Saving the New Mothers of Nepal

Posted on December 21st, 2012

A family next to me is holding a newborn baby wearing a necklace with a locket. Inside the locket, is a tiny cylinder. I ask the mother about it. “My baby wears this necklace to connect us. Inside of it is a piece of our umbilical cord. So that he doesn’t forget me, he wears this his entire life.” The umbilical cord serves as a reminder of the previous physical connection between mother and child.

Unlike Western culture, which unceremoniously discards umbilical cords, Nepalese culture has a very different perspective of childbirth. Nepalese also have significantly more challenges. High maternal mortality rates during childbirth result from a combination of factors, particularly scarcity of medical resources and existing social mores that put expectant mothers at risk when delivering their children.


After a day of travel I am five-hundred miles east of Kathmandu in Ilam. The Dr. Megh Bahadur Parajuli Community Hospital, overlooking a valley of tea fields, was built during a civil war by a team of volunteers. Although it serves as an imperative medical resource for the local population, the hospital struggles to survive under financial and political strains. These strains create occasional yet dangerous dearths of medical talent, technology and medicines. However hope comes with the arrival of a team of Western doctors who will be volunteering their time and money. Word spreads rapidly of their arrival and patients make their way to the hospital from all over the region.


It’s 7:00 AM, and part of the Western team has been laboring all night over the first childbirth. Sadly, the baby is stillborn. It is a rough start for the medical mission.

Two triage tables are set up against the outside walls of the hospital where hundreds of local men and women wearing colorful saris line up to see the doctors. A small piece of masking tape with a drawn on smily face grants the individual who has it access upstairs to the open air roof, the unlikely location of an obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN) clinic. Sheets hanging off of tin roofs serve as examination rooms and a waiting area is constructed from two large plastic tarps tied together with rows of plastic chairs.

A small piece of masking tape with a drawn on smily face grants the individual who has it access upstairs to the open air roof, the unlikely location of an obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN) clinic.

The Western medical mission responsible for the creation of the impromptu OB/GYN ward is a nongovernmental organization named Worldwide Healing Hands (WHH) which was founded by California OB/GYN surgeon Dr. Paula Dhanda. On this trip Dr. Dhanda is accompanied by Dr. Henry, Dr. Khatib and Dr. Woods. The doctors are supported by a small team of nurses, medical personel and volunteers willing to take on any roll that is asked of them.

The frenetic pace of the ward and the great number of patients makes the sad first case seem like a distant memory even though it occurred just hours ago. The team of nurses meet with patients. Calmly and efficiently they ascertain each patients’ needs. Doctors follow up with vaginal exams and ultrasounds to determine if surgery is indicated.


Healthier patients often protract the process of triage by learning the right “buzz” words to trigger additional but unnecessary testing which takes up the doctors precious time. By the end of the first day, four surgeries are scheduled for the following morning.


The patients who do not need to see the surgeons, are treated downstairs in the hospital by emergency room (ER) doctor, Dr. Khatib and her team. Her role here is critical, and probably the most overwhelming. Unlike doctors who are educated in the West and eased into the trenches through a residency program, the local doctors who Dr. Khatib oversees are put into their positions right out of medical school.


Armed guards stand in a line marking the end of the first day. The hospital is locked and the patients that weren’t seen today go home if they live close, or camp out if they live far. Up on the roof the OB/GYN ward becomes a hotel for the visiting doctors and their support team. As night grows darker a camaraderie develops among the medical staff. They have all successfully survived their first day.

Beatboxing, a Different Type of Street Music

Posted on September 11th, 2012

As a young man in his early twenties Benjamin Stanford, aka Dub Fx, set out to liberate himself. Through beat boxing, the art of vocal percussion, he found a way to travel to over forty countries and earn a living wherever he goes.

Forever moving my body’s always grooving
The sounds are always soothing
And my heart is always using
The love that I feel when I bounce in time
I’m free like a bird in the sunshine
I crouch down to the sound if I like the bass
I put my hands in the air and I scrunch up my face
I dance till my legs get weaker
To the rhythm that I hear from the speaker

Street performers typically play in metros and on street corners with musical instruments. In a radically new form of busking Dub Fx has taken the electronic sounds of the clubs and recreated them on the street – using only his voice.

Dub Fx’s medium is an extended form of beat boxing. He vocally produces sounds of musical instruments, and then using loop pedals and other special effects gear he layers those vocal sounds one on top of another. The result forms the symphonic background to his singing.

Justin Guariglia

Dub Fx joins the ranks of street musicians like this punk band playing for the public in Tokyo, except Dub Fx brings only his voice to the performance.

Dub Fx’s is sometimes accompanied by his friend, Mr Woodnote who adds a saxophone which is fed into the same mixer to create a rich, earthy and yet angelic sound. A good example of this is on the video ‘Flow’ recorded live on the street in Bristol, England.

Joined at the soul with a pair of headphones
We need nobody to let ourselves go
Always on my side as we rock a stage show
In an ocean of music we move with the flow

Dub Fx has been able to fund his travels by selling self-produced CDs which his girlfriend, Flower Fairy, sells to the gathering crowds while he performs. Dub Fx also distributes his offerings through his own label, Convoyunlimited, which he set up with his best friend and manager Cade Anderson.

The video ‘Flow’ has garnered over thirteen million views on YouTube. This popularity has gotten Dub Fx invited to play clubs and festivals around the world. He has been able to make a living without being reliant upon the music industry.

One of his latest videos finds him on a rooftop high above the metropolis of Mumbai in India. The sun is setting as we hear the sounds of evening prayer rising up from the smoky cityscape below. Dub Fx presses a few buttons with his foot on the electronic boards spread out on the ground before him and launches a percussive drum and bass beat that is joined by Mahesh Vinayakram’s jaw’s harp.

Soon Mahesh’s soaring voice is sending Hindu sounds into the evening sky before giving way to Cade Anderson’s rap. Dub Fx continues to step on his loop pedals building a hypnotic backdrop to the passionate incantations of the three men while, behind them, the sky turns dark pink and turquoise. This music cannot be categorized.

Dub Fx started out life in St Kildas, a suburb of Melbourne, and played in a regular band. But, his attraction to soul and reggae and other cultures was not shared by those around him. So he began a journey to discover what lay beyond the parochial local scene of his native land. The most receptive environment he found was in Europe, in Bristol, England in particular.

In the people there he found a level of authenticity that was refreshing. If people didn’t like his music they told him so to his face. Without the distance created by a stage it takes a lot of courage to connect with people when they are right there in front of you. You have to lose yourself to the music and let go of your self-consciousness.

I’m just a humble soul on the side of the street
Making my own tunes with my voice and with my feet
Ye I’m living day by day
Like a nomad stumbling on out of his cave
I celebrate the sun, I live my life for the earth
I let the rain come down on my endless search
I never quit, I’m planting seed by seed
I’m evolutionising to save my breed
I’m just a cog in the machine
A part of the process, I’m here to express
That we need some progress

In baring his soul to his listeners in such a raw and immediate context he has to be able to connect with people from many different cultures. Dub Fx says that his hybrid mix of rap, reggae, soul and electronica helps this connection. “I truly believe that music is a universal language. It’s a core part of our DNA and it’s embedded into every culture on the planet.”

Former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart said everyone in the world connects to beats; “Life is about rhythm. We vibrate, our hearts are pumping blood, we are a rhythm machine, that’s what we are.” Dub Fx puts out the beats and then injects his pure energy on top of them. It is the beats and energy that allow Dub Fx to unite with the people encounters around the world. It’s part music and part spirituality.

Alison Wright

Musicians at the Taj Mahal.

“I’m not aiming for my music to be spiritual but if some people find that in my music I won’t deny it. Spirituality can be found in surfing and skateboarding and cooking. Street performing taught me how to deliver my music with a certain conviction. And I guess that’s what touches people – they feel like a raw energy hits them. You can feel the music hit you like electricity in the chest. Marley, Dylan, Nirvana … they have that electricity.”

A Hive With a View

Posted on July 30th, 2012

I was armored with a full-body white beekeeper’s suit but I was still nervous as the bees pelted the back of my head, clearly annoyed I had invaded their space. And who wouldn’t be? I was encroaching on their private pad, their outside terrace perched on top of the city of San Francisco.

Jardiniere Restaurant, one of the city’s finest culinary establishments, is home to thousands of bees that live on top of the two-story brownstone on Hayes Street. The hives have only been there since May, but the bees are already producing honey thanks to the abundant food sources at the nearby Hayes Valley Farm.

Joel Sartore Bee

Terry Oxford, owner of UrbanBeeSF, manages these hives, and several other bee communities, or apiaries, located on top of some of the best restaurants across San Francisco. On the same Saturday afternoon, Oxford cleaned up some of the honeycomb and harvested honey that would be served later that night at Jardinere as an accompaniment to the cheese plate.

“The restaurants care more about the bees than the honey,”.

But Terry – and the restaurants she works with – doesn’t do this for the honey, though it is certainly a tasty result. She says she does it because bees are a critical part of the ecosystem, even in the urban jungle of San Francisco.

“The restaurants care more about the bees than the honey,” Oxford said. “I provide the restaurants with honeycomb, but it’s more of an essence than in bulk. Having the bees on their roof is almost like having a mascot for organic, sustainable [products].”

Oxford, also a property manager for San Francisco’s human residents, always keeps an eye out for prime bee real estate. She said she tried hives on top of residential buildings before, but quickly recognized the symbiotic relationship she could forge with restaurants. They give her roof space, she gives them honey.

For restaurants like Quince in the Jackson Square neighborhood that also boasts a rooftop garden, complete with a perfect view of the TransAmerica pyramid building, the bees are an added bonus as they help pollinate the garden’s plants. Other San Francisco restaurants Tony’s Pizza and Nopa, which also have apiaries atop their establishments, are benefiting the neighborhood flora with their honey suppliers.

Terry became interested in beekeeping after spending a day with a beekeeper up in the Sierra Mountains in the 1990s. The “amazing experience,” in tandem with Oxford’s research into the bees’ decline in population, inspired her to take beekeeping classes and start a venture of her own.

“I found out I was pretty good at it,” she said. “My bees survived year after year, my queen reproduced, my bees reproduced and the population grew. I’m still able to split the hives and make more. And I do it all without medication or pesticides.”

Joel Sartore Bees on Honeycomb

Oxford was quick to note that she is no expert; instead she calls beekeeping a practice, “like Buddhism.”

In doing this for more than 4 years, Oxford said she’s learned many lessons, from what you need for healthy hives to which type of bees to use in the San Francisco climate (and microclimates).

After watching Oxford and her team heave several heavy stacks of hives over the top of Quince’s second-story rooftop, it was clear that urban beekeeping requires flexibility. If one location loses a food source, or lacks enough water or sunlight, or too many other bees move into the area, then the hives must move too.

It’s clear when Oxford talks about her bees that she has an unmatched passion for these creatures. To her, the queen is the “badass” of the hive, but, she notes that the drones deserve more respect than they get. Each type of bee, from females to drones to the queen bee herself, is a vital part of a healthy hive, and, in Terry’s mind, a healthy planet.

“Seeing a bee in a flower, it’s this beautiful relationship of keeping each other alive.”

Joel Sartore Bees on a sunflower.

Putting a Face to Refugees Worldwide

Posted on June 21st, 2012

During the height of sectarian violence in Iraq, many Iraqis left their country to find solace in Syria. Yasir Imad, 29, was one of them. In 2006, Imad was almost killed when a road bomb exploded on his car in Iraq. Later that same year, he was kidnapped and held captive for three days without knowing why. Ten days after he was released by his kidnappers, he received a note telling him to flee the country or risk being killed. “Some people think it might be because I worked for a telecom company and also for my religious views,” said Imad. “My family said you have to go now. We love you, but we don’t want to lose you.”

Iraqi refugee and his Indonesian wife await relocation to Australia.

The grim reality of war, persecution, and growing violence, forced a record number of people to flee their homes and across borders in 2011. “In the last year, 4.3 million people became displaced (within their country) and 800,000 people became refugees. That’s more than any time since 2000,” said Khaled Hosseini, best-selling author of The Kite Runner and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Goodwill Envoy.

A former Afghan refugee, Hosseini took on the role of Goodwill Envoy for UNHCR in order to put a human face to the growing crisis. According to UNHCR’s 2011 Global Trends report, Afghanistan is the largest source of refugees followed by Iraq and numerous nations in Africa. “The issue is that 80% of the refugees around the world live in either under-developed or developing countries,” said Hosseini. Most of the Afghan and Iraqi refugees flee to neighboring countries like Iran, Pakistan, and Syria. “A lot of these host nations have social economic, political security and economic concerns of their own.”

Imad chose Syria because it has the easiest and least expensive visa entry process. However, he was not legally allowed to work there. “I worked so many jobs where the employer wouldn’t pay because they knew I couldn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t sue or anything,” recalls Imad. “I remember there were days that I couldn’t afford a meal… I got into a depression and tried to commit suicide a couple of times…It (being a refugee) is degrading. It’s about trying to have a life when you actually don’t have a life.”

With no legal status and no work authorization, refugees like Imad live in constant fear of arrest, detention, and deportation. He describes the over-all feeling among Iraqis living in Syria as divided into two groups. The first is waiting anxiously for years to be resettled, putting their lives on hold, yet not knowing the status of their cases. The other group is in despair, resigned to living the rest of their lives in limbo with no hope for a future.

“My family said you have to go now. We love you, but we don’t want to lose you.”

Since 2010, a series of protests and demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa known as the Arab Spring created even more displacement, uncertainty and tension for the refugees in those regions. In Syria’s case, escalating violence between Syria’s government troops and the opposition made the security situation too volatile. United States, among other nations, closed its visa office and postponed sending officials from the Department of Homeland Security to conduct required interviews for the completion of the visa applications.

“While Iraqi refugees living in Syria, approximately 100,000, are not affected directly by the events in the country, I am increasingly concerned about the disruption of resettlement activities and thus the lack of durable options since the majority of them cannot return to their country of origin,” said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR representative for the United States.

Imad was one of the lucky ones. After years of waiting, he was recently allowed to immigrate into the United States. “I definitely consider that I’ve wasted four years of my life because I was waiting. You can be hungry in New York City and you can be hungry in Damascus (Syria), but at least you are safe and can go to training and have a career in the United States.”

The question becomes: why should the international community care what happens to people and countries troubled by poverty, violence and corruption? Aside from the moral obligation to respond to massive human rights abuses, local conflicts and unrest can spread quickly to neighboring countries. The instability also creates economic and security threats for the industrialized regions like Europe, Israel and United States. A war in a country like Syria can destabilize an entire region and create serious political and diplomatic problems for the rest of the world.

A Sudanese doctor weighing a child at a health center in Kass, Darfur.

In May 2012, a new solutions strategy, which was drawn up between Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and UNHCR in Geneva, focuses efforts on supporting Afghan refugees wanting to return back to Afghanistan. Since 2002, 5.7 million Afghans have returned home. However, there are still two million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and almost one million in Iran. The number of people wanting to return has slowed down in the recent years due to lack of infrastructure. According to the UNHCR website, “The strategy aims both at preserving asylum space for Afghan refugees in neighboring countries over the coming three years and beyond, and at supporting sustainable reintegration for those Afghans who return home. It also calls for assistance to host countries.”

“The first is to help those refugees that want to return to Afghanistan with logistical assistance, legal aid, legal advice, and help with reintegration. The second is helping to improve the reintegration inside Afghanistan by looking at development at the village level. And also to advocate for the returning communities to be included,” explains Hosseini. “The whole idea is to improve the conditions inside the country. Get rid of those push factors like lack of jobs, access to schools, clean water, food security, shelter. So that Afghanis feel that there is a chance of a viable life for them in their home country.”
Khaled Hosseini’s goal is to bring worldwide attention to this humanitarian crisis. “This is more than just a burden for the developing countries, but rather an international issue. This is a huge crisis that affects everybody globally,” he said.

National Geographic photographers have covered the struggle of refugees around the world for decades. With unprecedented access and unyielding bravery, our photographers have helped build a visual history of this issue. Click here to see more of this image collection.

A Brief History of Science Fiction

Posted on June 14th, 2012

Last week science fiction author Ray Bradbury passed away on the same day as the incredibly rare astronomical phenomenon the transit of Venus was taking place. The coincidence could not be more fitting nor more bizarre. A real life occurrence that played out like a scene from one of Bradbury’s own novels. Which is what makes science fiction stories so wonderful, the outlying possibility that what we are reading, or watching, could in fact happen one day. One only need to view an episode of the original Star Trek television series from the late 1960s to see that some of the TV props of yore have manifest in the technological wonders we use today.

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In these contemporary times science fiction is often associated with outer space. But if you distill the genre to its base, it’s really about traveling to the unknown. Very early novels like “Gulliver’s Travels”, about venturing out to the as yet undiscovered areas of the our own planet, were arguably some of the first science fiction novels of history.

As the surface of our planet became less of a mystery with the advent of pioneering expeditions of discovery, many backed by the National Geographic Society, writers like Jules Verne took science fiction to the unfamiliar depths of the ocean with “20,000 Leagues under the Sea.”

HG Wells continued the trend of writing about mysterious worlds with tales of time travel, travel to the moon as well as an alien invasion with his novel “War of the Worlds.” A story that briefly paralyzed part the United States with fear when it was broadcast as radio program in October of 1938. An exemplary example of how primal humanity becomes when faced with the unknown.

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However if you dig a little deeper into the depths of any good science fiction story, you’ll see some familiarity. The themes are often metaphors for present-day. In the sixties, Star Trek, which really brought science fiction to the forefront of the societal mainstream, is replete with metaphors appropriate to the cold war era portraying the Klingons as the Russians and Romulans as the communists of China.

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A more recent cinematic offering is Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus.” If you look around the internet you’ll find hundreds of interpretations of a theme which is a constant of the human condition. The question; where do we come from.

The 75th Anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge

Posted on May 26th, 2012

The Golden Gate Bridge represents a multitude of experiences and emotions. For some, it’s a sign of homecoming, to others, it’s an escape. For thousands, it’s part of a daily commute. But to everyone, it is an icon which that celebrates its 75th anniversary on May 27.

The bridge was completed in an exceptionally fast four years, with cutting edge calculation devices that included an abacus and a slide rule. Connecting San Francisco and Marin counties, the Golden Gate Bridge has withstood countless earthquakes, the daily strain of thousands of cars, and perhaps most perilously, nearly 800,000 people on its deck during the last anniversary celebration 25 years ago.

More than 3,000 miles away in Roebling, New Jersey, the company that made the thick cables for the bridge – John A. Roeblings’ Sons – are showcasing the spinning technique patented by the company and used for the Golden Gate. Patricia Millen, executive director of the Roebling Museum and curator of Spinning Gold, said that the wheels that were brought over to San Francisco for the project could spin up to 1,000 miles of wire in an eight-hour shift.

“Each cable was made up of 27,572 individual wires, each the size of a pencil,” Millen said. “Each cable measured three feet in diameter. On the 50th anniversary, that was the most weight the bridge had ever experienced, and the Roebling cables held.”

Many companies, like Roeblings’ Sons, can boast the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge in their history. But to a select number of people, the Golden Gate Bridge is deeply intertwined in their family’s history, a bridge that not only connects two counties but also generations.

