Kim Campbell
Culture & Education Editor

The constant glow of our electronic devices is not dimming, nor are concerns about everything from addiction to safety. But is our well-being really in jeopardy from technology?

This week, the Pew Research Center published the results of a nonscientific survey it conducted with Elon University to see what experts thought.

Just under half of the more than 1,000 respondents predicted that our well-being will be more helped than harmed by digital life in the next decade. About a third foresee more harm than help. The rest say they don’t envision much change from now.

Making a case for the “help” group is Europe-based Pete Cranston, a tech trainer and consultant. He argues that worries about hyperconnectedness, though real, come from first-worlders who are not lacking in resources. “There’s a rest-of-the-world response which focuses more on the massive benefits to life from access,” he notes, citing finance, research, shopping, and keeping in touch with family (“think migrant workers rather than gap-year youth”).

Respondents offer evolutionary ideas for mitigating the problems raised by the “harm” group (which are bolstered by articles like this one). Pew puts the interventions in buckets like “reimagine systems,” “reinvent tech,” and “regulate.” 

The comments of Sheizaf Rafaeli, a professor at the University of Haifa in Israel, show up under “recalibrate expectations.” “People are adaptive,“ he explains. “In the long run, we are reasonable, too. We will learn how to rein in the pitfalls, threats, bad guys and ill-meaning uses. These will continue to show up, but the march is towards progress.”

Here are our five stories, which focus on hope, diligence, and perseverance. 

1. What's in a name? Castro-less Cuba may not mean a changed one.

It's tempting to think of a dramatic before-and-after for Cuba as it experiences a rare change of leadership today. But that is likely out of touch with how most Cubans will experience the change – a reminder that to alter course after more than six decades of revolution takes more than a single new face. 

Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters
A woman holds up an image of the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro and then-Cuban President Raúl Castro during a rally in Havana on April 16. Raúl Castro's successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel, was sworn in on April 19.

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Regina Coyula runs “Bad Handwriting,” a widely read blog in Cuba. But she’s been silent on the Cuba news dominating foreign coverage lately: that as of today, after nearly 60 years, the island has a leader not named Castro. What happened this week, when the National Assembly nominated new President Miguel Díaz-Canel, matters less than the long game, she says – and for now, that long game looks as if it could bring much of the same. “Whatever the new president does will be overseen by the Communist Party,” she says, where former President Raúl Castro, brother of revolutionary Fidel, will still be party secretary. The second Castro changed his country considerably, opening up more small-business opportunities and warming ties with longtime nemesis the United States. But its economy is struggling, many analysts say, and in need of reforms that Mr. Díaz-Canel may not have license for, assuming he’s even interested in radical change. Taking office on Thursday, the new president made a vow to defend the regime created by his predecessors. “The revolution,” he said, “continues.”


1. What's in a name? Castro-less Cuba may not mean a changed one.

Reinaldo Flores, an unemployed transit worker in his 50s, walks through the streets of Cerro, one of Havana’s poorest neighborhoods. The street is flanked by once-grand buildings in faded shades of blue, green, and orange.

In some ways, it’s a typical day for Mr. Flores: he’s looking for work. But for him and tens of thousands of others across Cuba, today is also dramatically different.

It’s the first day in his life his president’s named something other than Castro.

Cuba’s National Assembly, a group of more than 600 handpicked politicians who run unopposed, nominated the island’s next president this week. Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, the only candidate put forth, will be Cuba’s first leader in nearly 60 years who wasn’t part of the revolution that overthrew US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista and installed a Communist government on the island. Mr. Díaz-Canel is also the first leader in nearly 70 years who isn’t part of the armed forces.

The changing of the guard – after decades of leadership by Fidel Castro and 12 years under his brother Raúl – is significant. But, observers say, it’s largely symbolic. In a centralized system that works on a “one state, one party” principle of entrenched revolutionary values, the rise of a new head of state without direct ties to the Castros’ uprising is more likely to lay the groundwork for future change than create big waves in the short term.

Cuba’s economy is struggling. Vital benefactors like Venezuela are distracted by their own crises, there’s little foreign investment, infrastructure is crumbling, and the dual currency system is increasingly burdensome. These are issues observers say need to be tackled head on. Although Cuba’s “old guard” is nominally clearing the way for a new generation of leadership on the island, Raúl Castro is still top dog in Cuba’s Communist Party and armed forces, unlikely to give Díaz-Canel much wiggle room to create significant changes anytime soon.

“If the situation Cubans are living doesn’t improve, the political changes will be in vain,” Mr. Flores says of the historic transition of power.

While many in the United States view a non-Castro Cuban president as a chance to shed some of the historic baggage that’s held back relations between the two nations, in Cuba there’s less optimism. Most are wondering what they can expect – or if they should expect anything at all.

“The change in government doesn’t leave us with a lot of hope, but it does leave us with a big question: What is going to happen to Cuba?” says Boris González Arena, a journalist for the local news site Diario de Cuba.

Irene Perez/Cubadebate/Reuters
Cuba's former President Raul Castro (center-left) and former First Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel (center-right) arrive for a session of the National Assembly in Havana, Cuba, on April 18, 2018. Mr. Diaz-Canel was sworn in to replace Mr. Castro as president on Thursday.

‘Like-minded’ leader?

Cuba has changed significantly under Raúl Castro’s two presidential terms. He did what for many was the unthinkable: warming ties with the United States, allowing private micro-businesses and entrepreneurship to blossom, and doing away with exit visas required for Cubans to leave the island. But he was still a Castro, lending him a certain cachet, and many question whether Díaz-Canel will have the same support for policies that push against the grain of the revolutionary project.

Cuba’s economy is weak, with many outside economists pointing to 2016 as a full-blown recession. Sugar harvests were devastated by hurricane Irma, and US tourism dollars that prop up the self-employed are flagging. The dual currency is creating imbalances in human capital, with those working in the tourism sector earning significantly more than highly-trained doctors or engineers.

