7.31.2011

the only good bargaining is collective bargaining

From time to time, I sell things on Craigslist and Kijiji. I've given away scads of things on Freecycle, including, when we were packing up to move to Canada, a huge air conditioner, bedroom furniture, a couch, and other items considered gems by Freecyclers. But right now money is tight and I'm not feeling as generous, so I go the Craigslist/Kijiji route. I get rid of stuff we don't need, someone gets a good deal, and I get a little extra cash. Everyone wins.

Bargaining sucks

My constant irritant is The Bargainers. I dislike bargaining and I don't want to do it. I include the phrase "price is firm" in my ad, but that doesn't stop the Bargainers. Some are polite: "Would you accept $40?". Many are downright demanding: "I will pay $30. Give me your phone number.". I don't care. The more they insist, the less I want to play the game.


The whole concept of bargaining runs counter to my preference for direct communication. First, state a fictitious price, merely a device used to begin an opaque but predictable process. The "real" price is obscured. The two parties engage in... what, exactly? A predictable dance? A test of wills? A bit of theatre? All of the above? To my mind, it's a useless exercise. When I shop, I want to know the price of an item - the real price - then I can decide whether or not I want to buy it.

It's not that I don't understand the language of bargaining or don't know how it's done. I have bargained successfully in the past. I don't wear a watch, and before the advent of cell phones, I used to carry a very small travel clock, similar to this. I'd buy them in one of the many cheap electronic stores that used to fill midtown Manhattan. Typically, there were the posted prices - also known as "tourist prices" - and the real prices, which were never posted. I could always buy a little clock for $20. Sometimes the posted price was as high as $35 or $40, but I could always get one for $20. In those days, I found it kind of fun, a cheap thrill, an affirmation of my status as Real New Yorker. So it's not that I can't bargain. I just wish no one did it. These days, even if I lived near a little electronic shop filled with tourist prices, I'd go to Best Buy, where the price is the price. (Although many people would dispute even that. Among the zillions of books and websites preaching Thou Shalt Haggle, there are even instructions on how to haggle at chain stores.) To some people, a lowered price is an accomplishment worth any amount of time. I want to go in, buy what I need, and get out.

I understand that for some people, there is a cultural imperative to haggle. But there's no law that says I have to adopt other people's cultural practices. Many people claim that in certain countries, one is expected to bargain, a supposed truism most budget-travel guides emphasize. But is it necessary? Is it fair? In Peru, we saw hundreds of people selling the exact same item. In a glutted market, prices were ridiculously low. Our dollars went so far there, we could afford anything we wanted. Perhaps the price after bargaining would be $5 or $10 less. In the context of how much money we spent on that trip - in context of our privilege of travel - that is a pittance. But to the seller, an extra 15 or 20 nuevo soles could make a very real difference. If someone wants to laugh at the gringa who paid the asking price, why should that bother me? (In Peru, I don't think anyone thought us fools. I think rich, haggling tourists were regarded with annoyance. But perhaps I was projecting.)

One day we may travel in a country where I'd be truly foolish not to bargain. But that country is not Mississauga. With my Craigslist sales, it's gotten to the point where I obstinately refuse to bargain. It would be simpler just to slightly raise my asking price, then take the Bargainer's offer. But I'm incredibly - irrationally - resistant to this. The more insistent and demanding the Bargainer, the more I resist.

I am selling an Oreck steam iron. It is brand new, been used once. It retails for $50 or $60. I am asking $25. Here's a recent exchange, copied and pasted unedited from my emails.

Bargainer: $15 cash and will pick it up tonight call me thanks

Me: Thank you for your email. The price is firm at $25. Please let me know if you are still interested.

Bargainer: i'm a serious buyer will be there tonight $20 cash final offer [He repeats "cash" as if there is some other means of purchasing items on Craigslist.]

Me: I'm sorry if anything in my email gave you the impression I am bargaining. The price is firm at $25. Thank you.

Bargainer: i only have $20 but i will be there tonight what is your address

I didn't reply. I felt like raising the price to $30.

I recently sold a piece of exercise equipment for $50. A prospective buyer asked, "Would you accept $40?" I replied, "No thank you, the price is firm at $50. Let me know if you are still interested." She was. She pulled up to the house in a BMW, and took cash out of a Coach wallet, her hand well-manicured and glistening with bling. But she tried to get $10 off the asking price.

A long time ago, when I was newer to Canada, I blogged about the indirect communication I was sensing from co-workers and neighbours. I like people to say what they mean, and mean what they say. Good or bad will between neighbours shouldn't depend on following a secret code, especially if we have no idea if we're even carrying the same codebook. The price of an item shouldn't depend on my ability to wrench a different price out of the seller.

Collective bargaining is the opposite of haggling

Neither should my salary. Widening the lens, when you work in a private-sector, non-unionized environment as I do, a similar dynamic exists during the interview process. Prospective employers want to know your "salary expectations". You try to aim high, expecting to be low-balled. I have managed to wring a few extra dollars out of an employer, then was forced to sign a confidentiality agreement, so my co-workers wouldn't know how badly they were getting screwed. (I violated it.) I have an idea. Tell me what the job pays for someone with my level of experience. Pay everyone with the same job with the same level of experience the same pay.


I recently reviewed the collective bargaining agreement between CUPE Local 966 and the Mississauga Library System. You know what the best part of that agreement is? The fact that it exists. The fact that a bunch of people representing all the employees and a bunch of people representing the employer sat down together and hammered out a contract that both parties can live with. Neither party, presumably, got everything it wanted. Both parties, presumably, feel satisfied with the results. And those results are there for all to see. The codebook is public information. And because it is, when I am hired by the Mississauga Library System, my salary won't depend on my ability to talk the Library into an extra dollar an hour, and to get that extra dollar I won't have to give up half my benefits. I won't have to face my employer alone, each of my co-workers equally alone, each of us fumbling in the dark, forced to take whatever the employer offers, fooled into believing it's the best possible deal, cowed into believing we're lucky just to have jobs. My pay and benefits will all be known in advance, and will have been negotiated in part by someone representing my own interests.

When I was writing professionally, whenever I'd balk at some horrible rights-grabbing contract, I always heard the same thing: No one else has complained. All our other writers have signed this. No one has ever mentioned this is a problem. We had no idea. Every single editor or publisher I worked with said this. Too bad for them that I belonged to the National Writers Union. I already knew that hundreds, maybe thousands, of writers had complained, had refused to sign, had insisted on changing language. I knew I wasn't alone, so it was easier to stand my ground. I didn't always win, but it was always worth trying - for myself and for all the other writers who were also trying to negotiate more equitable contracts.

Alone, we are helpless. What leverage did I have against Time Warner Media or Hearst Communications? The same leverage I have with my current employer: none. As a group, united - or even armed with a bit of information - we might be able to win a bit of justice.

It's one thing to hear employers bad-mouth unions. If it weren't for organized labour, employers wouldn't be bothered with profit-draining bits of socialism, like weekends, paid holidays, workplace safety provisions and a minimum wage. I understand why they don't like unions. But when I hear working people parrot the "unions were once necessary but they've outlived their usefulness" line, I want to scream. Apparently they don't understand that if it hadn't been for the labour movement, we'd be living in those "once necessary" times right now. Much of the world still is. Labour unions are needed - right now, right here, in North America - as much as they were in the 1920s or the 1850s: a fact Ikea has just learned, Rite Aid has learned and Starbucks may soon learn.

* * * *

Update on haggling. After chatting in comments, I feel I may have failed to make my central point. The reason I dislike haggling isn't the attitude of hagglers - it's the unfairness to the buyer. I want everyone to be offered the same price for the same product, regardless ability or inclination to haggle. As Allan put it: People who are shy or hesitant are penalized for who they are. They may end up paying more for items and also earn less at their jobs.

video: 14-year-old girl's impassioned plea for public libraries


Annika Tabovaradan is an awesome force in the world. She is a girl willing to overcome her fears to defend her rights and the rights of others, a girl who sees herself as part of a community, who understands that we all depend on each other. Down the road, when she stops saying "I hate public speaking" and "I"m not making much sense," she's also going to be an awesome public speaker.

Story: Wild Applause for teen's 2 a.m. speech for libraries

7.30.2011

get well jack

In case you haven't already, you can send Jack Layton your good wishes.

at last, the search is over

Quite possibly the world's cutest puppy.

good news! another positive federal court decision for u.s. war resister in canada

Last Monday, the Federal Court of Canada released a decision reaffirming there is evidence that war resisters are targets of punishment because of their political beliefs if forced to return to the United States.

The judgment in the judicial review of US war resister and veteran Chris Vassey's case found the Immigration and Refugee Board's "lack of analysis of the evidence before it concerning the independence and impartiality of the US court-martial system, as well as the lack of reasons for preferring contrary evidence to that of the applicant to be unreasonable."

This is the tenth Federal Court or Federal Court of Appeal decision since 2008 in favour of US war resisters who are seeking permanent resident status in Canada. It is also the eighth Federal Court decision to recognize that war resisters are singled out for more severe punishment because they have expressed objections to war.

In his July 18 decision concerning Chris Vassey, The Honourable André F.J. Scott criticized the IRB, writing that it "largely ignored the evidence ... about similarly situated individuals and prosecutorial discretion" and that "where prosecutorial discretion is used to inflict a disproportionately severe punishment on a deserter because of his or her political opinion, this may amount to persecution. . . . The Court finds that the Board's failure to assess the evidence before it concerning the application of prosecutorial discretion on the grounds of political opinion was unreasonable."

Justice Scott further found that the IRB was "under a duty to consider the evidence before it and address that which conflicted with its conclusions" but its "failure to do so with respect to the issue of applicable defences to the charge of desertion in US court-martial proceedings was unreasonable."

This means Chris will have a new IRB hearing before a new Board member.

