell of cancer which is very difficult to pick up by any chemical methods.

"They are not just detecting a single chemical.

"They were having to pick out smells for bladder cancer amongst the hundreds in urine and that's no mean feat."

The dogs' trainer Claire Guest said it was a bit like naming the ingredients of a soup.

"We looked at a whole range of dogs. The spaniels did the best... but we are still keeping an open mind as to what breed of dog might be best for the job."

The researchers hope to be able to identify the exact cocktail of chemicals the dogs were smelling.

Then they might be able to design a medical device to detect these signature odours and pick up cancers in patients.

They will also investigate whether dogs can detect other cancers in a similar way, starting with skin cancer.

Cancer Research UK's Professor David Neal said: "Using sniffer dogs to detect the minute traces of molecules associated with cancer is a fascinating concept.

"Many cancer patients do have abnormal proteins in their blood and urine.

"The dogs might be smelling proteins from inflammation rather than the tumour itself, although the researchers have tried to minimise this possibility."

He questioned whether it would be practical to use dogs to detect cancers in real life, but said it might be possible to develop other detection methods based on future research in this area.

September 27, 2004 at 06:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

'It is very easy to recognize a potential jumper - a person walks without spirit.' - Chen Si of Nanjing, China, on potential suicide jumpers on the Yangtze River Bridge


Jim Yardley wrote a wonderful article for last Tuesday's New York Times about this man, who devotes his life to deterring people from committing suicide off this bridge.

At least 1,000 people have jumped to their deaths since the bridge's construction in 1968.

Chen has stopped 42 people from jumping in the past year, although 5 others slipped from his grasp and plunged to their deaths off the 300-foot bridge.

"It's a place that has a 100% success rate, said Fang Xueming, an attendant who works at the portable bathrooms on the bridge.

Here's the story.


On a Bridge of Sighs, the Suicidal Meet a Staying Hand

The view from where Chen Si stood on the landmark Yangtze River Bridge captured the frantic, thrumming energy of China.

Honking trucks and buses poured over the span as hundreds of barges slid along the dark brown water below.

The sweeping downtown skyline rose in the distance.

But Mr. Chen watched the people.

He noticed a man standing alone, seemingly pensive, and walked toward him in short, quick steps.

He watched people unloading from city buses and gauged the slump of their shoulders as they trudged along the sidewalk at the edge of the bridge.

For hours on this recent Sunday morning, Mr. Chen watched and waited for that unknowable, unthinkable moment when one of the thousands of people who cross the bridge every day might try to jump off.

Mr. Chen comes almost every weekend, bringing along a thermos of tea.

He has become the bridge's self-appointed guardian angel.

"If I save one person," Mr. Chen said, "one is a lot."

By his own count, Mr. Chen, who is in his mid-30's, has stopped 42 people from jumping since he began his patrols a year ago.

He has talked them down and wrestled them down.

He will hike up his pant leg to show a deep laceration from one tussle.

He also has watched five people slip out of his grasp and fall to their deaths in the Yangtze.

It is a job that has required him to become a detective looking for clues in the souls of strangers.

He stands on the southern end of the bridge, wearing sunglasses and a cap to block the boiling sun.

He does not smile or talk much.

He watches people, particularly the solitary figures staring down on the coffee-colored water.

"It is very easy to recognize," he said of potential jumpers.

"A person walks without spirit."

Mr. Chen says he comes to the bridge because someone needs to - suicide is now the leading cause of death for Chinese aged 15 to 34.

The Yangtze River Bridge, like major bridges in other countries, attracts a steady stream of jumpers.

At least 1,000 people are believed to have jumped since it opened in 1968.

The bridge is a national landmark in China; it is also more than 100 yards above the roiling Yangtze.

"It's a place that has a 100 percent success rate," said Fang Xueming, an attendant who works at the portable bathrooms on the bridge.

On other iconic bridges, including some in the United States, people like Mr. Chen have been patrolling for years.

But Mr. Chen is believed to be the first such volunteer in China, a sign that suggests the stigma surrounding suicide has eased in recent years.

China still has no national plan for addressing suicide, but it is a subject that is beginning to penetrate the public consciousness.

"The fact that he's doing this as a volunteer is very hopeful," said Dr. Michael Phillips, executive director of the Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Center.