The descendants of these engineers maintain a fascinating oral history of the bridge that most of us recognize from postcards and history books. Their family treasures include original photographs of the bridge under construction.

“My grandfather showed up on Valentine’s day in 1933 and he took care of the men, made sure they all worked, wore their leather hard hats,” recalled Lucinda Cone, granddaughter of Russell G. Cone, the resident engineer for the project. “My grandfather was the advocate for putting a net underneath the bridge and the extra safety measures. It saved many men’s lives.”

Mr. Cone was also key in preventing any of any sort of slacking. Lucinda Cone said that her grandfather used to make hungover men drink sauerkraut juice to keep them working. However, even with strong safety measures danger was always looming in one form or another as evidenced by Russel Cone’s harrowing tale of getting the bends when he had to dive to inspect the bridge’s foundations.

Susan Morris is the granddaughter of Harry Hilp of Barrett & Hilp, the construction firm that won the bid to build the two anchorages and piers of approach spans. A historian herself, Morris said the company was young when they put in their bid, but they felt they had the necessary experience after constructing the Third Street Bridge over the China Basin, now neighbor to AT&T Park.

Both Frank Barrett and Harry Hilp were born and raised San Franciscans, and Hilp lived every day in view of the Bridge that he helped build.

“To him, and what was passed onto our family, was a tremendous sense of civic pride,” Morris said. “It was extraordinary to be able to gather funds and put people to work in the depression. Every time I go over the bridge, I feel pride for our city and what we gave to the world. I’m proud of my grandfather and his partner too; they had this entrepreneurial spirit that I think is embodied in the bridge and its history.”

When Lucinda Cone crosses the bridge, she thinks of the homecomings, the weddings, the departures that the Bridge has seen and represented to so many over the years. For her, the bridge provides a connection to her past.

“Every time I drive across it, I talk to my grandpa.”

As tourists and locals alike prepare to gather at the bridge on May 27, so are the descendants of the bridge’s engineers and workers, many of whose names appear on a dedication plaque on the bridge’s south tower.

For Lucinda Cone, granddaughter of Joseph Strauss’s Resident Engineer Russell G. Cone, they are particularly excited to celebrate a new addition to that plaque. Charles Ellis was the designer and architect of the bridge. It was his job to build a structure that would withstand earthquakes, winds, tides and whatever else nature (and man) would throw at it over the years. He succeeded, but has never been recognized because he was fired before construction began in 1933.

Cone and her family have been advocating for his recognition for years, and she said the addition of Ellis’s name on the plaque will make the celebrations of the bridge much sweeter.

The Slaves in the Shadows of America

Posted on April 25th, 2012

Hidden in the shadows of polite society in America are thousands of enslaved men, women, and children. This modern day slavery is known as human trafficking. According to the U.S. Department of State, there are 14,500 to 17,500 victims trafficked each year into this country. These numbers are often under-reported because the victims live in obscurity, hidden from the general public and are afraid to speak out.

A common myth is that human trafficking only refers to forced prostitution. Yet trafficking often occurs in legitimate settings like farms, factories, hotels, nail salons, restaurants, and even private homes in ordinary towns. I spoke to a human trafficking survivor Arti (her name has been changed for her protection) about her experience coming to the United States.

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Jodi Cobb

A resident of Casa Regina Pacis, a shelter for trafficked immigrants.

At 17 years old, Arti was working as a nanny for a family in her home country of Indonesia. She was offered $150 per month with one day off per week to work as a nanny for her Indonesian employer’s cousin in the United States. “They told me that I don’t have to pay for anything to come over; passports, visa, plane tickets. I came with my cousin and the family I worked for back home.” When they arrived, their employer took Arti and her cousin’s passports for “safe keeping”.

After a few weeks, Arti was told that she was going to work for another Indonesian family and her cousin would stay working for the current one. They were promised that they would be able to see each other and talk on the phone all the time. However, none of the promises were honored. Arti worked for three years without any pay, sleeping on the floor and working all day without a single day off. “I worked from the moment I woke up at six, until midnight or sometimes two o’clock in the morning,” said Arti. “I took care of the baby, cooked, did laundry, washed cars, gardening, and whatever needed to be done around the house. The only time I was allowed to go outside was to walk the dog. Also, on Sundays we would all go to church and I would take care of the child but I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone.”


Jodi Cobb

Residents of Casa Regina Pacis, a shelter for trafficked immigrants.

Arti was physically and emotionally abused on a daily basis by the wife, who would threaten to call the police and have her arrested if she was to escape or talk to anyone. “She said that since I have no papers the police would throw me in jail and that I could get raped in jail.” Arti was scared and kept her mouth shut even when she was being battered. “The wife would pull me, throw things at me and push me at the wall. One time she hit me with a ceramic salt shaker on the side of my forehead and it was bleeding. After arguing with his wife for a while, the husband took me to the emergency room to get stitches. The wife told me not to tell anyone what happened. If asked, I should tell them that I fell and hit my head on a rock or something.” Arti followed the wife’s instructions and kept quiet until one day when she couldn’t take it anymore. “The wife hit me in the face with a bag of ice and I was bruised all over. I wrote a letter to the nanny next door asking for help. I don’t write English and took me a long time to write the letter. A few days later, she [the nanny] arranged my escape and took me to CAST (Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking), a human rights organization in Los Angeles.

Sadly Arti’s story is not unique. Many of the traffickers are not the stereotypical gangsters of the movies. They are often trusted family members, friends or community business people that understand the culture and thus vulnerabilities of the people they are victimizing. This was the case for Tala (her name has been changed for her protection), a 28 year old woman who wanted to help her family in the Philippines. Her aunt was already working in the U.S. for a Filipino woman who owned a licensed residential care facility for the elderly. When Tala’s aunt found out that there will be a second facility opening, she told Tala about the opportunity. Excited about the possibility of earning money to send to her family, Tala spoke to her future employer over the phone. “She explained to me that it would be easier for me to get a visa if I was trained as a Tae Kwon Do instructor. She said that I wouldn’t have to worry about anything and that she will take care of everything.” Tala’s trafficker knew that certain foreign professionals with specialized knowledge like Tae Kwon Do can obtain an entry visa more readily. She gave Tala the name of the instructor in Manila that would train her and bring her to the United States. Tala trained for two months in Tae Kwon Do and in October of 2005 she arrived in Los Angeles with her instructor. “When we came to LAX, the instructor asked me for my passport for safe keeping. I didn’t think about it like why is he keeping my passport. I was just thinking, it’s fine I’m here and they are Filipino so I trusted them.”

Upon meeting her employer, Tala was informed that this great deed of bringing her to this country came at a price. “When I met my trafficker, she told me that I’m so lucky that she paid for me to come here and that we need to help each other. She helped me to come here to work and now I need to help her with her business. She said I will need to work for her for 10 years to pay my debt and that I also owed her $12,000. We call it an utang na loob.” In the Filipino culture, an utang na loob is a debt of gratitude. It runs deeper than just ordinary debt or owing a favor. It is a debt that must never be forgotten since no money can ever fully repay it. Often this loyalty is used by those who have the power and material resources to create a dependent relationship, and by those who have not been empowered to break from these ties because it would bring great shame.

Tala worked for her trafficker for over two years. She was one of three Filipino trafficking victims living in the residential care facility taking care of the elderly around the clock. Tala was paid $600 per month of which her trafficker kept half to pay off the $12,000 owed. “We worked from 4:30 am to 11 pm every day. We slept there (the care facility) and would have to get up every two hours to check on the residents,” said Tala. To make sure that Tala and the others never left, the trafficker would also threaten them with calling the police. “She said that if we run away, she would call the police and tell them that we stole something from her.” The three workers slept on the floor and ate whatever food the residents didn’t finish, which often was nothing.

One day on a daily stroll with the residents, a neighbor that became increasingly suspicious of what was going on gave Tala his phone number. “I said to him, what am I going to do with this number? He said, if you ever need anything, you can call me,” Tala recalls. Victims of human trafficking often do not seek help right away. This is mostly due to lack of trust of the authorities, self-blame, or being directly brainwashed by traffickers that they would not be believed.

Tala finally did call the neighbor, but was too scared to speak. “I felt like I was going to kill myself. It was too much.” Lucky for her, the neighbor reported his suspicions to the police and eventually the FBI got involved. The government worked with Tala to get her out the situation and into a safe place.

In both cases, the woman received Green Cards in exchange for their cooperation. However, in Arti’s case, the traffickers were never convicted because she did not press charges. “My family didn’t want me to and there wasn’t enough evidence for a conviction. Now I wish I did,” said Arti.

To confront the atrocity of human trafficking, a modern day abolitionist movement is emerging. At a Freedom Summit held in the San Francisco Bay Area last year, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “Little by little, by naming and, indeed, shaming, we begin to address that this is an issue that the United States will not tolerate.” In 2000, U.S. Congress passed into law The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA). It has been amended several times since then to offer protections for persons in the country illegally who may be a victim of human trafficking. With this law an interagency task force was established to monitor and combat trafficking. The task force also assists in evaluating progress in trafficking prevention, provides victims assistance, and aides the prosecution of traffickers. Although the identification, investigation and prosecution of human trafficking cases remains a complex issue, there is more emphasis on the formation of local human trafficking task forces and community outreach programs these days. Even is small, seemingly idyllic communities like Marin County in Northern California, officers are being trained to spot the sign of a human trafficking victims.

Jodi cobb03

Jodi Cobb

Memorial statue of a slave breaking his bonds.

“I personally believe that we need to be training and conducting advocacy and outreach in all levels of law enforcement and prosecution, all levels of service providers, and the community also needs this awareness about trafficking,” said John Vanek, Anti-Human Trafficking Consultant and retired Lieutenant of the San Jose Police Human Trafficking Task Force in California. “We touch these slaves unknowing every day. The food we eat, the coffee we drink, where we get our clothes, how we perceive women and their role in sex. All these things touch slavery in one way or another and therefore they touch us.”

The images here were taken from Jodi Cobb’s National Geographic Stock collection on human trafficking.

Water, Water Everywhere, Just The Way I Like It

Posted on April 12th, 2012

Heather Perry doesn’t know this, but when I called her to interview her about her latest underwater pictures, I was wearing a swim suit. It only felt right. Miss Perry seems to have spent more time in the water than on dry land, and I wanted to fit in.

It all started somewhat innocently for Perry. When she was in college, in spite of being prone to ear infections, she got herself on the swim team. Then, as part of her biology major she was required to get certified for scuba diving. It was the beginning of an obsession with the water that would become the foundation for the rest of her life. Soon after she graduated from college she landed in the Caribbean for a few years. Exposed to the stunning undersea landscape of the area she deliberated on how she could find a job that would let her spend the rest of her life subsurface. She found the answer to her career query in a closet.

Heather Perry was working at an aquarium when one day she opened up a closet and found a disused underwater camera. The aquarium gave her leave to do what she wanted with the gear and her photography career was born. A profession she pursued with the goal of making it to National Geographic along a path that she says she traveled by putting one foot in front of the other. Each step calculated to take her in the direction of the magazine.

Perry’s current passion aside from her photography work is a company called Swim Vacation where she is one of the partners. It’s a guided tour company for open water swimming in the British Virgin Islands. Once again fate nudged her in the direction of another opportunity to get wet. Perry got involved with Swim Vacation because she had been out of the water for an extended period because of an illness. After getting back in the pool post illness she started to pursue open water swimming events which is where she connected with Swim Vacation’s founder. Once she heard about the company she asked how she could get involved. It was a match made in, um, the waves.

Heather Perry is exceedingly passionate about the water and what it can do for us both physically and emotionally. Even though the water isn’t a natural habitat for humans, I can attest to the connection that Perry feels that she has for the environment. And with Jim Cameron’s expedition to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, I have a feeling more landlubbers are going to be looking at that horizon of infinite blue with a yearning eye.

The School of Hard Knots

Posted on April 5th, 2012

In 2010 Jordan Romero followed in the footsteps of famed mountaineer Edmund Hillary, climbing five and a half miles into the sky to step onto the summit of Mount Everest in Nepal. Many men have made that formidable trek to plant their flag on the highest peak on earth, but this trip was different. Romero conquered Everest at age 13.

Over the past few years the world has watched Romero and several other teen sportsmen chase ambitious, sometimes record-setting, goals. The journeys they’ve embarked upon would be thrilling and more than a little frightening for even adults at the top of their game. Earlier this year, 16-year-old Laura Dekker of Holland pulled into port after sailing around the world – alone. Her sail comes on the heels of two similar solo voyages by other young women, both under the age of 18. Just a year ago Amelia Hempleman-Adams, also 16, set the record for the youngest person to ski to the South Pole.

These Millennials belong to a generation often characterized as entitled and unmotivated. Clearly, this particular group has shrugged off that mantle. In fact, they embody the best qualities of the “Echo Boomers” – optimism, self-confidence and the ability to approach things from a fresh perspective. And they might have something to teach us about education.

No doubt these long quests over hill and dale make it more difficult to study algebra, The Canterbury Tales, and the art of the Renaissance. So it comes as no surprise that members of the public and press have been critical about the potential disruption of these young men and women’s formal classwork. But here’s the thing: Regardless of what degrees they may or may not pursue, each of these so-called kids is on their way to being the prize catch in a sea of college graduates struggling to stand out in the job market.

These Millennials belong to a generation often characterized as entitled and unmotivated. Clearly, this particular group has shrugged off that mantle.

Not that they’ll necessarily be looking for a job. Jessica Watson, who completed her solo sail in 2010, has parlayed that adventure into a small empire. Her website, on which she chronicled her trials and victories in real time, is also a virtual storefront for her memoir (now a best seller in her native Australia), her DVD, and even Jessica Watson merchandise. She had to round up sponsors, make sales pitches and – oh yeah – become an expert sailor, before her boat ever left port. She’s performing all the functions of a small business owner and it looks like her entrepreneurial chops are something to be reckoned with.

Laura Dekker knew she would have to master navigation, emergency protocols and a slew of electronic devices in order to complete her trip. The unexpected lesson was learning to navigate the Dutch legal system. Dutch authorities stymied the launch of Dekker’s voyage for over a year due to her age, and created a rigorous list of assignments for her to complete. Undeterred, she jumped through every hoop they lined up for her. In fact, the legal fracas that would have derailed most adults only seemed to spur Dekker towards her goal. After completing a number of additional court-ordered trainings and slugging through more than one hearing, she finally won the rights to raise her sails.

The annually published lists of Top Ten Skills Employers Look For don’t change much from year to year. Qualities like “strong work ethic”, “adaptability”, “initiative”, “problem-solving” are always high on the list. How would those employers view a resume whose “experience” section begins: Age 15 –Climbed all of Earth’s highest mountains? Traveling the world in hostile environments requires these teens to manage thousands of details during months of careful planning. Careful planning they know can be upset in an instant if Mother Nature wakes up on the wrong side of the bed. They must possess the ability to make life and death decisions in an instant; keep a calm head and steady hand in the most stressful situations imaginable. So as for future career options? Well, after staring down a 30-foot wave or an icy rock a mile high, pitching a new international client should be a cake walk.

While completing one first aid survival class and handling paperwork prior to departure Dekker lamented, “What a job! Many of these items have nothing to do with my trip at all!”  As a result, aside from all the abstract character building, she’s now able to suture a wound, find her way around an engine, and liaise with the international media. Thanks to his trips, climber Jordan Romero has a fairly sophisticated grasp on human physiology. He has to – it keeps him alive. He’s studied how his blood functions at altitude and uses state of the art equipment to monitor his oxygen saturation levels. Understanding how fitness and nutrition affect his ability to perform on the mountain have turned him into an advocate against junk food. Science? Yes indeed. Safe to say, all the aforementioned teens probably have a pretty solid grasp on geography and cartography as well.

As one would imagine, supportive parents play starring roles in these tales. Parents that have been barraged with as much condemnation as praise, with critics crying child endangerment or suggesting that the families are media-hungry opportunists bent on pressuring their kids into the record books. However, anyone who’s ever tried to force a headstrong teenager into something they don’t want to do might take issue with that idea. Supportive parents or no, the only way Romero could make it to the top of that snowy, hostile mountain was with a locomotive-force will and burning desire to get there.

These are not athletes. They weren’t born with a natural ability that landed them a $10 million professional contract. Instead, their successes required planning, study, compromise, negotiation, business savvy and guts. After the media spotlight fades for these young people, they’ll be left holding a lockbox full of tools that they can wield to build an endless array of bright futures. All these teens are still pursuing their formal schooling, but Romero describes their education more completely by saying, “The world is my university.”

The images were taken from a 1965 National Geographic story on Robin Lee Graham who sailed around the world as a teenager.

Cricket: the myth exploded

Posted on March 22nd, 2012

Picture this: it’s 1992 and you’re a tourist in some quaint and picturesque English village. It’s a midsummer’s day and you’re snoozing in your deck chair, basking in the late afternoon sun. The distant ‘clunk’ of a leather ball meeting a willow blade is followed by a smattering of polite applause. You open your eyes and see a number of white clad figures walking off the smooth greensward and disappearing into the wooden pavilion, prettily framed by oak and elm. After six hours of play the game is over.


And now picture this: it’s 2012 and you’re ears are bombarded by the shouts and screams of 50,000 fans as techno music thuds and blares through the cacophony. Down below, cheerleaders are jumping up and down as a man in orange and purple clothing has just slammed a white ball out of the stadium while the men in pink and blue stand around in disbelief knowing they’ve lost the game that began a mere three hours prior.

Cricket has changed and cricket is catching on. More and more countries around the world are starting to play a game that was once only the province of the British Empire and later the Commonwealth. It used to be just Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan and the West Indies. Now over 100 countries play the game. Recent newcomers include Sri Lanka, Canada, Holland, Afghanistan, Angola, France, Italy, Bangla Desh and China. The Chinese government has stated they want to be the world’s number one in cricket by 2020.

Cricket has changed and cricket is catching on. More and more countries around the world are starting to play a game that was once only the province of the British Empire and later the Commonwealth.

As they participate in the increasingly interconnected global marketplace more and more people are settling in ‘foreign’ countries bringing the customs of their country of origin to their new homelands. To wit, in America literally millions of ex-pats from Asia, Europe and the Antipodes watch live games from around the world on their TVs and laptops. America is now considered the second biggest commercial market in the world for cricket fans. Yet 99% of Americans are unaware that thousands of games of cricket are played across the country in every major city, every weekend, for at least six months of the year.

Ask Americans about cricket and they’ll say it’s slow and goes on forever! But frankly that is now an outdated myth. It’s true that a Test Match between two countries can last for five days and even then may end in a draw. Each day consists of six hours of play interrupted only by lunch and tea breaks. But the game has changed dramatically since the unfinished 13 day Test Match between England and Australia in 1939!

About forty years ago, realizing that cricket was in danger of losing its audience as young people turned to speed and instant gratification, administrators created the one day version of the game. About ten years ago, much to the horror of traditionalists and cricket connoisseurs, the game was catapulted into the 21st century with the advent of 20/20, a three hour version of cricket where each team is limited to facing only 120 balls (pitches). The winner being the team that makes the most runs.

