Saturday, October 22, 2011

Alternative Energy Options in Your State

The future of America, both in terms of job creation and fighting global warming, is in renewable energy. We need to wean ourselves off oil, a product that creates jobs in Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iran and Venezuela while polluting our atmosphere, to cleaner, greener products like solar, wind, biomass and geothermal, to name a few. This isn't just one person's opinion. It is the opinion of some of the world's greatest scientists. From BBC News:

Renewables can fuel society, say world climate advisers

Renewable technologies could supply 80% of the world's energy needs by mid-century, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

In a report, it says that almost half of current investment in electricity generation is going into renewables...

The report analysed 164 "scenarios" of future energy development; and the ones in which renewables were most aggressively pursued resulted in a cut in global greenhouse gas emissions of about one-third compared with business-as-usual projections by 2050...

We need to do this for our economy, for job creation, and for our environment. And you can be a part of it. Right now in many states you can CHOOSE to buy all green energy. There are various programs at various costs, but most provide some environmental benefit, create American jobs and cost mere pennies more per kwH than your current bill.

You can find out about 100% Green Energy Plans or click here for other options. But if you want to do some research first, there is a site, Power Scorecard, that makes comparisons easy in some states.

You have to click on the site, select your state (New York for me) and your service territory (Consolidated Edison--New York City for me). The site will then provide a list of options, with a comparison of cost and environmental impact (lower is good) in a clear table with a comparison to your regular, non green, fossil fuel based company. You can then get a more detailed comparison of some of the options you like as well as links and info on how to sign up.

Let me give you a few examples.

For me, I select New York and Consolidated Edison--New York City and get a big table. Fist I look near the bottom of the table and see the regular ConEd utility service. It costs 26.4¢ per kWh and has a pretty terrible environmental impact. It shows a breakdown of many different environmental factors, but for simplicity let's just look at the overall environmental impact score: 7.7. Needless to say for both cost and environmental impact we want the lowest possible number. Every green option will be a little bit more than 26.4¢ per kWh, but that can be offset but simple actions like replacing light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs (see below). But the goal is to get the lowest environmental impact with the lowest cost above 26.4¢ per kWh.

The easiest option, and the one my wife and I chose years ago, is Con Edison Solutions Wind Power. This is supposed to be 100% wind power. A rival company told me that may not be completely true, but of course they had a vested interest in convincing me to switch. The environmental impact score is only .5, a large improvement over the 7.7 of most ConEd customers. The cost is 32.0¢ per kWh...that is 5.6 cents per kWh higher than the regular service. Now this is a bit higher a jack up than we might like, but I want to emphasize that when we combined this increase with switching all our bulbs to compact fluorescents, our electricity bill went DOWN by 30%. So the increased cost per kWh was easily offset by an energy efficiency step that saved us gobs of money. However, as you will see below, I now learn, thanks to the Power Scorecard website, that there is an even better option if we can get up the initiative to change. We can lower our impact even more while saving a bit of money.

The top option is Community Energy, Inc. 100% New Wind Energy. This really is 100% wind energy. It's environmental impact score is only .1, far below the 7.7 of regular ConEd service and better even than ConEd's all wind option (which has some land use issues, it seems). So it is about as green as you can get. The cost is only slightly higher than regular ConEd service, 28.9¢ per kWh. That is 2.5 cents per kWh higher than regular, fossil fuel based service and again that is easily offset by a little energy efficiency. My wife and I should consider saving some money and improving our environmental impact by switching from our current green energy option to this one.

There are several other options listed, but the ones I discuss seem to be the best bang for the buck. NativeEnergy WindBuilders is even better and cheaper 27.4¢ per kWh, but is more of an offset than something that just gets onto your regular energy bill. But it is a valid way to go. And is actually REALLY cool since it helps finance construction of new Native American wind energy projects by purchasing a share of the renewable energy credits it will generate. NativeEnergy is currently supporting construction of the Rosebud St. Francis wind turbine in South Dakota. This is a very attractive option, but I will say that we for now prefer the convenience of a program that we can do right through our regular bill. I should emphasize that this kind of offset program is really not that different otherwise than the options you do through your bill. All in reality use the regular energy mix, but offset it by helping to add green energy to that mix for the future.

For the NativeEnergy WindBuilders option, contact Native Energy directly:
Phone: 1.800.924.6826

For other parts of New York you'd have to pick another service area.

Let me do another example. Let me do one in New Jersey. I pick New Jersey and, just as an example, Rockland Energy. First thing I see is that energy in New Jersey is WAY cheaper than in NYC. Not a surprise. The basic Rockland Energy service is 12.5¢ per kWh. But the environmental impact is even worse than for ConEd in NYC: a 9 instead of 7.7. There are several better options.

Community Energy, Inc.100% New Jersey Wind Energy: Overall Environmental Impact Rating: 0.8 for 18.0¢ per kWh.

Community Energy, Inc. 50% Wind, 1% Solar, & 49% Low-Impact Hydro: Overall Environmental Impact Rating: 1.3 for 14.5¢ per kWh.

Sterling Planet New Jersey Clean Power Choice Option: Overall Environmental Impact Rating: 2.6 for 16.0¢ per kWh

Green Mountain Energy Company: Overall Environmental Impact Rating: 2.9 for 14.5¢ per kWh.

You could switch to Community Energy, Inc.100% New Jersey Wind Energy, the best option, and still save money if you also switch your lightbulbs to compact fluorescents. But you can also switch to Community Energy, Inc. 50% Wind, 1% Solar, & 49% Low-Impact Hydro and still do far better than the regular Rockland Energy service and pay very little extra. That alone would greatly lower your impact and would still be helping create American jobs.

Now let me do a Pennsylvania example. I pick Pennsylvania and Allegheny Power Co. Here the prices are even cheaper than New Jersey! The regular Allegheny Power Co. fossil fuel based service is 4.3¢ per kWh...with a horrible environmental impact score of 9.6! If you get regular power service in Pennsylvania, you have an awful carbon footprint. But you can do better. There are two particularly good options.

NativeEnergy CoolWatts costs only 5.3¢ per kWh for an overall environmental impact score of 1.1...MUCH better than the regular service and only for one penny more per kWh. CoolWatts is 100% New Wind, certified by Green-e. For just 1 cent per kWh over the cost of electricity from your local electric service provider, you can create the same impact as buying clean electricity from your utility, supporting wind-powered electricity production in North and South Dakota. This is really one of the best programs you can find because it offsets your energy use with some of the best wind power generation in the world. For more info on this excellent program, contact Native Energy:

Phone: 1.800.924.6826

The other Pennsylvania option has a lower impact but costs more. Community Energy, Inc. New Wind Energy has an environmental impact score of .3 for 6.8¢ per kWh. Better than CoolWatts but a tad more expensive. But again, if you combine it with some energy efficiency you will still overall save more.

You can also compare companies in Texas.

One of the best actions you can take for the future of America is to switch your power choice to one of the green options I mention or the equivalent in your area. If you are in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania or Texas, go to Power Scorecard and find your best options. Once you switch you will feel great about being part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

For other states there are a variety of programs. Again, you can find out about 100% Green Energy Plans or click here for other options.

I also want to emphasize that energy efficiency is another way you can be greener and in this case save money. Often combining energy efficiency with a switch to all green power gives you a net savings while making you about as green as can be, your car aside.

First, get a home energy audit. This is the best way to find ways to save energy and save money. The US Department of Energy has suggestions for a do-it-yourself (cheaper but not as effective) audit as well as how to get a professional audit (costs money but will find more effective ways of saving you money in the long run).

You should also switch your light bulbs from the old, inefficient incandescent bulbs to new, cleaner, MUCH more efficient compact fluorescent bulbs. When my wife and I did this our energy bill went down by 30% immediately. We saved a huge amount by making the switch. Compact fluorescents are a bit more expensive than incandescent, but they last MUCH longer and use MUCH less energy so you save a lot in the long run.

The savings from switching to compact fluorescents alone can be enough to more than offset the cost of buying all green energy. And if you add some of the other energy efficiency savings, you will never even notice the cost of buying green energy. And you will be helping revitalize America's economy and environment, providing one of the best gifts you can give your children and grandchildren.

Take these three steps to saving money and going green. You can be part of the solution, reducing pollution AND creating American jobs.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Oct. 14, 1943: Jewish Rebellion at Sobibor Death Camp

There is an image of Jews going tamely to slaughter in the Holocaust. And it is true, for various reasons, this did happen. But some Jews stood up and fought, even at times defeating the Nazis at least for a time.

Sobibor was one of the Nazi death camps. Jews so thoroughly trashed it that the Nazis did all they could to eliminate every memory of the place.

In honor of the Jews who rebelled at Sobibor, here is a song written by someone in the Vilna Ghetto, inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, honoring those who stood up and fought. It is sung in this case by Paul Robeson, who does it full justice:

In 1943 Jews were responsible for the destruction of one of the worst Nazi death camps. You probably haven't heard of Sobibor. Sobibor was designed specifically and solely to kill. It wasn't a camp where they worked people to death. It was a camp where they killed people. Mengele sorting who died and who lived for awhile longer was kind compared to the brutality of Sobibor.

Two of the six Nazi death camps, Treblinka and Sobibor, were destroyed as a result of Jewish uprisings. These events were suppressed not only by the embarrassed Nazis, but also ironically by some Jews who felt ambivalent about resistance and by some Israelis who, until the revelations of the Eichmann trial, felt those who remained in the Diaspora had, by not moving to Israel, been partly responsible for their fate. I think the memory of Jewish resistance against the Nazis is extremely important to keep alive.

Sobibor was almost the forgotten Nazi Death Camp. It was almost forgotten because the SS themselves tried to eradicate all traces of the camp. The camp had become an embarrassment after nearly half the Jews at the camp rebelled and escaped. Yeah...nearly half.

Some memories of Sobibor:

That rebellion happened October 14th, 1943.

Sobibor was one of the actual "Death Camps" where extermination was the primary goal. Most concentration camps focused on working the prisoners to death. This confuses some people who expect all of the Nazi camps to be the same. Simply put the Nazis had different camps for different purposes. The "Death Camps" focused on killing people as fast as they could. There were six death camps, all located in Poland: Aucshwitz II, Bezec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka. More than 250,000 people were murdered at Sobibor alone. Both Treblinka and Sobibor were destroyed thanks to Jewish uprisings.

