Saturday, July 31, 2010

Week 30: What Ronald McDonald House did for Justin

Last week, the 13 year old nephew of my girlfriend died after his second battle with cancer. Justin Hudson was one of the most friendly, gregarious kids I've ever met. His excitement and positive attitude were contagious. Justin's years-long battle brought together his community, as his death broke its heart. There are two things that stick out to me at this point - the first is that Justin was a fighter. He surprised his doctors and beat the odds, time and time again. And second, boy was Justin loved. From the memorial service to his Facebook page, the outpouring of support for Justin preceding his death and for his family following his death has been incredible. While the loss of someone so young leaves a feeling of unfairness and perhaps bitterness, the bravery with which he faced his situation and the love inspired by his short life must be celebrated and learned from.

Earlier this week I spoke with Justin's mother and asked how I and others could help. She said that the Ronald McDonald House of Central Pennsylvania was invaluable to Justin and the family through their ordeal. Before I get into some of the research I've done on the charity, I will start by giving readers the opportunity to leave a donation in memory of Justin Hudson (link to donate is here). My family and girlfriend will match the first $200 received. Please let me know if you plan to donate so we can track the amount to be matched (email:; of course, if you do not feel comfortable emailing, anonymous donations are welcome as well. Donations can be made either to the General Operating Fund or to the new "Room to Grow" campaign. I will be donating to the latter.

Now, on to the more familiar part of the blog - learning about something new. Ronald McDonald House certainly fits the bill. If you've been to a McDonald's, you've probably seen the change collection canisters in front of the cash registers. In truth, I always imagined that whatever charity these canisters supported would be something hoakie. Well, I was wrong. Ronald McDonald house has a presence in 52 countries around the world, and its primary focus is on sick children. Its flagship service has been to provide low or no cost lodging near hospitals to families of critically ill children. It also provides in-hospital educational and recreational resources for kids. Finally, the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile project consists of many mobile treatment centers that provide primary care, immunizations and other vital services to areas that are underserved.

At the local level, the Central Pennsylvania chapter (based in Hershey) was extremely important to Justin and his family. While in the intensive care unit, Justin had board games, books and movies to pass the time (with his most recent cancer, he was hospitalized for the better part of 7 months). His mother was of course by his side throughout, and when she was not able to sleep in the hospital with him, she stayed nearby in a room provided by the Ronald McDonald house. This service made an already unimaginably stressful situation much more logistically feasible. In Hershey, there is currently a waiting list of families of sick children without a place to stay while their children are treated.

Charitable giving is an individual matter; there is certainly no lack of problems needing attention and resources. So whether giving to the Ronald McDonald House in memory of Justin makes sense for you or not, I encourage you to think about what matters to you. Perhaps his death can remind us of the ways in which we can, on the margin, make the world a little bit better.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Week 29: The Lost Colony of Roanoke

I am on my way to the Outer Banks, North Carolina for the first time. As regular readers may have realized by now, my posts are often inspired by the people, places and events around me. While driving through Chesapeake, my girlfriend's parents told me about what is now called The Lost Colony of Roanoke. Apparently Jamestown was not the first English settlement in the New World. A small group of settlers preceded both the Jamestown settlers and the Pilgrims. But these settlers disappeared mysteriously, never to be heard from again.

It began in 1585 with the arrival of about 100 former soldiers to Roanoke. This voyage was the result of a mandate given to Sir Walter Raleigh, one of Queen Elizabeth's favorite explorers. Raleigh had convinced the Queen that a footprint in the new world was important in combatting the ever-expanding influence of the Spaniards. The first settlers were very harsh with the Croatoan, a local and by most historical accounts, friendly group of Native Americans. It is thought that after blaming the natives for stealing a silver goblet, they burned the tribe's leader to death. Soon after these tensions, the settlers hitched rides back to England. It wasn't until 1587 that a second group of 116 settlers, this time consisting of agrarian men, women and children, crossed the Atlantic and landed in Roanoke. They had planned to land in Chesapeake but due to poor weather ended up farther south.