* * * *

On a personal note, I had the opportunity to hear Chris' IRB hearing (Allan and I transcribed it for his lawyer) and I attended the Federal Court hearing that resulted in this decision, so I'm very familiar with the details of his case. Chris was a proud soldier and veteran who worked hard and believed in the justness of the cause. The heinous behaviour of the US military wrenched all that from him. To continue to serve, Chris would have had to murder his own conscience. He could no longer participate in the war, but there was no legal way for him to leave it. His only option was desertion.

Like many of my war resister friends, Chris has suffered hardships since coming to Canada, especially being separated from his family during times of bereavement and other serious crises. It isn't easy.

The large majority of Canadians support US war resisters in Canada and believe they should be allowed to stay. It's obvious the IRB process is politicized and stacked against them from the start. The Federal Court of Canada has consistently ruled in their favour. It's time to Let Them Stay.

7.29.2011

the ford brothers vs libraries, next installment: reason for hope


By now you've probably heard that the City of Toronto public budget hearings continued through the night and into the morning, making this the longest City Council meeting in the city's history.The Star reports:
Some 168 people took Mayor Rob Ford up on his invitation to tell him what they think of the suggestions. It was the kind of meeting where, at 4:30 a.m. in a city hall surrounded by hushed streets, a 14-year-old girl sobbed as she told the mayor how much she loves her local library.

Between 9:30 a.m. Thursday and 6:30 a.m. Friday, only two speakers endorsed any kind of cutting. The rest alternately criticized, mocked, pleaded with and reasoned with a placid Ford, who acknowledged the comments of only a few before the meeting finally ended at 8:55 a.m. Friday — 22 hours and 25 minutes after it began.
Although this story contains plenty of cynicism about the process and fatalism about the results, there is reason for hope. From Maureen Reilly, President of the Toronto Public Workers Union:
We’re making an impact.

This morning, around 1:45 am, I appeared before the City of Toronto Executive Committee to tell them how much Torontonians support our public library.

To make our point, we brought 10 full boxes of messages that you and tens of thousands of others in the city have sent to City Hall in support of the Toronto Public Library.


The room, which was still packed to the rafters even in the middle of the night, erupted when we marched in with our boxes, cheering and clapping for a very long time. Nearly half of the presenters talked about our public library in their presentations, and many others devoted their entire presentations to defend the TPL.

A young woman was overcome by emotion as she testified about how terrible it would be if her library closed. It was very moving for me and for the members of the Executive Committee.

Our campaign is producing results. This week, two Councillors who are part of Mayor Ford’s inner circle declared that they will not support cuts to our public library, and the Globe and Mail published an excellent editorial in support of our public library. And today, we will surpass the 40,000 signature mark on our petition!

But we haven’t reached the finish line yet. In fact, we need to re-double our efforts.
The final decision on drastic budget cuts to TPL will come in a vote at the end of September. If you live in the GTA and value public libraries, it's our job to keep up the heat until then. Stay tuned.

From the Globe and Mail:
Put aside the question of whether or not Toronto Councillor and mayoral confidant Doug Ford knows what Margaret Atwood looks like or has read her books. What is shocking is his suggestion that a great literary icon should “go run in the next election and get democratically elected” if she is concerned about funding for libraries.

Ms. Atwood has an unquestioned right to stand for libraries. Every citizen does. As she says, “This is about what sort of city the people of Toronto want to live in.”

Presumably, they, like people in other Canadian cities, want a city that aspires to the best. And, in fact, Toronto’s public library system is among the best. Not only the best in Canada, but in North America.

Toronto’s system is the second largest, by number of branches, and the busiest by circulation, on the continent. New York City public libraries lent out 24 million volumes in 2010; Toronto’s lent out over 32 million. The system has innovated, offering music and e-book downloads, making Internet access widely available, delivering materials to local branches, and lending out cards that give free access to local museums.

Mr. Ford’s attack is ironic, because no public service puts democracy on display more than libraries. Toronto and other cities that have invested in them foster a learning and reading culture. How? By democratizing knowledge. And the value of the system is inseparable from its density. Yet Mr. Ford attacked that too, complaining about the number of libraries in his own ward.

That doesn’t mean that a rigorous review of library spending should not be part of efforts to rein in the municipal budget. And Mayor Rob Ford, Doug Ford’s brother, is right to be aggressive in seeking budgetary savings across the city. But government is not exclusively a site of bureaucratic slumber or waste. It can be a wellspring of excellence. There are some things that the city does very well, and Toronto’s public libraries represent the best of that city’s public services. There is no shortage of other areas that deserve closer scrutiny.
I don't necessarily agree with that last bit, but it's clear that in targetting the public library, Rob Ford has gone too far.

PS: I don't even live in Toronto, but as someone who works and goes to school there, I'm entitled to a Toronto Public Library card. I have it and I use it. I intend to fight for it, too. In case you haven't signed yet: go here.

7.27.2011

imp strump: the library as public oasis

Impudent Strumpet:
If home is too crowded or noisy or uncomfortable or abusive or non-existent, having somewhere else to go - a perfectly respectable place to go and to be (compare the connotations of spending hours in the library vs. spending hours in the bar) - can be a lifesaver. And once you're there, it's full of tools for educating and improving yourself or, worst case, quietly amusing yourself.
This quality, this truly public oasis, explains a fair portion of my love for libraries. Read: The other other awesome thing about libraries.

torontoist: will the anger against ford be a tipping point? ten things to know

Excellent analysis from Torontoist:
It is far too soon to tell whether the long, dense sequence of anger-inspiring comments, falsehoods, and dubious policy decisions Rob and Doug Ford have been responsible for this month will represent, in retrospect, some sort of tipping point in this administration. What is certain is that across Toronto, a rapid-fire sequence of decisions and proclamations is causing an upsurge of anger among many residents.

Like all mayoralties, Ford's is complex. There are many entry points to analysis and a great many questions to which we do not yet know the answers. (Does Ford think that a raft of budget cuts will genuinely make Toronto a better city, for instance, or does he not care about greatness so long as things cost less?) But as the torrent of articles, quotable quotes, and op/eds builds, one theme has been emerging more clearly of late: anger is all well and good, but will it change anything? The Brothers Ford may offend our sensibilities, but collective outrage is a reaction, not a remedy.

A great many substantial criticisms have been levied against our mayor, by a great many people. And just about every time he or Brother Doug say something eyebrow-raising (or worse), these criticism are revisited far and wide. Let us summarize them and stipulate them for the record—
Collective outrage is a reaction, not a remedy. I agree. Collective outrage is, however, a necessary precursor. No remedy will be found without it.

Read: Ten Things About Rob Ford

the ford brothers vs. libraries, continued

Doug Ford: "Why do we need another little library in the middle of nowhere that no one uses?"

Library users: "We want our votes back."

The Star is devoting some serious real estate to Fords vs. TPL. I happened to see a hard copy (at the library!) today, and was very pleased to see such a strong defence of TPL - and Margaret Atwood - on the front page of the GTA section.
Fadumo Elmi had a message for Doug Ford Tuesday night. “I gave him my vote,” she said sternly outside Northern Elms.

“If he closes the library, I want back my vote.”

If Ford's comments raised eyebrows at City Hall, they raised blood pressure among patrons of this supposedly disposable library.

Statistics from the Toronto Public Library show that usage is rising at the branch, with 15 per cent more checkouts in June 2011 compared to last year.

“My blood is boiling,” said Beverly Pringle, a resident of the ward since 1984.

“As you can see, (the library) is really rather important to me,” she said, using her cane to tap a teetering stack of books on tape she was picking up for two sight-impaired friends.

Pringle noted that while Ford is right that the library is hidden behind a large Shoppers Drug Mart, that doesn't mean it's underutilized.

The area draws busloads of seniors like her, she said, who use the drugstore and then go around back to borrow books.

She also noted that the neighbourhood's diversity — 60 per cent of residents are visible minorities, according to census data — makes the location particularly vital.

“It's attended by a very ethnic mix. These kids are learning to love English stories at a very, very early age,” she said.

The Somali-born Elmi and her family confirm Pringle's views.

Elmi's 18-year-old daughter, Kawsar, said “many people from my community, the Somali-Canadian community, come here. . . . I don't think they would want this library branch closed down.”

Kawsar and her siblings have been coming to Northern Elms to study every day after school for years.

“I grew up with this library,” she said, while surfing the web with her brother, Abdirahman, 13.

“There's so many other things they could cut off. A library is a place of learning.”

Kawsar also voted for Ford. “I'm not voting for him now,” she said Tuesday.

Brian Koops was laid off two years ago and had to move from an expensive apartment near the lake to public housing in this neighbourhood.

He doesn't have the Internet at home. He just finished a course to upgrade his skills, and now he uses the library's computers to look for work, among other things.

“People don't use it for whatever, they use it because they need to,” Koops said.

Rene Guerra, who works in a bank, was at the library to read books with his son.

He also voted for Ford, and wonders now if he made the wrong choice. “Too late,” he says darkly.

For Hassan Mirza, 6, leafing through a dinosaur book at the library with his mom and three-year-old sister, the answer was a lot less complicated.

“I try very hard to read,” he said.
Tomorrow's Executive Committee meeting: pack the house!

trials of a student librarian: i can shelve

I passed the page test!

I think it was a bit easier than I was led to believe. On the phone, I was told the test had to be completed in six minutes. But before the actual test, I was told I had "up to 10 minutes," with points deducted for time over six minutes.

When I finished, I said, "If I'm under six minutes, I'd like to double-check my work." The reply: "You're not under." Oh shit! But two people checked the books, and informed me that I passed. Whew!

It will be a while until I'm actually hired and start work, but what felt like a huge hurdle is behind me.

support bradley manning: actions and updates

As I hope you know, accused WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley Manning was transferred to Fort Leavenworth and is now reportedly being treated like other prisoners, no longer singled out for various tortures and degradations. This improvement was the direct result of international activism on Manning's behalf.

For Manning's supporters, the immediate goal is now a public accounting for the illegal and inhumane conditions he endured while being held at Quantico. The United Nations is investigating the matter, but US officials are denying their reasonable request to meet with Bradley without monitors.

