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The Voluntourist: A Q&A with Ken Budd
In the past year, there have been a few studies that suggest that volunteer work is as healthy for the aging body and brain as exercise and the right diet. In that spirit, I spoke with Ken Budd, executive editor of AARP, the Magazine, and author of the new book,The Voluntourist: A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem, about the benefits of volunteering abroad, the importance of small gestures and the gift of unexpected underwear.
Q: Some researchers say that volunteering is good for your brain. Do you find that your voluntourism experiences enriched your brain power in any way?
Ken Budd: Every time I volunteered, whether it was China or Kenya, I’d show up and think, “Oh my goodness—I’ve made a terrible mistake.” Because I always felt inadequate and out of place and ill-equipped to do the work. In Costa Rica my wife and I taught English and we thought we’d be helping a teacher—until we got to the school and discovered that we were the teachers. So I was usually in major “uh-oh” mode the first few days, and it was only when I got home that I’d realize… wow. That was really special. And I think anything that does that—anything that pulls you from your comfort zone—is good for you mentally, spiritually, emotionally. Our brains need challenges, and voluntourism forces your brain to work in a different way. These trips are good for improving relationships, too. When my wife volunteered with me, it was fun—and enlightening—to see ourselves outside of our usual roles.
Q: Do you think a foreign trip is more taxing in that way?
Ken Budd: Definitely. I worked for two weeks at a special needs school in China, and the special needs part alone would have been intense, because I have no experience with that. But I don’t speak Chinese, either, so I couldn’t understand the teachers, I couldn’t understand the students, I couldn’t read anything—that made it much more difficult. I brought a notepad and after about a half hour my first day I wrote, “culture shock overload.” That’s how it felt. It’d be like showing up for your first day of a new job and discovering that everyone speaks Klingon.
Q: What do you think people need to consider before taking part in a voluntourism trip? Any red flags they should watch out for?
Ken Budd: Look for an organization that has ties to the local community: You want an org that’s creating partnerships rather than dependencies. I went with pretty established groups like Earthwatch, Cross-Cultural Solutions, and Global Volunteers—they’ve been doing this a long time and they have strong local ties. And I always recommend contacting previous volunteers. Find out what the experience was like, what were the accommodations like, was the work they did helpful, and so on. Also ask the organization how your money will be spent. You'll typically pay a program fee that covers your room, your food, local transportation, etc., but that money also covers the organization’s operating expenses. You’ll usually be asked to fill out a form on your skills or write an essay about why you want to volunteer, and you may need to undergo a background check if you’re working with kids. If an organization doesn’t ask you to do those things, that’s another warning sign. I’ve got a lot of resources on my web site: http://www.thevoluntouristbook.com/get-help-give-help/
Q: What is the most important lesson you learned from your trips?
Ken Budd: I learned that there’s power in small gestures and small acts of kindness. I was skeptical about whether you could actually do any good with these two-week trips, but in Costa Rica, I was told that parents in many Third World countries will send their kids to school—rather than to work—simply because foreigners are there. So sometimes you make a difference simply by showing up. In China, I worked at a special needs school with a friend, and I always thought our greatest contribution was just being there. The teachers work difficult jobs and we were English-speaking novelties; a break in their routines. After we left, I learned that one of the teachers said, “We seem to laugh more when volunteers are here.” And I certainly wondered about my usefulness in New Orleans, because you see the scale of the devastation, and you’re holding your little paintbrush, and you think… How can this possibly help? But I had an epiphany one day. I was scraping a backyard shed and I told myself this: if you don’t scrape the shed, you can’t paint. And if you can’t paint, you can’t finish the house. And if you can’t finish the home, the owner can’t move back in and the organization—Rebuilding Together—can’t move to a new project. So small gestures can become large gestures, especially when you add them up: Over 18,000 volunteers have worked for Rebuilding Together in New Orleans since 2005.
Q: You say you volunteered originally because you wanted to live a life of meaning. Do you now feel like your life has that “meaning” you originally sought out?
Ken Budd: Yes, but not in the way I expected. The first line of the book is a declaration: “I want to live a life that matters.” But in Kenya I rethought this. There was a little boy at the children’s home named Elijah: He was only two, but he’d already led a difficult life. He was the product of incest, which brought shame to the family, so we spent the first year of his life in isolation—no nurturing, no cuddling, no love. And whenever I held Elijah—he’d frequently run up in a bowlegged way with his arms up—I’d realize so clearly that every life matters. And every life has meaning. And we live a good life in the simplest of ways: by being a good friend, a good spouse, a good Earthling. By not, you know, being an a**hole. “Success comes from helping others succeed,” my father once told me, and I think that’s a pretty good approach to life.
