Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Annoying our Facebook Friends

What is Facebook for?  It seems different for each of my friends. Basically it's either for lurking or sharing the things we do.  As in...
  • People with kids post pictures and stories about them.
  • Animal lovers share favorite animal videos.
  • Friends on vacation share what they're doing and seeing.
  • Talented friends who do photography share that.
  • Those who enjoy youtube videos share some of their favorites.
  • People who like their own faces take lots of selfies.
  • Doing a remodel? Share the photos.
  • Enjoy eating out? Share pictures of your food.
  • Cooks share favorite recipes.
  • Crafters share their finished works.
I enjoy all of that. Please keep sharing with me. 

But while photographers, hikers, parents, cooks and music lovers are welcome to share glimpses into their lives, there is one group whose avocation is unwelcome.   If you don't like what this group (including me) shares, you need only hide our posts or unfriend us. Because after all, we are incorrigible. Like the grandparent who knows her grandkids are the cutest and the photographer who snaps a great shot, we like to share too.

Every few months, I read that Facebook is not for sharing what I mostly share. It's not for...politics. If the world's developments are your passion, if reading the news is your avocation, if researching what's happening with the environment, in Washington, the Ukraine or Gaza is your shtick, don't share.

Sadly for my FB friends, I still do. In a democracy, particularly in one where so few seem interested in the larger world or are barraged with the nonsense that passes for news these days, I am interested in sharing some of what I find. And I'm interested in what you think about it, especially if you disagree with me. 

Let's be civil and respectful to each other. But by all means, in any exchanges between people, the larger world has a place. 

If we don't talk about politics and only want to think about it around election time, is that healthy? When my smart, knowledgeable friends who disagree with me challenge my assumptions, I dig deeper and I learn more. I need them and I hope they gain too.

I don't condone the posts that insult the other side or spread misinformation (like the picture during the government shutdown of a plane covering up Mt. Rushmore). But even those, once posted, can be challenged by the doubters in your friends group. 

Today's rant and enough.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Refugee Responsibility

The discussion so far about thousands of child refugees from violence-torn Central America has failed to distinguish between refugees and undocumented (illegal) immigrants.  I've seen little from the media, from Washington politicians or even from the Obama administration acknowledging there might actually be something distinct about "refugees".

Lest we think of refugees merely as numbers, here are a few prominent refugees you may recognize:

Madeline Albright, former US Secretary of State. Refugee from the Czech Republic in 1948.
Isabel Allende, novelist. Refugee from Chile in 1973.
Hannah Arendt, philosopher. Refugee from Germany in 1941.
Bela Bartok, composer. Refugee from Hungary in 1940.
Charlie Chaplin, actor. Refugee from US in 1952.
Frederic Chopin, composer. Refugee from Poland in 1831.
Marlene Dietrich, actress. Refugee from Germany in 1939.
Albert Einstein, scientist. Refugee from Germany in 1932.
Victor Hugo, writer. Refugee from France in 1851.
Peter Lorre, actor. Refugee from Czech Republic in 1933.
Miriam Makeba, singer. Refugee from South Africa in 1950s.
Thomas Mann, philosopher. Refugee from Germany in 1933.
Vladimir Nabokov, novelist. Refugee from Russia in 1919.
Rudolf Nureyev, ballet dancer. Refugee from Russia.
Otto Preminger, movie director. Refugee from Austria in 1935.
Edward Said, philosopher. Refugee from Palestine in 1948.
Edward Snowden, intelligence worker. Refugee to Russia in 2013.
Sitting Bull, Sioux chief. Refugee to Canada in 1876.
Leon Trotsky, political philosopher. Refugee from Russia in 1929.
Maria Von Trapp, subject of Sound of Music film. Refugee from Austria in 1938.

