Death of an angry, unhappy man

I know that many were happy with the news of Fred Phelps’ death but when I first heard, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt.  On one hand, a man who protested at the funerals of men and women who died in combat would no longer be able to do so.  On the other, one could feel sorry for a man who could never get over his anger.  He was once a noted civil rights lawyer in Kansas  and won an award from the local NAACP, but even back then there were signs he was troubled.  The obituary in the New York Times notes

He earned a law degree in 1964 from Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, but his legal career was troubled from the start. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which describes Westboro Baptist as “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America,” Mr. Phelps struggled to find people to attest to his good character when he wanted to be admitted to the bar, was temporarily suspended for professional misconduct, and was even sued for failing to pay for candy his children sold door to door.

He succeeded in winning settlements in discrimination cases he filed as a civil rights lawyer.

“Most blacks — that’s who they went to,” the Rev. Ben Scott, president of the N.A.A.C.P.’s Topeka branch, said in an interview with CNN in 2010. “I don’t know if he was cheaper or if he had that stick-to-it-ness, but Fred didn’t lose many back then.”

Mr. Phelps, with his wife, Margie M. Phelps, left, and daughter Margie J. Phelps, at a demonstration in Baltimore in 2007.

Mr. Phelps, with his wife, Margie M. Phelps, left, and daughter Margie J. Phelps, at a demonstration in Baltimore in 2007.

Phelps was disbarred in 1979.  While he has said that his anti gay crusade began because a grandson was propositioned he showed a predilection for child abuse.  Amy Davidson writes in the New Yorker piece titled “The Two Freds” about Fred Rogers and Fred Phelps

One unpleasant thing about Fred Phelps was the way in which he and his church members brought children to their protests and had them hold placards like the ones that Roberts quoted, and repeat slogans slurring gay people and praising divine killings. They tended to be Phelps’s own children or grandchildren—how else would you find an eight-year-old to damn Mr. Rogers?—and the bulk of his parishioners were his relatives. The obituaries refer to complicated loyalties and estrangements, but then, those of some very good people do, too. But one can see, in the hanging of hateful signs on children, the very opposite of Fred Rogers’s life’s project, which was to treat young people both morally and as serious moral actors. Mr. Rogers spoke of the intense drama of one’s earliest years, Supreme Court cases or no, and the way that friendship, above all, was orienting. Of the two Freds, he’s the one who endures. Phelps, and all his vitriol, will spin away.

Phelps and his congregation at Westboro Baptist Church (composed primarily, if not entirely of family) demonstrated everywhere.  They spread Phelps angry message at thousands of funerals of the well known and of ordinary people as well as at many events.  Phelps represented an angry God.  The New York Time obituary again

In 1998, he explained his view of a wrathful God in an interview with The Houston Chronicle.

“You can’t believe the Bible without believing that God hates people,” he said. “It’s pure nonsense to say that God loves the sinner but hates the sin. He hates the sin, and he hates the sinner. He sends them to hell. Do you think he loves the people in hell?”

So in the end, I feel sorry for a man filled with so much hate and anger.  I hope he can find peace in another life.

Photograph:  Jed Kirschbaum/Baltimore Sun, via Associated Press

Random thoughts on the state of the world on the first day of spring

Today, the first day of spring, is warmish outside.  I think it actually broke 50!  We had a few hours of sun, but now it is mostly cloudy.  I finally purchased John Grisham’s “Sycamore Row”.  I had been resisting but succumbed because I loved “A Time to Kill” and I ended up getting 45% off the cover price.  Don’t know if a new Grisham is a sign of spring or not, but I’m going to take it as one.

It is hard for me to concentrate on much the last few days.  There is just too much news! Between the missing Malaysian airliner, Crimea, and worrying about the Democrats retaining Congress in the fall, things are pretty depressing even for someone who tends to be an optimist.

Unfortunately, I think that time ran out a long time ago for the passengers on the airliner and now all we can do is watch as the world tries to locate the remains of the plane and the black box.  While everyone points out that they did eventually find the Air France plane that went down in the Atlantic, it was very difficult even though we had a much better of idea of where it went down.  I see the families on television and wonder what I would feel if I just didn’t know what happened.  At this point one almost has to treat it as a forensic mystery to be solved.

