Julia Scott

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The Panic Button

Tuesday, October 1st, 2019

When I think about how we come to fear, I think about a photograph my parents took of me as an 11-year-old. I’m in their bedroom, perched on the edge of their bed. It’s plenty warm in the house, but I’m dressed for subzero temperatures. I have on layers of clothes underneath my wool winter coat. I wear a bright pink ear-warmer headband above my ponytail and glasses, through which I stare out at the camera with a baleful expression. I am clutching a fire extinguisher.

I remember that my parents thought I looked adorable in my getup as I prepared myself for a notable first: They were leaving me alone, without a babysitter, to go out with their friends for the night.

They naturally assumed I would eat the dinner they’d prepared, watch some TV and go to bed. I naturally assumed that something would cause the house to catch fire and, despite my attempt at heroics with the fire extinguisher, I would end up in the snow outside, watching it burn.

I spent much of that evening on their bed, waiting for them to come home, the fire extinguisher propped up on a pillow next to me. Every so often I’d peer into the snowy street to see whether any strangers were approaching our front steps. I scurried upstairs and downstairs, my heart pounding, as I listened for sounds that seemed out of place — anything that could be construed as the first signs of a burglar who, I was sure, would choose this exact evening to try to break in. Whenever the refrigerator switched on or a truck rattled by, I jumped.

To say I was a needlessly fearful child is accurate, but it also diminishes the reality of my dread. I was certain that something bad would happen — soon — to me or to the people I loved. When my parents left me at home, I’d tell myself terrible stories that initially seemed plausible, then seemed inevitable, and then didn’t seem like stories at all — panic-inducing scenarios of my parents being assaulted on the street or getting into a car accident. The feelings produced by these fake storylines felt real. I was scared, and therefore I had reason to be. That was the feedback loop.

My mother would try to help me see my fictions for what they were by offering an alternative ending. She would stop what she was doing, sit me down and detail how safely their evening would play out, from dinner at the restaurant to the play they would see afterwards. She would never, to my frustration, commit to a curfew.

Frequently, she reassured me by pointing out the little doorbell installed on the left side of her bed. It was round and white to blend in with the rest of the wall and positioned about a foot above the telephone. The panic button, she called it. One push and it called the alarm company. The police would come to the house. Only use it in an absolute emergency.

This only confirmed what I had suspected: I had legitimate reasons to panic. I timed how long it would take me to run down the hallway from my bedroom and push the panic button. Sometimes at night I would creep toward my parents’ room, ease the door open, and tiptoe over to the bed to make sure they were still breathing.

 

The more we know about the world, the more there is to fear. I wish we talked about it more, but it seems that fear is the final taboo. We like to think we should be over our fears by adulthood — that we should be better, more perfect, more evolved. The opposite is true for me, and I’m convinced I’m not alone.

In my opinion, most adults carry around deep, sloshing cisterns of confusion, pain and fear. We move slowly and carefully, lest we spill a drop and expose ourselves. Our fears are among the few things that unite us, yet we suffer them quietly and alone.

“As far back as I can remember, every minute of life has been an emergency in which I was paralyzed with fear,” writes poet and essayist Mary Ruefle in Madness, Rack, and Honey.

Yet why is it that all we hear are stories about people who overcame their fears? Of public speaking. Of snakes. Of air travel. Of failure. Even of death. We celebrate these achievements. We talk about ‘conquering’ our fears as if they are a cancer — and as if there were a cure.

Until recently, all that talk of fear-squashing sounded pretty good to me. At 38, I still have much in common with the child edging toward the panic button. Many nights, I close my eyes and wonder whether this will be it. I live in Oakland, California, so my specific and immediate concern is whether tonight will be the night my apartment building will collapse on top of me. The Hayward Fault runs less than three miles from my home and is notoriously overdue for “The Big One.”

With the recent string of earthquakes in Southern California, it’s become even easier to imagine myself buried under rubble, suffocating, my back broken, unable to call for help. In other, more optimistic scenarios, I emerge from the building into the fresh hellscape of my neighborhood, bleeding and starting to walk toward the hospital.

When I drive across the bridge to San Francisco I am frequently seized by fear. Rather than admire the view, I think about an earthquake buckling the concrete and ripping the steel girders in two, sending my car straight to the bottom of the bay. I try to strategize: Should I bail out of the car while it’s falling? How long would I survive once the car hit the water?

It’s not just earthquakes that keep me up at night. I can’t stop thinking about all the potential ways catastrophic climate change will end life as we know it. But I may not be around long enough to witness that . . . because I also semiregularly convince myself I have a new terminal health condition. I wake up after a night of Googling and my search history is still open: “Early Stage Ovarian Cancer — Three Signs to Look Out For.” “When to Get Tested for Alzheimer’s.”

I am a treat at parties.

Just kidding — I don’t tell anyone I have these thoughts.

What’s worse, my thoughts no longer just poison my mind. I’ve started clenching my jaw in my sleep and had to get a tooth repaired. And this spring, I experienced my first panic attack in 15 years. It was such a nonsequitur that I didn’t even understand what was happening until later. One moment it was a beautiful Saturday, the next I was crumpled over on a bus-stop bench, nauseated, breathless and confused. How odd, I remember thinking. Why can’t I make this stop?

When I have a problem, I usually poll my friends. So I put a message on Facebook, asking them to volunteer some stories about their fears. Implicit in my asking was a hope that they would also tell me how they overcame them. Something I could pilfer and apply to my own life.

Clearly, I didn’t understand fear.

 

One of the people I talked to for this story — we’ll call her Morgan — had a terrible fear of heights. She would go to theme parks with her friends and watch people screaming with joy on the roller coasters, knowing how ill it would make her feel to climb up and strap herself in. She’d force herself to do it anyway. One day, when she was 19, it dawned on her that she could conquer her fear — and impress her motorcycle-loving boyfriend — by learning to fly propeller planes. She found a flying school at a local airport and signed up for 10 lessons on the spot.

“I set out to prove to myself that I could do something that scared the living shit out of me,” she says. “It was stupid and bizarre and harsh.”

Flying was more satisfying than she’d projected. With her instructor beside her in the cockpit, Morgan could force her attention onto the intellectual aspects of gauges and weather and how everything worked. She learned swiftly and built confidence. When her lessons were complete, she even let her instructor persuade her to fly solo. Morgan felt certain she’d be cured.

The day of her solo flight, Morgan tried to stay calm by telling herself the plane was just a machine — a car you drive in the sky. Taking off, she felt the fuselage give a tiny shudder and then she was airborne.

It was magic. She felt like Amelia Earhart. She was the one who had pulled that piece of metal off the ground and was circling in the sky.

Then she realized that she had to land. She tried to squeeze down her mounting panic by recalling her training. Rather than let herself think about crashing, she checked off every step, one by one. In the end, she made a perfect landing.

But Morgan was disinclined to celebrate. The moment she cut the engine, she knew she would never fly a plane again. Her fear of heights had returned in full force. Four decades later, she has come to accept that it will never go away.

People spend their days quietly coping with fear. “When an elevator goes up, my palms start to sweat. I can’t control it. I know it’s totally irrational,” says one man I know who developed some new fears in midlife but doesn’t tell people about them. Let’s call him Roger. He says going above the 20th floor is guaranteed to induce a panic attack.

Roger lives in a town with mercifully few high-rises. When he travels, he always requests a hotel room as low to the ground as possible. He also hates flying. He would rather drive eight hours than take a one-hour flight. He doesn’t know how these fears got started; they just happened. Today he copes with Xanax.

Another friend — I’ll call her Claire — traces her fear of heights to a trip to Italy she took three years ago. She was driving up a winding mountain road toward a cliff town to take in the view. After a lifetime of happily climbing to the tops of European castles, standing at the stomach-churning edges of canyons and exploring California’s mountains by car, something changed. The road was practically cantilevered over the sea. Every time she hit another switchback, it felt like she was about to tip over the edge.

Soon after that, she started to suffer panic attacks on mountain roads. Her palms and feet got clammy and she worried that she wouldn’t be able to hold on to the wheel or hit the brakes in time to save herself.

Then the claustrophobia set in. A year later, while hosting a party at her house, Claire accidentally locked herself in her bathroom. She had to remove the handle and jimmy open the door. She started avoiding bathrooms at cafés, especially the ones with heavy deadbolts. On airplanes she asks a flight attendant to please watch the door — she can’t bear to lock it.

Claire went to a psychologist who prescribed exposure therapy to help her fight her fears. No way was that going to happen, she says, so she, too, uses antianxiety medications. “I’m not over the anxieties, but my response to them is much more muted,” she explains. “As a woman, especially, I don’t want to lose my independence because of fear.”

 

I started out writing about “how we come to fear,” but I actually think it’s more accurate to say that our fears come to us. And if we can’t forestall them, what hope do we have for resisting their influence?

Security expert Gavin de Becker says that’s the wrong question. His book, The Gift of Fear — published in 1997 and still the most popular fear-advice book in a crowded marketplace — argues that fear plays an innate role in keeping us alive. In his professional experience helping people assess threats from co-workers, ex-partners and stalkers, de Becker believes tahat when it comes to predicting violent behavior in particular, fear sends us helpful survival signals that we too often choose to ignore. Instead, we should embrace the fear as a kind of intuition, a guide to predicting that something bad will happen.

But here’s the catch: The helpful kind of fear, he says, is short-lived and rare. And it really only helps us avoid unexpected dangers like an assault, not the things some of us have feared for years, like earthquakes or heights or being trapped in enclosed spaces.

“Real fear is a signal intended to be very brief, a mere servant of intuition,” he writes. “But though few would argue [with the notion] that extended, unanswered fear is destructive, millions choose to live there.”

De Becker distinguishes between useful fear (which manifests when we’re threatened) and useless fear. He points out that in a life-threatening crisis, fear is often the last thing we feel. Claire can attest to this. She has been held up at gunpoint, and she’s been in car accidents. She stays calm and enters a state she calls “taking-care-of-business mode.” I’ve had similar experiences after car accidents. The terrible thing has happened. You accept it immediately and launch into problem-solving. Fear is absent.

“The very fact that you fear something is solid evidence that it is not happening,” de Becker notes in a neat turn of phrase. “If it does happen, we stop fearing it and start to respond to it.”

So, what’s happening to me when I startle awake at night, trembling, my heart pounding so hard that I mistake the sensation for my bed shaking in an earthquake?

