29 March 2009

Fair Trade Easter Bunnies

So what is Fair Trade, exactly?

Chocolate, coffee, and other imported foods and goods get the Fair Trade certification from TransFair USA when sellers deal directly with farmers (rather than middlemen) and pay a fair price for goods made under fair labor practices and using environmentally sustainable farming practices.

The Fair Trade Federation has more information about the process.

Cadbury, manufacturer of some of Britain's most popular chocolates, has opted to use fairly manufactured and traded chocolate in their products -- but so far, only in the United Kingdom, and not in the United States, where Hershey manufactures products with the Cadbury label.

If your springtime activities include an Easter celebration, please include Fair Trade chocolate in the festivities. Granted, it will almost certainly be more expensive; if you spend the same amount on Fair Trade chocolate that you would on the usual stuff, you won't end up with as much of it. But maybe having a smaller amount of really good chocolate that you know doesn't support child labor or other abuses of farm workers is a good trade-off.

And sign a petition here to ask Hershey to follow Cadbury's UK lead and buy Fair Trade chocolate for all of its products as well.

28 March 2009

Silent Passage

A big part of Gail Sheehy's point in writing the book was that menopause shouldn't be a silent passage, and that we should get comfortable talking about it. Just the same, I'm embarrassed to mention that the book is on my reading list.

Sheehy wrote more than ten years ago. It doesn't seem very long ago at all that my mother asked what I thought about hormone replacement therapy, and I said I thought treating menopause as a medical condition was problematic. She decided not to go on the hormones, and recent studies of large populations are finding that HRT is not such a good idea, after all.

My mom liked to joke that "they're not hot flashes, they're power surges." Those, I'm not getting. She didn't mention night sweats or mood swings or heart palpitations. Or periods worthy of Lady Macbeth. I should ask, but that might be even more embarrassing than revealing it to the Internauts.

25 March 2009

Health Insurance and Big Bucks

The health insurance industry has agreed to more regulation, and in particular to stop refusing insurance to, or requiring much higher premiums for, people with "pre-existing conditions." These can be anything from diabetes, asthma or heart disease ... to pregnancy.

The New York Times quotes various lawmakers saying approving things about this shift. What the insurance companies are trying to avoid is the creation of any kind of health plan run by the government.

The problem with a national health plan: it would insure people without somebody making a buck. And it would, finally, clearly expose how much profit goes into the business of health coverage.

It's one thing to make a profit by insuring someone else for property loss. It's entirely another to make a profit by insuring health coverage.

It's just wrong.

24 March 2009

Corporate Green.

The New York Times has created a new section devoted to environmental issues, but it's a subset of the Business and Financial news page. You can't get to it from The Times' home page; you have to click on the Business section and then find it under "More in Business," where "Energy and Environment" is the last item on the right side of the page.

Or follow this link to the section, also called "Green Inc."

The Times is the Gray Lady, the self-styled paper of record in which readers can find "all the news fit to print." Apparently, then, all the environmental news fit to print is that which relates to business and finance.

Problem is, reversing climate change requires a paradigm shift in which much of what is done in the name of business and finance is eliminated or drastically changed. Global agribusiness, for example, needs to decline in favor of local production of food, sold by individual farmers to people in the nearby community.

Manufacturing processes that depend upon cheap oil so that goods can be shipped around the world, made into components shipped around the world again and then assembled into finished products once again shipped around the world? No good.

Business models that ignore environmental and community consequences for expansion? Nope.

Readers of The Times need thorough, comprehensive reporting on the environment, not just a little spillage of green ink.

20 March 2009

Rihanna: Distressing Reactions from Teenagers

Alarming numbers of 200 teenagers surveyed by the Boston Public Health Commission think Rihanna is to blame for the fact that Chris Brown beat her, leaving her looking like this.

The numbers don't seem to add up to 100 percent, but here are some of the statistics:
  • 51% said Chris Brown was responsible for the incident
  • 46% said Rihanna was responsible for the incident
  • 52% said both individuals were to blame for the incident, despite knowing at the time that Rihanna had been beaten badly enough to require hospital treatment
The American Bar Association has compiled some other statistics that put this in context. Among their findings are that one in five high school girls reports violence in an intimate relationship and that a quarter of high-school age kids say they know at least one student who has been a victim of dating violence.

