Monday, March 24, 2008

5 Ways to Synchronize Your Body’s Clock

When you go to bed and when you get up are keystones to restful, refreshing sleep. Once you learn to synchronize your body's biological clock, your body will know when to sleep and when to be alert.

1. Wake at the Same Time Every Day.A good night's sleep actually starts in the morning. The second your eyes flutter open, light shoots down the optic nerve and into the brain's biological clock. There it stimulates the production of a smorgasbord of hormones that regulate growth, reproduction, eating, sleeping, thinking, remembering -- even how you feel from minute to minute."Sunlight activates the brain," says Frisca L. Yan-Go, M.D., medical director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center. And activating it at the same time every morning synchronizes your body's biological clock. Then your body has a clear direction that at midnight it's supposed to be asleep and at noon it's supposed to be awake.Wake up at a different time every day and the clock is out of sync. You feel groggy and hungover for hours, and even when you start to feel a bit more alert after that first Starbucks, you really never achieve the mental edge of which you're capable.

2. Hit the Sheets Only When Sleepy. No, not just tired. Sleepy, as in your eyes are droopy and you keep losing track of what people are saying to you.

3. Get Up. Sleeping from 11:30 P.M. until 2:00 A.M., tossing and turning until 4, then sleeping until 6 gives you eight hours in bed but only 4 1/2 hours of sleep. That's a huge mismatch that can actually inhibit your sleep drive and cause insomnia all by itself. To prevent that from exacerbating your sleep issues, when you wake at 2:00 A.M., get up and go read a book in the living room. Being up increases your sleep drive -- which just could make you sleepy enough to actually fall asleep when you return to bed.One caveat: Don't stay in bed when you're awake. A part of your mind will begin to associate the bed with being awake rather than being asleep. And that can turn on a nasty "I'm-not-going-to-sleep!" anxiety that will rev your engines whenever you get into bed. It's one of the most insidious -- and potent -- causes of chronic insomnia.

4. Give Yourself an Hour. The one right before bed. You need it to wind down and transition from the woman-who-can-do-everything into the woman-who-can-sleep. Unfortunately, most women are not giving themselves one single second. According to the 2007 National Sleep Foundation poll, during the hour before bed, around 60 percent of us do household chores, 37 percent take care of children, 36 percent do activities with other family members, 36 percent are on the Internet, and 21 percent do work related to their jobs.

5. Beware Sunday Night Insomina. Staying up late on Friday and Saturday nights and sleeping in on Saturday and Sunday mornings is frequently the gift we give ourselves on weekends after a hard week at work. Yet that little gift -- small as it is -- is enough to screw up our biological clocks. Even if you get to bed early on Sunday night, you will not be ready to sleep, and you will not end up being the happy camper you were expecting come Monday morning.

Writing 'eases stress of cancer'

Writing was found to help cancer patients
Encouraging cancer patients to write down their deepest fears about the disease may improve their quality of life, according to a US study.

Nancy Morgan, a "writing clinician", approached patients waiting in a clinic at a cancer centre in Washington DC.

Half those who took part said the exercise changed the way they thought about the illness, according to the journal The Oncologist.

Younger people, and those recently diagnosed, were most likely to benefit.

Thoughts and feelings, or the cognitive processing and emotions related to cancer, are key writing elements associated with health benefits
Nancy Morgan, Lombardi Center

Ms Morgan developed her role as part of the Arts and Humanities Program at the Lombardi Center.

Her "expressive writing" exercise, lasting just 20 minutes, posed questions to leukaemia or lymphoma patients about how the cancer had changed them and how they felt about those changes.

When those taking part were contacted again a few weeks later, 49% said that the writing had changed their thoughts about their illness, while 38% said their feelings towards their situation had changed.

While there was no evidence of direct impact of the session on their illness, where the patients had reported greater changes in their mindset during the writing, this could be linked to more positive reports of quality of life given to their doctors during follow-up appointments.

Ms Morgan said: "Thoughts and feelings, or the cognitive processing and emotions related to cancer, are key writing elements associated with health benefits, according to previous studies.

"Writing only about the facts has shown no benefit."