According to de Becker, that’s not authentic fear. It’s worry. “Worry is the fear we manufacture,” he says.

When I read those lines, I frowned at the word “manufacture.” I doubt the people I interviewed would say they’ve manufactured the burden of their fears.

But de Becker insists that remaining in a state of fear — like a car alarm that won’t shut off — is a choice, and it is more dangerous than we think, because it often leads to panic. It could even cause more harm than the fear itself.

Too bad fear and worry feel the exact same way in our bodies — like an existential threat.

This makes perfect sense on a physiological level, says journalist Jaimal Yogis, author of The Fear Project. That shot of cortisol that makes me gasp at night is a symptom of the classic fight-or-flight response that Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon first characterized in 1915. We’ve all experienced the rest of them: dilated pupils, tensed muscles, elevated heart rate.

These symptoms are governed by the amygdala, which has been protecting us since early hominids faced down saber-toothed cats and giant hyenas. Unfortunately, our amygdalas have not evolved with the times. I can set mine off reading a scary headline on my smartphone.

“By the time you can say ‘I’m afraid,’ your body is already well into the stress process,” Yogis writes. We have no medium setting built into our bodies for medium-sized scares. It’s just an on/off switch. There’s no going back once you’ve hit the panic button.

Over time, chronic anxiety can translate into devastating physical disorders like pulmonary disease and cardiovascular problems. It can disrupt the central nervous and endocrine systems, flooding the body with stress hormones like cortisol, which in turn contribute to all manner of issues with sleep, weight gain, diabetes and, yes, even teeth-clenching at night.

What of this idea, then, that we can choose a better way? De Becker offers three behavioral tips that underpin his philosophy of grappling with dreaded outcomes.

1) When you feel fear, listen.

2) When you don’t feel fear, don’t manufacture it.

3) If you feel yourself creating worry, explore and discover why.

“Worry will almost always buckle under a vigorous interrogation,” he writes triumphantly, and you can almost see the sheriff’s badge gleaming on his chest.

But the problem with all our fears is that they tell good stories. The plots may vary, but the core message is unsettling. It’s about uncertainty, about our profound lack of control over our lives, on this planet, in this universe. Objectively speaking, potential disasters are everywhere — epidemics, asteroids, drunk drivers. They could strike us down at any time. Our nervous systems keep us aroused, sniffing the air for the next threat. And when you see it that way, it makes sense to stay vigilant for all of them.

“Anxiety, unlike real fear, is always caused by uncertainty,” says de Becker. When we can’t predict something, we can’t prepare for it. We’re forced to admit there’s nothing we can do. Welcome to the human condition.

Sometimes, our fears also depend greatly on context. The Chapman University Survey of American Fears offers a fascinating snapshot of just how much our fears and anxieties can change over time based on the media zeitgeist — and which ones abide, year after year.

In 2016, for instance, three of the 10 most prominent fears Americans cited were terrorism, gun control and Obamacare — all major themes of the presidential campaign.

In 2017, according to the survey, Americans widely feared getting into a nuclear confrontation with North Korea — at a time when the Trump administration’s nuclear brinkmanship and “fire and fury” threats were constantly in the news.

In 2018, for the first time, five of the top 10 fears were about destruction of our environment: contaminated drinking water; the pollution of oceans, lakes and rivers; bad air; the mass extinction of flora and fauna; and global warming. At least now I know I have company.

What I find most interesting, however, are the three universal fears that climb to the top of the chart every year and sit there, unmoving, like Dante’s shrieking harpies perched in the tortured wood. Two are closely connected: the twin fears of a loved one becoming seriously ill and of a loved one dying.

The third is the consistent number one thing we Americans fear: the behavior of corrupt government officials. Regardless of party affiliation, it seems people most fear government malfeasance.

That may seem odd, but to the worrier, all fears have their own logic. Mine are no exception. The Hayward Fault will definitely erupt . . . sometime. The climate crisis is here, and it’s going to get worse. And everyone dies of something, whether it’s cancer or a wrong turn off a steep mountain road.

How are we supposed to handle ourselves in the meantime? This is as much a question about living, I’ve come to realize, as it is about coping with life’s less appealing features: uncertainty and lack of control.

For me, catastrophizing — thinking about the worst possible thing that could happen and letting my mind deal with the consequences — offers a kind of perverse comfort, the promise of tussling with my fears and shoring up my resilience to suffering. The trouble is, I never actually escape the fear loop. I’m never really reassured. And this minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour anxiety drip becomes its own eternal wellspring. Anyone who has a history of panic attacks will tell you that the fear of having one can be enough to set the next one off.

“In terms of fear of heights or flying, what I actually fear is the feeling of panic, of being trapped and unable to get away, and how I’ll act and feel. Not so much crashing. So that you begin to fear the fear,” says Roger, the man who avoids flights and elevators. Fear will just metabolize itself after a while.

 

I sometimes think about my young self and wonder what happened to me. Why wasn’t I more resilient? Did my parents not cultivate my independence? I’ve started wondering about how much our early development and even our personalities shape our viewpoint when it comes to risk and fear. When I was 11 and facing a night alone, I perceived those parentless hours as a harrowing ordeal. But some other kid might have turned them into an escapade, watching off-limits TV channels and gorging on junk food all night.

I am acquainted with people who go through life assuming that everything will be OK. And even when it won’t, they see no point in worrying about it, because there’s nothing they can do to prevent bad things from happening. My grandmother, for instance, had a favorite expression: “What is, is.” She held tight to those words amid several life-changing setbacks, and lived to age 96. I envied her disposition, but I will never be like her. My version of resilience involves planning for the worst, even though I know it’s an endless iteration.

So I’ve been looking for a third way — a middle path. When someone recommended I read The Places That Scare You, a book of Tibetan Buddhist teachings by Pema Chödrön, I resisted at first, even though I have my own flailing meditation practice. I worried that she would tell me that fear is an illusion or something equally trite.

But unlike Gavin de Becker, Chödrön doesn’t claim we can ditch our long-term fears. She says they’re part of the human condition. Chödrön describes fear as something we learn early and often — it’s a product of circumstances that “harden us” until we become resentful and afraid, she says.

We can ease fear’s grip by opening ourselves up, over time, to what hides beneath: tenderness and vulnerability. She says these two qualities could take us a lot further in life, but most of us have bricked them off and poured concrete over the wall for good measure.

“Tapping into that shaky and tender place has a transformative effect,” she writes. “Being compassionate enough to accommodate our own fears takes courage, of course, and it definitely feels counterintuitive. But it’s what we need to do.”

Rather than waiting for our fears to overtake us on their schedule, she suggests we acknowledge their shrieks and look up at the branches where they perch in our lives every day. That we get to know them.

We’d rather do almost anything else. I know I would. I would rather numb myself watching YouTube far into the early morning hours than spend another night facing whichever fear asserts itself.

Chödrön says that tendency only makes things worse. “Openness doesn’t come from resisting our fears but in getting to know them well,” she writes.

I am trying. Sometimes when I’m fearful now, I let myself acknowledge how it feels — I’m scared. This is scary.

Other times, I try to bring some of my reporter’s persona to the moment and become curious — an approach Chödrön mentions in the book. Asking “What’s really happening here?” and “What’s under this feeling of panic?” can yield results. It’s possible my presumption that I have a terminal disease has something to do with my deeper fear of failing at life, of not having mattered at all. Maybe my horror of earthquakes is tied to a distasteful reality I’d rather avoid: the impermanence of this life I’ve built, and having it taken away from me.

I no longer shake my head at that little girl who sat on the edge of her parents’ bed, sweating in too-much clothing, eyeing the panic button. She had a certain wisdom. Deep down, she sensed a truth her parents couldn’t refute: Life is uncertain and few things are within our control.

Fear seemed like the best way to handle that news at the time. I’m hoping it’s not too late to learn another way.

I also regularly give in to — and I’m not sure Chödrön would approve of this — the exigencies my fears demand. Last year, I purchased two heavy, fully stocked earthquake-emergency backpacks. I stashed them in my car and my apartment. I bought two more for my parents for Christmas. (They were confused.) I also treated myself to a shiny new fire extinguisher, even though my old one was not expired.

The friends I talked to all choose to be out in the world despite their fears. But their lifestyles are limited, and the do’s and don’ts are a process to be managed, constantly. Claire still likes to explore steep mountain roads, but only those with a barrier. She feels sick when she’s obliged to drive over a long bridge, but she can handle it if someone else, like a bus driver, is at the wheel.

Morgan attributes her fear of heights to a childhood wound that never healed. Some things she simply won’t do, like roller coasters and downhill skiing. But she’ll climb a mountain for the beauty. It’s hard to do — sometimes really hard — but there’s simply no other way to enjoy the vista. When I asked her how she overcomes her fear, she gently corrected me.

“I have found of myself that a surrender practice is the best. It’s not a conquering, or a getting over, or a getting away from,” she said. “And climbing a mountain is another form of that surrender practice.”

We can keep ducking our fears, but at a certain point they prevent us from seeing the view. I could leave Oakland, but I love my tranquil apartment, my neighborhood, the white-blossom magnolia tree in the courtyard, and the patio where I can contemplate its flowering while I meditate. So I choose this.

“What has life taught me? I am much less afraid than I ever was in my youth — of everything. That is a fact. At the same time, I feel more afraid than ever. And the two, I can assure you, are not opposed but inextricably linked,” writes Mary Ruefle.

Bad things will happen. To me and to the people I love. To the planet, and the creatures on it that don’t have a voice. I know this to be true. But something good could happen, too: the type of alternative ending my mother tried to teach me to construct. With all my planning and preparing for the worst, I have little space to imagine an actual future. The version of the story in which I go on living — not because of my fears, but despite them.

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How Canadians Took Silicon Valley… And Never Owned the Win

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

[Original story here: https://thelogic.co/news/the-big-read/origin-story-canadians-in-silicon-valley/]

Lars Leckie knew C100 had arrived when he was walking down the street in downtown Toronto a few years ago, crossing an intersection while wearing his C100 jacket. A young entrepreneur stopped him mid-stride, and introduced himself. “‘It’s so great to meet someone from the C100!’” Leckie recounts the man telling him. “And I’m like, ‘I’m just in downtown Toronto, I’m not at an office where you expect to see startups,’” says Leckie. “It was pretty cool.”

Bay Area venture capitalists like Leckie, managing director at Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, rarely get that kind of open-mouthed rock-star treatment in Silicon Valley, although they are a key part of its mystique—the golden-robed men and women who, like ancient Roman emperors in the Colosseum, control pollice verso the fate of companies and the circulation of economy-altering sums of money.