Q: In the book, you talk about receiving an unexpected gift -- someone else's underwear -- in your laundry in China. Do you still have the Chinese underpants?
Ken Budd: I shouldn’t admit this, but not only do I still have the mystery Chinese underpants, but I still wear them. In fact, I wore them at some of my bookstore events, though I didn’t announce this to the audience. I thought it might creep people out if I said, “Thank you for coming. I stand before you tonight wearing another man’s underpants…”
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT tomorrow.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.
- One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
- A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
- The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.
WADA uncertainty<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDc4NjUwN30.fFTvRR0yJDLtFhaYiixh5Fa7NK1t1T4CzUM0Yh6KYiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="01b1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fd91a47d91e4d5083449b258a2fd63f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="urine sample for drug test" />
Image source: joel bubble ben/Shutterstock<p>When inhaled β-agonists first came out just before the 1972 Olympics, they were immediately banned altogether by the WADA as possible doping substances. Over the years, the WADA has reexamined their use and refined the organization's stance, evidence of the thorniness of finding an equitable position regarding their use. As of January 2020, only three β-agonists are allowed — salbutamol, formoterol, and salmeterol —and only in inhaled form. Oral consumption appears to have a greater effect on performance.</p>
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTIzMDQyMX0.Gk4v-7PCA7NohvJjw12L15p7SumPCY0tLdsSlMrLlGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d3141" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ebe7b30a315aeffcb4fe739095cf0767" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="runner at starting position on track" />
Image source: MinDof/Shutterstock<p>Of primary interest to the authors of the study is confirming and measuring the performance improvement to be gained from β-agonists when they're ingested by athletes who don't have asthma.</p><p>The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 34 existing studies documenting 44 randomized trials reporting on 472 participants. The pool of individuals included was broad, encompassing both untrained and elite athletes. In addition, lab tests, as opposed to actual competitions, tracked performance. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking its conclusions with just a grain of salt.</p><p>The effects of both WADA-banned and approved β-agonists were assessed.</p>
Approved β-agonists and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkxODk0M30.3RssFwk_tWkHRkEl_tIee02rdq2tLuAePifnngqcIr8/img.jpg?width=980" id="39a99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b1fe4a580c6d4f8a0fd021d7d6570e2a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="vaulter clearing pole" />
Image source: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock<p>What the meta-analysis showed is that the currently approved β-agonists didn't significantly improve athletic performance among those without asthma — what very slight benefit they <em>may</em> produce is just enough to prompt the study's authors to write that "it is still uncertain whether approved doses improve anaerobic performance." They note that the tiny effect did increase slightly over multiple weeks of β-agonist intake.</p>
Banned β-agonist and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI3ODU5Mn0.vyoxSE5EYjPGc2ZEbBN8d5F79nSEIiC6TUzTt0ycVqc/img.jpg?width=980" id="de095" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02fdd42dfda8e3665a7b547bb88007ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="swimmer mid stroke" />
Image source: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock<p>The study found that for athletes without asthma, however, the use of currently banned β-agonists did indeed result in enhanced performance. The authors write, "Our meta-analysis shows that β2-agonists improve anaerobic performance by 5%, an improvement that would change the outcome of most athletic competitions."</p><p>That 5 percent is an average: 70-meter sprint performance was improved by 3 percent, while strength performance, MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), was improved by 6 percent.</p><p>The analysis also revealed that different results were produced by different methods of ingestion. The percentages cited above were seen when a β-agonist was ingested orally. The effect was less pronounced when the banned substances were inhaled.</p><p>Given the difference between the results for allowed and banned β-agonists, the study's conclusions suggest that the WADA has it about right, at least in terms of selection of allowable β-agonists, as well as the allowable dosage method.</p>
Takeaway<p>The study, say its authors, "should be of interest to WADA and anyone who is interested in equal opportunities in competitive sports." Its results clearly support vigilance, with the report concluding: "The use of β2-agonists in athletes should be regulated and limited to those with an asthma diagnosis documented with objective tests."</p>
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.