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that between 1993 and 1998 (the report was written in 2000) about a million women a year were victims of violence occurring in an intimate relationship. Younger women are more likely to be beaten.

It's like drugs, and sex, and alcohol, and cigarettes. We have to talk to kids about these issues before they get to be teenagers, and we have to do so early and often, in low-key contexts as well as in explicit ways.

Money where my mouth is? Well, I've talked to The Offspring about cigarettes. He's five; I figure I have a year or two left for some of the other stuff. But I try to take opportunities when they come; the other day he read "Crack Is Wack" on a city mural and asked about it, and I told him crack is a bad drug that messes with people's heads. Enough detail for now, I think.

19 March 2009


I love trees. I especially love trees in the winter, when you can see all of the branches, from the biggest down to the tiny ones.

(I took this picture with my Sony Ericsson W760 phone, which has a 3.2 megapixel lens. Not bad, eh? Shutter speed is fairly slow, though, so picture of The Offspring are harder to get.)

17 March 2009

Civil Unions for All

The state of Vermont is considering a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage; supporters say it's necessary because the civil union law passed in 2000 doesn't give partners the same benefits as marriage.

Simple solution: redefine civil union. Give members of a civil union all of the rights and responsibilities of marriage, including health benefits and other protections as well as full responsibility for any children produced by the union.

And then open civil union to mixed-sex as well as same-sex couples.

Anyone who wanted to could have a religious wedding.

In Germany, many people marry twice, once in a civil ceremony and again in a religious wedding. The civil union is the legally recognized one; the religious ceremony more likely to be a large celebration with friends and family.

In the United States, couples get paperwork from a secular office such as a county clerk's office, and then it is completed by the religious officiant at the wedding. This seems to violate constitutional demands for separation of church and state, but as a well-established practice, this could continue to be used by couples having a religious wedding as an alternative to a civil union.

Am I missing something? Is this a solution that could possibly bother anyone?

16 March 2009

Trying to Life a Green Life

Sometimes I do pretty well, sometimes not so well. I'd like to be more consistent, but I'll just have to keep working at it.

Thumbs down:

Today, I disassembled one of two Ikea bookcases I'm throwing away, one four years old, the other perhaps eight or ten, both in perfectly fine shape. The first was bought to store food and dishes in a kitchen with almost no storage space, and at 16" deep, that worked well; the second was bought to match, for use with books, but that 16" turns out to be too deep for books. So when I move in the coming months, I'm not going to take them with me.

I'd like to be able to say I found a buyer on Craigslist or a taker on Freecycle. But instead I followed the path of least resistance and just took them out to the trash.

Thumbs up:

On the other hand, I'm running again, and feeling rather Rip Van Winklish in my odd collection of gear. I bought the sneakers last week; otherwise, no item is less than five years old (I haven't bought exercise gear since before the arrival of The Offspring), and some are at least 20 years old.

I know I bought the cotton gloves while I was living in China in 1987 or 1988, and the fleece vest and the bandanna aren't much newer. The polypropylene shirt is old enough to stink when I sweat. (I've heard about new, anti-microbial gear that doesn't do that; frankly, the idea makes me a little nervous.) The tights are from about ten years ago, when I was trying to bike in the winter, and I think the shorts are older than that. Oh, the socks. Plain old cotton ones, but probably only two or three years old.

15 March 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


Staten Island has its first wind turbine, providing electricity for the streetlights and sewage system in a new retirement community.


Two-thirds of widely sold baby products tested by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics contain formaldehyde and/or 1,4-dioxane, both probable carcinogens, both by-products of the production process not listed on the labels. The list of products tested is here.


AIG already paid $121 million in bonuses to the people who brought it to the brink of collapse, and to a $170 billion bail-out. This weekend, they're distributing $165 million more to those same people. The AIG folks claim that the bonuses are in the folks' contracts and can't be rescinded.

14 March 2009

Cutting Back on Screen Time, Revisited

In short, I'm not doing a very good job. I've added Facebook to the mix, and despite predictions that the initial fascination would wane, I'm on there every day.