At 4 PM, Oct. 14th, 1943, rebels led by Alexander (Sasha) Pechersky started killing SS soldiers at Sobibor. The first to die was the camp's deputy commander, killed as he visited the tailor's shop to try on a new uniform. Here is an account of that first blow as told by a survivor:

October 14, 1943 was a warm, sunny day and nothing disrupted the routine. Only a very small group knew that this was to be the fateful day. The Nazis in the camp went about their business as usual. At precisely 4:00 P.M., the stage was set. Everything now depended on the nerves of the attackers, their faith in themselves and luck.

Acting commander SS Untersturmfuehrer Niemann rode up on his horse and entered the tailor shop. Mundek was ready, holding the new uniform. The German without suspicion, unhooked his belt with its pistol in the holster and causally threw it on the table.

As tailors have done for ages, he patted and turned Niemann at his will. Finally he told him to stand still while he marked the alterations with a crayon. Then the blow fell. The Nazi dropped like a fallen tree, his head split. Shubayev rushed to Sasha's quarters and delivered the first pistol. They embraced. Now, there was no turning back.

They killed 11 German and Ukrainian guards (more by some accounts), triggering a mass breakout. About half of the camp's prisoners escaped, though in the end only 50 survived the war. Some were killed by Germans...some by Poles. Here is the same survivor's account of the breakout:

Someone was trying to cut an opening in the fence with a shovel. Within minutes, more Jews arrived. Not waiting in line to go through the opening under the hail of fire, they climbed the fence. Though we had planned to touch the mines off with bricks and wood, we did not do it. We couldn't wait; we preferred sudden death to a moment more in that hell.

Corpses were everywhere. The noise of rifles, exploding mines, grenades and the chatter of machine guns assaulted the ears. The Nazis shot from a distance while in our hands were only primitive knives and hatchets.

We ran through the exploded mine field holes, jumped over a single wire marking the end of the mine fields and we were outside the camp. Now to make it to the woods ahead of us. It was so close. I fell several times, each time thinking I was hit. And each time I got up and ran further...100 yards...50 yards... 20 more yards...and the forest at last. Behind us, blood and ashes. In the grayness of the approaching evening, the towers' machine guns shot their last victims."

Within days of this rebellion, SS chief Hienrich Himmler ordered the camp dismantled and all traces destroyed. Camp III, the actual extermination area, was immediately destroyed and hidden. The other facilities were used until July 1944.

This was one example of Jewish resistance against the Nazis. And, although only 50 survived the war, their actions shut down one of the Nazi death camps. That is about as successful as half-starved, terrified, desperate people can be in the face of one of the most technologically advanced group of sociopaths in history.

THIS is the kind of history we need to remember.

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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Columbus Day: Some Historical Perspective

Together, Columbus Day and Thanksgiving are the foundation myths of America. I have been ambivalent, in the litteral meaning of the word, towards Columbus Day for years now. I celebrate America and Columbus' "discovery" of the "New World" because the result of his discovery and the ultimate founding of America is that my family, myself included, is alive and thriving today. Without America, my family would have been exterminated in the genocide of Nazi Germany if not before that in the genocide of the pogroms in Tsarist Russia and later Stalin's genocide in the Soviet Union.

But I am reminded every Columbus day of the genocides on which the founding of America was based. My family had a refuge from genocide because of a previous genocide committed against the natives of America. How's THAT for ambivalence?

The year 1421 is the year when China possibly discovered much of the world. And 1491 is, of course, the year before Columbus sailed. These two years are the titles for two books that re-examine the legacy of Columbus and what came before him.

In 1421, the author tries to recreate the voyages of a series of large Chinese fleets that may have sailed around the world. Long before that year Chinese fleets sailed routinely around the Indian Ocean, including to Africa. That is well established. The Chinese fleets were better, larger and better equipped by far than the European fleets until perhaps the 19th century. Had China been more motivated to do so, they certainly could have pre-empted European exploration and colonization with great ease. This book suggests that they almost did. A great fleet did sail in that year and it is clear that it was ambitious in its goals and may well have explored outside the Indian Ocean that was the main focus of earlier Chinese fleets. The book outlines extensive routes that the Chinese fleets MIGHT have taken based on the authors experiences with ocean currents while serving in the Royal Navy on a submarine. It outlines possible exploreation of Africa, the Americas, Antarctica, Australia, and the Arctic north of Siberia. The book is plausible, but it winds up being so convinced that it is right that it makes claims way beyond the evidence. Much of the evidence provided is dubious, though some is compelling. Evidence of possible Chinese shipwrecks across the globe from that period are perhaps the best evidence given if they turn out to be what the author claims they are. So far none have been adequately expored partly because the exploration of shipwrecks is an expensive and dangerous endeavor. Other evidence is highly intriguing, but not anywhere near adequately explored. Monuments around the world are presented as being the works of Chinese, yet again it seems to me they have not been properly studied to make that determination. By the end of the book I felt that a great deal of evidence does need to be extensively examined with this hypothesis in mind, but I also was left with the impression that the author's claims had far exceeded the current evidence. He MAY be right. But I suspect only partly right.

The author of 1421 has a website where he presents his evidence (some of which is pretty weak), and there is also a rival website claiming they debunk his theories. I suggest taking BOTH with a large grain of salt. And here is the wiki article on the 1421 hypothesis.

The fact that the Chinese may have discovered the Americas should come as no surprise. In fact it could be more surprising if they hadn't! We know the Vikings came to America. There is evidence that Basque and possible Irish fishermen made it to the Americas long before Columbus. Certainly the far more advanced Chinese could have done so as well. But the extend of exploration and colonization suggested by 1421 seems unlikely and, in fact, evidence presented in 1491 seems to suggest that whatever pre-Columbian contact the Basques, Irish and Chinese made was minor and had almost no impact on the Americas, contrary to the hypothesis of 1421.

In 1491 the scope of discussion is far larger, covering from the origins of Native Americans to the aftermath of contact with European explorers and colonies. In the process it tries to overturn just about every previously established theory about Native Americans. It presents extensive evidence and largely is convincing.

It begins with the very origins of American cultures. The long established dogma was that artifacts called the Clovis culture represent the original migrations into the Americas. The Clovis culture is the earliest WELL-ESTABLISHED culture in the Americas. It appears fairly rapidly over a huge range and really does seem to be the origin of most if not all Native Americans. But there have always been claims of pre-Clovis sites that indicate earlier populations. But most of these sites have been difficult to pin down. So far there is no definitive evidence of a pre-Clovis culture in the Americas. But in 1491 the author tries to make the case for pre-Clovis cultures. Mostly I find it unconvincing, but he does effectively call into question the evidence for Clovis-first theories as well. To me the most important evidence is from molecular biology. Using effectively similar techniques used to do DNA fingerprinting, one can compare the DNA of different modern populations and make fairly effective estimates of how related they are and how far back you have to go to find a common ancestor. Time and time again DNA evidence from modern populations have led to revisions of time scales for evolution and relationships between modern populations. Time and time again archaeologists and anthropologists fought the theories based on DNA evidence...but eventually, time and time again, the DNA evidence proved correct. Molecular biology suggests that some Native American cultures DO date from before the Clovis culture. In isolation I am not sure this proves pre-Clovis cultures in the Americas...but it is hard to deny that DNA evidence has tended to be right over and over again. However, overall the evidence, including, according to Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza's amazing book, Genes, Peoples, and Languages (2000), the molecular biology evidence, suggests that the Clovis culture was the origin of the vast majority of Native American cultures around today with the exception of the Athapascan, Native Alaskan, and Inuit cultures which probably arrived later.

Another well-established theory 1491 challenges is the "overkill" theory. This theory is based on the observation that soon after the Clovis culture came into existence, many of the species of animals found in the Americas died off rapidly. The correlation between arrival of the Clovis culture (and possibly humans in general) to the Americas and this mass extinction seems suggestive of a cause and effect. Simply put the "overkill" hypothesis suggests that it was humans who hunted those species to extinction.

On almost every isolated island or location in the world, the arrival of the first modern humans always seems to correlate with such a die off. And this shouldn't be surprising. The arrival of a new species to a location where there are no natural limitations (diseases and predetors) leads to that new species pushing out other species. Humans are no different. We evolved in Africa and it is still only in Africa where dieseases and predetors, those we co-evolved with, still keep human population severely in check. We spread through the world into new territories and population growth on every other continent was much more rapid than it ever was in Africa because simply put, we went beyond the natural checks on our population. It shouldn't be surprising that we pushed out lots of other species.

The overkill theory is largely being abandoned today. But I think that is premature. The extent of the correlation between arrival of modern humans and die offs and the fact that similar things happen when other successful species have spread to new habitats make the overkill hypothesis quite likely to be true in my mind. Not proven, mind you, and the skepticism that 1491 projects is valid. But I think rejection of the overkill hypothesis is an overreaction. In fact, 1491 also presents a hint that the overkill theory IS likely. It describes how the massive herds of buffalo and massive populations of pigeons and similar teeming multitudes of animals found by colonists in the Americas was the result of a massive die off of the Native American population (see below). The destruction of the native population by Eurasian diseases allowed a massive increase in the populations of many species of animals. This strikes me as the flip side of the overkill hypothesis. If there is such a huge increase in animal populations with the crash of the Native American population, doesn't it seem likely that the growth of that large Native American population had a large consequence on the animal population?