I don’t think we are on the verge of a war over Russia and the Crimea, but I do think that things will be difficult internationally for a while.  This will affect negotiations in Iran and Syria as well as people in the Ukraine and Crimea.  But the ultimate losers may be the Crimeans.  David M. Herszenhorn had an article in the New York Times yesterday which pointed out that the troubles there may just be starting.

Many A.T.M.s in this sun-dappled seaside resort city in Crimea, and across the region, have been empty in recent days, with little white “transaction denied” slips piling up around them. Banks that do have cash have been imposing severe restrictions on withdrawals.

All flights, other than those to or from Moscow, remain canceled in what could become the norm if the dispute over Crimea’s political status drags on, a chilling prospect just a month before tourist season begins in a place beloved as a vacation playground since czarist times.

He points out that Ukraine could cut off electricity and water supplies and that there is no direct overland route between Crimea and Russia.  The story ends with this

Some Crimeans said they were already feeling the financial sting from political instability.

As crowds in the cities of Simferopol and Sevastopol held raucous celebrations well into Monday morning after the vote, here in Yalta, Ihor B., the owner of a small travel business, went to bed with a growing sense of dread: The roughly two dozen bookings that he had received since the start of the year had all disappeared.

“I got 10 requests from Germany, and 10 assignments from Ukrainian agencies for Western tourists; a couple of requests from Dutch tourists and cruise ships,” said Mr. B, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of reprisal by the new Russian government. “At the moment, all of them, absolutely all of them, are canceled.”

In the same issue of the Times was a long cautionary story about South Ossetia which was liberated from Georgia five years ago.  But things have moved on and South Ossetia is not doing very well.

When Russia invaded Georgia, repelling a Georgian attack on South Ossetia and taking control of the separatist enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it seemed most unlikely that the Kremlin was thinking about long-term consequences.

As in Crimea, the war was presented to Russians as a humanitarian effort to protect its citizens, and more broadly as a challenge to encirclement by the United States, which was aligned with Georgia. Television stations gave the intervention blanket coverage, and it was wildly popular in Russia, lifting the approval ratings of Dmitri A. Medvedev to the highest point of his presidency.

The aftermath of recognition, however, has presented Russia with a long series of headaches. This week, economists have warned repeatedly that Crimea, if it is absorbed, will prove a serious drag on Russia’s budget, but their arguments have been drowned out in the roar of public support for annexation.

Aleksei V. Malashenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Russian officials “will be shocked” with the challenges they face when trying to manage Crimea — reviving its economy, distributing money and influence among its ethnic groups, and trying to control the corruption that accompanies all big Russian projects. And, judging from precedent, the public’s euphoria will fade, he said.

“I think that in Russia, the majority of the society forgot about Ossetia, and if it weren’t for the Olympics, the majority of the society would also forget about Abkhazia,” Mr. Malashenko said. “Of course, Crimea is not Ossetia. But anyway, the popularity of Crimeans, and the Crimean tragedy, will be forgotten in a year.”

So maybe we don’t need to do anything except some sanctions and make sure that Russia and Putin’s next move is not to march into eastern Ukraine.  Forget John McCain’s mockery and advice.

As for domestic politics, I recalled Andrew Sullivan’s March 13th blog entry on The Dish. The Boring, Relentless Advance Of Obama’s Agenda.  To read the entire piece one has to subscribe [which I would encourage you to do], but here is his conclusion.

…One side is theater – and often rather compelling theater, if you like your news blonde, buxom and propagandized. The other side is boring, relentless implementation. At any one time, you can be forgiven for thinking that the theatrics have worked. The botched roll-out of healthcare.gov, to take an obvious example, created a spectacular weapon for the GOP to hurl back at the president. But since then, in undemonstrative fashion, the Obama peeps have rather impressively fixed the site’s problems and signed up millions more to the program. As the numbers tick up, the forces of inertia – always paramount in healthcare reform – will kick in in defense of Obamacare, and not against it. Again, the pattern is great Republican political theater, followed by steady and relentless Democratic advance.

Until the theater really does create a new majority around Republican policies and a Republican candidate, Obama has the edge. Which is to say: he has had that edge now for nearly six years. Even if he loses the entire Congress this fall, he has a veto. And then, all he has to do is find a successor able to entrench his legacy and the final meep-meep is upon us. And that, perhaps, is how best to see Clinton. She may not have the stomach for eight years in the White House, and the barrage of bullshit she will have to endure. But if you see her as being to Barack Obama what George H.W. Bush was to Reagan, four years could easily be enough. At which point, the GOP may finally have to abandon theater for government, and performance art for coalition-building.

