Egypt’s Elections: Owning the Revolution

Egyptians young and old, educated or illiterate—and unprecedented numbers of women—were early to rise and quick to line outside polling stations to participate in the first free elections in 30 years, nine months after the ousting of Hosni Mubarak.

Women voters outside a polling station in Alexandria. Photo by Evan Hill/AlJazeera

News and analysis of Egypt’s elections have been largely about looming dangers and uncertainties facing the country, the violence and divisions of recent weeks, and the worries and skepticism of the International Community.

But for Egyptians, Tunisians, and anyone who has ever experienced life under a dictatorship, the site of people lining up to vote is cause for jubilation and the most reassuring sign that the revolution is working.

Some Egyptian activists chose to boycott the election, partly because they feel the same old guard is in charge of the process—“a circus,” one Egyptian blogger and activist called it (Al Jazeera). A complicated and staggered election system (Reuters), hundreds of parliamentary seats to fill, thousands of unknown candidates, and even the predictability of results (CFR), are all less than ideal circumstances. But Egyptian voters deserve their day of pride and jubilation. Considering voter turnout, and the remarkable engagement of youth and women voters, they also deserve to be hopeful and be trusted with their future.

The New Arab Revolt, an e-book published by the Council of Foreign Relations in May of this year, begins with a reference toPortugal’s 1974 “carnation revolution,” a bloodless military coup that ended 48 years of fascist ruling. I remember walking to the market after school that day in April and wondering about the cheers in the distance. Soldiers stood on armored cars circling the market, while vendors and shoppers clapped, cheered, and threw flowers. In those days, the country had but two state-run TV channels which aired only in the afternoon and evening. It was mostly word-of-mouth that spread news of the revolution, and with such limited means of speech, it’s hard to imagine how the people, instead of the military, could have overthrown the regime. Tumultuous years of political and social upheaval would follow, but the democratic process was nonetheless established.

Nearly a year ago, one young Tunisian man—Mohamed Bouazizi—could not have imagined the revolutions his tragic protest would spark across the Middle East(see this interactive timeline at The Guardian). The human cost of these movements must be present to individual countries and the International Community, as they choose their place in this new world order. But youth, their aspirations and demands, have been at heart and helm of these bold revolutions. Media and technology have played a powerful role in mobilizing protesters and exposing authoritarian rulers and regimes. Political consciousness and solidarity have given shape and strength to civil societies, making it increasingly difficult for recalcitrant establishments to go unchallenged.

And that’s enough to feel hopeful for Egyptians as they go to the polls.

[Note: This post appeared in the Huffington Post]

Teaching children to eat healthy is too costly for US Congress

Fighting childhood obesity–who could argue against it when 17% of American children, ages 2-19, are obese, and childhood obesity has nearly tripled in the last 30 years? (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) The US congress has argued and ruled against it! This mostly-male institution, made up of many fathers and grandparents, has decided that teaching healthier eating habits to America’s children is simply too expensive—never mind the long-term health care costs of childhood obesity—and besides, government shouldn’t be telling children what they can and cannot eat, GOP leaders defended.

Photograph leading Le Monde's article, "To American Congress tomato sauce on pizza is a vegetable"

Against the recommendation of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, the US Department of Agriculture—as well as Mission: Readiness, a group of retired generals who sees America’s steep trend in childhood obesity as a threat to national security–the House and Senate voted to loosen the standards on healthy foods being served in school cafeterias–by calling pizza a vegetable, a main ingredient being tomato paste! (Why not call soda and candy vegetables too, a main ingredient being sugar—produced from sugar cane, a vegetable!)

Whose recommendations did our government follow instead? Those of Big Food lobbying interests:

“This agreement […] recognizes the significant amounts of potassium, fiber and vitamins A and C provided by tomato paste, ensuring that students may continue to enjoy healthy meals such as pizza and pasta,” said Kraig Naasz, president of the American Frozen Food Institute.

