Santa gets help: Anonymous donors are paying off strangers’ layaway accounts
2011-12-15, Washington Post/Associated Press
The young father stood in line at the Kmart layaway counter, wearing dirty clothes and worn-out boots. With him were three small children. He asked to pay something on his bill because he knew he wouldn’t be able to afford it all before Christmas. Then a mysterious woman stepped up to the counter. “She told him, ‘No, I’m paying for it,’” recalled Edna Deppe, assistant manager at the store in Indianapolis. “He just stood there and looked at her and then looked at me and asked if it was a joke. I told him it wasn’t, and that she was going to pay for him. And he just busted out in tears.” At Kmart stores across the country, Santa seems to be getting some help: Anonymous donors are paying off strangers’ layaway accounts, buying the Christmas gifts other families couldn’t afford, especially toys and children’s clothes set aside by impoverished parents. Before she left the store Tuesday evening, the Indianapolis woman in her mid-40s had paid the layaway orders for as many as 50 people. On the way out, she handed out $50 bills and paid for two carts of toys for a woman in line at the cash register. “She was doing it in the memory of her husband who had just died, and she ... wanted to make people happy with it,” Deppe said. The woman did not identify herself and only asked people to “remember Ben,” an apparent reference to her husband.
Are We Getting Nicer?
2011-11-24, New York Times
It's pretty easy to conclude that the world is spinning down the toilet. Despite the gloomy mood, the historical backdrop is stunning progress in human decency over recent centuries. War is declining, and humanity is becoming less violent, less racist and less sexist — and this moral progress has accelerated in recent decades. To put it bluntly, we humans seem to be getting nicer. That's the central theme of an astonishingly good book just published by Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard. It's called The Better Angels of Our Nature. [Pinker] acknowledges, "In a century that began with 9/11, Iraq and Darfur, the claim that we are living in an unusually peaceful time may strike you as somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene." Still, even in a 20th century notorious for world war and genocide, only around 3% of humans died from such manmade catastrophes. In the 17th century, the Thirty Years' War reduced Germany's population by as much as one-third. Wars make headlines, but there are fewer conflicts today, and they typically don't kill as many people. Many scholars have made that point, most notably Joshua S Goldstein in his recent book, Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide. Look also at homicide rates, which are now far lower than in previous centuries.
Note: For more great research showing that long-term, we are becoming nicer and more civilized, click here.
Tax rich more, Patriotic Millionaires urge
2011-10-03, San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco's leading newspaper)
Los Altos resident Doug Edwards asked President Obama something that many Americans would consider unthinkable: "Would you please raise my taxes?" Edwards, 53, can afford it. Retired after being amply compensated for being employee No. 59 at Google, he's part of a Bay Area-birthed organization called Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength. The Patriotic Millionaires contend that Americans with incomes over $1 million should shoulder a larger share of the tax burden to pay for Pell Grants, road improvements and training programs "that made it possible for me to get to where I am," as Edwards told Obama during the president's appearance last week at the Mountain View social networking company LinkedIn. Polls say most respondents agree that rich folks should pony up, as the effective tax rates for the wealthiest Americans - what people actually pay after deductions and exemptions - are at their lowest levels since 1960. And the income gap between the wealthiest and poorest Americans is at its widest mark since the Great Depression. Last year, Obama did not live up to his campaign promise to rescind the Bush-era tax cuts on upper-income Americans.
Note: Did you know that the marginal income tax rate on the very rich in the U.S. is the lowest it has been in more than 80 years? Under President Dwight Eisenhower ... it was 91 percent. Now it's 36 percent. For more on this, click here.
Mary's Meals: feeding the world from a garden shed
2009-01-21, The Telegraph (One of the UK's leading newspapers)
To Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, his father's shed in Dalmally, Argyll, has acquired a talismanic significance. It's where he stockpiled food and clothes for Bosnian refugees in the 1990s – an amateurish humanitarian mission that eventually led him to sell his house, give up his job and concentrate on the much bigger project of feeding poor children in Third World countries. Mary's Meals ... now provides a daily school meal for 350,000 children across Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe. In Malawi, it feeds 10 per cent of the primary-school population. That one meal – provided for as little as £8.50 a year – is a passport to education and a way out of poverty. The idea of providing school-age children with one good meal a day sprang from the simple wish of a 14-year-old boy in Malawi. Edward was one of five children whose mother was dying of Aids. He told MacFarlane-Barrow that his twin ambitions were to have enough to eat and to go to school. The Scotsman grasped immediately that if the promise of a meal could lure a child to school, then education could offer an escape from dependence. "It is ridiculous", he says, "that people are hungry when you can feed them for so little. There are dangers to growing, but we wouldn't want to put a limit on it, because there is such a momentum. There are millions of children out there who need this desperately. I don't think we could stop it now, even if we wanted to."