Plus, it is spring.

Mutts by Patrick McDonnell

Mutts by Patrick McDonnell

St. Patrick’s Day 2014

I’m not quite sure I understand the whole controversy about openly gay persons marching in a St. Patrick’s Day parade.  The parade is just a celebration of heritage and the Irish are just as diverse as any other group.  Boston’s old Mayor, Tom Menino, simply didn’t march in the South Boston parade because of the restriction, upheld by a Supreme Court decision, that the parade organizers could choose who they wanted to march.  But new Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is, along with U. S. Representative Stephen Lynch, doing his best to broker a compromise that would allow Mass Equality to march with a banner.  I think the parade organizers that include a fellow called Wacko Hurley fear that their parade would turn into another gay pride march if they let any LGBT groups march.  Presumably, the LGBT community knows the difference: March is not June.  Plus, there is a picture from the 1992 parade, pre-Supreme Court decision,  that shows there is nothing to fear.

The parade is only a couple of days away, and Mayor Walsh is making one last try.  Most Boston and Massachusetts state-wide elected officials have already announced they are not going to march.  I think the only exception is Nick Collins, the State Representative from South Boston.

The 1992 South Boston parade after a court order.

The 1992 South Boston parade after a court order.

Kevin Cullen has a wonderful column in today’s Boston Globe about the Boston and New York City parades.

So Marty Walsh, God love ’im, is going to make one last-ditch effort to hammer out a compromise so gay people can march openly in Sunday’s parade in Southie.

As they say in the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht, from where Marty’s parents are from, “Beir bua agus beannacht.” Look it up.

Down here in New York, where its St. Patrick’s Day parade is older than the Declaration of Independence and lasts anywhere from six to seven hours, there’s the same standoff, with organizers refusing to let gay people march with banners that identify themselves as gay.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, as the Irish say, couldn’t be arsed when it comes to forging compromise. He boycotted the parade when he was the city’s public advocate. He’s not going to start marching now.

De Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, of the Medford [MA] Bloombergs, marched in the parade but de Blasio is about as different from Bloomberg as the Irish are from Irish-Americans.

De Blasio, who grew up in Cambridge, is married to a black woman and has biracial kids, so he’s not really into exclusion. But neither is he into cozying up to the New York Irish, who were in the corner of de Blasio’s primary opponent, Christine Quinn, who was the city council president.

The irony in this — and it wouldn’t be Irish if there weren’t irony — is that Quinn is openly gay. Which means, even when she led the city council delegation in the parade she wasn’t allowed to identify herself as being gay.

So the New York Irish wanted to elect an openly gay mayor but wouldn’t let her march in the parade as openly gay.

And people in New York think we’re nuts?

Mayor Walsh, on the other hand, had support from both the gay community and South Boston so he’s kinda caught in the middle.  But he has said that if he can’t work a compromise, he won’t march.

Linda Dorcena Forry

Linda Dorcena Forry

Boston also has this breakfast before the parade.  Politicians come and roast each other and try to sing Irish songs.  Last May I wrote about South Boston and the election of Linda Dorcena Forry.  I predicted that she would bring some life back to the St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast.  Dorcena Forry is Hatian American married to an Irish man.  The City Councilor from South Boston tried to wrest control, but tradition prevailed:  The State Senator who represents Southie hosts the breakfast.  So Bill Linehan is taking his ball and going to Ireland for the day.  I hope he realizes that this will make him the butt of a lot of jokes.  Whatever.Linda is doing her best to live up to my prediction.  First she announced that the Dropkick Murphy’s, Boston’s very popular Irish punk group, would perform.  Then the Boston Globe had news today of  her most recent announcement about the breakfast.

State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry’s groundbreaking debut as the first woman, first Haitian-American, and first Dorchester resident to host the storied St. Patrick’s Day breakfast on Sunday is apparently drawing some international attention.

Dorcena Forry announced Thursday that Enda Kenny — Ireland’s prime minister, or taoiseach — has agreed to attend the ribald political roast in South Boston.

