Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Dem French Don’t Knead the Dough!

Every now and again, I have to leave the somber world of global socio-economic issues and slide into my half-baked world of soft news and hard puns. Occasionally, pride has to leave the building, if for no other reason than a quick snack. So let’s roll! Yup, it seems that history is in a jam, spreading itself abysmally thin, as dietary changes consume France. “Pain” (prounced “pahn” meaning bread) is clearly experiencing a lot of pain.
When our Dough Boys fought in France in the Great War (World War I), the French ate between two and three of their infamous baguettes a day. Lower class and upper crust! Over time, and I know this is hard to swallow, the French have stopped being… er… so French. “The average Frenchman these days eats only half a baguette a day compared with almost a whole baguette in 1970 and more than three in 1900. Women, still the main shoppers in most families, eat about a third less than men, and young people almost 30 percent less than a decade ago.” New York Times, July 30th.
Bakers, you have your rights! Stand your ground! Or ground wheat, anyway. Stop milling about and put your nose to the grindstone! Fight back, and so they are. “The decline is so worrisome that Observatoire du Pain [Bread Observer], the bakers’ and millers’ lobby, started a nationwide campaign in June that champions bread as promoting good health, good conversation and French civilization.
“‘Coucou, tu as pris le pain?’ (‘Hi there, have you picked up the bread?’) is the campaign’s slogan. Modeled on the American advertising campaign ‘Got Milk?’ the bread slogan was plastered on billboards and inscribed on bread bags in 130 cities around the country.
“‘Eating habits are changing,’ said Bernard Valluis, a co-president of the lobby. ‘People are too busy or work too late to go to the bakery. Teenagers are skipping breakfast. Now when you see the word ‘coucou,’ we want it to be a reflex for consumers to say to themselves, ‘Ah, I have to buy bread today.'’” NY Times. What is a leaven worth?
Zut, alors! I camembert the news! (A bit too cheesy, no?) Bring me a batch of Freedom Fries now, to ease the pain! Ugh! Baguettes are as French as berets, wine at lunch, smelly cheese, a touch of arrogance and a dash of Je ne sais quoi. A definite benefit of visiting France, a veritable French benefit! Ugh, encore! Particularly tough for those of you on the yeast coast, closer to the continent, but not yet in-continent. Make the mauvais homme stop!
It seems that in the 1960s, the quality of baguettes hit a fork in the road: artisanal craftsmen versus low quality mechanized mass production that began to create flavorless bread. For purists, there is only one way to make this French delight: “The ‘tradition,’ as it is called, is more expensive than the ordinary baguette, which uses additives, a fast-rising process and mechanization, and accounts for about 75 percent of the country’s bread sales.
“‘The methods for making the two breads are not at all the same,’ said Philippe Levin, a baker in Paris’s Ninth Arrondissement on the Right Bank with 25 years in the business. ‘The secret to making a good tradition is time, time, time. Fermentation is very, very slow. The aromas, the sugar have to emerge. It takes a good three and a half, four hours from start to finish.’” NY Times. All this noise about the proverbial bun in the oven! Sure hope it pans out for them!
I’m Peter Dekom, and it’s time to leave that white bread flavorless world into a new world that could possibly flour again!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Flushing Out Folks Who Take Big Leaks

“My background is in the Navy, and it is good to hang an admiral once in a while as an example to the others…We were hoping to get somebody and make people realize that there are consequences to this and it needed to stop.” Former National Intelligence Director, Dennis C. Blair.

It’s almost impossible to contain national secrets with millions of federal employees and hundreds of thousands of security-cleared federal contractors. Dennis Blair, who left the Obama administration back in 2010, took a hard look at the number of seriously sensitive security leaks in the four years preceding his appointment in 2009. Although 153 cases had been sent to the Department of Justice, he discovered, none had resulted in indictments. He visited Attorney General Eric Holder (above) to reprioritize national security cases, and the heavy system began to turn.

There have been two felony convictions since and while Private Bradley Manning has pleaded guilty to some of the charges assessed against his leak (noted below), he still faces more serious charges under his current court martial. “Though the Justice Department issued no explicit directive to pursue leakers more vigorously, according to [DOJ] officials, the climate in which leaks were judged changed markedly as a new team of national security officials joined the Obama administration and quickly ran head-on into what it saw as distressing lapses in controlling state secrets….‘There was a lot of pressure to use every possible investigative tool,’ said one senior former prosecutor who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the Justice Department.” New York Times, July 20th.
After all, we’ve had the WikiLeaks scandal (including Army private Manning, who supplied sensitive diplomatic cables that were part of Julian Assange’s massive publication), a retired general (James Cartwright) who may have let it be known that the US had planted the Stuxnet virus into Iranian computer-controlled centrifuges and most recently, the rather devastating revelation by Defense contractor-employee, Edward Snowden, that detailed the government’s massive surveillance efforts of both its citizens and its allies.

