Mind power

first_imgSTOCKBRIDGE – The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health is housed in a former Jesuit seminary built in the 1950s, on a rise with broad views of the Berkshires. The long hallways have the institutional feel of a high school, except that everyone is speaking in respectful tones, and rolled yoga mats are everywhere, like baguettes in Doisneau’s Paris. On the walls are limited-edition photographs of lean people doing yoga in front of moss-dappled Indian shrines. At the gift shop on an early February weekend, visitors could have their tarot read, or a photographic portrait taken of their aura. And one of the featured speakers, offering a weekend-long seminar, was a senior professor at Harvard University, Ellen Langer.Langer is a famous psychologist poised to get much more famous, but not in the ways most researchers do. She is best known for two things: her concept of mindlessness – the idea that much of what we believe to be rational thought is in fact just our brains on autopilot – and her concept of mindfulness, the idea that simply paying attention to our everyday lives can make us happier and healthier.Read more herelast_img read more

HKS community takes action during fall Public Service Week

first_imgThe students, faculty, and staff of Harvard Kennedy School will amplify John F. Kennedy’s call to “ask what you can do” during the School’s Fall Public Service Week (Oct. 12-17). During a year in which HKS is celebrating the 50th anniversary of JFK’s presidency, public service week will include a panel with current and former Peace Corps leaders, a student-organized Special Olympics event on Oct. 17, and numerous activities and talks on topics ranging from corporate social responsibility to education to development.“Public service is not only our mission, but the driver behind all that we do,” says HKS Dean David T. Ellwood. “While we at HKS undertake public service all year, Public Service Week gives us a chance to focus on and to celebrate what inspires us.”The Peace Corps 50th Anniversary Forum on Tuesday, Oct. 12, at 6 p.m. is sponsored by the Institute of Politics and will include three former Peace Corps directors:  Elaine Chao, Mark Gearan, and Gaddi Vasquez, as well as the current director, Aaron Williams. The event will be moderated by HKS Academic Dean Mary Jo Bane, who was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia in the 1960s.The student-organized Special Olympics event will be held on Sunday, Oct. 17, at Harvard Soccer Field. Dean Ellwood and the Harvard football team will be among volunteers who will check in athletes, support the awards ceremony, and cheer on the participants.“Public Service Week is more than a chance to work face-to-face in the community,” says Rachel O’Leary, co-chair of the HKS Student Public Service Collaborative. “It’s an opportunity to transform our good words into good deeds.”last_img read more