The visit by a sitting head of state is a coup for Dorcena Forry, who promised to raise the profile of a breakfast that in recent years seemed to have lost some of its star power.

“I am honored that Taoiseach Kenny will join us for this year’s breakfast,” Dorcena Forry said. “I have had the pleasure of meeting the taoiseach during his previous visits to Boston. His attendance at the breakfast is a wonderful affirmation of the deep bonds of friendship between Boston and Ireland.”

No word on whether President Obama will be appearing either on tape or by live feed, but I wouldn’t be surprised.  The Prime Minister is not marching in the parade.

The times are rapidly changing.  Boston Beer Company (think Sam Adams) just announced they have pulled their parade sponsorship.  Wacko and his veterans group are doing a great job of killing the parade.  Meanwhile, the breakfast thrives.  Is there a lesson here?

Photograph of GLIB marching:  Marilyn Humphries

Anita Hill and Sandra Fluke: Does 20 years really make a difference?

Tonight while I was surfing around looking for updates on the Malaysian jet still missing somewhere between Malaysia and Vietnam – or perhaps somewhere else – I happened upon a long story in the New York Times about the new documentary about Anita Hill.  Sheryl Gay Stolberg’s review of the movie is actually a long profile of Hill.  I’m very happy that Hill allowed the documentary to be made because it means that a whole new generation of young men and women will be introduced to a remarkable person.

Back then there was no social media, no Facebook, no Twitter but the word still spread quickly among women that someone was about to accuse a nominee for the United States Supreme Court of sexual harassment.  No one knew exactly who she was, but we knew this was going to be important.  I was in Washington, D.C. that day at a meeting, but I remember sitting in a bar that afternoon with several other women all of us transfixed by what was happening on the television.  I was astounded that none of the men, and the Judiciary Committee was all white men, had any clue.  Stolberg puts it this way

“I think this event changed the course of her life and gave her a public mission that she took on,” said Fred Lawrence, the Brandeis president and a Yale Law School classmate of Ms. Hill’s. “It’s not a duty that she volunteered for, but I think she understood that the circumstances had put her in a unique role, and gave her a voice.”

The hearings were a surreal spectacle, as senators prodded an obviously uncomfortable Ms. Hill through awkward testimony about penis size, pubic hair and a pornographic film star known as Long Dong Silver — shocking public discourse at the time. When the hearings ended, Ms. Hill returned to teaching commercial law at the University of Oklahoma, trying, as she says in the film, to find “a new normal.” It proved difficult.

Ms. Hill at the hearings.

Ms. Hill at the hearings.

And I think every women who watched the hearings remembers that electric blue suit.

There were thousands of letters of support, but also death threats, threats to her job. Conservative state lawmakers wanted her fired; fortunately, she had tenure. Even years later, she felt “a discomfort,” she said. One dean confided that he had tired of hearing colleagues at other schools remark, “Isn’t that where Anita Hill is?”

In Washington, her testimony reverberated. Sexual harassment claims shot up. “Our phones were ringing off the hook with people willing to come forward who had been suffering in silence,” said Marcia D. Greenberger, founder and co-president of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, where Ms. Hill serves on its board.

Congress passed a law allowing victims of sex discrimination to sue for damages, just as victims of racial discrimination could. Waves of women began seeking public office. In 1991, there were two female senators. Today there are 20.

Clarence Thomas was confirmed even though, as Hill puts it

“I believe in my heart that he shouldn’t have been confirmed,” she said in a recent interview, acknowledging that it irritates her to see Justice Thomas on the court. “I believe that the information I provided was clear, it was verifiable, it was confirmed by contemporaneous witnesses that I had talked with. And I think what people don’t understand is that it does go to his ability to be a fair and impartial judge.”

And there are still those who believe she made the whole story up. Then I started thinking about a more recent woman’s experience with Congress. This is from a story in the Daily Beast.

Rep. Darrell Issa’s Thursday hearing went off the rails early. “What I want to know,” demanded Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, as she looked at the all-male panel of clerics before her, “is, where are the women?”

The hearing, titled “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience,” was about religious freedom, Issa said, but it took place against the backdrop of a national controversy regarding the White House’s mandate that all employers provide birth control as part of their insurance plans.

