Jan 12

What Do Plants See?

The latest (January 2017) issue of Scientific American has a short blurb entitled “Veggies with Vision” that harks back to speculation and studies of over 100 years ago.


In 1907 Francis Darwin, Charles’s son, hypothesized that leaves have organs that are a combination of lens-like cells and light-sensitive cells.


For some reason, research in this area went dormant until very recently. Now, scientists seem to be again taking up the study of such ideas. Perhaps they learned about it on the wood-wide web (it is now known that plants — including trees — communicate with each other via various chemical signals).


Although the evidence for eyelike structures in higher plants remains limited, it is growing.


I’m looking forward to learning more about this over the coming years. Meanwhile, behave yourself while out walking in the forest!

Dec 04


Following my comments, you will find an excerpt from an original essay, “Walking,” by Henry David Thoreau that appeared in The Atlantic in 1862; there is also a link at the end for those who want to read more.

Henry David Thoreau was the proto-environmentalist.

said Bill McKibben. Thoreau was also the one who, perhaps in a moment of self-reflection, said,

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

Many, if not most, people seem to benefit from time spent wandering in the woods, although Thoreau called us walkers a “select class.” The peace and quiet, the natural beauty, the bird songs, the evidence of creatures passing nearby, the breathtaking vistas; all of these things, and more, inspire a reverence for our place in the greatness of nature.

For those of us who are autistic, though, the call of the wild and the balm of the woods is more than a simple pleasure. It is a welcome, and perhaps even needed, antidote to our quotidian trip through the turbulent world in which we find ourselves. I don’t know if Thoreau was autistic, although many signs point that way. In any case, he has inspired generations of people, autistic and not, with his vision of simplicity and oneness with nature.

Years ago, when I worked long hours in a high-pressure job in the fast-paced world of Wall Street, I found this connection with nature to be an essential ingredient in my every day; the one way to sooth away the stress arising from my job. During working hours, I faced a constant barrage of incoming data, a requirement for social interaction with clients and peers, much travel, high expectations for piercing analysis; all accompanied by the background of city life and its cacophony and chaos.

My escape came in the form of a daily run, first thing in the morning. I averaged six miles a day, and I ran wherever I found myself. When I lived on the East Side of Manhattan, in the early 1980s, I would run with a friend down 2nd Avenue, and then back up 1st Avenue. We ran very early in the morning, before there was any traffic to speak of, so we didn’t have to stop for red lights at most intersections. One frigid winter morning when our breath was not only visible, but cracked and fell to the ground as we exhaled it, my friend turned to me, “Remind me why we are doing this?!” I thought it was for the exercise, but I later realized it was for my mental health.

I moved to the Upper West Side, and that gave me access to Central Park. I had a different running companion, and every morning we ran together around the six-mile loop in the hour before they opened the Park to automobile traffic. When I traveled, I sought out similar venues. In some places, such as Frankfort and Zurich, I stayed with friends or in a hotel on the outskirts of town so that I had access to the countryside. In London, I became fond of St. James Park, Green Park, and of course Hyde Park. Tokyo was much more of a challenge, because the city has very little green space. So I ran around the perimeter wall of the Imperial Palace (several times, to get in my six miles) because it was the only place I could find that allowed an extended path with no traffic lights.

These days, I live in the countryside, but on two or three days a week I will take a walk with friends, or by myself. We are lucky, here in the Berkshires, to have many entities that have preserved and protected large portions of our landscape. Although there is more work to be done to connect many of these properties to create wildlife and walking corridors, at least we seem to have evaded the fate that Thoreau feared:

At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; … and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off…

Here, as promised, is the excerpt and link:

June 1862
by Henry David Thoreau

It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker. You must be born into the family of the Walkers. Ambulator nascitur, non fit. Some of my townsmen, it is true, can remember and have described to me some walks which they took ten years ago, in which they were so blessed as to lose themselves for half an hour in the woods; but I know very well that they have confined themselves to the highway ever since, whatever pretensions they may make to belong to this select class …

The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours,—as the swinging of dumbbells or chairs; but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day. If you would get exercise, go in search of the springs of life. Think of a man’s swinging dumbbells for his health, when those springs are bubbling up in far-off pastures unsought by him!