Juan Mendez, the UN's top official on torture, has requested unmonitored meetings with Bradley. Mr. Mendez wants to insure that international protocol for prisoner treatment and justice are followed. The Bradley Manning Support Network is asking us to phone the White House and the Secretary of the Army, and ask them to comply with the UN's request. (You can read the UN statement here.)

Call the White House: 202.456.1414

Call the Secretary of the Army: 703.697.3491 (Office of Public Affairs Officer Lt. Anne Edgecomb)

Ask President Obama and Secretary of the Army John McHugh to respect the UN Convention Against Torture by allowing UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez to conduct an official visit with Bradley Manning.

* * * *

The group Revolution Truth has written an open letter to Manning. To sign, see link below.
Bradley,

We hope that this letter finds you healthy and strong. You have already seen adversity that most people do not bear in a lifetime, and we are sadly aware of the hardships you face. We are sending this letter to you in the hopes that our feelings of support may help you to bear these days. We want you to know that we, people all over the world, are fighting for you. We can gladly say that we are many.

Your case has become a great symbol to all of us. It has bound us together in an awareness of our shared interests, shared responsibilities, and shared fate. There is much that we do not know, but irrespective of the truths of your particular case, your flag has become the standard of an indefatigable civil movement, straddling generations and borders, striving inexorably against the great injustices of our time, for which the injustices you suffer are the tragic emblem. Your tenure in that small prison cell has reached across the world, moving many people, ushering a generation to awareness and action. Your name is on all our lips, and your face, for us, is an icon of moral courage.

You stand accused of upholding justice when her bearers let her banner fall. You are accused of actions that no law should rightly prohibit while remaining law. When the law is turned against conscience and courage, it is turned against itself. Our society has lost its way.

Your prosecution under this ruse of justice is already written into history as a persecution, not of one man, but of us all. It is not a single injustice, but an injustice to end the pretense of justice. It is unique and urgent. It is wrong that you suffer, while those who committed the crimes that were exposed, who started a horrific and unjustifiable war based on lies, are excused. Whether you did what you are accused of or not, what you have gone through since your arrest would be unimaginable for most of us. You are a hero among us. We cannot, and will not, turn away from supporting you.

We are keenly aware of your sacrifice. Be strong for us, Bradley, because we know that you suffer as one of us, for us. We will be relentless in our efforts to see justice done by you. Accept our fellowship, and know this: you are forever ours now and we salute you, and forever thank you.

We hold you in our hearts. We stand with you.

We are all Bradley Manning.
Your brothers, sisters, friends,

The undersigned.
Sign here.

toronto, your mayor wants to hear from you. tell him you value your public library.

When Toronto City Council’s executive committee meets on Thursday to start making decisions about the future of the Toronto Public Library, you can help defend Toronto Public Library. And if you can't make it, you can surely make a phone call.

The committee’s first item of business is the infamous KPMG report recommending branch closures, reduced hours, cuts to programs - and privatization.

Anyone can get on a speakers list to make a five minute statement about why the Toronto Public Library is important. Just send an email to exc@toronto.ca to request an opportunity to speak. For more information about the meeting, go here.

Rob Ford said he wants to hear from all Torontonians. On CTV last week, he said:
I still return every call that comes in. Anyone who wants to call me, they can call 416-397-3673.
Let's take him up on it. Call 416.397.3673 and leave a message about how important the Toronto Public Library is. (Please be nice.)

So, if you value the Toronto Public Library, and you want to help save it, here's how you can help.

1. If you want to speak at the City Council Executive Committee Meeting, email exc@toronto.ca.

2. Whether or not you would speak, you can help pack the house:
Toronto City Council Executive Committee Meeting
Thursday, July 28
9:30 a.m.
City Hall, committee room 1

3. Whether or not you can do any of the above: call 416.397.3673.

PS to helpful wmtc readers: Thank you, I do know that Doug Ford doesn't know who Margaret Atwood is. Perhaps if he spent more time at the library, he wouldn't sound so ignorant.

7.25.2011

moby duck: "that's the difference. there are things afloat now that will never sink."

I've re-started reading Moby Duck. I don't know if this ever happens to you, but sometimes if I pick up a book at a particularly busy time when I don't have enough uninterrupted time and concentration, I end up reading in tiny dribs and drabs, a page here, two paragraphs here. It's very unsatisfying, not to mention difficult to remember who's who and what's what. So I'll wait for a quieter time and begin again from page one. That's what I've just done with Moby Duck.

From my reading today, I want to share this passage with you, a bit of elaboration on a comment deang made when I wrote about Moby Duck last week.
"There's nothing new around," he said. Take Osiris. Even today, when the Nile floods, flotsam follows that same route. Not even pollution is new. He told me to think of volcanic eruptions, of the tons of pumice and toxic ash an eruption throws into the sea. No, when you studied the history of flotsam long enough you realized that only one thing was fundamentally different about the ocean now, only one thing since the time of the ancient Egyptians had changed. He took a sip of coffee from his mug, which was decorated with a painting of a cat. "See, pumice will absorb water and sink," he said. "But 60 percent of plastic will float, and the 60 percent that does float will never sink because it doesn't absorb water; it fractures into ever smaller pieces. That's the difference. There are things afloat now that will never sink."

. . .

"High-seas drift nets were banned by the United Nations in 1992," his version of the story began. "They were nets with a mesh size of about four inches, but they were, like, fifty miles long. The Japanese would sit there and interweave these for fifty miles. There were something like a thousand drift nets being used every night in the 1980s, and if you do the math, they were filtering all the water in the upper fifty feet every year. Well, they were catching all the large animals, and it clearly could not go on." . . .

According to Ebbesmeyer, those high-seas drift nets had not gone away, and not only because pirate drift netting still takes place. Before the ban, fisherman had lost about half their nets every year, and because the nets are made of nylon, which can last at sea for as long as half a century, those lost nets were still out there, still fishing. "Ghost nets," they're called.

. . .

A ghost net may not kill everything that crosses its path, but it sure can kill a lot. News reports describe nets dripping with putrefying wildlife. Just three months before I showed up on Ebbesmeyer's doorstep, NOAA scientists scanning the ocean with a digital imaging system from the air had spotted a flock of a hundred or so ghost nets drifting through the North Pacific Garbage Patch. When they returned to fetch them, they found balls of net measuring thirty feet across. . . . A few years earlier, Coast Guard divers had spent a month picking up 25.5 tons of netting and debris - including two four-thousand-pound, fifteen-mile-long high-seas drift nets - out of reefs around Lisianski Island in the Northwestern Hawaiian Archipelago. They estimated that there were six thousand more tons of netting and debris still tangled in the reefs when they left.

In Ebbesmeyer's opinion ghost nets may post a still greater danger once they disintegrate. While we were conversing on his patio, he handed me the oldest of the drift-net gloats. "Hold this a minute," he said. It weighed almost nothing. "Now put it down and look." On the palm of my hand, the float had left a sprinkling of yellow dust, plastic particles as small as pollen grains in which, Ebbesmeyer believed, the destiny of both the Floatees and of the ocean could be read.

7.24.2011

today in new york: joy, normalcy, equality

Today in New York City, some families will celebrate their love and commitment, because the law has finally caught up with reality.
2 Dads, 2 Daughters, 1 Big Day
by Frank Bruni

Even in a city as diverse as New York and a neighborhood as progressive as the West Village, a little kid knows that having two dads is different. Eight-year-old Maeve certainly did.

She knew, too, that the world didn’t see her family exactly the way it saw others. Her dads, Jonathan Mintz and John Feinblatt, could tell.

“She understood that there was something, for lack of a better word, second-class about her family,” Mintz said.

And, as she wrestled with that, her frustration was distilled in a question that she and then her sister, Georgia, 6, began to ask more and more often.

Why aren’t you two married like our friends’ parents?

For a long time Mintz and Feinblatt avoided an answer because, while they didn’t want to lie, they also didn’t want to focus their daughters’ attention on the blunt truth: that New York, like most states, forbade it. So they perfected stalling tactics, asking Maeve and Georgia if they thought a wedding would be fun and whether they envisioned being flower girls and on and on. Anything to keep the conversation happy and the girls from feeling left out.

On Sunday, their family will be at center stage. The first same-sex weddings will take place in New York, and Mintz and Feinblatt are saying their vows at Gracie Mansion, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a longtime friend, will officiate.

And while the two men are thrilled for themselves, it’s on behalf of their daughters, who will indeed carry bouquets and stand with them and the mayor, that they’re positively ecstatic. The men care deeply that the girls feel fully integrated into society and see it as just. Sunday’s ceremony goes a long way toward that.

Outside New York there’s less cause for celebration: Twenty-nine states with constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage and plenty of people who interpret a formal validation of same-sex relationships as an assault on “family values.”

So I invite you to look at the values of the Mintz-Feinblatt family. They do, too. That’s why they let me drop in on them twice this week and will have reporters at their wedding.

we like lists: list # 10: six things going on with me

Remember we like lists?? It's been a long time!

This list will answer the burning question: What's up? What's happening in your life? Doing anything interesting? Enjoying doing something mundane? Reading a good book? Working in your garden? Suffering from the heat? Tell us! Elaborate as much or little as you'd like. The only rule this time is a six-item limit. (Fewer than six is fine.)

Here are six things going on in my life.


St. Michael Hospital sign cardinal entrance2

1. I'm done with "Private Eyes"!! Whoo-hoo! It was really crazy towards the end. Through a series of strangely predictable mishaps, I was left to write the final report on the surveillance portion of the project almost completely on my own. It was nerve-wracking but a great challenge. (There was also a portion about video analytics, which I was not involved with.)

When I was hired, I said I was very clear that I was available for no more than 25 hours per week. During the final two weeks of this project, I worked almost 100 hours on Private Eyes in addition to my weekend job. Work, watch baseball, sleep. Work, watch baseball, sleep. Repeat.

The job was a great experience. I learned a lot, made some excellent connections with great people, and we delivered some important information to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. And now I. Am. Done.