But together, the charter members of C100 have inspired their own mystique, a coveted stamp of approval. C100 is a small, member-driven non-profit that connects Canadian tech entrepreneurs with the Valley’s top Canadians in the industry. Hundreds of companies apply for 48 Hours in the Valley, its signature program, each year. Only 20 are selected. The pitch session trainings and mentorship that CEOs receive—not to mention introductions to funders—have contributed to the growth of companies like Clearbanc, Frank And Oak, Kik, Wealthsimple, Tulip and Well.ca.

All told, more than $3 billion in venture capital was invested in Canada in 2017, and another $3.2 billion the year before that. C100 estimates that the funds companies with a C100 connection since 2010 easily stretches into the billions. Yet the story of Canadian excellence in the Valley is fraught—and not just by conversations at home about “brain drain,” even as Canadian entrepreneurs continue to derive a net benefit from the training they get from U.S. universities and tech jobs. The other issue is the hidden history of Canadian success itself.

In its reluctance to acknowledge the realities of the modern tech diaspora, Canadians—or the Canadian press, at any rate—have inadvertently overlooked the names and diminished the achievements of generations of Canadians who handed the baton to the tech workers transforming our digital economy.

The resulting lacuna may seem benign, but it has had real consequences for today’s tech talent, according to Canadians I spoke to in the Valley. It’s fostered a hesitation for Canada to celebrate its wins—and has affected Canadian entrepreneurs’ tendencies to see themselves playing a bigger role on the world stage.

“Americans are so good at telling the entrepreneurial story and Canadians need to improve. In the mythology of Silicon Valley, we are surrounded by the Elon Musks, the Steve Jobses. Who are those people in Canada? Most kids in high school don’t even know who Tobi Lütke is,” says Anthony Lee, a managing director at Altos Ventures and co-founder of C100, referring to the founder of Canadian e-commerce behemoth, Shopify.

People here like to say that the longer you live outside Canada, the more fiercely Canadian you become. The charter members of C100—a Who’s Who of Canadian technorati—pay for the privilege of participating in events and volunteering their time, not the other way around. Leckie defines the job as “making sure that people know Canada is kicking ass.”

He meets me at his office—a bright, wood-beamed space whose windows overlook San Francisco’s Pier 33, where tourists queue up along the ferry dock to Alcatraz. In a previous life, before attending Stanford University, Leckie was a member of the Canadian Sailing Team, who represented his home country at the Pan American Games. But the plaque he keeps in his office has nothing to do with sailing competitions. He excuses himself and comes back a minute later to show it to me: a hockey puck mounted on a trophy base, presented to Leckie by C100 to thank him for his work as an inaugural co-chair of the organization.

Yet judging by how Canadians back home perceive the diaspora, people like Leckie—not to mention Lee and his C100 co-founder Chris Albinson—could represent the face of the “brain drain” as much as any of the young engineering grads migrating down from the University of Waterloo or the University of Toronto today. They had intended to come to the Bay Area for a year or two before returning home, but ended up staying. They are giving their time (and, sometimes, money) to help Canadian companies succeed. But they are agnostic on the question of where Canadians should locate their startups, at least in the beginning stages.

“We think people ought to be in the ecosystem here, to be a part of it. If you want to be a giant in tech, you have to spend some time down here. But you don’t have to stay here,” says Lee.

Albinson cringes at “brain drain.” “It’s a term I find horrifically bad for the country,” he says. “No, we’ve always been about supporting Canadian entrepreneurs. But if you’re only doing Canadian entrepreneurship in Canada, that gets away from this idea of flow. There should be no barrier for capital, people or information.”

Some of the people I interviewed for this story live in the Bay Area, while some have returned home to Canada. But none of them say their career trajectories would have been possible had they stayed in Canada, rather than coming to the U.S. for work experience. That’s changing now, but there is too much precedent to think it will end any time soon.

The early 1990s saw a wave of Canadians pouring into the Valley on the crest of the telecom boom. Two cohorts preceded them, but their names and stories are not widely known. This is where the details get sketchy, owing to a lack of published materials. It’s hard to piece together a narrative from the paucity of recorded histories: unlike the volumes of work on Americans (including American immigrants) and their successive technologies, the body of information on Canadian tech achievers is, for the most part, paper-thin.

I’m not the only one who’s noticed, either. “I’ve not come across an historian of Canadian technology. If you find said person, please share their name with me,” John Stackhouse tells me. The former editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail now works for RBC, and is writing a book on the Canadian diaspora. He helped a bit with the following history.

Canadians at U.S. engineering schools in the ‘40s and ‘50s undertook advanced studies and research as part of the Cold War nuclear academic arms race. Starting in the ‘60s, Canadians are thought to have worked at companies like Fairchild Semiconductor, one of the early chipmakers that helped Silicon Valley get its name.

In subsequent years, Canadians were among the engineers who developed software programs, modems and routers at companies on both sides of the border. The University of Waterloo’s computer science program was established in 1964, soon becoming one of the biggest of its kind in the world, catching the eye of companies like IBM. Around that time, U.S. companies started hiring Waterloo grads, a tradition that continues today.

Some important names come up in conversations that track the origin story of Canadians in the Valley—people of Canadian descent whom some of today’s tech cohort have claimed as their forebears. Cecil Green, co-founder of Texas Instruments, was born in England and raised in Vancouver, where he studied at the University of British Columbia in the ‘20s. His financial gift helped build the university’s Green College and a visiting professorship program. Gururaj “Desh” Deshpande is an Indian immigrant who studied at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) and Queen’s University in the late ‘70s. He worked at a Motorola subsidiary in Toronto and later co-founded Sycamore Networks, one of the biggest IPOs of the telecoms era, and endowed an innovation centre at UNB. And then there’s James Gosling, the father of the Java computing language, who was born and raised in Calgary and worked at Sun Microsystems for nearly three decades before moving on to Oracle, Google and Amazon Web Services.

By the ‘90s, Canadians were thick on the ground in early computer software, graphic design, telecoms and mobile. And then they started climbing the masts of the Silicon Valley flagships: Shaan Pruden at Apple, Jeff Skoll at eBay, Don Listwin and Rob Lloyd at Cisco, Jeff Mallett at Yahoo, Doug Roseborough at Oracle and Rob Burgess at Macromedia (now Adobe). The list really does go on—and that’s before you get to today’s top Canadians who occupy the upper ranks at marquee companies like Facebook, Dropbox, Uber, Google, Salesforce, Zynga and Slack.

Silicon Valley Canadians of the late ‘90s and early aughts didn’t have a lot of ways to find each other. There was—and still is—the delightfully-named Digital Moose Lounge, which hosts social gatherings like Canada Day events. Aside from that, people were mostly dispersed, ending up camouflaged among American colleagues at work. Later, when LinkedIn came along, Leckie created a “Canadians in the Bay Area” LinkedIn group, and Canadians started self-identifying. That helped form the basis for C100’s early outreach.

The Canadian ability to blend in has made it surprisingly difficult to pin a number on the population of expats in the Bay Area; various estimates peg it at somewhere between 250,000 and 350,000. Not even Rana Sarkar, consul general of Canada in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, knows for sure. He says, “A good chunk may have dual passports and…are inadvertent Canadians: either their parents are Canadian, or they moved down here at a young age or they’re laying low and have married an American.”

But the central question of what constitutes a Canadian is an interesting one, he reckons. What about people like Deshpande and Musk, who passed through Canada and occasionally reference their maple-leaf roots? “If someone’s mom or dad is a Canadian and they’ve only visited the country a few times, does that mean they’re a Canadian of interest?” Sarkar asks. If the answer is yes, the narrative of the Canadian diaspora will need to be expanded—and many in the Valley think Canada will the better for it.

There’s an expression Albinson, the C100 co-founder, uses often: “When the United States catches a cold, Canada catches the flu.” In 2008, Canada’s tech sector had a bad flu in the midst of the financial crisis. “Canada, as an innovation economy, was on death’s door,” he recalls. “There was no venture capital. There was no angel money. And all over the country, entrepreneurs were losing their companies. Nortel was dead, Research in Motion [known as BlackBerry] was wobbly.”

It took a crisis for Canadians of the Valley to see themselves as a collective asset.

In addition to co-founding C100, Albinson is co-founder of Founders Circle and Panorama Capital. A Kingston boy, he was always intrigued by a painting of the Golden Gate Bridge that his grandmother brought home from a trip to San Francisco. He dislikes hierarchy and the East Coast. And he loves the weather and beauty of his adopted home of Larkspur, a little town in Marin County, Calif., where he meets me in the garden patio of a restaurant with fountains and birdsong.

Back in 2002, when he was a venture capitalist at JP Morgan Partners, Albinson was part of a trip to India designed to showcase the country’s goal of becoming a technology leader by 2020. In Delhi, he witnessed the benefits of viewing Indian expatriates not as a lost liability but rather as an asset. The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) is a Silicon Valley-based non-profit that connects entrepreneurs with South Asian roots around the world with funding, networking, education and mentorship. Founded in 1992, TiE became a model for C100 to emulate in building its own support ecosystem for expats.

By contrast, in 2008, Canada had few startup incubators. And it had a tax law requirement that made foreign venture funding of Canadian startups so difficult that investors were skipping the country altogether—Crunchbase called it “a leper colony for tech entrepreneurs.” Canada eliminated the tax section in 2010, after lobbying by stakeholders like C100, says Albinson.

“We realized the Canadian environment was very fractured,” says Albinson. “One of the reasons why Canada wasn’t having that much success wasn’t that the entrepreneurs weren’t good, but because the ecosystem around them was a mess.”

Albinson and Lee hatched C100 together just minutes after first meeting at an event in Palo Alto sponsored by the Canadian government. The consul general wanted to recruit them to a business advisory board to stimulate industry connections, but they had a better idea.

In January 2009, Albinson stood in front of the 85 most successful Canadians in a conference room on Sand Hill Road, the so-called “Wall Street of the West” in Menlo Park, Calif.. He cleared his throat and issued a call to action on behalf of their homeland. “I looked them in the eye and said, ‘You’ve had the privilege of a passport, you’ve had an amazing education. Because you’re in this room, you’ve had a lot of success down here. You have a responsibility. We want to start this. You owe it to these entrepreneurs to do this.’”

