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Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Brussels. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Good Reads: From John Kerry's first year, to the cost of the poor, to political reporting

By David T. CookStaff writer / 12.14.13

Veteran foreign-policy reporter David Rohde, who landed one of his two Pulitzer Prizes while working for the Monitor, looks at John Kerry’s first year as secretary of State in The Atlantic magazine.

While it is early in his term, Secretary Kerry’s turn could end up outshining Hillary Rodham Clinton’s time in Foggy Bottom, Mr. Rohde argues. “[I]t’s looking more and more possible that when the history of the early-21st-century diplomacy gets written, it will be Kerry who is credited with making the State Department relevant again,” writes Rohde.

The comprehensive article does not stint on cataloging Kerry’s quirks, including what Rohde calls the “grandiosity and ambition that make Kerry so insufferable to some journalists and senators.” But Rohde credits Kerry for being the driving force behind a flurry of diplomatic initiatives including reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, brokering a deal with Russia to remove Syria’s chemical weapons, and holding high-level talks with Iranian diplomats.  

The global warming lessons from Kiribati

Some Americans still wonder if global warming is real, but not the residents of the island nation of Kiribati, where rising water levels are expected to force a mass evacuation in 20 years, according to a story in Bloomberg Businessweek by Jeffrey Goldberg.

Kiribati is a collection of 33 islands in the central Pacific where nearly half the nation’s 103,000 residents live on a strip of land less than half a mile wide. Even before the rising ocean covers the available land, it will “infiltrate, and irreversibly poison, their already inadequate supply of fresh water,” Mr. Goldberg writes.

Island President Anote Tong is searching for a place to move his citizens and recently purchased 6,000 acres of land in Fiji. Mr. Tong wants to attract investment to his island nation but, as Businessweek notes, “It’s difficult to attract investment to a place that might soon drown.”

Is government beholden to the rich?

Washington Post economics columnist Robert Samuelson takes a hard look at the popular notion that the White House and Congress are manipulated to serve major corporations and wealthy individuals. While acknowledging that the wealthy do get tax breaks and regulatory advantages, these “are small potatoes in the larger scheme of things,” Mr. Samuelson contends.  

Using data from a recent Congressional Budget Office report, he argues that “what we actually have is government that’s beholden to the poor and middle class” and which redistributes money from the young and well-off to the “old, needy and unlucky.” Excluding interest payments, slightly more than half of government spending goes to individual benefits and health care with the elderly getting 60 percent of that nearly $1.3 trillion. Of the money spent on benefits and health care for the rest of the population, the poorest fifth of households received half the dollars spent. 

Samuelson’s sobering conclusion is that “so many Americans have become dependent on government that consensual change is difficult and, perhaps, impossible.”

Why reporters in the US need protection

In many places around the world, the practice of journalism is truly dangerous, notes Paul Steiger, former editor of The Wall Street Journal and founder of ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit journalism organization that has won two Pulitzer Prizes. 

“Reporters, editors, photographers, and publishers are still threatened, beaten, and murdered, often with impunity,” Mr. Steiger said in a recent speech while accepting an award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

While noting that reporters working in the United States are still much better off than colleagues in danger zones abroad, Steiger warned of “new barriers to our ability to do our jobs” imposed by the Obama administration. Among his worries: the use of phone records gathered by the National Security Agency to track down those who have been talking to reporters and the practice of barring news photographers from events attended by the president and then distributing government-paid photos. As Steiger said, “If we are going to be credible admonishing abusers of journalists abroad, we can’t stand silent when it is going on at home.”

Covering New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

Extremely loud and incredibly close is how Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Matt Katz describes his experience covering New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie since 2011 for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The story in Politico magazine is worth a read for the glimpse it gives of the governor who, at this early date, tops the list of potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates in a recent CNN/ORC International poll.  

Mr. Katz and his fellow local reporters get to see Mr. Christie in what he calls “revealing, off-the-record, end-of summer” visits to Jersey Shore bars and “profanity-infused Christmas party conversations at the governor’s mansion.” 

The reporter admits that he and his colleagues are used as props by Christie. And, like the Obama White House, Christie’s press operation is on hand to produce its own videos of events and blast the nuggets out to media outlets. “My biggest competition is not other reporters; it is the man himself,” Katz says. “He is his own news outlet.”