The first task for Díaz-Canel will be getting the economy back on track, but just how radically he can approach the problems is at question – if he has a different approach in mind, to begin with.

“We have to consider that more likely than not [Díaz-Canel] was chosen as the next leader because he’s like-minded” with the Castro generation, says Gustavo Flores-Macías, an associate professor at Cornell University who specializes in Latin American politics. In a video leaked last year, Díaz-Canel is seen lambasting the US and emphasizing the same hardline ideology as his Castro predecessors, accusing dissidents and independent media of subverting the state. 

On Thursday, Castro said he expected the new leader to serve two five-year terms as president and take over for him as head of the Communist Party when Castro steps down in 2021 – the date many here view as the more realistic gateway to change by a new generation of leaders.

Cuban blogger Regina Coyula, who was born just before Castro’s 1959 rise to power, hasn’t written anything about the presidential transition on her widely read blog, “La Mala Letra” (“Bad Handwriting”). For her, this week is less significant than the long game.

“Whatever the new president does will be overseen by the Communist Party,” she says. As head of the party and the armed forces, Castro is still in control of some of the most economically important sectors, like tourism, placing yet another limit on Díaz-Canel’s power.

“There’s always the chance that [Díaz-Canel] has hidden his true perspective and he will surprise all of us,” says Ms. Coyula, acknowledging that it’s not something she’s holding her breath for. “In any case, it’s up to him now to bring fresh air into our economy.”

Despite the desire for economic change, not all Cubans on the island want to see a complete overhaul of the Castro’s revolutionary agenda.

“We want things to change, but we also want the things that make Cuba what it is to remain,” says Aliot Castro, a teenager. He tics off security, public health, and free education as elements that are worth maintaining by any future president. His friend Alejandro Lázaro agrees about continuity, but “we want a future with more possibilities for youth, a new way of thinking from the government,” he says.

Residents proudly boast to visitors that violent crime is essentially zero on the island (The US Embassy, however, says nonviolent crimes against tourists are common, like pickpocketing). When the Cuban revolution launched, roughly one-quarter of Cubans could not read. Today, the education system serves as a model for nations around the region, and literacy is almost universal. Medical professionals are essentially exported and traded for needed resources, like oil, with nations from Venezuela to Brazil.

“Cuba’s human capital, and its deep investment in human capital for decades, is crucial for the island. It’s something most anyone on the left or right can agree on,” says Mr. Flores-Macias.

Today’s transition of power takes place on the anniversary of the failed US-backed Bay of Pigs operation against Castro, and coincides with new bumps in the US-Cuba relationship. President Trump last year announced some rollbacks to Obama’s historic diplomatic rapprochement with Cuba, and more than half of US diplomats have been ordered off the island following mysterious hearing loss and what were initially described as suspected “sonic attacks.”

During the conclusion of the two-day National Assembly session today, where Raúl Castro stepped down, Díaz-Canel promised to defend the regime created by his predecessors.

“The revolution continues,” he said.

The Castros’ armed revolution and rise to power via force has little “to do with the changes taking place now,” says Dimas Castellanos, a former university history professor here who researches race on the island. Raul’s generation of guerrilla fighters are giving up their posts, if not all of their power, he says.

“But even if [Díaz-Canel] doesn’t want to, the new president must make changes. The warehouses are empty. The only thing that can’t happen now is that nothing changes.”

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2. An overlooked threat: role of guns in US domestic violence

What should be done for women who feel silenced at home in the face of threats? This piece offers more to consider in discussions about gun violence – and #MeToo.


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Ruth Glenn has been cautious about linking the #MeToo movement with the risks women face in households with guns. More than 25 years ago, she was shot by her abuser, and she says gun violence within domestic situations presents dangers different from those in the workplace. But Ms. Glenn, now executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, knows the power her story of survival has had while working to break through an issue shrouded in silence. About half the women who die in violent homicides each year are killed by intimate partners and other family members. And while well-publicized mass shootings have evoked a deep sense of crises, researchers estimate that more people are killed each year by domestic mass shooters. For complex social reasons, “[t]here's sort of this implicit belief in the case of … killings in the home that maybe someone was triggered by something the victim did,” says an expert on moral cognition at Duke University. A number of states have tried to bolster “extreme risk protection” orders that allow authorities to confiscate legally owned guns in domestic situations. Yet for Sara Elmer, a Boston resident who also survived an abusive relationship with a man who owned more than a dozen guns, stories like her own have raised awareness of the problem, and advanced the search for solutions. “It makes it real for people,” she says.


An overlooked threat: role of guns in US domestic violence

During the decade she lived with her boyfriend, Sara Elmer was surrounded by guns. Her partner legally owned a rifle, 12 handguns, and a shotgun, which he kept loaded under their bed. But these were not for their protection, she says. He used them to control and terrorize her.

“I was in survival mode every day,” says Ms. Elmer. “If I really thought about how much danger I was in, I don’t know how I could have gone through each day and made it through.”

Indeed, in the United States, close to half the number of women killed in violent homicides each year are fatally shot by their intimate partners, according to federal crime statistics. Add to this women who are shot and killed by other family members – up to 10 percent more, scholars estimate. (By comparison, intimate partners or other family members account for only 2 percent of men killed by guns.)

Elmer and other domestic violence advocates say that in the #MeToo era, when thousands of women have raised their voices to tell stories of abuse and harassment in America’s workplaces, those being abused behind closed doors still face a culture that makes it difficult to speak up.

Firearms add a deadly dimension to domestic violence, experts say. If a partner has a gun, there is a 500 percent greater likelihood that a woman can be shot and killed, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health.  

And when it comes to mass shootings – single incidents in which a shooter kills at least four or more people – the news media and others focus on motives of terror, mental illness, or random nihilism. 

In fact, domestic violence accounts for about half of the number of people killed each year in mass shootings, and the vast majority of them are women. Between 2006 and 2017, domestic abusers accounted for 597 mass shooting deaths, compared to 517 deaths in public shootings in places like Sandy Hook, Conn. and Parkland, Fla. over the same period. 