Lee says they felt inspired by Own the Podium, the national campaign (now a non-profit) to invest in Canadian winter sports that helped make Canada the top gold-medal finisher at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. “It was very un-Canadian to say, ‘We’re going to win,’” says Lee, “and I think it was kind of a turning point for the Canadian psyche” (Later, C100 created its own video homage to Own the Podium with a Silicon Valley twist: “It’s about claiming the podium as ours, painting it red and white, crushing it and sprinkling the dust into the eyes of our competitors”).

Albinson and Lee weren’t sure if their pitch would work. It was a novel ask, and people inside the room had no reason to contribute, other than their patriotism. “What I didn’t know was, did the thing that burns inside me about being Canadian, was that in everybody?” says Albinson.

Nearly everyone took out a pen and wrote a cheque for US$850.

What a difference a decade makes. As Canada’s tech sector gains traction, government support and major venture capital from south of the border, the freshly-laid infrastructure convinces top Canadians in the Valley that the growth trend will accelerate. It’s when someone like Montreal native Patrick Pichette moves on from his role as CFO at Google and turns venture capitalist, joining iNovia with the express purpose of elevating Canada’s best startups. Or when homegrown Hootsuite hero Ryan Holmes uses his success to build a national entrepreneurship accelerator to help youth in Canada launch the next big thing.

In 2017, Canadian companies comprised 14 per cent of the Deloitte Technology Fast 500, which tracks the fastest-growing tech companies in North America, up roughly three per cent from the year before.

Today, it’s U.S. venture firms that are working to get in front of Canadian entrepreneurs. Andrew D’Souza, co-founder and CEO of fintech service company Clearbanc, says he personally hears from at least one U.S. venture capitalist a week, usually from San Francisco or New York, asking him for advice on whom they ought to be meeting with in Toronto. “People are starting to wake up and realize there’s great talent and great companies built here,” he says.

It’s no longer strictly a requirement for Canadian entrepreneurs to knock on Silicon Valley doors for Series A funding, or even to base their companies in the Bay Area, says D’Souza. But you do need a “good connection” in the Valley, if only to level-set with the competition. “In Canada it’s very easy to be a big deal before you’ve accomplished very much. You can get in The Globe and Mail and you can get on TV…. It’s helpful to be able to look up and realize you’re actually competing on a global scale.” He co-founded Clearbanc in San Francisco in 2015, but a year later, it was clear the conditions were right for a move to Toronto. Now he recruits from both countries.

Albinson talks about being Canadian as though it were a superpower. “You tell people, ‘I’m Canadian,’ and suddenly you’re into three levels of trust. You need to be very, very careful with that. That’s one of the things I tell the C100 folks: we have this amplification that we’ve been entrusted with, whether we know it or not.”

More than a decade after Canada’s telecoms era sputtered, the country’s tech economy has all the ingredients it needs to dominate. What’s missing right now may not be something C100 can provide.

“It’s almost just a matter of confidence,” says Lee. “One thing I’ve noticed is that Canadians working in any industry will pay more attention to Canadians outside the country. Canadians have always needed outside validation. It’s always been part of the culture.”

He pauses. “Part of what we’re trying to say is, ‘Stop it, already.’”

Americans don’t need to name their success stories constantly because they’re all sewn into the mythology. They’ve managed to make all their disparate stories into American ones—to give them an inevitability. But in this case, history is being made in real time by Canadians at home and abroad in an industry that has little narrative of its own.

Canadians will recall getting intermittent history lessons on TV in the ‘90s by way of “Heritage Minutes”— those iconic national video clips depicting important Canadian moments. They’re how we learned about Canada’s contributions to basketball, Superman and even the real-life bear that was said to have inspired Winnie the Pooh. But why not the father of Java?

“I grew up during the Canadian iconography era,” says Leckie, referring to those film clips. “It’s always been my goal that Canadian tech would have that moment in the sun.”

If that happens, it will need to include the Silicon Valley diaspora.

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Senior Tech Moves Beyond “I’ve Fallen And I Can’t Get Up”

Tuesday, September 19th, 2017

Berkeley resident Janis Bordeaux lost her dad to a fall this summer.

John wasn’t frail. At 84, he was still the kind of man who never stopped building and making things. The summer before his fall, he was sanding the floor.

But by the following summer, John’s health had declined. He was having problems with his heart and his weight, and he was taking 12 medications every day. He had no history of falls, but as Bordeaux watched her dad grow weaker, she became more and more worried that he could stumble or slip and hurt himself.

When her parents, who also live in Berkeley, decided to spend the summer at their second home on the New Jersey shore, John suffered his first fall. He wasn’t seriously injured, but a few days later, he fell again.

“I feel like falls are the thing that will take you out nowadays, because pharmaceuticals are extending your life into what seems like an unnatural range,” Bordeaux reflects. “That could just be someone trying to make peace with their dad dying from something that seemed preventable. But on the other hand, he was getting so weak that a fall was bound to happen.”

It wasn’t the second fall that killed her dad. Or the third. Bordeaux’s dad fell four times that week.

The last two falls happened on the same day. He died shortly after.

The saddest part is that, statistically speaking, John’s story is so common. More than half of all elderly falls happen in the familiar surroundings of home. There are often warning signs well in advance, such as muscle weakness or gait imbalance. When your muscles are weak, it’s hard to stop yourself mid-fall. And most older adults who have fallen, or feel unsteady on their feet, don’t tell their doctors about it, according to the CDC.

Advice on how to prevent these traumatic falls has not changed much over the years. Experts say seniors who are unstable on their feet should invest in some easy home renovations to minimize slipping or tripping, such as better lighting, fewer rugs and more handrails. It’s important to talk to your doctor about your symptoms and, if needed, have your medications adjusted. The National Council on Aging recommends several evidence-based fall-prevention exercise programs for seniors, including Tai Chi, which is proven to increase balance and strengthen leg muscles.

Seniors work out as part of a community-wide event on LaCrosse, Wisconsin. (CDC)

But that’s pretty much it. As any concerned caregiver who has Googled “how to prevent senior falls” on behalf of a loved one is aware, the preponderance of helpful online resources all cover similar ground – annual physicals,  eye exams, eating vitamin-rich foods, exercise and removal of safety hazards.

In spite of these efforts, 29 million Americans over 65 reported falling in 2014, with 7 million of those falls leading to injury, and direct medical costs of $31 billion annually. Falling once makes you twice as likely to fall again.  And falls are the leading cause of death by injury for older adults.

Cancer is hard. It’s a hard problem. Preventing falls should be easy. Right?

If it were easy, we would be doing a better job of it, says Sanjay Khurana, Vice President of Caregiving Products and Services at AARP.

“As a society, we recognize that falling has a huge impact on degradation in quality of life,” he says. “One in four older adults falls every year, and less than half actually tell their doctors about it.”

The whole world is getting older -– fast. And those demographics are about to make this crisis into a calamity. A 2007 report from the World Health Organization lays it on the line: “The economic and societal burden of falls will increase by epidemic proportions in all parts of the world over the next few decades.” If countries, governments and communities don’t develop a coherent strategy to combat senior falls “in the immediate future,” the WHO projects the number of fall-related injuries will be 100 percent higher by 2030.

Old-School Tech No More

The one thing none of the government reports and websites mention is technology. Which is odd, considering senior falls have always been associated with a certain personal medical technology still in widespread use today. It goes by different names, but the iconic brand is LifeCall, whose infamous 1980s TV advertisement — “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”-– has launched a thousand punchlines. Not to mention inspired countless satires, from Urkel to Pokémon.

Here’s how it works: You wear a pendant or a wristband that you push to call an emergency responder when you fall. When they pick up, you can talk to them through a speaker installed in your home (provided you’re close enough for them to hear you, and conscious enough to push the button).

It seemed like a pretty impressive innovation when it was introduced in 1974. But now, we have the technology to do better, says the AARP’s Khurana. Way better.

Khurana has been keeping an eye on wearable and home-based sensors. Some can “see” through walls and discern whether an elderly person may be in distress, or allow you to check in on your parent or grandparent remotely by reporting on where they are and whether they’ve been having trouble walking lately.

Others can help you improve your balance with personalized exercises via smartphone sensing (or an at-home scale), or light the way to the bathroom at night – without requiring a verbal command.

Khurana has made it his mission to persuade industry there’s a financial upside to investing in fall prevention. He’s confident that when entrepreneurs and investors realize how big the market is –- the AARP says $2.9 billion for safety monitoring and fall-prevention tech alone –- the rate of innovation will kick into high gear.

The AARP did its part to goose the market this year with the Fall Prevention Innovation Challenge, a worldwide product search with some serious prize money attached. The first-time partnership with OpenIDEO and UnitedHealthcare attracted 205 design ideas from 90 countries. The competition launched in February and concluded in June.

The $50,000 top prizewinner (which judges dubbed Most Viable Solution) was Luna Lights, an automated lighting system that is activated when someone gets out of bed at night. It wirelessly lights the path along frequently traveled hallways toward, say, the bathroom or the kitchen. When the user gets back into bed, the lights snap off. Over time, cloud-based analytics compile habit data to signal to a caregiver that the elderly user may be spending extra time in the bathroom or wandering the house at night, which could suggest an underlying medical issue.

The competition’s $25,000 Most Promising Idea winner was Path Feel, a smart insole that vibrates in several pressure points when the foot touches the ground. The idea is to help older adults (or people with neuropathy, Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis) improve their balance in real time by helping them feel their feet on the floor. The company says it’s aiming to launch the product in 2018. Its built-in gyroscopes and oscillometers transmit data on gait patterns to an app that physical therapists and caregivers can use to measure progress.

Down the road, all that data could give rise to a new way to map the gait characteristics of, say, a 65-year-old diabetic against a larger dataset of “healthy walkers,” which could eventually help create algorithms for being able to detect certain symptoms and contribute to developing new diagnostic methods.

“As we age, we start changing our walking,” says Lise Pape, founder of Walk With Path, the UK-based company that invented Path Feel. “For instance, we start taking shorter steps. There’s indications in the literature that you can use walking to identify early onset Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”

El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, California, is already using predictive technology to reduce falls. A system made by Qventus combines data from patients’ electronic health records with call-light and bed-alarm data to alert nurses that the patient is at high risk of a fall. The staff can then implement additional monitoring, including the use of video, and intervene if the patient is going to attempt to stand. In April, Chief Nursing Officer Cheryl Reinking said the hospital saw a 39 percent decrease in falls over the first six months the system was in use.