From origins, 1491 discusses the liklihood that Native American cultures were far more complex, advanced and populous than once believed. New evidence suggests that complex cultures could be found all over the Americas and the population of the Americas was far higher than ever believed. From New England to the Ohio Valley to Mexico and the Andes, great cities and civilizations abounded. Their methods of agriculture were definitely far more advanced than once thought and possibly far more successful than agriculture developed in Eurasia. The theory goes so far as to hypothesize that much of the American landscape, from New England to the Amazon, was CREATED by the efforts of Native Americans. North American forests and the Amazon may have been the result of Native American agricultural practices. I fully accept that Native American agriculture was superior to what was once thought and I fully accept that populations were higher than was previously appreciated. I am not sure the case is adequately made that huge swaths of the Amazon are human created ecosystems. But the book makes a good case for re-examining the agricultural techniques used in Mesoamerica, the Andes and the Amazon in pre-Columbian days because they could give excellent lessons for modern times. The milpas system in Mexico is an example I have known of since the 1980's as one that is a viable and successful alternative to Western methods. And 1491 gives good evidence that techniques used within the Amazon could blow away modern fertilizers for raising agricultural outputs. Well worth considering these techniques and their usefulness for modern times. There is no reason to scorn lessons learned from the Americas. After all, from corn to tomatoes to potatoes to peppers, modern food around the world owes a strong debt to the Americas. The most commonly eaten Italian, Irish, Indian and German meals, to name a few examples, would not exist without pre-Columbian American agriculture.

The case made for a far more populous Americas is convincing, though the actual numbers cited are highly controversial. Based on these controversial numbers, though, there is strong evidence that once Europeans arrived, there was a massive die off of Native American populations. The numbers presented in 1491 suggest that within 100 years of first contact with Europeans some 97% of the entire native population of the Americas died off from diseases they had never encountered and what remains were the remnants of great cultures and civilizations that were left in ruins by this die off. Most epidemic diseases we know, smallpox, flu, etc. evolved from animals we domesticated: cows, pigs, chickens each have given us epidemic diseases. The Native Americans would never have experienced these diseases that had countless times swept across Europe, Asia and Africa. So they died at first exposure in almost unimaginable numbers. The settlement established by the Pilgrims was at a site that had previously been a teeming native town that had been emptied by disease. This was the case in Peru shortly before the arrival of Pissaro. The Incan Empire had just experienced as much as 50% mortailty from a disease that had probably come from Europeans through intervening native people before the Europeans themselves had arrived in Peru. Disease ravaged the Aztecs (really a nation more accurately called the "Triple Alliance," according to 1491) making them a push over for Cortez. I question the number 97%. When epidemic diseases first strike an area previously unexposed, mortality rates are generally 50-70%. It seems 97% would be unique in human history. But not impossible. A succession of epidemic diseases each having 50-70% mortality, could progressively lead to a 97% die off...but that would assume that they never had any chance to recover.

And therein is evidence that no one before Columbus explored or colonized the Americas to any great degree. The Chinese shared the same epidemic diseases with Europeans. Eurasia is really one continent and diseases spread across the entirety of the continent. Chinese, Basques, Spanish, Irish, Vikings...they all had the same range of diseases. Had the Chinese accomplished what 1421 claims they did in 1421-1422, actually leaving several colonies across the Americas and exploring almost the entire coast of the Americas, a die off similar to the one seen after Columbus, Cortez and Pissaro came to the Americas after 1492 would already have been in full swing by 1491. There is no such evidence of earlier epidemics. That means whatever exploration the Chinese did (and they may well have reached America in 1421-22) little in the way of contact and colonization occurred. This suggests that the large extent of what 1421 postulates is unlikely to be fully true.

Which brings us to Columbus and European colonialism. Columbus himself is something of a mysterious figure. In NYC the Italian-American community celebrate Columbus day as a celebration of Italian pride because of Columbus' supposed birth in Genoa. There is some irony in this since none of the rulers in Italy at the time paid any attention to him. It was the Spanish who hired him. But no one is really sure of Columbus's origin or where his family was from. In fact, in the last year I came across a theory that Columbus was actually of Sephardic Jewish roots, coming from the converso (convert) population of Spain who were forced to convert from Judaism to Catholicism. I came across this theory in a book called Jews in Places You Never Thought Of put out by the Jewish organization Kulanu, and I am not sure the validity of the research behind the claim. But it points out that Columbus' family history is not really known and even his place of birth is not known for certain. His family spoke Spanish (actually Catalan? Ladino?), not Italian. Some linguists, however, identify the Spanish spoken by Columbus' family as being archaic for the time, indicating that perhaps they had left Spain earlier and been part of a converso community abroad. The names Colombo and Colon were common JEWISH names in Italy. Spain had become an increasingly difficult place for Jews to live in the 15th century, and many Sephardim fled Spain. Even conversos were persecuted in Spain, leading many of them to leave. Many Conquistadors were conevrsos and Marranos (converted Jews who secretly maintained Jewish customs) seeking lands where they would be safe from the Inquisition. It should be kept in mind that the Inquisition's main targets were conversos and Marranos. So many Jews, conversos and Marranos left Spain as merchants, pirates (my wife's family has a legend of a Jewish pirate in their ancestry...did they say "Oy" instead of "Arr"?) and Conquistadors.

Among Columbus' backers in Spain was Don Isaac Abravanel...a Jew who refused to convert and eventually left Spain. There were also many conversos among Coumbus' backers in Spain. And, perhaps, most intriguing is that Columbus made references in his writings to the Jewish calendar. You can read more about the case for Columbus being Jewish or converso or Marrano at this website. Another book that covers the link between Jews and Columbus is the surprisingly named Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean.

Of course if Columbus WAS of Jewish descent, it would add an extra layer of irony to my ambivalence to Columbus day as celebrating both the beginning of one genocide and the establishment of nations that saved my family from genocide.

And speaking of the genocide that followed the Age of Exploration, we come to a book that has been part of my Columbus Day musings for a couple of years now: King Leopold's Ghost. It is a horrific tale of what people will do in the name of profit and out of a sense of racial superiority. King Leopold II set out to turn the entire Congo basin into his own personal colony. It wasn't a colony of Belgium until later. It was a colony held by a single man. According to some estimates, ten million people were killed so that one man could make the modern equivalent of $1 billion. Those people were killed to keep costs down in production first of ivory, then of rubber. Eventually, outrage from Britain, the US, France and Germany led to the transfer of the Congo from Leopold to Belgium...without much change in the genocidal practices.

Those familiar with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness will be familiar with King Leopold's Congo. Kurtz was based on real people, and much of what is described in that fictional book was taken straight from Conrad's own journals while he worked on a steamboat going up and down the Congo. What Conrad wrote was fiction...but it was about the most factual fiction one can find. Conrad witnessed genocide and did his best to convey what he saw in his book.

Everything we take for granted was built on genocide. America was built on genocide. Rubber was and to some degree still is harvested through an oppressive system tantamount to genocide. Our clothing today is made in sweat shops that fail to adequately support those who work so hard for our cheap prices. Eighty percent of the uranium used in the atomic bombs that ended WW II came from mines in the Congo run along similar lines to the genocidal system of King Leopold. Awhile back I saw a couple of segments on Al Gore's Current TV that showed in some detail the way gold is mined in the modern Congo and diamonds mined in Sierra Leone, and much of it was reminiscent of what I read about King Leopold's exploitation of ivory and rubber, and what is described in Heart of Darkness. When I bought our engagement and wedding rings, the diamond and gold probably were extracted thanks to near slave labor.

I was raised with the idea of "never again." To me this didn't just mean never again for genocide against Jews. It meant no more more horrors like those I read in Heart of Darkness as I grew up.

Rwanda, Burundi, Darfur...sweat shops, Chinese prison labor, sub-minimum wage jobs right here in the US...

We all benefit from atrocities. And, let's face it, that is the history of civilization in a nutshell. From Babylon and Egypt, through Harappa and China, right to Belgium, America and Britain, we all benefit from atrocity.

In fact, we often glorify atrocity. Some of the perpetrators of the Catholic Inquisition and slaughter of American Natives are now sainted by the Catholic Church. There are statues glorifying slave-holding Southerners here in America, and glorifying King Leopold II in Belgium. In Japan Hideyoshi is considered the "George Washington of Japan," but he also led the slaughter of many Koreans, a group still oppressed by Japan. And there is Columbus Day in America, a holiday that, without intending to, glorifies genocide.

How do we deal with this? Ignoring the issue is the most common way of dealing with it. Belgium has museums, monuments and palaces glorifying King Leopold, but nothing that admits, let alone makes up for, the genocide in the Congo. In America we have history books that claim that slavery "wasn't so bad" or that the blacks were worse off after being freed or that the Civil War was not fought over slavery. Denial is not the way to stop genocide.

So, what does Columbus Day mean to me? Well, I come back to being thankful that America is here for my family to have settled from the oppression of Europe. In fact it wasn't just the of the first Jewish members of my family to flee Europe took ship to Argentina and only later settled in the US. So Columbus' legacy saved my family. But I can't ignore the blood that was shed in the process.

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Diverse Jewish Heritage in Music

The Jewish experience is amazingly diverse. Even though a large part of Judaism share genetic links to an ancient tribal culture in the Middle East, Judaism has always been more open to converts than has generally been recognized. Though the tribal/genetic aspect of Judaism is important to Jews, it is by no means a requirement and once someone converts they are recognized as FULLY Jewish, whatever their heritage. Judaism has grown in diversity both through the diaspora (perhaps a form of divergent evolution), and through conversion (more of a convergent evolution, perhaps), more often than not encouraged by the Hasidic Jews more than the more reform side of Judaism.

Ashkenazi heritage, from the movie "Train de vie": (one of my favorites)

An unusual version of an Ashkenazi satire on the Tsar (sung by Paul Robeson in near perfect Yiddish)

And what Ashkenazi music mix would be complete without the Hora...this one with Itzhak Perlman!

A Yemenite Jewish song, "Gul Lilhbib" by Gila Beshari:

More Yemenite Jewish music:

Turning to Sephardic Jewish music: (with LOVELY Arabic influences!)

The Israel Andalusian Orchestra:

Moroccan Jewish wedding song:

A Sephardic Shema Israel: (almost Celtic in nature)

Which leads to what to me is one of the more amazing Jewish communities, the Ugandan Abayudaya, singing Shema Israel: (who converted to Judaism on their own and only later came into contact with the wider Jewish world)

More from the Abayudaya Jews: (L'cha Dodi)

Turning to the Bene Israel of India, The Hora at an Indian wedding:

Ger Tzadik (a black Hasid originally from Ohio):

And what survey of Jewish music would be complete without Matisyahu, the Lubavicher Hasidic Reggae/Rapper:

Judaism is among the more diverse religions, though most people are only familiar with the Ashkenazi branch. But the skin color of Jews around the world is as diverse as in any religion and though Hebrew is a common religious language, Jews around the world speak a huge diversity of languages. And when it comes to music, I think we hold our own.