Typhoon survivor and district property custodian Norman Acala examines a book as he tries to save pieces from the school library at the Daniel Z. Romualdez Memorial Elementary School at typhoon-ravaged Tolosa town, Leyte province, central Philippines on Dec. 9, 2013. (Aaron Favila/AP)

Typhoon Haiyan: death toll tops 6,000 as officials target longterm recovery

By Staff Writer / 12.13.13

Five weeks after Typhoon Haiyan hit The Philippines last month, the country's government released updated figures of its heavy toll, saying that more than 6,000 people have been confirmed dead.

Today's new figure was a result of continuing relief and recovery efforts in the hardest-hit areas, in particular the coastal city of Tacloban, according to this morning’s update by Maj. Reynaldo Balido, the spokesman for the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, the Associated Press reports. Nonstop work to sift through and clear the heaps of debris has slowly been increasing the tally over the past weeks, from around 3,000 reported in the disaster’s immediate aftermath.  

Reporting from Manila, the Associated Press writes that disaster officials emphasized longer-term efforts to help survivors regain their footing, even as the grim statistics pushed upward. 

The overnight tally pushed the overall death toll to 6,009 while 1,779 others remain unaccounted for, the government agency said, making the typhoon the deadliest natural disaster on record to hit the Philippines.

Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said that temporary bunkhouses and emergency shelters were being constructed and residents given cash in exchange for work, including repacking and hauling relief goods.

"We will provide materials to rebuild their houses, however, we stressed to the local governments that new shelters have to be built 40 meters away from the shoreline on high tide," she said.

The update comes as affected people gradually return to their home areas. A representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees told The Wall Street Journal that makeshift houses have sprung up in areas leveled by the storm surge, and that the agency is working with local officials to help reopen more schools in time for classes to resume after Christmas break.  

Even so, “provisions for life-saving assistance remain a top priority," the representative added.

A press release issued by UNHCR last week highlighted the continuing need for basic household items and the ongoing struggle to reach very far-flung communities:

UNHCR is working with the government and partners to focus on communities that have not received assistance. This includes some indigenous communities and to those situated in more remote locations.

Around 16 million people remain displaced by the typhoon, even as relief aid continues to pour in from near and far. And in the midst of the ongoing cleanup effort, survivors struggle to rebuilt their livelihoods and regain a semblance of normalcy. For them, recovery is just beginning.   

Awá Indians stand in a forest in Maranhao state, Brazil. (Survival International/AP/File)

Good Reads: From Chicago as the future, to a pessimistic US, to Blackwater's origins

By Marshall IngwersonManaging editor / 12.10.13

Thomas Frank is something of an old-school, lunch-pails-and-union-halls liberal – at least as intellectuals go. So Chicago in the 1980s was his kind of town. In an essay in Harper’s Magazine, Mr. Frank recalls a city struggling with the end of a great industrial era: “The ruins that surrounded you on the South Side were the relics of a civilization that had built great things, that had made the world go.”

Now elite Chicago’s embrace of its working-class roots is strictly ironic. Frank sits at a trendy restaurant over “a winking parody of the Chicago-style hot dog: an assembly of sliced-up steak, ‘hot dog bun puree,’ ‘housemade pickles,’ a mustard-flavored wafer, and so on.” His lament: “In Chicago’s strangely tidy streets, the rest of the nation can get a glimpse of the future: a city that works – for a few.”

Cheer up, America, you still rule

The voice of The Economist is almost a throwback to an era when it felt like the grown-ups were in charge. (Of course, The Economist would observe that we’re only remembering it that way.) In the lead-off piece of a special report on American foreign policy, the magazine in effect tells America to quit moping and pull its socks up.

There are plenty of concerns, failures, and new rivals on many fronts, yes. The Economist is especially critical of the venture in Iraq led by George W. Bush. But it argues that Americans are too busy contemplating their own decline to stand up and notice that they still rule the world, and the world still needs that leadership. So stop with the whining jeremiads. “It is time to cheer up. The world America faces today may seem cussed and intractable, but the world America looked forward to shaping after the fall of the Soviet Union was never as pliant and welcoming as it imagined. And America’s strengths are as impressive as ever. On every measure of power it remains dominant.”

Chaotic on the surface, stable beneath

Ah, but it shall ever be thus, explains David Runciman in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “The history of modern democracy is a tale of steady success accompanied by the constant drumbeat of anticipated failure,” he writes. A political scientist at the University of Cambridge, Professor Runciman cites the history of democracies lurching “from complacency to fury and back again,” swinging from “unwarranted optimism” to “unwarranted pessimism” with little room for voices in between.

