Julia Scott

Posts Tagged ‘KQED’

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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Hard times for American airparks

Friday, April 6th, 2012

HOST: Why drive when you can fly? Some California residents love their airplanes so much they choose to live with them in more than 30 secluded airpark communities throughout the state.

JULIA SCOTT: Clint Bazzill’s lifelong dream came true last year when he bought a home in Cameron Airpark, California’s largest planned community for airplane enthusiasts, northeast of Sacramento. His backyard is a runway, and his homebuilt Kitfox is his favorite ride. The 75-year-old can taxi out, take a spin over Tahoe and have the plane back in the hangar before his wife, Janet, has made breakfast.

“It’s kind of like driving a car, only instead of driving at 50 or 60 miles an hour you’re going at 100 or 110,” Bazzill’s says.

Photo by Julia Scott
Photo by Julia Scott

In Cameron Airpark, planes and cars share streets as wide as highways. Street signs are toddler-sized so airplane wings won’t clip them. People here talk about their aircraft like others talk about their grandchildren. And the roar of engines overhead is music to their ears.

“It’s to the point now where we can lay in bed, listen to the airplane and know whose plane it is and where they’re going,” says resident Bob Byrne.

Byrne moved to Cameron Airpark 12 years ago and uses his Cessna four-seater to commute to Santa Cruz, where he works as a computer network engineer. It beats the 6-hour car trip, hands down.

“It makes it as efficient for me as if I was living there. Unless there’s fog. Then I’m driving,” he says.

Cameron Airpark dates back to 1961, the heyday of personal aviation. More than 600 airpark communities were built around that same time across the country, including the first one ever, in California’s Carmel Valley.

These homes are an obscure slice of Americana. They belong to people who joke about the $100 burger, flying out of state for lunch and back.

But public opposition has blocked new airparks in California for the last 30 years, using environmental regulations to push back against the noise and air pollution.

To people who live here, the future of communities like Cameron Airpark is a source of concern.

“The market overall is shrinking. The pilot population is aging,” says Dennis Nickson, a realtor who specializes in hangar homes. He lives in Cameron Airpark with his Nanchang CJ-6, a vintage military plane from China.

The recession took a big bite out of home values here, where prices start at $300,000 but used to reach $1 million. A number of homes were foreclosed on. And fewer Americans are getting their pilots’ licenses today than any other time since the 80s.

“I think that as people like myself retire from flying there won’t be nearly as many pilots to take my place,” says Nickson. “I think the people that love aviation and can afford it are likewise going to be a dying breed.”

There are exceptions, though. Like 24-year-old Tori Hooper who is currently awaiting orders for officer training school for the Air Force to become a pilot.

Hooper’s dad is a retired Air Force pilot. So is her grandfather. She and her brother grew up here without any kids their age to play with, so they played with airplanes. Now her and her dad are working an old war bird which she’ll inherit.

“I have an absolute blast talking with my 70-year-old male neighbors about flying to Auburn and back for breakfast,” says Hooper. “I think that’s great. And I think they’re secretly pleased that the younger generations are maintaining their hobby and their love of flying.”

Hooper says she’d love to raise a family of her own in Cameron Airpark someday.

“People get each other and we’ll have cookouts and barbecues, and Octoberfests and Valentine’s Day this and Super Bowl that, all for the sake of maintaining a Cameron Park identity,” she says.

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The migration of the Vaux’s Swift

Friday, October 7th, 2011

HOST: Each fall, hundreds of thousands of birds descend the California coast on their journey south. One species spend their nights in chimneys, creating a spectacle that draws onlookers from around the state. Reporter Julia Scott visited a popular roosting site in the Sonoma County town of Healdsburg last week and brought back this postcard.

Photo by Bernadette Chadwick
JULIA SCOTT: A few minutes before sunset, a small crowd gathers on a lawn at Rio Lindo Adventist Academy in Healdsburg. They’ve got picnic blankets and lawn chairs, cameras and binoculars. They’re sitting around, staring at an office building with an old chimney, and waiting for something. Something magical.

BERNADETTE CHADWICK: Bernadette Chadwick, I live in Los Gatos, California. I was anticipating a chimney that was a really old thing, like 100 or 200 years old and then I found this building. Very surprising that it’s so modern.

Chadwick and her family drove more than two hours for this chimney – or more precisely, the birds that are starting to converge around it. The Vaux’s swifts, one of four species of swift, are coming home for the night. They roost in chimneys. And for a few weeks in September, as they pass through California on their southward migration, birders come to watch the swifts pour themselves down into chimneys – sometimes 20,000 at a time.

CHADWICK: It’s very exciting to anticipate the moment when they’re going to go into a huge mass and decide to go down into the chimney and give us all a treat.

And now, it’s showtime. After a meal of spiders and mosquitoes, the swifts mass into a living tornado… hundreds of birds turning together in a circle, spinning clockwise, moving closer and closer to the top of the chimney. The sun is setting, and the swifts look like bats in the sky.

CHADWICK: Oh, it’s mind-boggling. It’s fabulous, I can’t even describe it. I love their chirps, don’t you? It’s like the stars in the sky the way it’s circulating around. It’s just gorgeous.

Suddenly, a peregrine falcon swoops into the column… Then, a few moments later, a cooper’s hawk dives in for the kill. This time, it catches a swift in midair.

Brad Benson counted 1,200 swifts tonight, relatively low for this time of year. He’s an administrator at this school and he’s part of a network of birders who track the swifts on their annual fall migration.

BRAD BENSON: This is the Pacific coast migratory flyway for birds coming out of Alaska and south. They just somehow discovered this chimney in 1989 when we stopped using the building for heating the water year-round on campus.

Chimneys weren’t always an attraction. For centuries, the swifts nested in the hollow trunks of redwood trees, but 95 percent of those trees have been cut down. That led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to declare the Vaux’s swift a California Species of Special Concern. Chimneys and smokestacks became the best alternative, since they’re big enough for the birds to fly inside.

LARRY SCHWITTERS: They don’t perch, they hang, and they’re able to hang on the mortar between the bricks and line up like shingles.

Larry Schwitters, a retired science teacher in Washington State, was the first to sound the alarm over the fact that those old-fashioned industrial brick chimneys are now themselves endangered.

SCHWITTERS: It’s reaching the point where there’s fewer and fewer chimneys, and the birds are getting concentrated more and more and more, and eventually we’re going to run out.

Schwitters has travelled across the Northwest, cataloguing popular roosting sites, and he’s created a website to track the swifts on their migration. He and a network of volunteers with the Audubon Society plan to use the data to preserve the most important chimneys.

Birders can catch the Vaux’s swift as they descend upon Los Angeles next week at one of their favorite roosts, the downtown Chester Williams Building.

For the California Report, I’m Julia Scott.

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Julia Scott

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