2. With part of the fat paycheque I'm expecting for this work, we are finally buying a digital SLR camera. We've wanted one for a very long time, and last year we decided to stop spending so much money on each other's birthdays and buy a camera instead. (And then Allan bought me cool stuff anyway! Hey, I can't help it if he can't keep an agreement.)

Up to now, we've had a low-end point-and-shoot digital, a very good, very old film camera (Olympus OM10), and a great wide angle/zoom lens (Vivitar Series 1) we bought many years ago. For important or special photography, we still use film. Now we can finally change that. We want to find an adapter in order to use our old lens with a digital body.

I've been reading up on specs and options. The process may take a while, as we may shop in person at B & H when we're in New York in November. We also bought a nicer compact digital - a Canon Powershot, pretty standard stuff, but a nice improvement for us, plus it has video.



3. Tala has been enduring her exercise restriction with equanimity, and no signs of pain or lameness have returned. If this continues, next week we'll begin to step up her exercise, very gradually, over the course of two months. Fingers and paws are crossed. We've also borrowed a second exercise-pen, and put the two together to give her a lot more room outside.


4. For several months, I've been having physiotherapy on my injured ankle. Astute wmtc readers may remember (because you all have nothing else to do but remember the mundane details of my life) that two years ago, while in Santa Fe for a nephew's wedding, I sprained my ankle. And my ankle was already weakened by a very bad sprain years earlier. When we came home from that trip, I had a little physio, then stopped. My ankle never fully healed; it's been wobbly and unstable and always (seemingly permanently) swollen. One of my goals this summer was to do something about it.

One reason I gave up on physio was the annoying clinic I had been using. Waiting at least 30 minutes - and often more than an hour! - for every appointment, then listening to the therapist complain about her own life for the entire session was not very motivating! I ditched them and found a great place, and have been working diligently. It's kind of amazing to feel my ankle becoming more stable.

I am working hard to re-acquire proprioception, which I have learned is what you lose with this type of injury. All this time, when I fell off a curb or tripped over nothing, I thought it was from fibromyalgia. Nope! It's a shortage of proprioception. Now proprio and I are getting reacquainted.



5. Look! We're growing these! It's fun! I really get the whole gardening thing now. I'm not jumping in any deeper, but I'm enjoying this little dip.


6. Speaking of jumping, the big question of the summer is... will I jump out of an airplane? Or otherwise become airborne?

Many years ago, I had a co-worker friend who checked off a long list of activities to celebrate her 50th birthday, including one round of skydiving. The idea really appealed to me and I decided I would do the same thing. Now that I'm 50... and there's a skydiving nightmare story that I can't get out of my head. I wish I had never heard it, but I can't seem to un-hear it. Our friends C and J - of Jungle Cat World and Wolf Centre fame - are learning how to hang glide. They say it's relatively easy, it's much less expensive, and it might meet the same challenge I'm looking for. I'm thinking early September. But if I don't do it then, I still might, some other time.


Your turn!

7.23.2011

to anyone trying to use the massacre in norway as a justification for abolishing gun control

Regarding the horrific massacre in Norway, some people are apparently making statements like this: "If that had happened in Texas, the shooter would have lasted 30 seconds before dozens of regular folks with guns took him out."

Texas has a rate of deaths by guns of about 11 per 100,000, which comes out to about 2,860 per year. [If my math is incorrect, by all means let me know.] Norway's rate of deaths by guns is 0.30 per 100,000, about 14 a year.

If we factor in yesterday's massacre - clearly not the norm in Norway! - Norway's death-by-gun rate rises to 1.66 per 100,000.

In other words, factoring in all the poor souls who lost their lives yesterday, Texas's gun death rate will exceed Norway's by almost seven times.

You know how when people carry cell phones, they use cell phones? And if they don't have a cell phone on their person, they can't use one? Letting people run around with guns doesn't decrease gun violence. Humans don't work that way.

7.21.2011

mississauga has arrived: sexy suburban buildings make real estate splash


These sexy buildings are right down the street from us. Allan and I both like them a lot, and have watched their progress in the Mississauga skyline with interest. Apparently many people have been doing the same. From the New York Times real estate pages:
People looking for the latest in twisting, gravity-defying architecture might start with the international cities of the Middle East or China, but you wouldn’t expect them to look here, in the suburbs outside Toronto.

But the first residents are moving into an extremely curvaceous, 56-story condominium tower in Mississauga, a city of about 738,000 people. The skyscraper, called the “Marilyn Monroe” by locals for its voluptuous curves, was the result of an international design competition initiated in 2005 by the tower’s development company, Fernbrook Cityzen.

Now, joining London’s spiraling Gherkin building and New York’s rippling 8 Spruce Street is Mississauga’s buxom Absolute tower — or rather, two of them, both designed by the Chinese architect Ma Yansong, assisted by his partner, Qun Dang. Sales were so brisk in the 428-unit “Marilyn” tower that the developers asked the architect to deliver a second, 50-story high-rise with 433 units.

This second high-rise also spirals asymmetrically, but not quite enough to steal the limelight from “Marilyn.”

The buildings were the final two towers to be developed in a five-tower condo complex, called Absolute World, built at Mississauga’s main intersection, across from the Square One Shopping Center, one of the largest shopping malls in the Toronto region. The first three towers were of more conventional high-rise design.

Mr. Ma, a founder of the MAD Architectural Design Studio in Beijing and a Beijing native, said he’d never heard of Mississauga when he discovered the design competition online in 2005.

However, he had spent several years studying in Yale University’s architectural program, so Mr. Ma said he had in mind a generic midsize North American city.

“I was imagining Mississauga as a city aiming to become Chicago or Toronto, with a lot of big towers, in the future,” he said.

Yet instead of designing a rectilinear structure, Mr. Ma decided to create something that was a bit softer and more livable.

“I was thinking maybe North American cities need something more organic, more natural, more human,” he said.

Mr. Ma said he loved the anthropomorphizing “Marilyn” nickname, which distinguishes his structures from the world’s other twisting towers, most of which are too geometrical for his tastes. A truer analogue might be Prague’s Dancing House, originally called “Fred and Ginger” for its sinuous qualities, evocative of the dancing pair. It was designed by Frank Gehry and the Croatian-Czech architect Vlado Milunic.

The unpredictable bulges of Mr. Ma’s skyscrapers, which have a slightly different appearance from every angle, created huge challenges for the towers’ builders and engineers, which translated to financial challenges for the developers. Most skyscrapers are built on straight lines for a reason: they’re more efficient to build that way.

. . . .


Hazel McCallion, Mississauga’s mayor, said it was unusual for a city struggling to build an identity through its architecture to look to a residential condominium developed privately. Typically, cities promote public projects, such as museum or opera house, which in fact Mississauga did with its architecturally distinguished City Hall, which opened in 1987, the result of a national architectural competition.

“What we’ve clearly demonstrated to all the developers that want to build in our city core, and throughout the city, is we want, if possible, architectural competition, because this is just a leading example of what can be accomplished,” she said.
I guess our "generic midsize North American city" has arrived!

True to form, as far as I can tell, most Mississauga residents hate these buildings, just as they hate their architecturally interesting City Hall, also the winner of a design competition. The extreme, almost universal dislike for City Hall completely baffles me, as the design doesn't strike me as particularly far-reaching or eccentric. But hey, conservatism in any area baffles me.

Thanks to Rachel A for sending.

toronto's ford brothers: does a true word ever leave their mouths?

James posted this in comments yesterday, but it deserves its own thread: Top Five Ford Lies. If you haven't seen it yet, please go read.

Of course, politicians with a privatization agenda never let the facts get in the way of their profit-driven ideology. If they cared about facts, government services would never be privatized, since it's been proven time and again, the world over, that privatization is more expensive, less efficient and less accountable. Taxes don't decrease, but profits for a few increase.

More on this another time, when I'm not on deadline. Meanwhile, in case you need a primer on this whole government-as-business thing, see Pogge: "Is he running a government, or making widgets?" And while you're there, on the related subject of government-spending-lies the media flogs whenever it's convenient: "Zombie lies". Harper "spent his way out of recession". Yeah, right.

7.20.2011

toronto has more donut shops than libraries. fight to keep the libraries open.

Toronto City Councillor Doug Ford thinks his city has more libraries than donut shops. In fact:
When the Urban Affairs branch closes, Toronto will have 3.9 libraries per 100,000 people, which is what Vancouver has. Halifax has 4.3 libraries per 100,000 people, more than Toronto. In the U.S., the entire state of Vermont, which has only one-quarter of the population of Toronto, has 30 libraries per 100,000 people, which is 7-1/2 times the library density of Toronto.

In Etobicoke (Mr. Ford's area), there are 13 library branches there, and 39 Tim Horton's shops, not to mention all the other donut shops. In fact, on a per capita basis, the people in Etobicoke have fewer libraries than Toronto as a whole. They have one for every 27,000 people whereas in Toronto as a whole it's about one for every 25,000 people.
A new poll shows that Torontonians overwhelming oppose Ford's anti-library privatization agenda. Of course they do! Privatization benefits the few at the expense of the many.

Be part of the many that speaks out against this madness.

canada moving backwards on youth crime plans that are proven failures

Further to my last post, how can we build a world without hate when the people in power are moving in the opposite direction?

Last year I stumbled on a CPAC broadcast of hearings being held in the Canadian Senate. A former head of "corrections" (read: prisons) for the state of Texas was testifying about how supposed tough-on-crime sentencing doesn't work. He was not in Canada on any official capacity, but as an individual, formerly sold on the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key method, now speaking about how seemingly expensive social programs aimed at crime prevention are actually a bargain in the long run.

The Harper Government's so-called anti-crime legislation has hot-button mass appeal. Underneath the rhetoric, however, it's just a boondoggle for the prison industry, creating more criminals to fill more prisons. How many young Canadian lives will be wasted for profit and ideology?

As the US, UK and Australia step back from policies aimed at incarcerating youth, and expand programs aimed at creating a new path for young offenders, Canada does exactly the opposite. From the Globe and Mail:
If Canada follows through on plans to crack down on miscreant youth, it'll be one of the few jurisdictions in the world heading in that direction.