Due to the terrible treatment by the English a few years earlier, the Croatoan were initially very skeptical of these new settlers. It was only due to the cool heads of Governor John White and the Croatoan leaders that larger fighting didn't break out when one of the settlers was killed by natives while crab fishing. In spite of better relations with the tribes, a better mix of settlers (full families with farming skills), and a more competent leader, the settlers still had a major problem: there simply were not enough supplies. So they decided to send White back to England to arrange for more support from the Queen. He was leaving behind a very vulnerable population: in addition to a dearth of supplies, the settlers were also faced with the constant risk of attack by Native Americans, a harsh winter, and inconsistent crops at best. Before departing, White and the settlers agreed that they would leave signals if, for whatever reason, they had to leave the area. In particular, they agreed to mark crosses on trees in the event of a forced evacuation.

Unfortunately for the settlers, White returned to England just as the Queen was preparing for war with the powerful Spanish Armada. All English ships were directed to the battles, and White was unable to secure any supplies or transport back to Roanoke for the next three years. Upon his return he was heartbroken to find nothing but a deserted stockade around a nonexistent town. Even the sturdiest buildings were simply not there. The only clue was the word CROATOAN written on a tree at the center of where the town had been, and three letters on surrounding trees: C R O. White took this to mean they had moved to nearby Croatoan Island. But his efforts to sail there were thwarted by bad weather, and he was forced back to England, where he died. Future voyages to the island, however, found no trace of settlement.
The fate of the Roanoke settlers is to this day a mystery. None of the settlers were heard from or seen again. Initial theories were that either the Spaniards or the local tribes had killed them. But if this were the case, there would be some kind of remains. Furthermore, a thorough check of the meticulously kept Spanish archives found no reference to any killings of English settlers. And neither hypothetical would explain the disappearance of the buildings. Another theory is that the settlers built a boat and tried to sail back to England, but died at sea. However it is unlikely the settlers would have attempted such a voyage given a lack of supplies, no nautical equipment or expertise, and the extremely dangerous weather conditions of the area (Cape Hattarus was called the "Graveyard of the Atlantic").

Far more likely is that the settlers joined with a Native American tribe. It could have been the nearby Croatoans - there are reports of North Carolina tribes with members who spoke English, and who had European features like blue eyes. Alternatively, they could have gone south and joined the Hattarus tribes. In this case they would likely have been wiped out with the tribe during a smallpox epidemic in the 1700s. Finally, they could have headed north and joined the Chesapeake tribes, who were massacred shortly before John Smith settled Jamestown. This version is supported by John Smith's memoirs, who in speaking with Pocahontas' father learned that some white settlers had joined with certain tribes.

The fact is, nobody knows. Why was there a stockade left around a deserted town with no buildings? Why would the settlers leave a message saying CROATOAN, with no cross SOS symbol for Governor White, unless they left voluntarily? Why didn't they leave better clues? My best (uneducated) guess is that they joined with the Croatoan tribes. Regardless of what happened, it is clear that what I was taught in grade school - that Jamestown was the first new world settlement - is revisionist history at its finest.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

Week 28: Old Swatty, The Best Beer You've Never Heard Of

This post was inspired by a recent weekend trip to see a great friend of mine.  We have always enjoyed a few beers together - initially this meant drinking whatever we could afford or could get our hands on (I'm talking Keystone, Natty Light, Milwaukee's Best...).  I can't speak for my friend, but at the time it seemed to me that Bud Lite was a high-end, classy beer.  Beer was beer, and we didn't think too much more about it.  A couple of years wiser and a couple more beers consumed have changed our tastes.  And more recently, they have made me aware of a rapidly growing craft beer movement taking hold in the United States.  For under $100, you can now purchase a home brewing kit and - with a little homework - can brew and bottle your own beers in an astoundingly quick and easy way.  Trying my friend's surprisingly tasty brew (affectionately named "Old Swatty" for the creek that runs behind his house) motivated me to learn more about the movement.