Dr Bruce Cheson, the head of haematology at Lombardi, said: "I'm pleased to see that so many of our patients were interested in this kind of therapy.

"Our study supports the benefit of an expressive writing program and the ability to integrate such a program into a busy clinic."

Original here

New Focus of Inquiry Into Bribes: Doctors

A long-running federal investigation into the orthopedic device industry’s suspected kickback payments to hip and knee surgeons now has the doctors in the spotlight.

Having reached settlements with the five leading makers of artificial joints last year over the payments, the government has been focusing on the many doctors who receive money as the companies’ paid consultants.

“We are going to be looking at those soliciting kickbacks,” Lewis Morris, the chief counsel in the federal office that pursues civil complaints of Medicare fraud, told an audience of hundreds of doctors, company representatives and investors this month in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.

The same message has gone out to health care lawyers attending legal education seminars in recent months and, directly from Christopher J. Christie Jr., the United States attorney in Newark, who is overseeing the investigation. Executives say Mr. Christie has addressed sales meetings of the five companies, which reached a settlement last fall to avoid prosecution on charges they had routinely paid illegal kickbacks to surgeons.

Mr. Christie said “ ‘I’ve dealt with the supply issue, now I need to deal with the demand issue,’ ” recalled Edward B. Lipes, the executive vice president in charge of surgeon relationships at the device maker Stryker Corporation, the first of the companies to cooperate in the investigation, which began in 2005.

Although industry executives say they have heard that some doctors have received subpoenas, none have been publicly identified. “Our investigation is continuing into the conduct of individual surgeons,” Michael Drewniak, the spokesman for the United States attorney’s office in Newark, said Friday.

Mr. Drewniak declined to say whether any of the doctors had become targets of the investigation.

The government has not argued that any of the kickbacks led to unnecessary knee or hip surgery or maltreatment of any patients. Nor has it established a direct link to higher Medicare costs. Switching a patient from one company’s device to another would not change the amount Medicare pays hospitals for an implant.

But kickbacks might raise the overall cost of health care. Doctors can be convicted of violating Medicare’s antifraud statutes simply for submitting a bill for a procedure linked to a kickback, whether or not the procedure was necessary.

Besides Stryker, the original targets of the investigation were Biomet; DePuy Orthopaedics, a unit of the Johnson & Johnson Company; Smith & Nephew; and Zimmer Holdings. Those four agreed to pay $310 million in fines to settle civil charges.

In December, two smaller competitors, the Wright Medical Group and Exactech, received subpoenas, indicating that the government is intent on making sure that the entire major joint business — the $6 billion core of the orthopedics industry — is playing on the same field.

From the government’s perspective, the investigation has already been successful. Even before the settlements with the device makers, those companies and others had sharply curbed entertainment, travel payments and other practices the government regarded as possibly influencing doctor’s medical decisions. And with the settlements, still tighter restrictions were forced on the companies.

To avoid prosecutions that could have threatened the companies’ Medicare business — a crushing blow in a segment of the health care industry where the average patient is 68 years old — the device makers not only agreed to pay the fines but to operate for 18 months under stricter federal scrutiny than military contractors do.

Mr. Christie’s appointed monitors, overseers whom the companies pay monthly retainers plus up to $895 an hour, screen every payment the companies make to doctors who help with training or with developing new products.

Each company is required to develop and gain government approval of a “needs assessment” detailing every task for which it will engage doctors this year. The settlements also set a $500-an-hour ceiling for most consulting agreements.

In addition, all five were required to disclose on their Web sites cash payments last year to each doctor or medical group they dealt with, as well as compensation paid each of them in the form of plane tickets, lodging, food and gifts.

The companies halted nearly all types of payments to doctors and many education programs while completing the needs assessment, including previously pledged support for groups like the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.

Stryker and Smith & Nephew say they have received final approval for their 2008 assessments. Other companies are at various stages of getting their assessments approved.

For all the disclosures and scrutiny though, the details of the misconduct that attracted the Justice Department’s attention remain murky.