Bloomberg News: Congress Pushes Back on Healthier School Lunches
Huffington Post: Pizza is a Vegetable? Congress Defies Logic, Betrays Our Children
Le Monde: Pour les élus américains, la sauce tomate des pizzas est un légume

UPDATE–November 28, 2011

The Washington Post: No, Congress did not declare pizza a vegetable

Congress passed a revised agriculture appropriations bill last week, essentially making it easier to count pizza sauce as a serving of vegetables. The move has drawn widespread outrage from consumer advocates and pundits, who see “pizza is a vegetable.” as outlandish.

There’s just one little misperception: Congress didn’t declare pizza to be a vegetable. And, from a strictly nutritional standpoint, there’s decent evidence that lawmakers didn’t exactly bungle this decision.

Let’s revisit the facts: Despite what one might expect from the headlines, if you scour the agriculture appropriations bill, referenced in numerous stories, you won’t find a single mention of the word “pizza,” or even “vegetable,” for that matter.

This is not a fight over pizza. It is, instead, a fight about tomato paste. Specifically, it’s a fight about how much of the product counts as one serving of vegetables.

[full article…]

Thank you, Andrew Revkin, Dot Earth/NYT, for pointing this out–a good example of how easy it is, for professionals and the amateurs relying on them, to “overplay” any news. But as Revkin, a blog veteran, also noted in an email exchange, “on the Web it’s very tough to get to bedrock, but the power of the web community lies in the reality that assertions and assumptions are all tested 24/7.”

Tumblr Leads Push to Stop Web Piracy Act

Tumblr users who logged in to their accounts today, were given the experience of a censored Internet. All images and text were blacked out, and this announcement appeared at the top of the page:

Filling out the form below with a phone number and zip code, and selecting, “Call My Representative,” would prompt an immediate call from Tumblr founder, David Karp. He encouraged users to stay on the phone to be connected to their US Congress Representative. “Be polite,” he urged, but tell your representative how important it is to keep “an open and uncensored Internet.”

As Karp explained, the US congress held a hearing today on the proposed “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA). The bill has bipartisan and bicameral backing and is a seemingly well-intended piece of legislation: “to protect American intellectual property from counterfeiting and piracy.” However, SOPA would give broad new powers to copyright owners, other private entities and law enforcement officials to demand that Websites block access to copyright infringers, and to hold Web companies liable for pirated content.

You need only to Goolge “stop online piracy act” or “protect ip act” to get the nervous-to-angry pulse of the tech community on the subject. The Tumblr announcement links to a letter to the Judiciary Committee signed by AOL, eBay, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Mozilla, Twitter, Yahoo!, and the Zynga Game Network–yes, gamers, this could affect you as well! You can follow the debate at Twitter’s #SOPA. According to a Tweet by EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation),  “@Tumblr is generating 3.6 calls per second to Congress opposing #SOPA!”

US Congress:
 The House Hearing
Huffington Post: SOPA, Stop Online Piracy Act, Stirs Controversy
The Washington Post: Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) sparks backlash from Facebook, Google
The New York Times:  Stop the Great Firewall of America (opinion)
Reuters: Google Argues Against U.S. Online Piracy Bill
ars technica: Revised ‘Net censorship bill requires search engines to block sites, too
EFF: SOPA: Hollywood Finally Gets A Chance to Break the Internet


Sandusky, Cain: What’s a Parent to Say?

Parents of young people have a lot of explaining to do these days if their kids are exposed to the leading news headlines.  For the last two weeks, newscasts of sex-related allegations against Herman Cain and Penn State’s former football coach Jerry Sandusky have been prefaced by disclaimers of potentially offensive or inappropriate content. It is now two days in a row that 7:00 a.m. NBC’s Today Show opens with the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal, immediately followed by the latest damage to Herman Cain’s campaign—which inevitably brings up the allegations of sexual harassment first released by Politico.

It’s hard to ignore the irony, or the sadness, of back-to-back reports of questionable sexual conduct involving two American leaders—a former Penn State football coach and educator; a business and religious leader and presidential candidate.  On the matter of guilt, many have differentiated between the eyes of the media, the public and the law, and rightfully so, but the old smoke-fire association has also been raised in these stories.

