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Technology is advancing fast. But for people around the world facing the daily challenges of living with a disease, the future just isn’t coming quickly enough. This personal struggle – and increasingly, the untold financial cost of hospitalization and ongoing treatment at a time when the American health care industry is already under scrutiny – is at the core of the ongoing debate regarding stem cell therapies. It is impossible to put this issue simply due to the extraordinary difficulties in translating complex lab research into human benefits – but if one were to try, this controversy is about potential.

The controversy has become well-known, if little understood, but the fact is – stem cells have the potential to eradicate – or very severely hinder – the advancement of a number of diseases that are currently responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people a year. Stem cells are extraordinarily renewable, resilient, adaptable cells – present in every body and responsible for repairing the damages of aging, injury or disability. And given further research, could be developed into cell-based therapies that could change the face of modern medicine. With that in mind – knowing the advantages that could come from continued research – why is this issue under dispute?



What are Stem Cells?

The complication arises from the harvest – or where the stem cells are collected. Most of the controversy is related to embryonic stem cells – cells that are taken from the blastocyst, present in the early weeks of a pregnancy. Once the cells are taken, the embryo is no longer viable. For pro-life factions, this practice is tantamount to abortion. (And one that received significant restrictive legislation during the Bush administration, curbing the collection of stem cell lines from embryos, and thereby limiting research capabilities.) Research has shown that embryonic stem cells are the most adaptable – far better than other-sourced stem cells at adopting the characteristics of the damaged tissue, thereby ‘healing’ it.

There are however other, less devastating sources of stem cells – among them the collection of ‘cord blood’ from newborn infants and the promising adaptation (via genetic reprogramming) of adult skin cells into stem cells. Current research has been mainly limited to animals, but even so, the progress made in the lab-setting has been promising. The adaptability and storage life of stem cells allows them to act as an in-body repair shop. Once injected, stem cells are drawn to the site of any diseased or damaged tissue by chemical markers released from damaged cells. There they are able to adapt, creating new tissue that can heal the harm done by genetics, disease or environmental factors. Any unused cells will store themselves in the bone marrow, releasing whenever the threatening chemical markers resume.

Alzheimer’s. Cancer. Spinal cord injury. Stroke. Burns. Arthritis. Diabetes. Heart disease. These are only a few of the ailments that further stem cell research could potentially eradicate. It will take time, and funding, and an understanding that significant medical advancements do not happen overnight. Today, scientists know little of why stem cells are so able to adapt, so vital to human biology – but the foundation is laid. Regardless of the current debate over attaining stem cells, for a global population of millions, the future looks promising.

How permanent are we? This is a question that has intrigued some of the greatest creative minds of our civilization. In our modern lives, we are surrounded by the seemingly eternal (steel, concrete, plastics, a global human population of billions) to such a degree that it can be difficult to envisage a world in which Homo sapiens does not dominate. Difficult, but not impossible. In The World Without Us, author Alan Weisman approaches this subject to masterful effect – revealing the scope (and impact) of our dominion over nature – and the abrupt transmutations that would occur if humankind were to vanish. His premise is simple, what would happen to the world – so carefully manufactured by our hand – if we were no longer around the control it?



An Interview with Alan Weisman

Imagine your world today – the myriad of small, human efforts that add up to everything working as it does. Now, subtract that human equation. Within a week, infrastructure requiring intelligent command would begin fail. Without pumping, New York City’s subway tunnels would flood with water, which would then seep up, eroding the building foundations above. Power plants and dams would be unable to produce electricity, causing the cooling systems of nuclear power plants to fail. Seasonal temperature changes would cause pipes to burst, further weakening the structural integrity of abandoned buildings. In less than two years, vegetation would begin to reclaim the land, as tree roots and vines burst forth from cracks in the pavement. And animals populations, including some species currently facing near-extinction, would likely flourish. Unlike the desolate, post-apocalyptic visions of science-fiction writers, Weisman’s post-human world is teeming with life.

While on the surface the premise seems bleak, the intent on Weisman’s part was not to portray human existence as something akin to a flock of locusts, destroying everything in their path. Instead, it is a treatise on the primal, exuberant force of nature – that the earth’s ecosystem is remarkably resilient, and capable of healing from even the extensive marks left by our civilization. In removing the human element, Weisman is able to tell a story of survival. This non-fiction work is an environmental tome for the everyman, a decidedly atypical approach to the overworked arguments regarding climate change – and one that inspires optimism and adaptation, rather than fear.

Weisman’s arguments for optimism are bolstered by his inclusion of perspectives from leading experts in a variety of fields. From the scientific (zoologists, engineers, paleontologists, and marine biologists) to the more esoteric fields (religious leaders, art conservators), their positions add depth to his argument, offering an informed take on everything from the problem of plastics to the ecological changes witnessed by some of North America’s oldest inhabitants.

Surprisingly, the most persuasive argument for Weisman’s premise is observed in the remains of the New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. Devastated by the massive flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the ward is largely uninhabited today. Instead,the native flora has overtaken the abandoned structures – clinging to walls, roofs and forgotten playgrounds. At the site of one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in recent memory, life has returned.