The companies were allowed to deny any wrongdoing in the criminal and civil settlements they negotiated. The four that signed so-called delayed prosecution agreements — Biomet, DePuy, Smith & Nephew and Zimmer — have been promised that the criminal cases filed against them in September will be dropped a year from now if they live up to compliance procedures in their agreements.

No charges were filed against Stryker, the fifth company, because it was the first to cooperate in the investigation. But Stryker accepted the same restrictions on its conduct and was also assigned an independent monitor for 18 months. Stryker’s potential civil liabilities were left unresolved.

The five companies’ payment disclosure lists say nothing about what the doctors on them did to receive their money. As a result, there is no apparent way to distinguish potentially questionable kickback deals amid a sea of service contracts, licensing agreements and research grants that the government agrees are legitimate.

The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons has said that the listings raise unfair suspicions and that the companies should provide more detailed breakdowns of the payments.

“A lot of this has been irresponsible,” Dr. Thomas M. Coon, a surgeon in Red Bluff, Calif., said of the government’s investigation during a break at the recent meeting in San Francisco.

Dr. Coon said the broad reach of the government’s action had “thrown up in the air” hundreds of company-surgeon relationships. “Who knows how it will come out?” said Dr. Coon, a pioneer in minimally invasive knee surgery, who has consulted principally for Zimmer, the largest hip and knee company.

Dr. Coon declined to say how much he was owed after Zimmer halted payments in October. Zimmer’s disclosure said it paid him $158,420 last year — in addition to $1,944 for air travel, $2,498 for lodging, $1,034 for meals, $440 for ground transportation and $10 for a gift.

Identifying any rogue surgeons could be politically sensitive for Mr. Christie, who has been reported to have aspirations to run for governor of New Jersey. He stirred controversy in Congress for appointing his previous boss, the former United States attorney general, John Ashcroft, to the lucrative job of monitoring the activities of Zimmer, the largest implant company.

“They will probably find somebody to indict, but people are viewing the attorney general’s office with a lot of distrust,” said Dr. Robert H. Schmidt, an orthopedist in Fort Worth.

As indicated by Dr. Coon’s work with Zimmer, financial relationships between orthopedics companies and their customers are among the most complicated in health care. In contrast to drugs, which are typically developed in company laboratories, many orthopedic devices and related tools originate from inventions by doctors, who often retain a financial stake in their market success.

Once companies begin to develop the devices, leading doctors are hired as consultants to help modify the implants and related hardware. When the products are finally brought to market, companies also hire many of the same opinion leaders to train other doctors and sales representatives how to use them.

As a result, Mr. Christie has had no problem finding large sums of money — in some cases, more than $1 million annually — flowing from companies to doctors who use their devices. But doctors say it is far too simplistic to conclude, as Mr. Christie claimed last fall, that “many orthopedic surgeons in this country made decisions predicated on how much money they could make — choosing which device to implant by going to the highest bidder.”

For the most part, the hip and knee joints sold by the major companies are similar in performance, but getting surgeons to switch is a lot more difficult than persuading an internist to prescribe a prescription drug rather than aspirin.

Familiarity with a joint and the tools to put it in place may be the single biggest factor in a surgeon’s success with a patient, according to Dr. Ronald P. Grelsamer, a Brooklyn orthopedist and author of books on hip and knee reconstruction.

“Surgeons are by and large reluctant to jump from one horse to another,” Dr. Grelsamer said.

As a result, surgeons would be looking to whatever cases might be brought against their peers to clarify the lines the government wants drawn between unacceptable and acceptable relationships with the device industry.

Mr. Christie and Mr. Morris, the top lawyer in the Office of the Inspector General in the Department of Health and Human Services, will in turn face tough choices on how many cases to pursue. Complaints against individual doctors rarely have the impact on overall medical practice that cases against large companies or groups of companies do, nor do they produce large financial compensation for the government.

Original here

Top 5 Reasons it Sucks to be an Engineering Student

For many students, earning a degree in engineering is less than enjoyable and far from what they expected. Here are our biggest complaints about the educational rite of passage. Of course, they are sweeping generalizations. Feel free to disagree.