As the parent of a high-school senior, I often wish my child and his circle of friends took greater interest in what goes on around the country and the world. But for the last two weeks, I have found myself shielding my soon-to-be college student from the news out of Penn State. As is, conversations that pit the costs of college education against employment and other future prospects can leave parents gasping for success stories to inspire their kids. Penn State isn’t helping.

Low on Battery and on Cash

Yesterday, the balmy Autumn-like morning inspired a trip to the Peekskill, NY, farmers’ market to check out the harvest and, possibly, come away with some video or images of the city–which is quite a bustling place on Saturday mornings. I drove to Peekskill tuned to WNYC, and two of my favorite voices–Ella & Satchmo–filled the air with “Autumn in New York” (for once, Jonathan Schwartz wasn’t playing Frank Sinatra). Everything was coming up roses, until my camera’s battery was found to be on its last gasp, and I was caught trying to pay for $11 worth of peaches and potatoes with 8 singles.

Unaware this embarrassment was about to unfold, I asked the farmer, “Where’s Mifflinburg, PA?” after reading the print on the truck behind the stand. “Four hours away!” he said. And the conversation went on, while I counted my singles. He and his children get up at the ungodly hour of 1:30 am for the trip. “I love it!” he assured me, and his kids have no complaints: they sleep soundly on the road. When I finally said to him, “I’ll have to leave the peaches behind. I only have $8,” he smiled and shrugged, “It happens. You’ll owe me $3 next time!” he said. “What is your name?” I had to ask, and wanted to know. “Jonie!” “Thank you, Jonie!

An ATM machine was only a block away, so I didn’t make Jonie wait a week for my dues. The beauty of it is that Jonnie had no way of knowing if I would ever be back. In fact, this was only my second time at that market this season. I’m a regular patron of the Cold Spring market, further north along the Hudson–where we get to have Block Factory black-bean tamales and all-fruit Go-Go Pops for lunch. But I doubt there is another Jonie in Peekskill or Cold Spring.

My battery let me get away with one this one image of Jonie at work:

The Huffington Post: Blogging Students Get Inside Look at New Media Model

Editors and reporters at The Huffington Post–including Arianna Huffington herself–took time this week to talk blogging and the changing world of news media with a group of student bloggers from Pace University. On a class trip with Prof. Andrew RevkinThe New York TimesDotEarth blogger, the group is the first to enroll in Blogging a Better Planet, a new course in Pace’s Media and Communications graduate program.

Following a tour of the AOL studios (parent company of The Huffington Post Media Group), Tom Zeller Jr., senior energy and environment reporter, showed the students to the HuffPost’s newsroom.

Even if you don’t follow the Post or are not sure what it is–online newspaper, blog-based news aggregator?–a few minutes navigating the website, realizing it started as a blog in 2005, ought to make you go “Wow!” But it’s not until you enter the HuffPost’s newsroom that the enormity of this news media machine actually dawns on you (my Blackberry photos do little justice).
Free to take pictures and video, we followed Mr. Zeller through wide open hallways, passing two employees on a ping-pong break, and gathered in a meeting room with Executive Editor Tim L. O’Brien, Managing Editor Nico Pitney, and Green Editor Joanna Zelman.  
During a conversation about the story of the HuffPost in the context of the evolution of blogs and news media, Mr. Pitney reflected on the intersection of newer and older media: bloggers writing columns based on research and fact-oriented reporting, and traditional journalism adapting to the fast, real-time pace of the Internet.
Mr. O’Brien spoke of the decline of “noise” and “proforma” in news blogging and validated the Post’s combination of aggregated and original content with some impressive numbers: the news site publishes 30-40 articles averaging 800-1,200 words, daily; and 4-5 stories averaging 4-5,000 words, weekly. While he was quick to remind us of the complex technological machine behind the Internet newspaper, he always returned to the HuffPost’s commitment to building community. This progressive socialization would make the HuffPost the Facebook of news and information. For Mr. O’Brien, tapping into the passions of readers and contributors, and inviting discussions about public concerns, is the way to understand and reflect the changing world we are experiencing.
Asked about editorial “quality control,” Joanna Zelman talked about the social responsibility of news media and opportunities for adding content value to “the cute” and popular. She gave the example of a recent trending video about the new arrival of cute Tiger Cubs at the Taronga Zoo, in Sidney, Australia. While the cubs’ video was the big draw–helped by a video-focused headline–the Green Editor seized the chance to bring awareness to the endangered species: the cubs at the Sidney zoo represent nearly 1% of the wild Sumatran Tiger population worldwide. As Mr. Pitney put it, it’s about ” the sugar with the medicine.”
Nico Pitney and Tim O’Brien also discussed editorial and SEO (Search Engine Optimization) considerations behind headlines, types of readership, and the value of pushing a story and sticking with it.
President and Editor-in-Chief, Arianna Huffington–now also a 2011 Glamour Woman of the Year honoree–made a surprise visit, and engaged with the students taking an interest in their blog ventures. We posed for a picture, and we all left with our choice of two of her most recent books (autographed): “Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream”  and “On Becoming Fearless…in Love, Work, and Life.”

