Saturday, April 14, 2018

Syria and the future of the world

Legislators in our country, on the left and right, can’t agree on anything, and because of this, we have no clear Syria policy or serious plans to help the Syrian people, so they continue to die and suffer at the hands of the Assad regime and other bad actors in the region. If Mr. Trump cared about Syrian children, as much as he claims, he wouldn’t bomb that country (as he did last night with limited air strikes), but rather, he’d open up our refugee program to more Syrians. The US has only taken in eleven Syrian refugees this year. Shame on the U.S. Shame on the world for allowing this carnage to continue while closing our borders to those desperate to escape the violence. 

If we decide to engage in an extended military campaign in that country--which may be necessary at some point--we must get more allies on board, especially those in the Middle East; establish a clear strategy and end game; strengthen diplomatic efforts with Turkey and Russia, and yes, even engage with Iran; and do everything in our power to minimize collateral damage (e.g., the killing of innocent civilians). 

The U.S. currently has no ambassador in Turkey, who is a NATO ally. An ambassador should be assigned, especially since Turkey seems to be working against the U.S. in Syria due to their own self-interest. Turks see the Kurds as their enemy, so they have attacked Kurdish fighters who are assisting American troops fighting against ISIS, thus undermining U.S. efforts. (Note: This is an extremely abbreviated version of Kurdish/Turkish animosities, given the length of this post. I encourage you to delve deeper into this relationship with your own research or read the excellent article, “Syrian Kurds: The Other Woman in America’s Relationship with Turkey,” in The American Conservative.)

Jon Huntsman, Jr's ambassador appointment to Russia was a smart move on Donald Trump's part. Huntsman is an honorable man and a capable negotiator. He possesses a cool head and that will be needed as ties between the U.S. and Russia become increasingly strained and/or deteriorate.

More complicated, is the non-relationship between the U.S. and Iran. The U.S. has had no formal diplomatic relations with Iran since April 7, 1980. The one negotiation with Iran in recent years that is cautiously promising is in the Non-Proliferation arena. Although it is controversial in some circles and could definitely be improved upon, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or a.k.a. the Iran Nuclear Deal) finalized in July 2015 is a step in the right direction to containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. 

I don’t give the Obama administration a pass on Syria either, but the American people were/are weary of war. He wanted Congress to approve a military strike on Syria, but they refused. (Remember: Congress is the body of government who declares war.) 

This is a moment in history when future generations will look back and ask: What were you thinking? It’s the same with climate change...what were you Baby Boomers and GenXers thinking? We hold the prosperity and health of future generations in our hands with the policy decisions we make today. Will those policies support short-term or long-term goals? I am nearly always in favor of policies supporting the long-term ones. Short-term policies are for emergencies, like financial crises or natural disasters. 

We hold future generations’ lives—be they domestic or foreign ones—in our hands. We can make a positive difference in the world, secure it for posterity’s sake, leave it a better place for them, if only we possess the will. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Ideas, Actions, and Inspiration for a Better Tomorrow - March 20 Edition

NCAA Basketball, UMBC, Higher Education

"People now know the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, as the ultimate Cinderella, an overnight social media sensation, the team that magically emerged as the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in the history of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. But our story is far less fairy tale than it is classic American dream. Our magic comes from questioning expectations, putting in the hard work, and staying focused.

The nation saw the results on the court Friday night. My colleagues, students, alumni, and their families came to the game knowing the team would give the game their all. Our men’s basketball team embodies our definition of grit. We knew the players were bringing both passion and preparation to the game. We knew that they would listen to the guidance of head coach Ryan Odom, support one another, give their individual best, and get tougher and tougher as the game went on.

Nevertheless, like the rest of the world, we were stunned—not only by the outcome but by their execution to the end. Everybody thought it couldn’t be done because it hadn’t been done. And then we did it."