5. Awful Textbooks
Thick, dry, black and white manuscripts are rarely a source of inspiration and sometimes can cause loads of confusion. Often, the text is poorly written and interrupted by lengthy equations with symbols that are different from those used by the professor during lectures.

4. Professors are Rarely Encouraging
During each class, a professor that would rather be tending to his research will walz up to a blackboard or ovehead projector and scribble out equations for an hour without uttering a single sentence to create some excitement.

3. Dearth of Quality Counseling
College students may not have a sense for how to build their resume and they might be clueless about the variety of career opportunities that await them. Unfortunately, some academic advisers do little more than post fliers about internships and hand out a checklist of classes to take. They should make some projections about the future job market, learn about the interests of each young scholar, and offer them tailored advice for how to best prepare themselves.

2. Other Disciplines Have Inflated Grades
Brilliant engineering students may earn surprisingly low grades while slackers in other departments score straight As for writing book reports and throwing together papers about their favorite zombie films.

Some professors view undergraduate education as a type of natural selection, but their analogy is flawed. Many of the brightest students may struggle while mediocre scholars can earn top scores because they have a larger group of supportive friends to or more time to dedicate to studying.

1. Every Assignment Feels the Same
Nearly every homework assignment and test question is a math problem. Only a few courses require creativity or offer hands on experience.

If you want to complain about your education, or our list, this is your chance. Leave a comment!

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Digg Addiction? A Father Fears Porn, Discovers Digg

By M.B.Darden

A friend of mine has a 16-year-old kid. Smart as hell, a near math-genius, hasn’t assaulted or murdered anyone to my friend’s knowledge. But, come to think of it, not exactly sociable, more withdrawn than he used to be. Depressed? In need of support, help? Not sure. He lives sometimes with his mother but mostly with my friend, his somewhat distracted but fundamentally caring dad.

Recently there was a big meeting at the high school, calling in parents to discuss one of the trendy problems of the day: Kids’ absorption with (even addiction to) the internet. Turns out a lot of the kids were tapping into porn sites, texting photos and other stuff, sometimes harassing classmates and spending a sh*t-load of time doing it. And if it wasn’t porn it was “too” (whatever that means) intense gaming, etc. The school recommended that parents who don’t know what their kids are up to online find out. We don’t want another Columbine now, do we?

So, my friend the Dad did. After failing to get his kid to talk to him about what he was spending his time on – his grades were good and the kid’s view was essentially, what difference does it make what I do, it’s my life, bug off, yo…Dad checked things out on his own. His kid apparently wasn’t too worried about his privacy, because he left his computer open all the time. So, after ruminating over it for a while – it’s so wrong to do this, my friend thought; but it’s in my kid’s interest, right?, that’s what everybody’s saying -- he got into the kid’s computer. This is what he learned: No porn, no massive use of video games (some but not huge amounts), no anti-social, violent, disaffected tendencies, no cookied or stored how-to-blow-up-things websites -- great relief! -- but massive amounts of use of this website called, Digg.

What the f**k is Digg, my friend wanted to know? And why is my kid spending hours on it a day?

Turns out he was spending hours on Digg as well as a bunch of other sites, Reddit, Stumbleupon, Mixx, etc. But Digg was the biggest time drain.

My friend confronted his kid who, after angrily challenging his dad’s invasion of his privacy -- guilty, his father said, really guilty, I’m sorry -- actually engaged, according to my friend. Or, more accurately, he invited his father to check out for himself what he was doing. My friend did.

The kid was reading and “digging” articles on subjects all over the place – from new theories on molecular chemistry, astronomy to nutty pics of animals superimposed onto the faces of corrupt politicians. It seemed relatively harmless actually compared to the possibilities. In fact, just for research purposes of course, my friend started checking things out on Digg himself, on his own, just to keep up with what his son was up to.

It was interesting, my friend said. And he continued checking things out -- later; now actually -- because yea, he admits it, he likes it. He doesn’t do it too much, he says. Maybe an hour a day. Well, maybe a couple hours a day. But not much more than that. Except when he’s at the office where, what do you expect him to do, stop doing stuff online?