The first to notice this was – who else? – Alexis de Tocqueville, who in 1831 was “immediately struck by the frenetic and mindless quality of democratic politics.” But beneath the constant grumbling, rancor, and occasional panics of American democracy, Tocqueville noticed something else: “that underneath the chaotic surface, it was quite stable.”

Native survival in the Amazon

Prospects are fairly dim for the Awá people of the Brazilian Amazon. Alex Shoumatoff, writing in Vanity Fair, describes his 10 days visiting what he describes as the most endangered tribe on the planet. Only some 350 members remain. Not enough, Mr. Shoumatoff points out, “to take on the madeireiros, the loggers who are killing their trees and their animals and are now within a few miles of here, and the thousands of other invasores who have illegally settled on their land and converted a third of their forest to pasture.”

He is greeted by an impassioned speech by an Awá father. “ ‘We are Awá,’ he says. ‘We don’t succeed in living with chickens and cows. We don’t want to live in cities. We want to live here.... We don’t want anything from the whites but to live as we live and be who we are. We just want to be Awá.’ ”

Shoumatoff writes: “I think of all the speeches like this given by brave natives in the Americas over the last 500 years, who were trying to save their people and way of life and world but were unable to stop the inevitable, brutal advance of the conqueror and his ‘progress,’ and how this is probably what is going to happen here, to this remnant tribe in its endgame.”

A private-sector military

The rise and fall of Blackwater, the private security firm that rode the Iraq war to fame and fortune and then back down again, is chronicled by Drake Bennett in Bloomberg Businessweek – mainly from the vantage point of Blackwater founder Erik Prince.

A former Navy SEAL, Mr. Prince founded a training facility in North Carolina. When the Iraq war broke out, he tapped a network of fellow special forces veterans to quickly put together security teams for the US government. He credited his company’s explosive growth to the nimble agility that is the advantage of the private sector over the rigid bureaucracies of the official military.

The flip side of that virtue is that some critics blame Blackwater’s mistakes on poor training and preparation. Prince blames, above all, the self-protective State Department. “If I could send a message back to my younger self, it would be: Do not work for the State Department at all.”

Singapore riots: Officials stand around a bus with a smashed windshield following a riot in Singapore's Little India district, December 9, 2013. Local media said a mob of about 400 set fire to an ambulance and police cars during the riot on Sunday, which started after a bus knocked down a pedestrian. (Rob Dawson/REUTERS)

Singapore riots put spotlight on tensions with migrant workers

By Staff writer / 12.09.13

  • A roundup of daily news reports.

Hundreds of migrant workers rioted in Singapore’s ethnic Indian district Sunday, torching vehicles and hurling rocks at advancing police forces. While the unrest was swiftly subdued, it shocked this orderly city-state and sparked concern that ethnic and class tensions may be coming to a head amid widening income inequality.

The clash was sparked by the death of a 33-year-old Indian guest worker, who was hit by a city bus driven by a Singaporean, Bloomberg reported. Shortly afterward, a swelling crowd went on a rampage in the Little India neighborhood, a popular destination for South Asian workers on Sundays to eat, drink, and socialize.

The Wall Street Journal reported from the scene late last night:

A crowd of about 400 foreign workers, angered by a fatal road accident, set fire to vehicles and attacked police and emergency services workers late Sunday in Singapore's ethnic Indian district, injuring at least 18 people in a rare riot in the city-state.

…Dozens of police officers, wearing Kevlar helmets and carrying riot shields, [were] cordoning off the area late Sunday. At least two police cars were turned on their sides, and smoke rose from burned-out vehicles along the road where the riot took place.

The Wall Street Journal reports that riot police were able to contain the violence within two hours, and without firing any shots, according to a subsequent police press briefing.       

Its modest size notwithstanding, the riot carried heavy implications for Singapore’s social cohesion, throwing in sharp relief the simmering tensions between ethnic Singaporeans and many thousands of migrant workers who form the backbone of the economy. Singapore’s economic boom over the past two decades swelled the ranks of low-paid, transient wage earners, whose numbers soared from 10 percent of the total workforce in 1990 to about 25 percent today, The Associated Press reports. 

For some of Singapore’s long-time residents, the violence carried distant echoes of a racially charged riot that shook Singapore for seven days almost 45 years ago, in 1969, when clashes between the ethnic Chinese majority and Malay minority left at least four people dead and 80 injured.