In the words of Maria Von Trapp,
"Overnight we had become really poor; we had become refugees. A refugee not only has no country, he also has no rights. He is a displaced person. At times he feels like a parcel which has been mailed and is moved from place to place."
Source: UNHCR
I got just a glimpse of what it's like to be a refugee several years ago. I was on a train travelling from France to Switzerland with my brother-in-law. Ali is a political refugee from Iran, once a high official who had to flee for his life. He did not live in a refugee camp or have to worry about food, clean water or disease as many do. In fact, he lived in a quiet Paris apartment.  He is a man without country and holds a UNHCR passport. As we approached the Swiss border, guards entered each car, checking passports and interviewing passengers.  I showed my American passport and was treated with great respect, perhaps even deference. My interview was quite brief. Ali showed his refugee passport and was subjected to extensive interrogation. His briefcase and suitcase were opened and every item (underwear, prayer beads, papers) removed and thoroughly examined. The tone of the interrogation was harsh and intimidating, juxtaposed against my own. Without a nation-state to stand up for his rights, Ali was subject to every humiliation.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that there are now over fifty million refugees around the world, more than at any time since World War II. Refugees fleeing violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and the Congo flood neighboring states, creating humanitarian crises wherever they go. Providing shelter, clean water, food, medical care and other infrastructure has become an international responsibility. 

Today, Lebanon hosts over a million Syrian refugees, one fourth of the Lebanese population.  Jordan, Turkey and Iraq also share in the burden of caring for the three million who have fled that civil war.  Russia however has sent back Syrians who have sought asylum there, violating the international rules against returning refugees to danger in their native countries. But Russia is an ally of the Assad regime and turns its back on those who flee Assad. (source)

Sadly, the US and Russia share this selective ambivalence about families fleeing friendly regimes. Think about the major waves of refugees to the United States: those fleeing Castro's Cuba in the 60s, Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam in the 70s, Khomeini's Iran in the 80s. During the Cold War, the US gave preferential status to those fleeing communist countries.  

"...embodied in the permanent amendment of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, which established a preference class for those who “because of persecution or fear of persecution . . . have fled from any Communist or Communist-dominated country or area, or from any country within the general area of the Middle East.” From the mid-1950s through 1979, less than one-third of 1 percent of refugee admissions were from noncommunist countries, and as late as 1987, 85 percent of refugees were from the communist countries of Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Poland, Russia, and Romania."(source)
There are many oppressive regimes that are not communist, of course.  Shah Pahlavi and his murderous SAVAK were overthrown in Iran in 1979 because of their brutality and corruption. But the Shah was our ally and we did not admit refugees from his Iran. When Khomeini's followers overthrew him however, Iranian refugees were welcomed.

So today we have thousands of women and children fleeing violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. They arrive in our southern states with no resources, no money and no high-ranking friends. They claim refugee status based on the brutality from criminal gangs, as compared to international refugee definitions focused on danger from war or one's own government. Whether or not they are granted refugee status, there is no question that they deserve humane treatment and compassion, unfortunately not what met them here recently.

In the United States, we have a quota established for how many asylum-seekers and from where we will accept for resettlement. But we do not accept emergency refugees, those fleeing warfare and danger in their countries but who would likely return when it becomes safer. Unless we have a potential political advantage for accepting refugees, we turn away. This was most notable in 1939 when the St. Louis, a ship carrying 1000 Jewish refugees from Germany, was turned back from the port of New York. Many of those onboard later died in concentration camps.

The United Nations is urging the US to consider these children as refugees, not migrants. Mexico has already expanded its definition of refugees to include all those fleeing systemic violence.  Yet neither Congress nor the Obama Administration appears sympathetic to the plight of these children. Both are pushing to expedite their return to war-torn Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. 

It's time for a more mature approach to asylum, refugees and immigration. Let's stop demonizing anyone not born in the US and weigh actual facts, not populist fears, when looking at policy. Escalating deportations, higher fences, armed border patrols, and intimidation do not become the world's oldest democracy.

See also: 11 Scary Charts

Friday, June 20, 2014

Still Waiting

I'm still waiting for anyone in the GOP or Tea Party to acknowledge...
  • Osama bin Laden is gone
  • The Bush recession is over
  • The federal deficit continues to fall under Obama
  • Unemployment is down
  • Obamacare is working
  • America's only POW is now free
  • The Iraq War was a mistake 
  • Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz and Oliver North are not credible foreign policy analysts
  • The Iraq War was completely mishandled
  • Eight years in Iraq was enough
  • We are not at war in Libya, Syria, Iran, Ukraine or Nigeria and that's a good thing
  • The campaign to stonewall anything the President tried to do has been a disaster
  • America has a gun problem
  • The haves and have-nots in the US are growing further apart
  • Money in politics is a problem
  • 64 bills in the past year and a half to outlaw or restrict abortion are a tad too many for a Congress that won't even consider a jobs bill
  • A perpetrator of the Benghazi attack was captured
  • The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has zero accomplishments in the past four years
  • We have a responsibility to care for our planet 
  • Voter fraud is extremely rare but voter suppression affects hundreds of thousands of voters
Feel free to enlighten me.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

11 Scary Charts

Scary Chart Number Eleven:

That Marijuana You're Still Smoking? See what it's doing to you.