Before, it was reading ESPN, SI, NFL,, etc. compulsively, checking every minute for the next update of who the Giants are likely to select on draft day. (Surprise, the same person they were likely to select a couple minutes, hours, days ago.) So, yea, he’s doing it a lot, he guesses. But it’s not like he’s registered on Digg. No way. Or posted or “Dugg” anything. But what if he did or does, so what? You wouldn’t believe all the stuff there on computers & gadgetry, gaming, politics – hell, even the sports posts aren’t so bad and include sh*t on sports minutia you wouldn’t believe. It’s really pretty cool.

Something else. There’s crazy over-the-top drama on Digg. People threatening to walk out (protest, riot, invade?) because Digg changed its algorithms (a term my friend probably hadn’t heard of until now, after going over it with his son). “Power Digg Users” were pissed because it was harder for them to retain their power, according to some Diggers. Or, if you listen to others, they were pissed because the changes rewarded drek and didn’t value those Digg users who took it seriously and helped build the site.

Whatever. It’s like some monarchal hierarchical structure being changed, threatened regularly and everybody’s confused, challenged, vulnerable. People are being kicked off Digg – not sure by whom or why, he says. Or for how long or where they go. But lots of people are unhappy about it – that is, if they’re not happy about it. Because one of the fun wack things going on, he says, is that there’s never something that pisses off people that doesn’t at the same time please some other people. It’s great, he says. And these people, on all sides of whatever issues come up, love to write and rant about it and many are truly great at it; they don’t even realize how great, their color and passion and unfiltered sometimes hard to fathom righteous rage.

You had – you have – some users constantly screaming at other users. Everybody’s a dumbass or a moron or the absolutely perfect deserving target of some withering rebuke. Some idiot posts something that appeared on Digg 6 months or years ago, and somebody out there is going to ream that guy a new hole. You misspell something in the title or body of your post…Christ, you might as well have attacked the core of a person’s being; you’re going to get smacked.

All that, the seemingly unvarnished, freely expressed passion, my friend says, is terrific. His son reminds him that a lot of those comments are hyperbole, meant to inflame, not to be taken seriously. Also, the flamers represent a very small percentage of Digg users most of whom don’t comment at all.

Still the action is a hell of a lot more interesting than watching the crap that passes for most TV these days. Plus a lot of these people are smart, my friend says. So what if they use the forum to vent and rage; it probably releases stuff that makes them more balanced in their real lives.

My friend’s son, with whom he’s felt tense for the last couple years since a bitter divorce from his mother, now laughs at his dad. What started as a derisive, you’re such a pathetic moron type laugh now seems increasingly to be almost…not necessarily affectionate but intrigued, surprised (pleasantly).

The kid says his dad is doing it -- Digg, but also some of the other sites like Reddit, whatever -- too much. He actually told his dad he needs to take more breaks. And my friend agrees, but he’s slow at work, so stop bugging him about it, he says. He doesn’t go out to movies as much and he seems to have dropped out of his regular tennis game – but that’s only because he’s tired of those things right now, temporarily; he’ll be back, he says.

He told me the other day that when he sees articles written in the NY Times or Variety or Sports Illustrated, anywhere, he almost immediately thinks, that would be great for Digg, or maybe not Digg, maybe Newsvine or Reddit. No, Mixx. And he thinks, why doesn’t he register and post them. He should. He hasn’t yet (he says), but it sounds like he’s moving in that direction.

Turns out his son now is spending less time on Digg, it seems. He’s got a girl friend and he’s also thinking about playing lacrosse this season. (He’s damn good apparently and it always bugged his dad that he seemed to blow off the sport mainly so he could spend more time on the computer.)

The kid has actually reached out to me, asking if I think his father is OK, with all this new online stuff. I told him I don’t know but, yea, I think he probably is but it wouldn’t be a bad idea maybe to “crash” the computer once in a while (or do something that actually makes sense, if “crash” isn’t it….some kind of periodic “time out” of sorts).