Return to Mole's Music Page.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Political Brain

A book arrived in the mail, sent by Public Affairs, one of the publishers that Culture Kitchen and Daily Gotham has dealt with before. Based on what I had done with them in the past, they wanted me to review the book. At the time I was excessively busy and had little intention of getting around to it. But, just to be fair, and since I didn't have another book going at that moment, I picked it up for my subway ride to work. Well, I have to admit that it was inevitable that it would grab me. So here I am reviewing it.

The book is The Political Brain, by Drew Westen. It is no surprise that it grabbed me since it combines two of my obsessions: politics (particularly liberal politics) with science (psychology and neurosciences). More to the point, it takes the concept of "framing" and explains why framing is so necessary, and takes it one step further. The Political Mind is a must read for each and every Democratic campaign out there and it explains in no uncertain terms why Democrats, despite having a voter registration advantage, being better at governing, having better ideas, and, in general, better sharing the values of the average American, lose elections to Republicans whose ideas are atrocious and whose values consist of blind greed, corruption and cronyism.

Sometimes the best person for the job is not the best candidate. In fact very often the best person for the job is NOT the winning candidate. This is a flaw in any democratic system that is probably unavoidable. People win because they are considered appealing by voters, not because they are qualified. If all it took to win was the best resume and skills, Gore would have won by a landslide and Bill Richardson would be a shoe in.

But both in primary elections and in general elections I have seen how democratic elections favor the most appealing candidate, not the best person for the job. Again, this is probably an unavoidable flaw in electoral politics. But it also is something that has to be considered whenever someone runs for office, either in a primary or in a general election. If the best person for the job wants the job, that person has to ALSO be the most appealing candidate. That is where marketing comes in. Of course if you really ARE the best person for the job you have a better product to market. But marketing is still the key.

Democrats have been agonizing over why they fail in elections even though they have consistently been better at serving working class Americans, have presided over better economies and smaller deficits, and are generally smarter at government than Republicans. Since 2000 we have realized that two things (other than money) have given Republicans an advantage: fraud and framing. Well, let's leave Republican fraud and corruption aside for now. That is something that helped lose them the 2006 elections as more and more Americans started realizing how immoral the so-called "moral" party really was. But "framing" is really something that Republicans have carefully crafted for more than thirty years and which Democrats have started to pick up on.

But this is not the be all and end all of winning. In The Political Brain, psychologist Drew Westen of Emory University uses an analysis of how the human brain functions to suggest political strategies for winning elections. In short, he argues that voters do not behave logically, but rather emotionally and the candidate who can appeal emotionally to the voter wins.

In fact, according to several studies cited by Westen, the breakdown is that voters vote 80% based on feelings, emotions and "their gut," and only 20% based on issues, their own self interest and their brain. Republicans have carefully established a campaigning method that appeals to that emotional 80%, generally playing on fear and hatred. Democrats have carefully established a campaign method that appeals to that cerebral 20%, generally addressing what is really better for most voters. Since 80% is larger than 20%, Democrats have a problem. And they have a problem by taking the more LOGICAL route.

Westen puts it this way:

Republicans govern with faith and intuition but campaign with the best available science. Democrats govern with the best available science, but campaign with faith and intuition.

First some background on how our brains work. This is my explanation, not Westen's, so don't hold it against him if it is clear as mud.

Our brain is not what we think it is...ironically. Our brain is scarcely more than a set of very intricately connected on/off switches. Nerve cells either signal or they don't. Nerve cells that signal can either act to inhibit or stimulate downstream nerves. Each nerve has a threshold below which they do not signal. So each nerve cell sums up all the inhibitory and stimulating signals it receives, and when that sum is above the threshold, it signals to the nerves it is connected to.

That is all the brain is: a bunch of these on/off switches connected to each other in a complex pattern. The pattern of connections is what makes up our memories, emotions, thoughts, etc. And that pattern is ever changing as we receive constant input.

These patterns of connections are also compartmentalized to some degree, with different compartments of the brain often responding in contradictory ways to the same input. We don't really have one "brain," we have a collection of interconnected organs that collectively makes the brain.

The brain is NOT a computer, even though both are composed of interconnected on/off switches. The way the on/off switches are connected and interact are different in computers and brains, though some researchers are trying to wire computers to emulate brains...with some success.

If brains were like computers, voters would calculate a straight self-interest based system when they vote and probably 90% of Americans would vote Democratic since 90% of Americans are better served by the policies of the Democrats (better healthcare, more equitable taxes, lower national deficits, cleaner air, etc.) than by the policies of the Republicans (tax cuts for the richest, cuts in service for the poor and middle class, massive national deficits, wars for corporate profit, etc.)

But brains do NOT function like computers. In fact, brains function predominantly in irrational ways because emotions are an evolutionarily successful short cut by which we can live day to day without having to work out everything we do to ten decimal places like Mr. Spock on Star Trek. Truth is, Star Trek Vulcans may not be evolutionarily possible, at least not in the context of human history to date.

(NOTE: the Vulcans on Star Trek did NOT evolve right to a pure logic brain…they evolved similar to humans and at a later stage developed their logic when faced with extinction through war, if I remember my Star Trek even Vulcans were irrational as humans at first).

In The Political Brain, Drew Westen argues that Democrats lose because they fail to understand how the human brain works. Since Democratic politicians are, in general, far better on the issues, far more fact-based, and far more understanding of working class Americans and their values, Democrats assume that all they have to do is tell the facts and voters will calculate the logical conclusion that they should vote Democratic.

Westen's book is divided into two parts. Part I describes how the brain works and how this influences how voters vote. I already gave away one of the punchlines by indicating that voters vote 80% based on gut-level emotions and 20% on rational, issues-based decision making. Party affiliation, one's emotional, gut-level response towards ones chosen party, is the MOST important factor in how people vote. Second is their emotional response to a particular candidate. And only third or fourth come issues. This is how voters vote. Democrats AND Republicans behave the same in this way. So the candidate who appeals better to a person's gut will win over the candidate who appeals better to a person's mind. If it was otherwise, studies show that Democrats would win overwhelmingly almost all the time. The secret of Bill Clinton's success is just this. He was one of our most intelligent, fact BRILLIANT of presidents. But that isn't how most people saw him. They saw him as hopeful, empathic, emotionally appealing. Bob Dole was also highly intelligent. But he was about as emotionally appealing as a plate of over-cooked spinach. Clinton won. FDR's secret was a brilliant mind AND an ability to reach into a voter's heart and make them feel GOOD about voting for him. This combination of brilliant ideas AND emotional appeal are unbeatable.

Part II is an issue-by-issue analysis of how Democrats can do better applying this more emotional appeal to elections. In many ways I found Part II more tedious, but it is precisely the part of the book that will be of greatest interest to people running campaigns. To each and every Democratic campaign in the nation I tell you: read this book and take careful notes. It teaches how to avoid both the disastrously failed campaign approach Democrats have been using AND the highly successful but sleazy, lie-based approach Republicans specialize in.

Westen doesn't spend much time talking about Independents since, quite simply, most people naturally and consistently vote for a PARTY, not a person. This has been the case since Washington left the White House and not even Theodore Roosevelt, one of America's most popular presidents, could change that. Here is where many Independents get it wrong as well. They assume that if people are dissatisfied with the political parties they will be open to voting for someone unaffiliated with a political party. This is not how people generally behave. They do NOT reject the party they are affiliated. The rationalize why, despite their dissatisfaction, they should still vote for their chosen party. A few independents take it one step further. They turn being "independent" into an almost party line in itself, cursing both Democrats and Republicans equally, claiming that they are the same. This is just as irrational as strict faith in one party over the other. Democrats and Republicans are NOT the same and never have been. They differ in many ways and this plays out in the policies that dominate when one or the other party is dominant. When the government is split between the two, then some form of compromise has to result, which leads some to equate such necessary compromise with an equivalence between the compromising parties. In other words, Greens, Reform party, and independents make the SAME mistake Democrats do: they assume voting is a strictly rational behavior. They spend so much time telling us why we should abandon our party all the while we, on a gut level, understand why we feel very comfortable identifying ourselves with our party...even when we are dissatisfied with how our party is at that particular moment.

Republicans have specialized in the irrational and so have shown a better understanding in the human brain as it really evolved than those who actually understand evolution do. Westen is not advocating that Democrats emulate the cynical lies of Karl Rove to win elections. Rather he advises Democrats to emulate great politicians like FDR, JFK and Bill Clinton who COMBINED great intellect and very rational policies with effective emotional appeals that show an empathic UNDERSTANDING (rather than a merely rational understanding) of the voters. Republicans predominantly use fear and hatred as their emotional appeals. Fear and hatred beat out rationality almost all the time, and that explains most of the elections in American (world?) history. But when Democrats present an emotional appeal based on hope (Clinton's favorite theme) and empathy, they win over fear and hatred based appeals. FDR, both at the low point of the Great Depression when he first took office, and immediately after Pearl Harbor, got on national radio and emphasized HOPE and OVERCOMING fear. "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" is of course the most famous expression of this desire to REASSURE Americans. George Bush and the vast majority of the Republican Party today do the opposite. They emphasize fear and intolerance. Bush, Cheney, McCain, Giuliani and the Congressional Republicans all seem to WANT Americans to be afraid and especially to fear the rest of the world. This is precisely the message that FDR, Kennedy and Clinton AVOIDED during periods of economic, political and international instability. Democrats focus, in general, when the focus on emotions at all, on hope and overcoming fear. Republicans thrive on encouraging fear. This is a primary lesson Westen is conveying in his book. Democrats fail if they pit reason against Republican fear mongering. But they win if they pit hope and empathy against Republican fear and intolerance. Democrats have become bolder in their appeal to emotions. Bottom line is, if Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh aren't frothing at the mouth in impotent rage at what we are doing and saying, we aren't doing our jobs.

