Thursday, October 11, 2012

Blues Roots: Leadbelly

There was one time I saw someone on the usually very liberal political website Daily Kos arguing that once a person kills another person they have given up the right to be treated like a human and so should face the death penalty. The person arguing this was NOT a rabid Republican. Nor is support of the death penalty only a radical Republican position (I do not oppose it per se, merely the horrible and unfair way it is applied). But the statement was horrible and I responded by asking if THIS person had given up the right to be treated like a human:


 Leadbelly (Huddie William Ledbetter) was a founding force for a great deal of modern music. For those who have no room in their heart for people serving prison terms, Leadbelly was sentenced to at least two prison terms. The first was for illegal gun possession (he escaped from that prison term), and the second for killing a relative, ostensibly over a woman. He was pardoned from his murder sentence partly because of his musical talent. Is it right that he only served seven years for killing a man? Perhaps not, but his pardon allowed him to set the foundations for modern music from blues to R and B to Rock and Roll. I believe American music would have been far less than it was without this one man's voice.


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Blues Highlights: James Booker

This guy is a new find for me, thanks to Pandora Radio. James Booker was born in 1939 in New Orleans and was part of the long and ongoing tradition of kick ass music in that town. He died in 1983. He died waiting in an emergency room from renal failure, something that could probably have been headed off if we had us some decent healthcare in America. Booker's most famous student is Harry Connick Jr. I only learned about him today, proving there is always more great music to find. His piano work is excellent. His singing is okay but it is his piano work that stands out. James Booker doing St. James Infirmary, a song that goes WAY back, and which I mostly associate with Cab Caolloway, though Louis Armstrong made it popular:


 James Booker in action, singing "True":

 And playing "Sunny Side of the Street": (shows off his piano skills particularly well on this one)


 And finally "Good Night Irene," another OLD song (though nowhere near as old as the roots of St. James Infirmary) originally made popular by Leadbelly. This version is different from the standard
Leadbelly/Pete Seeger etc. version:


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Blues Highlights: Koko Taylor

One of my favorite blues singers is Koko Taylor. She has one of the greatest voices in American music and she seemed to genuinely enjoy performing. For those who don't know her, I'd like to introduce you to Koko Taylor.

I think the best place to start is with the classic Koko Taylor's kick ass Wang Dang Doodle. First is the version I know best. Second shows Koko in action.


<blockquote>Tell automatic Slim
Tell razor totin' Jim
Tell butcher knife
Toting Nanny
Tell fast talking fanny
We're gonna pitch a ball
Down to the union hall

We're gonna romp
And trump till midnight
We're gonna fuss
And fight till daylight
We're gonna get your
Wang dang doodle
All night long (5x)

Tell cooda-crawling Ray
To tell abyssinia Ned
To tell old pistol Pete
To tell everybody he meets
Tonight we need no rest
We're gonna really
Throw a mess
We're gonna knock down
All the windows
We're gonna kick down
All the doors
We're gonna get your
Wang dang doodle
All night long (5x)

Tell fats
And washbone Sam
Everybody gonna jam
Tell shaking boxcar Joe
We got
Sawdust on the floor
Now tell Peggy
And Colin Die
We're gonna have
A heck of a time
Now when the fish
Scent fill the air
There'll be
Snuff juice everywhere
We're gonna get your
Wang dang doodle
All night long (8x)</blockquote>

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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Funny Flashback to the depths of the Bush years...

I always found this extremely funny...

At the depths of the Bush years, when the economy was starting its nose dive, when censorship became common, when our freedoms were compromised routinely by Republicans, when Bush and Cheney let Osama bin Laden go free to dance on American graves...Eric Idle of Monty Python came up with this little number protesting Bush/Cheney attacks on American freedoms:

To anyone who complains about Barack Obama, let's remember how awful the Republicans are when they have power. Censorship, a ruined economy, failed foreign policy and self-righteous attacks on basic American freedoms are all Republicans have to offer us.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Shalom, Salaam, Peace: Coffee, Unity and Sustainability from Uganda

My wife and I are coffee lovers. Our main sources of coffee have varied over the years. For a long time we purchased 5 lb. bags from Deans Beans, all very good coffees at reasonable fair trade prices. We particularly liked their Ring of Fire and Uprising blends. We then got into their No CO2 supposedly "carbon neutral" coffee.

When we joined our local Food Coop, it became cheaper to buy our fair trade coffee addition we found we could re-use the coffee bags several times, reducing our waste. So that is our main source of coffee these days.

But there is one source that I want to plug that is an amazing coffee, called Mirembe Kawomera (Delicious Peace) from Uganda with an amazing story that has just recently gotten even better by seeking to maximize sustainability. That coffee is grown by a farmers' cooperative of Bantu Jews, Muslims and Christians working together in an otherwise tense and intolerant part of the world. It grew out of a movement initiated by the local Jewish population to build schools, with the help of the American Jewish organization Kulanu, which would be open to not just the Jewish community but also the Muslim and Christian communities. From that initial connection among otherwise mutually suspicious communities, came the inspiration to cooperate (again with help from Kulanu) to market their coffee at fair trade prices. Finally, recognizing the impact of climate change and environmental degradation on their own livelihoods, these communities are now initiating a carefully thought out sustainability project (with the help of the Dutch NGO Progreso) to reduce their environmental impact while improving their economic livelihood.

It all started in the end of British colonialism in what became Uganda. Christian evangelicals were part of the British push to dominate Uganda. Semei Lulaklenzi Kakungulu was one of the products of this evangelical push and he is in many ways not a sympathetic figure, but it was his initiative that led to a native Jewish community in Uganda.

Semei Lulaklenzi Kakungulu was a military strong man and part of the Christian evangelical movement. He fought on behalf of the Buganda King against both Muslims and Catholics in the religious wars at the end of the 19th century. The British supported his efforts because they saw it as part of their goal of unifying the region under British influence. Kakungulu's military efforts allowed British influence to spread without large scale use of British troops.

Kakungulu's goal, however, was to become a local king under a British aegis. But the Brits didn't go for it. So instead Kakungulu focused on evangelical Christianity of a particularly strict kind called "Katonda omu ayinza byona" which means "God is omnipotent" and believed in a very strict interpretation of the Bible. They also tended to be anti-colonialism so it fit with Kakungulu's conflict with the Brits.

But Kakungulu took that strict interpretation beyond what the founders of Katonda omu ayinza byona had intended. Kakungulu felt that true devotion to God meant putting the Old Testament ahead of the New Testament and he began to compile a list of rules and prayers for his followers with in the Katonda omu ayinza byona evangelical movement that looked more like the rules that Orthodox Jews follow than they did Christian doctrine. By 1919 Kakungulu and his followers were outright rejecting the New Testament in favor of "Moses' Commandments". In essence Kakungulu reinvented Judaism from what he read in a Protestant version of the Old Testament. He called his breakaway community the Kibina Kya Bayudaya Absesiga Katonda (the “Community of Jews who trust in the Lord”).