The current riot was “a new thing, that’s definitely a watershed of a kind,” Bilveer Singh, an associate professor at National University of Singapore’s department of political science, told Bloomberg. “At a broad, strategic level, it is something new after a long time.”

The government’s reaction is likely to be stern, Mr. Singh predicted: “Singaporeans won’t tolerate this because Singaporeans are becoming very nationalistic.”

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Monday that authorities will “spare no effort to identify the culprits and deal with them with the full force of the law," according to Al Jazeera. As of Monday, 27 people were detained for their role in the violence, 24 of them Indian citizens.

It remains to be seen if the potential clampdown quells or further fuels the discontent.

Roy Ngerng, a blogger focused on social issues, said that last night’s clash might be just the first eruption of festering unease, unless the living and working conditions of transient workers improve, according to The Associated Press:

"The inequality that has taken root in Singapore has dire consequences and they are beginning to show. … Perhaps, it is to be expected that when we pay such (a) pittance … to people who have helped build our country – our buildings and roads – and yet expect them to toil in the most tiresome conditions."

SANTA'S STRANGE COMPANY: At left, men dressed as Krampus – St. Nicholas' demonic companion in Alpine countries – process in a December 2008 parade. At right, people dressed as Black Pete – the blackface sidekick of the Dutch Santa Claus – arrive by steamboat in Hoorn, Netherlands, last month. (AP/File)

Christmas in Europe? Prepare to be scared – or insulted. (+video)

By Staff writer / 12.05.13

I love this time of year.

Not for the onset of winter weather, seasonal decorations, and seasonal cheer. Nor for the time off around the holidays. Not even for the opportunity for material indulgence via a blitz of shopping bargains.

No, I love this time of year because it means the arrival of Black Pete, Krampus, and a host of other unique European seasonal traditions that are closely tied to the traditional Santa Claus, but never crossed the pond into the modern American concept of "Christmas."

And though they share the same heritage with the modern Santa Claus – all are rooted in St. Nicholas, the European saint – they present fascinatingly different ways to view current American custom. And they even suggest that those concerned over maintaining a "traditional Christmas" may not truly grasp what that idea really means.

Consider, for example, the Netherlands' "Zwarte Piet" – or in English, "Black Pete" – the assistant/servant of Sinterklaas, the Dutch Santa. Pete has been a seasonal companion of St. Nicholas since the 18th century, and is beloved by many Dutch as a piece of national folklore. But for many foreigners – and an increasing number of the Dutch – it's hard to overlook a key fact of the tradition: Pete is usually portrayed by whites in curly wigs and blackface, and bears a striking resemblance to classic racist caricatures of black slaves.

The argument over whether Black Pete is a hurtful stereotype or harmless Dutch folklore has been going on a long time. Indeed, the debate is now almost as much a tradition as Black Pete himself. This year, the Monitor's Peter Teffer reports that even the UN is getting involved, as the head of a group working for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights called the character "offensive" and said Black Pete should be retired. At the same time, a Facebook page supporting Black Pete has garnered over 2 million likes.

A demon in the Alps

By contrast, the companion to St. Nicholas who is part of an Alpine tradition is far less controversial than Black Pete, despite the fact that this companion, Krampus, is indeed enslaved by the saint. But in this case, the slavery is not so concerning. You see, Krampus is a black, hairy, rod- and chain-wielding demon.

You may have heard of Krampus – who is also called Klaubauf, Pelzebock, Schmutzli, and a host of other names across the Alpine region. Once a foe to St. Nicholas until the saint conquered and shackled him, the tamed Krampus accompanies St. Nicholas during the saint's feast day, Dec. 6, and doles out switches and punishment as St. Nick gives out candy and presents. He's the scary heavy that keeps children in line, basically.

But he's become something of a celebrity in recent years. As the Monitor's Valentina Jovanovski notes, Krampus chocolates and figurines are very common now. "Krampus runs," wherein people dress up as the monster to scare onlookers, are becoming serious tourist attractions (and supply no small number of YouTube videos) – some 35,000 attended such a run on Dec. 1 in Graz, Austria. Heck, Krampus has even made appearances on US television, including on The Colbert Report.

And as the once obscure Christmas demon becomes a marketable commodity worldwide, a question arises: Is Krampus becoming too commercial?

Of course, much of the reason characters like Krampus and Black Pete are so fascinating is because they didn't make the jump into American Christmas culture, and thus seem – quite literally – very foreign.