One fundamental message Westen delivers, particularly in Part II, is that Democrats don't have to mislead when they make emotional appeals. In fact, Democratic values are far closer to the values of the vast majority of Americans. Democrats do best when they HONESTLY and EMOTIONALLY express their values to the voters. Republicans, who focus on a much narrower and atypical part of the American electorate (primarily the very wealthy and fundamentalist extremists), basically have to mislead to establish their emotional appeal. They have to call a bill that guts clean air standards and aids polluters something like the "Clear Skies Initiative." They have to lie and say Saddam Hussein somehow had something to do with the 9/11 attacks (a pure fabrication based on NO evidence) in order to get America behind invading Iraq. They have to call ICBMs "Peacekeepers." All are just lies or, to borrow and Al Franken phrase, weasel words to hide the fact that Republican values don't really agree with the values of the vast majority of American citizens. Study after study shows that American voters identify themselves far more with Democratic values, but emotionally lean Republican. If Democrats were more open and emotional about the values they genuinely hold, they would do far better. But pundits and advisers tell them to AVOID the emotional issues and focus on the intellectual appeal to issues...and so they lose. Many Democratic advisers have lost far more elections than they have won...yet candidates still hire them. Who knows why!

This is what Part II of the book is all about: how Democrats can craft their honest message to appeal on a more gut-level to the voters.

I will use one example: abortion.

Abortion is an issue that polls show split American voters. This has led many Democrats to try and find lukewarm stands that hopefully will please everybody, but in reality please no one. By comparison, the Republicans take as their party platform the most extreme right wing, most inflexible and most unreasonable stand: that abortion is murder. Many studies show that it isn't just America as a whole that is split on abortion, individuals are split within themselves. So why do Republicans get away with an extremist point of view? Because the Democratic statements on abortion generate little emotional enthusiasm among voters divided within themselves on the issue while Republican extremism DOES produce an emotional reaction. And that emotional reaction makes people feel that Republicans are somehow "value driven" on the issue, even though there is so much evidence that they are not.

Studies show that people DO on some level view an unborn child as a living child. They also DO consider a woman's right to her own body a critical right and view government intervention in her choices highly disturbing. This is where the conflict comes from. Most people, however, have an emotional continuum wherein a fertilized egg really isn't a child, but a term-fetus about to be born is, and each step in between falls somewhere between "non-child" and "child." Each individual has their own gut-level feeling of where along this continuum from fertilization to birth a fetus becomes a "person." And at that point, the life of the "child" may well have an emotional value that makes abortion on demand uncomfortable for that person.

The Right wing extremist view that abortion is murder is NOT the view most Americans have…not even most religious Americans. But most people feel that at SOME point limitations on abortion seem reasonable and they can get a gut-level feel for where Republicans stand on the issue, but are left unmoved (emotionally) by the Democratic stand. Democrats appeal to their reason, and do take the more reasonable stand. But Republicans take a more emotional stand and that leaves a stronger impression on the voter.

Westen's solution is to articulate the Democratic stand, which really matches the gut-level feelings of Americans better than the right wing extremism of Republicans, in a way that Americans can FEEL in their gut. His suggested wording is:

Abortion is a difficult and often painful decision for a woman to make. It's a decision only she can make, based on the dictates of her own conscience and faith, not on the dictates of someone else's. But except under exceptional circumstances, such as rape, incest, or danger to her health, she should make that decision as early as she can, so she is not aborting a fetus that is increasingly becoming more like a person.

Now many Democrats may feel uncomfortable with this because it leaves open a window for limiting abortion. On the other hand, this recognizes the fact that most people become increasingly uncomfortable with abortion as the fetus nears birth. It recognizes that abortion of an early term fetus is not the same as abortion of a late term fetus and that recognition is all most people need to accept abortion in general It also recognizes that under no circumstance should a woman be forced to carry to term a pregnancy that resulted from rape or incest or that endangers her own life, which is also in line with what the vast majority of voters believe. Westen's statement in essence reflects a pro-choice stand that recognizes the concerns people might have about abortion. Westen's main point, though, is that it reflects a true majority view in America AND will appeal to voters.

In conjunction with this clearer statement of a Democratic, stand, Westen strongly recommends a much more honest assessment of the Republican extremist view that abortion is murder. Don't let them claim they are pro-life! Tell the voters what their stated platform really means:

[Republicans put] the rights of rapists above the rights of their victims, guaranteeing every rapist the right to choose the mother of his child. What [Republicans] propose is a rapists' bill of rights...

[Republicans believe] that if a sixteen-year-old girl is molested by her father, she should be forced by the government to have his child, and if she doesn't want to, she should be forced by the government to go to the man who raped her and ask for his concent.

This is an honest, if brutal, portrayal of the consequences of the Republican platform on abortion. And if Democrats don't tell it like it is, it allows Republicans to claim that their rapists' bill of rights is somehow a moral, pro-life stand. It isn't, so why let them call it that?

I am not doing Westen justice presenting his approach so briefly, but I hope you can see that he is advising Democrats to stay honest, but embrace the emotional, gut-level side of voters that Republicans have been appealing to for decades. Hit the Republicans with reality in a powerfully emotional way, and honestly state the Democratic view, with all its complexities and ambiguities, in a way that voters can understand in their gut.

Many Democrats will have a gut-level sense of rightness (my phrase) about this characterization of both our stand on abortion and the Republican stand on abortion, even if many of us will feel a concern that it leaves open a window to limiting choice. But the thing is, most moderate Republicans and Independents will also have a gut-level sense of rightness about it. Many might agree with every word, but most will sense that it makes sense and it converges on their own views. Most people would vote for the candidate that can convincingly phrase it this way, as opposed to the rigid, uncompromising, extremist view of the Republicans that really does favor the rights of a rapist or incestuous father over the rights of a young girl or mature woman. This is how Democrats should face the voters and honestly, and from the gut, tell the voters where they stand and what the consequences are of the Republican stand.

I would add that in many parts of the nation a Democrat could say, "I believe the right of a woman over her own body is a fundamental right that government should never interfere with" and, in conjunction with the honest and brutal portrayal of the "abortion is murder" view as a rapists' bill of rights, would win the issue easily. Most Americans would easily, and SHOULD easily, place a woman's right to control her own body over the rights of rapists. If nothing else this would force moderate Republicans to abandon the "abortion is murder" line and form their own nuanced view.

Personally I think most of our Founding Fathers, by and large products of the enlightenment, would be horrified that an appeal to emotions trumps rationality in American democracy. But that is how voters work and, from what I can tell from my own reading of history, that is how citizens have behaved throughout history. In fact, go back to ancient Greece and I have always been stuck by how irrational the votes were in that supposedly reason-worshipping society. We are NOT rational animals. We are animals that evolved rationality. But rationality isn't the only tool we have and few people really are as rational as they think. Rationalizing, maybe. But we are more emotional and less rational than we believe ourselves to be.

The book is a bit too long and needs some editing. In many ways Westen, like me a scientist, is over doing his logical and scientific presentation. He gives extensive evidence for each point and picks apart speeches extensively and clinically. The book makes a great point with somewhat excessive detail. Still, it is the next step in the evolution of a more effective Democratic Party that can better present its candidates not just as rationally better than Republican fear mongering and intolerance, but as emotionally better because they appeal to hope and empathy rather than fear and hatred. We already know that "framing" is something we have to work on…and HAVE been working on. Westen gives the scientific, neurological and evolutionary basis for why framing is so important. Brains are not predominantly rational, though they are fully capable of rationality. They are predominantly emotional. People respond to emotions far more than rationality. And Republicans have shown a better understanding of that than Democrats, giving them the edge in elections. Westen also gives blueprints for how a campaign should approach practically every hot-button issue, pointing out that if you avoid the hot buttons, you will inspire no passion in the voters. Every Democratic campaign should read his blueprints for discussing issues, even if they then, as they naturally should, take those blueprints as merely rough drafts for their own, individual message. Campaigns that ignore Westen's book are likely to continue the same mistakes Democrats have made for decades¦and continue to lose. Which is a shame because I think Westen is right: with honesty and passion, democrats CAN and SHOULD win.

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Book Review: The Yamato Dynasty (From the Meiji restoration to modern times)

I have always been a fan of Japan. I have been there four times, including on my honeymoon. I even had the pleasure of living for a year in Kyoto working at Kyoto University. It is, in many ways, a wonderful place and I do hope to go back when time and money permit. I even am teaching my son what little Japanese language I still remember.

But there are always strange undercurrents in Japan. Korean and Chinese friends of mine cannot understand why I ever would visit Japan. They have an anger towards Japan that Americans have a hard time understanding. The presence of the yakuza (Japanese mafia) in Japan is omnipresent, once you are aware of it, which seems strange for an otherwise so law abiding nation. When World War II comes up in conversation, many Japanese still think Japan was justified in its imperialism and that America should apologize for the nuclear bombings and for the occupation. It is a constant source of scandal that Japanese leaders frequently downplay and misrepresent Japanese imperialism in Asia. I was amazed at how unresolved WW II seems in Japan and in Asia.

I just finished a book called Yamato Dynasty, by Sterling and Peggy Seagrave, that clarifies these strange undercurrents and actually makes one wonder if, despite America's military victory, Japan actually won the war in the long term. A collaboration of Japanese ultra-nationalists, many of whom were actual war criminals, and America's right wing Republicans, led by Herbert Hoover and Douglas MacArthur, pretty much conspired to allow Japan to avoid the kind of defeat that Germany suffered where apologies, reparations and structural changes within the German society were required. Japan was let off the hook, allowing war criminals and war loot to dominate Japanese politics and economics from the end of the war to the present, in exchange for sweet business deals for American big business and banks.

In Yamato Dynasty the Seagraves outline a unique kind of society that developed from the earliest period of Japanese history wherein the Imperial throne was a powerless pawn while wealthy families, from the Soga and Fujiwara, through the Shogunates, to modern Japan run by ultra-nationalists, called all the shots and pretty much looted the country for their own benefit. Or perhaps this system is not so unique because I can find parallels in Chinese history, Roman history, Russian history, and, for that matter, in our current Bush-led America where the government became nothing but a thin veil for looting the American and Iraqi economy by companies like Exxon/Mobil,Halliburton, etc.