Domestic-violence experts say the lack of attention to the motives of domestic mass shooters reflects the cultural values that surround gun violence in intimate settings.

"Because domestic violence is so insidious and based on a pattern of power and control...you're not going to know that right off the bat” that a mass shooting incident was an act of domestic violence, says Ruth Glenn, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Several domestic violence experts say the scant attention paid to these type of mass shootings, and the millions more women who are threatened with guns, reflects the public’s lack of education about domestic violence and the pervasiveness of victim blaming. 

#MeToo and domestic violence

Experts are split about the effects of the #MeToo movement on domestic violence since it primarily involves abuse in the workplace. 

So while Ms Glenn applauds the women stepping forward to expose the actions of powerful men in government and business, she argues against conflating the issue of domestic violence with sexual harassment in the workplace.

Still, others say that #MeToo has had a broader effect on culture. "What it has done is open the floodgates for people to talk about that experience, as well as other forms of abuse that people experience both at work and in their relationships,” says Toni Troop, the director of communications of Jane Doe Inc., a coalition of domestic violence advocates in Massachusetts.

But greater awareness alone is not enough to help women survive situations of violence, especially at the hands of gun-carrying partners or family members.

“Among those in the field, everyone is talking about [#MeToo],” says Joan Meier, a professor of clinical law at George Washington University. “But whether that's going to have an impact on those third parties who have power, like judges, evaluators, observers, bystanders, reporters, or anyone else – that remains to be seen," she says. 

'Individualizing values' vs. 'binding values'

At the same time, #MeToo has underscored that women have long been disbelieved when they reported abuse, a reality that extends beyond the focus on the workplace and into the home.

“Batterers isolate their victims," including controlling the flow of information, says Ms. Troop. 

But that is not the only reason many women struggle to speak up and seek help in violent domestic situations, advocates say. There is also a more subtle and almost unconscious clash of society's deepest values.

"There's sort of this implicit belief in the case of domestic violence and killings in the home that maybe someone was triggered by something the victim did,” says Laura Niemi, a postdoctoral fellow in moral cognition at Duke University.

“This leads straightforwardly to this ‘victim blaming’ perspective where we think about domestic violence as something that happened because the victim deserved it. That they gave the perpetrator a good reason to harm them.”

As a social psychologist who studies how people make moral judgements, Niemi says there are “individualizing values” that cluster around the idea of protecting each individual’s human right to be unharmed and treated fairly.

But for most people, there are even more powerful “binding values” that protect the integrity of the most intimate bonds of society, especially those between family members and domestic partners. These values emphasize loyalty, respect for authority, and ideas of purity, Niemi says.

Yet these two values are often at odds with each other. Individualizing values are abstract and about ideals. Binding values are emotionally intimate and volatile, and actions deemed disloyal or disruptive are often considered grave violations of powerful bonds.

“There is such a strong assumption that what goes on in relationships is mutual and screwed up and personal, and it's not a ‘system problem’ or even necessarily a gender problem, it's an interpersonal problem,” says Meier.

Rick Bowmer/AP
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, speaks with Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City on Jan. 25, 2018. Utah lawmakers want to fix gaps in domestic violence law exposed when a man killed his ex-girlfriend and her son by opening fire on a car full of children after school. Romero, said they're hoping the changes mean victims don't stay in the shadows for fear of a complicated process or not being believed. 'We really wanted to ensure that victims are protected,' she said.

'Extreme risk protection orders'

Elmer, the domestic violence survivor in Boston, says she hopes #MeToo movement is the start of a cultural shift necessary to combat domestic violence and the problem of guns.

Federal law prohibits felons or individuals convicted of misdemeanor domestic-abuse crimes from buying or owning guns. However, this law does not apply to dating relationships or ban guns during temporary protective orders, and it does not set procedures for removing guns from abusers. 

Five states, including Washington, Oregon, and California, have passed "extreme risk protection orders" (ERPO) that take away legally-owned guns from anyone deemed a risk to themselves or others. Connecticut and Indiana have also passed similar laws. In early March, The New York State Assembly overwhelmingly approved an ERPO bill, although its fate in the Senate remains unclear.

Increased interest in ERPO laws comes after the Parkland school shooting. Scholars say such laws can be effective at preventing shooting deaths, but they require funding and personnel and must still clear legal hurdles. 

"You can have a good law, but it's only as good as its enforcement on the ground,” says Meier. 

The legal system, she says, has to be self-enforcing. "You can't put the burden on the petitioner who is either a domestic violence victim, or in these new laws, a 'caring bystander,'" to appear repeatedly in court. Far better, she says, to coordinate with courts, police departments, and social-service agencies to protect women at risk.

"The systems should be talking to each other. They did one big thing," she says of domestic violence victims or other witnesses who seek help. "Now the system has to do its job,” she says. 

Stories worth telling

Glenn remains cautious about linking the #MeToo movement with domestic violence advocacy. Still, she knows the power of sharing stories in the battle against abusers. A survivor herself, she first told her story in 1994 while volunteering at a domestic violence organization – two years after she was shot by her abuser.  

Another volunteer asked her to share. “She said: ‘I think your story is worth telling. And I think you'll feel better. And I think you can educate with your story,'" says Glenn. "And I never stopped." She has since spoken about her experiences to legislators in Colorado and in the US Congress.

Elmer lived with her abusive partner from 1990 to 2000, petrified of leaving, in part because of his large stockpile of weapons.

Now, she often speaks at colleges. At the end of her talk, she tells students she used to be in their seats, literally. 

“You don’t want to believe that could happen to you. It happens to someone else; over there who doesn’t look like me, who isn’t like me, who has a totally different background,” she says.

Making that connection allows people to receive her story rather than distance themselves. And students often approach her later, saying: “Can I talk to you about something? I’ve never said this to anyone before.”