Richard Branson wants to change the way you travel. As Chairman of Virgin Group Ltd. (which counts several travel companies – among them the Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, and Virgin Blue subsidiaries – under its banner) Branson’s aim is not wholly surprising. But the intrigue stems not from the what, but the how. As public awareness of the perils of climate change grows to a fever pitch, Branson is taking the aviation industry to task – and pledging his companies’ future profits in the search for a better solution.

Until now, little attention has been brought to the growing impact of air travel – a truth that is surprising once the facts are taken into account. As a whole, airlines (and the surrounding enterprises) are responsible for 2% of the global carbon dioxide emissions annually. Industry analysts predict that number will double by 2030 as passenger rates are slated to increase 6% through 2010, and further increase in the following decade. As numerous governments around the world have instituted some form of carbon monitoring (and the accompanying penalties for excessive polluting), the targeted industries are largely land-based – which has given rise to the call for industry-wide change from the inside-out.

Branson’s initial highly-publicized action was a short haul trip with a potentially huge impact on the future of aviation. In partnership with Boeing, GE Aviation, and Imperium Renewables, Virgin Atlantic Airways became the first company to successfully attempt a distance flight (40 minutes, from London to Amsterdam) of a commercial airliner using a biofuel-petroleum mix. The biofuel was plant-based – derived from coconut and babassu oil and combined with standard petroleum jet fuel. Ethanol – the biofuel of choice for the automotive industry – could not be used as it does not contain enough energy per gallon to power a 250+ passenger aircraft.



Virgin Atlantic Biofuel Flight Touchdown

In addition to achieving the correct biofuel-petroleum blend, there were numerous engineering challenges to address – the greatest of which was the risk that the biofuel would gel in the unmodified engine, due to the low temperatures experienced at cruising altitude. (The FAA has approved biofuels for use in smaller aircraft – which fly closer to the ground, and strongly suggest the use of fuel-line heaters to avoid problems. For larger jets, only extreme engine modification would make biofuel-based distance flights possible.) Fortunately, the 20% blend caused no engine malfunctions, and all of the companies involved in the initial flight are committed to analyzing the data collected in the hopes of improving the process.

As successful (and headline-grabbing) as the flight was, it still had many leading environmentalists voicing concern over the high price of plant-based fuels – namely the extensive land use necessary to grow the needed crops, and the potential global impact of a rise in food costs. While their arguments are sound, Virgin’s triumph was meant to prove that biofuel could be a sustainable alternative for the future - and to raise public awareness of the need for responsibility in the aviation industry.

Big concept. Short format. That is the – admittedly, very basic – idea behind an event that aims to put the ‘point’ back into ‘PowerPoint.’ The MS Office standard has been the conference room bane of many an office worker’s existence – often with text heavy slides and appallingly bland imagery – and paired with a presentation script that matches the content. Given the hectic pace of today’s business world – do we have time for this? A Tokyo-based duo believes we do – but with a twist. Welcome to the world of Pecha Kucha.

Pecha Kucha (the Japanese term for ‘chit-chat’, pronounced as ‘pe-chak-cha’) was developed in 2003 by architects Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham (see picture above). Introduced as a venue for creative professionals to share their ideas and network with like-minded individuals, the events are now being held in over 230 cities around the globe. The caveat? Presentations are limited to 20 slides, shown for 20 seconds apiece, for a total running time of 6 minutes, 40 seconds. (For most office meetings, this time line would constitute the ‘warm-up’.)



Pecha Kucha: Get to the PowerPoint in 20 Slides

Much like micro-blogging site Twitter, Pecha Kucha is finding a wider audience – one with an appreciation for a focused message in an easy-to-master medium. Initially aimed at creative fields – architecture, design, photography, fine arts – the short-form concept is now expanding into academic and business worlds. The overwhelming popularity of these events clearly proves that the creators have hit on something fundamental, but how can you make it work for you? Whether you are a painter or politician, a gardening expert or geneticist – the essential lessons of Pecha Kucha.

The Take-Away(s)

Brevity - Keep it focused. The medium will only support your message if you know what you want to say. Don’t dither. No fluff, no anecdotes, no asides – if they don’t directly relate to your message, cut ‘em. The focal point of your presentation should be easily described in ONE SENTENCE.

Passion - What do you care about? And why? From a world-renowned master chef, to a comic book collector, Pecha Kucha events can feature a considerable range of topics. The greater your enthusiasm, the higher your chances of transferring that passion to your audience.

Inspiration - Your message may not always be a happy one, but if not, it should be one that inspires change. At one event, a bucket was passed around the room following a presentation of grim photographs from tsunami-ravaged Indonesia. The thousands of dollars raised that evening not only aided the relief effort, but inspired founders Klein and Dytham to start a foundation to provide grants for compelling, community-minded (and Pecha Kucha-presented) projects.

A Beneficial Viewpoint - Provide a benefit. Because you’re not presenting a topic to 300+ people for your own benefit. Approach your topic from a new angle – with the intention of improving the lives of your listeners. It will add pizazz to your speech – and might help you to break through any mental barriers separating you from realizing your Next Big Idea.

For many, Pecha Kucha-mania might seem too much performance art, not enough real-world results. But they would be wrong. Whether you are interested in sharing your passion for the artistry of the Samurai warrior, or inspiring better work from your colleagues, the lessons learned from this concept can be useful in nearly every industry – and at 6 minutes and 40 seconds, who doesn’t have time for that?