Moreover, you must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking. When a traveller asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him her master’s study, she answered, “Here is his library, but his study is out of doors” …

I can easily walk ten, fifteen, twenty, any number of miles, commencing at my own door, without going by any house, without crossing a road except where the fox and the mink do: first along by the river, and then the brook, and then the meadow and the wood-side. There are square miles in my vicinity which have no inhabitant. From many a hill I can see civilization and the abodes of man afar. The farmers and their works are scarcely more obvious than woodchucks and their burrows. Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture, even politics, the most alarming of them all,—I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape …

At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only,—when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road, and walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities, then, before the evil days come.

Volume 9, No. 56, pp. 657–674

Read the full article here.

Shantih shantih shanti

Nov 08

#Pantsuit Nation

Today is Election Day.

As the hashtags #Pantsuit and #Nation sweep the internet, I am reminded of a day many years ago when I made a momentous decision involving a pantsuit.

I know, I know! Hard to imagine a pantsuit being involved in an earthshaking moment, but this one was.

In the late 1960s, I was a supervisor and trainer for the newly-minted college graduates who came to work for the insurance company in Hartford where I had been employed, originally as a computer programmer. In those days, not too many people knew what a computer was, let alone what a programmer did. The field then was called “data processing” and that’s what it was — the insurance company had set out to replace the sea of clerks, who wrote on and filed index cards, with computers that could process and file premium payments, as well as claims. The company also was awarded the contract to process all transactions in Connecticut for the new Medicare system.

I was born in 1946, and my age cohort was on the cusp of the change in societal attitudes around the roles of women. I was an ardent feminist (although I don’t think I used that word in those days), and an advocate for equal treatment of women in the workplace. Many, if not most people younger than I shared that attitude, but few people older than I did.

My management style seemed to suit people who felt isolated and left out of the mainstream. As a result, I was often assigned oddball or problem employees. With the insight I’ve acquired over the years, I believe that I was sympathetic, even empathetic, to people of color, folks with dodgy pasts, gays, women, and other mistreated people because (unbeknownst to me at the time) I am autistic, and had experienced the same kind of isolation and misunderstanding.

Many of the new hires who reported to me were women, which was unusual because they were coming in at a fairly high level. Of the 2,000 or so people who worked in the building, most were women, but almost all of them were doing clerical jobs. I think there were about 200 officers of the company, and only two of them were women.

One day in 1969, one of the young women I supervised came to me with a question. Cheryl was a bright, eager, recent college graduate, married, and I held her in high regard.

“Would it be all right if I wore a pantsuit to work?” she asked.

I was taken aback at the idea of a woman wearing pants to work, not because I opposed the idea, but because it just wasn’t done.

“What do you mean, ‘pantsuit’?” I cautiously inquired.

“Well, I have this nice beige polyester outfit that looks very businesslike, but it is a jacket and pants, not a skirt.”

“I see. And do you wear a blouse under the jacket?”

“Yes, a white blouse. I think it looks very professional, but I’ve never seen any woman wear pants here, so I thought I’d ask if it’s okay.”

I hesitated. I wondered if this was my decision to make. Perhaps I should go up the chain of command, or call the personnel department. Then the rebel in me took over. The hell with it, I thought, it’s a great idea. Shake ’em up a bit. One more step toward equality.

“I don’t see a problem with that!” I said. Of course, I did, but I was willing to live with the consequences.

Cheryl beamed. “Okay, thanks!” she said, and I put the matter out of my mind.

The next day she arrived at work in her pantsuit. I don’t remember thinking it was the cat’s meow, but it was as she described, very tame and businesslike. To me. But oh! the firestorm!

Shortly after the workday began, Cheryl came over to my desk and sat down. “What do you think?” she asked.

“Looks nice.”

“I’m getting a lot of funny looks.”

“Don’t worry about it!” I reassured her. “The outfit is just the way you told me it would be. I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

It didn’t take long. I soon got a call from someone in personnel, asking me if I had approved the outfit that was causing such a stir. Yes, I confirmed, I did — why? was there a problem with it?

“We’re not sure. We don’t have a policy about that, but it seems we may need to create one to address all the complaints we’ve been getting.”

There followed a fairly long conversation in which I vigorously defended Cheryl’s right to wear pants. Hard to believe in this day and age, but at the time it was a big deal. Several hours later I got a call back. “We’re not going to make an issue of it, and we decided not to have a formal policy, but it’s okay. Women can wear pantsuits.”