“They’ve never told their parents, they’ve never told any family, they’ve never told any friends," Elmer says. "They’re telling me, and I am a stranger. I feel like I’m acting as a conduit. Now they have a name and a face and my experience, and a lot of light bulbs go off for people.” 

She ends each talk with the same message: “You can help people like me.”

For anonymous, confidential help, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE), available 24/7. 

SOURCE: Monitor data set created using USA Today’s data set and looking at only shooting mass murders.
Rebecca Asoulin and Karen Norris/Staff

3. On clean air, some big gains – but some old battles renewed

Maintaining forward momentum often requires diligence. Scientists are trying to fend off public complacency about pollution by highlighting factors that may impact further progress. 


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Thanks largely to the 1970 Clean Air Act, recent decades in the United States have seen great progress in reducing air pollution, even as the economy has grown. But, according to a report released Wednesday by the American Lung Association, more work remains to be done. According to the organization’s State of the Air report, more than 40 percent of Americans live in counties with pollution levels that experts say exceed healthy limits. Overall, the report found a decline in particulate matter pollution but a rise in ground-level ozone, a form of pollution that scientists say can increase with rising temperatures. The report's authors worry that the past victories in air quality may be undone by global warming and the Trump administration’s push to roll back some tightened emissions controls. “These are battles we’ve fought for a long time,” says Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of national policy for the American Lung Association, “but we’re seeing them come back again.” 


On clean air, some big gains – but some old battles renewed

Despite the progress that’s been made on cleaning up the nation’s air in recent decades, more than 40 percent of Americans still live in counties with levels of ozone or particulate pollution that exceed what are considered safe levels.

That’s one takeaway from the “State of the Air” report published today by the American Lung Association (ALA). The report has been grading counties in the US on their air quality for 19 years, and this year’s installment shows both continued progress on particle pollution and a worsening of ozone pollution, possibly caused by higher temperatures.

Since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, the combined emissions of six key pollutants have dropped by 73 percent, according to EPA data, even as the US economy, population, and energy use have grown.

But these latest findings show that a warming climate may hinder continued improvements and underscore the importance of looking at pollution in tandem with climate change, say experts. 

“Even with the continued improvements [in air quality] we’re seeing the evidence of the challenge of climate change,” says Janice Nolen, the ALA's assistant vice president of national policy. The association's latest report covers the 2014-2016 period, and 2016 was the second-warmest year on record. “With more days that get that kind of heat, it’s going to make [ozone pollution] more likely to form, and harder to clean it up," says Ms. Nolen. 

Most ground-level ozone pollution is created when nitrogen oxides react with volatile organic compounds in sunlight. These chemicals are produced by many of the same sources, such as motor vehicles and power plants, that emit carbon and contribute to climate change.

While overall air pollution has been declining for decades, the number of people exposed to unhealthy air pollution levels is increasing. The ALA report puts the number at 134 million, up from 125 million during the 2013-2015 period. And of the 25 most ozone-polluted cities led by Los Angeles, 16 had ozone levels that were higher than the previous period.

“It’s important to recognize that in the US, air pollution has been going down. But that doesn’t mean the problem is solved,” says Tracey Holloway, an atmospheric scientist at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. On a global basis, Professor Holloway notes, 1 in 8 deaths each year are caused by air pollution; in the US, nearly half of the population live in places considered unhealthy based on EPA standards.

Like Nolen, Holloway thinks it’s time to start decoupling the discussion of pollution from that of climate change.

“Something coming out of a tailpipe or a smokestack is a mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide or sulfur dioxide,” she says. “Some of [the emissions] warm the planet and some of them react with your lungs. The good news is almost anything you do to control climate and carbon also has major health benefits in terms of air quality. As we move to cleaner fuels, and reduce the use of fuels, it’s a win-win for climate as well as air quality.”

But the reverse, she notes, is not always the case. Some of the fixes that have helped reduce air pollution, like sulfur scrubbers on coal plants, not only don’t reduce carbon, they actually make plants less efficient and encourage them to burn more coal. We need to decide, she says, “if we are looking for single-win solutions, or win-win solutions.”

High readings in Fairbanks

The other main source of air pollution is particle pollution, the mixture of solids and liquid droplets suspended in the air that might include dust, fumes, soot, smoke, or aerosols.

The ALA grades counties both on year-round pollution and short-term pollution, both of which saw improvement. Still, 53 counties had too many days of unhealthy particle pollution, and at least 16 counties had year-round averages that were too high. Fairbanks, Alaska, which had sufficient monitoring for the first time ever, topped the list for the most-polluted city for year-round particle pollution.

That result, says Nolen, underscores the need for better monitoring.

“We have entire states with no data,” she says. “It’s not because they’re not trying, but it’s a complicated process.” Out of 3,007 counties, only about 900 have monitors, she says. A number of counties, including Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County in California, and the entire state of Mississippi, lacked data for year-round particle pollution. “People have a right to know if the air they’re breathing is healthy or not," she adds. 

In the case of Fairbanks, the high reading has led the city to brainstorm on what changes they can make, particularly around home heating and wood-burning stoves and fireplaces, to improve the air quality, says Nolen. 

Hot spots in the Golden State

For all three types of pollution – ozone, short-term particle, and year-round particle – many of the worst cities are in California. This is largely a function of population density, geography, and climate, especially in the Central Valley. But California is also making significant efforts to identify and address pollution.

One challenge in the past has been that localized “hot spots” – neighborhoods near power plants and freight corridors that are often home to poor communities of color who are also more vulnerable to health problems – have worse pollution. But they don't always get identified by regional monitoring, says John Balmes, a professor of medicine at University of California in San Francisco and the physician member of the California Air Resources Board.

California recently passed legislation designed to address these issues, requiring the Air Resources Board to work with communities to identify hot spots, put in advanced monitoring systems, and develop emission-reduction plans that local districts would carry out.

“It’s forward thinking, a paradigm shift,” says Dr. Balmes, noting California's history of climate leadership. 