As it happens, there was one woman present prepared to testify on the issue of birth control. Sandra Fluke, a 30-year-old Georgetown University Law School student, had been contacted earlier in the week by committee minority leaders after Democrats saw a video of her speaking about the mandate at the National Press Club on February 9.

Sandra Fluke

Sandra Fluke

Congress had a woman to ask the question, but the panel was all men.  Fluke went on to testify at an informal hearing arranged by Democratic women.  The Huffington Post described it this way

This week she received almost rock-star treatment as the lone witness at an unofficial Democratic-sponsored hearing. While the rest of the Capitol was mostly empty, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, three other Democrats and dozens of mainly young women supporters crowded into a House office building room to applaud Fluke as she spoke of the importance of reproductive health care to women.

Prominently displayed by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., was a photo of five religious leaders, all men and all appearing at the invitation of the Republican majority, testifying last week with Fluke visible in the background, sitting in the visitors’ section.

Democrats pounced on that image of a hearing discussing contraceptive rights being dominated by men while the one person Democrats had asked to appear on the witness stand, a woman, was turned away. Pelosi, D-Calif., said they had since heard from 300,000 people urging that women’s voices be heard on the issue.

“We almost ought to thank the chairman for the lack of judgment he had,” in denying a seat to Fluke, Pelosi said.

Committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., had said at last week’s hearing that the panel’s focus was on whether the administration policy was a violation of religious freedom. He said at the time that Fluke, invited by Democrats in her capacity as former head of Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice, was not qualified to speak on the religious rights question.

“I’m an American woman who uses contraceptives,” Fluke said, when asked Thursday by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., about her qualifications to speak on the issue.

So maybe we have made progress in the years since Anita Hill.  Some Republican men don’t seemed to have learned much, but there were plenty of woman and men in Congress who wanted to hear Fluke’s testimony.  And we can thank Anita Hill for her part in making change happen.

Photograph of Anita Hill: American Film Foundation

Photograph of Sandra Fluke:  Getty Images

Daily Beast story: Matthew DeLucca

Huffington Post story: Jim Abrams

Women, gun violence, and domestic violence

According to the op-ed by Nicolas Kristof in last Sunday’s New York Times Review,

Sometimes there’s a perception that domestic violence is insoluble, because it’s such a complex, messy problem with women who are culprits as well as victims. Yet, in fact, this is an area where the United States has seen enormous progress.

Based on victimization surveys, it seems that violence by men against their intimate partners has fallen by almost two-thirds since 1993. Attitudes have changed as well. In 1987, only half of Americans said that it was always wrong for a man to beat his wife with a belt or stick; a decade later, 86 percent said that it was always wrong.

A generation ago, police didn’t typically get involved. “We would say, ‘don’t make us come back, or you’re both going to jail,’ ” recalled Capt. Leonard Dreyer of the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office. In contrast, sheriff’s officers now routinely arrest the aggressor.

I have to admit that I am skeptical, but hope that his numbers are correct.  Even Kristof opens his column with ” [w]hat strikes one American woman in four and claims a life in the United States every six hours?”  A high profile case such as that of Jared Remy who killed his girlfriend, Jennifer Martel in front of their young daughter confirms that at point at which a woman makes an effort to leave a relationship is the point at which she is most likely to be killed.  Kristof himself recounts this story

American women are twice as likely to suffer domestic violence as breast cancer, and the abuse is particularly shattering because it comes from those we have loved.

“He’s the only person I’ve ever loved,” Ta’Farian, 24, said of her husband, whom she met when she was an 18-year-old college student. He gradually became violent, she says, beating her, locking her up in a closet, and destroying property.

“My family was like, ‘He’s your husband. You can’t leave him. How would you support yourself?’ ”

Still, she says, it became too much, and she called 911. Police arrested him. But she says that the day before the trial, her husband called and threatened to kill her if she testified against him, so she says that out of a mix of fear and love she refused to repeat in court what had happened. Her husband was let off, and she was convicted of false reporting of a crime.

I was still thinking about the Kristof column this morning when I read this front page story in this morning’s Boston Globe on women who buy and hold guns for men.

…As law enforcement agencies and the administration of Mayor Martin J. Walsh ponder ways to get guns off the street, they are learning that targeting the men who historically have been the primary actors in violent crimes is not enough.

They must also disrupt networks of women who buy and hold weapons for men to use.