"There's still a long way to go, but in terms of openness about the issue, it has become somewhat depoliticized."

A decade ago, Dr. Phillips said, the police might have arrested Mr. Chen, but now the government is allowing a little more space for some forms of civic activism.

The officers on the bridge know him by name.

One said that officers regularly stop jumpers but that the main section of the bridge, nearly a mile in length, is too long to protect everyone.

Mr. Chen said some people come by taxi, stop in the middle of the span, pay their fare, then get out and climb over the railing.

Mr. Chen, a stout man with spiky dark hair, has a wife and a young daughter, and his mood lightens at the modest apartment where they live.

He said he began going to the bridge after seeing different reports about suicide in the news media.

He was appalled when he read about a crowd in another Chinese city that shouted at a desperate migrant worker standing atop a billboard to jump.

"We have to teach people to love life and treasure life," said Mr. Chen, who earns his living selling small commercial billboards.

He takes the bus on weekend mornings and arrives at the bridge by 7:30 a.m.

He has pamphlets that list his cellphone number as an emergency hot line, though he worried that a recent change in local numbers may mean some people are not getting through.

He said the people he met often have lost money, lost a spouse, lost hope.

If he can talk them down, or tackle them down, he takes them to a nearby restaurant to talk and eat.

"The people here all know him," said Zhou Congsheng, the restaurant owner. "He is a great person."

In recent months, Mr. Chen has gotten a smattering of attention in the Chinese press.

Several college students now help him, taking shifts patrolling the bridge, as do a few people he saved from jumping.

Mr. Chen says he needs the extra help and relief.

He had become a chain smoker.

He pours out his emotions in a diary that may soon be published in China as a book.

His phone rings with telephone calls and the weight of so much sadness, so much despair, can bear down upon him.

"A lot of people call from all around the country, but I cannot help them," he said.

Nanjing does have a crisis intervention center - a rarity in China - and also a hot line.

But Mr. Chen hopes that officials will also consider putting up a net along the bridge.

It would be expensive, and such requests have met resistance at other bridges in other countries because of the cost.

But Mr. Chen hopes something can be done.

"I've saved lots of people," he said, "but one person alone isn't enough to do this work."

"If I save one person, one is a lot."

So absolutely true.

Chen may not have heard of Maimonides, but he's carrying the great sage's philosophy into action.

What better and higher use of life can possibly exist?

"He who saves one life, saves the world," is how Maimonides put it in the 13th century.

Some years earlier, the Corinthians asked Paul, "What are the things in life that never change?"

Paul answered, "The things you cannot see."

September 27, 2004 at 03:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack



What's this?

Reknowned Japanese architect Makoto Masuzawa designed this small, elegantly simple house in 1952.

The reason for its tiny size is that after World War II, the housing corporation of Japan would only provide loans to build homes that were no larger than 50 square meters.

If you had the means to build a bigger home, you were perceived as being wealthy and not in need of a loan.

The Masuzawa house was dubbed "the minimum house," but Makoto Koizumi, who reintroduced the house to the current Japanese market, said this is a misnomer.

"It should be called the maximum house," he said. "Despite its small space, Masuzawa-san's creativity made the house seem open and spacious."

In 1999, a structural model of Masuzawa's 1952 house was shown at an exhibition in Japan, and Shu Hagiwara decided he wanted to live in such a house and commissioned Koizumi to design a space based on the original blueprint.

Shortly after the home was built, it attracted attention not only from curious onlookers but also from the Japanese media.

Yasuyuki Okazaki, the head of commdesign, a Japanese design firm, took notice and realized that consumers, fed up with drab household design, would be interested in purchasing similar models.

He began selling the house online in 2002.

Branded the "9-tsubo home," it can be purchased for ¥10.9-¥14.6 million ($98,000-$146,000, but that's irrelevant since as of now they're only sold in Japan), and takes 5-6 months to construct.

A tsubo, a traditional Japanese unit of measurement, is formed by placing two tatami straw mats side by side so they add up to 3.3 square meters (36 square feet).

Okazaki says, "We want to sell the home not only in Japan, but also in Europe, Asia and America."

N.B. I am quite aware that the website above calls the tsubo a "tubo."

Take it up with them, not me.

September 27, 2004 at 12:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

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