Where money meets politics

first_imgJames M. Snyder Jr., Harvard’s newest professor of government and an economist by trade, is one of a handful of experts unraveling the enduring puzzle of American elections: how they unfold, and how they are influenced by campaign financing, interest groups, the media, and the economy. In short, what are voters thinking when they cast their ballots?No one really knows, of course. But with the right data, surveys, and programs to tease out inferences, he said it is possible at least to arrive at broad models of voter behavior. Along the way, some conclusions can prove surprising, such as: A voter’s personal economic travail has less influence on her vote than perceptions of how the larger economy is doing. “Do people engage in ‘pocketbook voting?’ ” Snyder asked. “The answer seems to be no.”The implication is that “people are not narrowly expecting the government to help us — but we expect the government to handle the economy well over time.” Despite the common wisdom, a person’s vote is not driven wholly by local or even personal considerations, said Snyder. “People are rewarding — or punishing — an incumbent for national outcomes.”This is just a sliver of what scholars like Snyder infer from vast data sets of election results and complex voter surveys.He has also observed that while the economy drives votes, partisanship drives them even harder. Identifying with a political party applies even to independents, said Snyder, because this growing fraction of the electorate is seldom purely neutral; most are “leaners,” he said, weakly preferring one political camp or the other — but strongly voting with that camp.Snyder, the son of a peripatetic executive with General Electric Co., moved five times in his childhood, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Italy, and upstate New York. “Dying GE cities is the theme here,” he said, with the exception of still-vibrant Milan, Italy, where he landed as a 10-year-old. His mobile childhood turned him inward and gave him a precocious ability to focus, which served him well as a student (he excelled at math) and later as a scholar. “It helps you detach yourself from the world,” said Snyder of that fruitful inwardness, “and focus on your research world.”By the time he arrived at Duke University as a freshman in 1977, Snyder was toying with the idea of majoring in philosophy. Then came a life-changing moment: an introductory economics course with H. Gregg Lewis, a legendary pioneer in labor economics. “He made everything clear, and was interested in students,” said Snyder, and “he was very funny.”In his junior year came another inspiration, a stint as a programmer for two economists, Henry Grabowski and John Vernon, in the days when “programming” meant dealing with decks of punch cards. The rich data wowed Snyder, along with the intensity of effort it took to derive conclusions from it. “I thought: ‘My gosh, this is such a nice life,’ ” he said of economics scholarship. “You basically get to do what you like all day long. It might be 10 hours a day, but it’s your 10 hours.”His Ph.D. studies at the California Institute of Technology, though, slighted the importance of the empirical in favor of pure theory. “We never looked at a data set,” said Snyder. But his first job, a seven-year stint at the University of Chicago, awoke him to the realities of his new profession. “It was clear,” he said. “Economists look at data all the time.”Now, after an 18-year stop at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a continuing appointment at the London School of Economics, and a longtime association with the National Bureau of Economic Research, Snyder is known for his creative and rich data sets. He is writing a paper on American media coverage of political scandals and is co-writing another on levels of U.S. political corruption in the mid- 19th century. Who got rich, the study asks, and how did wealth correlate with time in office?Snyder has also investigated how campaign contributions influence modern political decision-making. His conclusion — that such money doesn’t make much difference — defied conventional wisdom. Politicians know that constituents have diffuse interests, and they can’t be ignored in favor of the one that gave the maximum contribution, said Snyder, because “too many people want too many different things.”Outside of work, the trim, energetic Snyder plays tennis, bikes to work from his home in Belmont, and sails – all of that “when I can.” Even travel to Europe’s Mediterranean rim, a favorite pastime with his wife and 15-year-old daughter, is tempered by the demands of work. Said Snyder, “I used to have a life.”last_img read more