But most of the traditions celebrated this season in the US are of similarly foreign heritage, and actually have little bearing at all on Christmas in its Christian sense. Christmas trees? From Germany. Caroling? England. Yule logs? Norway. St. Nicholas, who became Santa, the quintessential modern Christmas figure? He's a Turk.

You'll be able to read more about such traditions – and how they cast a different light on concerns about the "War on Christmas," a controversy almost as traditional as Black Pete – in the coming days. Sara Llana, the Monitor's Paris bureau chief, is currently in Germany's Black Forest, researching the subject for a story set to be published at the end of next week.

Assuming that Krampus doesn't get her first.

Visitors to Red Square in the past few days have found themselves confronted by a giant Louis Vuitton trunk. (AFP video)

Move over, Lenin: Louis Vuitton 'trunk' occupies Red Square (+video)

By Correspondent / 11.26.13

It could almost be a plot line from a story by surrealist 19th century Russian author Nikolai Gogol.

Visitors to Red Square in the past few days have found themselves confronted by a giant Louis Vuitton trunk, seemingly perfect in every detail and so big that it dominates Moscow's most iconic space and almost blots out other familiar features such as Lenin's tomb, St. Basil's cathedral, and the Spassky Tower.

And, like the bizarre oddities that crop up in Mr. Gogol's slightly absurd but profoundly perceptive tales, like The Nose and The Overcoat, the trunk has already prompted a great deal of consternation, confusion, indignation, and controversy.

The huge structure – some 100 feet long and 30 feet tall – is actually a replica of a Louis Vuitton trunk supplied a century ago to Russian Prince Vladimir Orlov, a member of the Czar's family. It's meant to house an exhibition of Vuitton luggage down through the ages that will run for most of December and January. Vuitton has a shop in Red Square's famous GUM department store, but no one is quite sure who authorized it to build the giant pavilion.

"Red Square is the sacred heart of the Russian state. There are some symbols that should not be trivialized or besmirched," raged Communist Party parliamentarian Sergei Obukhov, according to Russian news media.

"I am amazed that the presidential administration and the Federal Guard Service, both of which control the territory of Red Square, have permitted this outlandish display," Mr. Obukhov said.

Alexander Sidyakin, a Duma deputy with the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, says he's lodged a complaint with Russia's anti-trust watchdog, asking it to look into whether the gargantuan suitcase violates legislation limiting the size and location of advertisements.

"This surely violates the law on advertising. It's definitely contrary to all our understandings of what is possible, and what is not, on the territory of Red Square," Mr. Sidyakin says.

"Just think, this box is supposed to sit there on Red Square until mid-January! People will come for traditional New Year celebrations, and they won't be able to see St. Basil's or the Spassky Tower because this enormous suitcase is squatting there, blocking out everything.... Also, this brand is a symbol of luxury. They really should have placed it somewhere else, if they had to build it. Not here, not now, and not for such a long time," he says.

Some Russian bloggers have already started having fun with the situation. One photoshopped image that's showing up on Russian social media – and is sure to infuriate Russia's still-numerous communists – shows Louis Vuitton's iconic livery cleverly transposed onto the mausoleum of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin.

Louis Vuitton is promoting the upcoming exhibit as "a reflection of peoples' lives, their physical and poetic journeys."

But the company has yet to officially respond to the controversy their humongous trunk has set off among Muscovites.

A librarian in Egypt’s Alexandria library works on restoring a rare book. (Tarek Mostafa/Reuters/File)

Good Reads: From the end of books, to driverless cars, to post-traumatic growth

By Marshall IngwersonManaging Editor / 11.23.13

The journalist Tom Wolfe once declared the novel dead, a decade or two before he himself turned to writing novels. Now we face the prospect of the book itself disappearing. Jacob Mikanowski, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, sums it up this way: “It used to be possible to imagine books disappearing in the distant future. Now it feels like even money that it’s going to happen within our lifetimes.”

So Mr. Mikanowski takes an erudite tour of the history and meaning of the book in its physical, ink on paper, manifestation. One of his interesting stops is perhaps the greatest tragedy to befall the world of literature and learning: the destruction of the great library of Alexandria. Was it burned by one of Julius Caesar’s generals while the emperor courted Cleopatra? Or Caliph Umar many centuries later who, needing only the Quran, burned the other books to heat the public baths? Or the Christian Archbishop Theophilus as historian Edward Gibbon argued? Or the more trendy suspect Queen Zenobia of Palmyra? All these

possibilities have advocates and evidence – and counterevidence, says Mikanowski. He asserts another, less glamorous, culprit: sheer neglect.