A recent federal appellate court ruled that the First Amendment does not protect journalists from revealing their sources when they receive such sensitive “leaked” information, a case that will undoubtedly make its way to a very conservative U.S. Supreme Court. It was a victory for Holder’s new directive to stop the leaks, but it also raises some very serious constitutional questions.

While we really cannot run a government that cannot keep state secrets in a hostile world of hackers, extremists and out-and-out hostile enemy forces, we are also a nation of constitutional limits, protective statutes and powerful democratic underpinnings. If the world does not know when our government roguishly oversteps those clear limits, then perhaps we are no better than those totalitarian states that we constantly decry in the name of individual liberty, privacy and human rights. The issue, of course, is allowing one individual’s opinion of “right and wrong” – without checks and balances – to make a national security decision that could be of monumental importance. And if a security-cleared employee or contract feels strongly that those constitutional limits have been exceeded, exactly what alternatives exist for that individual to make a case?

Security clearance involves background checks, pledges under oath, signed confidentiality agreements and specific laws that provide very serious sanctions for those daring enough to disclose state secrets. Perhaps if someone is willing to defy this schema, risk massive prison time or lifetime exile, this is enough of a test as to what is necessary to be disclosed to make a democracy achieve balance… unless that disclosure was made under the direction and control of a hostile government or enemy force.

Perhaps not, but it is clear that there is a lot going on, even matters of which our own Congress is barely aware, that is proving to be deeply upsetting to ordinary citizens, who know now that their electronic correspondence is a running open book to federal authorities. Kind of makes you wonder what the Sixth Amendment (the ban on unreasonable and unwarranted searches and seizures) and any notion of personal privacy are all about. But the leakage that was/is taking place without apparent consequences was equally disturbing.

“‘Somebody finally said this has got to stop,’ said John D. Negroponte, a former diplomat and director of national intelligence under George W. Bush. ‘Maybe if there are more prosecutions, it will.’… But critics argue that the Cartwright case, and now the appeals court ruling, show how the antileak campaign has gone too far, producing a chilling effect on news gathering without deterring leakers. Mr. Snowden has said he was inspired by the deeds of Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is facing a court-martial after divulging the diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks.
“‘I think it has gotten away from them,’ said Morton H. Halperin, who served in national security or diplomatic positions in three previous administrations. ‘If the president doesn’t fix this, I think his claim that he understands the importance of balancing the First Amendment against claims of national security will lack any credibility.’” New York Times. There will always be martyrs, people willing to accept horrific personal consequences to alter history and/or, at least in their minds, preserve democracy. Laws, prosecutions and decimation of their entire lives are insufficient deterrents. What is fair and just for a government to pursue, and at what point does the government itself cross the line with too many barriers to the disclosure of its own unjust acts?
I’m Peter Dekom, and in a world with too many people with security clearance, it is equally clear that no governmental plan is going to succeed enough to change a process that has become an American, if not global, journalistic tradition (that was born here in the United States).

Monday, July 29, 2013

You Might Not Care, But….