But my friend continues on. He now sends me, and apparently 100s of others, links to tons of Digg posts a week. Yea, some are good, amusing, insightful. But some of us really are starting to worry about him. What the f**k is he sending us a piece on near-microscopic insects for…or kelp (do I need to learn what kelp is?; I had thought it was a fish)…or animals that are smarter than 90% of humans (he thought I didn’t know that?). Or, the surprising heath benefits of watching ants walk (that might’ve been from Reddit, not sure). He is a bit older than I am and it’s like the guy just learned about the internet, he’s so excited. But I’ve got a life too and can’t read 5% of what he’s sending me.

Apparently there’s another meeting at the high school soon, a follow up to the earlier one about students’ internet obsessions. My friend says he’s thrilled that his son is fine, in fact he can’t even get him to join him on Digg anymore and he’s somehow blocked his Dad’s messages or “shouts” (apparently he has now registered on Digg), which is not cool, my friend says. In fact, he’s thinking of sitting his son down and talking to him about it.

Of course what’s also not cool, my friend says, are the people who keep “shouting” him garbage but never look at his posts, or the fools who try to game the site somehow; they’re so obvious, he says.

I half want to encourage him to go to the school meeting anyway, for himself. But a part of that half worries that if he does go he’ll learn about another hot, interesting online activity and add that to his mixx. The other day he asked me about Facebook and My Space – he’s heard they’re “pretty cool,” and some of his Digg friends are encouraging him to join them there. He also said he’s put me on his emailing list and some feeds through which I’ll supposedly get a lot more stuff regularly. Plus, I should consider registering on his new blog he’s thinking of putting together.

I told him, thanks, I’ll look into it. He said, cool, and don’t worry. I nodded. He looked at me straight and said, again: really don’t worry. I know what you’re thinking. OK? Don’t worry.

I laughed. He looked good, actually. High energy, engaged. I nodded (again). He told me I might be interested in this new piece he’s writing, on “social networking trolls”; they can be a serious problem these days for some, he says.

Actually he’s a hell of a writer. Novels, screenplays. He’s been bored. His kid’s filled in some spaces. But the kid doesn’t need so much anymore. Who knows, maybe he’s found something.

I told him to send me the piece on social networking. He did, along with 20 others on various subjects, sending my in-box into overload.

I looked up spam filters and address blocking software online. Turns out (according to a friend of mine who isn’t an internet-illiterate like I am) I can block his stuff without his knowing; I might even be able to pre-filter the subjects of email I receive from him. E.g., screen out emails about insects and the space shuttle and Reverend Wright but receive all posts on the Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox. Of course…maybe I should check out Digg myself more, like my friend says…just to see what all his excitement is about. For research purposes only, of course. A limited basis.

On the other hand…no. Probably not. I definitely won’t. Unless…things get a little slower with me, ease up at work, or…I really feel like it. Then, maybe, why not. I don’t have a 16-year-old son. But what’s so bad about getting stuff on the Twins and Red Sox myself, faster, when I want it. There can’t be too much there on those subjects…And if there is, you make priorities, what’s the big deal…I do it all the time, yea, no big deal.

M.B.Darden has written for numerous magazines and newspapers (some of which you have heard of). He has had more jobs in the media & entertainment & financial industries than he can remember (i.e., he's been fired a lot, but then often inexplicably rehired). He lives in the burbs somewhere in the Northeast, with his family and, he says, within 30 minutes of 14 shopping malls.

Original here

Picture this: Teachers are using comics, now called 'graphic novels,' to captivate reluctant readers

Nautilus Middle School's Roberta Kaiser says graphic novels are so popular that she has to limit circulation to one book per student.
Nautilus Middle School's Roberta Kaiser says graphic novels are so popular that she has to limit circulation to one book per student.

Not long ago, about the only way a kid could get away with reading a comic book in school was to hide it inside the covers of a textbook. Now Roberta Kaiser, the media specialist at Nautilus Middle School on Miami Beach, not only stocks her shelves with them, but demand outstrips supply by a wide margin.

''I have to limit them to one at a time, but there are students who come in two to three times a day to return one and get another,'' Kaiser said.

Before anybody explodes about kids reading comic books when they're supposed to be doing quadratic equations or studying Shakespeare, know that comic books have changed, and so has reading.