The Missing Ingredient: Dignity

One reason that more modern apps and gadgets aren’t on the market: When it comes to wearable tech, seniors are a challenging population to design for.

“The vast majority of products we look at have major flaws,” says Richard Caro, a San Francisco-based scientist/inventor. “They’re basically designed with some 20-year-old audience in mind, not an 80-year-old audience.”

Caro organizes the Longevity Explorers, an online and in-person community of people over 70, who meet up to talk about aging and test out new senior tech gadgets.

The Longevity Explorers test out different lighted canes. (Richard Caro)

The products typically fall into one of two categories, he says. Either they solve a problem users don’t think they have, or they solve a problem people do have, but the solutions are so poorly implemented they’re not that usable.

For instance, the products will come with instructions in tiny gray type or they’ll have buttons that don’t work well with shaky hands. On the other end of the spectrum, some products are so simple and dumbed down that they don’t offer the user interface and normal functionality people need.

“A lot of people buy them and don’t wear them,” says Caro. “While the devices are pretty useful, they are mostly rather ugly. They look like you’ve escaped from the hospital.”

Sanjay Khurana has heard those objections, too –- from his own mother, who lives in an independent living facility. He gave her an emergency pendant to wear, but she doesn’t like it.

“And I asked her, ‘Mom, why don’t you wear this?’ She goes, ‘I wouldn’t be caught dead with the device.’ Because it requires you to wear it around your neck, it signals to the rest of the world that you are in need of help.”

He says design could make the difference.

“If the same product could be designed with a little more dignity, you would wear them, right? Maybe if it was a better-designed pendant, or a wristwatch. A smartwatch could integrate that.”

At least two companies are attempting just that. One is GreatCall, which makes the Lively Wearable, a fitness tracker that looks like a sport watch with only one button –- an emergency button. It syncs to a smartphone but only works in an emergency if you’re carrying your smartphone with you.

Wellnest, a new wearable geared toward seniors. (Jonathan Ramaci)

The other one is Wellnest, which is a smartphone watch you dial by voice. It has built-in 4G LTE and you converse with it via an Amazon Alexa interface. It can guide you home, order an Uber for you, remind you to take your meds, and sense when you’ve fallen. It will notify your caregivers if you’ve missed your meds or have been slipping a lot as you walk. It also allows them to ping your location in an emergency. (Lively Wearable is  already available; Wellnest is due out by the end of the year.)

Finally, what about after you’ve fallen, but before you hit the floor? One prototype idea in the Fall Prevention Challenge was a Spanx-like pair of underwear with built-in hip protectors – and a motion sensor that calls an ambulance after a fall. In fact, the “senior airbag” concept abounds. One is a “smart belt” you attach around your waist that activates in milliseconds after a fall, theoretically before you hit the ground.

Of course, all this technology requires the elderly person to be willing to use it, which means acknowledging they are at risk. Marketing and design teams have a heavy lift to make fall prevention technology relevant to Baby Boomers, a generation distinguished more by rejecting aging than by accepting the limits it imposes.

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Post-Theranos, Can Silicon Valley and Biomed Get Along?

Monday, April 24th, 2017

Oil and water. Plaid and polka dots. Fish and peanut butter. We all know these things don’t go together.

It’s worth asking how well the “get in hard, cash out fast” tech ethos du jour fits in with the plodding, regulation-heavy culture of health care. It’s a valid question in the wake of the Theranos flameout, in which a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with no medical background, lots of hype and very little scientific scrutiny raised copious venture backing to  revolutionize blood testing, only to see the technology fail in market.

Tech culture rewards disruptors. And those who can pivot on a dime.

But the process of getting a new drug or medical device to market is long and convoluted, a necessary drag. There’s the academic papers subject to peer review, the many stages of clinical testing and government approval. Yes, it all takes years, but it makes the science transparent.

By contrast, Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes was secretive about how the company’s technology worked, and the venture firms that pumped millions into Theranos either didn’t have the details, or weren’t scientifically literate enough to ask the questions that might have raised red flags.

Stanford professor Dr. John Ioannidis saw the red flags early on –some that even non-scientists could have discovered.

“So the first thing that I did as a researcher, as a scientist, is check the scientific literature,” he recently told NPR.  “How much do we know about what they [Theranos] do? And I couldn’t find even a single paper.”

Dr. Norman Paradis is a  professor of medicine at Dartmouth College who works as a consultant for diagnostic startups. He has given presentations to venture firms, and he says the fact that Theranos got hundreds of millions of dollars and went to market without proving itself makes it “a Silicon Valley event, and not a biomedical event.”

“I think Silicon Valley is used to this kind of thing: take an idea that isn’t fully formed and get it out into the world without validation, and maybe it fails later on.” Whereas in the biomedical field you almost always need to have data early on.

So what happened? The wrong people were asking the questions, says Paradis. “If you look at the list of who invested in Theranos, none of the venture capitalists who regularly do biomedical diagnostics were investors,” he says. The firms with relevant medical expertise steered clear. “Normally you show up to present an idea to these firms,  they really know what you’re talking about,” he added.

At a conference it hosted in January, The Economist asked a panel of venture capitalists about the broader perception of a culture clash between scientists and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs … and the Theranos example, specifically. The panelists represented three firms that invest in life science and healthcare ventures: Lisa Suennen from GE Ventures, David Sabow from Silicon Valley Bank, and Emily Melton from DFJ Venture Capital.

Here’s the full video:

The panelists agreed that some of the accepted rules that govern much of today’s startup development and commercialization seem to run counter to those of science-based startups in medicine and biotech. And that there is a tension between the two sides.

“It’s a solution sell versus a product sell,” said Melton from DFJ. “Investors think of things as products, whereas people on the health care side think of solutions.”

Suennen from GE Ventures agreed. “On the tech side, people are practically allergic to providing services,” she said.  But in the case of health care, “You can’t take the people out of caring for people.”

And, said Suennen, the timelines involved are vastly different.

“In the health care world, the time horizon for investments to mature and exit is pretty long compared to other marketplaces – usually 7 to 10 years,” Suennen added.

Melton noted that won’t deter some venture firms from investing in health care. “We’re willing to be more patient if we feel like there’s a great opportunity at the end,” she said, adding that, “We do need to have a clear path to commercialization.”

Of course a startup can’t come to market without jumping  through the hoops — specifically, the FDA approval process. That’s why these panelists said regulation is a — gasp! — good thing. “You need regulation in health care, for the most part, to make the market grow,” Suennen said.

Everyone on the panel agreed that the next big thing in digital health or biomedicine will not emerge until tech innovators and medical experts work together: venture companies need  the new ideas from the tech side combined with the health care knowledge. And that’s starting to happen.

Since most biomedical startups are still in early funding stages, it will take a few years to see a new model of collaboration emerge and produce significant breakthroughs in biomed.

“You need that life sciences perspective to understand how has it been done, what works, what doesn’t — in order to totally revolutionize it,” said Sabow, from Silicon Valley Bank. “People who are trying to do it without that multidimensional perspective are going to spend a lot of money, get a lot of buzz, but not necessarily have the revolutionary impact they’re hoping for.”

There was some awkwardness when Melton was asked about Theranos. Her firm, DFJ, pumped $500,000 in seed money into the venture early on. Interestingly, she all but said that her firm did not have access to data from Theranos when they cut the check.

“I think transparency is critical. You can’t mess around with people’s lives and you can’t put products out there without being very transparent about what you’re doing. Data is very critical, and letting people have access to the data.”

The Theranos debacle has a “tragic” element that goes beyond hundreds of lost jobs and lost investment, says Paradis. For $750 million, you could have funded at least seven good startups, he says. “It’s almost impossible to get a complete new diagnostic test developed, because funders are so conservative [when it comes to medical products],” he says. “That’s even less likely to happen now.”

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What Makes San Francisco Sourdough Unique?

Thursday, April 20th, 2017

If bagels are a New York thing, San Francisco definitely has sourdough. And probably no one has convinced more people that our sourdough is unique than Boudin Bakery, where tourists line up at Fisherman’s Wharf for a taste of that moist-tangy, fogbound delight.

Bay Area native (and KQED staffer) Peter Cavagnaro has been eating local sourdough all his life. It’s his favorite bread. And that got him wondering about something. He asked KQED’s Bay Curious….

“What makes San Francisco sourdough so unique?”

Here at KQED, we’ve always heard there’s something in the water or the air that makes our sourdough special. But is that really true?

It turns out that this is as much a science question as it is about the history and local mythology of our “authentic” local sourdough. By the time I had the answer, I also had 2 pounds of smelly homemade sourdough starter fermenting at home, and the results of a lab test that described the microbes living in it.

Taste the Microbes

To understand what makes our bread taste the way it does, you need to know how bread gets started. My investigation began in the fermentation room at Semifreddi’s bakery in Alameda, one of the best-known local producers of sourdough, along with Acme Bread Company and Tartine Bakery.

The fermentation room is the inner sanctum of the bakery. It’s a very cold, stainless-steel vault where 300 yellow buckets brim with slow-bubbling beige goop: future sourdough. I stood there, shivering in a hairnet, with co-owner Mike Rose and head baker John Tredgold.

Rose is a soft-spoken man who talks about sourdough with wonderment, as if it’s alive — which it is, with millions of microbes.

“Can you hear it? It’s hungry,” Rose said. “It will be fed later today. It gets fed once a day. Equal parts flour and water.”

Before sourdough gets baked, it has to be grown. Born as a primordial glop, aptly called starter. All it needs to grow, as Rose said, is flour and water. And time. That’s it. If you add anything else, it’s not real sourdough. Eventually, the sugars in the flour start to break down, and fermentation happens on its own.

Tredgold handed me a plastic spoon and pointed me to a bucket. I could see bubbles rising to the surface of the bucket — a sure sign of microbial activity. The starter tasted like very sour yogurt to me, but Tredgold treated the experience like tasting a fine wine, smelling and savoring.

“This is more like creme fraiche,” he said. “It makes you salivate, it makes you excited to eat more.”

The author’s starter, looking healthy with lots of air pockets.

Flour, Water, Temperature, Time

Semifreddi’s produces 9,500 loaves of sourdough each day. But no two loaves taste exactly alike. And that’s because the starter is alive with millions of wild yeast cells and naturally occurring bacteria. The yeast makes the bread rise. And the bacteria create the acids that make the bread sour.