And the tough-on-crime approach in the face of contrary evidence is bemusing international observers.

Judges, criminologists and policy-makers in the United States, Britain and Australia - countries whose systems, for the most part, closely resemble Canada's - can't figure out why this country is planning to shift toward a jail-intensive approach. Everyone else seems to be doing the opposite, not for ideological reasons, but because evidence shows it works.

"It's somewhat ironic, actually," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project, which studies jail policy across the United States.

"After nearly four decades of the so-called 'get tough' movement in the U.S., which has meant sending more people to prisons [and] keeping them there for longer periods of time, there's beginning to be a shift away from that."

Ottawa's intention to adopt principles of deterrence and denunciation when it comes to sentencing teens makes no sense to Judge Jimmie Edwards. He's chief justice of the juvenile division of Missouri, an otherwise conservative state that for half a century has focused on diverting youth from the prison system, and rehabilitating the ones that are incarcerated. Now, the "Missouri Model" is being adopted elsewhere.

"I don't think it deters anything," he said. "You have to look at what type of community are you building by constantly sending kids to jail."

Britain

Bob Ashford calls it the three cherries on the slot machine: Fewer teens committing crimes, fewer teens in custody and fewer teens reoffending once they're out.

That's the multi-year trend Britain is looking at when it comes to youth justice. But it's not an obvious correlation, by any means. And the method - pour money into prevention and rehabilitation, in the hopes it will pay off years down the road - was a tough sell for the man in charge of prevention strategy in the Youth Justice Board of England and Wales.

Now, he has £32-million a year (about $49-million; or the amount it costs to keep 405 British youths in jail for a year) to put toward programs designed to catch potential young criminals before they commit crimes, and more on top of that to divert those facing charges out of the prison system, and rehabilitate anyone who does end up in custody.

A couple of years ago, he was invited to Canada to give a talk on his program's success. He spoke in Vancouver and Montreal, and was encouraged to see a country receptive to more innovative alternatives to locking teens up.

"Our approach has been to say, 'There are too many young people in custody.' ... Prison not only doesn't work in terms of preventing reoffending, it's also extremely expensive. And that's not to anyone's benefit."

United States

As of Aug. 1, Texas will have a total of six youth-incarceration institutions - down from 15 four years ago.

That's a huge shift for a state that in 2007 was embroiled in horror stories of teens facing harsh, abusive conditions far from home. Damning national headlines and allegations of mistreatment from hundreds of youth sparked a sea change in the way the state tackles juvenile delinquency.

"There's been a real shift to make sure that we really look at the youth, the seriousness of the offence and the youth's risk to reoffend, and only incarcerate those that are the highest risk in terms of public safety," said Texas Youth Commission executive director Cherie Townsend.

"We had some horrible things occur which really got our attention. And we then re-evaluated."

In the past two years alone, Ms. Townsend has seen more therapeutic services, educational and vocational programs on offer for close to two-thirds of the teens who come through her doors and, for youth who do end up in prison, a focus on transitioning back to their home community, "so there's a greater chance for successful re-entry." . . .

survivor of hate crime fighting to save assailant's life: join his mission for a world without hate

In Texas, the survivor of a vicious hate crime is campaigning to spare the life of his assailant, who murdered two other people and is scheduled to be executed today.

I collect these kinds of stories, and one day I'd like to write more about why I find them so incredibly powerful. But with my Friday deadline looming and much still to do, I will add this to the "blog about someday" list, and just pass this story to you.

Rais Bhuiyan's website is here: World Without Hate. After reading this story below, I hope you will sign his petition to try to save Mark Stroman's life.
Mark Anthony Stroman, 41, a stonecutter from Dallas, shot people he believed were Arabs, saying he was enraged by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He killed at least two: Vasudev Patel, an Indian immigrant who was Hindu, and Waqar Hasan, a Muslim born in Pakistan.

A third shooting victim, Rais Bhuiyan, 37, a former Air Force pilot from Bangladesh, survived after Mr. Stroman shot him in the face at close range. Mr. Stroman admitted to the shootings. He is scheduled to be executed on Wednesday.

Mr. Bhuiyan, despite being partly blinded in his right eye, has spent the past several months creating a Web site with a petition and meeting with officials in Texas to try to persuade the state to spare Mr. Stroman.

Mr. Bhuiyan was interviewed over the phone. Mr. Stroman responded to questions in a typewritten letter dated June 26 that included a photograph of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001: smoke is seen billowing out of the North Tower and United Airlines Flight 175 is moments away from striking the South Tower. The ellipses in his answers are his.

Q. Mr. Bhuiyan, you were working as a clerk at a friend’s service station on Sept. 21, 2001. What do you remember?

A. I was robbed a couple of times. It was a dangerous neighborhood. People would come into the store to sell televisions and computers. One time a man came with a gun and I thought he wanted to sell it to make money. He said, “If you don’t give me money I will blow your head off.” On Sept. 21, it was Friday around 12:30 in the afternoon. Business was slow. It was raining cats and dogs. The neighbor from the barber shop had come in and brought chips and drinks. Then there’s a guy coming into the store with a hat and sunglasses and a bandanna and a gun in his hand. I thought it was a robbery. I said, “Don’t shoot me please. Take all the money.” He said, “Where are you from?” He was four or five feet away from me. I felt cold air in my spine. I said, “Excuse me?” It was a double-barrel gun. I felt a million bee stings on my face at the same time. Then I heard an explosion. I saw images of my parents, my siblings and my fiancée and then a graveyard and I thought, “Am I dying today?” I looked down and saw blood was pouring from my head. I placed both my hands on my head to get my brains in and I screamed, “Mom!” I looked and he was still staring at me and I thought he might shoot me again if I don’t fall and he doesn’t think I’m dead. The floor was getting wet with my blood. Then he left the store. I could not believe he shot me. I thought I was dreaming, going through a hallucination. I didn’t do anything wrong. I was not a threat to him. I couldn’t believe someone would just shoot you like that.

Q What happened next?

A I wanted to go outside. I went to the barber shop and they ran away. They saw me full of blood running like a slaughtered chicken and they thought the guy was behind me. I saw my face in the barbershop mirror and I couldn’t believe it was me. (He begins to cry). A few minutes before, I had been a young guy in a T-shirt and shorts and tennis shoes. (He begins to cry more forcefully). Sorry, I haven’t cried for the past nine years. I was lucky because there was an ambulance in the area. I was asking God, asking for forgiveness, saying I would do my best. Reciting verses from the Koran. I said I would dedicate my life to the poor. I felt my eyes were closing and it felt like my brain was shutting down slowly.

Q What was the extent of your injuries?

A There were 38 pellets in my face. I couldn’t open my eyes or talk or open my jaw. I couldn’t even eat or drink anything. It was very painful to even swallow because I was shot in my throat. After a few hours in the hospital I could open my left eye. My face was heavily swollen. There were gunshot wounds. My face was horrible. I couldn’t believe it was my face. I prayed, “Please God, give me my face back.” (Mr. Bhuiyan was discharged the day after being treated; he was told he did not have health insurance. For the next several months, he slept on people’s couches and had to rely on physicians’ samples for medication, including painkillers and eye drops. He had several operations on his right eye; he now has only limited vision in it.)

Q. Mr. Stroman has admitted trying to kill you. Why are you trying to save his life?

A. I was raised very well by my parents and teachers. They raised me with good morals and strong faith. They taught me to put yourself in others’ shoes. Even if they hurt you, don’t take revenge. Forgive them. Move on. It will bring something good to you and them. My Islamic faith teaches me this too. He said he did this as an act of war and a lot of Americans wanted to do it but he had the courage to do it — to shoot Muslims. After it happened I was just simply struggling to survive in this country. I decided that forgiveness was not enough. That what he did was out of ignorance. I decided I had to do something to save this person’s life. That killing someone in Dallas is not an answer for what happened on Sept. 11.

Q. If you had the chance to meet Mr. Stroman, what would you say to him?

A. I requested a meeting with Mr. Stroman. I’m eagerly awaiting to see him in person and exchange ideas. I would talk about love and compassion. We all make mistakes. He’s another human being, like me. Hate the sin, not the sinner. It’s very important that I meet him to tell him I feel for him and I strongly believe he should get a second chance. That I never hated the U.S. He could educate a lot of people. Thinking about what is going to happen makes me very emotional. I can’t sleep. Once I go to bed I feel there is another person that I know who is in his bed thinking about what is going to happen to him — that he is going to be tied to a bed and killed. It makes me very emotional and very sad and makes me want to do more.

• • •

Q How are you doing, Mr. Stroman?

A “i’ve only 25 days left until Texas Straps Me to a Gurney and pumps me full of toxic bug juice, But then again, we all face an Ending at some time or another. All is well, Spirits are high, i sit here with a Cup of Coffee and some Good ole Classic Rock playing on My radio, how Ironic, the song ‘Free Bird’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd...”

Q What do you think of Rais Bhuiyan’s efforts to keep you from being executed?

A “Yes, Mr Rais Bhuiyan, what an inspiring soul...for him to come forward after what ive done speaks Volume’s...and has really Touched My heart and the heart of Many others World Wide...Especially since for the last 10 years all we have heard about is How Evil the Islamic faith Can be...its proof that all are Not bad nor Evil.”

Q Tell me what you are thinking now, a few weeks before your scheduled execution.

A “Not only do I have all My friends and supporters trying to Save my Life, but now i have The Islamic Community Joining in...Spearheaded by one Very Remarkable man Named Rais Bhuiyan, Who is a Survivor of My Hate. His deep Islamic Beliefs Have gave him the strength to Forgive the Un-forgiveable...that is truly Inspiring to me, and should be an Example for us all. The Hate, has to stop, we are all in this world together. My jesus Faith & Texas Roots have Deepened My Understanding as well. Its almost been 10 years since The world stopped Turning, and we as a nation will never be able to forget what we felt that day, I surely wont, but I can tell you what im feeling Today, and that’s very grateful for Rais Bhuiyan’s Efforts to save my life after I tried to end His. A lot of people out There are still hurt and full of hate, and as I Sit here On Texas Death watch counting down to my Own Death, I have been given the chance to openly Express whats inside this Texas Mind and heart, and hopefully that something good will come of this. We need More Forgiveness and Understanding and less hate.” Mr. Stroman signed off, “Texas Loud & Texas proud...TRUE AMERICAN.... Living to Die – Dying to Live.”
Just a reminder: this blog is not a forum for debate about the morality of capital punishment.