“We are seeing women with weapons who do not have a direct role in the city’s gun violence,’’ said Jake Wark, spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley. “But they are turning up with firearms that are used in that violence.”

Debora Seifert, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol,  Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Boston, said that she has worked on cases in which women bought firearms for boyfriends who are drug dealers.

Police confiscated a shotgun and ammunition from Arianna Talbert’s Dorchester apartment last year.

“These women can go into a gun shop and buy these guns for a violent criminal,’’ said Seifert. “They can use these weapons to victimize someone in their communities.”

Jahmeilla Tresvant is facing gun charges in two cases. In one, police believe she was holding a gun for her brother

Jahmeilla Tresvant is facing gun charges in two cases. In one, police believe she was holding a gun for her brother

These guns are often hidden in apartments rented by the women and their discovery can result in eviction.

While research is scant on women’s involvement in the gun problem, studies have been clear about who is leading violence by firearms, said David Hemenway, a professor of public health at Harvard School of Public Health.

Men and teenage boys drive gun crime either as victims or perpetrators. If a woman buys a gun, Hemenway added, she is more likely to be buying it for someone who cannot legally buy a gun.

“These young females find themselves facing jail time for holding that gun,’’ said Evans [Boston Police Commissioner William Evans] in a statement.

The mindset that let Ta’Farian stay with her abusive husband is the same one that causes the young women to buy and hold guns.

In the war on illegal guns, Ruth Rollins has heard it all. She’s an advocate for women whose own son was shot and killed. Women have long been flying under radar in police sweeps for illegal guns, she said. And women have become easy prey for criminally-minded men, who are becoming savvy in avoiding arrest for gun possession by having female relatives, partners, or juveniles hold firearms for them.

Women have said they hold the guns for a variety of reasons: to get a few extra dollars, to get drugs, or simply to feel needed. The firearms are sometimes used as community guns stored in a central location, and anyone, from a wayward juvenile to a terrified young man, can have easy access to them.

“It’s no different from years ago when a woman would hold drugs for their men. They would do it for money. They would do it for love,’’ said Rollins. “Now they are holding these guns and they are doing it in the name of love.”

Kim Odom, who lost her 13-year-old son to violence, said some women feel a deep sense of commitment to their men, even the ones wrapped up in crime.

“They are of the mind-set that they are ‘ride-or-die chicks,’ ” Odom said. “These are young ladies who are willing to go all out for their boyfriends.”

This is just another kind of domestic violence.  Maybe more psychological than physical, but still domestic violence.  And like incidents of domestic violence which end either in death or injury to the woman or in which the woman ends up killing her abuser. [And yes, I do know that women can also be abuser, but men  still make up the vast majority.]

Over past year and a half Rollins and Odom have been training and educating women about the consequences of buying and stashing weapons. They urge women to make pledges to not hold or buy guns and warn them of the penalties if caught. For instance, a person who makes a straw purchase faces up to 10 years in prison under federal law, US authorities said.

Their effort, called Operation LIPSTICK, is run through Citizens for Safety, which has enlisted the help of local law enforcement and the mayor to press the issue. On Feb. 25, the group kicked off an ad campaign on the MBTA,  with placards on subway trains  declaring, “His Crime, Your Time — Holding His Gun Can Land You in Jail.”

Perhaps if we used some of the new technology that would prevent anyone but the gun purchaser from firing it, we would be able to cut down on some of the urban gun violence and some young women would be able to stay out of prison.  Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey has proposed a Smart Gun bill.  We should support it.

Photograph:  Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Globe story:  Meghan E. Irons

Birds and seeds: change and diversity

Maybe it is just what seems to be a very long, cold winter (As I start writing this it is snowing again, but I hope not for long.) that is getting to me but I’m thinking this morning about natural ebbs and flows of plants and animals and the influence of man for both good and bad.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

We participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count every year and they are reporting some preliminary findings from February’s count.

Although much more data have yet to be recorded, here are some of the trends noted so far.