This put him at odds with both the British and the local community. But it also put him in contact with a Jewish traveler referred to as "Joseph." Joseph introduced a more standard, Talmudic version of Jewish practice into the Kibina Kya Bayudaya Absesiga Katonda community.

When Kakungulu died in 1928, the Kibina Kya Bayudaya Absesiga Katonda community split. One branch reverted to Christianity. The other branch maintained their Jewish identity, becoming the community that is today called the Abayudaya. Because of widespread anti-Semitism, particularly during the Idi Amin period, the Abayudaya isolated themselves as much as possible.

During Idi Amin's dictatorship, some 80% of the Abayudaya were killed or forced to convert to Christianity. It was, needless to say, a low point in the development of their community. Roughly 300 survived, keeping their Jewish identity secret. From that small community, the modern Abayudaya community of about 1000 grew.

In a strict sense the Abayudaya are not Jewish. However, with the help of American and Israeli rabbis (mostly Conservative and Hasidic) official conversion of many Abayudaya has begun. The Abayudya welcome official Jewish recognition and are willing to undergo the conversion process. This is in contrast with Ethiopian Jews who consider themselves Jews by birth (DNA evidence is conflicting here...older data suggests they are NOT descended from Israel, but more modern evidence suggests they are) so there has been conflict between Ethiopian Jews and mainstream Israeli Jews with considerable insensitivity shown by mainstream Jews towards Ethiopian Jews.

But to me the Abayudaya are more Jewish than I am. Here are Abayudaya versions of Shema Israel and L'cha Dodi

That is the background. The origin of the Abayudaya and the overall negative view of them within the wider Muslim and Christian culture of Uganda meant that the Abayudaya were always faced with prejudice. In the 21st century they came in contact with the American Jewish group Kulanu, which has helped integrate them into the wider Jewish world but also came up with a wonderful idea.

They started helping the Abayudaya build schools. In Uganda, as in much of Africa, schools are often very far from the local villages and they are not free. Kulanu and the Abayudaya started building schools in the villages where the Abayudaya live and covering the costs of children attending, even providing some meals. But Kulanu and the Abayudaya went one step further. They invited their Muslim and Christian neighbors to send their kids to the schools as well. This introduced a cooperation between the Abayudaya and their neighbors that helps everyone in the community. Even more fundamentally, the sharing of these schools helped establish trust among the Jews, Muslims and Christians in in the area.

Which brings us to my wife's favorite beverage in the whole

Coffee accounts for about 90% of Uganda's revenues from international trade. Worldwide, coffee is second only to oil as being the most traded commodity. But the prices very enormously from year to year and the path from grower to your cup is extremely circuitous, bringing in many middlemen who take their own profit. In general, of what you pay for your coffee, almost none of it makes it to the grower. With Fair Trade coffee, the amount that makes it from your wallet to the grower is still small, but it is often 3-5 times more than on the regular market, and that makes a huge difference for the growers. It makes the difference between near slavery and making it (even if barely by our standards). It makes the difference between sending their kids to school or not. It makes the difference between saving money versus accruing debt.

Fair Trade is often flawed, and not always as fair as we would like, but it DOES make a difference.

The Abayudaya and their Muslim and Christian neighbors also grow coffee. And were getting almost nothing for their efforts. Until the current leader of the Abayudaya community decided to do something, and the first thing he did was go to his Muslim and Christian neighbors. From the Thanksgiving Coffee website:

I brought the idea to my fellow friends, Muslims and Christians, and I said we should make a co-op selling our coffee but as well as spreading peace in the world.

They were all so happy so we called it Mirembe, which means peace, Kawomera, which means that even our coffee must be of quality.

Then we made that cooperative.

— JJ Keki, founder & director, Peace Kawomera

It was a great idea. And it would have failed except for two things. One was the efforts of Kulanu. And the other was the whim of one man, the CEO of Thankgsgiving Coffee.

Kulanu had been working with the Abayudaya for some time, including in their reaching out to their Muslim and Christian neighbors when it came to developing local schools. So it was only natural that they work together on this coffee project. But neither the Abayudaya nor Kulanu had much experience in this. Which is why the whim of the Thanksgiving Coffee CEO was so critical. Again, from the Thanksgiving Coffee website:

I was at my desk, it was late afternoon. The phone rang... “Hello, my name is Laura Wetzler” came the voice from the other end...

It turned out that Laura Wetzler was, and still is, the Ugandan Coordinator for an all volunteer Jewish NGO called Kulanu in Washington DC. She called to ask me if I would buy five sacks of coffee from a cooperative she was working with. I rolled my eyes and thought, “Another starry-eyed idealist who went to a poor country to build a school, discovered coffee in the midst of poverty and decided that it was the answer to all the community’s woes.”

Over the past 20 years I have fielded many such calls. Although my heart goes out to these volunteers, I explain to them that coffee is not bought under such novice circumstances. “There is a well-established infrastructure of exporters, brokers, importers,” I explained, “And of course, there are the issues of quality and price.”

I asked Ms. Wetzler if she had called any other roasters and she told me she had called over 50 but had sold nothing. “Everybody wants a sample to taste but I have none,” she told me. “I was just there but didn’t know I needed samples to offer.” I began to settle in to the conversation and asked her to tell me about the work of Kulanu. Being Jewish myself I thought it unusual for her to be working with Jews in Uganda. “Jews in Uganda? Tell me more!”

Laura told me about this community of black Bantu Jews that she has been working with since 2002. She helped them organize a coffee cooperative, become Fair Trade Certified™, and now, with their first crop sitting unsold in a Uganda warehouse, she was calling US coffee roasters trying to sell the coffee. She had a list, it was in alphabetical order, and when she got down to the letter T she called Thanksgiving Coffee and I picked up the phone. By the time she got to me she had been rejected 50 times.

The Jewish Bantus of Uganda caught my attention, but it was when she described the other two-thirds of the cooperative that my heart really began to pound. “There are Muslims and Christians in this coffee cooperative,” she continued. “They are all working together. It’s one community. The co-op president is Jewish, the vice-president is Christian, and the treasurer is Muslim. There are hundreds of families all together; they have one container to sell and soon this year’s crop will be coming. The people are desperate!” she exclaimed...

“I’ll buy it all,” I said. “All or nothing. I want the entire story. I don’t want any other coffee company to have a single bag. I want to bring this story to the world.”