Under the spiffier label of ''graphic novels,'' these bound books feature every stripe of hero and story. ''The themes and genres can range from science to biography, and from memoirs to yes, superheroes,'' said John Shableski of Diamond Book Distributors, which

specializes in comics. ``Every subject is available in the format.''

These are not your father's comic books. Superman and Wonder Woman, yes; but also graphic novel editions of the works of Shakespeare, and many classics -- The Red Badge of Courage, Beowulf, Greek myths, the Adventures of Robin Hood, even Canterbury Tales.

Last year, the Printz Award, an American Library Association honor for the most distinguished book for teens, went to American Born Chinese,a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang. Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney was an original online comic about a beleaguered middle-schooler before the hard-cover edition propelled it and its sequel to The New York Times bestseller list. Bone, about a marshmallow-y type creature's adventures, was self-published by Jeff Smith before Scholastic bought it, colorized it and split it into nine volumes. A million copies of the first installment, Out From Boneville, have been sold. Scholastic brought the series to the classroom by producing a teacher-friendly guide -- (

Comics are infiltrating the schoolhouse like never before because they are reaching that most elusive of creatures -- the reluctant reader. Faced with a generation raised in a visual environment dominated by television, the Internet and electronic games, teachers and librarians have found comics will lure readers -- especially boys -- who have a limited interest in books.

It was the how-to-get-a-boy-to-read conundrum that propelled Franc¸oise Mouly, co-editor of Raw magazine and the New Yorker art editor, into producing comic books for young readers herself. Mouly has two children with husband Art Spiegelman, the author of Maus, a Holocaust memoir that is considered one of the granddaddies of the graphic novel format, and which won a 1992 Pulitzer Prize. Her daughter, Nadje, learned to read after a few weeks of concentrated effort. Despite being raised in the same environment -- ''surrounded by books, with parents who read to them,'' her son, Dash, now 16, struggled.

''I was running out of books I could use with him,'' Mouly said, so she turned to Spiegelman's vast collection of comics -- Krazy Kat, Little Nemo, Batman. That worked.

''My husband sacrificed his comics to fatherhood, but it was a good cause, and it allowed Dash to find a path to success,'' Mouly said. ``It made us both realize how much of a magic bullet comics could be. Children will learn if there's something in it for them and if it's pleasurable.''

The personal experiment made Mouly realize how divorced comics had become from childhood. ``Dash had friends who came to the house and had never seen comics before.''

In response, she and Spiegelman produced three comics anthologies -- the Little Lit series -- aimed specifically at readers age 8 to 12. Next month, she's launching Toon Books, which takes the comic book offensive to its youngest audience ever: beginning readers. The new line debuts in April with three titles -- Benny and Penny by Geoffrey Hayes, Silly Lilly by Agnès Rosenstiehl, and Otto's Orange Day by Frank Cammuso and Jay Lynch. The books have already been adopted by Renaissance Learning's ''Accelerated Reader'' program, used in 60 percent of American classrooms.

Comics in book format are not new. In the 1940s, illustrated classics and Bible stories in bound form were produced specifically as educational material. But the entire comics genre took a massive hit when excessive violent imagery led the U.S. Senate to hold hearings in 1954 to investigate the link between comic books and juvenile delinquency. The hearings didn't find one, but they did lead to the creation of a sort of decency code, supported by much of the industry, that effectively set innovation back several decades.

As far as pendulum swings go, comic books are back and then some. Shableski, the book distributor, says sales climbed from $43 million in 2001 to $330 million in 2006.

Much of that is fueled by the embrace of schools and libraries, which in response to a perceived reading crisis among kids, have shifted their focus on getting children to read the ''right'' material, to getting children to read, period. It's not just that children are more likely to read something they enjoy, it's that a comic book's combination of pictures and text holds a child's attention longer than blocks of print. Speech balloons develop an understanding of the role of dialogue in a story. Many comics readers wind up wanting to create their own, (''that never happens with a video game,'' Mouly points out), promoting not only literacy, but creativity and self-expression.