  • Fewer Finches After last year’s “superflight,” this year’s GBBC reports for 10 irruptive species (mostly finches) are down considerably. This includes reports for the White-winged and Red crossbills, Common and Hoary redpolls, Pine and Evening grosbeaks, Pine Siskin, Purple Finch, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Bohemian Waxwings. These are believed to be natural fluctuations in numbers because of variation in seed crops.
  •  Snowy Owl Invasion Continues A massive irruption of Snowy Owls into the northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and Great Lakes States of the U.S., as well as southeastern Canada, is easily seen in GBBC numbers. Preliminary results show participants reported more than 2,500 Snowy Owls in 25 states and 7 provinces of the U.S. and Canada!
  • The Polar Vortex Effect The frigid cold in many parts of North America has resulted in unusual movements of waterfowl and grebes. With the Great Lakes almost completely frozen, some species, such as the White-winged Scoter and the Long-tailed Duck, have fled the frozen lakes and stopped at inland locations where they are not usually found at this time of year.

The trends just naturally change from year to year.  But the mention of seed crops brings me to this story that caught my eye.  Seed Libraries.  I’ve heard of some companies starting to grow more variety of plants for seed and of the seed vault where seeds are being kept in case one day we need to start over, but not of seed libraries.  The Boston Globe reported

A basic principle of any library is that you return what you take out. By that standard, the new scheme at Hampshire College’s library is a roll of the dice. Since last November, librarians have been lending out packets of seeds, allowing people to plant them, and checking them back in if—and only if—the borrower manages to grow thriving plants in the meantime.

The Hampshire College project is part of a small but growing group of “seed libraries” across the country, local centers that aim to promote heirloom gardening and revive a more grass-roots approach to seed breeding.

A seed library

A seed library

The concept is pretty simple:  You check out some seeds, plant them, let some of them go to seed and then return the seeds.  But there is always the chance that you won’t get back the same variety.

“Self-pollinating” plants like beans, peas, tomatoes, and lettuce have both male and female parts in the same flower, so they tend to predictably produce seeds that grow the exact same kind of plant. But “open-pollinating” plants like squashes and corn require pollen to travel from one plant to another—and there’s a significant chance that pollen from some other variety of plant, borne by wind or insect, will get in and create an unwanted hybrid. Katie Campbell-Nelson, vegetable extension educator at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says that one year she planted kale too close to collard greens. She saved seeds from that year’s harvest, and, “The kale I got next year was just this bitter horrible cross.”

Why is plant diversity important?  Think about the Irish Potato Famine.

The agribusiness model has given the world cheap, abundant food, but it has also reduced the variety of crops we eat to a handful of massively grow-able varieties. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost over the last century as farmers have moved to high-yielding, genetically modified seeds. This dependence on a few kinds of plants leaves our food supply not only genetically impoverished, but also more vulnerable to blight. (Peru, which grew many varieties of potatoes, survived the potato blight much better than Ireland, which grew only one.)

One of the many reasons I’m looking forward to summer is the re-opening of local farmer’s markets and the opportunity to try new varieties.  Plant diversity is another reason to grow and buy locally.

The Polar Vortex (and who had ever heard of it before this winter) has changed the migration and winter nesting of some birds, but man also changes patterns with building, clearing for agriculture, dams, and other structures.  Factory farms lead to less diversity in what we can purchase and eat and can lead to blight requiring more pesticides and fertilizer.  This impacts every thing that eats whatever is grown this way.  I know we will never go back to the era when everything was grown on the family farm – there are just too many of us and more and more of us are living in urban areas – but being aware never hurts.

Photograph:  Northern Cardinal Ella Clem

Photograph:  Seed Library: Lesley Becker/Globe staff

Globe Story:  Kevin Hartnett

About those bitcoins…

Toothfairy

Is this the future?  And what are bitcoins anyway?

According to an article in the Washington Post

Bitcoin is an online currency that allows people to make one-to-one transactions, buy goods and services and exchange money across borders without involving banks, credit card issuers or other third parties. As a result, this exotic new form of money has become popular with libertarians as well as tech enthusiasts, speculators — and criminals. Bitcoins are basically lines of computer code that are digitally signed each time they travel from one owner to the next.

One has only to look how money has changed over time: wampum, coins, precious metals, paper and electronic transactions to name of few of the forms, to realize that a bitcoin or something like it would be the next evolution.  The bitcoin has been hovering around the edges of my consciousness for a while, but then I read about Hiawatha Bray’s using the new bitcoin ATM at Boston’s South Station.

The ATM at Boston’s South Station snatched the money from my hand and didn’t even give me a receipt. But my smartphone’s green glow let me know I had just invested $5 in the world’s most controversial, questionable, and exciting new currency, the bitcoin.