“Alexandria is a port city; papyrus, exposed to its sea air, will only last a little over a hundred years. As the centuries passed, the Ptolemys’ 500,000 scrolls simply wore away and vanished into dust.”

Learning to write on social media

As for writing itself, the rise of social media may actually have benefits. Andrew Simmons, writing for TheAtlantic.com, is a high school teacher who reads more than a thousand student essays a year. He acknowledges that the digital-native generation is eroding the conventions of writing structure – from complete sentences to the use of paragraphs. Not good. But he also points to progress that he views as more basic and more important: “self-reflection and emotional honesty. For younger high school boys particularly, social networking has actually improved writing – not the product or the process, but the sensitivity and inward focus required to even begin to produce a draft that will eventually be worth editing.”

A ride in a driverless car

One young Google engineer, Anthony Levandowski, commutes nearly two hours each way in his Lexus while rarely, if ever, putting his hands on the wheel. Burkhard Bilger rides with him for a long takeout in The New Yorker on the effort to make self-driving cars the market standard. That dream may still be a decade off, more for legal and liability reasons than technical ones. “The Google car drives more defensively than people do: it tailgates five times less, rarely coming within two seconds of the car ahead. Under the circumstances, Levandowski says, our fear of driverless cars is increasingly irrational. ‘Once you make the car better than the driver, it’s almost irresponsible to have him there,’ he says.”

Innovative polymaths

Robert Twigger was traveling with Bedouins in western Egypt. “When we got a puncture, they used tape and an old inner tube to suck air from three tyres to inflate a fourth. It was the cook who suggested the idea....” Writing in Aeon magazine, Mr. Twigger uses the experience to launch an argument against the overspecialization that the modern economy seems to demand. The polymath, he counters, with broader interests and wider knowledge, is the source of most innovation. To come up with new ideas, “you need to know things outside your field. What’s more, the further afield your knowledge extends, the greater potential you have for innovation.”

A contagion of good works

When a tragic mass shooting took the lives of several volunteer firefighters in the town of Webster, N.Y., on Christmas Eve last year, a man in Missouri, who had done some social media work for the Red Cross, set up a Facebook page in support of the victims. But it was after he turned the site to the specific purpose of arranging free room and board for the legions of fellow firefighters who he knew would descend on Webster for the memorials that the site really took off.

Mark Obbie, writing in the magazine Pacific Standard, tells the story of what happened then. Two women in Webster volunteered to help organize the effort. The Facebook page’s “shares” and “likes” rose to around 2 million. The nature of the comments turned from grief, anger, and gun-control debates to “How can we help?” Local businesses and residents flooded the operations with free rooms and food and more than $700,000 in cash.

“But the money was only part of the story,” Mr. Obbie writes. “For days, a contagion of good works coursed through Webster. Neighbors’ snowy sidewalks got shoveled. Strangers’ breakfasts got bought. At drive-through windows, customers insisted on paying for the car behind them, in some cases leading to hours-long chain reactions.”

Obbie’s point in this article is not just a heartwarming anecdote. It’s to note the growing evidence that trauma can, and for many does, lead to lasting growth.

“In numerous studies canvassing a great variety of traumas, researchers have found that many people, when confronted by events powerful enough to shake their core sense of the world, do indeed gain from the ordeal.”

Rescuers work at the Maxima grocery store after its roof collapsed in Riga, Latvia, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013. Latvian rescue officials say a roof at a large grocery store in the country's capital collapsed and killed at least 47 people. (Roman Koksarov/AP)

Latvia store collapse: was rooftop garden to blame?

By Staff Writer / 11.22.13

  • A roundup of global news reports

As rescue workers searched the rubble for survivors after a supermarket roof collapsed on Thursday in Latvian capital Riga, leaving at least 47 people dead, questions began to swirl about whether and how the tragedy could have been avoided.

The news closely followed a similar, though far less deadly, collapse of an unfinished shopping mall in South Africa this week. Both events underscore the risk posed in public spaces as a result of allegedly shoddy construction. In both countries, the tragedies may also have political implications.

The collapse in Riga is still under investigation, reports The Associated Press. It happened around 6 pm, when residents of a densely populated suburban neighborhood crowded the store on their way home from work. At least three firefighters died after the second part of the supermarket roof gave way, just as they were rushing to help people trapped inside. 