From the National Institute on Drug Abuse




Scary Chart Number Ten:

Five Leading Causes of Deaths Among Persons Ages 15–19 Years,
United States, 2010

Center for Disease Control



 Scary Chart Number Nine:

 If the US had 100 People and $100 total Wealth

From All My Eyes



Scary Chart Number Eight:

How Fracking for Natural Gas has Impacted Earthquake Frequency in the Central and Eastern US

From Greenpeace




Scary Chart Number Seven:

From the Sentencing Project



 Scary Chart Number Six:

Nearly Half of Americans in Favor of Torture

From the Economist

Scary Chart Number Five:

Where your Plastic Water Bottles and Plastic Grocery Bags End Up

From H2O Distributors

Scary Chart Number Four:

From International Sanctuary

Scary Map Number Three:

How Many Metric Tons of Nuclear Waste does Your Family Sleep Next to?

From NEI (Nuclear Energy Institute)

Scary Chart and Map Number Two:

Hate is on the Rise -- and Probably Not Far from Where You Live

From ABC News: Hate Groups on the Rise in US

From the Southern Poverty Law Center

And The Scariest of All, Showing Our Very Own Planet Last Year:

From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: Global Climate Report

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Global Warming: Don't Wait on that Bucket List

I remember when Hurricane Katrina hit, all the images of a devastated New Orleans. While the human costs were overwhelming, my selfish thought was "Damn, I haven't seen New Orleans yet and now it's gone." I'm not proud of this reaction, but I confess it. Fortunately New Orleans has recovered and tourism is back.

If you have a bucket list of places you'd like to see, real deadlines are now predictable, thanks to the accelerating Antarctic ice sheet melts. By the year 2100, the ocean will rise three feet or more. So best you see these sooner rather than later.

Washington, DC (elevation 3 feet)
Smithsonian Museums, the White House and the Lincoln Memorial
The Bahamas (elevation sea level)
Beaches, snorkeling and Batiks
Amsterdam (elevation below sea level)
 See the Anne Frank house, cruise the canals and explore the dungeon
Singapore (elevation sea level)
The Singapore Flyer, ArtScience Museum, Gardens by the Bay
Monaco (elevation sea level)
Monte Carlo Casinos, Oceanography Museum and topless beaches
Antigua (elevation sea level)
Sailing Week, gorgeous beaches and scuba diving
Trinidad and Tobago (elevation sea level)
Nature and wildlife areas, Coroni Lagoon National Park,  Port of Spain
Bermuda (elevation sea level)
Shipwrecks, caves, beaches, cliff jumping, golf and snorkeling
Bangkok (elevation 1 foot)
Temple of the Reclining Buddha, Grand Palace and Siam Naramit theater
Jakarta, Indonesia (elevation 3 feet)
Kidzania, Istiqlal Mosque, Indonesia in Miniature Park and the Thousand Islands
Algiers (elevation sea level)
 Notre Dame d'Afrique, old Moorish architecture, the Kasbah
Fiji (elevation sea level)
Famous for its soft coral diving, white sand beaches and pristine natural environment.
San Juan, Puerto Rico (elevation 3 feet)
Pina Coladas, Old San Juan and a favorite cruise ship destination.
Cayman Islands (elevation 3 feet)
Seven Mile Beach, blue iguanas and world class diving and snorkeling
Tunis, Tunisia (elevation sea level)
Ancient Carthage ruins, Bardo Museum, stunning mosques,  shopping in the Souk
Most of the Pacific Islands, including 
Christmas Island, Vanuatu, Samoa and Pitcairn
(elevation sea level)

With even a modest three foot ocean rise, all of these will disappear, along with many more. And that's just the rise from one event, the melting of Antarctica's ice sheet. Add in all the other consequences of global warming and estimates run as high as twenty-three foot higher ocean levels. Given a more likely estimate of twelve foot sea level rise, the list of cities in the world partly or fully submerged is too lengthy to name, but here are a few American cities we can kiss goodbye (there are forty large cities that would be partially or fully submerged at a ten foot rise):

New York City
New Orleans
San Francisco

More important than my personal tourism interests though are the potential displacements of millions of people. In the United States, five million people live below four feet above sea level.  Worldwide, twenty-eight million people would be displaced if the oceans rise as much as twelve feet. Imagine the economic impacts, the social impacts, the refugees, the agricultural disasters, the wars. Imagine all those beaches gone.