I went over and told Cheryl, and all her friends within earshot gave her a big cheer.

The Revolution had begun!


Oct 15

50th Anniversary



On October 15, 1966, I was married for the first time.

That day, like its counterpart 50 years later, was a bright sunny day in the Berkshires, with the autumn foliage on full display. When I think back on the next few years of my early twenties; a time of hope, and dreams of the future, I guess I could get maudlin about how things did not turn out entirely as I had wished. Instead, I find myself remembering most vividly the positive things that happened during those years.

Which is not to say that I have forgotten the agonies and the arguments and the negative experiences of those days. I wish I could say that I learned from my mistakes, but I’m not sure that I did. It would be many years in the future that I would learn of my autism, and be able to reflect on how not having that understanding contributed for most of my life to severe emotional instability.

I like to think, with what grains of wisdom I may have acquired in my old age, that I could have been more successful in my personal relationships in those days, but of course it is not possible to do things over. So I have to admit that, despite the many happy memories I carry with me, I do still remember the cloud that hung over me in those days.

The picture above is cropped from one I took on this anniversary day of a framed canvas reproduction of a 1955 painting by Bernard Buffet. This canvas was a gift from my wife, Deborah, and is one of the few artifacts I have of that marriage. She told me she was attracted to the painting because it reminded her so much of me.

Apr 23

Acceptance Is Belonging

A beautiful essay, written by my friend Amy Sequenzia, for Autism Acceptance Month.

Autism Acceptance means more than love and understanding. It means belonging.

Amy lived in Great Barrington for a time, and was very active in CATA. She has published a collection of poetry.

Apr 23

An underreported feature of planned changes in US currency

I am very pleased with the change of heart that places Tubman on the twenty and leaves Hamilton on the ten. Tucked away at the end of this article is another hugely important change, one that is long overdue. Many (if not most) currencies have different sizes for different denominations, enabling people with poor or no vision to be able to tell which bills they are handling.

U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios told reporters … that the new currency will include … “For the first time in our history, … a new tech-help feature intended to aid the blind and the visually impaired,” Rios said. “This is a new, complex and critical, important element in the production of modern U.S. currency.

As a disabled person, I am keenly aware of what a poor job our society does in providing accommodations that are needed for full inclusion. This one improvement is a huge step forward both symbolically and for its pragmatic value.

Apr 08

The demise of mirror neurons?

The latest (April 2016) issue of Scientific American contains an article that caught my eye. It is billed as “Cognitive Psychology” and subtitled “By honing ax-making skills while scanning their own brains, researchers are studying how cognition evolved.” This is clearly a very speculative venture, and the article (“Tales of a Stone Age Neuroscientist” available to subscribers) is full of interesting anecdotes and hypotheses.

A quick search of the NIH site reveals quite a few related articles, that I will pursue as time permits (ha!). The SciAm article also lists several references.

One thing that struck me was that the author (Dietrich Stout) described a process of cognition long know as “action understanding” without invoking the phrase “mirror neurons” — a topic that I have posted (skeptically) about in the past. A quick glance at the summaries of the articles linked to above revealed no such usage, either. I’ll be interested to find out, by reading those articles, whether any reference (to mirror neurons) is made.

A few years ago, I was a subject in a brain study that was searching for link between so-called “mirror neurons” and autism. One outcome of that study is now the subject of John Elder Robison’s latest book, Switched On. I had a very different experience from John’s, as he reports in his book. And the other autistic subjects (at least the ones I knew and talked with) had varying reactions to the brain stimulation we experienced. Clearly, though, something happened in our brains that changed the way we perceived the world, and created cognitive or emotional clarity, even if only temporarily, that we had not previously known.

This study stimulated (so to speak) my interest in mirror neurons, which led me to do a lot of reading on that topic. I came to the belief that there are no such specialized cells, but that the brain as a whole performs the functions attributed to those hypothetical neurons. And it may very well be that, like so many brain functions, there are areas of the brain that are heavily involved in this process. In that study, Broca’s area was targeted. This area is known to be heavily involved in language processing, and probably in other related functions such as social understanding. The brain regions mentioned in the SciAm article are mostly in the frontal cortex as well, the “newest” area of the human brain (although as the brain evolves, “older” parts of the brain change, too, because the organ operates as a unit, not a collection of disparate functions).