Science, Space

"Stephen Hawking submitted his final scientific paper just a week and a half before he died, and it lays the theoretical groundwork for discovering a parallel universe.

Hawking, who died Wednesday at 76, was coauthor to a mathematical paper that seeks proof of the "multiverse" theory, which posits the existence of many universes other than our own.

The paper, called "A Smooth Exit from Eternal Inflation," had its latest revisions approved March 4, 10 days before Hawking's death.

According to the Sunday Times newspaper, the paper is due to be published by an unnamed "leading journal" after a review is complete."

War, Syria, Social Media

"Najem, who resides in rebel-held eastern Ghouta, a suburban area in southwestern Syria that surrounds the city of Damascus, has been documenting the Syrian Civil War through his Twitter account since December 7, 2017. The teen posts photos, videos, and messages that capture what it’s like to be one of the many children and teenagers forced to fight to survive in the middle of the war.

The Vietnam War took a turn when the news began broadcasting images of coffins covered with American flags returning home; a change in public opinion put pressure on the American government to end the war. Muhammad Najem’s documentation of war on social media isn’t just a cry for help, but also a vivid portrait of how war can damage lives and societies. By watching Najem’s digital diary, followers must more vividly confront the hardships the Syrian people are facing. Najem’s personal perspective gives the madness of war a human face. Hopefully, this brave teen’s use of social media will compel other leaders to act in the face of this atrocity."

Community Development

"In 2015, roughly 5 million American youth (about 1 in every 8 individuals between the ages of 16 and 24) were disconnected, neither working nor enrolled in school. Rural counties suffer from a relatively high disconnection rate — a staggering 20.3 percent — but there is hope. In communities rife with high rates of child poverty and stagnant local economies, local organizations like Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE) work to guide opportunity youth along pathways to economic security while teaching them responsibility, discipline, and other skills necessary to succeed.

Karen Jacobson, executive director of the Randolph County Housing Authority, matches disconnected youth in Appalachia with opportunities for vocational advancement. This is often done by matching youths with jobs serving other vulnerable populations, especially senior citizens in need of personal home care. “We’re now placing 15 to 20 percent of our cohorts each year in the health care field,” Jacobson said.

Mable Starks, president and CEO of MACE in Greenville, Mississippi, agreed that integrating opportunity youth into the social fabric of their hometowns is key. She works to improve education fulfillment and employment opportunities for disconnected youth through the MACE program, established by community leaders in 1967 to uplift rural development in the Mississippi Delta. This includes YouthBuild, which trains students in construction through building housing for low-income families. “A hundred percent of our students who come into YouthBuild are active voters,” Starks said. “It takes a community to build a community.”"

Neonatal Care, Maternal Health

"In Great Britain, midwives deliver half of all babies, including Kate Middleton’s first two children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte. In Sweden, Norway and France, midwives oversee most expectant and new mothers, enabling obstetricians to concentrate on high-risk births. In Canada and New Zealand, midwives are so highly valued that they’re brought in to manage complex cases that need special attention.

All of those countries have much lower rates of maternal and infant mortality than the U.S. Here, severe maternal complications have more than doubled in the past 20 years. Shortages of maternity care have reached critical levels: Nearly half of U.S. counties don’t have a single practicing obstetrician-gynecologist, and in rural areas, the number of hospitals offering obstetric services has fallen more than 16 percent since 2004. Nevertheless, thanks in part to opposition from doctors and hospitals, midwives are far less prevalent in the U.S. than in other affluent countries, attending around 10 percent of births, and the extent to which they can legally participate in patient care varies widely from one state to the next.

Now a groundbreaking study, the first systematic look at what midwives can and can’t do in the states where they practice, offers new evidence that empowering them could significantly boost maternal and infant health. The five-year effort by researchers in Canada and the U.S., published Wednesday, found that states that have done the most to integrate midwives into their health care systems, including Washington, New Mexico and Oregon, have some of the best outcomes for mothers and babies. Conversely, states with some of the most restrictive midwife laws and practices — including Alabama, Ohio and Mississippi — tend to do significantly worse on key indicators of maternal and neonatal well-being."