Paul Tribble, a British citizen who lives in Riga, told the BBC that he was grocery shopping in the supermarket when the roof caved in and a falling isle knocked him to the ground. He and his partner Elizabeth, who was also at the store, managed to escape nearly unscathed through the loading bay exit. His account gives a glimpse of how crowded the suburban supermarket was during the evening rush:

When we came out into the loading bay there were hundreds of other people out there too. […] The store would have been packed when we were inside. When we arrived there were no trolleys or shopping baskets left and I had to go to the checkout and ask for one that another customer had just finished unloading.

A full day later, rescue crews continued to search the rubble for people trapped inside. The “enormous” section of the collapsed roof may have measured 5,300 square feet, reports the Associated Press.

Rescue workers kept up their round-the-clock search for possible survivors as darkness fell on Friday, periodically turning off all equipment and asking the relatives of missing people to call so they could pinpoint ringing phones. 

While the official cause remained under investigation, one hypothesis is that a sodden winter garden on the roof of the building contributed to the collapse. Stacked above the store were building materials, earth, and sand for building the garden, a load possibly made heavier by water trapped on the roof after several days of rain. 

On his way out from the collapsed building, Mr. Tribble noticed “torrents of water coming down” from the gaping hole above. “I can only think it had no way to drain," he told the BBC.  

The tragedy in Riga comes on the heels of an incident in the South African city of Durban, where a soon-to-be-opened shopping center collapsed on Tuesday, trapping several dozen construction workers under the rubble and killing one. The cause is under investigation, Reuters reports. Construction practices and safety procedures were instantly called into question. 

If there is one commonality between the two incidents, it’s that faulty construction and maintenance practices that put people at risk in public spaces may carry far-ranging political implications. The tragedy in Riga “is a blow for Latvia," writes The Wall Street Journal, "coming little more than a month before the former Soviet state is set to join the euro zone.” The Latvian prime minister confirmed that a criminal investigation had been launched. What it manages to uncover on the local level of a Riga suburb may have repercussions much higher up. 

Similarly in South Africa, the ongoing probe into the accident may undermine the country’s governing political party, says a Reuters report from this Wednesday:

If safety regulations are found to have been flouted, the accident could damage [South Africa’s] ruling African National Congress (ANC) as it moves toward an election next year because of widespread perceptions of incompetence and corruption in local government.

A security guard walks at the site of a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a railway, in Jakarta, Indonesia, Thursday, Oct 10, 2013. Construction is underway in the Indonesian capital for a long-awaited urban railway aimed at staving off crippling traffic gridlock. (Tatan Syuflana/AP)

Jakarta putting brakes on stop-and-go traffic

By Correspondent / 11.22.13

Could a small patch of dirt off the shoulder of one of Jakarta's busiest thoroughfares help to roll back decades of traffic mismanagement?

On that patch a consortium of city contractors broke ground Oct. 10 on the Indonesian capital’s first commuter rail line, 24 years after a metro system was first mooted. The new metro line would connect government buildings, a long-distance railway station, shopping malls, and office towers, a surefire way of cooling tempers in this city of haggard drivers.

“Actually this is our dream after 24 years. The metro will be faster. In Jakarta the traffic is so bad and you cannot predict it,” says Durrotun Nafasi, sales director with the All Seasons Jakarta, a 167-room hotel along the first planned line. “This is good for occupancy. Metro riders can also use our food bar while waiting [for trains].”

Planning the metro line took so long in part because the city scrapped a build-operate-transfer scheme after the 1997 Asian financial crisis wrecked Indonesia's economy. City officials switched later to a government-run project, which faced funding disputes and other bureaucratic holdups, dashing hopes of a quick turnaround. 

City leaders expect the metro to ease a glut of cars that have tracked the rise of an urban middle class in Indonesia. Economic growth has averaged 5.9 percent over the last five full years, according to the World Bank. Jakarta's metro area has over 20 million inhabitants and sprawls for miles in all directions. 

Jakarta’s jams, hardly a factor 20 years ago, rival those in Bangkok and Beijing. Slow traffic costs 12.8 trillion rupiah ($1.17 billion) per year in lost time, fuel, and health problems, according to a 2005 study by an Indonesian energy research firm. The study said Jakarta would be “totally jammed” by 2020 without more mass transit.