It really depends on your notion of justice. We are “prison crazy” in the United States, with tons more crimes and longer sentences than most countries, inner city schools with overcrowding, lousy facilities, danger lurking down the halls and a “crime is a better way to make money than this” dropout rate that swells the local convicted felon numbers to sometimes as much as 20% of all local young adult males. The U.S. nets out to 25% of the world’s prisoners with a mere 5% of the world’s population.
So our criminal justice system is a processing mill, driven by plea bargains and harsh sentences, a parole/release system that, according to the Bureau of Justice (a government body), produces a 67.5% recidivism rate (people who arrested within three years of release from prison). Realistically, how many convicted felons are likely to find a normal employment path after release? Particularly in this day and age! Once you are in that criminal justice system, for most it is a lifetime commitment to crime and a lifestyle that would make most of the population cringe. So what, you say, they’re criminals who made free choices that got them there in the first place. Think if you grew up in the crime-breeding sections of America you would really be able to rise to where you are today?
To make matters worse, as we arrest more people, usually those with limited or no resources to defend themselves, not only do we put more pressure on courts, prosecutors, jails and prisons and the infrastructure of criminal justice – all hefty costs, including north of $40K a year to house most of those incarcerated – we have placed a particular pressure on the public defenders called upon to provide counsel to those charged with crimes and unable to afford a lawyer. In the federal system, it seems as if the “sequester” has slammed the public defenders’ office the most.
“The public defender system hasn't just been stripped bare by sequestration, its bones have been chiseled away as well. There has been a 9 percent reduction in the roughly $1 billion budget for federal public defender's offices, while federal defenders in more than 20 states are planning to close offices. Careers have been ended and cases have been delayed. All of it has occurred in the name of deficit reduction -- and yet, for all the belt-tightening being demanded of the nation's public defenders, money is not actually being saved.
“When federal public defenders aren’t able to take a case because of a conflict, or because their workload is too great, the job falls to private court-appointed attorneys known as Criminal Justice Act panel attorneys. Those lawyers are paid from the same pool of money as federal public defenders, but they cost much more and, according to some studies, are less effective.
“To keep the budget from completely exploding, the Judicial Conference, a group of senior circuit judges that helps administer guidelines for the courts, could -- indeed, may have to -- reduce the rates paid to private attorneys, but that could mean fewer CJA lawyers would be willing to take up such cases. That, in turn, would result in the accused spending more time in prison waiting for trials -- only further driving up costs. ” Huffington Post, July 22nd. Defenders are being furloughed, denied travel to jails far from their offices, and even deprived of simple office supplies... for those able to keep their jobs at all.
It does seem to be the American way. Cut budgets without thinking – definitely the consequence of the sequester – only to delay or shift that burden elsewhere. Deferred maintenance on infrastructure only multiplies in cost when the infrastructure fails and we have to react to the disaster. Cut education, and we cut the future earning power of average Americans who are supposed to pay down our deficit and spur new growth in future years. Fire government employees and watch federal agencies shift the job to vastly more expensive private contractors. Replace spending money on training and education with much more money on the criminal justice system. Cut the public defender system only to see costs shift elsewhere. Or maybe you like giving the government money to waste.
 I’m Peter Dekom, and what do you expect from a road-blocked Congress that moves to satisfy Gerrymandered districts where simplistic slogans have long since replaced common sense and a desire for good government.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Moving at Glacial Speed

Alaska is the new Wild West. With the exception of abused minorities of indigenous peoples, who have watched oil drillers and crazy white settlers take over increasing shares of natural resources, the state is all about conservative independence, ignoring the environmental risks and braving the elements for that frozen fall-winter/brief mosquito-ridden summer state’s massive opportunities, perhaps even sharing in the reverse income tax that comes with oil wealth. But as the New York Times (July 22nd) points out, most of inhabited Alaska joins the deep south and the rust belt as the places with the lowest levels of social mobility – that notion of children doing better than their parents – in the United States. Still, for those with strong spirits, Alaska beckons with hope.
Exxon Valdez be damned, because there’s gold (and oil) in them thar hills! And even though the Northwest Passage is growing along the top of the state, Alaska is the home of Sarah Palin and climate-change-denying denizens who want her back to represent the state in the U.S. Senate. But aside from the potential benefits of that northern sea route and opening up areas to further exploration in the great de-frost, Alaska provides some of the most glaring evidence of climate change in the entire country.
The signs are everywhere in Alaska, but perhaps it is her glaciers where the consequences of greenhouse gasses are most obvious. That long finger of land at the bottom of the state, home to the capital Juneau, lays claim to one of the most obvious meltdowns, a mere 14 miles from downtown: Mendenhall Glacier. And that Mendenhall River below swells accordingly.
“Starting in July 2011, and each year since, sudden torrents of water shooting out from beneath the glacier have become a new facet of Juneau’s brief, shimmering high summer season. In that first, and so far biggest, measured flood burst, an estimated 10 billion gallons gushed out in three days, threating homes and property along the Mendenhall River that winds through part of the city. There have been at least two smaller bursts this year.
“‘That first one caught us by surprise,’ said Tom Mattice, the emergency programs manager and avalanche forecaster for the City and Borough of Juneau… That the Mendenhall Glacier is thinning, and has been for decades, is only part of the explanation. Water from snowmelt, rain and thawing ice are also combining in new ways, researchers said — first pooling in an ice-covered depression near the glacier called Suicide Basin, then finding a way to flow downhill.” NY Times, July 22nd. Flood bursts?
“Glaciologists even have a name for the process, which is happening in many places all over the world as climates change: jokulhlaup, an Icelandic word usually translated as ‘glacier leap.’ … What prompts a surge, and the urgent search for a way to anticipate and prepare by scientists and safety officials like Mr. Mattice, is pressure. As water builds up in the basin and seeks an outlet, it can actually lift portions of the glacier ever so slightly, and in that lift, the water finds a release. Under the vast pressure of the ice bearing down upon it, the water explodes out into the depths of Mendenhall Lake and from there into the river.” NY Times.
Glacial speed may have to be redefined… it can get downright fast. But it also signals the challenges that humanity must address over the coming years. Not only do we face the slow rising of ocean tides, desertification and sustained drought elsewhere and the melting of once-frozen “wasteland,” there are the sudden unanticipated disasters or unknown brutal forces ranging from hurricanes/typhoons, ocean storm surges, unexpected flooding and yes, glacial jokulhlaup.
Our seeming global inability to grapple with the root cause of these phenomena, burning fossil fuels, and the fact that environmental change has outpaced even the most aggressive climatologists projections, suggest that humanity will face massive catastrophic disasters, taking tolls in human life, property and productivity, that will cost governments untold billions (trillions?) in unplanned emergency expenditures. It does seem as if that seemingly American tradition – ignoring the cost of fixing current problems that will inevitably generate massive multiples of cost in the future – has become a global pastime as well. 
I’m Peter Dekom, and when you look at your own life, how probable do you think it is that you personally will face some serious climate-related disaster in your lifetime?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