For now, pending further study, my takeaway is the (to me) surprising lack of the use of the phrase “mirror neurons” (may they rest in peace). Instead, the process of “action understanding” was described in the article as

…we use many of the same brain systems to understand observed actions as we do to execute them.

This seems to me like a much simpler and more accurate way to describe how the brain works. Occam’s razor and all that.


Feb 19

The Evolution of American Political Parties

Are we on the verge of a major shift in the way our political parties operate in this country?

Jill Lapore has published a postmortem of the 2016 New Hampshire Primary, and perhaps of the political parties that we have known in recent years. Her basic point is that political parties have been with us since the early days of the Republic, and have undergone rapid change several times, in response (mostly) to new forms of communication.

The dates she cites are often arbitrary; evolution (as she admits) is a gradual process. Still, she provides a good synopsis of how rapidly new technologies have changed the way messages are delivered. Obvious examples include the introduction of new printing presses, which made newspapers cheaper and thus more accessible, the arrival of the telegraph, the beginning of the radio era, and so on. There were also more gradual, but equally dramatic, developments, such as rising literacy rates.

In addition to technological and social shifts, there were political movements, seemingly always fueled by an impulse to remove power from the élites and spread it around to the average voters. This year’s election cycle follows both of these trends, with the wide use of smartphones and social media marking the new technology, and “The Party Crashers” embodying yet another shift away from the party élites. Lapore says “this may be the first Presidential-primary season with free Wi-Fi pretty much everywhere.”

I’ve been politically aware nearly all my life, with periods of activism sandwiched around the years I spent getting an education and having a career. I was heavily involved with the Civil Rights and the Vietnam War protest movements in the 1960s and 70s. I became reengaged with politics after I moved back to Massachusetts (my home state) in the 1990s.

My earliest memory of having an opinion about an election was in the 1956 Presidential race. I was shocked to see a bumper sticker on the car of a friend’s parents, advocating a vote for Adlai Stevenson. “How unpatriotic!” I thought, since Dwight Eisenhower was The President. How could you not support The President? Those were the days of the Red Scare, when we learned to hide under our desks in the event of a nuclear attack, and people built and stocked underground bomb shelters where they could hang out long enough to let the radioactive fallout dissipate or drift away. And Eisenhower built on the booming postwar economy (when the top marginal income tax rate was 90%) by constructing the interstate highway system that now bears his name. The purpose of that system was not to facilitate commerce, but to enable the military to move missiles rapidly around the country to fend off the expected Russian invasion.

Then came the the election of 1960, and by then I had become somewhat more sophisticated. I watched the first televised debates, and strongly favored John Kennedy over Richard Nixon. There was something (beyond the 5 o’clock shadow) about Nixon that I found troubling, and I later learned that my instincts were correct when I met Jerry Voorhis and heard his stories about how Nixon had beaten him with dirty tricks to win Nixon’s first political office, in 1946.

Not long after JFK was elected, we experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis, and suddenly it appeared that those bomb shelters might come in handy after all. It was a scary time. On the lighter side, it was the first time I appeared on national TV. One of the networks was filming a special about how America was reacting to the Crisis, and one segment took place in Stockbridge, the archetypal New England town made iconic by the paintings of Norman Rockwell. I was asked to take part in a staged stroll on a crosswalk as the film crew panned Main Street.

Much later, I became involved in the “New Media” aspects of political campaigning, which was right up my alley, since my career in finance had been based on the use of sophisticated computer models. I supported and worked on the campaigns of Howard Dean, Deval Patrick, and Barack Obama. These campaigns were all heavily reliant on new technologies to reach out to voters, and all three of them were considered unlikely outsiders when they started their campaigns.

This year, these themes seem to be playing out again. So far, many of the predictions of the “experts” have not come to pass; voters are an ornery lot. It’s certainly a fascinating process to watch.