Japan's history is a sordid structure behind a beautiful and very deliberate facade. Yamato Dynasty traces this history from the so-called Meji Restoration (which the book shows to be little more than a change from one set of strongmen, the Tokugawa Shogunate, to a new set, the rival Choshu and Satsuma strongmen) through the period of Japanese imperialism, led by ultra-nationalists and corrupt underworld figures, to the present day. During the rise of Japanese imperialism, and even on the verge of Pearl Harbor, Japanese militarism was funded by American conservative businessmen, particularly the Morgan banking family. After the war, while victims of Japanese brutality got little or no compensation, Morgan bank and other American companies got their pre-war loans (which paid for Japanese aggression) back largely in full.

Morgan bank began their loans in collaboration with Herbert Hoover, when he was Secretary of Commerce. Hoover and Morgan bank saw Japan as free of corruption, yet this was a complete misunderstanding of Japanese society. In fact, the Japanese elite basically fooled them. It is put this way by a Dutch born expert on Japanese politics:

"Corruption in Japan," says Karel van Wolferen, "is legitimized by its systematic perpetuation. It is so highly organized and has become so much a part of the extra-lefal ways of the Japanese system that most citizens or foreign residents do not recognize it for what it is, but accept it as 'a part of the system.'"

Interestingly, much of the partnership between American conservatives and business interests and imperialist Japan's oligarchs and business interests occurred during a time when Japan was already preparing for war with the West, America and Britain included. Notes from aides to Hirohito reveal as early as 1931 a belief that their aggression would lead to war with the West and Japan was preparing for this future war...with funding from the Morgan bank and unwitting help from American conservatives. What is perhaps even more shocking, is that even as late as 1937, as Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan were in full swing, Herbert Hoover and conservaitve Republicans, planning a MacArthur/Lindbergh ticket for President, favored an alliance with Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan. Another member of this conservative, pro-fascist coalition, was British Conservative politician Neville Chamberlain. Meanwhile FDR was in favor of economic sanctions against the fascist regime of Japan after it started its China War, but he was blocked by the Morgan bank, the pro-Japan Wall Street lobby, and their allies in Congress. Remember, this was on the eve of the Rape of Nanking in December 1937. This world would be a lot different if the pro-fascist Republicans, in alliance with Neville Chamberlain, had brought Britain and America into the Japan/Germany Axis. Thankfully, the FDR Democrats prevailed and we joined more reasonable Brits in opposing Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Networks of kinship, bribes and backroom deals linked (and still link) Japan's politicians, imperial family, bureaucracy, business elite, and yakuza. This sordid system continued after World War II with little genuine reform, merely some careful repainting of the facade. While Democrats in Truman's government sought genuine change in Japan after the war, Herbert Hoover, Douglas MacArthur, and other Republicans sought to shield war criminals, hide war loot and allow Japan to keep its sordid system with minimal structural changes. The result is that while Germany has moved on from World War II and is no longer hated by the neighbors it vicitimized, in Asia the ghosts of WW II are still very fresh and Japan remains despised by the nations it victimized. The Seagraves put it this way:

Liberal Washington policy makers, particularly New Deal Democrats, wanted to alter the post war power structure of Japan permanently to make it more democratic. MacArthur was a reactionary conservative...He and his inner circle of advisors, including Herbert Hoover, concluded that his success in occupied Japan would depend upon manipulating Hirohito...he would induce Hirohito to give them inside knowledge of Japan's financial cliques and other vital power relationships, so that key people could be put under pressure, deals could be made and Japan's postwar power structures could be rearranged to suit MacArthur's conservative political backers rather than American liberals.

...we will unfold new evidence of the massive fraud that ensued, who was involved, and how major witnesses including General Tojo himself were suborned by MacArthur's staff and forced to falsify their testimony and perjure themselves before the international war crimes tribunal. At least one general was hanged for a crime at which he was not even present, forced to take the fall to protect Hirohit's uncle Prince Asaka, the butcher of Nanking, who escaped punishment of any kind...

This led first to the exoneration of the whole imperial family, then to that of the entire financial and industrial elite of Japan (a group that had been the Allies' explicit target for purge and prosecution)...While Germany paid some [30 billion pounds] in compensation and reparations over the years, Japan paid only [2 billion pounds]. Even today, Germany continues this program of compensation and reparations, but Japan dug in its heels and said it was all settled in 1951.

Does this sound like the behavior of a defeated foe? MacArthur, out of some combination of incompetance, conservative ideology, and greed, pretty much let Japan dictate its own postwar fate while Germany was forced, rightly I'd say, to reform significantly, accept full responsibility for its actions, punish all those who participated in atrocities, and pay extensive reparations. Douglas MacArthur and the conservative Republicans allowed Japan to evade reform even to the present time, allowed many war criminals to escape punishment or even responsibility, and paid only token reparations while even keeping most of the war loot it stole from Asia. Beyond this, MacArthur actively abetted the cover up of the wealth of the Imperial family and ruling elite, allowing them to hide money while feigning poverty. This directly affected the decision to let Japan get away with paying almost no reparations. Japan escaped not only with limited reparations, but kept the loot they stole.

That loot amounted to many billions of dollars worth of gold and other precious materials looted from all over Asia and hidden in a project, codenamed "Golden Lily," which was actively supervised by the Imperial family itself. Golden Lily hid treasure in the Philipines as a stopping point on the way to Japan. Some of the loot made it to Japan, some remained in the Phillipines by the time Japan surrendered. Ships and hidden tunnels containing some of this loot have been discovered. One discovery was made by Phillipines Dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whose greed led him to almost kill an American mining engineer, Robert Curtis, to silence him. Curtis only escaped by hiding the maps to other war loot sites, thus making it necessary for Marcos to keep him alive. Remember that Marcos was another ally of American conservatives until the Phillipine people themselves rejected his brutal corruption.

The Seagraves consider the loot that did make it to Japan as the real reason for the amazing recovery of the Japanese economy after WW II. Simply put, their economy and infrastructure may have been in a shambles, but gold and money looted from all over Asia during the war paid for Japan's recovery afterwards. More bluntly put, the victims of Japan's aggression paid for Japan to recover full prosperity. This is in sharp contrast to how Germany was treated:

Although there have been many investigations of Nazi war loot, there has never been a formal investigation of the looting of Asia by the Japanese, nor has Japan ever been forced to account for the plunder. The amounts involved dwarf the Nazi looting many times over.

More recently, in the 1970's, the John Birch Society (part of the right wing extremist end of the Republican Party) lent nearly half a million dollars to an American treasure-hunter to recover and lauder Japanese war loot hidden in the Phillipines. As the Seagraves put it:

The [John Birch] society seemed to believe that it was perfectly correct to break Americans laws regarding the illegal laundering of money...

Greed, on the part of the Japanese army and politicians, of Ferdinand Marcos, and of the John Birch society, has surrounded this war loot. But in the end it must be remembered this was looted from real people, victims of Japanese aggression in nations all over Asia whose economies suffered because of this aggression and looting. America did nothing to try and restore this loot to its rightful owners. I suspect that the poverty and social disruption caused by Japanese aggression and looting are part of the reason that communism spread so widely in Asia. American conservatives unwittingly helped the very communists they claimed to oppose by basically sacrificing the economies of most of Asia for the benefit of Japanese recovery. Could the Korean and Vietnam wars been avoided if Asia as a whole had bene rebuilt with the loot Japan had stolen?

Beyond allowing Japan to keep its war loot, the American conservatives conspired to allow many Japanese war criminals off the hook. Perhaps most disgusting was the conspiracy to let Imperial Prince Asaka off the hook for the Rape of Nanking. Prince Asaka, with the words "We will teach our Chinese brothers a lesson they will never forget," and with the orders, "Kill all captives," was directly responsible for the atrocities in Nanking. Yet in the trials after Japan's military defeat, Prince Asaka was absolved of all responsibility. Instead, General Matsui, who had done all he could to restrain the Japanese forces before Prince Asaka took control, was coerceed into claiming responsibility and was hanged. Prince Asaka, who ordered the atrocities, got off with no consequences. General Matsui, who had tried to prevent the atrocities, was hanged. THIS was the kind of injustice that Douglas MacArthur perpetrated in order to preserve the Imperial family and the ultra-nationalist Japanese politicians. Similarly, atrocities committed by Japan's bioweapons unit, Unit 731, tied to Imperial Princes like Takeda and Higashikuni, were covered up by direct order from MacArthur and no one was ever prosecuted for this biological weapons program. MacArthur even went so far as to force many American POWs, who had witnessed many of Japan's atrocities, to sign documents that forbade them from speaking of these atrocities. General Bonner Fellers, a close ally of Hoover and MacArthur's and on MacArthur's staff, ordered Japanese Admiral Yonai to tamper with Tojo as a witness so as to absolve Hirohito from all responsibility for the war. Herbert Hoover himself lobbied defense attorneys to prevent their clients from implicating Hirohoto. Only seven Japanese war criminals were hanged. Sixteen were sentenced to life imprisonment, though were then paroled in 1955, only 10 years after the end of the war. The vast majority were let off. Imagine if we had let Nazi Germany off so lightly and allowed most of the the Nazi party big wigs to return to power after only brief imprisonment.

These accusations are not unique to the Seagraves, though they bring new information and a detailed historical context to the accusations. Other sources for this can be found here.

It should also be noted that not all Republicans were part of this. Eisenhower detested MacArthur and MacArthur found it necessary even to lie to Genearl Eisenhower in 1946 in order to carry out his aid to Japanese war criminals.

Even today the ultra-nationalists hold power through threats, bribes and intimidation. When I lived there, my Japanese friends told me about how Japanese journalists would always tread carefully when discussing the imperial family, the yakuza or WW II because right wing thugs would take revenge on any coverage they disliked. A particularly brutal example of the ultra-nationalist power by violence was the assassination of the Nagasaki mayor, Motoshima Hitoshi, in 1990 because he had the audacity to say (truthfully!) that Emperor Hirohito bore some responsibility for WW II. This atmosphere is a direct result of the failure of MacArthur and his conservative allies to reform Japan's system the way Germany's system was reformed:

The emphasis was not on reform but on continuity. During seven years of occupation, 1945-1952, the same Japanese ruling elite that had run the country since the Meiji Restoration was expected to purge itself, slap itself on the wrist and democratize itself...Before the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were cold, men opposed to reform of any kind regained control in Tokyo and resumed their former monopoly if wealth and power.