The flavors vary from day to day, and batch to batch. Sourdough is one of the most ancient breads, dating back at least 5,000 years. It’s reasonably easy to create a starter from scratch, but tricky to master the triple arts of crust, crumb and flavor when baking. So much depends on capturing enough wild yeast to make the bread light and airy. (Adding commercial yeast is not a permitted technique at the baking stage if the goal is authentic, old-fashioned sourdough).

“We try to control it by temperature and time. And our hands. It’s never fully totally under control, because we’re dealing with natural organisms,” said Rose. “I love it,” he added with a grin.

Rose was so passionate that I decided to try growing my own sourdough starter at home (more on that below).

The Boudin Lore

A little voice nagged at me, though. Anyone can make sourdough, but would it be authentic if it wasn’t born in San Francisco? (I live in Oakland).

No one has convinced more people about the unique qualities of San Francisco sourdough than Boudin, which says it’s been selling the same loaf of bread for 168 years. According to the Boudin Bakery museum at Fisherman’s Wharf, the company’s mother dough follows an unbroken line back to the Gold Rush in 1849. Louise Boudin even saved the starter from a burning building in the 1906 earthquake.

A museum docent told me the starter is so special and irreplaceable that the Boudin mothership sends its retail stores fresh starter every 23 days. Without it, they say the sourdough those stores produce would stop tasting like San Francisco sourdough and start tasting like San Diego or Sacramento sourdough.

Why? Well, according to the museum, Boudin bread owes its special flavor to a strain of bacteria that thrives only in San Francisco’s climate. Scientists identified it here in 1970, so they named it Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis.

 

Not That Unique, Actually

It’s a great story. Too bad it’s not quite true.

Scientists did identify Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis here. But recent studies have found it in up to 90 percent of countries where sourdough is produced. So from a biological standpoint, San Francisco sourdough is not all that distinctive.

“It’s something that everyone thinks is unique to San Francisco and that is not true at all,” said Ben Wolfe, a microbiologist at Tufts University in Boston. His lab studies fermentation full time … including the microbes you find in sourdough.

So, case closed? Not quite.

Boudin Bakery says their decades-old starter is the key to the bread’s flavor.

 

Science is still learning about the lactic acid bacteria (like L. sanfranciscensis) that give sourdough its main sour flavor. Other fermented foods have lactic acids, too, like miso, yogurt and kimchi.

But scientists don’t know where they come from. Or how they get into your sourdough starter when you make it in your kitchen.

One explanation is that the bacteria could be in the flour to begin with. So when you go to the store and buy a bag of flour, it’s not sterile. They could also be on your skin or floating around your kitchen, but Wolfe says those are less likely to become the dominant bacteria in your starter.

“This is one of the big questions we’re trying to answer in our story of American sourdough: Where are the lactic acid bacteria coming from?” said Wolfe.

The Sourdough Project

There’s never been a large-scale study in home kitchens to really identify the sources of bacteria at home.

Until now.

Wolfe’s lab has partnered with the Rob Dunn Lab at North Carolina State University on the Sourdough Project, the first comprehensive effort to test the DNA of sourdough starters across America — and understand the evolutionary biology that underlies the differences among starters.

The Sourdough Project is soliciting hundreds of sourdough starter samples from amateur and professional bread bakers across the country. (To participate in this public science project, get started by filling out this questionnaire).

Scientists will analyze samples to answer the baseline question: How variable are the microbes from region to region? And how much variability can be attributed to the grain of the bread, versus the air, the water or the humans involved?

There are so many factors. Wolfe ticks them off.

“It could be the time that people ferment their breads. It could be the temperature. It could be a special set of recipes used in San Francisco than in other places.”

When I told him I was growing my own sourdough starter, he offered to analyze it.

So while science may yet discover something special is lurking in our sourdough, Wolfe isn’t holding his breath.

Not even the bakers at Semifreddi’s, a company that has been in a position to benefit from the reputation of local sourdough, embrace the cachet.

Semifreddi’s head baker Tredgold says it’s pure marketing.

“It sells the city. It’s one of the things the city’s known for. The bridge, the bay, the sourdough.”

And Rose, the co-owner of the bakery, added: “If we take our local starter and bake with it in Los Angeles, I think it will taste very similar to what we’re making here,” he said.

Blasphemy! But possibly … true.

My Kitchen Sourdough Experiment: Results

My own sourdough experiment lasted more than a month. I used King Arthur whole wheat flour and kept my mixture on the kitchen counter. As it grew, it smelled distressingly like vomit before it mellowed. At one point it almost spilled out of the Tupperware I’d been keeping it in.

As my starter matured, it needed to be fed twice a day on a regular schedule. I raced home from work to give it more flour and water, spoke to it, and pampered it with field trips out to the balcony to give it some exposure to the Oakland atmosphere. (In spite of what I learned about the uncertainty of the science of microbes in sourdough, I still pictured my starter capturing beneficial wild yeast and bacteria from the atmosphere.)

I don’t have pets or children, so I took photos of my starter’s regular maturity and forced my friends to admire them.

But the most important question was: How did it taste? I baked two little loaves and brought them into the KQED newsroom to get some brutally honest feedback from fellow reporters.

Julia Scott, left, and Bay Curious podcast host Olivia Allen-Price enjoy the fruits of Scott’s labor in the KQED newsroom — some homemade sourdough bread.

Being a first-time baker, you can imagine how this went. The loaves were so dense they had almost no air pockets. They weighed at least 3 pounds and were nearly rock-hard. My colleagues at KQED charitably praised the taste, but it was clear something had gone wrong in the baking process … or with the starter itself.

A few weeks later, I got my sourdough DNA results back from Ben Wolfe’s Tufts lab. My starter had two bacterial species: Lactobacillus brevis and Lactobacillus plantarum; and one yeast species: Wickerhamomyces anomalus. All of which are very commonly found in sourdough starters made around the world, according to Wolfe. It’s also common to have no more than a few species of yeast and bacteria in any given starter.

But that one bacterium once believed to make our bread so special — Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis? My bread didn’t have any. Would things have gone differently if it had shown up? I may never know.

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Heavyweight episode: “Julia”

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016

 

What happens when you go back and open the door to a time in your childhood that you tried to forget? Heavyweight host Jonathan Goldstein and I found out together.

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Detour: La Mission

Saturday, June 18th, 2016

NOTE: You can download the Detour app for iPhone or Android, for free, by clicking here. Detours are experiential: you can’t “do” them from home. This one starts at 24th and Mission Streets in San Francisco. More details here.

Listen to a preview of the Mission Detour:

 

Roberto Hernandez, the “Mayor of The Mission,” takes you deep into the Mission with people who intimately love the neighborhood, but in very different ways. Roberto introduces you to all kinds of ‘locals’: from tech-worker newcomers drawn to the neighborhood’s buzz to Latinos who treasure the neighborhood’s traditions. And as we travel, they all meet each other to ask: What does it mean to belong in a place in the midst of unprecedented change?

Along the way, you’ll make an illegal left-hand turn with the coolest low-riders rolling 24th Street. You’ll visit a controversial new restaurant and eat hot hand-pressed tortillas at the neighborhood’s staple Mexicatessen. You’ll see a million dollar condo and a house for sale for $9,000. You’ll hear the conga drums of Carnaval, decode neighborhood murals, and stop into a backyard patio full of tech workers writing code for start-ups they hope will be the next Uber or Airbnb.

By the end of this Detour, you’ll understand why change agents and preservationists alike celebrate the Mission’s sense of place and want to belong there — and that a statement like “I belong” can mean two different things. As Roberto will tell you, “If you’re saying it to yourself, it’s empowering. But if you’re saying it to someone else, it can mean: You don’t belong. And who gets to belong, that is a real emotional topic around here.”

Listen to Julia Scott and Detour founder Andrew Mason discuss the impetus for creating a Detour that focuses on the sensitive issue of gentrification on KQED’s Forum with Michael Krasny.

Detour-takers “may find themselves surprised by details that go unnoticed, even by natives,” writes Mission Local.

Taking the Mission Detour in Balmy Alley, the Mission's iconic mural alley. (Julia Scott)

Taking the Mission Detour in Balmy Alley, the Mission’s iconic mural alley. (Julia Scott)

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Detour: Our Tenderloin

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

NOTE: You can download the Detour app for iPhone or Android, for free, by clicking here. Detours are experiential: you can’t “do” them from home. This one starts at 7th and Market Streets in San Francisco. More details here.

Listen to a preview of Our Tenderloin:

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The race to grow the one-ton pumpkin

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

Early one morning about a month ago, Don Young peeled the floral bedsheets off the giant pumpkins growing in his backyard. Tiptoeing around the jungly vines, he carefully checked for holes. Then, bending his ear down over the nearest gourd, which was as high as his gut and wider than a truck tire, he gave it a solid smack and listened intently, like a doctor with a stethoscope.

A giant pumpkin grows in Don Young's backyard in Des Moines. (Julia Scott)

“This one’s thumping pretty good,” he said with a grin.

Mr. Young is one of a number of amateur gardeners whose heart’s desire is to raise a pumpkin bigger than anybody else’s. These enthusiasts have always been obsessed, but now they are especially so. With the current world record at 1,810 pounds (a Smart car, by comparison, weighs 1,600 pounds), these growers can see the most important milestone of all on the horizon: the one-ton pumpkin. Galvanized by the prospect, they are doubling their efforts and devising a raft of new strategies involving natural growth hormones, double grafting and more, to become the first to reach that goal.

This fall’s pumpkin contests have begun, and as many as 14 amateur growers have won regional weigh-offs with entries tipping the scales at more than 1,500 pounds. The contests are far from over — they continue in force over the next two weekends — but already one pumpkin, raised by Dave Stelts of Edinburg, Pa., has come within three pounds of beating the 1,810-pound record set last year. Rumor has it that a record-breaker may emerge in California.

The extreme summer weather this year has somewhat dampened the prospects of many growers in the Midwest, including Mr. Young. Still, he plans to enter a couple of 1,300-pounders in a weigh-off in either Wisconsin or Minnesota this weekend, and true to his hobby’s compulsive form, even as he prepares for those contests he is busy mapping his strategies for next year.

A professional tree trimmer by trade, Mr. Young, 47, spends $8,000 a year on his pumpkin hobby, money he admits he does not really have. His modest one-bedroom house is smaller than his backyard.

“If you try to make a living growing pumpkins, you better have something to fall back on,” he said about his day job.