7.18.2011

what i'm reading: "moby duck" and the permanence of plastic

I've just started reading a remarkable book, one that can't wait until I finish to share it with you: Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,000 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists and Fools, including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them by Donovan Hohn.

I can think of no better way to represent this book than by sharing a portion of the prologue.
At the outset, I felt no need to acquaint myself with the six degrees of freedom. I'd never heard of the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch. I liked my job and loved my wife and was inclined to agree with Emerson that travel is a fool's paradise. I just wanted to learn what had really happened, where the toys had drifted and why. I loved the part about containers falling off a ship, the part about the oceanographers tracking the castaways with the help of far-flung beachcombers. I especially loved the part about the rubber duckies crossing the Arctic, going cheerfully where explorers had gone boldly and disastrously before.

At the outset, I had no intention of doing what I eventually did: quit my job, kiss my wife farewell, and ramble about the Northern Hemisphere aboard all manner of watercraft. I certainly never expected to join the crew of a fifty-one-foot catamaran captained by a charismatic environmentalist, the Ahab of plastic hunters, who had the charming habit of exterminating the fruit flies clouding around his stash of organic fruit by hoovering them out of the air with a vacuum cleaner.

Certainly I never expected to transit the Northwest Passage aboard a Canadian icebreaker in the company of scientists investigating the Arctic's changing climate and polar bears lunching on seals. Or to cross the Graveyard of the Pacific on a container ship at the height of the winter storm season. Or to ride a high-speed ferry through the smoggy, industrial backwaters of China's Pearl River Delta, where, inside the Po Sing plastic factory, I would witness yellow pellets of polyethylene resin transmogrify into icons of childhood.

I'd never given the plight of the Laysan albatross a moment's thought. Having never taken organic chemistry, I didn't know and therefore didn't care that pelagic plastic has the peculiar propensity to adsorb hydrophobic, lipophilic, polysyllabic toxins such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (a.k.a. DDT) and polychlorinated biphenyls (a.k.a. PCBs). Nor did I know or care that such toxins are surprisingly abundant at the ocean's surface, or that they bioaccumulate as they move up the food chain. Honestly, I didn't know what "pelagic" or "adsorb" meant, and if asked to use "lipophilic" and "hydrophobic" in a sentence I'd have applied them to someone with a weight problem and a debilitating fear of drowning.

If asked to define the "six degrees of freedom," I would have assumed they had something to do with existential philosophy or constitutional law. Now, years later, I know: the six degrees of freedom — delicious phrase! — are what naval architects call the six different motions floating vessels make. Now, not only can I name and define them, I've experienced them firsthand. One night, sleep-deprived and nearly broken, in thirty-five-knot winds and twelve-foot seas, I would overindulge all six — rolling, pitching, yawing, heaving, swaying, and surging like a drunken libertine — and, after buckling myself into an emergency harness and helping to lower the mainsail, I would sway and surge and pitch as if drunkenly into the head, where, heaving, I would liberate my dinner into a bucket.

At the outset, I figured I'd interview a few oceanographers, talk to a few beachcombers, read up on ocean currents and Arctic geography, and then write an account of the incredible journey of the bath toys lost at sea, an account more detailed and whimsical than the tantalizingly brief summaries that had previously appeared in news stories. And all this I would do, I hoped, without leaving my desk, so that I could be sure to be present at the birth of my first child.

But questions, I've learned since, can be like ocean currents. Wade in a little too far and they can carry you away. Follow one line of inquiry and it will lead you to another, and another. Spit a yellow duck dropped atop the seaweed at the tide line, ask yourself where it came from, and the next thing you know you're way out at sea, no land in sight, dog-paddling around in mysteries four miles deep. You're wondering when and why yellow ducks became icons of childhood. You want to know what it's like inside the toy factories of Guangdong. You're marveling at the scale of humanity's impact on this terraqueous globe and at the oceanic magnitude of your own ignorance. You're giving the plight of the Laysan albatross many moments of thought. . . .
What this book is really about, of course, is how our disposable, consumerist world has poisoned the planet. Moby Duck is perhaps the best argument for buying and using less that I've ever read. But it also shows us that the problem is systemic, and can't be solved at the individual level. I try not to buy more than I need, and never to buy unnecessarily - but whatever I do buy, falls apart in weeks or months or a year. My parents used one patio umbrella for 20 years. Allan and I have gone through three patio umbrellas in five years. Everything I buy is just future landfill, and purposely so. (In case you haven't seen it: The Story of Stuff.) Why should a company manufacture a product to last 20 years, when it could make the same product last for one year and you'll buy it 20 times? (This also speaks to a hidden, skyrocketing change in the cost of living, one reason working people are unable to live well and save money, compared with their grandparents' generation.)

This book is really about many things - the "marginalization of animals" in modern society, beachcomber subculture, climate change, factory work, and on and on, as Hohn weaves threads of mini-histories into his unusual travelogue. I absolutely love his writing, and his wide-ranging sources - a rainbow of science, literature and popular culture.

Framing the story, Hohn and his wife are expecting their first child. He has promised to be present at the delivery, and as the story progresses, this seems less and less likely (although I haven't gotten very far, I don't know what happens). Some readers may be offended by Hohn leaving his very pregnant wife behind as he travels the globe in pursuit of his research and writing obsession. I am not - I'm far more interested in those kinds of obsessions than in births and babies - but I can imagine some readers finding this underlying theme selfish and irritating. Of course, there are profound, complex connections between the birth of a child and the degradation of our planet, as told through the story of an iconic childhood toy on a mythical global adventure.

Several portions of Moby Duck first appeared in Harper's. You can read one here.

7.15.2011

help protect tpl from ford's privatization rampage

Mayor Rob Ford is out to privatize the living daylights out of Toronto. Privatization is a great deal for the corporations that pick up lucrative contracts, and a very bad deal for everyone else. As privatization grows, quality of life erodes.

Next on Ford's agenda: the Toronto Public Library. With 99 branches and an estimated 17.5 million visitors each year, TPL is the largest library system in North America. In order to be a true public library, a system must have branches in every neighbourhood, a full range of information services that serve the needs of its communities, and be free of user fees. It must be staffed by professionals who know and care about libraries, and it must be focused on access to knowledge and information, not profit.

Tell Rob Ford and the Toronto City Council that you want to keep the public in the Toronto Public Library: go here to send a letter, and please share widely.

walkom: we sent our soldiers to die to impress our largest trading partner

This is probably the strongest truth-telling about Canada's experience in Afghanistan - and the revolting response to it at home - that I have seen in the mainstream media. Thank you, Thomas Walkom!
On Tuesday, Canada officially ended its combat mission in Afghanistan. It should never have started.

The war has been a dismal failure. . . .

For Canada, the lessons of Afghanistan should be sobering.

This ill-contrived adventure has cost the lives of 161 Canadians, including 157 soldiers.

As well, at least 615 Canadian soldiers have been wounded in battle, many seriously.

Politicians and media lavishly praise our troops for their bravery and professionalism. Yet, ironically, this has made it easier for the country to gloss over the fact that these sacrifices were largely pointless.

Had our military been made up of draftees rather than volunteers, there would be more public anger.

For taxpayers, the cost of the Afghan war so far is $11.3 billion and climbing. That figure excludes ongoing health and disability costs for soldiers wounded in the war.

Two main lessons should be drawn from this conflict.

The first has to do with NATO. . . .

But the point of the alliance has been lost. In the aftermath of the Afghanistan failure, Canada would be wise to redirect NATO to its original purpose of mutual defence.

If we can’t accomplish that, we should quit the alliance. We already have the NORAD defence treaty with the U.S. to protect North America from attack. We don’t need to be drawn into any more wars in Asia and North Africa.

The second lesson has to do with the treatment of war. It is not a game. Nor is it simply diplomacy by other means. It is a dangerous, murderous business with a habit of backfiring.

During the Afghan War, too many Canadian politicians forgot that. So did media that, for too long, were dominated by jingoes.

We talk about the nobility of sacrifice but our motives were not noble. We sent our soldiers to die in Kandahar mainly to impress our largest trading partner, the U.S., and ensure that the border stayed open for trade.

Canadians were killed to guarantee just-in-time delivery of auto parts. That is not sufficient reason.
Read it here.

7.14.2011

pupdate: mississauga squirrels continue to rejoice

We've just returned from our consult with an orthopedic specialist at the OVC in Guelph.

Tal has been doing so well, she seems so improved, that I think many people would have cancelled the appointment. But remembering the kind of pain she was in two weeks ago, and how long it took to go away, we felt there was probably something simmering - that rest was a relief, but not a cure. Plus it's not easy to get appointments at Guelph - this was on a cancellation - so we planned to go anyway.

An excellent orthopedist examined Tala, then asked another doctor do the same for a second opinion. They believe the problem is not in her knee, but in her spine.

The orthopedist explained a condition similar to sciatica in humans, in which a disc slips, then the body builds up fibrous tissue around the out-of-place disc, and that tissue presses on a nerve. In dogs, the affected nerve can either be the sciatic or femural nerves, so can present as lameness in one leg. It's known as cauda equina syndrome, and it's chronic.

It's likely that Tala has had some persistent lower back pain for a long time. She sometimes yelps in pain when being towelled off (after rain or mud), or when someone touches her belly in play. We've always thought that was her sensitive GI tract, but now know it's from spinal pain. Similarly, sometimes at night she's been extremely reluctant to walk stairs. Also a sign of back pain.