The roots of the microbrew renaissance in the US have to be viewed in the broader historical context of American beer making.  As a country with strong European influences, beer brewing was extremely popular in the US prior to Prohibition.  But the dry period devastated beer brewers, wiping out an estimated 800 breweries.  Following Prohibition was a period of massive industry consolidation that took place for decades (and is still taking place today). This brought the total breweries in the US down to just 50 in 1982.  Incidentally this also led to the flavorless lager/pilsner mass market beer that we have suffered through for far too long.    

The great news is that there are currently almost 1,500 small breweries in the US. The home brewing movement began in the late 1960s in Northern California with breweries like Anchor Brewing. It was very much a grassroots movement, with people sharing tips and recipes.  However it caught on quickly, and was influential enough that a group of computer developers, who likened the home brewer networks to their open source visions for technology, called themselves the "Homebrewer Computer Club." These same developers ended up founding Apple Computer.  Over time the craft beer movement picked up stream and soon state fairs were holding large beer competitions.  Different regions developed distinct styles and brewing preferences - two of the my personal favorite east coast brewers are the Boston Beer Company (owner of Samuel Adams) and Dogfishhead.  Northern California, Oregon, Massachusetts and Vermont are particularly well known for their craft beers.

Most successful breweries began with exactly what my friend is now doing (and what my college roommate and I quite unsuccessfully attempted during sophomore year) - buying equipment, mixing ingredients, and developing flavors and brewing tactics that you like.  A science project for adults, if you will.   Highlighting the success of craft beer is that politicians are taking notice at the national level. John Kerry recently proposed legislation to cut taxes on craft brewers, one of the few recent examples of successful American manufacturing.  Unfortunately politicians are also screwing things up - the Oregon Liquor Control Commission very recently, confirmed the illegality of transporting one's own fermentation (beer or wine) outside of one's house.  This has already cancelled wine and beer competitions that have existed for decades.  Fortunately there has been widespread public outrage over this ruling - I hope justice for beer and wine lovers prevails!

After my research on the topic, my conclusion is that home brewing is pretty damn cool.  It is creative, it is fun, and it is both customizable and flexible.  It is customizable in the sense that you can be as sophisticated or unsophisticated as you'd like... You can dig into the science of it, or just make the standard brews. And  it is flexible in the sense that beer brewing can be done just about anywhere (including from an apartment in Manhattan!).  I haven't yet taken the plunge, but I'm getting closer. Until then, stay tuned for Old Swatty brew, the best beer you've never heard of!  

Here are some links for those who want to learn more:
How to brew a batch of beer (video)


Monday, July 5, 2010

Week 27: Freedom!

This holiday weekend began with a wonderful dinner with a few friends, one of whom is Canadian. My cultural ignorance shone through when I asked why she had prepared Canadadian-flag themed cupcakes to accompany the American-flag cupcakes... I was completely oblivious to the fact that July 1 is Canada Day! Upon reflection it hit me that outside of the U.S. and perhaps France and Hungary, I know next to nothing of the road to independence for other countries.

It is a holiday weekend, so I will spare readers with the full histories, but I looked up a few countries and have given a very brief overview of their respective independence days (or lack thereof!). I purposely chose nations about which I'm curious but have little existing knowledge.

So, Happy Independence Day. Here's to America, and here's to all those around the world who have the courage to challenge injustice, the tenacity to fight oppression, and the ingenuity and capacity to inspire others.


Ghana: On March 6, 1957 Ghana gained its independence from the British, thereby becoming the first black African country to become independent (according to the BBC's standards of independence, that is). The newly created flag features a black star representing the African struggle against colonialism, a green stripe representing the natural beauty of the country, a gold stripe representing the country's mineral wealth and a red stripe representing the blood shed for those who struggled for the country's independence.