The machine, which is the first of its kind in Boston, was officially plugged in Wednesday morning — right next to Pinkberry — and began spewing bitcoins, virtually.

“You can think of it as Internet cash,” said Chris Yim, cofounder of Liberty Teller, the Boston company that operates the new bitcoin ATM. “This is just a more secure way of buying things online.”

The five-year-old currency is not backed by any central government, but can be spent just like dollars in a small but increasing number of places, including some local restaurants and the popular online retailer Overstock.com.

Bitcoins are stored by users in so-called digital wallets, and each coin has a unique online address. Transactions are managed by thousands of computers linked in a worldwide network, helping to ensure their integrity.

There is also the benefit of privacy. While purchases are shared with the entire network, creating a permanent record, users don’t have to personally identify themselves — the same way someone handing over cash at a register doesn’t have to provide the clerk with a name. The hackers who stole millions of credit card numbers from Target during the holiday season would have a much tougher time cracking the bitcoin code.

OK.  Sounds interesting.  If you are worried about your credit card information being stolen at Target, while making an online purchase, or even buying fries at McDonalds you might want to switch to cash for face to face transactions.  But then you can get your pocketpicked, your purse stolen or left behind and you can’t cancel cash as you can a credit card.  Bitcoins may be the future answer.

Bitcoin’s promise of anonymity has proved attractive to criminals. It was the favorite currency of the now defunct outlaw website Silk Road, a global trading post for illegal drugs and worse. But now much of the bitcoin action comes from legitimate — and greedy — financial speculators. They have helped drive the value of a single bitcoin from a few dollars in 2011 to as high as $1,242 in November. Since then, it has plummeted, and as of Wednesday the price was about $630.

Unfortunately, your new currency may be worth less than you thought, thanks to the rapidly shifting value of bitcoin. Last week I spent $100  for 144 millibits. Ten minutes later it was worth only $97.61.

Kind of like stocks which fluctuate in value.  But since it is like cash, it would be difficult to know exactly how much money you have to spend.

And then this happened.  Mt. Gox, one of the big names in the bitcoin world collapsed and filed for bankruptcy.  The Washington Post explains

It’s not entirely clear what happened to the Tokyo-based exchange, which has sometimes been criticized for poor security. It suffered a crippling theft in 2011, and several experts have since accused the exchange of ignoring warnings about a software glitch which could enable hackers to silently drain the business of its bitcoins. The glitch was recently fixed, but not before Mt. Gox imposed a ban on bitcoin withdrawals, feeding speculation that the exchange was out of money.

Those fears appear to have been confirmed late Monday when bitcoin enthusiast Ryan Selkis posted an 11-page-long “Crisis Strategy Draft” allegedly leaked by a Mt. Gox insider. The draft appeared to show the exchange secretly trying to grapple with the loss of more than 740,000 bitcoins over several years — a titanic sum several times the value of its assets.

Some people are said to have lost all their money.  American prosecutors are looking into the bitcoin world.  According to the New York Times

…American prosecutors are stepping up their inquiries. Prosecutors in the United States have issued subpoenas to several other digital currency companies, including Mt. Gox and the Internet Credit Union, based in New Brunswick, N.J., and one in Japan, said several other people briefed on the matter.

Prosecutors hope to better understand how money is transferred in the digital realm and converted from dollars to Bitcoin. The people briefed on the matter said they would not be surprised if authorities subpoena other companies and institutions involved in money transfers.

It remains to be seen if all of this will mean the end to the bitcoin or if it is just a hiccup.  One thing is pretty certain however – eventually there will be an electronic currency.  Which bring us back to the little girl who got bitcoins from the toothfairy and Hiawatha Bray who are both still looking for someplace to spend them.

But most consumers aren’t ready for bitcoin. They’re frightened by a currency whose value can fluctuate wildly from hour to hour. Besides, what can they buy with it? Few retailers accept bitcoins, even though they could save a fortune on credit and debit card fees and offer customers greater security.

South Station’s ATM will certainly thrill passing geeks, but it’s the nearby merchants who will really decide the fate of virtual money. When I can spend my freshly purchased bitcoins at the yogurt stand next door, I’ll become a true believer.

Cartoon:  Dan Wasserman for the Boston Globe