Tech-savvy Iceland goes online for new constitution
2011-06-12, USA Today/Associated Press
How do you write a new constitution in the 21st century? You go where the people are — online. That was the decision of tiny but tech-savvy Iceland, which is overhauling its constitution in the wake of an economic catastrophe, and has turned to the Internet to get input from citizens. The 25-member council drafting the new constitution is reaching out to Icelanders online, especially through social media sites Facebook and Twitter, video-sharing site YouTube and photo site Flickr. Iceland's population of 320,000 is among the world's most computer-literate. Two-thirds of Icelanders are on Facebook, so the constitutional council's weekly meetings are broadcast live on the social networking site as well as on the council's website. "To me, it has long been clear that a comprehensive review of the constitution would only be carried out with the direct participation of the Icelandic people," said Iceland's Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, one of the champions of the constitutional review since taking office in 2009. The 25 members of the constitutional council were elected by popular vote from a field of 522 candidates aged 18 and over. The council is basing its work on a 700-page report prepared by a committee that took into account the findings of 950 randomly selected Icelanders — the National Forum — who met for a day to discuss the division of powers, conservation and protection, foreign relations and more.
Note: The media has given little coverage to how Iceland's public has repeatedly rejected strong pressure from international banks to buckle to their demands. For a great article going into this, click here.
ABC: What it's like to experience a brush with death
2011-08-03, ABC15 (Phoenix ABC affiliate)
ABC’s Bob Woodruff probed the mysteries of near death experiences – including his own – in a special “Primetime Nightline.” ABC15 spoke with Woodruff. He told us so many people he interviewed for the story had an out-of-body experience, similar to his own when his group was hit by an IED 5 years ago while covering the war in Iraq. He told us when he woke up 36 days later he remembered seeing his body floating below him. Woodruff says others he spoke with describe experiences like his, but the thing he found interesting was, all of them say they weren’t scared. “Everyone said it was comfort, there was a lack of fear, and certainly no pain. All of them share that, no matter who they are that’s gone through this and it’s very, very interesting.” Woodruff also spoke with several doctors and scientists, who don’t necessarily reject these out-of-body experiences, but they’re just looking for answers. ABC15 wanted to know, how the people he interviewed felt about coming back to this world. Woodruff says, “Almost everybody said not only that they thought about staying, but generally wanted to stay. I, in some ways, was fine with staying.”
Company uses social media to streamline compassion
2011-03-20, CNN News
Beremedy is an organization that utilizes social media such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs to streamline the donation of food, clothing and furniture to people in need. The name is a short way to say "you be the remedy for someone in need." Blake Canterbury is a charming 26-year-old with a background in new media marketing. He founded Beremedy in 2009, after flooding washed over parts of Atlanta, in order to get items such as baby formula and diapers to people in need. "Everyone I've ever met in my entire life wanted to help other people; they just didn't know where to start," Canterbury says. "We thought, 'What would this city look like with 10,000 people getting a text message at the same time of needs in their community? Surely people would want to help with that." The process is simple: Canterbury receives needs from nonprofits, school social workers and individuals looking for help directly on Beremedy.org. Canterbury and a team of four volunteers use Google Wave to communicate about what needs they will accept or deny. Once a need is determined, a member of the team is assigned as case manager and writes a blurb about the story. Canterbury blasts out the write-up on Twitter and Facebook with a link back to the full story on Beremedy's site.