There's surgery to correct it, but just as in humans, it pretty high-risk and considered a last resort. Unfortunately for Tala, the first treatment is rest. We're to continue on the total exercise restriction we've been doing. (In fact, we've relaxed her restrictions a bit, letting her come upstairs at night, and we have to cut that out.) If she continues to improve after another two weeks, we can give her more on-leash walks, gradually increasing her walk time in two-week stretches. After two months, if she's doing really well, we can gradually give her some off-leash time. Maybe. We hope. Plus we'll have pain meds and good old prednisone to relieve the inflammation.

The other possible diagnosis is a tumour. It's much more likely to be the compressed spinal nerve; the doctor said for every spinal tumour they see, there are seven or eight dogs with compressed nerves. If it is a tumour, obviously, rest won't help, and we'll go back to Guelph.

The diagnosis isn't definitive; it's based on two manual exams, and our reports of her activity. For a definite diagnosis, we would need an MRI. At $1,000 a pop, you don't leap into that, especially when every possible sign points in one direction.

Naturally, we're very sad to think of our little girl being in pain, not having fun at the dog park, not zooming around the yard chasing squirrels. The doctor said that the must to avoid is "explosive" exercise. But Tala is an explosive!

She's so stoic and accepting of her situation, that's how dogs are. But she can't understand why Allan takes Diego to the park and leaves her behind, or why she is kept in a pen outside.

We're investigating to see if there are larger pens (plus now that this is long-term, we should return our friends' equipment). And at least she gets to be outside. When we lived in an apartment, a dog on exercise restriction was stuck inside all day. But still.

So we'll take it one day at a time and see how it goes. Thanks in advance for your support and good wishes.

7.13.2011

trials of a student librarian: in which i confess to practicing my alphabet

In addition to writing a large portion of the final report for the "Private Eyes" research project, I've been stressing over something else - something I decided not to share, until today. I finally have an interview for a page position at the Mississauga Library System, something for which I've waited for two years. I didn't want to tell anyone, because I was actually worried I might not pass!

When I decided to make this career change, and decided that my first preference was to work in Mississauga, I learned that one way to get started was with a job as a library page - that is, shelving books. It's the bottom of the rung of the library ladder, but it would be a foot in the door - after a certain number of hours, I'd be able to join the union, and I'd have access to internal job postings. I'd also meet other library people, have another small but steady income source, and there'd be a flexible schedule that would work with school.

That simple plan immediately hit a major obstacle. Just as I started school, the Mississauga Library System closed five branches for renovation. (It was necessary to close them all simultaneously, rather than one at a time, in order to receive federal stimulus money.) So staff was shuffled among all the opened branches, and there was effectively a hiring freeze for two years. Lucky for me I attend school part-time; I could afford to wait.

Since then, I've kept in touch with some librarians and some managers in the Mississauga system, and I've kept watch as each renovated branch re-opens. Finally, as of this past June, all the branches are open, jobs have been shuffled and re-shuffled, and at long last, I received a call with the date of my interview for the page pool.

I knew that applicants for page positions must pass a shelving test, but I was surprised to learn how difficult the test would be! I must correctly order 60 books - 30 fiction, 30 non-fiction - in six minutes. And the shelving must be perfect: I must score 100%.

I was really taken aback by this. No mistakes allowed? In only six minutes?? I was very nervous!

There was no way I was going in cold. First I found some Dewey practice sites online (like this one) to get the hang of the numerical system. Sure, I've used the Dewey Decimal system all my life to locate books on library shelves, but that's different than actually thinking about how to order similarly numbered books. I used these practice sites when I had downtime or while taking writing breaks, until I was sure I had it down.

Next, a librarian friend - scoffing at the idea that I needed to practice at all - clued me in on the most efficient shelving technique. First, he said, separate fiction from nonfiction. Then group the nonfiction by first number (100s together, 200s together, 300s, and so on). Then you're ready to shelve. I probably would have figured that out myself, but it's nice to have an experienced person give me the 411.

Then, Allan and I devised a practice plan, and yesterday, we tried it out. We went to the Central Library in Mississauga. Allan collected 30 books from different nonfiction areas, and timed me while I ordered them. We did that twice. Then we went to the fiction area and did the same with 30 books from those stacks. (Allan didn't think we needed this part, but I wanted to check my time.)

Today I am happy to report that one can indeed correctly organize 60 books in under six minutes. You have to be organized, and you have to work very fast, but it can be done. Whew!

So while I've been writing the Private Eyes report, in the back of my mind, I've been stressing about the page interview. Yesterday's practice run was worth everything in the world: now I can write with a clear mind, and I can go into the test with more confidence.

How's this for timing? Final deadline for report: July 23. Interview for page pool: July 27.

7.11.2011

at the break

As we baseball fans say, we are "at the break".

The All Star Break begins today: three days without real baseball, plus this year an extra day off for our Red Sox. Although the actual halfway point of the season came last week, the All Star Break is a time to assess teams' and players' performance in roughly half a season. Standings at The Break are often - although not always - an indicator of how teams will finish the year.

And how are the Red Sox at the Break? They have won six straight games, 10 of their last 11. They are in first place in the extremely competitive American League East, with a one-game lead over the second-place New York Yankees and a six-game lead over the third-place Tampa Bay Rays.

And by the way, they are Unstoppable.

Four years ago, it was Inevitable. This year, it is Unstoppable.

For the past two years, Allan and I have spent the Break in Stratford, Ontario, seeing plays and visiting with our friends Eric and Kelly of Across the Bridge B&B. This year, we're saving our money - or, I should say, not spending money we don't have - for a special anniversary trip in the winter.

Instead, we're spending the 2011 All Star Break with our newest DVD boxed set: the complete Get Smart. We are really excited! We may also cover the final season of The Larry Sanders Show, and we plan to do a bit of socializing. Whenever there's no baseball, I like Allan to visit the outside world.

what i'm reading: cradle of gold, story of re-discovery of machu picchu


One hundred years ago, this week - July 7, 1911, to be exact - an American man named Hiram Bingham found the ruins of an ancient ceremonial city, mostly overgrown with Peruvian jungle. Some indigenous families were living on the site, tending small subsistence farms. Despite the fact that local people had always known about the ruins, and despite the fact that the clues of other explorers and many indigenous people enabled his route, Bingham claimed to "discover" these ruins. Those ruins are now one of the world's most famous and most remarkable places: Machu Picchu.

Over the next few years, Bingham would bring Machu Picchu to the attention of the larger world. He would uncover other nearby Incan ruins and open the ancient paths between them, now known as the Inca Trail. He would also violate an agreement he made with the Peruvian government, and illegally excavate, remove and steal ancient artifacts from those sites, including the remains of Incan people - the ancestors of people forced to work there.

As many of you know, I have an enduring fascination with both modern and ancient Peru. In 2006, Allan and I spent three weeks traveling through that country. It was a trip I had wanted to make all my life, and a gift to ourselves after emigrating to Canada.

I've just finished reading Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham, a Real-life Indiana Jones and the Search for Machu Picchu, by Christopher Heaney. Leaving aside the ridiculous subtitle, this book tells many intertwined stories. Cradle of Gold is a biography of Bingham and the story of his Peruvian expeditions, with the surrounding historical context. That supposedly heroic tale is intertwined with a much older story, one that is truly heroic and tragic: the final Incan resistance to the Spanish invasion. The book also analyzes the struggle between modern Peru and Yale University over the the tens of thousands of artifacts that Bingham stole from Machu Picchu and other Incan sites, that Yale refuses to return. In addition, and more briefly, the author writes about his deeply felt personal connection to these subjects.

Heaney has written an ambitious book that clearly represents an enormous amount of research. He succeeds in all his stories, but of course not all readers will be equally interested in each threads. I have little interest in biography, and when I do read a biography, it's either to study history (like Taylor Branch's monumental history of the US civil rights movement, framed by a biography of Martin Luther King), or to learn about a person whose life and contributions move me. I found myself distinctly uninterested in Bingham's personal story, and the story of the search for the Incan "lost cities" was written in more detail than I needed. But if you enjoy those kinds of tales, this is a good one.

The final chapters - on the case against Yale and the author's personal story - were, for me, the best parts of the book. Unfortunately, this was also the briefest part, and left me wanting to learn more.

* * * *

In the book's introduction, Heaney summarizes the Peru vs Yale fight this way.
In 2008, Peru sued Yale for the return of the artifacts and human remains that Bingham excavated from Machu Picchu. Peru claimed it had loaned Yale the collection of silver jewelry, ceramic jars, potsherds, skulls and bones and was now demanding its return. Yale called Peru's claim "stale and meritless" and asserted that now it owned the collection. Peru said Yale had 46,000 pieces; Yale said it had 5,415. Between these two distant poles, I have attempted to find the truth.
I interpreted this to mean that the author believed there is some middle ground, some compromise, between Peru's position and Yale's. I was wary and skeptical of how Heaney might justify a position.

I was relieved to be wrong. Heaney understands and beautifully articulates why Yale must return Peru's stolen history.
For years, Peruvian archaeologists grimaced while North American colleagues shook their head at the country's struggle to protect its culture. It was a patronizing argument that ignored progress: Peru's cultural institutions had moved forward in leaps and bounds since Bingham's era. More importantly, the executive orders [through which Peru loaned some artifacts to Yale] were proof that in the 1910s Peru did care about its history. The early negotiations over Machu Picchu's artifacts and Bingham's evasions were revelatory, and Peru was legitimately outraged that Yale denied their relevance.