No Wolf at My Door

America is the land of loopholes. Set a law, and then watch as folks who don’t like it or want to avoid its burdens find ways for that statute not to apply to them. Expensive lawyers or government officials find ways around and under or through legislation with rather clear intent, be rendered frail by wording that can be twisted and purposely misinterpreted. How about sneaking a repeal of that statute buried as a rider to a massive federal budget bill? Today, I am going to delve into what I will pejoratively call “loupholes,” where avoidance and reversal of statutory mandates could easily spell the end of a once-officially endangered species (canis lupus – the North American gray wolf). Some of the stuff in this blog may be hard to take, but then, so is the practice of killing because you don’t like the subject of your infliction of death.
Wolves have been portrayed as vicious killers, even though all those little loving puppy-dogs we cuddle and care for are their direct descendants. They are evolutionary enforcement agents, culling their prey before their prey can overwhelm their environment. And as they are successful in this mission, as their intended food sources dwindle, likewise the relevant wolf population self-adjusts and reduces as well. It’s nature’s plan. But some folks don’t like wolves or their missions, and they have eradication on their minds. Maybe they have a God complex, inserting themselves as the ultimate natural deciders or perhaps they have just seen too many stupid horror movies based on myth and certainly not fact.
Ranchers and sheep herders obviously hate wolves who stray into their rangelands and backyards to kill their commercial animals. Even when these wolves were officially an endangered species, there was a louphole that allowed “for ‘lethal control’ if they made trouble—if they threatened a human being, which almost never happened, or, more commonly, if they were implicated in attacking cattle and sheep.”, March 13, 2012.
Hatred of these natural predators brought them to the edge of extinction in the United States: “With European settlement and the decimation of its native prey—buffalo, elk, mule deer—the wolf was bound for destruction. It was now killing for its meals the domesticated sheep and cattle that settlers had ranged across the grasslands and the mountains. Hated for its depredations, the wolf was hunted mercilessly—shot, trapped, poisoned with strychnine, fed glass shards stuffed in bait, its pups asphyxiated by fires set in their dens. By 1935, the gray wolf had disappeared almost entirely from the U.S. 
“Decades later, during the high tide of 1970s environmentalism, conservationists began to agitate for a government-sponsored recovery. The evidence suggested that the loss of the wolves had destabilized the ecology of the Northern Rockies. Following the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service undertook the recovery of the wolf in the region. It wasn’t until 1991, however, that Congress mandated an impact study of wolf reintroduction. By 1994, funding had been approved for Fish and Wildlife biologists to remove 66 gray wolves from Canada, where the animals still numbered in the tens of thousands, and truck them south for release in central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park…
“After spending upward of $40 million studying the animals—then capturing, collaring, tracking, and protecting them—the federal government last year scheduled wolves to be killed in huge numbers across the Northern Rockies. In April 2011, following a series of lawsuits and an unprecedented intervention by Congress [protection for the gray wolf was eliminated in a rider hidden in a federal budget bill], canis lupus was removed from the endangered species list… Never before had a species been delisted as a result of congressional fiat. The rider was barely discussed, much less debated. Only one legislator, Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, raised an objection…