D.I.Y. Foreign-Aid Revolution
2010-10-24, New York Times
Like so many highly trained young women these days, Elizabeth Scharpf has choices. She could be working in a Manhattan office tower with her Harvard Business School classmates, soaring through the ranks as a banker or business executive and aspiring to become a senator or a C.E.O. someday. After all, there’s no question that women around the world enjoy opportunities that simply didn’t exist a few decades ago. Yet the women exerting the greatest pressure for change often aren’t the presidents and tycoons but those toiling further down the pyramid, driven by a passion to create a better world. And in particular, a better world for women. That’s Scharpf’s choice. Now 33, Scharpf was interning in the summer of 2005 for the World Bank in Mozambique, helping local entrepreneurs, when she encountered a business impediment that she had never heard of. It was unmentionable, and thus unmentioned. It was menstruation. And so Scharpf joined a revolution, so far unnamed because it is just beginning. It’s all about what might be called Do-It-Yourself Foreign Aid, because it starts with the proposition that it’s not only presidents and United Nations officials who chip away at global challenges. Passionate individuals with great ideas can do the same, especially in the age of the Internet and social media.
Note: For the website of the organization Scharpf founded, Sustainable Health Enterprises, click here.
With moving truck, Fla. couple threatens bank with foreclosure
2011-06-06, MSNBC/Associated Press
Months after Bank of America wrongly foreclosed on a house Warren and Maureen Nyerges had already paid for, they were still fighting to get reimbursed for the court battle. So on Friday, their attorney showed up at a branch office in Naples with a moving truck and sheriff's deputies who had a judge's permission to seize the furniture if necessary. An hour later, the bank had written a check for $5,772.88. "The branch manager was visibly shaken," attorney Todd Allen said Monday, recalling the visit to the bank last week. "At that point I was willing to take the desk and the chair he was sitting in." After the moving company and sheriff's deputies get their share, the Nyerges should receive the rest of the money this week, ending a bizarre saga that started when they paid Bank of America $165,000 cash for a 2,700-square-foot (250 meter) foreclosed home in Naples in 2009. About four months later, a process server knocked on their door and handed Warren Nyerges a notice of foreclosure. That started 18 months of frustrating phone calls, paperwork and court hearings. Whenever Nyerges called the bank, representatives told him to "come up to date" with his payments. When he called 25 different law firms, no attorney would take the case. When he went to court, the lawyers for the bank filed incorrect motions and were woefully unprepared for the hearings.
Note: For a great two-minute video on this most unusual happening, click here.
Sustainable farming takes root in agriculture
2011-05-16, San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco's leading newspaper)
The sustainable farming movement, cradled in Northern California, has gone mainstream, challenging the industrial model that has ruled American farming for more than half a century.
Eight big foundations - the Ford Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation - have just banded together in a group, called AGree, to examine food systems and mediate the conflict between conventional and alternative farming. An emerging scientific consensus that alternative farm systems work, and that the environmental and health costs of industrial agriculture are too high, has drawn powerful new interests to what was a parochial arena controlled by commodity groups. These costs in the United States include depletion of soil fertility and aquifers, from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the Ogallala aquifer in the High Plains. They also include giant algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico from fertilizer runoff in the Mississippi River, antibiotic resistance from heavy use of antibiotics in livestock, pollinator loss from pesticides and large-scale, single-crop farming, and water pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations.
European Orchestra to Perform in Gaza Strip
2011-05-02, Wall Street Journal
Daniel Barenboim, a renowned Israeli conductor and Palestinian rights activist, will bring an orchestra of European musicians for a performance in the Gaza Strip on [May 3]. The concert ... would mark a rare solidarity visit from a major international cultural figure to the blockaded Palestinian territory since Hamas' takeover in 2007. The performance comes on the eve of the signing of a reconciliation accord in Cairo between Hamas and Fatah, the other leading Palestinian faction in the West Bank. Mr. Barenboim's visit is likely to enhance the already raised expectations for the end of Gaza's years of isolation. Enlisting musicians from orchestras in Berlin, Vienna, Paris and Milan, Mr. Barenboim has an assembled an outfit dubbed the "Orchestra for Gaza." The group plans to fly from Berlin to Egypt and then cross the border into Gaza for a brief visit that will include a concert at a cultural center outside of Gaza City. Just last week, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Al Araby said he plans to remove restrictions at the Rafah crossing at the border with Gaza within days, a shift in policy that could lift a several-year-old blockade that has prevented most of the 1.5 million Palestinians from leaving the tiny coastal strip.