But Balmes, along with Nolen, worries about policymaking at the federal level, where the EPA has suggested rolling back fuel-efficiency targets and the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era policy aimed at reducing carbon emissions from power plants.

“The two biggest sources of ozone and particle pollution are motor vehicles and power plants,” says Balmes. “We should as a society be moving aggressively to get away from the fossil fuel infrastructure and move toward cleaner vehicles and cleaner power.”

He also worries about efforts to devalue science and sow doubt about commonly accepted scientific findings, such as the association between fine particulate matter and increased cardiovascular mortality.

The ALA cites six main threats at the federal level that could undermine the steady progress on air pollution that include cuts in funding and expertise for clean-air programs and a proposed waiver for “glider” trucks – old, dirty, engines in new truck bodies – to meet the same emission requirements as new trucks.

“These are battles we’ve fought for a long time," says Nolen. "But we’re seeing them come back again." 


4. The messaging app at the heart of the Kremlin’s struggle for control

Russia’s reported online prowess leads us to believe that the country is a master of digital space. But this story suggests that at home, the opposite is true.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
The website of the Telegram messaging app is displayed on a computer screen in Moscow, April 13. A Russian court has ordered that the popular app be blocked following a demand by authorities that it share encryption data with them.

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Russia’s freewheeling internet culture is exemplified by services like popular messaging app Telegram and its founder, Pavel Durov. And Telegram is one of the key communication tools in Russia today, not just between individuals, but for distribution of news, be it by Kremlin loyalists or opponents. But Mr. Durov holds a deep grudge against the government for forcing him to give up ownership of his brainchild VKontakte, Russia’s most popular social network, and has refused to give the Kremlin decryption access to Telegram. So this week the Kremlin began to try and block Telegram from Russian cyberspace completely, in order to bring it to heel. And it has been failing. When Russia’s communications watchdog blocked Telegram’s IP address, Durov rapidly shifted to cloud services of Amazon and Google. When the Kremlin followed in a vast game of digital whack-a-mole, it wreaked havoc among legitimate Russian websites that use the same services – while barely affecting Telegram. The government “is not only failing to achieve its goals, it is attracting more Russian users to Telegram,” says Alexey Kovalev, an independent media expert. “In fact it’s a complete mess.”


The messaging app at the heart of the Kremlin’s struggle for control

Kremlin forces appear to be badly losing their latest war, but it isn't in Syria or Ukraine.

It's in cyberspace, where Russia's communications watchdog Roskomnadzor this week began trying to block the popular messaging app Telegram because its encoded services are allegedly “terrorist friendly.” Since the app has consistently refused to hand over its encryption keys to law enforcement, it has been a target of official ire for at least three years.

But Roskomnadzor appears to have brought a sledge hammer to a knife fight, and so far its efforts to hit Telegram have created massive collateral damage among business and official websites. Meanwhile millions of Russians – including Kremlin officials and State Duma deputies – continue to use the service despite the ban, according to business news agency RBK.

It's not just about privacy, an issue that does not seem to be as important to Russians as it is for many in the West. Part of Telegram's popularity is that its news channels have become a major information source for Russians. Even Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov used to regularly announce his upcoming briefings on Telegram because it was the most reliable medium. Both Kremlin loyalists and opponents have used it as a primary method for getting their messages out. It is also a way for Russian officials to anonymously leak information to the public.

Analysts say that while the Russian government may want to crack down on the country's freewheeling internet culture, exemplified by Telegram and its iconoclastic Russian founder, it has not equipped agencies like Roskomnadzor to do that, and it may well be an impossible task.

“Roskomnadzor is not only failing to achieve its goals, it is attracting more Russian users to Telegram,” says Alexey Kovalev, an independent media expert. “In fact it's a complete mess. How is it that a country that's accused of launching sophisticated cyber-campaigns around the world can't seem to do anything effectively in that department on its own home turf?”

Pavel Golovkin/AP
People walk past paper airplanes that protesters threw in front of the Federal Security Service building in Lubyanskaya Square in Moscow, April 16, 2018. Russia's communications watchdog said Monday it has begun enforcing a nationwide ban for the popular messaging app Telegram.

Pavel Durov and the Kremlin

The Russian government has succeeded at blocking web networks before, most notably LinkedIn. The communications watchdog is now threatening to shut down Facebook, with its 25 million Russian users, by the end of the year. But in Telegram, it may have met its match.

Telegram has 14 million users in Russia, and 200 million worldwide. Its founder is Pavel Durov, often called the Russian Mark Zuckerburg, who has very deep pockets, immense tech-savvy, and a huge grudge against the Kremlin. Four years ago Mr. Durov was compelled to relinquish his stake in his own brainchild, VKontakte, Russia's most popular social network. The controlling stake was grabbed by Kremlin-friendly tycoon Alisher Usmanov.

There has been similar pressure to make Durov, who no longer lives in Russia, step away from Telegram. Once again one of Mr. Usmanov's social media projects, a messaging service called Tam-Tam, is being talked up as patriotic Russian replacement for it.

“Everyone sees through this hypocritical talk about Telegram being used by terrorists. Clearly the only reason for this is Pavel Durov's defiance of the Kremlin,” says Mr. Kovalev. “What we're seeing is a complete collapse of the state's credibility.”

Roskomnadzor has blocked plenty of websites in the past under Russia's draconian anti-extremism laws as well as a 2014 law that requires all internet services active in Russia to store their data on servers that are physically located inside the country. When LinkedIn failed to comply, the watchdog sent out letters to Russia's 4,500 Internet Service Providers, ordering them to restrict access to the site.

Last year the State Duma also legislated a ban on virtual private network (VPN) services that allow internet users to mask their own identities. That didn't work. According to Russian internet giant Yandex, the use of VPNs by Russians has spiked since the banning of Telegram.

“Over the last 5 years Roskomnadzor has blocked around 100,000 IP addresses, but what they have been doing over the past few days represents a giant leap,” says Alexander Kalinin, an expert on cyberdefense with IB Group in Russia. “If they do find a way to block Telegram they might do the same with other messenger services.”