From left are AramisGrant, Amarylis Martinez, Arianna Huffington, Eunice Cunha (a.k.a., Amador Square), Justin Jones, Jennifer Price, Cem Aridag and Andrew Revkin.

Thank you to our gracious hosts for a very exciting visit and conversation!

Greeting Cards for the Laid-Off

Last week my boss instructed me to get “good-luck” cards for two co-workers being laid off. We had all been pretending it wasn’t happening, but this was it for me: I was charged with selecting “the right card” for two young women who had gained employment with the agency two years ago, fresh out of college and full of passion, but were now looking at unemployment checks, cobra, and moving back in with their parents.

I started my uneasy and perplexing mission in the greeting card aisle of the closest supermarket. There were two cards in the “good-luck” category. The first featured a dancing teddy-bear and falling four-leaf clovers. “Hope everything goes really well for you,” it read. The other, was “from all of us”—a bunch of goofy-looking dogs—and expressed congratulations for an unspecified achievement. I should have offered to bake a cake instead, I thought.

Inevitably, I ended up at the local Hallmark store. A blank-card type myself, and to avoid sorting through the overwhelming, ever-growing choice of collections and occasions, I asked the attendant if she might point me to “good-luck” cards. She started us out in the “congratulations” category. “I’m afraid that’s not going to work. Unfortunately, we’re saying good-bye to two co-workers who are being laid off,” I said. She turned quickly around, and asked, “How’s Obama working out for the country now?”

The remark was so unexpected and out of place, I barely had time to react. Was I in the “blame somebody” section?  “Obama has nothing to do with it,” I said, and thanked her for her help. She was off mumbling, “He has everything to do with it!”

I walked right past the “congratulations,” “good-luck” and “job loss” categories, and made my selection from the “encouragement” section instead.

I later drove home blaming myself for my weak answer. But today I think it was the right answer, on several levels. The attendant’s conduct—in her place of employment and directed at a customer—was simply inappropriate, and did not deserve engagement. My reply was a literal and true rejection of her remark. Obama has nothing to do with my co-workers’ job loss. They are losing their jobs, and the agency is losing their program, because of changes and cuts to New York State’s Medicaid funding. And whether or not the state had a choice, or made the best possible choice, Obama is not exactly the greatest proponent of cuts to the so-called entitlement programs such as Medicaid.

This morning, before we had cake and cards for my departing co-workers, I had the opportunity of speaking to them in private. One is recently engaged; the other carrying on the responsibility of a parent’s mortgage. They had a very difficult and often risky job; they did it well, and were even passionate about it. But, suddenly jobless, they blamed no one. They worried about the vulnerable clients they were leaving, and whether the state would find an alternative way to take care for their needs. They hoped to find jobs once they had a little more time to look more diligently. But they blamed no one.

[This post appeared in the Huffington Post]