Avaaz – the online activist network that is targeting Rupert Murdoch's bid
2011-04-24, The Guardian (One of the UK's leading newspapers)
If you had been on the Strand in London on the day that the high court was considering how to proceed with scores of civil actions against the News of the World for its phone-hacking escapades, you would have seen a peculiar sight. About 30 people were gathered on the steps of the court, the palms of their hands painted red, bearing banners that read: "Murdoch's men caught red-handed." On the same day, ... another group of 25 people had gathered. They were leafleting shoppers about the News of the World scandal and calling on the government to delay approval of Rupert Murdoch's bid to takeover BSkyB until a full public inquiry could be held. Both events were the work of one of the most successful of a new breed of internet campaigner, in this case a global activism network called Avaaz, which means voice in Urdu and several other languages. Avaaz, formed in 2007, has more than eight million members in 193 countries and can claim to be the largest online activist community in the world. This year alone it has attracted an extra one million members and it is now wholly self-funding with about $20m (£12m) raised so far in online donations. "We have no ideology per se," says director Ricken Patel. "Our mission is to close the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want. Idealists of the world unite!"
Israeli Luminaries Press for a Palestinian State
2011-04-20, New York Times
Dozens of Israel’s most honored intellectuals and artists have signed a declaration endorsing a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders and asserting that an end to Israel’s occupation “will liberate the two peoples and open the way to a lasting peace.” The signers plan to announce their position on [April 21] from the same spot in Tel Aviv where the Jewish state declared its independence in the spring of 1948. The page-long declaration is expected to be read there by Hanna Maron, one of the country’s best-known actresses and a winner of the Israel Prize, the country’s most prestigious award. “The land of Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish people where its identity was shaped,” the statement begins. “The land of Palestine is the birthplace of the Palestinian people where its identity was formed.” It goes on to say that now is the time to live up to the commitment expressed by Israel’s founders in their Declaration of Independence to “extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness.” Two weeks ago, another group of several dozen prominent Israelis, many of them from the fields of security and business, issued what they called the Israeli Peace Initiative, a more detailed but somewhat similar plan for a two-state solution. Both groups say they are upset by their government’s policies in this regard, which they consider insufficient.
Micro-loan portal Kiva celebrates 5 years
2010-10-10, San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco's leading newspaper)
Micro-asset financing is a relatively recent innovation in micro-finance - which is best known for small loans issued to people trying to escape poverty by starting a business - and is an example of how the field has explored different loan models. Kiva, celebrating its fifth anniversary on [October 13], took that experimentation to a new level in 2005 when it coupled the Internet and large numbers of individual lenders with needy borrowers. Using a Web portal, Kiva facilitates loans from individuals who can log onto its site and read borrowers' stories. Kiva partners with lending organizations in developing countries, which take the no-interest loans from Kiva and distribute them locally. Kiva lenders are paid back if the borrower succeeds, but do not earn interest. In recent years, with the help of Kiva, micro-finance as an anti-poverty tool has quickly grown in popularity. Economist Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank in Bangladesh are credited with pioneering the micro-finance movement in the mid-1970s by lending small amounts of money to basket weavers. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his efforts. But the concept received much broader exposure in the United States after Kiva came along. Described by some as "the Internet generation's answer to charity," Kiva became the philanthropy du jour for a time, and in the United States, was endorsed by celebrities and academics alike.
Note: For our excellent essay on building a better world through microlending, please visit this link.
Vatican astronomer cites possibility of extraterrestrial 'brothers'
2008-05-14, New York Times
The Vatican's chief astronomer says there is no conflict between believing in God and in the possibility of extraterrestrial "brothers" perhaps more evolved than humans. "In my opinion this possibility exists," said the Reverend José Gabriel Funes, head of the Vatican Observatory and a scientific adviser to Pope Benedict XVI, referring to life on other planets. "How can we exclude that life has developed elsewhere," he said in an interview with the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano. The large number of galaxies with their own planets makes this possible, he noted. Asked if he was referring to beings similar to humans or even more evolved than humans, he said: "Certainly, in a universe this big you can't exclude this hypothesis." In the interview headlined, "The extraterrestrial is my brother," he said he saw no conflict between belief in such beings and faith in God. "Just as there is a multiplicity of creatures on earth, there can be other beings, even intelligent, created by God. This is not in contrast with our faith because we can't put limits on God's creative freedom," he said. "Why can't we speak of a 'brother extraterrestrial'? It would still be part of creation." Funes, who runs the observatory that is based south of Rome and in Arizona, held out the possibility that the human race might actually be the "lost sheep" of the universe.