South Korea: While this one is a bit more controversial given the ongoing split between North and South Korea, I am including it because I learned something new here. I somehow had no idea the Japanese controlled the Korean peninsula until the end of World War II. Independence day is officially recognized as August 15, 1945, in accordance with the Japanese surrender. The deal was brokered by the USSR and the U.S.; to the north of the 38th parallel the Japanese surrendered to the USSR, and to the south they surrendered to the US. This has marked the dividing line between North and South Korea ever since.

New Zealand: After the British experienced the fiasco that was the American Revolution, they were keen to avoid a redux. So the colonies housing relatively large British populations, among them Canada, Australia and New Zealand, were given proressively more autonomy. The New Zealand Constitution Act of 1852 gave the colony's settlers the right to self-government. The country's independence was cemented by its inclusion in the League of Nations in 1919.

Peru: The Peruvians declared their independence from Spain on July 28, 1821, although they did not have full freedom until after a three year war with the Spaniards. If you think fireworks are over the top in the US, go to Peru on July 28th: in addition to fireworks, they celebrate with bull fights and greased-pole-climbing contests!

Thailand: Thailand has no official independence day; rather, they have a "national day", celebrated each year on the king's birthday! The current king's birthday is December 5, for those inquiring minds...

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Week 26: The End of the Rubber Room

Last week, classes ended for New York City public schools. But something else ended as well, something so outrageous I literally do not know where to begin. "Rubber Rooms", more formally called Reassignment Centers, housing roughly 700 New York City public school teachers were officially shut down following a deal between Mayor Bloomberg and the city teacher's union. It's about time.

Rubber rooms consisted of education department facilities filled with teachers who for a variety of alleged disciplinary reasons were "reassigned" from their teaching jobs. Instead of facing allegations against them in a prompt, thorough way, these teachers were forced to sit in crowded, Spartan rooms from 8 AM to 3 PM each day, receiving full salary, awaiting their respective hearings. In many cases it would take months and even years before cases were heard. The allegations against teachers ranged from saying a curse word in the presence of a student to incompetence to physical abuse. Sometimes the teachers were told simply that they were being "reassigned", with no further explanation or justification. The end result? One percent of the city's teachers remained on payroll, sitting idly and waiting to either be fired or reinstated, costing taxpayers $30 million each year. What is wrong with this picture?

Interviews with teachers who spent time in the rubber room describe almost jail-like conditions. When a teacher would first report to the rubber room, he or she would show up with no instructions, and would find an extremely crowded, noisy room. The teacher would then quickly notice that the other teachers had segregated themselves by race. Making eye contact or encroaching in another teacher's space could result in a fist fight, which apparently happened often. Some teachers would turn the lights off to try and sleep, others would turn the lights back on to try and read. One particularly annoying teacher played guitar all day, every day. I heard a recording of the rubber room audio, taken by one of the interviewed teachers - it was pure cacophony. It's so bad a documentary film was made to highlight the absurdity of the situation(see the trailer here).

This system was clearly a disaster, on many levels. Teachers should not be treated like prison inmates, and disciplinary and performance issues should be addressed quickly and fairly. Taxpayers should not be paying $30 million per year for teachers to sit and watch paint dry. Students should not be able to blackmail teachers powerless to enforce discipline. How did this system exist to begin with? It is a complicated problem, encompassing macro and micro politics, principals' personal grudges, and poor school administration, to name a few... but the overwhelming problem across the board seems to be incompetence.

I'll end with a particularly depressing case and point. New York City has spent $2 million this year hiring lawyers to help fire incompetent teachers. (Of the roughly 80,000 NYC teachers, I'm sure there are more than a handful who fall into this category...) Guess how many were successfully fired? I'm serious, guess.

Three. The students deserve better than that.