Almost overnight the traditional garb of all white was replaced by bright, multi-colored clothes, the red ball changed to white, cheerleaders and loud music and night games under floodlights became the backdrop for the modern game. Players’ salaries rocketed into the millions and young people around the world became enthralled by this three hour version of the game that calls for batsmen to hit the ball out of the park as often and as quickly as possible. The purists were outraged. This was not cricket! This was a slug fest that threatened to turn cricket into a circus of frivolity!

But 20/20 is here to stay, and might just be the format that captures the American imagination. Compared to a three hour baseball game it is actually twice as action packed and offers non stop drama and thrills. In cricket a six is the equivalent of a home run in baseball. Baseball fans are thrilled when a player gets three home runs in a game or their team hits five over the course of nine innings. A few weeks ago the young South African rookie, Richard Levi, hit 13 sixes on his way to a world record fastest century. He blazed 100 runs while facing only 45 balls (pitches) – certainly not pedestrian!

A cricket field is a large oval which can measure as much as 150 x 175 yards. The action takes place on a 22 yard strip in the center of the oval. Unlike baseball the batsman can hit in a 360 degree arc. Batsmen have employed the same established hitting techniques for centuries but, with the advent of 20/20, new and inventive ways of scoring runs have emerged. The ‘dilscoop’ is where the batsman uses the velocity of a ball traveling at 90 miles an hour, and bouncing three feet in front of him, to flick that ball over his head, and the head of the wicketkeeper (catcher), to score a six directly behind the wicket he’s defending and into the crowd. When a spinner (slow bowler) is bowling a batsman might execute a reverse sweep where he will change from being a right handed hitter to a left handed hitter while the bowler is in the middle of his bowling motion! Like in baseball a cricket captain sets his field to prevent run scoring hits so this deception can play havoc with a captain’s field placings. Such shots were unheard of twenty years ago.

Will America be seduced by this rising tide of cricket mania? After all soccer is number one in the world and it has taken decades for that sport to take hold and even now, despite all those soccer moms, the recent World Cup success of the US women’s team, and the celebrity pull of David Beckham joining the LA Galaxy, soccer is still far behind football, basketball, baseball, golf and Nascar.

A little known fact is that cricket was played in the USA decades before the advent of baseball. In fact in the 19th century cricket was the national game of the United States.

In a diary he kept between 1709 and 1712, William Byrd, owner of the Virginia plantation Westover, noted, “I rose at 6 o’clock and read a chapter in Hebrew. About 10 o’clock Dr. Blair, and Major and Captain Harrison came to see us. After I had given them a glass of sack we played cricket. I ate boiled beef for my dinner. Then we played at shooting with arrows…and went to cricket again till dark.” 1

To demonstrate cricket’s wide ranging appeal consider the story of the ‘Homies & the POPz’ from the gang plagued neighborhood of Compton, Los Angeles.

The first cricket clubs in the USA were established in the 1700s, not long after they made their first appearance in England. Originally played by officers of the British Army with local landed gentry predisposed to be Anglophiles, cricket became a major recreation of American gentlemen of leisure and indeed, several Founding Fathers of the United States were known to be avid cricketers – John Adams among them, who stated in the US Congress in the 1780s that if leaders of cricket clubs could be called “presidents”, there was no reason why the leader of the new nation could not be called the same.

An astonishing but little known fact is that the first annual Canada vs. USA cricket match, played since the 1840s, was attended by 10,000 spectators at Bloomingdale Park in New York. The USA vs Canada cricket match is the oldest international sporting event in the modern world, predating even today’s Olympic Games by nearly 50 years.

Then, there was this urban (and local) recreation originally called ‘townball’, which had developed out of cricket. Unlike cricket, ‘townball’ could be played in small city squares and compact urban spaces, rather than spacious cricket parks. Some city cricket clubs, viewing it as an auxiliary entertainment, had even sponsored the first “baseball” teams, as they came to be called. After 1900, baseball took over the American scene, created its independent mythology, and obviated the sport that gave it birth. In a few decades, cricket in America had become only a memory.

The eclipse of American cricket was aided and abetted by developments in the British Empire. The British, it appears, were not at all enthusiastic about US participation in world cricket. The Imperial Cricket Conference which was formed to coordinate the worldwide development of the sport specifically excluded countries from outside the British Empire from any role in the proceedings. This exclusionary policy certainly undercut any momentum to professionalize cricket in the USA. 2

Fast forward to 2012 and the new CEO of Cricket Holdings America LLC, Keith Wyness, who will be spearheading a professional 20/20 pan US league: “Cricket is the second biggest sport in the world and the USA is the biggest commercial market for sport. Cricket is already played extensively across the USA with close to 50,000 regular players and it is the world’s second biggest consumer of internet cricket behind India.”

A $70 million custom built cricket ground in Florida has already hosted an international 20/20 match between New Zealand and Sri Lanka, and plans are afoot to build another cricket stadium in New York. At Marin Cricket Club, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, where I captain the Social Team, there are three Americans who play and play well. They have learned to straighten their arms when they bowl (unlike baseball where you ‘throw/pitch’ the ball with a crooked arm; in cricket the bowler delivers the ball over arm with a straightened elbow/arm), and discovered that there is not too much difference between a ‘line drive’ and an ‘off drive’. Furthermore, nowadays there are young cricketers in America who were born here and whose immigrant fathers have taught them cricket from a young age. These young players are playing in the USA national 20/20 team at Under 19 level against the major cricketing nations of the world.


To demonstrate cricket’s wide ranging appeal consider the story of the ‘Homies & the POPz’ from the gang plagued neighborhood of Compton, Los Angeles. The Compton Cricket Club is an all American-born disadvantaged exhibition cricket team. The team, which includes Latino and African American ex-gang members, was founded in 1995 by US homeless activist Ted Hayes and English Hollywood movie Producer Katy Haber to combat the negative effect of poverty, urban decay and crime in Compton. The club uses the ideals of sportsmanship, and the particular importance of etiquette and fair play in cricket, to help players develop respect for authority, a sense of self-esteem and self-discipline. Having toured England once as a homeless team and three times as the Compton Cricket Club the Homies toured Australia in February, 2011 and become the first American born cricket club to tour Australia.

Moreover, members of the club formed a band called ‘Cloth’ and their hip-hop track ‘Bullets’ was given the accolade of all time best cricket tune and music video by the UK’s Guardian newspaper. As you watch former homeless gang bangers dressed in cricket sweaters with bats in hand and listen to them sing “From Bullets to Balls to Grass and Mats … we Play’in Cricket” you may agree with me that it’s possibly the unlikeliest piece of hip hop you’ll ever experience!

The world is changing faster than ever. Maybe in ten years from now we’ll see a 20/20 World Cup final between the USA and China. Stranger things have happened!


  1. From an article by Simon Worrall in the Smithsonian, October 2006
  2. From the article ‘Cricket in the USA’ by Deb K. Das ESPN on the web site Cricinfo in 2009

Just Another Tequila Sunrise

Posted on February 17th, 2012

French philosopher Rene Descartes once said, “When it is not in our power to follow what is true, we ought to follow what is most probable.” It was this sentiment that occurred to me as I sat amidst the dark burled wood of the main dining room of Horizons restaurant staring out at the same Sausalito California view that inspired Otis Redding to write his posthumous 1968 #1 hit “(Sittin on) The Dock of the Bay.” As I watched the tide roll away, I wasn’t wasting time; I was there to investigate claims that the famous Tequila Sunrise cocktail was invented in that very room just a few years after that song was written.

Mark Lomas is tall, taller than most, and coupled with his salt and pepper hair he makes for a commanding presence. Lomas works as a real estate agent in affluent Marin County-which includes Sausalito-and it is that commanding presence that helps keeps him employed in a widely fluctuating housing market involving properties worth millions of dollars. 40 years ago however, Lomas was a young man and one of his first jobs was a restaurant job in the very room that I was now sitting. The restaurant was then called the Trident and was owned by members of the Kingston Trio (Trident was also the name of their record company). As such it was rock and roll ground zero.

The Trident was way ahead of it’s time. From 1966 to the mid 1970’s it was the place to be in the Bay Area. Famed for its beautiful waitresses and musical pedigree it also featured such innovations as sashimi, a fresh juice bar and an espresso bar. These days, in addition to selling properties, Lomas also runs the Trident tribute website, which helps preserve the heritage and history of the original Trident restaurant. Lomas has many colorful stories; stories about Janis Joplin (a regular), Robin Williams (a busboy there), Carlos Santana, Bill Graham and hosts of others. But it is one story that intrigues me the most.

“The Tequila Sunrise was invented here,” he says authoritatively.

Now being a cocktail historian of sorts, I was reasonably sure that the Tequila Sunrise had been invented long before the Trident existed, but I tucked away that information – along with the phone number of the bartender that supposedly did that inventing. Over the next few months I did some research and came up with two things:

  1. The Arizona Biltmore hotel claims that bartender Gene Sulit invented the Tequila Sunrise there in the late 1930s; which consisting of tequila, lime juice, soda and crème de cassis. Very little evidence exists for Sulit’s Sunrise recipe outside of the Biltmore’s own literature. Indeed I could not find it any of the major cocktail guides of the era.
  2. The recipe most people are familiar with; tequila, orange juice and grenadine appeared in the 1974 version of Mr. Boston’s Bartender’s Guide for the very first time ever. A guide that has been in print since 1935 and is updated every couple of years.


The Arizona Biltmore hotel, the so-called “Jewel of the Desert,” was designed by Albert Chase McArthur, a student of well known architect Frank Lloyd Wright and it opened for business in 1929. Legend has it that Frank Lloyd Wright consulted on the design. In the 1990’s the hotel restaurant was renamed “Wright’s” as a direct result of this legend and still later the hotel bar became the “Wright Bar” in 2007. Odd considering that Mr. Wright himself wrote in 1930 that “Albert McArthur is the architect of that building — all attempts to take the credit for that performance from him are gratuitous and beside the mark.”

Today the Arizona Biltmore features two Tequila Sunrises on it’s cocktail menu, Gene Sulit’s version and the much more familiar orange juice version.

Sulit’s Sunrise is reminiscent of the Singapore Sling, invented in 1915 by Ngiam Tong Boom, a bartender at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. Slings were a whole category of drinks made with an alcohol, some fruit flavorings (usually citrus), sugar, and either sparkling or still water. Boom’s Sling was essentially a gin sling with Cherry Heering added, much like Sulit’s drink is a tequila sling with cassis added.

Eventually I contacted Bobby Lozoff the so-called “inventor” of the Trident’s Tequila Sunrise.

Lozoff, 65, now splits his time between computer IT work and teaching tutorials while living in Hawaii. But back in 1969 he was a fresh faced 20-something looking for work in Sausalito.

“I did about two or three days as a dishwasher,” he said. “Then I was a busboy and when I got old enough I became a bartender”

He claims to have taken the bartending very seriously.

“Myself and a bartender called Billy Rice started experimenting. Anything made with gin or vodka we started making with tequila,” he said. “A couple of them didn’t turn out too well.”

One drink that did turn out well was a resurrected Tequila Sunrise.

“We built it in a chimney glass; a shot of tequila with one hand, a shot of sweet and sour with the other hand, the soda gun, then orange juice, float crème de cassis on top, grenadine if you wanted, and that was it, the Tequila Sunrise.”

Lozoff acknowledges that his drink was a version of the Singapore Sling, just with tequila.

“I was the fastest bartender in the Bay Area,” said Lozoff. “[The local press] always phoned me for drink recipes, and I was young and into all that.”

”My thing back then,” he says. “Was serving hundreds of drinks, dozens per minute, using both hands. It was volume, volume, volume. As fast as you can, big tips and cash money. We had four or five registers and two bars going. We didn’t run a tab, it was cash money only.”

Eventually, as things in busy bars must, the bartenders simplified the recipe to just tequila, orange juice and grenadine. Nice and easy ruled the day.

“In 1969 the Trident was the center of marijuana and all that other stuff,” said Lozoff. “We had pictures of the fields in Mexico, and at that point we sold more tequila than all the other places in the United States combined.”

Margaritas and shots of tequila were a way of life.

“The Trident was frontrunner, avant garde, dope runners, the guys who lived in Mexico and brought back the pot. There was always that market in Marin County,” said Lozoff. “David Crosby had the boat down the street and all that kind of stuff, [the Trident] was a rock and roll haven and tequila was the ‘in’ drink.”

In early 1972 another young man would sit in the main dining room of the Trident restaurant looking at the very same view. The young Mick Jagger’s band, the Rolling Stones, had just returned to the United States for their first tour since the disastrous debacle at Altamont in 1969. Their two month tour of North America in support of their album “Exile on Main Street” was the subject of a media frenzy rarely seen before. In many ways it set the tone for all future bad boy rock tours. There were TV’s thrown out of hotel windows, drug use on national television, arrests, riots, a four day stay at the Playboy mansion, and an entourage featuring at times Bob Dylan, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Andy Warhol, supermodel Bianca Jagger and any number of the rich and beautiful. It is no wonder that Rolling Stone writer Dave Marsh called the tour the “benchmark of an era.” That tour had a lasting legacy, and not just musically.

In early 1972 another young man would sit in the main dining room of the Trident restaurant looking at the very same view. The young Mick Jagger’s band, the Rolling Stones, had just returned to the United States for their first tour since the disastrous debacle at Altamont in 1969.

Truman Capote was also part of the traveling entourage and covered the tour ostensibly for Rolling Stone magazine and although he never actually wrote the article for which he was assigned he did appear many times on The Tonight Show to regale mainstream America with the Rolling Stones’ exploits. Terry Southern also covered the tour for the Saturday Review and as a result the Rolling Stones behavior became the stuff of legend. Part of that legend included the Tequila Sunrise.

The tour began with a show in Vancouver, Canada, a two show stop in Seattle and then an eight show eight day extravaganza spanning the length of California. It was during this marathon that the Stones attended a party hosted by Bill Graham at the Trident.

“We had a Rolling Stones party one Monday night when we were usually closed,” said Lozoff. “The owner called me in and put me behind the bar. We had a select menu, a couple of the prettier waitresses and that was the party. Bill Graham brought in about 35 people, and you know the place holds several hundred. Mick came up to the bar and asked for a margarita, I asked him if he had ever tried a Tequila Sunrise, he said no, I built him one and they started sucking them up. After that they took them all across the country.”

For those who doubt the veracity of this account I suggest they pick up Keith Richards’ book Life, published in October of 2010. Chapter Nine, sentence number one: “The ’72 tour was known by other names-the Cocaine and Tequila Sunrise tour…”

The following Tuesday, Bill Graham gave the Trident employees a block of tickets. “So, we all were at the Tuesday night program,” said Lozoff. Thursday night Lozoff was managing another bar, the Orphanage in San Francisco. Toots and the Maytalls were the headliners:

“The Stones came in after them for another party. We stayed open til six in the morning, even though we were supposed to close at 2. No one busted us. It was a nice party, kind of wild,” said Lozoff. “I know who had the keys to my office and who was partying,” he said. “The Stones were real discreet, they had their own set-up. They partied a little bit and they jammed a little bit. It was real nice.”

In 1973, Jose Cuervo seized on this new cocktail sensation and began marketing it in various print advertisements, eventually releasing it as one of their canned “club cocktails.”

For those who doubt the veracity of this account I suggest they pick up Keith Richards’ book Life, published in October of 2010. Chapter Nine, sentence number one: “The ’72 tour was known by other names-the Cocaine and Tequila Sunrise tour…”

“Lou, (the manager of the Trident) talked to the Cuervo people,” said Lozoff. “We were the biggest outlet in the United States, and they were talking to us – that recipe, with crème de cassis went on the back of bottles, and at one point our recipe made it on the back of the gold bottle.”

History would be kinder to this newer version of the Tequila Sunrise. In 1973 the Eagles released the song, “Tequila Sunrise” which cracked the Billboard top 100. In the liner notes of 2003’s The Very Best of the Eagles, Don Henley says, “I believe that was a Glenn title. I think he was ambivalent about it because he thought that it was a bit too obvious or too much of a cliché because of the drink that was so popular then.”

The album Desperado and the single were both released on April 17, 1973 after being recorded earlier that year at Island Studios in London. Although the song is not about the drink itself (it’s about drinking tequila until the sun comes up) Henley’s words gives us a great view into the drinks popularity at the time, less than nine months after the Stones’ tour.

Eventually the Trident closed and Lozoff moved to Hawaii where he opened the Blue Max nightclub (patterned on the Trident). After which he turned to computers and technology

“The new drinks I see these days I can’t relate to,” he says wistfully.

“But I have a million stories about the Trident, it was a fun time and I have no regrets.”

No regrets and one lasting legacy; the Tequila Sunrise. Three things have since occurred to me:

  1. Being first doesn’t always mean “most important.”
  2. Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico wrote, “The criterion and rule of the true is to have made it.” A direct departure from Descartes belief that truth is verified through observation.
  3. Horizon’s restaurant will be changing its name back to the Trident later this year, almost 40 years to the day of that 1972 Rolling Stones party.

The Great Online Migration

Posted on January 19th, 2012

We are currently witnessing two of the largest migrations in human history.

In China, 120 million people have moved from the countryside to urban areas, drawn by economic opportunity. Where these Chinese used to spend their time outside engaged in agricultural work, or socializing with extended family in a small village, they now spend their days indoors in factories, typically living dormitory-style with thousands of other workers. Each year, that’s almost a trillion hours of human experience that have shifted from the pace of rural life to the rush of urban industrialization.

On the other side of the world, 184 million Americans are leading the next big migration. They’re spending an average of 13 hours a week online – or a collective 124 billion hours per year. Americans spend more time online than most of the world’s two billion Internet users, but as the rest of the world catches up – and the total number of people online continues to grow – the global number of hours spent online each year will soon reach the trillion-hour mark, too.

If China’s shift from rural to urban life is unprecedented in physical migration, the world’s shift from offline to online life is an even bigger migration in human consciousness. We’re now well into the process of accommodating this shift at an institutional level, with companies, businesses and organizations that have moved their services and operations online.

At a human level, we’re still struggling with what this migration means — for our communities, for our families, and for ourselves. Like any mass dislocation, the move from the offline world to the online brings a mix of emotions: excitement at what we’re discovering in this new land, fear about how our new lives will unfold, and more fear and regret about what we are leaving behind.

We are moving, we are suffering, and we are fighting. Those who are leaping toward a heavily digitized existence can feel impatient with their reluctant friends and colleagues, particularly when they (we!) feel like our embrace of the online world is judged to be compulsive, impoverishing or addictive. If my talk on how to stop apologizing for your online life struck a chord, I think it’s because the geeks of the new digital world sometimes feel like we have to fight our way past the borders of the old offline world.

Like any mass dislocation, the move from the offline world to the online brings a mix of emotions: excitement at what we’re discovering in this new land, fear about how our new lives will unfold, and more fear and regret about what we are leaving behind.

What’s required is empathy, compassion and respect for those who would remind us of what we’re leaving behind. To note that the digital world offers nothing like the beauty of a natural landscape, the joy of a quiet talk with a dear friend, the satisfaction of a home-cooked meal: these fond feelings toward our embodied existence needn’t be a rebuke to those who embrace the new joys of virtuality. If some of us are more attached to the embodied world, more skeptical of the online world, and more worried about the transition, we can understand those feelings not as an expression of Luddite sympathies but as a reminder of what we need to pack on our voyage into the digital.