Kaiser, the middle school librarian, says her kids overwhelmingly choose the superhero and manga (Japanese) comics over the ones that cover curriculum topics. She hopes the biography and history selections will be added to teachers' lesson plans, but for the moment she's satisfied that she has figured out a way to get certain kids to make regular stops at the circulation desk.

``Some of my comics readers are reading other stuff, but some of them would not be reading at all if they were not reading comics.''

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The Bare Necessities: A Generation

A few weeks ago I gave a talk on the state of the economy to a group of college students -- almost all Barack Obama enthusiasts -- who were griping about how downright awful things are in America today. As they sipped their Starbucks lattes and adjusted their designer sunglasses, they recited their grievances: The country is awash in debt "that we will have to pay off"; the middle class in shrinking; the polar ice caps are melting; and college is too expensive.

I've been speaking to groups like this one for more than 20 years, but I have never confronted such universal pessimism from a young audience. Its members acted as if the hardships of modern life are making it nearly impossible for them to get out of bed in the morning. So I conducted a survey of these grim youngsters. How many of you, I asked, own a laptop? A cellphone? An iPod, a DVD player, a flat-screen digital TV? To every question somewhere between two-thirds and all of the hands in the room rose. But they didn't even get my point. "Well, duh," one of them scoffed, "who doesn't have an iPod these days?" I was way too embarrassed to tell them that I, for one, don't. They thought that living without these products would be like going back to prehistoric times.

They seemed clueless that as recently as the early 1980s only the richest people in the world had cellphones and the quality of these products left much to be desired. Watch a movie from 20 years ago and you will laugh out loud seeing big clunky black machines that weighed as much as a brick, gave crackly service and cost $4,200. Now cellphones are practically free -- even disposable. And the cost of making calls has dropped dramatically too.

So why the long faces? Sen. Obama reminds them every day of how dreary things are. Here's what Mr. "Audacity of Hope" told workers in Ohio last week: "Everywhere I go . . . you see people who have worked in a plant for 20 years, put their heart and soul into building profits for shareholders. Suddenly, the rug's pulled out from under them; the job's shipped overseas." Not only that, he explains: "They don't have health care. They don't have a pension. They're trying to compete with their teenage kids for a job paying $7 an hour at the local fast food joint."

Times are tough in many old industrial areas of the country. And middle-class anxiety about the costs of health care and higher education is real. But new data from the Census Bureau reveal that Americans of all income groups have made enormous gains in their standard of living in recent decades. As late as 1970, air conditioning, color TVs, washing machines, dryers and microwaves were considered luxuries. Today the vast majority of even poor families have these things in their homes. Almost one in three "poor" families has not one but at least two cars.

Consumption in real per-capita terms has nearly doubled since 1970. The single largest increase in expenditures for low-income households over the past 20 years was for audio and visual entertainment systems -- up 119%. In 2007 Americans spent an estimated $1 billion to change the tune of the ringer on their cellphones. Eating in restaurants used to be something the rich did regularly and the middle class did on special occasions. The average family now spends $2,700 a year dining out.

There's a wonderful new video on called "Living Large." In it, comedian Drew Carey goes to a lake in California where people are relaxing on $80,000 27-foot boats and goofing around on $25,000 jet skis that they have hitched to their $40,000 SUVs. Mr. Carey asks these boat owners what they do for a living. As it turns out, they aren't hedge-fund managers. One is a gardener, another a truck driver, another an auto mechanic and another a cop.

When I was young my parents used to drill in me the moral imperative of eating everything on my plate, and they recited the (tall?) tale of how they even ate what would now be considered dog food during the darkest days of the Great Depression. The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association reports that Americans now spend $36 billion a year on their dogs, cats, turtles and so on, and one of the hottest-selling consumer items is "diet pet food." We have become a nation of fat cats -- literally. I have a friend whose daughter insisted that he spend $200 on eye surgery for their hamster. (I want to see that hamster read the eye chart!)

After my lecture, one young woman walked up to me on her way out and huffed: "What I favor is a radical redistribution of wealth in America." I tried to tell her that America's greatness is a result of our focus on creating wealth, not redistributing it. But it was too late -- she was already tuning in to her iPod.

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