Rescuing ancient languages

first_imgIn fluent English with a soft accent, Pedro Mateo, a Harvard postdoctoral fellow in linguistics, recalled the restrictive signs plastered on the walls of Guatemalan schools in the past.They read “no native languages,” said Mateo, whose mother tongue is the increasingly rare Mayan language Q’anjob’al.Then, as now, Mayan languages were often sadly associated with impoverished communities. School officials wanted students to speak the dominant Spanish instead, because it was considered the language of progress and prosperity.“You didn’t want to be discriminated against,” said Mateo, adding that even for its native speakers, the Mayan language can carry a “negative connotation.”Now with Harvard Linguistics Professor Maria Polinsky and several colleagues in her lab, Mateo is helping to preserve, promote, and better understand the ancient Mayan languages.In May and again in June, Mateo and other members of the linguistics lab will visit Mexico and Guatemala to gather data on the grammar and the architecture of the languages Ch’ol, Chuj, and Q’anjob’al.Expert linguists like Polinsky and her team explore language design and structure in an effort in part to understand how and why certain languages vary greatly but also resemble each other. Such work, they say, helps provide understanding about how the human brain works.“What’s really unique to humans as a species is our language abilities,” said Jessica Coon, also a post-doctoral fellow in Polinsky’s lab, who will travel to Mexico in May. “By studying a wide range of diverse languages we can get a glimpse at the common threads that tie all language together and explore further what that tells us about cognition.”In Central America, the Harvard crew will work with local communities to observe and record both child language and the ways that parents speak to children, which can differ significantly from how they speak with other adults.“People often think that little kids just talk funny. But the mistakes they make are consistent and can tell us about the structure of the language they are acquiring, as well as about human language more generally,” said Coon.A second component of their work involves “ergativity.” It’s a universal feature in Mayan languages, one that sets the standard English sentence on its head.“Ergativity is a way of encoding who is doing what to whom in a sentence that is different than English,” said Polinsky. She offered the example of a Mayan language that might use the sentence “Me went, I bought coffee.”“They have different ways of saying ‘I,’ ” said Polinsky, “depending on whether you use the verb ‘to go’ or ‘to buy.’ ”In addition, most Mayan languages put the verb first in a sentence, a feature found in about a tenth of the world’s languages.To study Mayan ergativity, Polinsky and her team developed a series of pictures created with the help of a Mayan artist that show various scenes.In one double image, a snake bites a chicken. Next to it, a chicken bites a snake. Researchers show the images to a test subject, then play a single ambiguous recorded sentence. Next they note the subject’s preference and how long it took her to chose one image over another.“You are asking them to identify which thing the sentence represents,” said Polinsky. “Their preferences tell us a great deal about the structure of the language.”The Harvard team realizes there is urgency in their work.There are 30 Mayan languages currently spoken, but experts fear those numbers are on the decline. In 1976 there were an estimated 50,000 speakers of Chuj. Now there are about 40,000.Aside from gaining knowledge about Mayan languages and linguistics in general, the researchers also hope to give something back to their Mexican and Guatemalan host communities.By training native Mayan language speakers who will then help them both to acquire and translate the data they collect, the Harvard team aims to inspire in the locals a sense of pride and empowerment.“You don’t want to treat your native language consultant as a vending machine, where you put your quarter in, the sentence comes out, and you are done,” said Polinsky. “The idea is that you want to get people involved in the work you do.”“In our experience, you can never force people’s pride in their language from the outside,” she said. “What we can do is provide this perception that their language is valuable, and if the impression is strong enough, hopefully that will help people keep it alive.”last_img read more