So the coffee project took off. The coffee is certified fair trade and is shade grown next to other plants that provide the local community with food or income. However success particularly with other crops grown alongside the coffee started having an environmental toll. Soil erosion, global warming, and environmental degradation started taking its toll on the area. The Abayudaya decided to face the problem head on (unlike, I should add, most of the world). They decided to find a way to a.) make their own practices more sustainable, b.) reduce their impact on climate change, and c.) protect their livelihoods from climate change. They took three years to put together a proposal that just this May got funded by a Dutch NGO.

From the Thanksgiving Coffee website again:

Given the above, the farmers are searching for strategies they can employ to adapt to these changes without sacrificing their livelihoods. This is happening at the time when farmers are anxious to reap a lot out of their coffee due to its regaining reputation on the international scene, increasing market price and increasing differential and quality premium through the specialty coffee market and the good price from US-based Thanksgiving Coffee Company, a buyer since 2004.

The above-mentioned activities of environmental degradation are mainly driven by economic need arising from high rates of unemployment locally. Therefore, this project seeks a two-pronged strategy to increase the value and production of shade grown coffee, and interventions to fortify the ecosystem against the impacts of shifting weather by planting valuable grasses in swale formation, increasing the intercropping of strategically important shade trees in coffee plantations, and reforestation of hill tops and ridges to create a conducive micro climate for coffee. This fortified ecosystem will be better able to protect coffee from severe rains because of increased canopy cover, and will be able to reduce erosion by controlling runoff. Additionally, through the selection of appropriate shade trees, the project will increase the production of high-mulching organic matter which will improve soil quality, a critical step towards improved coffee quality and production, as well creating habitat for the biological control agents here referred to as natural enemies of the pests.

Agro forestry provides additional sources of income especially from sales of fruits from the planted trees, sale of harvested grasses from swales, sale of firewood and of seedlings from the nurseries to other communities.

This will also reduce the gap of unemployment and improve on food security for the area’s farmers by increasing the diversity of foods immediately available to farming families. Protecting and restoring the environment will reduce the impacts of climate change, enhance biodiversity, and improve on ecological systems which are all aimed at improving coffee production and food security.

The project will be built around a package of incentives designed to facilitate and inspire quick uptake in action by individual farmers. The methodology will be driven by the established network and practice of the Farmer Field Schools. Led by the project manager, a team will create local seedling nurseries and begin the process of educating individual farmers through the FFS groups. After an 6 month period, the leading farmer in each FFS group (determined by objective pre-established criteria around tree planting, swale construction, soil and water conservation) will be given a female goat. These goats produce manure which is high in nitrogen which can be incorporated back into the fields for improved soil fertility. After an additional 6 months the next leading farmer in each FFS Group will be rewarded a goat based upon the established criteria. These goats will be expected to reproduce so as time goes on, the kids will be given out to other members who come second, i.e. responsibility will be upon farmers to know that if such a farmer`s goat kids, the offspring will be expected to be designated by the project to the next recipient farmer. This process of review and award will be conducted 4 times (6, 12, 18, and 24 months. It is estimated that the project will need to purchase 252 female goats (63 FFS Groupsx4 cycles) to get the inventive program off the ground and to a point of self-sustainability.

The project is ambitious and complex. Which is probably exactly what they need to handle a complex web of problems. They came up with the solutions themselves and I am sure if/when problems come up in the implementation they will adapt the plan to deal with those problems.

So you start with British colonialism starting a wave of rather unappealing military strongmen and evangelical Christian movements. You move through a highly unlikely re-invention of Judaism among Bantus in Uganda and the even more unlikely survival of those Jews through the Idi Amin brutality. Then you have cooperation between those unlikely Jews and their Muslim and Christian neighbors first for public education, then for fair trade coffee, then for environmental sustainability.

All in one cup of coffee called Mirembe Kawomera which you can buy right now. I should note that I have seen this very coffee listed as "best coffee I have ever had" on several websites. I would not go quite that far, since I think the best coffee I ever had was a New Guinea coffee in a fancy coffee house in Santa Cruz, California. But Mirembe Kawomera coffee is up there!

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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Five Guys Got Together to Make Some Burgers and Fries

I don't eat beef much because of all the meats it is the most environmentally destructive. But I do like a good burger. Among my favorites is a local places in Brooklyn called "Bonnie's Grill" which has really good hamburgers and the best fries I have ever had at a reasonable price.

But for really low priced but tasty burgers, it is hard to beat Five Guys. Though a chain they do a good job of using fresh ingredients, cooking to order, and giving a good product. I also like the fact they offer free peanuts in the shell, which is a good way to kill time while they are cooking your burger. Their fries are quite good (the cajun fries leave me a bit flat, but the regular fries are good), but my son and I actually prefer ordering burgers and munching on the peanuts instead of getting the fries. But that's just us. My wife and step daughter always want to get the fries and though the size of the fries order looks small, they tend to way, way over load it so you wind up with a huge amount of fries even with the small order. The burgers come with a good selection of toppings. The grilled mushrooms and the grilled onions are particularly good.

My son also likes the hot dogs there, though I have never tried them.

It has also always struck me that the workers at Five Guys always seem much happier than most fast food places I go to. Turns out there is a reason. Five guys, almost unique among fast food burger joints except for maybe In-n-Out, actually treat their workers well. They offer paid sick days (again, unusually) and good opportunities for advancement. They get a "Gold Prize" from Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an organization advocating for restaurant workers.

Now if I want to pay more for a better burger, I go to Bonnie's Grill in NYC or Umami Burger in Los Angeles. They are definitely better than Five Guys, but also 2-3x the price. For a good, satisfying, cheap burger, nothing beats Five Guys.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Yes, Virginia, There WERE Gas Chambers

Awhile back I encountered at a local NYC blog a form of Holocaust Denial that was new to me: the claim that yeah the Holocaust happened and Jews were killed (among other targeted groups, I would add) but there were no gas chambers.

Funny how you'd expect the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust would have disputed this particular form of Holocaust Denial. But they don't!!! Quite the contrary! In fact now it seems their admission goes right down to family photographs and the stories remembered by their descendants.

Now there are many sources of evidence for the gas chambers. And <a href="">I have discussed them before</a>.

There are two main sources of evidence in any crime scene, and the gas chambers were, quite simply, massive crime scenes. Those types of evidence are eyewitness testimony and forensics. Good criminal cases are built up using both.

Eyewitness testimony is in itself almost overwhelming. Eyewitness testimony doesn't come from the perpetrators or inmates so much as liberators who may have misinterpreted what was a crime scene where the perpetrators tried hard to cover their tracks. But there are camps like Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka where the evidence is very strong, where both the number and consistency of eyewitness testimony is overwhelming. <a href="">You can find eyewitness testimony here in some detail</a>.

Further testimony can be found here:

More confessions by perpetrators can be found here:

And of course an excellent eyewitness testimony by an inmate <a href="">can be found in Elie Wiesel's Night, where he describes the journey he and his family through the concentration camps</a>.