This can be seen in who became the leaders and financial backers of Japan's notoriously corrupt and reactionary Liberal Democratic Party (the LDP, which, as is frequently commented upon, is not liberal, not democratic and not really a party) in post-occupation Japan. Among the leaders of the LDP was Hatoyama Ichiro, who was Education Minister in 1928, advocated beheading opposition, opposed trial by jury, and was one of the organizers of the official deification of the Emperor that helped the dictatorship take hold. Then there was Kodama Yoshio, one of the most infamous yakuza thugs, who worked during WW II with the Japanese army to transport war loot from all over Asia. And Kishi Nobusuke was a member of the Choshu elite that had led the imperialist era, and he led the corrupt alliance between oligarchs and the military and made huge profits from the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and the looting of Asia. He was also a close friend of Tojo, whose success he helped fund. Fascist Hatoyama teamed up with yakuza godfather Kodama and war looter and Tojo backer Kishi to found the LDP. And the LDP, despite frequent sacandals, still dominates Japanese politics. Another link in this chain is the Tsutsumi family and the Seibu Corporation they run. Also war profiteers during the war, they helped hide the wealth of the Imperial family after the war and went on to be among the richest people in the world. They are also among the biggest financial donors to the LDP. The Tsutsumi family was caught up in a financial scandal in 2005, but it is likely that they will weather this in the same way Japanese politicians and businessmen weather all such scandals. If you have ever watched Japanese television you see it all the time. The tearful confession before the media, the slap on the wrist in the form of small fines and brief, often suspended, prison terms, and either a return to power or a comfortable retirement.

The lack of reform in Japanese history has another side, though: economic instability. The Japanese economy is seen as one of the stronger ones, but its underlying corruption is a drain that has repeatedly caused the collapse of a bubble economy. The following description of a Japanese bubble economy in the 1920's could be describing the Japanese bubble economy of the 1980's...or now (and, by the way, has some resemblance to the Bush economy in America in my opinion):

Two years before the Wall Street Crash in 1929, panic hit Tokyo. The Japanese banking crisis of 1927, just like the Japanese banking crisis of the late 1990's, had everything to do with systematic corruption and sweetheart deals. Vast sums of money were lent by Japan's biggest banks to business concerns run by the same men or their relatives and friends. Other powerful families did the same thing, creating a false impression of prosperity. The banks did not secure these loans, because in sweetheart deals it would be embarrassing to insist on security. The banks then failed to audit their own conduct. With so much easy money and no supervision, businesses expanded recklessly. As years passed without any payment of interest on the loans, the banks suffered a liquidity crisis and began to hemorrhage. To stop the collapse of the banks in 1927, the government forked over 2 billion yen in emergency loans, but only to ease the pain of the privileged people who had caused the problem...(Seventy years later, Japan's banking fundamentals remain largely unchanged).

What strikes me about this corrupt system is that far from resembling healthy economies, Japan's traditionally corrupt system more resembles the economy of a third world nation. It manages to take this third world style system to occasional levels of great success. Yet that success is often unstable because the underlying system remains basically unsound, thus cycles of bubbles and collapse have plagued Japan since it began its rapid industrial and economic development in the early 1900's. I have invested in Japanese stocks in the past because of the apparent strength of their economy. But I have since stopped investing in Japan because I recognize that as long as they maintain this kind of underlying third world style corruption, they will not have a stable economy but rather one wherein prosperity will always be something of a bubble waiting to collapse. Investors should not view Japan's economy as equivalent to a developed economy despite the superficial resemblance. They are subject to the more wild swings of a developing economy rather than the usually more reliable steady growth of a developed economy. Investment in Japan is inherantly risky because of their sordid political system that invariably protects corrupt oligarchs.

I still love Japanese culture, at least at its best. I even feel some respect for institution (at least in theory) of the Japanese emperor. I feel that cultural identity in the era of globalization can bee considerably boosted by institutions like the British monarchy and the Japanese Emperor. I even feel that Nepal, despite their consderable need for reform, may have made a mistake in completely abolishing their monarchy. In doing so it risks losing something of its unique identity. Similarly I don't believe it is in the best interests of Japan to completely abolish their Emperor. He remains a powerful part of their identity. But as I finished Yamato Dynasty I was reminded of a very striking scene when I was traveling in Japan. I was in Hiroshima, reading a brief history of Japan while sitting right below the famous "A-bomb dome." I was reading about the rise of Japanese imperialism with brutal militarists running the government and victimizing conquered nations. While I was reading this beneath the symbol of the nuclear destruction that ended WW II, I noticed a bus with political slogans on it circling the area blaring a political speech. It was a right wing political party and their slogans and stands aren't really different from those militarists that brought Japan into WW II, victimized Asia, and bombed Pearl Harbor. I knew even then that in some ways nothing had changed in Japan despite defeat and nuclear attack. Reading Yamato Dynasty I understand why. Japan has a concept of "winning by losing." It seems in many ways they won WW II despite our military victory. I will end with one more quote from the book regarding what Japan got away with:

A Japanese scholar put it in the form of a zen parable, or koan: "If a robber steals $100 billion and successfully hides the money before he is captured and jailed, and then is released after seven years for 'good behavior,' did he fail or did he succeed?

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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Preventing and Dealing With Bed Bugs

Best bed bug mattress cover for bedbug infestation

This is a second update from an earlier article. (I try to keep things fresh!)

In 2006 I wrote an article about a relatively new but spreading problem: bed bugs. Since I wrote that article the problem has gotten bad enough that it has sparked a whole industry of detection and extermination of bed bugs and has led to hundreds of articles all over the mainstream media reporting on this growing problem. But this has led to misunderstandings and some shady businesses as well. This article is designed to help you avoid bedbugs if possible, and get rid of them if you do get them. The problems continues to get worse. Every week I see mattresses wrapped in plastic laid out (unnecessarily!) on the street to be discarded, probably due to a bed bug scare or infestation. The last two days alone I saw some 20 mattresses as well as considerable amount of bedding and a couple of couches all tightly wrapped up and being needlessly thrown out. I assume most of these are due to bed bugs.

In 2010 the building I live in had a bed bug scare. It seemed at first as if several apartments were affected with possibly two separate initial infections (at opposite ends of the building). Turns out that probably only one apartment ever had them, but had the building's managing board not acted rapidly it would have spread. As it was the managing board spent tens of thousands of dollars to pinpoint possibly affected apartments and proactively treat them. During that time we became quite informed about the pests. More recently we had another scare. That turned out to be nothing. But it reinforced our knowledge of the issue.

The bad news is the problem continues to spread and a lot of what is being done about it is the wrong approach. For example, throwing away your mattress if it has bed bugs is unnecessary and it helps spread the problem because you have just put the bed bugs out on the street where they can get on people's shows (including your own to re-infest your home). The good news is there are some very simple things you can do that will prevent them from coming into your living space. Three relatively simple and inexpensive methods greatly reduce your chances of getting them: mattress covers, diatomaceous earth, and rubbing alcohol.

First, the problem...

From the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene website:

Bed bugs are small insects that feed on the blood of mammals and birds. Adult bed bugs are oval, wingless and rusty red colored, and have flat bodies, antennae and small eyes. They are visible to the naked eye, but often hide in cracks and crevices. When bed bugs feed, their bodies swell and become a brighter red. In homes, bed bugs feed primarily on the blood of humans, usually at night when people are sleeping...

Typically, the bite is painless and rarely awakens a sleeping person. However, it can produce large, itchy welts on the skin. Welts from bed bug bites do not have a red spot in the center--those welts are more characteristic of flea bites...

Although bed bugs may be a nuisance to people, they are not known to spread disease.

That is also good news. Bed bugs are not disease vectors like mosquitoes. They are just irritating in the extreme...and they can really infest an apartment if not properly addressed. But no one gets sick or dies from bed bugs.

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The problem first became wide spread in NYC in 2005...after a lull of about 60 years where there were few or no reportings of bed bugs in NYC, one of the current epicenters. Since then the epidemic has taken off. Now I have heard from one professional that one out of every eleven apartment units in NYC has bed bugs. Let me emphasize that I was sounding the alarm early on this one!

Why the sudden epidemic? There are several possible reasons. Some have tried to blame it on immigrants. That is almost certainly not true since here in NYC we have a pretty constant influx of immigrants and the influx of bed bugs has never correlated with influx of immigrants. If this was going to be a major source of spread, there would not have been a 60 year lull. NYC has always been a major immigrant hub (I know my ancestors came through here) but the upswing in bed bugs seems to have only started around 2005 for NYC. But elsewhere in the country the upswing started more like 2000, according to a an article from Time Magazine back when I first looked into this. Blaming immigrants is just plain unfounded.

One aspect of the sudden rise of the bed bugs is simple evolution. I have often reported on how the misuse and overuse of antibiotics, particularly in animal feed, has led to a huge emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria. This has been a huge problem and is one reason why I now only buy meat and chicken raised without antibiotics. Well the same thing happens with insects. Overuse and misuse of pesticides in America and abroad has led to bed bugs that are resistant to most pesticides. For the record, same goes with lice. Those horribly toxic shampoos used for lice are mostly useless by now because the lice have evolved resistance against them. The proper use of a lice comb and careful removal of eggs is the only truly effective way to remove lice. And many treatments for bed bugs are ineffective for the same reason.

Another aspect that I suspect is going on is global warming. Simple fact is that most insects prefer warmer temperatures. I want to emphasize that this is speculation. The evolution of pesticide resistance is not speculative but pretty much established fact. But global warming HAS been shown to be the cause for the spread of many pests, and it almost certainly will eventually be shown to play a role for many more. So I am betting that rising temperatures have helped the bed bug infestation spread.