Dec 09

Back in the Saddle

Alice and I had not taken the horses out for a long time, but we had a great ride on Monday.Some time ago, Stewart had developed a serious infection in one foot and was sidelined for several weeks while it healed. He seems all better now, but he and Spot had not done any riding for a while.
We tacked them up, and Stewart was his most cooperative self, enjoying the grooming and being very cooperative about getting his boots on (he has those soft Thoroughbred hooves, so I always put a pair of hard rubber boots on his front feet for riding). I usually have to ask Alice to hold him while I put his saddle on (he doesn’t tolerate being tied up), but on this day he just stood still while I did that. As we were ready to leave the paddock, they both got a bit frisky. Which was not totally surprising since it had been so long and the day was chilly.
We decided not to go on the road because they seemed a bit too unfocused. And of course we could not go into the woods since it is hunting season. So we did a series of school maneuvers in my side yard; figure eights and such. We then decided we could go through the woods between my yard and my neighbors’ driveway, to the north, which we did, and we made a circuit of their field, carefully avoiding the one woodchuck hole we saw.
Alice suggested a trip down to the Tom Ball Brook, which I guess I should have accepted, but I was worried about getting too far into the woods. So we came back to my yard and did more circuits there. Quite frankly, Stewart was getting tired by then, and had worked up something of a sweat, so it seems we had done quite enough.

Nov 25

Another Mischaracterization of Autism

An article entitled “The Gene Hackers” appeared in the November 16, 2015 issue of The New Yorker. It attracted my attention because it touches on neuroscience and other topics that interest me. I always worry when I read an article like this that autism will be mentioned in an unfavorable light. I didn’t have to wait too long to have my fears confirmed. On the second page of this 9-page article (3 of 17 in the pdf version), the word appears.

A few well-known disorders, such as Huntington’s disease and sickle-cell anemia, are caused by defects in a single gene. But most devastating illnesses, among them diabetes, autism, Alzheimer’s, and cancer, are almost always the result of a constantly shifting dynamic that can include hundreds of genes.

Ouch! Autism is not a “devastating illness” — in fact, it’s not an illness at all. Why does this mythology persist? (That is a rhetorical question, since many reasons are well known.)

And the word appears again several times later in the article.

The lab employs a similar approach to studying autism. Recent experiments suggest that certain psychiatric conditions can be caused by just a few malfunctioning neurons out of the trillions in every brain. Studying the way neurons function within the brain is difficult. But by re-creating, in the lab, genetic mutations that others have linked to autism and schizophrenia Zhang’s team has been able to investigate faulty neurons that may play a role in those conditions.

“Genetic mutations” have been linked to blue eyes, red hair, and lefthandedness, but to my knowledge people are no longer considering these conditions to have been caused by “faulty neurons.” It is true that until very recently, being left-handed was considered the work of the Devil, but I would hope we are beyond that by now.

Autism and schizophrenia are examples of what we call neurodivergence. Although these two conditions may appear similar to outside observers, they are really quite different. Schizophrenia is a degenerative condition that seldom shows up in childhood. Autism, on the other hand, is a stable personality type that is evident from the beginning of life.

 Last year, the National Science Foundation presented Zhang with its most prestigious award, saying that his fundamental research “moves us in the direction” of eliminating schizophrenia, autism, and other brain disorders.

Again, “ouch!” or “oy!” or any number of other exclamations. Autism is not a brain disorder. And, “eliminating autism”? I don’t want to be eliminated, thank you very much. I’m sure my brain could use some training to do certain things better, but who couldn’t say the same thing?

Although I don’t recall seeing the word “eugenics” in the article, there is mention of a nightmare had by one of the researchers profiled. She dreamed of meeting Hitler, and said:

 I woke up in a cold sweat. And that dream has haunted me from that day. Because suppose somebody like Hitler had access to this—we can only imagine the kind of horrible uses he could put it to.”

referring to the technology that could come out of the research mentioned in the award.

The good news is that the article points out that such uses are years away, and the ethical issues need to be studied. Let’s hope that by the time this technology becomes reality that science (and society) will have a more positive view of the value of differences.

The author concludes:

CRISPR technology offers a new outlet for the inchoate fear of tinkering with the fundamentals of life. There are many valid reasons to worry. But it is essential to assess both the risks and the benefits of any new technology. Most people would consider it dangerous to fundamentally alter the human gene pool to treat a disease like AIDS if we could cure it with medicine or a vaccine. But risks always depend on the potential result. If CRISPR helps unravel the mysteries of autism, contributes to a cure for a form of cancer, or makes it easier for farmers to grow more nutritious food while reducing environmental damage, the fears, like the many others before them, will almost certainly disappear.

This is a much gentler view of autism. Understanding is a good thing. Elimination, not so much.

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