In any migration, there are those who go ahead to settle the wilds, and those who linger to ensure that nothing gets left behind. While each of us now makes a different choice about how much of our lives to live online, those differences should not be turned into an ideological divide between “digital utopians” and “digital skeptics”, an economic divide between digital haves and have-nots, or a cultural divide between those who identify as early adopters and those who cling to the “real” world. We can’t throw the reluctant migrants off the boat and wish them luck in the old world.

For make no mistake: this is a voyage, not a diaspora. We are all living on a planet that has seen its once local, then national economies knit together into a single global economy, thanks to international financial networks. We are almost all living with the possibility of instant, global communication — even if only some of us have the means or inclination to avail ourselves of that possibility. Many of us are living with a digital twin (or is it a digital shadow?) who echoes our daily life in a set of online posts, conversation and data trails, and even those who today have only the faintest sketch of a twin will have the outline filled in soon enough.

However you feel about those developments — and there is plenty of evidence that they bring as many social, economic and spiritual perils as opportunities — the only plausible scenarios for arresting this trend are even more dreadful. A failure to preclude the coming energy crisis, a massively disruptive global economic meltdown, a large-scale terrorist attack: any of these could shut the networks down, but few of us would truly wish for that kind of end to the digital age.

And why should we? Postcards from the early settlers tell of the many joys that come from embracing life online. The opportunity to discover your creativity (and find a global audience), to invent your own work (and find a global market), to connect to old friends (and find a global community): these are profound experiences, which are daily becoming accessible to more and more of us.

But it’s all happening so very quickly. Even the youngest adults can remember the very different world of their childhood, when people looked each other in the eye instead of down at a phone. Our world is changing at a pace we can’t understand, let alone prepare for. We want to relearn those first steps of childhood, to find a way to stand on two wobbly legs when the ground keeps moving, when the truth is that we have to find a way to live that doesn’t depend on finding any kind of stability at all.

So yes, we geeks can stop apologizing for our online lives. The non-geeks can stop apologizing too: there’s no shame in loving the analog world, in appreciating its best customs and qualities, and perhaps even bringing those qualities into this hybrid, on- and offline existence.

But most of all, we need to find empathy for each other. We’re packed into close quarters, making a terrifying voyage into a digital world we can only begin to see. We are all on this journey together.

The Alarming Vulnerability of the Haitian Women

Posted on January 12th, 2012

Plagued by frustration and insufficient security, Haiti’s Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps are now the breeding ground for rape and sexual violence against women, young girls, and even infants. Gender-based violence was already a problem in Haiti. However, according to KOFAVIV (which stands for Commission of Women Victims for Victims in Creole), a grassroots organization established by and for rape survivors from the poorest areas of Port-au-Prince, there has been an alarming increase of sexual violence and forced prostitution in the camps since the January 12, 2010 earthquake.

Photo Ben Horton

With the help of an interpreter, I spoke to Josie Philistin, 38, a director at KOFAVIV and a survivor of three sexual assaults. She and others in the organization work to raise awareness, advocacy and outreach about the growing sexual violence problem in the camps and in the communities. “You find in the camps all kinds of people, gangsters, people who fled from prison. They [the aid workers] setup areas for food and water, but protection was not a main concern.” It is reported that there are thousands of convicted criminals on the streets, including rapists, who escaped the crumbling National Penitentiary during the quake. Many of these prisoners are gang members and warlords that are now heavily armed with weapons they are suspected of stripping from the prison guards during their escape. Philistin describes the camps as dangerous and dark at night providing little protection for women and young girls, especially those living alone. The danger is compounded when you add in the lack of consequences for the perpetrators due to inadequate state infrastructure. “The environment is very dehumanizing and degrading,” said Philistin. “Not only is there little security in the camps, but they [the perpetrators] know that if they do something, they will get away with it.”

KOFAVIV reports that 65% of the victims of sexual violence are minors and since the earthquake, they are seeing more children and babies who have been raped. However, it is difficult to know exactly how many cases there are of sexual violence. Few women have the courage to report the crime because the attacker usually threatens to kill either them or their family members. KOFAVIV’s network of approximately 60 community agents, including men, do their best to locate and help rape victims who otherwise would not have access to support. The agents work in the region’s 22 camps conducting training in order to sensitize the communities and provide information about the psycho-social, legal, and medical services KOFAVIV offers.

In June of 2011, UNHCR partnered with KOFAVIV to run a pilot safe house project for survivors of rape and forced prostitution in Port-au-Prince.

Another organization supporting the humanitarian efforts in Haiti is United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In order to better understand the situation, the United Nations refugee agency interviewed women from 15 of the camps that were believed to be at risk of undertaking sexual exchanges in order to survive in IDP camps. The study found that “women are exchanging sexual favors – transactional sex – to receive food and benefits, whether coupons (even if most of these women did not precisely know what the coupons were for or what type of commodity they would give access to), direct access to distributions, a place on Cash for Work schemes, money or simply a plate of spaghetti.” All the women interviewed claimed that they had not resorted to transactional sex before the earthquake. They were forced into it by the overtly corrupt, self-proclaimed IDP committee leaders through which non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and humanitarian donors are channeling aid.

In June of 2011, UNHCR partnered with KOFAVIV to run a pilot safe house project for survivors of rape and forced prostitution in Port-au-Prince. One of the first beneficiaries is Sarah (her name has been changed for her protection). Sarah, 29, had lived in an IDP camp with her two children, 10 and 7 years old. Through an interpreter, she told me that her children’s father was killed during the earthquake and she was left alone to care for her family. “Life was very bad in the camp. I had no tent, just sheets that were hung up by one of my friends,” remembers Sarah. “Women are never treated well in the camps in my opinion. For instance, when humanitarian aid is being delivered, women will never be given priority to receive it. They will be forced to sleep with whoever is in charge of distribution or provide different kinds of services in exchange for access to the humanitarian aid.” Sarah’s biggest worry wasn’t just getting enough food to feed herself and her children daily, she was also afraid for her and her children’s safety. “I never felt safe in the camp,” Sarah explains. “There were bandits and gagsters coming in and out of the camp, slashing tents, and stealing whatever people had.” One night, Sarah’s fears came true when she was attacked by four men. She was raped by two of the attackers before she was able to escape. She never reported the incident because she was scared and embarrassed. “After the rape, I was so ashamed and I didn’t want word to spread of what happened, so I stopped going out,” said Sarah. In Haitian culture it is not the rapist who reaps shame and scorn, but the woman. Due to this social stigma, women are scared to tell anyone they have been raped in fear that they would be shunned.

Photo Courtesy C.Tooze/UNHCR

Sarah’s life changed when she met some people at a camp who took her to KOFAVIV. She was given the opportunity to move into the safe house established by UNCHR. Sarah lived in the safe house with her children for six months. There she received health training, psychological support and business training. More importantly, her children are able to attend school through funding provided by UNHCR. “When I moved into the safe house, I was a little shy. I felt a difference feeling safe in the safe house and I could see the difference in my children’s faces too.” Building a community is crucial for the survivors. The 15 women and their families that live in the safe house cook, eat, and take classes together. “Because social infrastructure was destroyed, building solidarity and community…is a big part of the women’s recovery,” said Charity Tooze, UNHCR Senior Communications Officer.

Today Sarah and her children have moved into their own one room apartment that UNHCR helps pay for until she can earn her own money by starting a small business. “We have just secured the community warehouse for the safe house project,” said Tooze. “This is where women, like Sarah, will go with their voucher to buy their goods, like shoes or cosmetics, to resell them in a market near where they live. The goal is after six months to a year the women will make enough money to cover their rent and be self-sustaining.”

Though there are several organizations in Haiti working to empower women, the greatest urgency remains. Hundreds of thousands are still living in camps with no relief in sight. Philistin’s dream for the New Year is that there will be synergy between the Haitian government, international community, and the local organizations to help women. For Sarah, her dream may have already come true. “I am most grateful that my children get to play with other children and we can eat on a daily basis,” she said with a certain calm and strength in her voice.

A World Without Malaria

Posted on December 3rd, 2011

It has plagued humankind for tens of thousands of years. It killed people in Plato’s Greece, in the Pharaohs’ Egypt, and throughout all the ancient Chinese dynasties. Delivered by a prehistoric insect, it is responsible for 800,000 deaths each year; a number roughly equal to the population of San Francisco. Today half of the world’s population is at risk of contracting malaria. The disease has a had such a significant impact on the human population as well as the economies of developing countries, the effect of the abolition of the disease is much more far reaching than simply saving lives.

Pharmaceutical company GalaxoSmithClyne, in partnership with PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI), has developed a promising vaccine candidate. The data from Phase III of their trials were revealed at the Malaria Forum hosted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington. The results are unprecedented. “People have said that you will never be able to make vaccines against organisms this complicated. This shows that it is possible,” says Dr. Peter Hotez, President of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

Photo William Albert Allard

This girl has had malaria many times since moving to Rondonia.

Phase III of the trials for the vaccine candidate, called RTS,S, were conducted at 11 trial sites in seven countries across sub-Saharan Africa. The drug was shown to reduce the risk of children experiencing clinical malaria and severe malaria by 56% and 47%, respectively. These groundbreaking numbers have electrified the discussion about malaria research. However, they are still far from indicating a complete solution.

‘Vaccine’ sounds a lot like ‘panacea’ which is a typical misinterpretation. For diseases like Polio, once widespread, effective polio vaccines have rendered the practically non-existent. Malaria, because of its complex nature and because it’s a parasite and not a single celled organism, is infinitely more difficult to combat with a silver bullet. It will be years before RTS,S will even be reviewed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and potentially recommended for distribution. And it will not present a singular solution if and when it does achieve widespread use. It will continue to take a variety of devices, used simultaneously, to combat the disease.

The British East India Company pioneered the gin and tonic cocktail while searching for a palatable way to administer quinine-infused tonic water to troops.

For the foreseeable future, new drugs will be used in tandem with more traditional treatments. People have relied on some of the same preventative methods for hundreds of years. Quinine, a prophylaxis against malaria, has been used since the 17th century. The British East India Company pioneered the gin and tonic cocktail while searching for a palatable way to administer quinine-infused tonic water to troops. Bed nets – a simple barrier between humans and infected mosquitos – are some of the oldest defenses, and still among the most effective. But they’re not effective enough. Malaria is tenacious. The parasite has developed resistance to some drugs and a cure remains elusive.

Speaking about RTS,S, Dr. Hotez cautions, “It’s a big quantum leap, but this doesn’t mean that now the control, eradication or elimination of malaria is a given.” For now, the aim is to begin to control the disease. Eradication is so far off as to not be in the sites of many experts. It’s what the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has referred to as “the audacious goal”.

Malaria’s impact on the world’s population is more profound than a simple death toll. Achieving the big goal would result in much more than saved lives. Most compelling are the implications for children. Not only for the 800,000 that die each year, but also for those who survive their infections. Studies have shown that malaria can degrade cognitive function. Although children have a reduced risk of dying from malaria once they reach school age, the chronic condition can compromise their ability to learn and perform in school. Thousands experience these long-term debilitating effects that may be difficult to identify. Eliminating malaria could elevate educational prospects for thousands of children and raise literacy rates in some of the least literate countries in the world.

Chronic malaria stymies adults in many ways as well. Adults can suffer from multiple episodes each year, typically missing 3-5 days of work during each attack. “This is not just in Africa, but in Asia and the Americas,” says Dr. Hotez. “There is a consequence to private sector cotton growers, mining companies… in terms of their work force.” Unburdening employees and employers from the 247 million cases of malaria that occur every year could stimulate productivity in developing nations. A huge percentage of the workforce in some countries would no longer contend with lingering anemia, malaria attacks and chronically ill children.

20%-50% of inpatient admissions in some countries are malaria patients. This increases the stress on already over-burdened public and private health systems. Reduce infections, and the effects on the availability of health services are immediately apparent. “I was recently in Western Kenya in the height of transmission season,” recalls Dr. Carlos C. Campbell, Director of Policy & Advocacy for PATH’s Malaria Control Program, who has been working in the region for twenty years. “Fifteen years ago during that time there would be lines going outside of the facilities. It would be two children to a bed, children sleeping on the floor in various stages of stress. Now clinics are almost empty because the expansion of bed net programs have reduced the amount of malaria infection that is occurring.”

Photo Ira Block

Close-up of Anopheles mosquito larvae and pupae in several stages of development.

For all of these reasons, Dr. Hotez refers to medicines like RTS,S as “Antipoverty Vaccines”, stating that diseases like malaria are “not just occurring in a setting of poverty: They are the cause of poverty.”

An overwhelming percentage of malaria cases occur in Africa – over 85%. Of course, the causes of poverty in Africa are profuse and elaborate. As with malaria itself, there is no one solution. But the elimination of such a powerful and pervasive disease could create change in many facets of life and community. Treating and studying malaria places heavy demand on too-scarce resources – time, money, facilities, manpower. According to the WHO, the direct loss to the economy in Nigeria alone is estimated at $830 million, money that could be redirected to alleviate other sufferings and solve other persistent problems. If there were clear definitions for developed nations vs. developing nations, those definitions would almost certainly include benchmarks for education, prosperity, and productivity. All of these would be improved through malaria’s defeat.

The future of RTS,S is exciting as well as uncertain. Right now teams are gathering to generate solutions to countless challenges and roadblocks that lie in wait within distribution channels, cold-chain systems, governmental approvals, limited funding sources and remote testing sites. Their efforts move us toward relief from the malaria problem. Perhaps ultimately they will also pave the way to the more “audacious goal.” If they succeed, thousands of children will live, and millions more will live better.

Voices of the Invisible People

Posted on October 13th, 2011

There are millions of invisible people in the world. These are people who have no country, no legal status, and no nationality. They are stateless, not recognized as citizens anywhere in the world. It’s hard to imagine the precariousness of not having a citizenship because it is given to us at birth and rarely questioned or changed, especially if one is born in a first world nation.

“Some 12 million people do not have the right to be recognized as citizens of a country which can have a traumatic result… not having any papers, not having a legal identity, not having the right to have your children in school, or to go to the public health services, not being allowed to own property or to work legally, being jailed and not having anybody to protect you. These situations can indeed cause enormous suffering.” Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), explained to me the ramifications of being a stateless individual.


Photo Ben Horton

Because stateless people are marginalized they can be easily exploited. Lacking legal rights and a voice, they are much more susceptible to arbitrary or prolonged detention. They are also prime candidates to become victims of human trafficking.

In Thailand, young stateless girls from minority ethnic groups not recognized by the Thai government are targeted by traffickers for prostitution. According to the Development and Education Program for Daughters and Communities website (DEPDC), a non-profit center working in Thailand, “Girls as young as 10 years old have been sold into the brothels of Bangkok and other cities in the region and even overseas. In some areas as many as 90% of girls have left their village to work.” Stateless parents, lacking education and job opportunities, are often forced into borrowing money. To pay back the debt parents are asked to exchange their children to work in beauty shops and restaurants. Unfortunately, rather than being placed in a legitimate business as promised, the children end up imprisoned in brothels working as sex slaves, enduring horrific physical and mental abuse.

“One of the most painful things to witness in the case of statelessness is the way it denies a person the chance to develop,” said Maureen Lynch, consultant for International Observatory on Statelessness and former Senior Advocate for Statelessness Initiatives at Refugees International. “Being denied the ability to contribute, and seeing their life going to waste is one of the most disturbing things. It’s heart-wrenching, actually, because they could do so much for the global good,” Lynch told AlertNet, a humanitarian news service run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

There are numerous reasons why millions are stateless. Often it is due to ethnic or racial discrimination that is entrenched in politics. “We have in Myanmar an ethnic group of Muslim Bengalis that the Myanmarese political establishment does not consider to be citizens of Myanmar, but they have been there for centuries. They are part of the social and economic structure of the country. They have nowhere else to go and to be recognized as citizens in any other country. And so they became stateless…,” said Guterres.

In addition, many countries have citizenship laws that discriminate against women. According to the UNHCR, there are more than 30 countries, mostly in the Middle East, where only the fathers can pass on their nationality to their children. “In the last 10 years, 10 countries have changed their laws allowing for this equality to be established, namely in Northern Africa — Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt,” said Guterres. “But we hope other countries will follow the same path. A meaningful number of people find themselves in a situation in which they have no nationality just because their father is unknown or disappeared or there is not the capacity to prove his identity.”

Yet statelessness is not limited to the developing nations. Between 1967 and 1981, a quarter-million persecuted Jews were permitted to leave USSR by way of Vienna and Rome. Their Soviet citizenship was stripped as they left the only country they have ever known. Thousands of these families lived for months in Italy stateless, hoping for permission to enter countries like Canada, Israel, and the US. Since USSR didn’t allow the Jews to return, many of the elderly took the risk of traveling across the world in order to be with their families. Those too ill or too old died making the trip.

In the 1990s, when the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia separated into different states, ethnic groups such as the Roma were defined as “non-citizens”. Even today, each new successor State claims the “non-citizens” belong somewhere else. Moreover, there are thousands of stateless people in the most advanced countries in the world such as Japan, Germany and Sweden. Many are stuck in legal limbo, desperate for help.

Most recently, UNHCR is working with government of Sudan and South Sudan (formed on July 9, 2011) to ensure that the nationality legislation of the two states will not leave anyone out.

Global climate change may end up being a contributor to statelessness. The UNHCR is looking into the future for the citizens of States such as the Maldives, Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands who may have to abandon their own country one day. “One of the impacts of climate change is that some island states might disappear. We need to look into the right to preserve the right of a national identity, the right to a cultural identity”, Guterres said.

In the 1990s, when the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia separated into different states, ethnic groups such as the Roma were defined as “non-citizens”.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of the Stateless. Out of the 193 UN member States, only 38 States are parties to it. Not surprisingly, many of the countries with the largest stateless problem are absent from the list. “We are making a huge effort at the present moment to convince countries to ratify the 1961 Convention, adopt legislation, to respect dignity of these people and to find a solution,” said Guterres. “There have been a lot important successes in the recent past. Nepal has granted nationality to 2.6 million people. Bangladesh with a landmark decision of the Supreme Court granted nationality to the Biharis. Other important moves have taken place in Brazil. Lots of positive steps are also happening….”

In early December, UNHCR will host a ministerial-level conference to review the Convention and urge more States to make the commitment to protect those without a voice. “Countries should ratify the conventions and adopt national legislation to grant people the possibility of having a nationality. At the least, we want countries to provide stateless people access to the services, even if they do not have citizenship”, said Guterres. “Stateless people are hidden….It’s the most forgotten human-rights problem in today’s world.“

Editor’s note: in 2004 Steven Spielberg directed a clever, funny movie entitled The Terminal that featured Tom Hanks as Viktor Navorski. While Navorski is in the air on his plane ride to New York there is a military coup in his home country of Krakozhia. Since after the coup the United States no longer recognizes Krakozhia as a sovereign nation, Hanks is not allowed into the US, but he can’t go back to his own country either so he is forced to live in the terminal at JFK airport. The Terminal may have been based on the travails of Mehran Karimi Nasseri who lived in the airport terminal at Charles de Gaulle Airport in France for eighteen years.