As the allies closed in on Germany in 1945, there was a concerted effort to destroy evidence. Even before that, in cases where things went wrong the Germans systematically destroyed evidence of their crimes. The prime example of this is the extermination camp at Sobibor which was the scene of one of the very few successful prisoner revolts which led to a mass breakout. To cover up, the Germans dismantled the camp with the stated intent of hiding what had gone on there. This makes it harder to prove by forensics what happened. Archaeological analysis can identify areas that look like they were gas chambers and crematoria and basically give evidence completely consistent with the eyewitness testimony. That alone helps, given the overwhelming and consistent eyewitness testimony from inmates, perpetrators and liberators.

Some of the forensic evidence (documents, film footage, etc) supporting the eyewitness testimony <a href="">can be found in this article on forensic science used in Holocaust investigation.</a>.

Forensics also shows traces of cyanide gas in the very remains that eyewitnesses claim were gas chambers and that archaeology suggests were gas chambers. These chemical data basically prove they were gas chambers. <a href="">The key study was done by Polish scientists at the Institute of Forensic Research in Krakow</a>. The authors are chemists. The first author became Director of the Institute of Forensic Research in Krakow.

More evidence can be found discussed in <a href="">this BBC article</a>,  and <a href="">this article</a> from the University of San Francisco, and <a href="">this article from Skeptic Magazine</a>.

But there is another bit of evidence that I didn't take into account the last time I wrote about this. The evidence that may not be direct eyewitness testimony but is direct testimony of those who lived in the shadow of and prospered from the extermination camps. BBC News has an article on descendants of Nazi war criminals that directly addresses this issue. From BBC News:

<blockquote>When he was a child Rainer Hoess was shown a family heirloom.

He remembers his mother lifting the heavy lid of the fireproof chest with a large swastika on the lid, revealing bundles of family photos.

They featured his father as a young child playing with his brothers and sisters, in the garden of their grand family home.

The photos show a pool with a slide and a sand pit - an idyllic family setting - but one that was separated from the gas chambers of Auschwitz by just a few yards....

His grandfather Rudolf Hoess (not to be confused with Nazi deputy leader Rudolf Hess), was the first commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp. His father grew up in a villa adjoining the camp, where he and his siblings played with toys built by prisoners.

It was where his grandmother told the children to wash the strawberries they picked because they smelled of ash from the concentration camp ovens.</blockquote>

So family members not only admit to the existence of the gas chambers, but washed their produce because of the ashes that came from the crematoria,,,I mean how much more evidence does anyone need??? Eyewitness testimony from BOTH sides, forensic evidence, AND documentary evidence running through the families descended from the war criminals.

It is rare that you get such clear evidence of a crime!

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Saturday, May 19, 2012

History in the Making: The Nation of Malawi Goes Progressive

A funny thing happened in Malawi. And it happened more by happenstance than by any plan.

You see a woman was elected Vice President of Malawi (putting them ahead of America where only men have been VP). I am sure people figured that woman would never get beyond VP because across the world, throughout history VP is kind of a useless position. In fact on my apartment building's co-op board I SOUGHT being VP because it was the least onerous office. I wound up with treasurer! Go figure.

So Joyce Banda, a woman, was elected VP of Malawi. Then came the death of 78-year-old President Bingu wa Mutharika...and suddenly Malawi, by accident, became the second nation in Africa to have a woman lead the country...the first being Liberia, but THAT is another that can be found here:

Again let me be clear that Liberia and Malawi are ahead of America here in terms of having a woman lead their nation. We have only had men.

Today Joyce Banda, the second woman to lead an African nation, took a HUGE step and I a afraid many people missed it. The second woman to lead an African nation has just come out in support of legalizing homosexuality, something that VERY few African leaders have been willing to do. Joyce Banda deserves our support...and NEEDS our support.

Most of Africa considers homosexuality a crime. Some nations even are trying to institute the death penalty for homosexuality. In Uganda, as covered by Current TV, the push for the death penalty for homosexuality probably originated in the United States: (sorry, it starts with an ad)

But death penalty aside, there are few nations in Africa where homosexuality is legal. In Egypt, Morocco, Ethiopia, Tanzania and several others, all homosexual acts are illegal. In some other nations like Kenya and Zimbabwe male homosexual acts are illegal but female homosexual acts are legal. Even where homosexuality is technically legal, equality is far from a reality. South Africa is about the only African nation where homosexuals are given pretty much equal rights, beating America on many levels.

Malawi is one of the nations where male homosexual acts are illegal while female homosexual acts are legal. And there is no real equality.

Today Malawi President Joyce Banda has announced that she supports legalizing homosexuality in Malawi. This is, of course, just one step forward when it comes to a barbaric policy, but for the second women leader in Africa to take this step is a HUGE deal. I actually hope Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia (where homosexuality remains illegal) takes notice and follows suit.

From BBC News:

President Joyce Banda has said she wants Malawi to overturn its ban on homosexual acts - the first African country to do so since 1994.

Two Malawian men were sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2010 after saying they were getting married...

Mrs Banda took power last month after her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, died of a heart attack.

She has since reversed several of his policies, including devaluing the currency, in a bid to get donor funding restored...

In her first state of the nation address to parliament, Mrs Banda said: "Some laws which were duly passed by the august house... will be repealed as a matter of urgency... these include the provisions regarding indecent practices and unnatural acts."

The BBC's Raphael Tenthani in the main city, Blantyre, says the president has the support of a majority of MPs and so should be able to get parliament to overturn the law.

However, he says it will be an unpopular move with many church leaders, as well as the wider population in this conservative country...

This is a brave move by an African leader whose hold on power may be tenuous. She deserves our support.

In honor of Joyce Banda and her move to legalize LGBT people in Malawi, I have donated to the Boost Malawi Fund (UK based) and the Raising Malawi Fund (US based). I ask you to give a small amount to one or both of these funds to help support a brave woman who is standing up for the LGBT community in Africa.

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Sunday, March 18, 2012

As the tipping point looms we have to act

About 5 years ago, one of the top climate scientists, Jim Hanson, declared we have no more than 10 years left to mitigate the effects of global warming before we just have to take the consequences of our stupidity. He got some criticism from this even among climate scientists, but the gist of his warning is valid: we have a limited time and it is NOW, like RIGHT NOW that we have to deal with this crisis.

Since he made his warning, the pace of global warming has only accelerated. So we might even have LESS time than Jim Hanson suggested. Which means we have about 5 years.

Is this excessively precise? Yeah, in a way it is. We can't know precisely how much time we have left, but I don't think it is far off. We are in 2012. Arctic ice volume is expected (at current rate of decline) to reach zero (ice free Arctic Ocean) around 2015. As that happens we WILL reach a tipping point in approximately the same time frame.