Making the ‘ride’ choice

first_imgTo own a car or not to own a car? That is the question in cities like Boston and Cambridge. Whether ’tis nobler in the winter to suffer the shoveling and parking wars after snowstorms or to rent a Zipcar just to fetch groceries makes for a seemingly lose-lose proposition.But as gas prices rise, and traffic remains congested, two new start-ups are looking to give Harvard’s weary travelers more options. Zimride and RelayRides have partnered with the University’s CommuterChoice Program in hopes of making community-based car sharing easier.Zimride, a social networking site, allows drivers and passengers to post their ride times — dates for a one-time trip to New York, for example, or their weekday commuting schedules — so they can pair up for carpools.RelayRides offers more straightforward financial transactions: Car owners can register their cars, set hourly rates and hours of availability for their vehicles, and rent them out to other RelayRides users, a process akin to renting a Zipcar, but often cheaper.CommuterChoice has been promoting the services around campus since last fall. The Harvard network on Zimride.com currently has nearly 900 members, while RelayRides.com boasts 100 cars and 2,000 renters in the Boston area. Registration on both sites is free for members of the Harvard community.“Any time we add a benefit, it’s all about giving people more choices,” said Kris Locke, manager of CommuterChoice. “But we’re also trying to get people to take more sustainable modes of transportation to work, and any time we can offer a new program to help with that, that’s what we try to do.”When it comes to promoting sustainable behavior, new research shows, car sharing works. A recent study out of the University of California, Berkeley’s, Transportation Sustainability Research Center estimated that over the past decade, between 90,000 and 130,000 cars have been taken off the road because of Zipcar and similar services.Accounting for car owners who give up their vehicles and carless commuters who forgo the decision to purchase one, the study’s authors found that for every car-sharing vehicle in use today, nine to 13 automobiles have been taken off the road.“People are changing the way they consume things,” said Shelby Clark, M.B.A. ’10, co-founder of RelayRides, who launched the company while at Harvard Business School (HBS) and was named a runner-up in last year’s Business Plan Contest. “It doesn’t make sense to own something if you’re better off just being able to access that good” within the community.Ben Ganzfried ’09, a research assistant at the Harvard School of Public Health, is one such potential customer. He’d prefer not to buy a car, he said, and with a Zipcar membership he can make the occasional visit to his grandmother or to the grocery store.He signed up for RelayRides in December and has found it to be a cheaper, more convenient alternative. (Harvard also offers a discount on Zipcar memberships. The regular Boston rate is $60 a year; Harvard affiliates pay $25 a year.)“In my experience, a RelayRides car has never been more than three blocks from my house, and it has always been available when I have needed it,” Ganzfried said.Car sharing makes sense financially and environmentally, Clark said, and it can be lucrative for those who rent out their cars. (One RelayRides user who keeps his car on the HBS campus makes up to $600 a month, Clark said.) But he also hopes his company and others like it will help restore a sense of trust and sharing among neighbors.“It’s helping to renew the sense of community,” he said. “The conduit is the Internet. Services like RelayRides are just the matchmaker.”Indeed, some Harvard employees who use both sites have found them to be a good way to meet new people while snagging a cheap ride.Ramona Islam, a curricular design and research librarian at Widener Library, signed up for Zimride in the fall, hoping to find a ride to Connecticut for Thanksgiving. She expanded her network to search for rides beyond Harvard and found a man in Brookline who, for $20, took her and two other passengers to their destinations on his way to New York.“I was a little bit nervous,” Islam said. “But after talking with him on the phone and finding out other people were going, I thought the chances for disaster were slim.”On the ride she talked with her trip mates about everything from dancing to political organizing to religion. The trip went so smoothly that Islam arranged to meet up for a ride back to Boston at the end of the long weekend.“It was actually really nice,” Islam said. “I would encourage more people to take advantage of it, because it has great potential the more people sign up for it.”last_img read more