Posted on September 20th, 2011

Whiskey historian Oscar Getz spent a lifetime assembling an impressive collection of whiskey memorabilia covering American whiskey from it’s beginnings in the 1600’s all the way up to the decade post Prohibition. Situated in an old brick building near distiller’s row in Bardstown the museum is home to pieces of George Washington’s original rye whiskey still, has a tribute to Abraham Lincoln’s days as a tavern keeper and features every sort of American whiskey memorabilia you can think off. Located in Kentucky it naturally leans pretty heavily towards bourbon whiskey, ninety seven percent of which is produced nearby.

Many people make two mistakes when they think of bourbon whiskey. One: that all bourbon comes from Kentucky. And two: that bourbon comes from specifically Bourbon County Kentucky. Bourbon by United States law is: “Whisky produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers.” Which simply means that bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. Ironically, today’s Bourbon County produces no bourbon whiskey at all.


Photo Jim Richardson

The aging of bourbon.

As I looked through the exhibits following the history of whiskey from the migration of the Scots-Irish to the Americas following the potato famines of the early 1700s. Their settlement in Pennsylvania, the founders of which were Quakers (who had also sought religious freedom in the New World) and as such were much more tolerant of their Presbyterian and Catholic beliefs. The United Kingdom of Britain then was a new invention, created in 1707, and the Irish and Scots were still getting used to the whole idea of having an English King, much less an English church. Once in the New World, these settlers set to work, farming the land and making their drink of choice “uisgebeatha” or “water of life” often shortened to “uisce” or “whiskey”.

As I followed the story told in exhibit and diorama the journalist in me thought, wouldn’t it be great to meet the descendants of these people? With that thought in mind I headed off to the historic Makers Mark distillery situated a few miles away in Happy Hollow, near Loretto, Kentucky. My trip to Bardstown was really a preamble to a whiskey tasting that had been arranged for me at Makers Mark with Chief Operating Officer Rob Samuels. This liquor journalism thing was starting to work in my favor.

Rob Samuels looks even younger than his 36 years and is not what people might envision as the face of a bourbon company. Bourbon is an industry often defined by names like Booker Noe (grandson of Jim Beam) and Pappy Van Winkle. Names which conjure up a completely different image than the clean cut college educated Samuels (graduate work at the University of Chicago and one year at Harvard business school).

After a tour of the distillery we sat down in a little room overlooking the visitor’s center on the sprawling 650 acre site which is now a historic landmark. Formerly the Burks Mill and distillery the site has been making whiskey (except during Prohibition) since 1801. Makers Mark has operated there since 1953.

In front of us were three glasses of Makers Mark whiskey. One unaged, another the fully matured version, and the new Makers 46 (additionally aged with French oak staves).

We talked a little bit about production, how Makers is also made with wheat and without rye (unusual for bourbon whiskey) and how it is aged for 6 to 7 years (bourbon only needs to be aged for two years to qualify legally) and various other aspects specific to Makers Marks. Business talk.

As Samuels raised the glass of clear unaged whiskey to his lips, he signaled me to do the same. The burn of the whiskey resonated on the back and sides of my tongue, which Samuels explained, was one of the drawbacks of unaged whiskey.

“My grandparents settled here on this site in late 1952 and were guided by a vision to do something different than most any distiller in the world had ever attempted, much less distillers here in Kentucky,” said Samuels his boyish face shining. “Makers Mark history and the Samuels family history at this site began in 1952, but my ancestors have produced whisky for almost five hundred years.”

The corny sweet taste of the unaged whiskey lingered in my mouth.

“We’ve traced our lineage all the way back to Samuelstown Scotland near St Andrews, my ancestors were farmers and with some of their grain produced and distilled whisky in Scotland, Scotch whisky.”

The Samuels family left Scotland, migrated and settled in America in the early 1700s settling first in Pennsylvania. There they again farmed the land reserving some of their surplus grain to produce and distill rye whiskey until about 1784.

Samuels again lifts the small tasting glass, shaped rather like a voluptuous woman, he pauses to take a drink, and then sets it back down. “It was my namesake, Robert Samuels, who lived in Cumberland County,” he says. “He had fought in the Revolutionary War as a captain in the Pennsylvania Militia, and just as things were heating up with the taxation on whisky in that part of the country, he decided to move south.”

“Now taste fully matured Makers Mark,” he said pointing at my glass. “You’ll notice you taste it more on the tip of your tongue,” he said. As I sipped I remembered the Whiskey museum and felt the sensations nearer the tip of my tongue.

Those Pennsylvania settlers had grown their grain and made their whiskey, until a British tax on molasses set a series of events into motion. Rum was then the most popular and profitable spirit in these “British” colonies. Molasses was used to make rum and by taxing it heavily the costs skyrocketed. Other more punishing taxes on sugar and tea would eventually lead these “Americans” to rebel against the British King (one George William Frederick better known as George III- who, oddly, was of German descent), and set up a whole new nation called the United States of America. According to Oscar Getz himself, “No individuals, no group endured more hardships, and fought more bravely nor with greater distinction in the Revolutionary War than did the Scotch-Irish.”

Their reward? A tax levied on their whiskey by the English descendants of the new fledgling United States government and enforced by a former British army officer named George Washington. They again rose in revolt, refusing to pay the tax while tar and feathering federal officials. Washington assembled a militia and marched into western Pennsylvania. Most of the rebels in this “Whiskey Rebellion” (1791-1794) simply disappeared, with many heading for the wilds of Kentucky.

The shining amber of the fully aged Makers Mark shone in Samuels’s glass bringing me back to the present.

“At that time Kentucky didn’t exist,” said Samuels. “Modern day Kentucky began as Bourbon County Virginia, and the governor of Virginia had named it Bourbon County in honor of the Bourbons, the French royal family who had supported America as we separated from Mother England.”

A lifting of the third glass and another pause.

“The governor decided to give away for free land grants to families who would agree to move south, mostly Scots Irish from Pennsylvania, and those families only had to agree to grow the native grain, which was corn, and build a house. Most of those families were given up to 1000 acres of land.”

That governor assumed that if families moved there and built a life, they would defend it against attacks by the Native Americans. A successful process which later would virtually define the United States’ entire westward expansion

“So Robert Samuels moved south and in the first year of his settlement paid tax on a little bit of whisky,” said the more modern version.

The newer Rob Samuels took a long sip closing his eyes. “You see this flavor is even more present on the tip of your tongue.”

I noticed the pleasantly tingling sensation and the much richer flavor.

“There were horrific battles between the early settlers of this region and the Native Americans,” says Samuels “The name Kentucky actually means bloody battleground in Cherokee.”

It was actually T.W. Samuels, who built the Samuels family’s first “legal” distillery in 1840, on the original 1000 acre land grant. He was not alone and by 1844 there were more than a 100 commercial distilleries throughout Kentucky.

“But really all of those distilleries produced equally horrible whiskey,” says Samuels setting down his whiskey glass again. A glass containing a pleasantly sweet and smooth whiskey.

“The early American whiskies really did reflect the harsh realities of life at that time in America,” said Samuels. “The cowboy, the frontiersman, who would push westward from the trail, return home and drink their sorrows away.”

“In fact,” he said. “The most successful whiskey distiller at the time promoted the fact that his whiskey would blow your ears off,” said Samuels gesturing emphatically.

“Our family’s whiskey was as bad if not worse than all the others,” he said looking at the glass on the table. “But still it was a successful business that was passed down for generations.”

Rob Samuel pauses again, “It was my grandfather [Bill Samuels Sr.] who sold the family distillery. He simply didn’t…” Samuels pauses again. “He simply didn’t have the passion for it.”

At least not initially, after his grandfather sold the Samuels distillery, he opened a bank (the only bank-according to Samuels-in the history of America, that opened and closed in less than 60 days), later he failed as an automotive dealer, and it was Rob Samuels grandmother who suggested (we’re guessing kindly) that perhaps he should think about getting back into the whiskey business.

Jim Beam once allegedly told Rob Samuels’ father, Bill Samuels Jr. “Stick to making whiskey, son. Your family is distinguished by its incompetence at doing anything else.”

When Bill Samuels Sr. agreed to get back into the whisky business it was on his terms. Which to him meant it was going to be more about quality than quantity. Within the laws of making bourbon he broke down each and every step of the process, sparing no expense, not as a business man but as more of a craftsman. He handmade the bourbon with a fine but full flavored balanced taste profile. His vision for success was no more complicated than to produce a handmade bourbon that he could be proud off.

In front of us were three glasses of Makers Mark whiskey. One unaged, another the fully matured version, and the new Makers 46 (additionally aged with French oak staves).

For 35 years Makers Mark in its trademark bottle with the red wax top was the most expensive bourbon whiskey on the market. Their marketing slogan was “It tastes more expensive…and is.” Makers Mark however was not an immediate success. But over half a century later it is, selling a million cases annually and paving the way for dozens of premium bourbon brands. The distillery in Happy Hollow sometimes sees upwards of 1500 visitors a day and is a registered National Historic landmark. But all that is business.

The last time Rob Samuels saw his grandfather, they had lunch at the Pendennis Club in Louisville before he headed off to college (the Pendennis Club is famous as the birthplace of the old fashioned cocktail). “He just started talking and sharing stories, you know, he wasn’t feeling well, he was dizzy all the time,” says Samuels, pausing as emotion enters his voice. “He shared with me how proud he was that he never wavered from his vision.” Another pause. “He died two months later” says Samuels quietly, his eyes focusing on nothing for a moment. “I’m just glad that he got to see his brand having success in New York, San Francisco…some of the nicer cities,” Samuels said.

Samuels calls his grandfather the Robert Mondavi of bourbon, making an apt comparison (Mondavi didn’t invent California wine but he definitely improved its quality and its image). And as I drove back through the winding roads of Kentucky, towards my six hour flight home, a thought occurred to me. You can go to the Oscar Getz Museum in Bardstown and read about the history of American whiskey, or you can take a short drive to the Makers Mark distillery, where the Samuels family has, and still, lives it.

Editor’s note: in a bizarre twist to the story the writer, Jeff Burkhart, discovered that his father in law went to boarding school in the same building that now houses the Oscar Getz Whiskey Museum.

Songs from the Shed

Posted on August 28th, 2011

We have a love affair with awesome things that come from simple places. Every Olympics there is a story of an athlete who comes from a modest background. A person with a dream to be an Olympian but who does not have access to high tech training facilities. So they make due with what they have in the environment in which they live and manage to make it big. Against the odds. We never want these stories to stop coming. In part they are a validation of the human spirit. If there is a will there is a way.

These stories are also a reassuring reminder that maybe there is a touch of magic in these places where great things start. Something intangible, that science can’t explain, and that just needs be accepted. It leaves us to scan the horizon with a hopeful eye knowing there are more magical places out there waiting to be discovered.

Five minutes from junction 20 of the M5 in England is a small garden shed that has become a place of pilgrimage for musicians. Musical cubs and famous veterans are all making their way to an aging shack near the west coast of England to record an acoustic session in a space that is not much bigger than a child’s bedroom.

Jon Earl had intended his backyard shed to be the meeting place for a cheese and cider club. He decorated the inside of the shed with a collection of eclectic tchotchke, some of which he had, and some of which was already in the shed left over from the previous owners. World war era gas masks, vintage signs and other curiosities adorned the walls of the new home of The Cheese and Cider Society.

Jon earl shed

Photo Courtesy of John Earl

John Earl and his shed.

At a meeting about the Cheese and Cider Society at the nearby Royal Oak pub someone suggested that they get some musicians to play at the first get together in the shed. When Earl heard that, an idea hit him like a lightening strike. The Cheese and Cider Society was shut down before it opened, and Songs from the Shed was born.

The first session was of local musicians that played at the pub. Soon after a band from Portland, Oregon named the Water Tower Bucket Boys contacted Earl and said that they were on tour, that they were in the area, and would it be alright if they played in the shed. It was the shed’s fifth session and the point that Earl realized that he had something much bigger than he dreamed. To this dat Earl still doesn’t know how the Water Tower Bucket Boys found him.

Video Courtesy of John Earl

Water Tower Bucket Boys.

Almost overnight Songs from the Shed started getting more attention. It didn’t take long for well known professionals to get in touch and ask for session time. Word started to spread rapidly and now Jon Earl receives over a hundred emails a day. And the shed is booked almost a year in advance.

Earl initially deployed decidedly low tech gear to capture the musical sessions. A midrange Canon video camera to record audio and video combined with a common sense approach to placement of the musical instruments. Louder elements in the back, softer ones up front. Later Earl started to experiment with nicer cameras with better microphones, but, ironically, they were too clean. There was a warmth lost with the better equipment. When Earl investigated further he found that the older microphone technology of his original camera is not as sensitive. It also doesn’t try to electronically compensate for the acoustics of ambient surroundings. It was almost as if acoustics of the shed itself was dictating the terms in which music could be played and recorded within its walls.

When a session contains a lot of musicians tramping around the garden and walking into the house to use the facilities, Mrs. Earl has been known to occasionally raise an eye brow in the direction of her husband.

Not one to change what was working, Earl scoured Ebay for additional cameras like the one that he owned to have as backup. The simpler, lo-fi camera was clearly a critical part of the formula for recording in the shed.

Jon Earl doesn’t get paid for the 30-35 hours a week that are required to manage the responsibilities of the shed. It’s a labor of love that he does on top of his full time day job. Earl said his wife is understanding of the commitment, most of the time. When a session contains a lot of musicians tramping around the garden and walking into the house to use the facilities, Mrs. Earl has been known to occasionally raise an eye brow in the direction of her husband. However, Earl maintains that that only happens on rare occasion.

Part of the romance and atmosphere of the shed is its age. But that’s also a challenge. At one point the shed was in desperate need of repairs due to wood damage. Repairs that were going to cost more than passion to pay for. Earl reached out the musicians for help who generously donated tracks to Earl so he could sell a compilation CD to raise money for the fixes.

Songs from the Shed now enjoys a world wide audience along with a loyal community that gather around the web site. I asked Mr. Earl why he thought that musicians like playing in the shed so much. He told me that it was the simplicity of it, show up and play. A notion is bolstered by Alabama 3’s lead singer Larry Love when he opened his session saying, “…I would like to say to young people everywhere get off you garage band, get off your Pro Tools, get off your cubies, get off your logic, get down to the shed to do some real deal ’cause that’s where the front line people are hanging out.”

Video Courtesy of John Earl

Alabama 3.

I asked Mr. Earl if he had any criteria for choosing which bands get to play in the shed. He said that it’s an organic process. The band has to have something that he likes and they have to be able to perform their music acoustically. “Any favorites,” I asked. His answer started diplomatically and then voice got a little more` excited. “I love the band Alabama 3, and when I got to record their session, I felt like I fulfilled what I set out to do.”

Good acoustic music recorded simply in a uncomplicated environment. That’s the allure that drives musicians to play at the shed. It is a precious oasis from our over produced, technology saturated world. A place where raw talent reigns in a location that was discovered to have just a little magic.

The End of a Space Era

Posted on July 25th, 2011

It’s 3.45am, I’m battling not only with mosquitoes, but also a swarm of photographers each trying to claim good spot to set up their camera to capture the final shuttle landing. We squeeze ourselves into a prime section of the balcony overlooking the 2.8 mile long runway on which the shuttle is due to land in just over two hours. A combination of smiling sweetly, being small and success with human Tetris secures me a minute spot for my camera. We’re all happy, so long as nobody dares move even a hair’s width from their position.

I’ve barely slept and am already melting in the Florida heat and humidity. Two hours spent waiting to get on a bus to take me to the shuttle landing facility haven’t helped matters, but I’m here, and there’s nowhere on Earth I’d rather be (bear in mind the shuttle in still in orbit).

Mike Theiss

Photo Mike Theiss

We listen to the loudspeakers for any information about weather conditions. If they are not suitable for landing at Kennedy, the shuttle can be routed to Edwards Air Force Base in California instead. Until the de-orbit burn is completed, just over an hour before landing, we won’t know for sure that we’ll get to witness this historic landing. There’s a cheer when we get the news that she’s headed our way.

In the darkness, the landing countdown clocks look like large digital alarm clocks from the 1980s, with their glowing red numbers counting down until the end of the shuttle era. With just 9 minutes left of Atlantis’s final mission, we are graced by the International Space Station arcing across the sky above us. The shuttle won’t fly again, but it’s a timely reminder that humans will continue to work in space, even when these birds retire.

At around four minutes before landing the two sonic booms echo out like gunshot, one each for the nose and tail of the orbiter as she returns to subsonic speeds before landing. I’m poised with my camera and my eyes to drink this all in. A flare of xenon lights illuminates the end of the runway, waiting to greet Atlantis one last time.

Just twenty seconds to go and wait! There she is. The sound of shutter releases quickly replaced by gentle applause: STS135 – Mission complete. “That’s the quickest ten seconds of the space program” says someone behind me. He’s not wrong. From first sight of Atlantis to her screeching by right ahead of us and then vanishing behind the trees for wheel stop took roughly as long as it takes to say “Wow! Whoosh! Gone”.

A long line of weird and wonderful vehicles caravan onto the runway behind her to make her safe and assist the astronauts out of their craft. Following tradition, a line is painted on the runway to mark the exact spot where each shuttle stops, thus literally drawing a line to mark the end of the shuttle program.

Editor’s note: Don’t miss the great audio content below that Kate got at Kennedy after the landing. Our thanks to Audio Boo for making this possible.

Audio Kate Arkless Gray

Audio Kate Arkless Gray

The Russian Wealth Divide

Posted on June 16th, 2011

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia’s richest have more than doubled their wealth. Yet a recent study by Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, (HSE), says that 60% of the country’s population is either no better off or poorer today than they were 20 years ago. The gap between Russia’s richest and poorest is widening while possibly intensifying class-based tensions.

Gordon Wiltsie

In large cities like Moscow, Western capitalism has raised the standards of living for the top tier of Russian society. On the other hand, pensioners and those living is smaller cities are falling behind, disillusioned with the reform’s promise of a better life. During the Soviet-era, healthcare, education, and housing were subsidized by the government. These days, people are forced to spend a large percentage of their incomes on such services or do without. Also, pre-reform, the government provided jobs for its people so there was no unemployment and salaries were determined by the State. Today, according to the 2011 Russian Economic Report by The World Bank, high unemployment seems to remain a persistent problem in many Russian regions with some reaching as high as 47% and salaries now determined by the market.

Those most adversely affected are people living in small, single-factory towns known as monotowns. The Economic Report estimates that a sixth of Russia’s population lives in these regions that produce 40% of the country’s gross domestic product in such industries as manufacturing, fuels, metallurgy, food processing, timber, and pulp. However, as the economy changes and factories close down, Russians in monotowns are struggling to survive. Not only are they left with no other prospects for work, but they may also lose their social services and amenities because the main factory in each region has taken on the government’s previous role of providing health care, schools, heat, water, and electricity to the residents. Consequently, when a plant closes, there is no one left to deliver these services.

This was the case in Pikalevo, a monotown near Saint Petersburg. According to news reports, in 2009 the residents of Pikalevo blocked an important federal highway in protest against the town’s heat and water being shut off when the local factory closed its doors and stopped paying its bills. Other monotowns like Togliatti and Magnitogorsk have followed suit after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin intervened in Pikalevo to recoup outstanding wages due to the residents by the factory.