Digital whack-a-mole

But blocking Telegram's IP address didn't do the trick, because Durov rapidly shifted to the cloud services of Amazon and Google, where millions of IP addresses could be used. Trying to shut down Telegram in a vast game of digital whack-a-mole, Roskomnadzor wreaked internet havoc among legitimate Russian websites that use the same services. Two days into the battle, Durov tweeted that the Russian government had blocked 15 million IP addresses without landing a punch on Telegram.

That may not last. Roskomnadzor is trying to convince internet giants Google and Amazon to drop Telegram from their app stores, and may well succeed. Crushing Telegram in Russia in some fashion similar to China's Great Firewall is possible, but will take a long and extensive effort to achieve, says Andrei Kolesnikov, a former communications official and veteran Russian cyber-expert.

“It all depends on the price they are willing to pay to create a controlled national cyberspace,” he says. “In China it's possible, but they don't do it by blocking IP addresses as Roskomnadzor is doing. In China they block the whole pattern. But this is a very expensive exercise” requiring vast resources and sustained effort, he says.

“In China the number of outbound links is limited, basically only three operators control all traffic. In Russia there are more than 1,000. So, Russia, in terms of internet architecture – the number of cross connections – is one of the most resilient internet countries in the world....

“What Roskomnadzor is doing now is basically playing a big game of cyber-Russian Roulette. They are creating a lot of collateral damage, and at some point they are going to hit some critical function at home or abroad and cause real trouble,” he says.

The trouble with Telegram

The power play against Telegram may be part of a larger battle to force internet giants like Facebook, Google, and Twitter to comply with the Russian law requiring them to store data on Russian servers. Kovalev thinks it may prove effective.

“Facebook cares more about its profits than its users; this is apparent from everything we are seeing,” he says. “It seems to be bargaining for terms [with the Russian government] now, and may cave to some of the demands. The same will likely happen with the others. They are profit-driven commercial companies, and Russia is a big market.”

Not so with Telegram, which is a non-profit service, with a stubborn, idealistic, and anti-Kremlin genius at the helm.

“It's hard to predict how this is going to end,” says Mr. Kolesnikov. “This could go on a long time, and get very messy, because it doesn't look like either side is willing to back down.”



Drivers of change

5. As migration to South Africa swells, he bridges cultural divides

Sometimes, the vision for how to use compassion and mutual understanding to support migrants and refugees is clear, as it was for this "ultimate ambassador of all Africans."


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At the end of apartheid, South Africa’s leaders celebrated their democracy as the “rainbow nation.” Today, that moniker refers to more than homegrown diversity: 1.6 million migrants, coming from as close as Zimbabwe to as far as Bangladesh, now call South Africa home – including Marc Gbaffou, a food technician who arrived in 1997 as a political refugee from the Ivory Coast. But many newcomers receive a wary welcome, and the tensions periodically flare into violence. Today, Mr. Gbaffou’s nonprofit, the African Diaspora Forum, is trying to foster dialogue between migrants, asylum-seekers, and locals – a key, he says, to their long-term safety and rights. “We have realized that hate for foreigners is largely caused by assumptions and stereotypes on migrants,” he says. “Some locals still do not fully understand the reasons that keep pushing people to South Africa, so during the dialogue, migrants unpack the crises in their home countries and show how migration became their best option.”


As migration to South Africa swells, he bridges cultural divides

Marc Gbaffou is the go-to guy for migrants in South Africa when they’re dealing with problems, especially threats of violence.

As chairman of the African Diaspora Forum (ADF), a nonprofit organization he founded a decade ago to safeguard the rights of migrants and asylum-seekers, he’s keenly interested in the welfare of the millions of such individuals living and working in South Africa.

And they aren’t shy about approaching him. While Mr. Gbaffou was taking part in an interview, the interruptions were constant, as migrant after migrant sought the activist’s attention.

They wanted to do everything from obtain guidance on South Africa’s migration policy and complain about ill treatment and institutional harassment, to raise the alarm about brewing attacks and pour out concerns about various moves by government officials.

“Everyone wants a piece of him, and he cannot say no to anyone,” says Martha Bikuelo, a refugee from Congo (former Zaire) who is an ADF official. “Marc is a father figure who has an ear for everyone’s problem, no matter how big or small.”

According to a 2016 survey by Statistics South Africa, there are 1.6 million migrants in South Africa – less than 3 percent of the overall population. The so-called rainbow nation is one of the most popular for asylum-seekers, but like other countries, South Africa has had challenges as newcomers and locals have interacted. Violence has been a particular concern.

Gbaffou, himself a refugee, is a prominent figure trying to address the issues. In addition to helping migrants directly, he’s fostering dialogue between them and locals. Perhaps the most visible example of his efforts is the ADF’s annual Africa Week Carnival, which is attended by as many as 15,000 migrants and locals in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city.

“We have realized that hate for foreigners is largely caused by assumptions and stereotypes on migrants,” Gbaffou says. “As the ADF, we seek to help migrants assimilate and be accepted in the local communities they live in.”

Why migrants go to South Africa

The largest percentage of migrants in South Africa are Zimbabwean, with many of them fleeing economic crisis and political repression. Others come from as far away as Bangladesh and Pakistan, attracted in part by policies that allow asylum-seekers to work while their applications are reviewed.

Many locals have been wary of migrants, claiming that they rob South Africans of jobs and public services and exacerbate crime. The country’s unemployment rate – nearly 28 percent – certainly hasn’t helped the situation.

Such sentiments have periodically flared into violence. Arguably the worst episode occurred in 2008, when hundreds of South Africans, armed with clubs and knives, turned on the foreigners. At least 62 people died, thousands of others were displaced, and property was looted and destroyed.

It was shortly after the attacks – often referred to as xenophobic violence – that Gbaffou formed the ADF. “The 2008 xenophobia showed us that migrants in this country need urgent protection,” he says. “We, therefore, formed the African Diaspora Forum to give migrants a platform to voice their concerns and restore their dignity.”