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Ideas, Actions, and Inspiration for a Better Tomorrow - March 13 Edition


“As data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights shows, Black girls are more likely to be suspended than any other group of students other than Black boys. Nationwide, Black girls are 5.5 times more likely than white girls to be suspended from schools across several states. In the District of Columbia, Black girls make up 73% of girls enrolled in schools, and 94% of all girls suspended. This is not a result of worse behavior in classrooms, but the result of racist stereotyping of Black women as aggressive or hypersexual. Half of Black girls’ suspensions are for minor offenses such as violating the dress code, chewing gum, or talking back to a teacher. These behaviors don’t pose threats to classmates or disrupt teaching. But they challenge society’s idea of femininity– white femininity.

As a result, these girls are seen as disruptive and unfit for the classroom environment.

Even when students’ behaviors rise beyond these minor, subjective offenses, there are many creative solutions schools can employ other than immediately suspending or expelling students of color. Schools can start teaching conflict resolution practices, yoga, or meditation, all of which target the issue head on and are valuable skills for later life as well. Schools could also bring kids in the classrooms together to solve problems as group. Or, as an alternative to focusing on the punishment, schools can start focusing on prevention. Finally, instead of spending money on law enforcement officers, schools can hire more counselors who have experience with kids going through issues.

The stakes are just too high to push girls out of school. Studies have shown being suspended once increases a child’s chance of dropping out of school.”

Flint, Michigan, Water Crisis, Good Deeds

“Will and Jaden Smith founded JUST in 2015 to provide a green alternative to plastic bottles and to invest in communities. JUST’s bottles are 82 percent plant-based, and the company has initiated long-term investments in Glens Falls, New York, the city where the water is sourced.

The Flint water crisis became a national topic in 2014 after city officials began using the Flint River as the town’s main water source. The city’s pipes were dangerously corroded, and they polluted the water with dangerously high levels of lead. In one study, the Environmental Protection Agency found lead levels in the city’s water to be as high as 397 parts per billion, far above the federal limit of 15 ppb.”

Legacy, School Lunches, Good Deeds

“The initial intention was to raise $5,000 to pay off the lunch debt at J.J. Hill, knowing that Castile himself would regularly dip into his own pocket to ensure kids who had no money could still get their lunch.

But as the money rolled in, the fundraisers broadened their goal, attempting to feed all students in St. Paul.

And they did just that, FOX 9 reports that this week they presented a check of more than $106,000 to St. Paul schools that is enough to cover the lunch debt of all 56 public schools in St. Paul.

"That means that no parent of the 37,000 kids who eat meals at school need worry about how to pay that overdue debt," fundraisers wrote on YouCaring.

"Philando is STILL reaching into his pocket, and helping a kid out. One by one. With your help," it added. "Your donations will fill that pocket for years to come. Thank you for your generosity."”

Medical Debt, Good Deeds

““In 2014, Ashton joined up with Craig Antico, who also worked in debt collections, to form RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit organization, which focuses on buying and forgiving medical debt.

Their effort went slowly at first. “The first couple of years our wives were wondering why we were going into debt to get other people out of debt,” he said. “We were struggling.”

“If it had not been for John,” he said, “we would be standing on a street corner with a paper cup."

Ashton is referring to John Oliver, who, on a June 2016 episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, did a scathing report on credit collection practices and the people targeted with repeated phone calls, calls to employers, garnishing wages, court cases, and so on.

It’s all too common an experience: About a third of Americans with credit were contacted by a debt collector or creditor within a year of a recent survey by the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. Of those, more than half of people who were contacted about a past-due bill were contacted about a medical bill.