Yet in spite of the difficult labor market conditions in some parts of the country, Russia continues to mint a growing number of millionaires. Today, the country is ranked 16th worldwide in total millionaires according to research by Deloitte, one of the largest financial consulting companies in the world. Russia also ranks third in the number of billionaires with Moscow taking over New York’s spot as the world capital of billionaires. Deloitte’s study also estimates that “the number of millionaire households in Russia will grow from 375,000 to 1,205,000 between 2011 and 2020”.

What is important to remember is that majority of Russians living outside Moscow think of Muscovites as a separate category of Russian people who have better jobs, incomes, and lives than the rest. However, Muscovites, who have embraced capitalism, perceive the whole country as thriving. Andrew, a 41 year old business man who asked not to use his real name, emigrated from Russia to the United States in 2001. He grew up in the former Soviet Union in a city of Balashikha, just outside Moscow and saw the end of the Cold War and the struggles of a new economy. “When I left Moscow in 2001, the city was run down,” describes Andrew. He continues to travel regularly to Moscow to visit family and friends and has this to say, “Now people are much richer…The majority of the people living in Russia are living much better than before.”

Those most adversely affected are people living in small, single-factory towns known as monotowns.

Moscow has become home to many local and American franchise restaurants, designer stores, and supermarkets. Andrew points out that the biggest difference between then and now is the accessibility of goods. “Before, if you wanted to buy meat, there would be no meat to buy.” says Andrew, though he admits that the prices are much higher these days. He compares the cost of food to higher end grocery stores like Whole Foods​. Still, when you consider that the monthly minimum wage in Russia has just been raised to 4,611 rubles or $165 USD, much of what is available is not necessarily affordable for many of the country’s citizens.

In an effort to boost the economy, Russia’s government enacted a stimulus package in the last couple of years that focused on single-factory towns and seniors by dramatically increasing unemployment benefits and pensions. While this may help quell the simmering unrest in monotowns across the country it is still uncertain how Russia will be able to close the social and economic divide in the future.

How Distillation Became the Water of Life

Posted on June 9th, 2011

At Charbay one immediately gets a sense of place. And a sense of purpose. Perhaps it’s the giant antique copper stills that stand guard in front of the building, or perhaps it’s the long winding road to get there, or the quiet isolation, or perhaps it’s because that trickling sound was actually brandy, not yet aged, coming from the still. A clear brandy which the French call “eau de vie” or in English “water of life”.

Jodi cobb

“Distilling is the very essence of life on this planet,” says the elder Karakasevic as we all raise a glass of his deep golden brandy. Originally it was clear, like its trickling cousin behind me, but now it has turned color by nearly three decades in an oak barrel.

Karakasevic goes on to liken the process of distillation to our planet’s very respiration. Rain falls to the Earth, collects as water, he says, which in turn evaporates into vapor, which then condenses and falls back to Earth as water again. It is the cycle that begets the basis for all life on this planet.

An audacious statement, to be sure, one must tread lightly when they enter the realm of the gods-life giving and all that. But one taste of the embodiment of that toast, that 27 year-old brandy, and one quickly gets the impression of the ambrosia of the immortals. At the same time one marvels at the business complexities of creating a product like that. Produced 27 years ago it is only now ready for market. Couple that with the intricate complexities of liquor laws (one can only taste Charbay’s brandy at the winery on Spring Mountain-you would have to go to their distillery in Ukiah to taste their other spirits), and you begin to grasp the difficulties facing small distillers.

“[Distilling] is more art than product,” says Marko Karakasevic. “We are not trying to take over the world and be the biggest distillery ever. We are here to make the best spirits possible, and make spirits that other distillers and distilleries have never thought of before, anywhere in the world.”

The younger Karakasevic began distilling when he was ten years old, continuing the tradition of 13 generations of distillers in his family. Now 38, he has distilled almost every type of major spirit; whiskey, rum, brandy, tequila and vodka, all still made by Charbay.

“Consumers can come to Charbay Distillery and meet the distiller,” he says. “There’s a family behind the product, not a marketing company.”

Charbay was one of the very first commercially viable small scale distilleries to spring up in Northern California. The release of their line of fresh fruit flavored vodkas just happened to coincide with the beginning rumbles of the so-called “bar chef” phenomena that began in the late 1990s. As bartenders looked to improve their craft and deliver ever better tasting cocktails they soon realized that if they started with a better tasting base spirit, they wouldn’t have to waste valuable energy trying to cover up an inferior product’s flaws. All the fresh mandarins in the world won’t make bad tasting vodka taste better. Palatable perhaps, but not particularly good. Great tasting vodka, however, needs only a slight tweak-if any at all-to make a truly great tasting drink.

As San Francisco rose to cocktail Mecca status, distilleries soon began springing up all around the Bay Area; Germain-Robin (another of the very firsts) in Ukiah, Anchor Distilling in San Francisco, St. George and Hangar One Spirits in Alameda, Old World Spirits in Belmont and the Distillery No. 209, also in San Francisco.

Unknown to the general public, many of the hundreds of liquor bottles on a back bar shelf are owned or managed by fewer than 10 major liquor companies. With this wellspring of smaller craft distillers, comes the tricky question. What actually constitutes a “craft distiller”?

“Craft distillers can take the time and care to hand craft quality products that are unique to the market place,” says Arne Hillesland, distiller of 209 gin and 209 kosher gin. “Much like fine wines, they genuinely reflect the style of the distiller and the locale in which they are produced.”

For an industry that has a small bible of liquor regulations, that is only part of the explanation.

“I’m not completely certain that we quite fit into the ‘craft distillers’ category,” says Allison Evanow, Founder and CEO of Square One Organic Spirits based in Novato California. “We definitely fit into the ‘independent spirits’ category,” she says. “But as the craft distillers movement grows, the lines between craft and independent distillers are becoming more and more clear.”

Square One produces under 50,000 gallons as a brand, and contracts the distillation of their spirits to a distillery (Distilled Resources, Inc. in Idaho) which produces over 50,000 gallons total, which convinces Evanow that “boutique spirits” is perhaps a better definition for her product.

Unknown to the general public, many of the hundreds of liquor bottles on a back bar shelf are owned or managed by fewer than 10 major liquor companies.

“I completely understand why a lot of these new craft distillers are keen to find a clear definition of what is ‘craft’ and what is not,” she says. “There are far too many independent brands that are indeed nothing more than bulk spirits with a label slapped on them or poorly made ‘concept’ brands produced by large contract distillers and the craft guys want to be sure to stay clear of them,” she says.

“But there are a lot of the ‘indy’ guys out there like Square One,” adds Evanow. “Who are doing truly custom distillation, but do not have their own stills and/or interest in becoming the master distiller.”

Both types of producers apparently have roles in the development of this new boutique spirits category.

“Boutique brands are generally very small in production, in many cases handcrafted, family owned and produced on their property, says Kurt Charles, Managing Partner of the Kentfield Marketing Group (a specialty alcoholic beverage company that consults, brokers and incubates small, fledgling brands including both Square One vodka and 209 gin). “Mass produced spirits are just that, big manufacturers who produce well over 10,000 cases and up to a million or more.”

Consider this, Skyy vodka (once also a Bay Area upstart but now owned by Italian consortium Gruppo Campari) sold 3.1 million cases last year, more than all the Bay Area “craft” and “boutique” distillers combined.

“Frankly, it doesn’t matter if you distill [spirits] in a bathtub,” says Charles. “As long as the final product meets all of the government regulations.”

“The problem is when [distillers] say they are something and they are not,” he adds. “Everyone meets the minimum [legal] requirements, but in most cases meeting the minimum does not produce a premium product. The products we represent must substantially exceed the minimum standards or we would not represent them.”

As the world of the bar chefs and their craft cocktails continues to grow, so too will the world of the craft/boutique distillers, the very base for their creations. All of which will leave the general public with the best of all possible worlds: more and better products to choose from.

“Craft distillers”, “bar chefs”, “craft cocktails”, and “boutique spirits” are probably not things that Miles Karakasevic, and his then 10 year-old son, Marko, could ever have imagined when their first drops of brandy trickled off that still at Charbay some 27 years ago. They were just carrying on a family tradition, something they continue to do to this day. To many like them distillates really are the “water of life”.

Haiti, One Year After the Earthquake

Posted on May 18th, 2011

It has been over a year since the devastating earthquake struck Haiti. While the media’s attention has shifted to more recent world events, the most vulnerable children of Haiti continue to face severe malnutrition, lack of healthcare, abandonment and neglect. UNICEF estimated there were 380,000 orphans in Haiti before the earthquake. It is believed that post earthquake that number has doubled. Sadly, according to USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development, many of the children have been abandoned or simply left on the street by their parents because of extreme poverty or disease. Haiti’s shattered infrastructure has left families who were already very poor with even fewer resources to survive.

However, in times of tragedy, unexpected heroes have emerge. Jesika Bishop, a 26 year old hair salon manager from Los Angeles, California, is one of them. Bishop flew to Haiti after being touched by the images and stories of the earthquakes aftermath. Since then, her nonprofit organization, Transparency for Haiti, has spent months volunteering in communities and orphanages throughout the region.

Ben Horton Haiti 10

Photo Ben Horton

One of these orphanages is Bon Samaritain in Croix Des Bouquets, a suburb of Port-Au-Prince. “There are 120 children living in an orphanage with only six staff members,” said Bishop, adding that the lack of hygiene, nutrition, and education is heart wrenching. “The babies are on the dirt floor crying with no one having time to attend to them. Many have runny noses that haven’t been wiped in days.”

According to Bishop, the orphanages in the area are struggling to take care of all the children. “The conditions of the orphanages have worsened,” she explains. “Haiti got a lot of attention right away, and then it faded.”

At the height of the emergency response, Haiti was at the forefront of the world’s mind. The emphasis was on the immediate relief. Now over a year later, 800,000 people are still living in tent cities and according to the United Nations, many are at risk of contracting cholera due to lack of clean water and sanitation. The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, reports that despite the investment made in training and awareness programs, there are still cases of the disease in child care centers and orphanages.

Ben Horton Haiti 16

Photo Ben Horton

In Jacmel, a city 25 miles South of Port-Au-Prince, there is an independent school and orphanage, Rousse Ecole. The school is run by a young husband and wife team, Joseph and Roussemie Lucien. They employ six teachers for the 100 students that come to school each day. Twenty of the children became orphans after the earthquake. The Luciens took them in and now they live on site with the couple and their five children. According to Bishop, the conditions they live in are difficult. The children sleep on the concrete floor with blankets and the couple struggles daily to feed them.

Today, a lot of the help is coming from the small organizations already on the ground such as Transparency for Haiti which has brought in hundreds of pounds of supplies ranging from clothes and shoes to vitamins and cleaning supplies to the orphanages. Other organizations like Grass Roots United work with Haitian doctors to provide deworming medication and sanitation education at orphanages and communities throughout Port-au-Prince.

However, rebuilding Haiti is going to take much longer than a year. Many small humanitarian organizations are working with the people of Haiti to provide sustainable solutions for education, housing, medicine, and jobs in the region. These organizations are always looking for volunteers and donations to help them with their mission.

“The Haitian people have so much faith,” said Bishop. “”The hope is still alive.”

Ben Horton Haiti 10

Photo Ben Horton

Discovery’s Last Flight

Posted on February 28th, 2011

It was the sign I had waited 115 days to see: “Days until launch: 0”. Driving towards the press site I was asking myself, “is this it? is this the day that Discovery will finally launch?”

The last time I was here, I watched tearfully as Discovery’s flag was ceremoniously lowered from the flagpole beside the mission countdown clock. The launch had been scrubbed due to a hydrogen leak and all my hopes were dashed.

Today though, the sun was shining, the press trucks were out in force, and I was ready to see this bird fly.


There was a nervous pause as we heard that the countdown clock had been stopped. A problem with range control meant that at that moment, we were no go. No-one knew quite what was going on. We waited.

The shout of “the clock’s counting down again” was like sweet music to our ears. The world stood still for me as the adrenalin rushed through my veins. I was physically shaking. I’d waited all these months to see this, and there it was.

The beginnings of what would turn out to be an immense plume of smoke confirmed the shuttle’s main engines had been ignited. Dense white water vapour billowed out like a timelapse of clouds rolling in, except this was real time. This was happening in front of me.

My heart was racing as I caught my first glimpse of the scorching flames shooting out of the solid rocket boosters. I’ve never seen anything so bright. It was like watching the sun burn a hole through the sky. It was incredible.

The speed of sound is slower than the speed of light so it took a few moments before the immense wall of sound hit us from across the water. It started with a low rumble, like a runaway train hurtling down the tracks and then grew to a crescendo of sound that was so powerful you could feel it shaking you. It’s difficult to describe it, as it got louder the sound began to pop, like 1000 fireworks going off at once.

I watched the trail of orangey smoke from the rocket boosters against a blue sky as the shuttle soared higher and higher, faster and faster. Even the smoke was beautiful. The shuttle, no more than a pin prick of light in the sky by now, separated from the solid rocket boosters and continued its journey up into space.


Just as the sound wave had washed over me, I now felt a strange wave of emotions. There were no words to describe what I had just seen, I was entirely in awe of it. I stood, in my own little bubble as people checked their cameras, exchanged hugs and struggled to explain what they’d just seen. It was truly an amazing moment that will stay with me for many years.

I was told, before I saw a launch, that I had to be there to experience it. Only now do I understand what they meant by that. There is no way that a camera can do justice to the experience of watching a shuttle launch. It will never be able to capture the trepidation, the excitement, and the sheer power of the sound and feel of it. Time is running out if you want to share this experience so don’t put it off. Do whatever it takes to get there, you won’t regret it.

It Never Rains in Los Angeles

Posted on January 7th, 2011

People move to Southern California for the weather. They may try to tell you otherwise (how many time have we heard that “I’m doing it for my career” line), but I’m pretty sure they’re doing it for the blue skies and endless sunshine.


That’s why I moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I couldn’t deal with the consistent change in weather, the weeks of grey rain, clouds hanging low in the summer sky. I wanted a given, and that given needed to be SUN, SUN, SUN.

So, you can imagine how traumatizing it was for me (and the rest of the So-Cal population) to spend half of December watching as rain deluged Los Angeles. Nearly 13 inches of rain fell during this storm, making it the wettest December since 1889.

LA usually gets about 15 inches of rain total throughout the year, so this torrential downpour caused extreme havoc in the city of angels. Between flooding and mudslides, damages have been estimated to top $60 million dollars. The storm has even affected the soon-to-be harvested avocado crop, the frost and heavy rain damaging many of the trees. Although it’s to early to say for sure, many farmers are predicting a smaller crop, and higher avocado prices.

If you’re anything like me, your immediate thoughts about this crazy weather are: armageddon, global warming and the story of Noah’s arc. However, a little research reveals otherwise. Currently, Southern California is experiencing the famous “El Nina” effect, which means that the waters are cooler than normal in the Pacific ocean, which should result in drier winters for Southern California and extremely rainy weather in the Pacific Northwest.

Last month’s storms, an obvious deviation from El Nina, were sent to us courtesy of the Gulf of Alaska and a strong northern weather system referred to as Arctic oscillation. Although this north-south weather phenomenon is quite unusual, its not anomalous. In 2004, one of Southern California’s rainiest years, most storms were a direct result of Arctic oscillation.

It’s not all bad news. Sure there’s millions of dollars worth of damage, we’re living in Seattle style weather, future guacamole will probably cost as much as caviar and most of us have suffered at least two weeks worth of a Vitamin-D deficiency, but there is some good to come out of this. The month of December refueled Southern California’s dwindling water supply. After a three year drought the heavy storms refilled water levels that had been at an all time low. The cold snap has also been embraced by many So-Cal vineyard owners, who say that the frost will help grapes enter their winter dormancy state. Not to mention the fact that the last couple of years saw wildfires plaguing much of Southern California, due to extremely high temperatures, and little moisture. So it could be argued that thanks to these storms we’ll stay hydrated, drunk and avoid being burned to a crisp.


Do You Know Where Your New Years Eve Cocktail Comes From?

Posted on December 30th, 2010

After a long workweek a business colleague and I decided to salve away our ills with a few cocktails. She ordered some sugary newfangled confection and I, being seasonally nostalgic, opted for the hot weather classic, a gin and tonic. Once prepared and sipped upon she leaned forward slightly.

“I have a confession to make,” she said as she whisked a stray hair from in front of her eyes. “I don’t like gin and tonics,” she said. “They taste so…so…medicinal,” she added while twirling that self-same errant hair.

“Well there’s a good reason for that,” I said, taking a long sip. I then began to tell her why.

The problem with the origins of classic cocktails is that often those cocktails were developed by people who didn’t keep very good records. Evidenced by the fact that classics like the manhattan and the daiquiri have several different origin stories. In fact even the origins of the primary spirits in those drinks are a little murky. The gin and tonic is different. It’s constituent ingredients are very well documented. Primarily because both gin, and tonic, were invented by medical professionals; and they usually keep quite good records.

Gin, or more accurately “jenever” (which means juniper in Dutch), was developed at the University of Leiden in Holland in 1650 by the physician Franciscus de la Boe (Dr. Sylvius). A pioneer in circulatory medicine, he was looking for a way to deliver the purported circulatory benefits of juniper berries to his patients. After trying several different concoctions, he combined juniper with several other botanicals, suspended them all in a clear distillate and presented it to the world. Soon enough it’s medicinal benefits were overlooked by its more deleterious effects.


At that point in the 17th century the Protestant Dutch Republic (comprised of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) had successfully seceded from the Catholic Spanish Empire. England too had become legally Protestant in the last century and in the ever complicated Catholic-Protestant struggle for Europe the Dutch and the English became allies. And as allies sometimes do, they soon shared their victuals, one of which just happened to be jenever. The English called the fortifying spirit “Dutch courage” and taking the Flemish word for it (genever) began producing their own version, shortening the word for it to “gen” and later to “gin”.

England and Scotland soon merged to become Great Britain and eventually these new “British” created three different styles of gin. A sweetened version called Old Tom, and two “drier” styles; London Dry and Plymouth. It would be these three styles that the British would take with them on their quest to become the world’s pre-eminent super power.

Around the same time that de la Boe was working in Holland, Spanish settlers in the New World discovered that the indigenous people there used the bark of the Cinchona tree to treat fevers. The Jesuits brought that bark back to treat Europeans suffering from the plague. All were not believers, however. One story holds that when he was offered Jesuit’s Bark on his deathbed in 1658, Lord Protector of England and Scotland, Oliver Cromwell, refused it because of its Roman Catholic ties.

My friend continued to twirl her hair, and continued to lean forward, which caused me to clear my throat slightly before I continued the tale.

By 1736 the Brits felt differently. When Dr. George Cleghorn, surgeon to the 22nd Regiment of Foot, Royal Army, arrived on the island of Minorca to research Mediterranean diseases, he discovered that the fever reducing properties of Jesuit’s Bark greatly aided in the treatment of malaria. Although the root cause for malaria (mosquitoes) would not be known for some time, Dr. Cleghorn’s medicinal quinine “tonic” followed the Royal Army wherever they went. And in the following centuries they went everywhere.

Meanwhile, in 1794 German born chemist Johann Jacob Schweppe had begun manufacturing soda water for medicinal purposes in his shop in Bristol, England. There he combined the anti-malarial “tonic water” with sweetener and carbonation, effectively creating the world’s first modern “soft drink”.