Do I really need to read the New York Times and the Guardian on line every day? More than once a day? Probably not.

One thing I have accomplished is to empty out all of my email in-boxes.

Back in January I decided on three things: shorter showers, less screen time, more time playing with barbells. Well, I'm doing pretty well with the shorter showers. The other two, not so good. I think there was a fourth thing but I can't remember what it was.

If I were on the screen less, I'd have more time to play with cast iron. Hmmmm.

And I don't recall setting any specific limits on screen time. So, here goes. No more than twice a day each on facebook, news, blogs, and solitaire. (I'd like to cut back to once a day, but I don't think I can do that right away.)

12 March 2009

Teaching Sexism?

At P.S. 140 in the Bronx, Michael Napolitano teaches a class with all boys, while another teacher (female -- of course?) has all the girls in another classroom down the hall. As Jennifer Medina tells it in the New York Times,
“There’s an aspect of male bonding, a closeness that we wouldn’t otherwise have,” he said. “I feel more like I am teaching them about right from wrong than I might have normally.” And he said he can “be a little more stern” with his students now. “If I get in the face of a girl, she would just cry,” he said. “The boys respond to it, they know it’s part of being a young man.”
It's an interesting experiment. The idea is that girls will be more comfortable asserting their ability, while boys will be less distracted, in single-sex classrooms.

Anecdotal evidence seems to bear this out: the father of one of the boys in the special class says his son is behaving better. The school principal says discipline is better and the kids involved participate more in class and take part in more after-school activities. These are important factors.

But the school also has a third classroom, with both boys and girls. And the kids in the co-ed class have been scoring better on city-wide math and social studies tests than the ones in the single-sex classrooms. A similar experiment done in the 1990s in California was stopped after a few years when, similarly, test scores didn't improve.

But perhaps more disturbing are the gender stereotypes being reinforced by, around, and in the classroom division. Boys need tough treatment. Girls cry. The girls' teacher has them do lots of collaborative work, reinforcing the idea that girls work well together, and scolds them "like a therapist." Ouch.

The school has 30 teachers, of whom only four are men. A better solution might be to increase the pay and improve the working conditions of classroom teaching until primary schools can attract as many male as female teachers -- so that both boys and girls will be as likely to have a male teacher as a female one in any given class.

Another important factor: training and frequent re-training in issues surrounding classroom dynamics as affected by gender as well as personality and other factors. Make sure all the teachers, male and female, are treating individual students as individuals, not as "boys" or as "girls."

One of the boy's in Mr. Napolitano's class, though, has learned well the perhaps unintentional lesson taught by the single-sex classes: “I am learning how to be a man.”

Remember "Math is hard" Barbie?

11 March 2009

If You Must Shop, Shop Responsibly

Child labor, hazardous toys, human rights abuses, bribery. Take the quiz here to see if you can identify the companies responsible for these dastardly deeds. To find out more about the companies with which you do business, check out Responsible Shopper at Green America.

Then you can decide: stick with companies whose business and personnel practices are ethical; join activists in campaigning against the dirtiest ones; buy used (sorry -- "previously cherished") items as much as possible; or have stuff repaired and keep using it.

10 March 2009

Call Your Senator: Support Public Transit

No Impact Man writes today that New York City's plan to save the buses and subways from fare hikes and service cuts is in danger, threatened by three downstate senators. He asks that if you live in New York State, you call the Senate switchboard at (518) 455-2800 and ask them to look up your senator by zip code. Once connected, tell the person who answers that you strongly support the Ravitch transit plan.

Under this plan, bridges across the East and Harlem Rivers will get a $2 toll (same as a ride on public transit). The money raised will be used to avoid service cuts and/or fare hikes on the city's buses and subways.

If you don't live in New York, please email this post (or No Impact Man's) to everyone you know who does live in New York State.

Use the comments to let me know how the emails and phone calls go. Thank you.

Update: For more information on Ravitch's plan, check out this in the New York Times. Also, it occurs to me that even if you don't live in New York, but you commute here or come for visits, you might contact the senator for the district in which you spend the most time and voice your opinion.