Oliver, after excoriating the medical debt system and the politicians who enable it, made an announcement. He had formed a collection agency of his own (which, he said, proves that a complete idiot can create a collections agency), and—with no credentials apart from a minimalist website—purchased nearly $15 million worth of debt for just under $60,000, less than half a cent on the dollar. This purchase entitled him to the names, current addresses, and social security numbers of those who owed the debt, even if the debt was so old it was called zombie debt. And with this information, he acquired the right to try to collect debt.””

Read more to find out what happened next.

Environment, Energy, Regulations

“President Donald Trump’s administration has been on a deregulatory bender, particularly when it comes to environmental regulations. As of January, the New York Times counted 67 environmental rules on the chopping block under Trump.

This is not one of Trump’s idiosyncrasies, though. His administration is more ham-handed and flagrant about it, but the antipathy it expresses toward federal regulation falls firmly within the GOP mainstream.

Republicans have been complaining about “burdensome” and “job-killing” regulations for so long that their opposition to any particular health, safety, or environmental regulation is now just taken for granted.

For instance, why would the Environmental Protection Agency close a program investigating the effects of toxins on children’s health? Is there some evidence that the money is wasted or poorly spent? Why would the EPA allow more unregulated disposal of toxic coal ash? Don’t people in coal regions deserve clean air and water? Is there any reason to think coal ash is currently well-regulated?

These questions barely come up anymore. Republicans oppose regulations because they are regulations; it’s become reflexive, both for the party and for the media the covers them.

The report was released late on a Friday, with Congress out of session and multiple Trump scandals dominating the headlines. A cynical observer might conclude that the administration wanted the report to go unnoticed.

Why might that be? Well, in a nutshell, it shows that the GOP is wrong about regulations as a general matter and wrong about Obama’s regulations specifically. Those regulations had benefits far in excess of their costs, and they had no discernible effect on jobs or economic growth.”

Career Advice, Inspiration

Chelsea Handler is the author of five New York Times best-selling books.

She runs her own company, Borderline Amazing Productions, and makes a multi-million dollar living as a woman in comedy, an industry dominated by men.

In 2012, she made Time Magazine's list of Most Influential People, and she has also been on Forbes' Celebrity 100 list.

She is, by all accounts, extremely successful.

But she didn't start out that way. She wasn't born with a silver spoon in her mouth; in fact, her first job was as a waitress, where she brought spoons to others.

It was during that waitressing gig at 23 years old that she learned a lesson that would serve her for the rest of her career, and what she passes along now as her best career advice:

"When you make a commitment, keep it."”

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Ideas, Actions, and Inspiration for A Better Tomorrow - March 1 Edition

Politics, Society (Foreign Policy)

"From an anthropological perspective, Western politics has, it may be argued, become more tribal. Tribes are distinguished from other human groups by their relatively clear social boundaries, often defined by kinship and demarcated territory. It’s clear that our political groups are increasingly based on single aspects of common identity with unambiguous boundaries, such as race and educational status.

Equally undeniable, however, is that most commentators vastly misunderstand the nature of tribes. The mistaken view of tribes as primitive, violent, and insular is already having pernicious effects on our response to this new era of politics. Tribalism, contrary to popular belief, is not atavistic. But American political rhetoric, by suggesting otherwise, has become essentially fatalistic; it suggests that tribalism marks a reversion to some natural and ancestral mode of thinking and, thus, even if tribes can be temporarily transcended, their pull remains inexorable.

If we hope to live productively in this new political era, it helps to understand what tribes actually are — and how, rather than simply being the cause of our political problems, tribalism can also contribute to the solution."

Education, Arts Programs (Slate)

"Despite the gradual erosion of the arts and physical education in America’s public schools, the students of Stoneman Douglas have been the beneficiaries of the kind of 1950s-style public education that has all but vanished in America and that is being dismantled with great deliberation as funding for things like the arts, civics, and enrichment are zeroed out. In no small part because the school is more affluent than its counterparts across the country(fewer than 23 percent of its students received free or reduced-price lunches in 2015–16, compared to about 64 percent across Broward County Public Schools) these kids have managed to score the kind of extracurricular education we’ve been eviscerating for decades in the United States. These kids aren’t prodigiously gifted. They’ve just had the gift of the kind of education we no longer value.