Gbaffou was born in Ivory Coast. He immigrated to South Africa in 1997 after, he says, he was hounded out of his home country by the administration of then-President Henri Konan Bédié, because of his pro-opposition student activism.

Gbaffou is also a food technician, meaning he assists scientists in such things as testing the quality of food products and conducting research. He runs a private company in Johannesburg.

Since its formation, the ADF has seen its membership balloon from seven members to 8,000. During that time, sporadic attacks have been common. The violence is a bitter obstacle in realizing the old dream of Pan-Africanism.

One person whom the ADF has helped is Ms. Bikuelo. She first met Gbaffou in 2013, after speaking on the radio about the problems she had encountered in trying to apply for asylum in Pretoria, South Africa’s administrative capital.

Gbaffou “called the radio station after the program, asking for my number,” she says. “His intervention helped me and a number of other migrants get asylum-seekers’ permits in no time.”

The ADF tries to bridge the gap between migrants and locals by holding regular community dialogue sessions.

“Some locals still do not fully understand the reasons that keep pushing people to South Africa, so during the dialogue, migrants unpack the crises in their home countries and show how migration became their best option,” Gbaffou says. “The engagements have helped many South Africans realize that their fellow African brothers and sisters need ... love and protection, not hate and discrimination.”

Under the leadership of Gbaffou, the ADF, working with other nongovernmental organizations, has scored significant progress, according to Ngqabutho Mabhena, chairman of the Zimbabwe Community in South Africa group. “Since the formation of the ADF, we have seen some locals stand up to join migrant communities in fighting xenophobia,” says Mr. Mabhena, who was recently voted the ADF deputy chairman responsible for the Southern African Development Community region. “There are now communities where you cannot abuse a migrant for who they are because locals have built a human security fence around them.”

A signature event

In 2010, the ADF launched the Africa Week Carnival, which has become its signature event. The carnival is held in May (May 25 is Africa Day) for eight days. Through marches, dialogue, speeches, sports, song, and dance, migrants and locals share their cultures and chart a better future for migrants.

The event begins with a candlelit ceremony to mark the migrant lives lost to violence. “The candle lighting is meant to plead for those departed souls to rest in peace, while also praying for an end to xenophobia,” says Johnson Emeka, a Nigerian migrant who is also an ADF spokesman. “Hundreds of people attend the candle lighting every year, and they include political leaders, African leaders from various countries, diaspora community leaders, interfaith ministers, and government authorities.”

Government authorities have joined the ADF’s efforts, too. The Gauteng Provincial Government has become the major sponsor of the Africa Week Carnival.

The joint operations between the ADF and Gauteng government have led to community forums and opened discussions about ways of minimizing attacks on migrants. Key among the outcomes has been the establishment of early-warning systems regarding possible attacks.

“It is our duty as Gauteng government to ensure that everyone who comes into this province feels safe and able to participate in the development of this country, and that is why we entered into partnership with the ADF, which works well with government to safeguard the rights of our African brothers and sisters,” says David Makhura, premier of Gauteng province.

Mr. Makhura has high praise for Gbaffou: “Since the beginning of our partnership, we have achieved a lot in our attempts to foster social cohesion, and that is partly because the ADF is being led by a visionary and able leader like Marc Gbaffou.”

The ADF’s efforts to improve security, Gbaffou notes, aren’t solely for the benefit of migrants. The organization is also involved in exposing foreigners who are involved in crime. “We strongly discourage migrants from involvement in criminal activities. Everyone in South Africa, migrants included, must obey the law,” Gbaffou says.

King Bungane III of the Embo Kingdom, a South African traditional leader, sums up Gbaffou by describing him as more than a migrant leader. “Mr. Gbaffou is doing what very few community leaders in South Africa are doing,” he says. “He is a complete Pan-Africanist who deserves recognition. In the Embo Kingdom, we know him as the ultimate voice of Africans – the ultimate ambassador of all Africans.”

For more, visit adf.org.za.

How to take action

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups whose work encourages people to understand each other better:

Globe Aware promotes sustainability and cultural awareness. Take action: Volunteer at a Chinese middle school.

Global Volunteers aims to advance peace, racial reconciliation, and mutual understanding between peoples. Take action: Care for vulnerable children in Peru.

Partnerships for Trauma Recovery addresses trauma among survivors of human rights abuses through mental health care, clinical training, and policy advocacy. Take action: Help pay for interpretation services for survivors.


The Monitor's View

The new mercy for corrupt firms that fess up

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It’s a legal trend that started 15 years ago in the United States after the Justice Department realized that prosecuting big firms for wrongdoing might lead to their collapse. And it has spread to many countries and to the World Bank. The concept: If a firm confesses early to a crime and then reforms itself under official guidance, it will receive mercy in enforcement. The assumption is that companies have enough people willing to spot wrongs, admit them to authorities, and then push for honesty, transparency, and accountability in their work culture. Another assumption is that such deals, called deferred prosecution agreements, will provide incentives for companies to self-report misconduct. The practice has critics. But at the least, it shifts law enforcement away from a traditional binary approach: prosecute or don’t prosecute. It aims to balance mercy and justice in ways that allow individuals to recognize for themselves that values such as honesty should be part of corporate dealings. Firms that confront their wrongdoing and then fix it deserve some forgiveness. They might also become a model to others. 


The new mercy for corrupt firms that fess up

Just before its annual meeting this week, the World Bank announced that an African railroad company would be barred for two years from any new loans from the bank because of a corrupt act. Why only two years? The company had admitted its guilt and agreed to work with the bank in beefing up the integrity of its workers.

This is the latest example of a legal trend in many countries, from Argentina to Singapore, as well as at the World Bank. Simply put, the concept is this: If a firm confesses early to a crime and then reforms itself under official guidance, it will receive mercy in enforcement, such as no trial, low fines, and no jail time for employees.