The final piece of the puzzle came late in the 18th century when the British began their conquest of India, first with the East India Company, and later with the Royal Army. With them went British gin and British tonic water. Along the way, the lime also entered the equation. Back in 1747 Royal Army surgeon James Lind had discovered that a deficiency in Vitamin C was responsible for the dreaded mariner’s disease, scurvy. As a result of his research, limes, rich in Vitamin C, became mandatory on British warships leading to that far reaching derogatory epithet “limeys”.

It was there on the Indian subcontinent the three medicines would combine, perhaps inevitably, into the distinctive hot weather drink known as the gin and tonic. Gin for courage, tonic for malaria, and lime for scurvy, Summers would never be the same again.

My colleague looked at me quizzically.

“Well I guess I’ll just have to give them another try,” she said, looking at me now very closely. “You know,” she said pausing and twisting that hair again. “Just for medicinal purposes.”

After which I had a few thoughts.

  1. Genever is still made in many Dutch speaking European countries.
  2. The quinine in tonic water will fluoresce under ultraviolet light (including direct sunlight) which often makes gin and tonics look sort of blueish. That blue color is definitely not a result of using Blue Sapphire gin, which only comes in a blue bottle but itself is actually clear.
  3. Limes actually contain half the amount of Vitamin C that lemons do.
  4. I think my business colleague might have been flirting with me.

Sliding Home

Posted on September 2nd, 2010

At the age of 12, I had an epiphany on a baseball diamond at a park near my house. I was in the batter’s box and was suddenly keenly aware of the absence of my presence. I could no longer hear the clapping hands of the coach as he belted out orders, or the encouraging hollers of the Saturday morning crowd. Nor did I hear the tinny thud from the bat that launched my ball toward left field. Aside from the fact I hated softball, all I could think of was, “I want to be anywhere else but here.”  France was always on the top of my list. Switzerland and Italy sounded pleasant too, and I had had recurring dreams about pin-balling my way along a crowded street in Tokyo. The collective shriek of my teammates telling me to run to first base brought me back into the game. As I rounded second, the ball landed with a slap into the glove of the third baseman. I was caught between second and third base. Pickled. Back and forth I went trying to avoid the tag, until an overthrow allowed me to sprint toward third and with everything I had left, trying to beat the ball being thrown from the infield, I slid ungracefully into home.

Maybe it’s the town where you grew up; maybe it’s where your parents and siblings live; or maybe it’s a five-sided slab of whitened rubber that once tapped with your sliding hands, earns you hugs, high fives, and pats on the butt. Home is, for many, a place you strive to get to, or in some instances, a place you strike out and never leave.

On that day, on that baseball field in suburban Los Angeles, arriving at home plate made me realize I felt happier running between the bases fueled by the thrill of trying to outrun the ball. For me, the journey felt like home much more than the destination

Irablock Home

This is a memory I hold close to me wherever I go. A reminder that one needn’t cross an ocean or climb a mountain to undergo a journey. As a person infected with wanderlust since a young age, and as someone who has moved every few years since the age of 18, I am often asked if I miss being home. My response is the same. I am always at home when there’s the possibility to leave. It’s when there are no travel plans on the horizon that I find myself unhappy and with restless legs.

When I was 24 I was offered a promotion that came with a nice salary and coveted title. A no brainer, or so I thought. The job was in Detroit, Michigan. Not exactly the port-of-choice for a native of the golden state. Most Californians would turn the job down. I know, because, they did. Let’s just say I was not the company’s first choice. I of course saw an adventure and took the job.

I packed my suitcases, and my car, and shipped them to the Motor City, arriving during the coldest winter on record. It was a complete climate and culture shock. The only person I knew was my landlady who knitted potholders while chain-smoking Marlboros in her kitchen. Was it home? For three years it was. I knew it wasn’t permanent and that’s what motivated me to take the offer, the adventure.

Bill Hatcher Home

I learned to drive in the snow and make snowmen. I explored the length of lake Michigan. I sailed. I met people I’ll know my whole life, including my husband, and I have an alarming abundance of hand-knitted potholders.

I also learned I could be at home anywhere. After I left Detroit, I would move three more times in five years.

For many, home is defined by the four walls they live within, and by the tree-lined street full of neighbors and friends on where the four walls can be found. Don’t get me wrong. I like a place to hang my clothes, to invite friends for dinner, and to sloth around on the couch while watching movies with my family. I just want my four walls to move from time to time so I can be surrounded by the friends and neighbors I haven’t yet met.

For the last six years, I’ve lived in Belgium. It is the longest time I have lived anywhere during the last 25 years. It was one of the first times I stayed somewhere and didn’t immediately think of leaving again. Maybe I’m maturing. Or maybe I just felt more at home in a place where I knew that within three hours I could reach 10 different countries. One of my favorite places was the arrivals terminal at the Brussels airport. The final step for passengers at any international airport, after clearing customs and picking up bags, is to pass through a set of opaque doors. I must have watched hundreds of people pass through those doors, and each time I wondered if they were coming home, or running between the bases.

Three weeks ago the customs agent at San Francisco International Airport licked his thumb and forefinger to help spread open two pages of my passport in order to find space to ca-chunk the American immigration stamp. “Welcome home,” he said as he handed my passport back to me. The phrase sounded foreign to me, but it is home. For a little while anyway. “Good to be back,” I replied.

I rounded third, passed through the opaque doors, and slid ungracefully into San Francisco. And just like that day on the Los Angeles baseball diamond, it didn’t matter if I was safe or if I was out. It was, and still is, all about running the bases.

The Great Experiment, Prohibition Continues

Posted on August 19th, 2010

There we were, a virtual mosaic sampling of the states that make up this great United States of America: One Tennessean, a Texan, an Arizonan and me, a native Pennsylvanian. Realizing that Labor Day and the end of summer was fast approaching; we crammed ourselves into an SUV, along with all of our camping gear, and headed off, out of state, for a late summer weekend.

Midway to our destination the telltale sound of an aluminum can opening called our attention to the backseat.


Our born and bred Texan brother had opened himself a can of beer. Screeching brakes was the next sound that was heard by all.

“Are you freakin crazy, you can’t drink a beer in the car,” we all screamed at him simultaneously.

He looked at us dumfounded, “You can in Texas,” he said shrugging his shoulders. Withering under our collective glare he added, with considerable less authority, “as long as you aren’t driving?”

While we all waited by the side of that lonely highway, he disposed of the rest of his beverage.

“You know,” he said bitterly in between sips. “Prohibition is over.”

Yes it is, and well, no it isn’t.

National Prohibition, also called the “Great Experiment” was brought into being by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1919, the so-called Volstead Act which in combination with other laws, prohibited “…the manufacture, sale, or transportation” of “intoxicating liquors” in the United States.

As a result crime soared, tax revenue was lost and the United States limped along into what would become the Great Depression. Franklin Roosevelt won the 1932 Presidential election based in large part on his promise to repeal the 18th Amendment. He did so incrementally, beginning by legalizing the sale of beer, and ending with the 21st Amendment to the Constitution (ratified in 1933) which effectively repealed the 18th, the first and only time an amendment to the Constitution has ever been repealed.

The second part of the 21st Amendment reads:” The transportation or importation into any State, Territory or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.” Language that effectively means that while National Prohibition might be repealed, state prohibition is left up to the States themselves.


Photo Stephen Alvarez

A woman thinks about taking a sip of moonshine

As a result the laws governing liquor vary greatly from state to state. Sometimes even town to town within a state. Here are some particular oddities in with which you may or may not be familiar.

  • About 8 percent of this nation of ours is currently “dry”, an area encompassing about 20 million people.
  • Moore County, Tennessee is a dry county, which is odd because it is also the site of the Jack Daniel’s whiskey distillery (a nationally recognized historical place). Tourists may buy souvenir bottles, but if they drink them on the porch-like the advertisements-they will be breaking the law.
  • Almost half of Mississippi is “dry” prohibiting the production, advertising, sale, distribution, or transportation of alcohol completely. Many of those counties have been dry since 1907, which is over twenty years before National Prohibition began.
  • Kentucky (the home of Bourbon whiskey) lists 55 of its 120 counties as completely “dry”, including many that made up the original Bourbon County (although not the much smaller county that now bears that name).
  • In Pennsylvania (the birthplace of rye whiskey) the only entity allowed to wholesale alcohol is the state, making the Pennsylvania Liquor Board one of the largest single purchasers of alcoholic beverages in the world.
  • Arizona goes another route, actually prohibiting any county or town from prohibiting alcohol.

If all of this sounds confusing, that is because it is. Which is why if you are heading out of state on a late summer weekend-and plan to imbibe-you just might want to be sure what the local laws are.

Once my friends and I had sorted out the regional legalities of our little camping trip I had time to reflect on a couple of things;

  1. Drinking and driving never, ever, mix.
  2. Texas changed their open container law on Labor Day 2001, banning all open alcoholic beverages in all motor vehicles, coerced by the withholding of federal highway funds.
  3. The Feds also used that same withholding of highway funds to encourage state governments to mandate a national 21 year old drinking age. (Maybe old dogs can indeed learn new tricks).
  4. It might just be time for me to find some new friends.

The hackers life – my weekend at Defcon

Posted on August 6th, 2010

I’m walking with Nico through the hallways of the convention area of the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. There is a distinct old school feeling at the Riviera that reminds one of the days when Las Vegas was run by the family. Walking swiftly Nico tells me that we might see security expert Chris Paget get arrested during his presentation.


As we get closer to the hall where Paget is presenting, I can hear someone yelling, “if you have a GSM cell phone, your call may be intercepted. If you do not want this to happen, then turn off your cell phone.” The vociferous warning is supported by the flyers I see haphazardly taped to the walls.


Using a laptop, a transmitter broadcasting over a ham-radio frequency and two antennas, Paget has created a GSM base station which all the mobile phones in the near vicinity have been duped into thinking is a legitimate AT&T cell tower. “When the phone is looking for a signal, it looks for the strongest tower. This [his setup] offers the best signal,” he explains. On the laptop screen he shows a list of phones, mine included, that are connected to his fake network. The threat of arrest comes from the FCC. Should Paget intercept a voice or data transmission from one of the phones connected to his $1500 dollars worth of equipment and open-source software, he will be in violation of the law. I honestly can’t decide if I want to see that happen or not. The sensationalistic side of me would love to see the drama, but the rational side of me is taken with Paget’s enthusiasm and blazing intelligence. More importantly, he has revealed an inherent security weakness with 2G technology. A weakness that can be fixed by moving mobile networks to 3G or encrypting 2G connections.

This is an example of what happens every year at the DefCon hacker conference in Las Vegas. Passionate hackers present their knowledge and capabilities, often times skirting the very fringes of legality. However, if you think that this is a convention for geek criminals, then you’ve been watching too much NBC.

Have you ever locked yourself out of your home and had to try to break in? There is sense of accomplishment in succeeding. Then there’s the slightly disturbing revelation that if you can break into your place as an amateur, a professional could do five times faster – so you look at your exploit and fix the breach. DefCon is like that.

The activities and experiments that take place at DefCon, along with the information reported here has an enormous impact on our daily lives. These are the people that look with significant scrutiny at all manner of security systems that are found everywhere from the internet, to mobile communications to household door locks. And then they try to hack them. After attending three years in a row I can tell you that very few people here hack with a nefarious intent, but rather they do it for the challenge, and the thrill that comes from circumvention. From these efforts shortcomings are revealed and changes are made by the targeted industry to plug the security holes.

A poignant example of this is when I attend a presentation on electronic door locks. The presenters reveal significant weaknesses in several brands of electro-mechanical locks. When I say weaknesses, I’m talking about things like a household version of a bio-lock that uses a fingerprint scan for entry being defeated, easily, by a paper clip. The presenters alerted all the manufacturers of all the locks they hacked to allow them the opportunity to fix the problems. Not all responded. Ironically one of the most secure locks they demonstrated was a 4000 year old Egyptian tumbler lock.

DefCon is a vast mix of cultures as well as being a culture unto itself. The DefCon staff who are responsible for security and general order are called “goons”. The DefCon badges are electronic, hackable and showcase an anti-establishment, almost cyber punk aesthetic. If designer Alexander McQueen were still alive, he would find much inspiration here.

Walking around the halls are people in dark clothes, ripped jeans and mohawks talking to people in golf shirts and khakis. It is a welcome antidote from the Hollywood environ where I live. Social status here is based on knowledge and accomplishment and not on clothing labels or car marques.

That is not to say you shouldn’t watch your back here. There are unwritten rules like; don’t ask anyone where they work, and don’t use any ATMs within a two block radius of the Riviera hotel. There are government agents here, as well as white collar criminals. If you are press, you are asked to be obvious in displaying your credential, and to ask permission before shooting pictures of anyone. A rule that NBC Date Line undercover reporter Michelle Madigan ignored in a legendary incident at DefCon 15 in 2007 where she was publicly outed and escorted from the conference. Madigan refused four different offers from DefCon for legitimate press credentials and then proceeded to register as a regular attendee. She brought a pinhole camera into the conference to allegedly portray DefCon in a sensationalistic, scaremongering way to shock the NBC viewers. There were a number factors that led to her discovery, but the most egregious from a DefCon perspective was panning her pinhole camera across the Capture the Flag room, a room where it is absolutely forbidden to have any sort of visual recording device. DefCon has a responsibility to protect the identities and methods of the people in the Capture the Flag competition so they can attract the brightest hackers to compete.

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Photo Lou Lesko

Hackers compete in capture the flag.

Capture the Flag pits elite hackers against elite hackers in a cyber game of network attack and defense that goes on 24 hours a day. CTF takes place in a large hotel conference hall. The hall is lit by down lights, huge video projections on all of the walls, and clouds of monitor glow which emanates from above groups of tables that are spaced about twenty feet from each other. Each group of tables is a CTF team. Up on the walls are projected videos ranging from movie snippets to material from YouTube. Also projected is each team’s status in the contest. In the center of the room is an elevated command and control platform overseeing the contest and providing the visuals.

Pizza boxes and various caffeinated beverages are strewn between rows of laptops in each team section. The room is mesmerizing. I was given limited and supervised photographic access to the room, provided I asked everyone who had the potential to be in my frame their permission before clicking the shutter. Also I was strictly forbidden from revealing any of the details on the computer screens.

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Photo Lou Lesko

The Korean capture the flag team.

Elsewhere at DefCon there are hacking villages; small rooms with lots of hands on demonstration tables and brilliant people manning them where you can learn a myriad of things from how to pick locks, to electronically hacking the firmware of your hackable DefCon badge.

Along with the DefCon badges, which everyone who attends receives, a limited number of Ninja badges were handed out by Ninja Networks, a hacker group based in the Pacific Northwest. The badges are part video game and part electronic invitation to the exclusive Ninja Networks party. These extraordinary pieces of innovation, that were underwritten by Lookout Mobile Security, are the product of Amanda Wozniak, who created the hardware, and Brandon Creighton who wrote the firmware. The character on the screen of the Ninja badge starts to battle other Ninja characters of other badges when the badges are in proximity to each other. In order to get to the top level of the badge there are different tasks that have to be accomplished that include an electronic scavenger hunt, cryptographic puzzle solving and a donation to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to protecting digital rights.


Photo Lou Lesko

Ninja Badge belonging to Barkode.

I caught up with Miss Wozniak at the Ninja party. “Passionate” is inadequate in describing the alacrity she assigns to her craft. As I interviewed her she excitedly took apart my badge and showed me how it worked. She also pointed out that the electronic piece was completely modular and ready to be repurposed for experimentation or a new creation. It is inspired forward thinking and functionality.

Back at the conference I’m walking through the halls where there is seemingly no end to cool hacking events. A contest entitled Gringo Warrior is described as:

Participants in Gringo Warrior will have five minutes to free themselves from handcuffs, escape from their “cell”, get past a guard, retrieve their passport from a locked filing cabinet, leave through another locked door, and make their escape to freedom. The course will offer a variety of locks representing a range of difficulty, allowing participation by people of all skill levels. Points will be awarded based on the time of completion as well as the difficulty of locks attempted. The best warrior of all wins the grand prize!

It’s a series of locks that the contestant has to pick starting with hand cuffs at one end of the stage, and ending with a door lock on a stand at the other.

Not far away is an impromptu salon dishing out only one kind of hairdo. A mohawk. For a fifteen dollar donation that goes to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, you can walk a way with a new look, or as is the case that I’m seeing over and over, a cleaned up version of your original hawk. There is a rumor circulating that the Guinness Book awarded the tallest mohawk to a DefCon attendee this week. The disclaimer stating that the people performing the hair artistry are not professionals doesn’t seem to intimidate anyone. Every time I walk past the salon, business is brisk.


Photo Lou Lesko

Mohawks for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

If you’re one who dismisses the DefCon attendees as group of misfits and social pariahs then you probably have the same password for ninety percent of your online existence. Which means you are doomed. Because as clever as you think you’re being by using your dog’s birthday backwards as a secure key, you’re no match for the people that I’ve met. There is no more greater ignorance online than that of an average internet user who believes what the mainstream media says about hackers and internet security. There is much more going on in this constantly changing and evolving technological world than those predictable stereotypes.

If you’re one who dismisses the DefCon attendees as group of misfits and social pariahs then you probably have the same password for ninety percent of your online existence. Which means you are doomed.

The attendees at DefCon are pioneers on a myriad of levels. Socially they challenge convention on every strata. Fashion-wise there are no boundaries and norms, just personal styles that clothe intelligent minds. In the realm of the internet, communications and other security genres, there is no equal.

You may argue that these hackers have a proclivity to criminal behavior which is why they do what they do. I’ll tell you are wrong. Yes there are criminal intentions to be found at DefCon, but so are there to be found in your office. Every niche of society has a dark element. But that’s not the majority of what you see in society, or here at DefCon. The sense of community and public education is overwhelming, as is the need to share, albeit anonymously, successful hacks that reveal weaknesses in the various security infrastructures that affect all of our lives.


Recently in the news there have been a number of stories telling of various governments, including our own, that are lobbying to try and get more access to the data of our personal online habits. This is an unconscionable thought to me and to probably many of you reading this. Sadly we have very few tools to protest such agendas should they be advanced. But I know a group of people who are passionate about online freedom and have the means to make a stand against insurgencies into your private online life. Many of them can be found at DefCon.

The Return of the Honest Reporter

Posted on July 29th, 2010

The right and the left in America don’t agree on much, but for decades, they’ve shared one basic belief: You can’t trust the mainstream media. On the left, it was the New York Times and the big TV networks beating the drums about weapons of mass destruction and leading us in to the Iraq War. Or it was the corporate control of the major media, and the consolidation of ownership. Or it was Rupert Murdoch.

On the right, it was, of course, the famous “liberal media.” And for those who came of age with the blogosphere, it was the hated “gatekeepers”, those elite, arrogant editors who controlled what made it onto the front pages – and more important, what didn’t.

Jodi Cobb

I’m one of those critics, too. As the executive editor of an alternative newspaper, I spend a lot of time talking about how the daily papers and the TV stations do a lousy job covering local news. I deplore the inaccuracy and bias of my local daily; I denounce the fluffy and superficial news broadcasts that ignore the real issues. I tease my town’s gatekeepers mercilessly; you think that crap is news? Why won’t you cover the real stories?