Part of the reason the Stoneman Douglas students have become stars in recent weeks is in no small part due to the fact that they are in a school system that boasts, for example, of a “system-wide debate program that teaches extemporaneous speaking from an early age.” Every middle and high school in the district has a forensics and public-speaking program. Coincidentally, some of the students at Stoneman Douglas had been preparing for debates on the issue of gun control this year, which explains in part why they could speak to the issues from day one."

Work (Yes! Magazine)

"We all spend a large part of our lives at our jobs. Yet how many of us are bored or frustrated at work, whether unhappy with our company’s goals, stressed from overwork, or dealing with toxic coworkers? Don’t we deserve better than that?

The new book How to Be Happy at Work makes the case that, yes, we do, and happiness at work should be our ultimate goal. Written by Annie McKee—an international business advisor and senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education—the book provides ideas for how to turn your job into a source of happiness no matter where you find yourself working.

According to McKee, part of our collective problem is that too many of us fall in the trap of believing that “work is work” and isn’t supposed to be a source of happiness, or that work goals will suffer if we focus on what makes us happy. But research suggests the opposite: Happier employees are more productive, benefitting their companies as much as themselves."

Corporations, Political Spending (Brennan Center for Justice)

"The administration has been a veritable font of bad news as executives hostile to reasonable rules have taken the helm from the Department of Education to the Environmental Protection Agency. But there’s a little good news coming from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Provided Congress allows, it will determine the winner in the long-running battle over whether publicly traded companies should reveal their currently hidden political contributions, known as “dark money.”

Stockholders have long been agitating that the companies they own improve the transparency of their political spending. This is often done through shareholder resolutions, which are a bit like ballot questions, to require companies disclose their spending on campaigns and lobbying. In part as a result of these efforts, more than half of the S&P 500 have agreed to be open about their political activities. They now share information that would otherwise be opaque and untraceable, including money flowing through dark money trade associations and so-called social welfare organizations, such as Crossroads GPS, the conservative group founded by George W. Bush operative Karl Rove.

But the trend toward transparency is still being met with resistance. Goldman Sachs wrote to the SEC in December to block its shareholders from voting on a lobbying disclosure proposal in part because the amount of money at issue “relates to operations that account for less than five percent of the Company’s assets.” The shareholders withdrew their proposal."

Elections (New York Times)

"The 2018 midterm elections, featuring hundreds of congressional, state and local primaries, will culminate with the Nov. 6 general election to decide whether Democrats can gain control of Congress or if Republicans will keep their hold on the legislative branch."

Monday, February 26, 2018

America's gun problem: Can it be solved?

Student protests—teenagers demanding their right to attend school without the fear of being gunned down by some lunatic with an assault rifle—have been ongoing since the February 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people died and 14 others were injured. It’s been riveting and inspiring watching these passionate, young people stand up to pro-gun legislators, rabid Second Amendment-rights groups, and the NRA, saying, “Enough is enough.”

While I have no use for guns, nor do I own one, nor can I ever imagine purchasing one (but, I never say never), I believe people have the right to own guns for self-protection and rifles for hunting. However, military-grade weapons and automatic or semi-automatic weapons should only be available to the military, maybe the police; certainly, not civilians.

Parkland's was the eighteenth school shooting of 2018, though the number is up for debate depending on how a school shooting is counted and defined. It's not only school shootings that should concern us, but also the number of gun deaths—homicides, suicides, accidents—and injuries that happen across America every day. Something must be done. 

We have a problem no other developed country has: 30,000 gun-related deaths per year. None come close. We have a massive number of guns in this country, largely concentrated in a small portion of the population.