Mr. Young has set state pumpkin records in both Iowa and California — in 2009 Conan O’Brien smashed one of his giant pumpkins on television with a monster truck — and he is a leading figure among those who are fashioning new growing practices. He has invented a grafting technique, for instance, that pushes the food and energy of two pumpkin plants into a single fruit. Other top pumpkin competitors are experimenting with ZeoPro, a synthetic cocktail of supernutrients developed by NASA to grow lettuce and other edible plants in space.

This year, several growers have also tested out a pink powder bacteria that converts a plant’s methane output into a natural growth hormone found in seaweed. Called PPFM (or pink-pigmented facultative methylotrophs), the substance is not even on the market, but the lure of the 2,000-pound pumpkin prompted those growers to obtain samples from RTI, the company in Salinas, Calf., testing the bacteria.

“These guys will try absolutely anything to get an edge on their competitors,” said Neil Anderson, the president of RTI.

In fact, growers typically feed their pumpkins a compost “brew” so rich — the water is mixed with worm castings, molasses and liquid kelp — that the fruits can gain as much as 50 pounds a day.

“I like to say we’re just a big bunch of obsessive-compulsive people,” said Mr. Stelts, 52, the president of a group of giant-pumpkin enthusiasts called the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth. “The stuff we do to get pumpkins to this size, it’s out of control.”

Sometimes, Mr. Young said, he will just sit among his pumpkins.

“This is going to sound really crazy, but when these are really at their peak growth, they’ll make a sound,” he said. “You can feel it. It’s something surging in the pumpkin. Bup. Bup.”

When the season ends, growers like Mr. Young often tow their creations to a fairground or botanical garden for display; with walls a foot thick and low sugar content, the pumpkins are not fit for pie. But this inedibility has not deterred contractors, doctors, midwives and other amateurs from growing them.

BigPumpkins.com, the Facebook-like forum of the giant-pumpkin world, now gets more than a million unique hits a month. And according to the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, the number of officially sanctioned weigh-offs has grown from 22 to 92 in seven years, and now includes competitions in Italy, Finland and Australia.

With the right seeds and soil preparations, veterans say, it’s fairly easy to grow an impressively large pumpkin. But the hobby’s elite, while still amateurs, operate on a different playing field. These growers spend hundreds of dollars on laboratory analyses of soil and plant tissues to help them decide whether to add more nitrogen, say, or calcium. And they speed photosynthesis by spraying their plants’ leaves with carbon dioxide.

“We’re taking a natural process and we’ve got complete control over it,” said Steve Connolly, 56, a grower in Sharon, Mass., whose pumpkins consistently rank among the world’s 10 heaviest.

Taking control begins with pollination, a process that growers have wrested from the bees. In early summer, they cross-pollinate the pumpkins themselves, selecting a male flower from one plant and rubbing the pollen onto a female flower from another. Other budding pumpkins are eliminated so that the main vine supports only one plant. As extra vines sprout, they are likewise removed. The patch is more than tended. It is manicured.

But it is the seeds, a strong indicator of a pumpkin’s size, that are the most bankable factor in the quest for giants. Last fall, Chris Stevens, 33, a Wisconsin general contractor who grew the 1,810-pound pumpkin, sold a single seed from it for $1,600, by far the most anyone has ever paid for a pumpkin seed. Its descendants may prove just as valuable.

Seed trading has helped set new world records almost every year since 1997, when a pumpkin first broke the 1,000-pound barrier. The Giant Pumpkin Commonwealth bestows special leather jackets on those who have grown a pumpkin over 1,400 pounds, a club that includes fewer than 50 gardeners. But Mr. Stelts said he was raising the minimum to 1,600 pounds because of the escalating competition.

“We’d like to award everybody,” he said. “But you know what? It’s not the Boy Scouts. You’ve got to prove yourself.”

Mr. Young keeps his pumpkin trophies, ribbons and plaques in a corner of his living room. Cash winnings are reinvested in his hobby. But there is no award for what may be his greatest accomplishment: dual grafting.

To explain, he crouched in the dirt, pointing to a double stump that he grafted together in his kitchen last winter. Each stump is the size of a beefy forearm, and the root systems bring in twice the nutrients.

“They told me it couldn’t be done, they told me that for years,” said Mr. Young, who had to sacrifice 300 pumpkin seeds before he discovered the best way to fuse two young pumpkin sprouts. He borrowed a surgical knife from a hog farmer to shave the stems and then clipped them together with hair barrettes. Soon he and his wife, Julie, had to avoid knocking over pots and heat lamps spread around the kitchen counters.

Next year, he plans to grow all his pumpkins with grafted double sprouts. “With good weather, I can really set the world on fire,” he said. His competitive spirit is also extending beyond pumpkins; he has started to grow championship long gourds that are as thick as a bull snake.

Mrs. Young, 46, supports her husband’s hobby and has even won a trophy herself for pumpkin growing. “It’s exciting,” she said. “He doesn’t do anything small. He’s all in, like in poker.” She added, “People don’t realize that there’s gardening, then there’s extreme gardening.”

Extreme gardening involves money and sacrifice. Mr. Young wakes up in the middle of the night to check his pumpkins. He uses 27,000 gallons of water a month — nearly enough to supply a family of four for a year — and he has 80 sprinkler heads. He runs heat lamps all night after planting seeds in the chilly April ground, and cools his gourds with fans in sweltering midsummer heat. He can’t remember the last time he took a vacation.

Still, for all the work, heartbreak is inevitable. A gardener can pamper his gourds for months and vigilantly stave off rot, disease and bad weather. But sometimes the giant fruits are so juiced up that they do not know how to stop feeding themselves.

Mr. Connolly remembers with particular sadness one morning a few years ago when he left his pumpkins to go to church. He was gone for less than an hour, but he returned to find that his biggest pumpkin had exploded under the force of its own growth spurt.

“There was a footlong crack through the rind,” he said. “It just blew up.”

A Patch of Your Own

Many of the principles of growing giant pumpkins apply to normal pumpkins, too. And unlike the giants, the regular fruits make for a delicious pie.

BOOKS Good texts for the novice include “The Perfect Pumpkin,” by Gail Damerow, and “The Compleat Squash: A Passionate Grower’s Guide to Pumpkins, Squashes and Gourds,” by Amy Goldman.

SOIL Pick a sunny site and, before winter begins, buy a pH test kit to see if your soil needs amending. The ideal pH range for pumpkins is 5.5 to 7.5. Pumpkins also like nutrients, so apply a thin layer of antibiotic-free manure and a thin layer of compost to the soil.

SEEDS Garden stores carry plenty of seeds. For a particular variety, ask a fellow gardener on the message boards at BigPumpkins.com or attend one of the annual seed swap events listed on GreatPumpkinCommonwealth.com.

INDOOR PLANTING To get a jump on the season, start seeds inside in late April and transfer the sprouts outside in early May, perhaps under a protective cloche.

OUTDOOR PLANTING Plant seeds in late May, and at least 20 feet apart if you have the space; pumpkin vines grow fast.

GROWTH Pumpkins sprout quickly. To avoid a “Little Shop of Horrors” in your backyard, remember that for every female flower you allow to pollinate, you will get a new pumpkin — and a new set of vines. Burying vines every week helps keep the plant anchored, creates taproots and protects it from squash vine borers, the bane of pumpkin plants. Foliar, or leaf, sprays and dry fertilizer aid pumpkin growth.

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Unaffordable land stunts new generation of small farmers

Monday, January 24th, 2011

PESCADERO — In 2005, would-be farmers Nancy Vail and Jered Lawson spotted an old barn along Highway 1 that would make a good produce stand, along with 13 acres of prime coastal property, available for $1.25 million. They jumped at the chance to buy it.

“We were incredibly lucky,” Vail said. “It’s a lot of money, but it’s actually pretty good.”

Indeed, Vail and Lawson, who operate Pie Ranch, a nonprofit educational farm on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, were lucky to find land to farm.

(John Green/Bay Area News Group)
(John Green/Bay Area News Group)

They are part of a new and growing generation of farmers who aspire to deliver locally grown organic food to their communities but can’t usually afford the land to do so.

Access to land is the main impediment to beginning farmers and ranchers today, said Reggie Knox, Central Coast coordinator for California FarmLink, a nonprofit that works to preserve family farming and conserve farmland in California.

“Small farmers like to be close to urban areas,” said Knox, who has a long waiting list of people who are looking for affordable farmland. “Land values are going up around all the urban areas, so it’s harder to get into land.”

Owning coastal farmland, or fertile farmland almost anywhere in California, is a pipe dream today for nearly everyone but well-established corporate farmers and dot-com millionaires, experts say.Across the U.S., development pressure claims an acre of farmland or ranch land every minute, although that pace may have slowed since the economic crisis, according to the American Farmland Trust. If trends continue, California is expected to lose 1.2 million more acres of farmland by 2040.

But even though the amount of California farmland in production has been falling for decades, and the average California farmer is now 58 years old, the latest agricultural census reveals another trend: The number of small farms — 49 acres or less — in the state has grown by more than 4,000 since 2002.

Many of these operations are founded by people in their 20s and 30s for whom earning a profit may be secondary to their real goal of producing wholesome, seasonal food and teaching others about farming.

“We see young people coming from urban areas with a desire to make a connection from the farm to the fork,” said professor Scott Vernon of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences. “They’re not intending to be big farmers or make a living out of it. In many ways it’s gardening — but they don’t even know how to garden.”

Vernon said student enrollment in Cal Poly’s farming program has spiked in recent years, as have admissions to similar community college programs across the state. An organic farming apprenticeship program at UC Santa Cruz receives more than 200 applications every six months but admits only a fraction of those who apply.

Most farm program graduates won’t be as fortunate as the founders of Pie Ranch, who turned to the Peninsula Open Space Trust to help them buy the first 13-acre parcel and the old barn. The farm produces many ingredients found in a pie, such as eggs to strawberries. It connects high school kids to the land and sells produce in the old barn.

The Peninsula Open Space Trust applied a conservation easement to the land to prevent development. Pending a capital campaign, Pie Ranch will soon own the land outright.

The other 14-acre slice of Pie Ranch came from a friend who helped Vail and Lawson cofound the farm. Then she let them buy her out with the help of some other loans for $500,000.

“This is part of a larger vision of a sustainable agriculture corridor from San Francisco down through Santa Cruz,” Vail said. “We need to have more farmers, and they need to be able to access land and make a living and pull it off. We can’t be the only ones doing that.”

Even leasing land in California can be prohibitively expensive.