HGSE student wins literary prizes

first_imgRebecca Givens Rolland, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, was recently named the winner of two literary awards: the 2011 Dana Award in Short Fiction and the 2011 May Sarton New Hampshire First Book Prize for her book of poetry, “The Wreck of Birds.” For more information, visit http://www.rebeccarolland.com.last_img

When the beat goes off

first_imgRhythm pulses inside the brain of a Ghanaian drummer, sitting in a physics laboratory in Gottingen, Germany. His hands caress the skin of a bongo drum, guided by the metronome’s tick through his headphones. He plays for five minutes, filling the sterile lab environment with staccato sounds, as a team of physicists records him, searching for a pattern.But the researchers aren’t interested in what he does correctly — they are listening for his errors. Though the drummer is a professional, like all humans, his rhythm is imperfect. Each time his hand hits the drum, his beat falls ahead or behind the metronome by 10 to 20 milliseconds. On average, he anticipates the beat, and plays ahead of it, 16 milliseconds ahead — less than the time it takes a person to blink, or a dragonfly to flap its wings. What the physicists want to know is: Are these errors random, or correlated in a way that can be expressed by a mathematical law?Rhythm research has implications for both audio engineering and neural clocks, said Holger Hennig, a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Eric Heller in the Physics Department at Harvard, and first author of a study of the Ghanaian and other drummers in the journal Physics Today. Software for computer-generated music includes a “humanizing” function, which adds random deviations to the beat to give it a more human, “imperfect” feel. But these variations tend to make the music sound “off” and artificial. The fact that listeners are turned off by “humanized” music led Hennig and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization in Germany to wonder whether human error in musical rhythm might show a pattern. Perhaps the “humanizing” features of computer-generated rhythms fail because they produce the wrong kind of errors — deviations unlike the kind humans produce. There are rhythms inherent in the human brain, which may affect our musical rhythm. The primal bio-rhythm in the neurons of the Ghanaian drummer might be echoed in the rhythm of his music, the physicists suspected.When they analyzed the drummer’s playing statistically, Hennig and colleagues found that his errors were correlated across long timescales: tens of seconds to minutes. A given beat depended not just on the timing of the previous beat, but also on beats that occurred minutes before.“You can have these trends,” said Hennig. “For example, the drummer plays ahead of the beat for 30 consecutive beats, while half a minute earlier, he tended to play slightly behind the metronome clicks. These trends are pleasant to the ear.”The trends, Hennig found, are correlated: Patterns of fluctuations are likely to be repeated. “This property is found for short and long patterns — hence on different timescales, ” Hennig explained. “The pattern can be seen as a fractal — a self-similar structure.” Fractal patterns are the recurring shapes seen in snowflakes, the leaves of a fern, and “even the coastline of Britain,” Hennig said. “If you zoom into a fractal, you see something that looks similar to the whole thing again.” Deviations in human musical rhythms, like snowflakes and coastlines, are fractals.The discovery that human errors in musical rhythm follow a pattern could influence how audio engineers “humanize” computer-generated music.In a paper published in 2011 in the journal PLoS ONE, Hennig and his lab mates showed that rhythm deviations follow this pattern whether the rhythm is played by hand, foot, or vocals — suggesting it is intrinsic to musical sense. They also produced versions of a pop song “humanized” using either the usual “random-error” method, or a new “long-range-correlated-error” method where the timing of the beats was related. Seventy-nine percent of listeners said the correlated-error version “sounded more precise,” while 64 percent of participants preferred it to the random-error version, suggesting that people prefer music that deviates from perfection in a natural way: “a mix of predictability and surprise,” Hennig said.So these deviations in rhythm patterns seem to be intrinsic, and preferred. But how do they relate to the beat of our brains?“There are different clocks in the brain,” Hennig explained, “clocks on different timescales, like circadian clocks on a 24-hour timescale. However, for the millisecond regime it is totally unknown which neuronal network allows the human to be so precise.”The same long-range correlations discovered in musical rhythm have been found in the fluctuation of auditory nerve firing in cats, in human brainwaves, and in heart rate during sleep: Head, heart, and hand seem to march to the same drummer.Going forward, Hennig hopes to find the link between the beats of brain and body, to help neuroscientists hone in on the mysterious timekeeper of the brain.last_img read more