It's time we take global climate change seriously. If we don't, our only tourism option (assuming anyone has the wherewithal to vacation) will be deep sea diving through underwater cities.

Want to know how your lifestyle impacts your planet? You can calculate your carbon footprint here.  The average American is responsible for twenty-two tons of carbon emissions. How about you?

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Bottom Trawling

The fishing industry has a wide variety of techniques available for catching their prey. Some are specific to the species sought, like line fishing or crab
cages. Others though, sweep in everything in the vicinity. The worst of these are the bottom trawlers that sweep up everything on the sea floor, killing much more than the commercial fish species. The bottom nets stir up sediment and pollutants on the sea floor, blinding sea creatures and trapping them. They also impact coral, destroying reefs and their diverse dependent creatures.

In law enforcement and politics, we have in America today a trend toward bottom trawling.  There's a sense that if there's a potential violator somewhere, we should trawl for them, regardless of the numbers of innocents caught up in the trawl nets. 

Voter Fraud
"Out of the 197 million votes cast for federal candidates between 2002 and 2005, only 40 voters were indicted for voter fraud. Only 26 of those cases, or about .00000013 percent of the votes cast, resulted in convictions or guilty pleas." (Voter Fraud Facts)
12% of voters -- 23 million -- do not have ID sufficient to participate under state voter ID laws. To catch the 26, we shut out the 23 million. A very dangerous form of political bottom trawling.

Stop and Frisk

In New York City, police have had the right to stop and frisk citizens without evidence of crimes, a practice that disproportionately targets blacks and
other minorities. Police reports from 2002-2013 on the practice (likely not all-inclusive) show that 88% yielded no evidence of any criminal activity.  Mayor DeBlasio has asked for an investigation of the practice but it persists. In the UK, there has been exhaustive annual review of police stop-and-frisk activity but in the US we have only the self-reporting of officers. Living in a poor neighborhood, being an ethnic minority and being male subjects you to a high likelihood of being caught in this NYPD bottom trawling.

Surveillance Cameras

On a recent trip to New York City, I was mindful of the tens of thousands of
video cameras recording my every move -- whether I crossed the street here or there, what I picked up in the grocery store, who I was with, what time I returned to our rented apartment, who I was with.  While there are no available tallies of the numbers of CCTV cameras deployed in the United States, the UK has kept better track and counts nearly two million of them.  Police, schools, stores, even YMCAs have invested heavily -- well into the billions -- in watching everyone who comes and goes. 

So how effective are they?  Meta-analyses of crime prevention in the US and the UK show negligible to zero effect on crime. Crimes are not deterred in any of the cities studied. But the erosion of 4th Amendment privacy protections are not negligible, with an over-aggressive state's eyes on our each and every move.  I've written elsewhere about video surveillance in schools and how it actually can worsen both student behavior and adult supervision.

Drug-testing Pregnant Women and Welfare Recipients

A wave of legislation in the states pushed mandatory drug testing for TANF
(welfare) recipients. One by one, the courts have struck down the laws as discriminatory and unconstitutionally invasive. Yet their popular appeal persists. During the four months Florida imposed the drug tests, just 2.7% of those tested showed traces of illegal drugs, in nearly all cases marijuana. 97% of recipents had their bodily fluids taken and subjected to scrutiny in this modern form of bottom trawling, all to catch a few marijuana smokers.

In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the pervasive use of mandatory drug testing for pregnant women, finding that it was disproportionately enforced in hospitals serving poor communities. While maternal drug use can be devastating to a child, the data shows that the vast majority of pregnant women cease taking drugs, drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes during pregnancy. A government study showed that 97% of pregnant women refrain from drug and alcohol use during pregnancy. Again, we saw bottom trawling for the 3% of women, sometimes taking their children from them or committing the women to incarceration, at the expense of all others. 

There are dozens of other examples of the state overreaching to catch a few offenders by compromising the rights of the rest of us. Think NSA surveillance of your emails, phone tracking and scanning your postal mail. We need to fight crime by reverting back to the tactics that work without treating all Americans as criminals.