Now I don't think the supposed tipping points mentioned are always valid. But there is one very clear, very frightening tipping point that will occur approximately the same time frame as an ice-free Arctic Ocean, which means around 2015. That is the release of methane that is frozen in the Arctic. From BBC News:

"In 2007, the water [off northern Siberia] warmed up to about 5C (41F) in summer, and this extends down to the sea bed, melting the offshore permafrost."

Among the issues this raises is whether the ice-free conditions will quicken release of methane currently trapped in the sea bed, especially in the shallow waters along the northern coast of Siberia, Canada and Alaska.

Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, though it does not last as long in the atmosphere...

"With 'business-as-usual' greenhouse gas emissions, we might have warming of 9-10C in the Arctic.

"That will cement in place the ice-free nature of the Arctic Ocean - it will release methane from offshore, and a lot of the methane on land as well."

This would - in turn - exacerbate warming, across the Arctic and the rest of the world.

The release of this much methane into the atmosphere is one of the more frightening things to me in our near future. And even if it isn't right at 2015 that it happens (I do agree these estimates are too precise) it WILL be this generation. And to prevent it we have to act right now. And we all have to act.

We look to government to solve major problems like this, and we definitely have to get governments around the world to act. Some have. Not enough. Lobbying your local, state and federal government reps to cut back on the carbon footprint of America is something we all should be doing. Writing letters to the editor as well. Public transportation and making driving inconvenient can do a lot...NYC residents have about a third the carbon footprint of most Americans because we don't drive so much (among other reasons). Plus such projects cut back on local pollution and create jobs. So lobbying for this kind of stuff helps us all.

But we all have individual, personal responsibilities to cut back our carbon footprints. We are consumers and creating the markets for energy efficiency and alternate energy should be top of our list for making decisions as consumers. We don't have any more time. The next dozen generations will depend on our personal, as well as national, decisions when it comes to energy use.

Energy use is part of everything we do. Every bite we eat, every purchase we make has an energy cost and hence a carbon footprint. Which means on the one hand everything we do adds to the problem. On the other hand it means we have a lot of ways we can make good decisions and reduce our footprint.

My wife is a climate scientist and I have been following this issue for some 25 years, so we have been deliberately reducing our carbon footprint for more than a decade. When Jim Hanson gave us our 10-year warning I took it a step further and started offsetting our carbon use even further. I owe it to my kids to do all I personally can to prevent this looming tipping point from happening.

What can we do as individuals other than letters to the editor and letters to our politicians? Well, LOTS of stuff. Some save money, some cost money. Some cost a LOT to start but save you even more in the long run.

Energy use is a huge deal and the thing you can do the most to reduce. And I usually start with that. But let me first discuss something I usually only refer to without details: food consumption. This is another large part of our carbon footprint.


I have intended to do a detailed article about how our eating choices affect our carbon and water footprints, but haven't gotten around to it. So let me just make a few basic suggestions to help everyone make good choices. Carbon use estimates from:

or from:

Buying local and organic are important, of course. Those are local solutions for which I can only really advise for NYC. But as a first approximation shopping at your local food co-op can be a great way to cut your carbon footprint a bit, save money, and eat a healthier diet. My wife and I joined our local food co-op some 6 years ago and though it has been a tad inconvenient (work requirements, long lines, etc.) we are eating much better, getting better quality produce and meat, shopping more locally, and overall saving some money. To find local food co-ops, try this directory, though it is incomplete and somewhat out of date.

But short of buying from your next door farm, generally your choices are going to be more what kinds of food you eat. Here are some guidelines based on the carbon estimates above.

BEEF: 13-19 kilograms of carbon dioxide for every kg of beef. And I think the actual impact would be higher if you include the methane from waste products.

CHEESE: 8.5 kg carbon emissions per kg hard cheese. Soft cheeses are better

PORK: 3.25-4.8 kg carbon emission per kg meat (not sure this takes into account the methane release from the waste which is quite high and can actually be a major source of fuel for energy production!)

CHICKEN: 3.5 kg carbon emission per kg meat

EGGS: 2 kg carbon emissions per kg eggs

YOGURT: 1.2 kg carbon emissions per kg of yogurt

MILK: 900 g carbon emission per kg milk

Vegan diets are, in general, the lowest in terms of carbon emissions. But just looking at meat, replacing beef with chicken can significantly cut your family's carbon foot print. And what strikes me is, coincidentally, the lower carbon emission meats tend also to be healthier and cheaper. So with chicken you cut the carbon footprint by about 75%, lower cholesterol, and at least where I shop save a fair amount of money. Leave out the cheese and bacon from your egg sandwich in the morning. Or better yet have a yogurt.

Now I eat beef from time to time (LOVE a good burger), but I stopped cooking it at home. I do pork (from a local farm!) or chicken as pretty much the only meat I use. When I use meat I use less of it, more like a flavoring than a major ingredient. And honestly about half the dinners I make are more or less vegetarian.

Let me add here that for ANY meat you get, please choose ones that are LABELED as being raised without antibiotics. This is another issue but one of almost equal importance.

Another more fun source for calculating the carbon impact of a meal can be found here:

Some lessons from that site: a chicken and cheese burrito has half the carbon footprint of a beef and cheese burrito. A burrito with rice, cheese and beans is even less.

An individual cheese pizza is about half the carbon footprint of a cheeseburger.

A chicken sandwich or turkey burger is even half of carbon footprint of the pizza.

And a falafel even half the carbon footprint of a chicken sandwich.

When ordering sushi salmon has a lower foot print than tuna which has a lower footprint than shrimp

And again I think in terms of health many of the lower carbon emission foods are healthier and often cheaper.

What you eat affects the climate, plain and simple. And you don't have to be vegan to significantly cut back your carbon footprint, though even a meat lover like me admits they generally are doing better in cutting back their carbon than I am.


Oil, coal and gas industries are telling us renewable energy CAN'T meet global energy demands. They each tell us that only THEY can fuel our needs. Well, the world's top climate scientists beg to differ. Simply put, starting now we can use renewable energy to fuel our increasing energy needs, in the process mitigating many environmental problems, including global warming and urban pollution. And what is often left out is the fact that many of these solutions create local jobs. If we just listen to the scientists and tell the oil, gas and coal advocates to shut up, we can do it.

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.

But growth will depend on having the right policies in place, it says...

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...

And from a Spanish organization, REVE:

Renewable energy can exceed global demand, according to IPCC

“The report clearly demonstrates that renewable technologies could supply the world with more energy than it would ever need, and at a highly competitive cost,” said Steve Sawyer, Secretary General of the Global Wind Energy Council.