TLC Ranch, located in Aromas east of Watsonville, went out of business in November after six years of selling free-range farm-raised eggs and pork to California’s Central Coast community. In a final letter to customers, co-founders Rebecca Thistlethwaite and Jim Dunlop said the astronomical price to lease their ranch land — 48 acres at a cost of $800 an acre per year — was a major factor in their decision to pack it in.

Thistlethwaite and Dunlop founded TLC Ranch, which stands for Tastes Like Chicken, six years ago. Their products were a huge success, but it wasn’t enough. If the couple made a mistake, it was the fact that they both came from modest backgrounds and didn’t have any land wealth, Thistlethwaite said.

“Pretty much every farmer at the farmers market has some sort of resources that were not available to us,” Thistlethwaite said. “Some of them did buy farmland 30 years ago, back in the day when you could buy land on a middle-income-type salary. No one’s able to do it today unless their parents bought them the farm.”

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Pesticides indicted in bee deaths

Monday, May 18th, 2009

Author’s note: this story was anthologized in Best American Science Writing 2010.

Gene Brandi will always rue the summer of 2007. That’s when the California beekeeper rented half his honeybees, or 1,000 hives, to a watermelon farmer in the San Joaquin Valley at pollination time. The following winter, 50 percent of Brandi’s bees were dead. “They pretty much disappeared,” says Brandi, who’s been keeping bees for 35 years.

Since the advent in 2006 of colony collapse disorder, the mysterious ailment that continues to decimate hives across the country, Brandi has grown accustomed to seeing up to 40 percent of his bees vanish each year, simply leave the hive in search of food and never come back. But this was different. Instead of losing bees from all his colonies, Brandi watched the ones that skipped watermelon duty continue to thrive.

Salon image/Staff

Brandi discovered the watermelon farmer had irrigated his plants with imidacloprid, the world’s best-selling insecticide created by Bayer CropScience, Inc., one of the world’s leading producers of pesticides and genetically modified vegetable seeds, with annual sales of $8.6 billion. Blended with water and applied to the soil, imidacloprid creates a moist mixture the bees likely drank from on a hot day.

Stories like Brandi’s have become so common that the National Honeybee Advisory Board, which represents the two biggest beekeeper associations in the U.S., recently asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ban the product. “We believe imidacloprid kills bees — specifically, that it causes bee colonies to collapse,” says Clint Walker, co-chairman of the board.

Beekeepers have singled out imidacloprid and its chemical cousin clothianidin, also produced by Bayer CropScience, as a cause of bee die-offs around the world for over a decade. More recently, the same products have been blamed by American beekeepers, who claim the product is a cause of colony collapse disorder, which has cost many commercial U.S. beekeepers at least a third of their bees since 2006, and threatens the reliability of the world’s food supply.

Scientists have started to turn their attention to both products, which are receiving new scrutiny in the U.S., due to a disclosure in December 2007 by Bayer CropScience itself. Bayer scientists found imidacloprid in the nectar and pollen of flowering trees and shrubs at concentrations high enough to kill a honeybee in minutes. The disclosure recently set in motion product reviews by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and the EPA. The tests are scheduled to wrap up in 2014, though environmentalists, including the Sierra Club, are petitioning the EPA to speed up the work.

For over a decade, Bayer CropScience has been forced to defend the family of insecticides against calls for a ban by beekeepers and environmentalists. French beekeepers succeeded in having imidacloprid banned for use on several crops after a third of the country’s bees died following its use in 1999 — although the French bee population never quite rebounded, as Bayer is quick to point out. Germany banned the use of clothianidin and seven other insecticides in 2008 after tests implicated them in killing up to 60 percent of honeybees in southwest Germany.

Imidacloprid and clothianidin are chloronicotinoids, a synthetic compound that combines nicotine, a powerful toxin, with chlorine to attack an insect’s nervous system. The chemical is applied to the seed of a plant, added to soil, or sprayed on a crop and spreads to every corner of the plant’s tissue, killing the pests that feed on it.

Pennsylvania beekeeper John Macdonald has been keeping bees for over 30 years and recently became convinced that imidacloprid is linked to colony collapse disorder. It’s the only explanation he can find for why his bees, whose hives border farmland that uses the pesticide, started dropping dead a few years ago.

“There’s the pernicious toxic effect — it does everything nicotine does to our nervous system,” says Macdonald. “There’s the pathological effect, the interference with basic functions. They get lost, they get disoriented. They fall to the ground. They get paralyzed and their wings stick out. I can’t think of anything in the environment that’s changed other than farming, and virtually every farmer is using treated seeds now.”

Bayer CropScience spokesman Jack Boyne says his company’s pesticides are not to blame. “We do a lot of research on our products and we feel like we have a very good body of evidence to suggest that pesticides, including insecticides, are not the cause of colony collapse disorder,” he says. “Pesticides have been around for a lot of years now and honeybee collapse has only been a factor for the last few years.” (Imidacloprid has been approved for use in the U.S. since 1994 and clothianidin has been used since 2003.)

Scientists continue to investigate the causes of colony collapse disorder. Leading theories suggest a combination of factors that include parasitic mites, disease, malnutrition and environmental contaminants like pesticides, insecticides and fungicides. The current EPA review will provide further insight into the role of pesticides, as it will uncover whether honeybees sickened by exposure to imidacloprid spread it around by bringing contaminated nectar and pollen back to the hive.

EPA critics suggest that the agency allowed economic considerations to take precedence over the well-being of honeybees when it approved imidacloprid for sale in the U.S. 15 years ago. “I think the EPA and USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] have been covering up for Bayer, and now they’re scrambling to do something about it,” says Neil Carman, a plant biologist who advises the Sierra Club on pesticides and other issues. “This review should have been done 10 years ago. It’s been found to be more persistent in the environment than was reported by Bayer.”

Imidacloprid was approved with knowledge that the product, marketed as Gaucho, Confidor, Admire and others, was lethal to honeybees under certain circumstances. Today the EPA’s own literature calls it “very highly toxic” to honeybees and other beneficial insects. Its workaround was to slap a label on the product, warning farmers not to spray it on a plant when bees were foraging in the neighborhood.

In its 2007 studies, Bayer applied standard doses of imidacloprid to test trees, including apple, lime and dogwood. Its scientists found imidacloprid in nectar at concentrations of up to 4,000 parts per billion, a dose high enough to kill several bees at once. (Honeybees can withstand a dose of up to 185 ppb, the standard amount it would take to kill 50 percent of a test population.) What caught the attention of California agricultural officials was that the test trees contained the same amount of deadly imidacloprid as the citrus and almond groves regularly sprayed by farmers, and pollinated by bees. (California’s almond industry has increased its use of imidacloprid by a factor of 300 in the past five years.) Agricultural officials were also surprised to learn that the imidacloprid can persist in the leaves and blossoms of a plant for more than a year.

The Bayer results don’t surprise University of California at Davis professor Eric Mussen, a well-known entomologist and one of the country’s leading experts on colony collapse disorder. Mussen has seen a variety of unpublished studies with similar results, including one at U.C. Riverside that found imidacloprid in the nectar of a eucalyptus tree bloom at concentrations of 550 ppb a full year after it was applied.

“From some of the data on the trees, it appears as though there are situations where honeybees can get into truly toxic doses of the material,” says Mussen, who avoids spraying imidacloprid on his own demonstration fields at U.C. Davis. “This the first time that we’ve had something you put in a tree that could stay there for a long time.”

But Mussen isn’t convinced imidacloprid is a primary cause of the honeybee die-off. He explains that some bees settle on fields of sunflowers and canola treated with the chemical and then “fly right through to next year.” So imidacloprid is not the only story. “Could it be part of the story?” he asks. “I’m sure. I think any of the pesticides the bees bring back to the beehive is hurting the bees.”

Mussen adds that ongoing research into chronic exposure to insecticides will be crucial. It’s likely, he says, that exposure to even low doses acts like a one-two punch: It can weaken the bees until a parasite or pathogen moves in to finish them off.

As the EPA begins its pesticide studies this year, skeptics wonder whether the agency can conduct an unbiased review. Back in 2003, they point out, the EPA reported that clothianidin was “highly toxic to honeybees on an acute contact basis,” and suggested that chronic exposure could lead to effects on the larvae and reproductive effects on the queen. Although the EPA asked Bayer for further studies of its effects on honeybees, it nevertheless authorized the chemical for market.

“If the EPA had sufficient concern about harm to bees that they would insist on other studies, it seemed unwise to approve it anyway and ask for research after the fact,” says Aaron Colangelo, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The EPA’s job is to make a decision about whether a chemical is safe or not.”

Colangelo envisions a similar scenario in coming years. The EPA has announced it will review clothianidin and other chemicals in the same family, but not until 2012. In the meantime, there’s nothing stopping the agency from approving the insecticides for use on new crops based on existing policies. In the end, Colangelo has little confidence the federal agency will bring a hammer down on the agribusiness giant. The EPA, he explains, often keeps its test results confidential for proprietary reasons at a company’s request. As a consequence, it’s unclear where gaps or discrepancies occur until a company makes a disclosure similar to Bayer’s.

“They’re not making decisions about whether the pesticide can be put on the market based on impacts to bees, no matter how much evidence of harm there is,” Colangelo says. “The EPA will just approve it anyway and put a warning label on the product.”

Halting the sale of pesticides, though, would be no mean task. Over 120 countries use imidacloprid under the Bayer label on more than 140 crop varieties, as well as on termites, flea collars and home garden landscaping. And the product’s patent expired a few years ago, paving the way for it to be sold as a generic insecticide by dozens of smaller corporations. In California alone, imidacloprid is the central ingredient in 247 separate products sold by 50 different companies.

In a statement, the EPA says that before banning a pesticide, it “must find that an ‘imminent hazard’ exists. The federal courts have ruled that to make this finding, EPA must conclude, among other things, that there is a substantial likelihood that imminent, serious harm will be experienced from use of the pesticide.” The EPA did not clarify what is meant by “imminent hazard” and why the death of honeybees does not qualify.

As Mussen points out, though, a few million dead honeybees may be the cost of doing business. “If they didn’t register products that were toxic to honeybees, there wouldn’t be a lot of products on the market that were available for pest control.”

All the more reason to start taking the world’s most ubiquitous insecticide off the market and invent a safer one, argues Walker, of the National Honeybee Advisory Board. “It’s on every golf course, it’s on every lawn. It’s not just an agricultural product. There’s really not one part of our lives it’s not touching.”

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Julia Scott

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