So what can you do? I'm going to work backwards, from treatment to detection to prevention. Why? Because if I give you an idea about how awful the treatment and expensive and potentially inaccurate the detection, prevention will sound much better to you. And honestly the more we all work to keep these things under control the more likely it will be we can limit them. Remember that if your neighbors get them, you will probably get them too if you aren't actively trying to prevent them (diatomaceous earth is the best way to prevent spread from a neighbor!).

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There seem to be three main treatments. All three are horrible to go through and hugely expensive. They are basically heating, freezing, and poisoning. I guess there is a fourth which you can use for any items that can't stand up to the other treatments: bag everything for 2 years. That is about how long it takes to kill bed bugs by starvation. I did notice that the more convinced exterminators were that we didn't actually have them, the more they backed off that number. Eventually they seemed to settle on 6 months. But there has been research that showed even after a year sealed in a bag with no food or water, the researchers could still find bed bugs not just living, but actually reproducing! They are tough SOBs. So sealing them off requires two years to be absolutely sure. One exterminator suggested adding moth balls to the bag you put things in can help speed up the process, but I have not confirmed that. Probably 6 months with mothballs in the bag is good enough, but not as certain as 2 years.

Also, I notice many homes in NYC with mattresses thrown out. I suspect this sudden increase in mattresses being thrown out is due to bed bugs. But there is no need to throw out a mattress because mattress covers will seal them in, away from you, until they die. Mattress covers are necessary anyway (see below) so just put them on and keep the mattress. It saves money and keeps them from spreading to other parts of the neighborhood. Mattress covers are cheaper than a new mattress!

Treatment usually involves bagging almost everything you own for months to years, punching 1 inch diameter holes in many of your walls, then either getting poison all over everything, including inside your walls (and it takes WEEKS to fully clean up), or raising the temperature in the whole apartment above what bed bugs can tolerate, or lowering the temperature in the whole apartment to below what they can tolerate. Only bathrooms and kitchens are largely left untouched (as long as you seal them off so the poison doesn't get in them). All of these treatments are horribly inconvenient, expensive and disruptive. Best to avoid them if you can by preventing bed bugs altogether!


Detection has issues as well. Usually what is first obvious is the itching from the bites. Then people will notice the bugs' very dark droppings (basically like dried up flakes of blood...yeah...your blood if you've got itching bites). By the time you are noticing them, it is likely that you have a pretty bad infestation. People won't always see them because they mostly come out at night, but a really bad infestation they will be everywhere, day and night. The earlier you catch the problem the easier it is to deal with.

There are two expert methods of identifying them: trained people and trained dogs. The dogs have been getting a lot of press these days, and they CAN be very effective. The dog's nose is an amazing thing, and they really can be trained to sniff out anything and tell you about it. There are bomb sniffing dogs, drug sniffing dogs, and now bed bug sniffing dogs. The flaws are that they are extremely expensive and, though potentially extremely accurate, they are in practice sometimes very inaccurate. Dogs basically want food and attention. They don't care about accuracy...they just want to be rewarded, so they are easily distracted. We are pretty sure that our building had many false alarms because of a dog whose handler was less than professional. I am not saying it is a scam (though that can happen if the same company offers detection and treatment!) or the dog was poorly trained. It just has a built in inaccuracy which has to be kept in mind. The dogs are VERY accurate IF AND ONLY IF they are properly trained and handled and not distracted.

When my building had a second scare I had the chance to better understand a good vs. bad use of a bed bug sniffing dog. I bet most of these dogs are almost as well trained as bomb or drug sniffing dogs, so have a lot of potential. But the handlers also have to be properly trained. The first time I personally witnessed a bed bug sniffing dog and handler team doing its thing I felt both dog and handler were performing for an audience and I felt they were giving false positive readings because of it. It seemed very unprofessional. Was the handler inexperienced? Or simply unprofessional? Or was it an outright scam to drum up business for his company? I don't know.

The second year we had an issue a different dog and different handler came (though from the same company). This time they seemed MUCH more professional and the handler limited the number of people around the dog to limit distractions. He did not detect bed bugs in our building. The difference was very clear between a handler who was showing off and one who was doing his job.

Bottom line is this: the dogs are potentially really accurate, but the handlers are variable, even from the same company. My advice is a.) get an inspection from a different company than you will hire to deal with any infestation and make that clear from the start. Otherwise the company you hire to detect a problem will be the same company that handles the problem, creating a conflict of interest. And b.) watch the dog and handler...if they seem to be playing to an audience there is a problem. If they seem to be open to one person observing but focused on keeping the dog from being distracted, then they are more trustworthy. Beware of show offs, whether dog or handler.

What about human detection? People will miss the very beginning of an infestation that a dog could catch, but they do the inspection in a smarter manner and so can be more accurate overall once an infestation has gotten going beyond the first stages. Dogs are potentially more accurate but sometimes people do the inspection in a smarter way. So it's a toss up which to hire.

But the bottom line is if either a dog or a person with training in detection tells you you have them, it is really hard not to say yes to the treatment because far, far better safe than sorry. The earlier you catch it the easier it is to stop, so if you want to wait and see if the dog or person is right, you may find yourself with an out of control infestation which will be even harder and more expensive to deal with.


Oh, and is now a good time to mention bed bugs are ALL OVER THE CITY? One out of every 11 apartment units in NYC. Hotels. In the UN building. In places of work. In movie theaters. The good news is that they don't really move around so much except at night, so they aren't jumping from person to person much. Though the darkness in movie theaters is a concern...when you come back from a movie, be particularly careful about your shoes, coat and pants cuffs. Treatment with rubbing alcohol (mentioned below) will help.

The main vector is bringing into your apartment items that have already got them living inside, books, etc. But one exterminator I talked to believed people's shoes are a major vector. So they aren't spread so much directly from one person to another (like lice) but by bringing infested things into your building.

So what can you do to prevent them from coming into your living space?

First be really, really careful scrounging anything, particularly furniture. Now I have scrounged a lot of stuff in my time...still do from time to time, but now I am highly careful. If a book has bed bugs, it is pretty easy to detect...if you look. You will see the black specs that are their droppings. Furniture can be harder, but there are treatments if you really want to bring a scrounged piece of furniture into your apartment. Heating (if you can), rubbing alcohol, or diatomaceaous earth (see below). But my wife figures the safest is to not scrounge at all.

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Mattresses and pillows can be sealed up. This costs some money, but if you get good mattress and pillow covers, even if you have an infested mattress or bed you can just leave it in the cover and they will eventually die and you keep the bed from being their favorite habitat. These covers are the most recommended action you can take. When exterminators heard we already had them, they were 90% sure we couldn't have a problem. So covering your mattresses and pillows with high end versions of these covers will really protect you. This is a cost you probably don't want to skimp on. And a good cover shouldn't be uncomfortable. It also keeps you from having major dust mite problems, something almost all beds have and can make allergies worse. So the mattress and pillow covers are good all around, reducing chances of bed bug problems and reducing allergies.

But shoes are an issue as well. One exterminator said you should always take your shoes off when you come in and if possible place them in a container with diatomaceous earth (again...see below). He believes that (scrounging an infested bed aside) this would prevent almost all spread of bed bugs. Not sure if that is true, but it certainly would help. Another exterminator I and others talked to suggested buying 90% or higher rubbing alcohol (a higher percent than the usual stuff you get, which is 70%) and putting some in a spray bottle in your entryway. Spraying your shoes every time you enter your home (particularly after being in a movie theater), your luggage when traveling (inside and out, before and after traveling), and any furniture you bring in can greatly limit the chances of bringing bed bugs into your home.

Now we come to some amazing stuff that I was dubious about but have seen in action. Diatomaceous earth is one of the best treatments to protect your home from ANY crawling bug, from ant to cockroach to bed bug, from entering. Diatoms are tiny animals that live in the ocean and create a silica shell. These shells are beautiful (if you have a microscope to look at them with), elaborate, and very sharp. These animals die, fall to the bottom of the sea, and form thick beds of diatom skeletons. When plate tectonics (earthquakes and continental drift) brings these deposits up above sea level, they can be mined. These deposits of tiny silica skeletons of long dead diatoms are called diatomaceous earth. It is a white powder of very tiny sharp skeletons. To us the sharpness, at worst, will irritate our skin a bit. It can't really harm us (in fact some people eat the stuff to cure or prevent intestinal parasites, but I am not sure this is okay!). But to something small like an insect, it is like the death of a thousand cuts. The coating around an insect that helps keep in moisture gets pierced and they dry out and die.

You can get diatomaceous earth online or in a hardware store. It isn't that expensive. If you even get so-called "food grade" diatomaceous earth it can be used in a kitchen because it is considered so harmless.

We got diatomaceous earth and I basically spread it around the entire perimeter of every room in our apartment, making sure to get it into every crevice. The problem is this stuff gets everywhere. I found it irritating to my lungs at first, but once most of it settled and we vacuumed up anything not around the edges of a room (this is also good for making sure your vacuum isn't infested!) that went away. Next time I use it so liberally I will wear a face mask. For months after I spread the stuff around, the diatomaceous earth was still visible in the crevices and corners around many of the rooms but isn't a problem in any way.

And the effectiveness? Within one day of spreading it around every single crawling insect, including ants, confused flour beetles, and cockroaches, just disappeared from our apartment. And they didn't come back for about a year. We live in a basement apartment, so we get insects every year and always have a kind of on going war with them. Nothing major, but we have to be vigilant. But after spreading diatomaceous earth, all crawling insects disappeared for a full year.

This year we started seeing some ants again and I spread diatomaceous earth next to the sliding glass door and our basement windows. And again all crawling insects just disappeared. I still see plenty of ants outside, but none have come inside. And no cockroaches for a more than year now! In NYC...almost unheard of. The stuff works.

So if most of NYC put their mattresses and pillows into bed bug covers, took off their shoes and put them in containers of diatomaceous earth or sprayed them with 90% or higher rubbing alcohol when they got home, and spread diatomaceous earth around the edges of their apartment walls, I am betting they would find many pests would be greatly reduced from their apartments. Bed bugs, ants and flour beetles are hard to get rid of. Diatomaceous earth does it. And it isn't the kind of thing that is easy to evolve a resistance to so it won't lose its effectiveness over the years.

So there you go. Together we can all fight bed bugs. Hope this helps!

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