The IPCC studied six renewable energy sectors – bioenergy, direct solar energy, geothermal, hydropower, ocean energy and wind energy. Renewable energy sources are expected to contribute up to 80% of global energy supply by 2050, according to a new report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Following a review of 164 scenarios, the IPCC found that renewables will play the major role in any successful plan to combat climate change...

Renewable energy sources and technologies considered in this report

Bioenergy can be produced from a variety of biomass feedstocks, including forest, agricultural and livestock residues; short-rotation forest plantations; energy crops; the organic component of municipal solid waste; and other organic waste streams. Through a variety of processes, these feedstocks can be directly used to produce electricity or heat, or can be used to create gaseous, liquid, or solid fuels. The range of bioenergy technologies is broad and the technical maturity varies substantially. Some examples of commercially available technologies include small- and large-scale boilers, domestic pellet-based heating systems, and ethanol production from sugar and starch.

Advanced biomass integrated gasification combined-cycle power plants and lignocellulose-based transport fuels are examples of technologies that are at a pre-commercial stage, while liquid biofuel production from algae and some other biological conversion approaches are at the research and development (R&D) phase. Bioenergy technologies have applications in centralized and decentralized settings, with the traditional use of biomass in developing countries being the most widespread current application.

Bioenergy typically offers constant or controllable output. Bioenergy projects usually depend on local and regional fuel supply availability, but recent developments show that solid biomass and liquid biofuels are increasingly traded internationally.

Direct solar energy technologies harness the energy of solar irradiance to produce electricity using photovoltaics (PV) and concentrating solar power (CSP), to produce thermal energy (heating or cooling, either through passive or active means), to meet direct lighting needs and, potentially, to produce fuels that might be used for transport and other purposes. The technology maturity of solar applications ranges from R&D (e.g., fuels produced from solar energy), to relatively mature (e.g., concentrated solar energy), to mature (e.g. passive and active solar heating, and wafer-based silicon PV).

Many but not all of the technologies are modular in nature, allowing their use in both centralized and decentralized energy systems. Solar energy is variable and, to some degree, unpredictable, though the temporal profile of solar energy output in some circumstances correlates relatively well with energy demands. Thermal energy storage offers the option to improve output control for some technologies such as CSP and direct solar heating.

Geothermal energy utilizes the accessible thermal energy from the Earth’s interior. Heat is extracted from geothermal reservoirs using wells or other means. Reservoirs that are naturally sufficiently hot and permeable are called hydrothermal reservoirs, whereas reservoirs that are sufficiently hot but that are improved with hydraulic stimulation are called enhanced geothermal systems (EGS). Once at the surface, fluids of various temperatures can be used to generate electricity or can be used more directly for applications that require thermal energy, including district heating or the use of lower-temperature heat from shallow wells for geothermal heat pumps used in heating or cooling applications. Hydrothermal power plants and thermal applications of geothermal energy are mature technologies, whereas EGS projects are in the demonstration and pilot phase while also undergoing R&D. When used to generate electricity, geothermal power plants typically offer constant output.

Hydropower harnesses the energy of water moving from higher to lower elevations, primarily to generate electricity. Hydropower projects encompass dam projects with reservoirs, run-of-river and in-stream projects and cover a continuum in project scale. This variety gives hydropower the ability to meet large centralized urban needs as well as decentralized rural needs. Hydropower technologies are mature. Hydropower projects exploit a resource that varies temporally. However, the controllable output provided by hydropower facilities that have reservoirs can be used to meet peak electricity demands and help to balance electricity systems that have large amounts of variable RE drinking water, irrigation, flood and drought control, and navigation, as well as energy supply.

Ocean energy derives from the potential, kinetic, thermal and chemical energy of seawater, which can be transformed to provide electricity, thermal energy, or potable water. A wide range of technologies are possible, such as barrages for tidal range, submarine turbines for tidal and ocean currents, heat exchangers for ocean thermal energy conversion, and a variety of devices to harness the energy of waves and salinity gradients. Ocean technologies, with the exception of tidal barrages, are at the demonstration and pilot project phases and many require additional R&D. Some of the technologies have variable energy output profiles with differing levels of predictability (e.g., wave, tidal range and current), while others may be capable of near-constant or even controllable operation (e.g., ocean thermal and salinity gradient).

Wind energy harnesses the kinetic energy of moving air. The primary application of relevance to climate change mitigation is to produce electricity from large wind turbines located on land (onshore) or in sea- or freshwater (offshore). Onshore wind energy technologies are already being manufactured and deployed on a large scale. Offshore wind power technologies have greater potential for continued technical advancement. Wind electricity is both variable and, to some degree, unpredictable, but experience and detailed studies from many regions have shown that the integration of wind energy generally poses no insurmountable technical barriers.

And from the Union of Concerned Scientists:

If the full range of renewable technologies were to be deployed, levels of heat-trapping emissions could be kept to concentrations lower than 450 parts per million. This level could help keep global temperatures from rising more than 2°F from current levels, the temperature beyond which scientists have predicted would likely lead to the most serious consequences of climate change.

The report points out that the renewable energy transition is already underway. Nearly half of new electric generating capacity added globally in both 2008 and 2009 was from renewable sources. The same was true in the United States, with wind, solar, and other renewable technologies providing more than 40 percent of the new generating capacity.

"This IPCC report makes it clear that renewable energy has tremendous potential to meet our energy needs and confront the challenge of climate change. But we must do much more to scale up clean energy sources," said Rachel Cleetus, UCS climate economist. "Many renewables are already economically competitive with fossil fuels and nuclear energy, especially when you take into account all the hidden costs of conventional energy—such as public health risks, air and water pollution, global warming emissions, and security risks."

In a 2009 analysis titled “Climate 2030: A National Blueprint for a Clean Energy Economy,” UCS concluded that by adopting a comprehensive package of climate and clean energy policies in the U.S., renewable sources could provide 25 percent of the nation’s energy supply and 50 percent of electricity generation by 2030. When combined with investments in energy efficiency, renewable energy, according to the UCS analysis, could help reduce heat-trapping emissions in 2030 by 56 percent from 2005 levels and save consumers money in every region of the country.

“To reach a low-carbon global economy by 2050 requires making smart policy choices and investments today,” said Steve Clemmer, UCS Director of Energy Research and Analysis. “Here in the U.S. we can make serious progress by building on what the states have already done and adopt strong national renewable electricity and energy efficiency standards, and a price on carbon. That’s a sure way to transition to a clean energy economy while driving down costs and significantly reducing emissions.”

One problem with the info from the coal, oil and gas industries is that they only tend to take into account two or three renewable sources. Most places can take advantage of multiple sources which complement each other, at least largely addressing the issues of variable availability of sources like solar and wind.