Closing the care gap

first_imgIf a jetliner carrying 260 African-Americans crashed every day for a year, the toll would approximate the impact of unequal access to health care and the resulting poorer health outcomes on the nation’s African-American community.Such health disparities also affect Latinos, Asian-Americans, American Indians, and other minority groups. Collectively, their illnesses and premature deaths not only devastate loved ones, they also carry an enormous economic cost, more than $1 trillion from 2003 to 2006, according to a 2009 report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.Such stark statistics were offered to illustrate the stubborn problem of disparities in health between America’s white and minority communities during a University-wide symposium at the Center for Government and International Studies’ Tsai Auditorium Thursday.“It is a social justice issue,” said symposium panelist David Williams, Norman Professor of Public Health at the Harvard School of Public Health and professor of African and African American Studies and of sociology in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). “It’s also a drain on the economy.”Though the problem manifests itself in measures such as lower life expectancy and disease rates, its roots reach past doctor offices and medical clinics to the country’s urban neighborhoods and vast Indian reservations, panelists said. Beyond medicine and public health, it touches on a complex array of issues — racism, economics, poverty, public policy, taxation, and even history.“Health disparities are not new. They didn’t appear in America in 2002,” said Harvard College Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds, the Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science and of African and African American Studies. Hammonds referred to a 2002 report by the Institute of Medicine on health disparities that has been credited with bringing the issue to the fore. She pointed out that not only has the issue existed for centuries, it was examined more than 100 years ago by W.E.B. Du Bois.Evelynn M. Hammonds: “Health disparities are not new. They didn’t appear in America in 2002.”The event, “Eliminating Health Disparities: Transdisciplinary Perspectives,” was sponsored by the Offices of the President and Provost and co-sponsored by the Office of the Dean of Harvard College, the Office of the Assistant to the President for Institutional Diversity and Equity, the FAS Office of Diversity Relations and Communications, the Harvard Catalyst Health Disparities Research Program, and the Harvard/Massachusetts General Hospital Center on Genomics, Vulnerable Populations, and Health Disparities.Provost Alan Garber delivered introductory comments, saying progress on the issue has been “frustratingly slow,” partly due to a lack of data for analysis. That has changed in recent years, however, and new information is available — in disciplines from the social sciences to genomics — that can be brought to bear. Research and action now need to move in sync, he said.“I don’t think the need to do more research should stand in the way of actually taking action,” Garber said. “At the same time, I don’t think the impulse and the need to do something should stand in the way of continuing to do research.”Alan Garber: “I don’t think the need to do more research should stand in the way of actually taking action.”Though statistics describe a continuing gap between the health of whites and minorities in America — not until 1990 did blacks attain the life expectancy whites had in 1950, for example — several panelists cited the large amount of money the United States already spends on health care, recent moves to overhaul the health care system, and the presence of effective examples of low-cost, high-quality care as encouraging for the future.Donald Berwick, former administrator of the federal agency that administers Medicare and Medicaid and a lecturer on health care policy at Harvard Medical School, said though the health care debate is often described in terms of scarcity —who gets it and who doesn’t — he views it as a situation of abundance, with the difficulty being designing a system that cuts costs and improves care while spreading that abundance equitably.The U.S. health care system already has enormous resources, he said, and is steadily gobbling up more. He described the system as “a thief” stealing resources from other sectors, such as education, that can ill afford to lose them.Berwick said he is optimistic because there are several examples of innovative programs that provide good care at lower cost. He cited the Nuka system in Anchorage, which has seen emergency room visits drop by 50 percent, hospital admissions drop 53 percent, and specialist visits drop 65 percent since it was instituted.“Care that meets the needs talked about in this symposium is possible,” Berwick said. “I think we have plenty of resources in this country to make improvements.”A major problem, however, is inertia, Berwick said, with large entrenched interests dragging their feet on change.Paul Farmer, the Kolokotrones University Professor and chair of Harvard Medical School’s Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, echoed Berwick’s optimism even as he pointed out that health disparities aren’t restricted to the United States. Still, he said, modern medicine provides a huge array of tools to fight disease that weren’t available to generations past.The experience of the nonprofit Partners In Health, which Farmer co-founded, shows that large health improvements are possible as long as systems are designed to make care effective. For chronic diseases, Partners In Health has pioneered a system dependent on community health workers who regularly visit, counsel, encourage, and monitor patients at home, while also making use of community clinics and hospitals for more serious conditions.Though causes of the problem are complex, if understood, they can signal avenues of attack. The higher prevalence of asthma among some minority populations can be explained by higher exposure to diesel fumes in housing close to bus depots, for example. Alexandra Shields, director of the Harvard/MGH Center on Genomics, Vulnerable Populations, and Health Disparities, said that although at its root that may be a problem of poverty and racial segregation, physicians and public health advocates can provide regulatory agencies with ways to go after the particle pollution linked to the health problem.“When you understand the mechanistic contributors to disease, that’s how we can go after social stratification,” Shields said.In response to a question from the audience about how to attack such a huge problem, Berwick said that the problem’s size also means there’s lots to be done.“There is so much to do, do what you can do,” Berwick said. “Don’t feel guilty — just get started.”last_img read more

One Harvard

first_imgOne Harvard is a compilation of stories illustrating the enhanced value and powerful outcomes that result from multi-School collaborations across the University, and cross-disciplinary approaches to teaching, learning, and research.last_img

E-cigarettes: potential benefits, harms

first_imgE-cigarettes may help reduce smokers’ exposure to toxins, but they also may cause harm, according to Vaughan Rees, deputy director of the Center for Global Tobacco Control at Harvard School of Public Health.Interviewed on KUOW (Puget Sound Public Radio) on October 2, 2013, Rees said that while e-cigarettes do contain some toxic compounds, they have far less than conventional cigarettes, and so have the potential to be safer. However, because e-cigarettes are not as pleasurable as regular cigarettes, “we may find that regular smokers don’t actually switch completely to an e-cigarette, but just use both products,” Rees said. And because e-cigarettes have lower addictive potential than conventional cigarettes, “they actually could encourage younger users to begin using nicotine products, which might then encourage them to switch later on to regular tobacco cigarettes.”Rees said there’s little evidence showing that e-cigarettes help people quit smoking. “There are better medications or other strategies available for people who want to quit than e-cigarettes,” he said. Read Full Storylast_img read more