09 March 2009

Barbarians at the Cafeteria

The cafeteria turns out to be a tough place for a kindergarten kid to negotiate, which was somewhat of a surprise for me. I went to a private kindergarten because in the late 1960s in New Hampshire, public kindergarten was still an option a town could choose to pay for, or not. I was in a group of a dozen or so little kids, and I went home for lunch.

But in New York City today, kindergarten goes from 8:15 a.m. to 3:10 p.m. -- same school day as for the bigger kids. Pedagogically, this is very sound: kids who are cared for by someone who talks to them, reads to them, does craft projects with them, and takes them to the playground are just as well off at home.

But kids who watch television or are otherwise left entirely to their own devices while a caretaker works all day at home will have a much better time catching up if they start schooling early and for as much time as possible, especially if the language spoken at home is not English.

So the kindergarten kids eat lunch at school in the company of a couple hundred other little barbarians with a few harried aides trying to keep control.

First, there was the matter of the lunchbox. A kid in another class started hassling my kid because "Betty Boop is for girls."

Hmmm, by the time he gets to middle school, maybe the other kid will rethink that one.

The Betty Boop lunchbox was The Offspring's choice three or so years ago when we bought his first lunchbox. At the neighborhood Duane Reade, it was that or Homer Simpson. I have to admit I was kind of pleased. Recently, though, it finally got battered enough to be replaced, and this time the choice was plain black.

It wasn't until after that, that he finally told me about the problem with the Betty lunch box.

Then there were the rugelach. The Dad was packing lunch one morning last week and started putting chocolate rugelach -- one of The Offspring's favorite snacks -- into a baggie. "Noooooo!" There were tears, there was howling, and finally there was an explanation.

"The other kids will make me share!"

I suggested that he keep the rugelach hidden in the lunchbox, and pull them out one at a time when he was ready to eat them. The Mate told him to tell the kids that his Dad said he wasn't allowed to share.

I think I'd better get a hold of that book about all the important things the author learned in kindergarten and see if deception and appeal to higher authority are among them.

01 March 2009

There's No Such Thing as Clean Coal

For more information, check out "The Dirty Lie."

Nationalized Health Care

I've long been convinced, mostly on an anecdotal basis, that the US needs nationalized health coverage. All three people in my immediate family live with chronic illness. The copay for the doctor's office is $10. Each prescription is a dollar a day.

Not so bad, right? Now multiply that by two doctor's visits a month and calculate that between the three of us, we take a minimum of seven medications a day. That's a baseline of $2795, before emergency room visits ($50 copay each time) plus extra medications every time someone gets sicker. For far too many weeks of the year, someone in the family is taking an additional two or three or four medications a day.

Then there's the time and energy spent arguing with the doctors' office and the insurance company. Right now, we're in collection over a visit to the ER last winter. I went in with an asthma attack around 10:30 p.m. By the time I saw the doctor, it was after midnight. So the ER bill is dated Feb. 24, and the doctor's bill is dated Feb. 25.

The insurance company is refusing to pay because of the "discrepancy" between the two bills, and the doctor, reasonably enough, wants to get paid. The way the system is set up, he comes after us, not the insurance company, and we get caught in the middle.

The Mate has been dealing with all of this, ad nauseam. He is a saint in other ways, too.

Then recently I ran into a friend whose son had health problems last year. They're still working on paying off the medical bills: their health plan requires a $500 copay for a hospital stay -- on top of $100 for a visit to the emergency room -- and her son was admitted to the hospital several times as the doctors tried to sort out the illness.

Don't like anecdotes? Think these are isolated incidents? Go check out Nicholas Kristof's column in the New York Times today on the bigger picture.

President Obama is working to expand access to health care. The insurance companies and the pharmaceuticals industry, who make a lot of money based on our current broken system, are going to hit back hard, just like they did when Hillary Clinton tried to nationalize health care almost two decades back.

Make sure your elected officials know that your tax money, as well as what you pay for your own health insurance, needs to go to health care, not into the pockets of insurance company executives. If you don't know who they are, find your senators here and your representatives here. Send an email, make a phone call, or write a letter.

Thank you.