Cars, vans, and light trucks pack the streets so thickly that during rush hours that people stand in the roads taking change to direct vehicles. Experienced drivers learn elaborate webs of side streets to avoid pileups. Those with money hire chauffeurs and use their mobile phones or tablets while in traffic. 

“In terms of efficiency, you can’t do too many things in traffic,” says office worker Meyna Tanzil. “You lose a lot of time on the road. The most I can do is two meetings a day if they’re outside the office.”

Ms. Tanzil commutes for one hour round trip, compared to six for some suburbanites. But she gripes that her apartment complex lacks spaces for everyone’s car, creating a de facto “curfew” after which drivers must park on the street. Latecomers must be early risers to avoid parking tickets, she adds.

“From my home, work is 45 minutes away,” says Jakarta commuter Ade Abdullah, a personnel training manager with a consumer electronics store. “I ride a bicycle, because in a car it would take longer.” 

Residents can start using the metro in 2016, if all goes according to plan, with more stations planned to be built after that. The system known as the Jakarta MRT will cost $1.5 billion and handle as many as 173,000 passengers a day.

Greenpeace activist Anne Mie Roer Jensen (c.) of Denmark is escorted during a hearing at Primorskiy Court in St. Petersburg November 20, 2013. Courts in the city of St Petersburg, where the 28 activists and two journalists were taken last week, have granted bail to 19 of 30 detained Greenpeace activists. (Vladimir Baryshev/Greenpeace/Courtesy via Reuters)

Greenpeace activists granted bail in Russia. Is Sochi a factor? (+video)

By Staff Writer / 11.20.13

A roundup of global news reports

In a dramatic easing of its hardline stance, Russian courts granted bail this week to nineteen of the thirty Greenpeace crew members detained since September for a protest outside a Russian oil rig in the Arctic. Seven activists received the good news today, joining others who appeared in court on Monday and Tuesday, while another twelve are still awaiting custody hearings. So far, only one detainee has been set free.   

The rulings follow weeks of intensifying international pressure on Moscow to free the group of 28 activists and two journalists, known as the 'Arctic 30'. Russia wants to polish its global image in the countdown to February’s Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. This week’s positive developments notwithstanding, the crew members remain in legal limbo in Russia. 

The first of the detainees left a St. Petersburg prison cell today, Reuters reported, while the rest awaited release within days:

The first […] walked free on bail on Wednesday, brandishing a sheet with the words "Free the Arctic" written on it.

Brazilian Ana Paula […] smiled as she left a detention center in St Petersburg. Asked how she felt, she said simply "happy" before being driven off by a Greenpeace representative.

The rulings were welcomed by observers as a change of heart, after previous bail requests were rejected. The crew of the Arctic Sunrise has become an international cause célèbre, and the case is a source of embarrassment for Moscow in the midst of its Olympic preparations. Foreign government officials and global celebrities from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to musician Paul McCartney have taken up the campaign on their behalf, and two weeks ago the Netherlands petitioned the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to order Moscow to let the detainees go free. 

Russia has slowly dialed down the pressure on the activists, reducing their charges from piracy to hooliganism and moving them from the Arctic city of Murmansk to St. Petersburg.

But although this week’s decisions were greeted with jubilation by activists and their supporters, the Arctic 30 aren’t out of the Russian legal woods yet. For now, they remain very much in the Kremlin’s grip. Their charges remain in place, their passports had been confiscated, and they may not be able to leave the country, Reuters reported.

And, inexplicably, one bail request, from a 59-year-old Australian activist Colin Russell, was denied on Monday, The Guardian reported. He will now have to remain in detention until February 24, the day after the Olympics end. The Telegraph added more details from the Wednesday courtroom scene: 

The charges of hooliganism remain in force, however, and the bailed defendants could still potentially spend “a long time” waiting for the case to be resolved, [activist Alexandra] Harris’ lawyer Natalia Belousova said outside the court room.

“The good news comes with a warning” Greenpeace head Kumi Nando said, according to the organization’s official statement:

We still have no idea what conditions our friends will endure when they are released from jail, whether they will be held under house arrest or even allowed outside. What we do know for certain is that they are still charged and could spend years behind bars.

For now, the international focus on Sochi appears to have changed the Kremlin's stance. “International pressure is the scariest concept for Putin,” Stanislav Belkovsky, director of the Moscow-based National Strategy Institute told the Moscow Times, an English-language daily. “Putin wants to show everyone that he himself released the activists out of his greatness and goodwill, and that he is not moved by external pressure.”

“Without Sochi, there would have been no release,” he said. 

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