Yale was surprised to learn that the third party in Bingham's later expeditions felt similarly. The National Geographic Society also wanted the artifacts' return. Its vice president, Terry Garcia, reviewed the society's documentation and felt there was "no question" that Machu Picchu's artifacts belonged to Peru. National Geographic attempted to broker a deal, but the university was uninterested. The society was shocked. "It's so patronizing of them to suggest that you can't return these objects to Peru because they can't take care of them - that a country like Peru doesn't have competent archaeologists or museums," National Geographic's vice president told the New York Times in 2007. "Maybe if you were a colonial power in the [nineteenth] century you could rationalize that statement. I don't see how you could make it today."
Much more than pottery and jewelry is at stake - although that must be returned, too. Bingham illegally removed the remains of 174 human beings from burial sites, people "whose ancestors now walk the streets of Cuzco and Lima". The Native American Grave Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) requires US museums to return human remains and spiritual artifacts to their living indigenous heirs. That law applies only to US tribes, but it sets a precedent, which was followed when, for example, the Smithsonian returned mummies to Cuzco.
The symbolism in the Yale case is deepened by the fact that the human remains are from Machu Picchu, the royal estate of Pachacutec - either one of the great indigenous leaders of Andean history or one of its great imperialists. Pachacutec's mummy is long gone, but the fact that the bodies and artifacts of the men and women who attended him are at Yale remains deeply unsettling. In May 2006, 1,200 residents of the town beneath Machu Picchu rode the train to Cuzco to demonstrate and call for the return of the Machu Picchu artifacts to their home. "What if Peru had George Washington's things?" the director of the Instituto Nacional de Cultura in Cuzco asked the year before. "We would have to return them. They would mean something to the United States, not Peru."
Heaney expresses more sympathy to Yale's position than I can muster, as he grew up around Yale's Peabody Museum, and he idolized Bingham. (Despite that, he does not present a sanitized or idealized version of Bingham; through his research, Heaney had to "grapple with Bingham's dark side," as he puts it.) Heaney describes a more recent visit to the Peabody, where a few dusty pieces from Cuzco are badly displayed, creating "the false impression that all Yale has are ceramics".
Leaving the Peabody, I feel torn. I do not believe the claims of major museums that if they send back one artifact, they will set a precedent by which all the world's art and artifacts will fly back to their creators' descendants. But I also believe there is some value in the international study and display of artifacts as examples of the world's diversity of art and culture. I grew up immersed in Peruvian, Oceanic, and African art and artifacts in the museums of New York. They filled me with wonder and sympathy. They made me want to travel. I want my future children to feel the same.
This really irked me. Privileged North American children can be filled with wonder and the desire to travel, at the price of another country's own heritage? Sure, it's more convenient for the author if artifacts stay in New Haven or New York!

But Heaney redeems himself by showing that he is merely acknowledging these selfish feelings, not suggesting policy should be based on them.
I draw the line, however, when a loaned collection becomes a trophy, and includes human remains. I believe that Yale University should return to Peru the skulls, bones, and artifacts that Hiram Bingham excavated and exported from Machu Picchu and other sites as soon as possible without conditions. Peru does not deny the importance of Yale's curatorship of the collection, nor how it has deepened interest in Peru. Instead, its representatives call for their return because they believe it is historically, ethically, and legally right. . . . The fact that these are not just artifacts, but the skulls, bones, and funerary remains of Peru's pre-Columbian dead, makes Yale's intransigence doubly incredible. It is indeed problematic when a country's government, like Peru's, claims to represent a historically marginalized indigenous group — but that should be a problem worked out between the government of Peru and its indigenous majority, not Peru and Yale. These are not Greek sculptures on display in Yale's art gallery, planting the seeds of a hundred new artists — these are the skulls and bones and possessions of people who once struggled, danced, and buried family members of their own. . . . If, at their core, history and archaeology are our attempts to understand and respect the lives of the past on their own terms, then the respectful treatment of human remains is the litmus test of whether our practices are civilized or cruel. Yale's possession of Machu Picchu's dead not only lends an unattractive colonial tinge to the university but also shows how Yale refuses to recognize the expedition's place in the hemisphere's history of exploitation.
* * * *

Bingham's expeditions take place against a backdrop of US imperialism; deep, well-justified suspicion and distrust by South Americans of North American intentions and, often, their own government's desire to profit from US imperialism; indigenous forced labour, slavery and repression - and resistance; and an American and European public fascinated by heroic adventures. One interesting thread running through Crater of Gold is the historically contradictory attitudes of white Americans towards indigenous people. It's a perfect illustration of the Peruvian expression "Incas si, Indios no", meaning, as Heaney puts it, "it is easy to romanticize the pre-Columbian past while ignoring the indigenous present".

After the US completed its conquest of the indigenous people within its own borders, it began its imperial march, beginning with Hawaii, and ending... well, we don't know, because it hasn't finished. While the country was fighting it out with Spain to re-colonize that country's colonies, jingoistic US pseudo-scientists were hot to prove that there had been advanced civilizations in the Americas before the Spanish conquest. Apparently the bitter irony was completely lost on them.
As for the Indian families already living in the ruins, Bingham dismissed them as "corngrowers [who] seemed to know little about the temples around which they had planted their crops. . . . They were of a different breed from the men who built the temples and had only dim traditions concerning them." . . . If Ishi and Peru's "corngrowers" were what Americans wanted to see in the indigenous present - nearly "extinct" hunters or "degenerated" and "dim" farmers - then the Incas and pre-Incas embodied the glorious pre-European past, whose proper heirs, the newspapers hinted, were the Americans who recognized them. The Christian Science Monitor simply and forcefully declared that Bingham's revelation left "the theory that civilization was first brought to these shores in Spanish caravels in a ridiculous light."
When the news of Bingham's "discovery" hit the press, it was an instant international sensation.
The story challenged racist beliefs that the Americas' indigenous peoples were incapable of building empires and settlements. By the same token, it fueled all sorts of wild and covertly racist theories — that the Incas were inspired by Egyptians, that they were Atlanteans or Asians — all implying that native Americans could not possibly have built an empire without external help. [Ed. note: Readers my age will recall similar nonsense about Peru's Nazca lines being built by space aliens.] . . .

Across the world, newspaper readers shook their heads at the wonder of it all. For Americans feeling regretful over the conquest of their own indigenous population, Machu Picchu offered a feeling of innocence and an almost imperial nostalgia for the pre-European past. It was easier to think of the noble, indigenous dead than the live Indians on and off reservations throughout the United States, fighting to protect native culture and treaty rights.

* * * *

As an aside, I was bemused to learn how far back the unethical corporate sponsorship of science dates. Heaney writes of the 1911 expedition:
The expedition's funding also hinted at its ethos. To cover everyone's food and travel expenses - each person needed $1,800 - Bingham collected $11,825, partly from businesses linked to America's frontiers, literal and imaginary. The Winchester Arms Company donated a rifle and $500. Minor C. Keith - whose all-powerful United Fruit Company owned railroads and plantations throughout Central America and would involve the US government in many a military imbroglio - put up $1,800 for another member and let the expedition travel on Untied Fruit's ships at half-fare. Finally, the Eastman Kodak Company donated cameras that Bingham promised to field test in Peru's rainy valleys.
Someone from the expedition crowed "that they were continuing 'the heroic work of the first explorers and founders like Pizarro.'" Again, no irony here.

And what of the "treasure"? What does Yale hoard? What was found at Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo and other sites through the sacred Urubamba River valley? I wanted to know: what didn't we see that should have been there?
They found a bevy of complete or near-complete ceramic vessels, as well as the potsherds of 1,650 containers, ranging from tall liquid vessels to ornamented handles with the faces of animals and humans. . . . In the grave of one man, they found a pot filled with animal bones, grains, and other objects. . . . They found caches of intriguing green serpentine counters and a finely grained stone box, about six inches wide, eight-and-a-half inches long, and two-and-a-half inches deep, covered with beautiful angles and spirals.

They built an excellent collection of metallic objects. There was no gold — the Incas carried around such finery, and little of it survived the conquest — but they found "about two hundred little bronzes and a few pieces of silver and tin." They found large bronze knives, a silver headdress, and a moon-shaped silver headpiece.

In early September, Erdis pulled the expedition's most fabulous find from the northwest corner of one room: a "bronze knife, with handle decorated with figure of man with breech cloth, on stomach, feet in air, pulling on a rope, to which is attached a fish," he wrote in his journal. It was a truly unique piece, and the figure was beautifully detailed, with an Inca nose, earflaps on his hat, and a look of "grim determination" on his face. William Holmes of the Smithsonian would call it "one of the finest examples ever found in America of the ancient art of working in bronze."

The year's finest treasure, however, remained the tombs that Torvis Richarte and Anacleto Alvarez turned inside-out for the expedition, willingly or not. . . . That afternoon he and Richarte found a cave that yielded the ruin's second most delicate piece of metalwork: a small bronze pin with a tiny bronze hummingbird on top, a piece of string still threaded through its hole. They found a broken pot with a baby's skeleton at its bottom. A curious double burial would yield two skeletons, one with a stone and silver necklace still "at the neck of the dear departed," and, fascinatingly, a green glass bead — a European artifact, the first sign that the site was perhaps inhabited through the conquest. . . . When they were through, Richarte and Alvarez had opened 107 graves, yielding the remains of about 173 individuals. . . . There were no royal Inca mummies draped in gold, but as time went by, the Yale expedition realized they had found something even more important: a cross-section of the site's inhabitants, spanning the privileged "priestess" to the humble, malnourished worker. For those who knew how to read them, these bones were a treasure of a new sort, windows to their owner's past, gender, diet, and cause of death.

By collecting almost everything in the graves, no matter how modest, from humble metals to potsherds, Richarte and Alvarez let Yale make the first archaeological report in history on both the noble and common people of Inca society. Everything — from the skeletons to silver to stone carvings — went into 93 of the expedition's food boxes. [Ed note: that is, the boxes were not officially inventoried, they were falsely labelled and smuggled out of the country.]

Yale would ultimately list 5,415 lots of artifacts, but when counted in terms of individual bone fragments and potsherds, there were upwards of 46,000 pieces. It was a massive and invaluable array — priceless precisely because of its comprehensive nature. It was the only intact collection of human and artistic remains from an Inca royal estate that escaped the torches of the Spanish conquest. Put another way, Yale had now assumed the sacred trust of caring for Machu Picchu's tombs.
I believe that one day the Incan bones and other treasures now housed in Connecticut will be returned to Peru. If that happens in my lifetime, I may have to return to that country to see and celebrate them.