“The ranching industry in the American West has been the historic enemy of wolves, so it was fitting that ranchers in Montana and Idaho called for hunting them almost from the moment of their reintroduction. The American Farm Bureau Federation, a nonprofit advocate for farming and ranching interests, had even sued preemptively in 1994 to stop the reintroduction, but a federal court rejected the suit. In 2008, however, Western livestock interests found a sympathetic ear in the Bush administration’s Department of the Interior, which issued what would become the first of multiple orders to remove the wolf from protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)… 

“Today, as a result of the delisting, anyone can shoot a wolf—you don’t have to be a government trapper. Wolves can in some circumstances be shot on sight. [U.S. government wildlife trapper named Carter] Niemeyer, who is six foot six inches and giant-shouldered, shot 14 wolves in the course of his government career; the Whitehawks [a family of white wolves he “culled” in 2001] were his last. He maintains a taxidermy studio in his garage and says he’s ‘not into the warm and fuzzy thing’ when it comes to wild animals. ‘I’m not grossed out by wolves being hunted, trapped, killed,’ he says. ‘I’d skin one today if you brought it to me. What I’m caught up in is honesty. What you have with wolf delisting is half-truths, untruths, hysteria, and just downright craziness.’”

The livestock industry, joined by the gun lobby, continues to exert massive political pressure to keep any semblance of protection for the gray wolf from even near bona fide Congressional consideration, not that the deeply dysfunctional House of Representatives would even let such potential legislation out of committee. Wolves continue to be hunted from the air, semiautomatic weapons spraying bullets from a helicopter above. Hideous and cruel traps, poison and a free right to shoot wolves on sight evidence our propensity for cruelty based on what are at best questionable statistics.

“The ranchers’ assertions are reflected in the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, which relies for its data on what amounts to unverified reports from ranchers and the investigations of Wildlife Services agents. In Idaho during 2010–2011, the Statistics Service reported 2,561 cattle lost to wolf attack. When Fish and Wildlife investigated, it found that only 75 of the attacks could be verified. According to the Statistics Service, sheep killed by wolves in 2010–2011 came to 900, but Fish and Wildlife investigators could only verify 148. Even using its own apparently inflated statistics, the USDA found that in 2010, less than a quarter of a percent of U.S. cattle, or 0.23 percent, were lost to predators (the predator list included not just wolves but also coyotes, cougars, bobcats, lynx, bears, and “others”). By contrast, in 2009, Wildlife Services was responsible for killing roughly 12 percent of the total population of wolves in the Northern Rockies.

“Idaho’s current management plan calls for the state’s estimated 750 wolves—about half the Northern Rockies population of 1,600—to be reduced to 150 over the course of a six-month hunting season. [Author Chris Ketcham] asked the Fish and Wildlife Service’s wolf-recovery coordinator, Edward Bangs, about the rationale for this number. ‘The issue has nothing to do with science,’ Bangs said. ‘The issue of how many wolves is enough is totally about what people want and how many wolves people will tolerate.’… ‘Wolves are supposedly costing ranchers hundreds of thousands of dollars annually running the weight off sheep and cattle,’ Niemeyer says. ‘I don’t know where anybody has proved this but anecdotally it sure sounds convincing, don’t it? Bullshit. Document it.’

“[Ketcham] initially stopped at [hunter, restaurant-own Victor Turchan’s] restaurant because the sign out front caught [his] attention: ‘Tag a Wolf,’ it said, ‘Get a Free Pizza.’ ‘It used to be ‘Get a free pitcher of beer’ too, but I couldn’t afford it,” Turchan said as I took a picture of the sign. When I mentioned that I was writing about wolves, he invited me into the restaurant and insisted on opening the kitchen early so I could eat. A middle-aged man and a sharp-dressed woman walked in, and we got to talking about how wolves killed their son’s three dogs—tore one of the dogs pretty much in half. ‘You sure came to the right place for wolf haters,’ the woman told me…

“Her husband chimed in: ‘Wolves are very good at what they do, which is stalking and killing.’ Turchan’s bartender, a jovial, big-chested fellow named Mike, wore a T-shirt that said ‘Got wolves? Shoot ’em.’ On the wall was a sign that said ‘Smoke a pack a day,’ with a bull’s-eye over a wolf silhouette. Above his head, over the bar, was a stuffed wolf mounted in mid-snarl, and next to the bull’s-eye silhouette were trophy photographs of dead wolves held high by men in camouflage. The bodies of the animals hung limp and heavy in the arms of the hunters. Their heads looked almost twice as big as a man’s.” I think it would be better said if it read: “Human beings are very good at what they do, which is stalking and killing.”

I’m Peter Dekom, and sometimes I am deeply ashamed at the blasé acceptance of too many Americans with their belief in cruel but Godlike control over wildlife and the environment.