The assumption is that companies have enough people willing to spot wrongs, admit them to authorities, and then push for honesty, transparency, and accountability in their work culture. Another assumption is that such a deal, called a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA), will provide incentives for companies to self-report misconduct.

The idea took off 15 years ago in the United States after the Justice Department realized that prosecuting big firms might lead to their total collapse, damaging an industry and putting thousands of employees out of work. According to one Justice official, the practice has had a transformative effect on corporate culture across the globe. France, for example, obtained its first DPA in January.

“When a company discovers misconduct, quickly raises its hand and tells us about it, that says something,” said John Cronan, acting assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s criminal division. “It shows the company is taking misconduct seriously and not willing to tolerate it and we are rewarding those good decisions.”

At the World Bank meeting, a special panel on corruption focused on one topic in particular: a need for greater trust between law enforcement and companies. “Private business does not want to pay bribes. We need help on this,” said Peter Solmssen, former general counsel of Siemens AG.

The practice, which is different than a plea bargain, does have its critics. Might prosecutors be too lenient? Should an agreement be approved by a judge? Do DPAs work in cultures that must first achieve more convictions for white-collar crimes in order to show the consequences of not admitting a crime?

At the least, it shifts law enforcement away from a traditional binary approach: prosecute or don’t prosecute. It aims to balance mercy and justice in ways that allow individuals to recognize for themselves that such values as honesty and accountability should be part of corporate dealings.

Firms that confront their wrongdoing and then fix it deserve some forgiveness. They might also become a model to others.


A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

My Earth Day prayer

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Today’s column explores the possibility of a flourishing Earth – and the role that prayer plays.


My Earth Day prayer

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Recently I came across the 2015 film “Dare to Be Wild,” which shares the inspiring and unique story of Mary Reynolds. Her unconventional and unmanicured gardens, celebrating and appreciating nature just as she saw it in her native Irish countryside, made her the youngest-ever gold winner in the 2002 prestigious British garden competition, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

There’s a scene in the film where Reynolds looks out over a desert landscape in Ethiopia that was once green and thriving, and she suddenly imagines it completely filled in again with lush trees and plants. As the scene shifts to reflect her vision, I was reminded of a prophecy in the Bible, in the book of Isaiah. It says: “Thirsty deserts will be glad; barren lands will celebrate and blossom with flowers. Deserts will bloom everywhere and sing joyful songs.… Everyone will see the wonderful splendor of the Lord our God” (Isaiah 35:1, 2, Contemporary English Version).

Read literally, the imagery presented in Isaiah’s prophecy is something I’m sure most of us would love to see fully actualized. And the beautiful words might inspire us to wonder if the flourishing of our Earth in this way is really a possibility.

But beyond the literal sense of the Scriptures, I’ve learned that there is a deeper sense, a spiritual sense, to such passages in the Bible. To me, Isaiah’s prophecy points to the fact that God’s creation, including each one of us, is created spiritually by God, and as a result must also thrive. To be spiritual is to be good and pure – both of which are qualities of God, Spirit. When we understand our pure spiritual identity, we’re freed from believing that we are mortal and condemned to matter-based living. Through the teachings of Christian Science, I’ve also learned that we can expect to see the reality of our spiritual and true identity expressed in practical ways on earth. As we understand our nature as God’s spiritual creation, this nurtures the desire in us to do what is right – that which blesses the earth and all its inhabitants.

I grew up in a home situated on a hill in a redwood forest. Those majestic giants were so close that I could reach out and touch their bark from the balcony of my third-floor bedroom. This environment nurtured my love for the natural world, as well as my desire to be environmentally responsible in my actions and decisions.

Later, when I became more serious about my spiritual development and more dedicated to praying about the issues in the world, my growing love for God, good, further inspired my desire to be caring and thoughtful of my surroundings. Through my study of Christian Science I realized that the entire creation of God, divine Spirit, is spiritual, cared for, and flawless. This helped me understand that it’s natural for all of us to see and express something of those same qualities of beauty and care in the world around us. And this brought a positive change to my daily habits, and increased my thoughtfulness about recycling and being less consumer-oriented.

I’ve found it helpful to remember that the natural beauty of our planet has its source in the infinite and enduring design of our creator, God, and this design cannot truly be lost or obscured since the divine Mind and its ideas are eternal. “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy illustrates it this way: “Arctic regions, sunny tropics, giant hills, winged winds, mighty billows, verdant vales, festive flowers, and glorious heavens, – all point to Mind, the spiritual intelligence they reflect” (p. 240). Caring for our planet and preserving its natural beauty can seem overwhelming if we simply get caught up in the problems of desertification, pollution, waste management, etc. Fresh possibilities open up as we look to the reality of Spirit and the harmony, beauty, and balance that constitute spiritual creation.

The focus of this year’s Earth Day is to mobilize the world to end plastic pollution. We can each do our part in very practical ways to forward that goal. But we can also mobilize our thought, through prayer, to more clearly see how we all reflect our intelligent creator. Such a clear view of our relation to God can definitely improve human action. As this knowledge is known and accepted, nothing can stop humanity, and earth, from progressing and flourishing! As Isaiah promises, “You will live in joy and peace. The mountains and hills will burst into song, and the trees of the field will clap their hands!” (55:12, New Living Translation).



Whipping down the plain

Nick Oxford/Reuters
The Rhea fire burns through a grove of red cedar trees near Seiling, Okla., April 17. Two people have died and at least nine have been injured in Oklahoma wildfires, and hundreds of people have been forced to evacuate. Fires have also affected Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico. But winds have died down and wet weather was expected tonight.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )

In Our Next Issue

( April 20th, 2018 )

Kim Campbell
Culture & Education Editor

Join us tomorrow, when Patrik Jonsson looks at the class struggle emerging in Florida's current debate over hundreds of miles of beaches. And in case you missed it, our story on yesterday's Monitor Breakfast looks at why retiring Republican Sen. Bob Corker is bucking GOP tribalism.

Monitor Daily Podcast

April 19, 2018
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