Here are some stats:
  • 30% of the US population owns guns;
  • 3% of the US population owns 50% of those guns;
  • The US has 10 x the gun-related deaths of other advanced countries;
  • Gun deaths in the US are 40 x greater than in Great Britain but we don’t have 40 x the mental health issues;
  • US states with the highest rates of gun ownership, generally have higher rates of gun deaths;
  • US states with the lowest rates of gun ownership, generally have lower rates of gun deaths.

Below, Fareed Zakaria talks about the massive number of guns in our country. It's a brief segment worth watching.

The proclamation (repeated on the right) that there is nothing we can do to stop these incidents is bull. I get it, some people don’t want to jump through hoops to purchase guns. However, we should always make it more difficult for bad guys to obtain a gun. And yes, that may inconvenience good guys a little bit. So what?

If I hear one more person refer to gun violence in Chicago as proof that strict gun laws are useless, my head will explode. Here’s a little geography lesson. What state is located just east of Illinois? Right, Indiana, which has some of the weakest gun laws in the country. No matter how strict gun laws may be in one state, there will be gun-related problems if it is in close proximity to one with weak gun laws.  

There are also too many accidental shooting deaths, especially involving children. I don’t have kids, but if I did, and one of their friends got a hold of a gun because that child’s parents were careless about securing it and they injured or killed my child, those parents would regret the day they ever heard my name. Adults need to be held responsible for these tragedies, even if it’s their own kid who ends up being the victim. Until adults are held more accountable, these tragic situations will continue, and these are totally avoidable situations. Imagine being a child who killed someone else.

And while people with mental health issues should not have access to guns, they are more likely to be victims of violence than those instigating it. We should not only prevent them from possessing guns but also those with a history of violence, domestic violence included.

Lastly, we should never turn our schools into prisons. Who wants to go to school with armed guards and metal detectors? Teachers should not be armed. Many school systems can’t afford supplies for their classrooms (teachers oftentimes pay for these items themselves), but we’ll pay to arm and train them? Teachers should not be expected to take on that responsibility. That’s not their job. They certainly do not get paid enough to do it. The NRA loves the idea though: more guns equal more money for the gun industry.

So what can be done? Here are a few ideas:
  • Close the gun show loophole. Friends and family members purchasing guns from each other must also go through background checks and licensing.
  • Enact two-week waiting periods. This is a precautionary measure, especially if someone is suicidal or bent on murdering someone who has upset them. A cooling down period is reasonable.
  • Educate citizens to recognize the signs of violence or unusual behavior in loved ones, friends, and neighbors. If something seems off, report it. This can be tricky, and one must be careful not to abuse the reporting process, but most of us know when someone close to us is struggling or their behavior has changed. Ensure our healthcare system is capable of treating those suffering a mental illness, anxiety, anger, and depression.
  • Ban assault weapons, bump stocks, and high-capacity magazines. No civilian purchases of semi-automatic, automatic, or military-grade weapons are permitted.
  • Allow doctors to report gun-related injuries and the CDC to compile data about these incidents so we have a clearer picture of what is happening around gun injuries and deaths. The agency was effectively barred from studying gun violence as a public-health issue in 1996 by a statutory provision known as the Dickey amendment. (Click on: Why Can’t the U.S Treat Gun Violence as a Public-Health Problem? below for more information.)
  • Place terrorists’ names on a no-buy list. They are no-fly lists. 
  • Organize a buy-back program. The number of guns in this country needs to be reduced. More guns equal more gun violence. That’s a fact.

These kids protesting out in the streets are the leaders we need in this fight. Their lives have been turned upside down. They watched their classmates be gunned down and some died. It’s their young lives being extinguished. It’s their future; they want to live it and grow old. 

Marches are planned in D.C. and around the country on March 24. I’ll be marching in New York City that day. These young people are right: Enough is enough.

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