Now is the time. The report focuses on policy makers, and this is critical. But we, as consumers, also have to step up to the plate. YOU can make a difference and if you do it right, you can save money in the process. There are three basic actions you can take that together will greatly help the environment while saving you money.

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. It is important, however, to dispose of them properly. Could be an excuse to go to your local IKEA and have some Swedish, I mean some chicken while disposing of your CFLs.

At the same time that we switched to compact fluorescent bulbs, we also switched to all green energy (in our case all wind). This cost a tiny bit (a few pennies) more per kilowatt-hour of energy usage, but this was way offset by the savings using compact fluorescents. Together we went all green energy and saved money. You can find out about 100% Green Energy Plans or click here for other options. To see what green pricing options are available in New York through Con Ed click here.

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


There is some controversy here, largely because there have been some scams associated with carbon offsets. And also there is no question that cutting back your carbon usage to start (see above suggestions) than offsetting, but I do some offsets as well.

Best carbon offset program according to GreenAmerica (formerly Co-op America, a group I have had dealings with for many years and I trust): (other ones listed there don't seem to be available anymore)

NativeEnergy takes an innovative approach to selling green tags as offsets. Instead of offering them from existing green energy facilities, it sells green tags from facilities that are yet to be built, representing the environmental benefits these future projects will generate. In this way, green tag and offset purchases through NativeEnergy help fund construction of new wind turbines and other projects. Better still, these green energy projects are all owned and operated by Native American tribes and small-scale farmers in the US, providing economic benefits to these populations.

In short, NativeEnergy’s model makes new green energy facilities financially viable that would have otherwise lacked the capital to go forward, increasing clean energy generation capacity and building the infrastructure for a low-carbon future.

Best offset programs from Planet Green based on a Tufts University study (not sure how good a source they are, but some of their suggestions I know are goo):

Native Energy: ...offset a ton of carbon for only [$12]. They are the least expensive of the best.

Atmosfair (German company?) received a ranking of Excellent from Tufts. They will reduce one ton of CO2 for $17.30.

Climate Friendly (Australian company) also received the ranking of Excellent from Tufts. They will offset one ton of carbon for $14.50.

Carbon Fund and TerraPass are also ones I am familiar with and they seem good. They tend be cheaper than the above listed ones but don't get the same high marks from independent agencies. They are better than not doing it at all, but Native Energy sounds the best balance of price to effectiveness.

So there you have it. Eating, energy use and carbon offsets are ways you can become part of the solution and help put off or even prevent that looming tipping point. There is no more time to put it off. ANY positive change you can make is worthwhile. My wife and I use public transportation, CFLs, wind energy, shop at a food co-op, and offset. We do this for our kids more than anything else, but it also just feels right.

And don't forget to write your elected officials and media advocating for green energy and environmental policies that address global warming.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

East African Mystery Disease: Nodding Syndrome

I just heard about this recently, despite having considerable interest in East Africa and being a biologist. This is one of those medical mysteries that can take many years to solve and may well represent something new medically.

East African children, particularly in Uganda, Tanzania and South Sudan, are being hit with a devastating disease called "Nodding Syndrome" after one of its early symptoms. Stimuli like eating or cold seems to trigger an involuntary nodding motion of the head which often stop when the triggering stimulus stops. However, these motions can also be the precursor to much more severe seizures such as complete freezing or grand-mal seizures. Only familiar foods trigger the response. Children presented with unfamiliar foods do not go into seizures. The disorder leads to stunted brain development and atrophy and stunted overall growth and is usually ultimately fatal. Direct damage to the brain, injury during a seizure, as well as malnutrition due to difficulty in eating because of the seizures triggered by eating are main causes of death.

The cause is unknown and there is no treatment except to try and mitigate the symptoms.

This disease was first recognized in the 1960's by Dr. Louise Jilek-Aall in an isolated area of Tanzania. It got little attention until recently now that it has spread into a much wider area. In some ways the political focus on South Sudan has brought the disease wider attention and recent attempts by the CDC to identify the cause focused on South Sudan. This attempt found a high correlation between the disease and infection with a parasitic worm called Onchocerca volvulus, the nematode worm that causes "river blindness" disease. However in other villages there was no correlation between infection with this worm and nodding syndrome. To my eyes this sounds like an unlikely causative agent, but so far it remains the best candidate. If so it represents new evolution within the worm because it seems not to have caused this kind of disease before. So something in the host-parasite relationship has changed.

However, I also wonder if this might be a new manifestation of a prion disease, a type of disease (like "mad cow disease") that affects the nervous system and which can be incredibly hard to identify the causative agent. It is not clear to me if the brain pathologies have been tested for prions but it seems like it would be something that could be at least quickly ruled out. To me it sounds like it has some aspects in common, but this could easily be a superficial resemblance. I have seen prions brought up as a possible causative agent but I have seen no data related to this hypothesis. However, one aspect does not fit: most prion diseases are caused by people eating meat from an animal that had a prion disease. Since the prion protein is from another species, the change in the human nervous system is slower to develop and usually only manifests in old age. The fact that this mostly affects children suggests either that it is not a prion disease or that the source is from an animal whose prion protein is more similar to our own. Some have suggested the bushmeat trade as a source, but here why is it almost exclusively children? That is a question that all the hypotheses have trouble answering. No matter what the causative agent is it seems to mainly affect the DEVELOPING brain and not the adult brain. This is different from prion diseases and other seemingly similar disorders like Alzheimer's.

Viral causes that have been tested for have proven negative, but this probably is not an exhaustive study, so there may well be virus families that could be the causative agent.

The World Health Organization has these recommendations for treatment:

Recommendations so far made by the team include: Children with nodding syndrome be given antiepileptic drugs given that children with NS also have seizures that are responsive to antiepileptic medications. The current mass treatment program be supplemented in areas of apparent high Onchocerciasis endemnicity and Children with NS be psychologically and socially supported.

More info here:

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Forced Mormon Conversion of Catholic and Jewish Dead

This is an amazing affront to people of all religions. The Mormons appear to have this little habit of baptizing dead Jews and Catholics, among others, without ANYONE'S consent. This is a HUGE presumption and HUGELY insulting to most Jews, Catholics, and other non-Mormons. But now we learn that they went so far as to baptize Simon Wiesenthal's parents as well as Elie Wiesel (prematurely?) and members of his family. Of course they are apologizing now and claiming it was the work of one rogue individual, but given that this was a deliberate policy such apologies and claims strike me as complete bullshit.

From BBC news:

Jews Asher and Rosa Rapp Wiesenthal were baptised in proxy ceremonies in the US states of Arizona and Utah in January, records show.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spokesman Michael Purdy said the Church' s leaders "sincerely regret" the actions of "an individual member".

The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center denounced the news.

"We are outraged that such insensitive actions continue in the Mormon temples," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, a spokesman at the centre...