But a funny thing is happening in 2010: As corporate control of the news slackens, and the gatekeepers become less relevant, and media becomes so hyper-democratized that any fool with a $300 computer can become a publisher, some of us are starting to miss the old days.

You see, the media world has become so wide open that Americans are choking on information – and so much of it is either so utterly biased or factually inaccurate that nobody really knows who or what to believe any more.

The Shirley Sherrod affair made that point with such stunning clarity that it surprised political observers across the spectrum. Sherrod, a midlevel Department of Agriculture employee, became the latest victim of Andrew Breitbart, the blogger and online publisher whose fabricated and altered videos shattered an entire national organization.

Of course, sleazy political activists have tried to accuse their foes of all sorts of things over the years; the most insane, inaccurate stuff doesn’t typically stick

In this case, Breitbart posted a heavily edited video of a speech Sherrod made to the NAACP. The excerpts made Sherrod look a racist who didn’t like white people — which corresponded precisely with the political narrative Breitbart was pushing.

Of course, sleazy political activists have tried to accuse their foes of all sorts of things over the years; the most insane, inaccurate stuff doesn’t typically stick. But this time around, a combination of new media technology, a split-second 24-hour news cycle and the willingness of agenda-driven talk radio to pick up on the smelliest scraps of gossip created a perfect political typhoon. Sherrod was fired, the Obama administration looked awful — and Breitbart, completely unrepentant, basked in the glory of celebrity and his soaring page views.

The sordid episode led Van Jones — a certified liberal activist and a member of the progressive political movement that has consistently blasted the mainstream media — to make an extraordinary confession: He misses Walter Cronkite. In a New York Times oped piece July 25th, Jones wrote:

“Anyone with a laptop and a flip camera can engineer a fake info-virus and inject it into the body politic. Those with cable TV shows and axes to grind can concoct their own realities. The high standards and wise judgments of people like Walter Cronkite once acted as our national immune system, zapping scandal-mongers and quashing wild rumors. As a step toward further democratizing America, we shrunk those old gatekeepers — and ended up weakening democracy’s defenses.”

This can’t go on forever. In a country as large and diverse as the United States, democracy can’t survive without honest reporters providing honest information that has some degree of credibility. At some point, the electronic media world will shake out — the Breitbarts of the world will become the equivalent of the Weekly World News, jabbering about space aliens and Elvis Presley’s clone. The more responsible outlets — the ones that have standards and principles — will become the accepted sources of reliable news that Cronkite and CBS once were.

Alison Wright

The good news is that there will be more of them, and they’ll offer a broader spectrum of debate. The bad news is that we’re going to face a rough interregnum — a period when the old media have lost their credibility and are on the brink of collapse, and there’s so much new information slamming into our minds unfiltered and unedited that nobody knows if we can believe anything anyone says anymore.

And for anyone who really wants to make American politics work, that’s not a pleasant thought.

Tim Redmond is executive editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He has won more than 30 journalism awards, including the Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for Editorial Writing. He is the First Amendment chair of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.

The Map and the Mind

Posted on July 22nd, 2010

Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, examines how our intellectual technologies—the tools we use to find, store, and share information—influence the way that we think, from the map and the clock to the book and the Internet. In this excerpt, Carr looks at the map’s far-reaching effects on the intellectual lives of our ancestors.

Ira Block

A child takes a crayon from a box and scribbles a yellow circle in the corner of a sheet of paper: this is the sun. She takes another crayon and draws a green squiggle through the center of the page: this is the horizon. Cutting through the horizon she draws two brown lines that come together in a jagged peak: this is a mountain. Next to the mountain, she draws a lopsided black rectangle topped by a red triangle: this is her house. The child gets older, goes to school, and in her classroom she traces on a page, from memory, an outline of the shape of her country. She divides it, roughly, into a set of shapes that represent the states. And inside one of the states she draws a five-pointed star to mark the town she lives in. The child grows up. She trains to be a surveyor. She buys a set of fine instruments and uses them to measure the boundaries and contours of a property. With the information, she draws a precise plot of the land, which is then made into a blueprint for others to use.

Stephen Alvarez

Our intellectual maturation as individuals can be traced through the way we draw pictures, or maps, of our surroundings. We begin with primitive, literal renderings of the features of the land we see around us, and we advance to ever more accurate, and more abstract, representations of geographic and topographic space. We progress, in other words, from drawing what we see to drawing what we know. Vincent Virga, an expert on cartography affiliated with the Library of Congress, has observed that the stages in the development of our mapmaking skills closely parallel the general stages of childhood cognitive development delineated by the twentieth-century Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. We progress from the infant’s egocentric, purely sensory perception of the world to the young adult’s more abstract and objective analysis of experience.

“First,” writes Virga, in describing how children’s drawings of maps advance, “perceptions and representational abilities are not matched; only the simplest topographical relationships are presented, without regard for perspective or distances. Then an intellectual ‘realism’ evolves, one that depicts everything known with burgeoning proportional relationships. And finally, a visual ‘realism’ appears, [employing] scientific calculations to achieve it.”

As we go through this process of intellectual maturation, we are also acting out the entire history of mapmaking. Mankind’s first maps, scratched in the dirt with a stick or carved into a stone with another stone, were as rudimentary as the scribbles of toddlers. Eventually the drawings became more realistic, outlining the actual proportions of a space, a space that often extended well beyond what could be seen with the eye. As more time passed, the realism became scientific in both its precision and its abstraction. The mapmaker began to use sophisticated tools like the direction-finding compass and the angle-measuring and to rely on mathematical reckonings and formulas. Eventually, in a further intellectual leap, maps came to be used not only to represent vast regions of the earth or heavens in minute detail, but to express ideas—a plan of battle, an analysis of the spread of an epidemic, a forecast of population growth.

Jim Richardson

The historical advances in cartography didn’t simply mirror the development of the human mind. They helped propel and guide the very intellectual advances that they documented. The map is a medium that not only stores and transmits information but also embodies a particular mode of seeing and thinking. As mapmaking progressed, the spread of maps also disseminated the mapmaker’s distinctive way of perceiving and making sense of the world. The more frequently and intensively people used maps, the more their minds came to understand reality in the maps’ terms.

The influence of maps went far beyond their practical employment in establishing property boundaries and charting routes. “The use of a reduced, substitute space for that of reality,” explains the cartographic historian Arthur Robinson, “is an impressive act in itself.” But what’s even more impressive is how the map “advanced the evolution of abstract thinking” throughout society. “The combination of the reduction of reality and the construct of an analogical space is an attainment in abstract thinking of a very high order indeed,” writes Robinson, “for it enables one to discover structures that would remain unknown if not mapped.” The technology of the map gave to man a new and more comprehending mind, better able to understand the unseen forces that shape his surroundings and his existence.

Copyright 2010 by Nicholas Carr. Reprinted with permission of W. W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.

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An Acquired Taste

Posted on June 23rd, 2010

I bellied up to the little downtown bar intent on proving the hard drinking journalist cliché true. My peripheral vision spied out my territory, two big haired brunettes straight out of a The Real Housewives of New Jersey episode to one side, and two checkered dress shirted financial types to the other. The proverbial rock and hard place. Soon it further dawned on me that I had happened to sit between an ongoing discussion between the two different groups of people. The kind of argument not held directly, but manifested in loud conversation seemingly directed at no one in particular.

“No one with any class drinks blended Scotch,” said one banker type to the surrounding air.

“Blended Scotch is so smooth,” said one of the housewives loud enough for all to hear while stirring the ice in her highball with a manicured forefinger.

I recognized the nature of the discussion. It was the great Scotch debate: single malt whisky versus blended whisky.

One of the men took a long slow sip of his whisky, adorned by a single ice cube, before sharply inhaling and then exhaling with an audible “ahhh”.

“Single malt is an acquired taste,” he said.

Scotch is a lot like the land it comes from. Harshly beautiful, politically complicated, and loved by its people, Scotland itself might be considered an acquired taste. According to Scottish law, only Scotch whisky (notice the lack of an “e”) can be produced, bottled or even aged in Scotland. There are actually three types of Scotch (in Scotland it is simply called “whisky”). 1) Single malt whisky made from malted barley produced at one single distillery. 2) Single grain whisky produced from other cereal grains such as corn and wheat, also produced at a single distillery and 3) Blended whisky which is a combination of the two.


The term single malt is not limited to Scotland. Single malt rye whiskey (notice the “e”) is made in California by the Anchor Distillery and single malt whiskey is made by both St. George Spirits and Charbay Winery and Distillery (both also in California). Single malts are also produced in many lands associated with the British realm, including: Ireland, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Wales. Oddly there is no whisky tradition in England itself, the titular seat of the British Empire. Additionally Japan produces many malt whiskies similar in style to single malt Scotch (going so far as to import Scottish peat for the process), a fact immortalized in the 2003 Sofia Coppola film Lost in Translation.

When it comes to taste, whisky gets much of its smoothness by virtue of age. The longer it matures in the barrel the smoother tasting it will be, much like fine wine. Single malt Scotch is certainly distinctive; its flavor profile is stronger and more discernable than its blended cousin. Typically, single malt scotch is also aged longer which helps to mellow some of its harshness. But, find an older blended whisky (like an 18-year-old Johnnie Walker Gold) and you will find it is decidedly smoother than most single malts of the same age.

All of this occurred to me as I listened to the two groups of Scotch drinkers bicker, which then led me to several thoughts on the matter.

1) Personal taste is subjective and as such is unassailable through argument. You like what you like, no matter what anyone else says.

2) Acquiring a taste for something might indeed be a noble goal. Acquiring “taste”, in general, however, might prove far more elusive.

3) When you start talking about how little class (or taste) someone else has, you have just removed what little you might have started with.

4) When selecting a Scotch, if smoothness is your goal, go blended or old or both. However if bold distinctive flavor is your desire select a younger single malt. Either way you are in for a treat.

5) Sometimes barstools are empty for a reason.

The Spirit of the Sepik in Papua New Guinea

Posted on June 17th, 2010

While thumbing through the Port Moresby Post-Courier newspaper on my flight down to the Sepik River, my eyes fell to the headline under Positions Vacant on the Careers page: “Head Hunters.”

Noting the headhunters@global email, I was relieved to see it followed by an ANZ bank symbol, and not an actual ad for those degreed in cannibalism.


During our cruise down the Sepik River on the MV Sepik Spirit, even though–thanks to missionary influence–I caught the occasional glance of Calvin Klein underwear bands rather than penis sheaths on the men, I discovered that life on the river still pretty much exists as it has for the last few generations. Life evolves around the daily hunting, gathering and foraging for food. The men still fish from dug out canoes and the women, with an inevitable child tugging at their breast, process and cook the sago plant. And make no doubt, the territorial clans still exist, as I discovered when mistakenly overstepping my boundary into one. Luckily, I got away with a small fine rather than an arrow through my forehead.

The respect for the river is immense, which is most apparent through the tribe’s reverence of the exquisitely crafted, yet ominously daunting, Sepik spirit houses. Men, especially of the Blackwater region, are isolated for over a month of initiation practices while receiving the crocodile tattooing. Succumbing to sleep deprivation, they enter an other-worldly mental state as they partake in rituals, feasts and are coached in the secrets of their elders. During this time, sex is discouraged, as spilling a man’s seed is considered to spiritually weaken them. I was surprised to find that our boat captain, John, had gone through this sacred scarring ritual himself, quite possibly the first white man having done so.

After two weeks, deep painful gashes with razor blades are made in the chests and backs of men, as the bleeding symbolizes the draining of their mother’s blood, making them stronger. The open wounds are packed in mud, silt and exposed to smoke, so they will keloid, giving the scars a raised emulation of the crocodile skin. The men’s ages can range from adolescent to adults, but their scars are a badge of honor, and a proud symbol of their finality into manhood. Never have I encountered a culture of men so willing to take their shirts off for me, which I have to admit I found quite pleasant.


What surprised me was the discovery of women with significant scarring as well; often the symbol of the sun and moon on their arms. It’s a different story for the young girls than the young men. At their first menstruation the girls are fenced in alone in their home and then without much preparation forced into the inevitable scarring ritual. As the girls are often much younger and more fearful than the boys they sometimes run away. I was told that even if the scarring proves to be too much for the girls, their grandmothers are still willing to pass down their secrets of womanhood. From what I saw of the fabulous face paint, masks, adornment of shells, and ritualistic scarring this seemed to make the obvious not so secret: no matter what culture you’re raised in, men and women the world over certainly pay a high price for beauty.

Stolen River

Posted on February 2nd, 2010

The last drop of water evaporated into the heat, and the Savuti Channel in Northern Botswana stood barren and dry, a skeleton of the lush river it had once been. It was the year 1982, and Beverly and Dereck Joubert were on assignment for National Geographic, documenting the gradual demise of one of Africa’s great rivers. Although they had known this moment would come, it wasn’t until the last of the water disappeared, that the heaviness of the situation came to full fruition. This was a key moment in history,an event that would change not only the surrounding landscape, but also affect the wildlife that had come to depend on the channel for its sustenance.

Much of this devastating change was documented in the Jouberts’ National Geographic films, Stolen River and Journey to the Forgotten River. Over the next twenty-eight years, Beverly and Dereck would return again and again to the Savuti Channel, hoping for a change, a sign of life, anything to bring hope to the once thriving paradise-turned barren wasteland, and each time they would leave disappointed.

Then, in early January, Beverly and Dereck Joubert returned to the Savuti Channel once again,to visit the new Savuti Elephant Camp. As they stood along a deck overlooking the channel, they noticed as a trickle of water began to bubble upwards out of a hole in the riverbed. It was the same exact spot where,years ago, they had watched the last of the water disappear into thin air.

Within the hour, the Channel was once again full of water. This of course, delighted the elephants, who trotted down to the river, and began to swim, immersing their entire bodies in the cool, fresh river water,

After almost three decades of dry dust and dead trees lining its bed, the Savuti Channel is once again rich with moisture and life, no longer forgotten, but bountiful and present in all its splendor.


The Hairy Loch

Posted on January 5th, 2010

The islanders on Skye call it the Hairy Loch. I call my image of it Skye Pan I. The photograph was stitched together from frames 14, 691, 14,692 and 14,693.

I’ve always loved the Hairy Loch and have driven past it often. The intricacy and regularity of the reeds in the loch was always alluring, but at the time I had no idea of just what a complex and storied place it was. That would come later when I explored the history of the Hairy Loch, properly called Loch Cill Chroisd.


For all the times I had seen it, I had never really gotten a picture of it until this morning when I was hurrying to the Glasgow airport to take a flight home. Once, some 13 years before on a previous National Geographic assignment, I had stopped here for a gorgeous sunset and tried to photograph it but was defeated by the dreaded Scottish midges (or midgies, the way Scots say it.) The midge is species of invisible, flying piranha known to eat the flesh off the bones of a photographer in minutes. I gave up.

When this scene of Loch Cill Chroisd unfolded before me, I had to stop the car. The sun was rising, the fog for thinning, and I worked frantically to photograph this view before it was gone. I asked myself, “Why the hell had I lingered for so long at the loch up the road when this was waiting for me here?”

The scene cried out for all the detail I could capture. Oh, the great heap of Beinn na Caillich rising above the horizon didn’t need the detail. It was the the water’s reeds, dappled with floating leaves, that needed detail. They needed a subtle rendering that would give each blade of grass its due credit in making up the matrix of life in this stunning landscape.

The ability to stitch several digital images together to form a panorama is a powerful tool for landscape photographers. And it results in a huge file, brimming with information that renders fine detail precisely and maintains lush tonalities. So grabbing my tripod, I quickly mounted the camera, leveled the head, and started shooting multi-image sets of images for later processing in the computer.

There are ways in which the digital processing actually removes distortion from images. Before joining one image to the next, the software takes out some of the stretching that lenses inevitably produce when rendering the real world onto a flat surface. (It’s a necessary byproduct of optics, roughly analogous to the kind of stretching that happens when you project a spherical earth onto a flat map.) But readers of National Geographic remain shy of anything that smacks of “digital manipulation” (as we all should be) and so when we published the image, we duly noted that it was a panorama made up of several images.

The resulting image had a strong sense of serenity. Several of the other variations I tried had this same sense of calm, but this particular set seemed to have the best harmony. Plus, the detailed rendering suggested something more.

Perhaps one of the reasons I love the landscapes of Scotland is their long history of habitation. People have been living amongst its lochs and beinns for a long time. Places like this gather more than just wrinkles inflicted by geology. Myths and tales grow on them a surely as grass and trees.

So it is with Loch Cill Chroisd.

The name itself has meaning. The church, the “cill”, is just up the road. And “Chroisd” mean Christ. Thus: Christ Church. Legend has it that an evil spirt dwelt in the loch and poisoned the water until St. Columba (who brought Christianity to Scotland in the 6th century) chased it away. After that another spirit — an each uisge or water horse — set up shop in the loch, turning itself into a handsome young man to seduce passing women and drown them in the deepest part of the loch.

Further legends of this landscape abound. High atop Beinn na Caillich is a cairn (large pile of stones) said to be where a young Norwegian princess wished to be buried. She hoped that she could feel the winds of her homeland around her grave for eternity. Or maybe not. Maybe it really is the home of the giant woman from the days of Fingal (for whom the cave on Staffa is named, and where we will be going soon.) The Gaelic-to-English translation, “Hill of the Old Woman,” would lend weight to that story.

Regardless of legend, real history was at work here, too. The Gaelic Mackinnon clan defeated the Vikings there on the north slope of Beinn na Caillich. The clan lost all its property, including this beinn, when they took up the Jacobite cause and, some say, aided Bonnie Prince Charlie in his escape. Geographer Thomas Pennant climbed to the peak in 1772 in the first recorded ascent of a mountain on Skye. (I can scarcely believe no one climbed this beinn before 1772, if only to take their sheep up for grazing. But then sheepherders aren’t known for record keeping.) More recently in 2004, young Alan Cope of nearby Broadford ascended the mountain 10 times in one day for charity.

I like places like this, where human regard, caring and observation imbue the land with such common lore that the names themselves have depth of meaning. To the locals, the loch is just “The Hairy Loch” and the mountain is “The Beinn.” Landscapes are more than pretty scenes. We project our dreams on them and make them carry our history. Sometimes it is difficult to separate the external physical landscape from the inner landscape of our minds. We give the land meaning, and it carries our meaning long after we are gone.

The beauty is in the details.

Romance in the Lighthouse

Posted on November 25th, 2009

Here are Larry and Pauline Butler, keepers of the Galley Head Lighthouse in County Cork on Ireland’s rugged and remote south coast. Larry and Pauline were both third generation lighthouse keepers. When I visited there years ago I saw the picture on the wall and asked who all those people were. “Oh, those are our children,” said Larry.

“Really”, I said, “how many”.

“Oh, fourteen,” said Larry!

So we took them and the picture outside to do a portrait and while we were standing there talking about all the children, fourteen of them in a lighthouse, Larry gave this explanation. He flexed his muscles and said with a wry grin, “What else are you going to do at a lighthouse?” At which point Pauline leaned over and laughed on his shoulder. I’m sure she had heard Larry’s joke many times over the decades, but she still laughed anyway. She really loved him. They’re both gone now.

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