Evidence that Wiesenthal's parents had been baptised was found by Helen Radkey, a researcher and former Mormon, AP reported.

She regularly checks the Church' s database, and also recently found the names of Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and several family members on the Mormon list...

"The only way such insensitive practices would finally stop is if church leaders finally decided to change their practices and policies on posthumous baptisms, a move which this latest outrage proves that they are unwilling to do," he said.

The Catholic Church has also objected to posthumous baptisms of its members.

[NOTE: I am not sure if the inclusion of Elie Wiesel on the list is a mistake on the part of reporters or on the part of the Mormons...Elie Wiesel isn't dead yet!]

For the Mormon church to claim that it is just the error or misbehavior of one member ignores the fact that this kind of posthumous baptism is CHURCH POLICY. Given that it has been Mormon church policy, it is something that Romney should be challenged on and Elie Wiesel has called on Romney to speak on the issue:

Wiesel said that the situation has gotten so out of hand that the most prominent Mormon in the country should speak out about it.

"I wonder if as a candidate for the presidency Mitt Romney is aware of what his church is doing. I hope that if he hears about this that he will speak up," Wiesel said, noting that a presidential candidate "should comment on everything."

Supporters of Romney have accused the media of linking him to controversial church practices even as they give other Mormons, such as Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, a pass. The Republican frontrunner has said that he has personally performed proxy baptisms as part of the Mormon Church.

HuffPost reached out via email to the Romney campaign for comment. In an email accidentally sent to the reporter, spokeswoman Gail Gitcho suggested that the campaign ignore the request.

Yes...Romney has performed such disgusting "conversions" HIMSELF and his campaign is trying to ignore the issue. And his campaign is STUPID enough to accidently send that info to the press (I assume pressing "reply" instead of "forward," something I have done but not with sensitive info!!!).

For more on this issue read this article from

And here is a statement from the Vatican on this issue.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Musical Discoveries: The Evolution of my Son's Tastes in Music

My son has always had an affinity for music, though sometimes that affinity has taken strange and unexpected turns. Most recently he happened to notice something I was reminding myself of after Clint Eastwood's Superbowl ad (I was listening to the theme song to Kelly's Heroes) and he IMMEDIATELY loved it and wanted to learn the lyrics.

Many of these songs he for awhile picked up the lyrics (where there are lyrics and even if in a language none of us knew). Partly I just love the variety. And many are things that he helped me discover.

Highlights of my son's musical tastes over the years (Pokemon songs NOT included!)

Kodo Drummers of Japan "Iromori" and "Lion": (1-2 years old) one of his VERY first songs to actually sing (he couldn't do the words yet, but he got the tune) was...well, this: (<1-2 years old)

5 6 7 8's "Woo Hoo": (1-2 years old) He was VERY into this every time a Vonage commercial came on, and ultimately got us interested in Vonage (which we finally switched to recently after MetTel screwed us three months in a row).

Afia Mala (Royal Princess of Togo) singing Segne: (2-3 years old)

Bob Marley "Three Little Birds": (3-4 years old)

Woodie Guthrie This Land is Your Land: (3-5 years old)

"L'cha Dodi" sung by the Abayudaya, Jews of Uganda:

Tom Lehrer The Elements: (4-6 years old)

And my son singing the same song at the age of 5: (yes with some air guitar as well)

The Clash Lost in the Supermarket: (4-5 years old) (sorry this one has an ad before the music)

Pink Floyd "Wish You Were Here" and "Welcome to the Machine": (4-5 years old)

Gogol Bordello "Immigraniada": (6 years old)

Matisyahu "Youth": (6-7 years old)

"Ode to Joy" by Beethoven...okay this isn't the version he knows but I couldn't resist (he does like the song, though!)

And his sister got him briefly into Bohemian Rhapsody...and I think THIS should be the canonical version:

And, most strangely perhaps, his most recent favorite: Mike Curb Congregation "Burning Bridges" (which happens to come from one of my old favorite movie classics): (7 years old)

I am amazed at the variety of what catches his attention and we seldom (with a few exceptions like the Elements Song, which came after he was already obsessed with Chemistry) can predict what he will latch on to.

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Monday, February 6, 2012

Best WW II Movie EVER:Kelly's Heroes

One of my all time favorite movies is Kelly's Heroes, a 1970 WW II classic starring Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Donald Sotherland, Carrol O'Conner and many other wonderful actors.

The plot is basically some American GI's learn of a relatively unguarded bank containing a huge amount of gold behind German lines and decide to sneak in and steal it. Their efforts are misinterpreted by an American general (played by Carrol O'Connor and loosely based on Patton) as an unexpected American offensive into German occupied territory. So the GI's have to race against the actual American advance and negotiate with the small but strong German garrison in order to steal the gold.

It was one of many movies of that era with a similar superb cast and well executed (if not always historically accurate) plots. Where Eagles Dare may be one of the most historically inaccurate of the genre (but still fun) and Battle of the Bulge may be one of the top classics of that genre.

But for me Kelly's Heroes, with a bank robbery as its goal but by no means its main theme, is the best of the best. Simple plot but with wonderfully elaborated details and amazing acting. Not to mention a wonderful soundtrack:

AND, not to mention, some cool and very well thought out tank encounters:

Along with the Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare, Kelly's Heroes is a MUST OWN WW II classic.

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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Revisting: Preventing and Dealing With Bed Bugs

Best bed bug mattress cover for bedbug infestation

Once again I see that this problem is SPREADING and people still are mostly ignoring what they have to do to prevent problems. PLEASE spread the word so bed bugs don't keep spreading.

The plague of bed bugs continues to spread in America, even though it is not THAT hard to prevent spread of these pests. But no one seems to be paying attention to the ways that bed bugs can be kept at bay. Every day I am seeing more and more mattresses, entire beds, and other furniture thrown away because of bed bugs. But people CAN limit their risk if they put their minds to it. With information you can save time, money and stress. But very few people are doing it.

All of America is at risk of bed bug infestations. Many very fancy hotels are already infested. Many homes are infested. But your risk can be reduced and there are many things you can do to limit your chances of getting these pests.

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 sveral mattresses and couches wrapped in plastic laid out (unnecessarily!) on the street to be discarded, probably due to a bed bug scare or infestation. The last few weeks 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. More recently an alert shareholder saw a single bed bug in their apartment. They caught it and put it in a bag so it could be identified. So far it seems like that is the only bed bug to make it in, but the building is spending hundreds of dollars to make sure.

The bad news is the problem continues to spread and a lot of what is being done about it is actually 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 shoes (including your own to re-infest your own 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.

click Here to View Our Selection of Bed Bug Products


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. In fact, many scientists believe that over use of insecticides is exactly why we are having our current influx of bed bugs.

Another aspect that I suspect may be 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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