There could be other beings "who remained in full friendship with their creator," he said.
Note: For a fascinating summary of evidence presented by government and military professionals for the possible presence of extraterrestrials here on Earth, click here.
Computers set for quantum leap
2010-09-16, Financial Times
A new photonic chip that works on light rather than electricity has been built by an international research team, paving the way for the production of ultra-fast quantum computers with capabilities far beyond today’s devices. Future quantum computers will, for example, be able to pull important information out of the biggest databases almost instantaneously. As the amount of electronic data stored worldwide grows exponentially, the technology will make it easier for people to search with precision for what they want. Jeremy O’Brien, director of the UK’s Centre for Quantum Photonics, who led the project, said many people in the field had believed a functional quantum computer would not be a reality for at least 25 years. “However, we can say with real confidence that, using our new technique, a quantum computer could, within five years, be performing calculations that are outside the capabilities of conventional computers,” he told the British Science Festival, as he presented the research. The immense promise of quantum computing has led governments and companies worldwide to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the field. Big spenders, including the US defence and intelligence agencies concerned with the national security issues, and governments ... see quantum electronics as the foundation for IT industries in the mid-21st century.
UN: Number of hungry people declines
2010-09-14, Washington Post/Associated Press
The number of chronically hungry people in the world dipped considerably below the 1 billion mark - the first drop in 15 years - thanks partly to a fall in food prices after spikes that sparked rioting a few years ago, U.N. agencies said [on September 14]. Still, an estimated 925 million people are undernourished worldwide, and the latest figures don't reflect the repercussions from the massive flooding in Pakistan. The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization's report suggested some progress in the battle to end hunger, but stressed the world is far from achieving the U.N. promoted Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of undernourished people from 20 percent in 1990-92 to 10 percent in 2015. The report estimated there are 98 million fewer chronically hungry people than in 2009, when the figure just topped 1 billion. The drop in the chronically hungry is partly because ... cereal and rice harvests have been strong. Cereal production this year was the third-highest ever recorded, despite a drought-fueled wheat shortfall in Russia, said FAO director-general Jacques Diouf. Also heartening, Diouf noted, is that cereal stocks are high - some 100 million tons more than the low levels of 2007-2008, when some 38 countries shut down their food export markets in reaction.
Glassdoor offers view inside firms like HP
2010-09-08, San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco's leading newspaper)
If the workplace review site Glassdoor is to companies what Yelp is to restaurants, then Hewlett-Packard Co. employees gave former chief executive Mark Hurd only two stars, but remain hopeful of a four- or five-star successor. In the past, those kinds of inside insights into employee morale at any corporation could be locked away behind closed doors. But in the open world of the Web, sites like Glassdoor have moved those sentiments into the open market, giving voice to rank-and-file workers in a way that no company suggestion box ever could. "In a world with Glassdoor and Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn, there's a tsunami of transparency washing over the employment space," Glassdoor Inc. CEO Robert Hohman said. The Sausalito company lets any employee post reviews about the overall workplace environment, both the pros and the cons of working there and "advice for senior management." The reviews are posted anonymously, to encourage openness without fear of retribution. In the two years since its launch, the site has grown from having reviews for about 3,000 companies to now having about 90,000 companies, including Bay Area giants like Chevron Corp., Intel Corp., Oracle Corp., Wells Fargo & Co., Facebook Inc. and, of course, HP.
Note: The transparency offered by the Internet is making a big difference.
'Life's Purpose' author Eckhart Tolle is serene, critics less so
2010-04-15, USA Today
Are you weighted down by your past? Anxious about tomorrow? Stewing over how to face today? Stop. Drop those thoughts. Breathe. Be still. Just be. Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle will tell you this is the ultimate path to inner peace, available to you any time. All you have to do is let go of all your thoughts. Of course, that's a lot trickier than it sounds. Hence, Tolle's soaring popularity as a guide to living in the present un-tense. His most recent book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose, a sequel to his earlier best seller, The Power of Now, has sold 6 million copies. When Oprah Winfrey read it, she was so inspired that she invited him to co-host a 10-week set of Internet seminars on how to simply be. So far, 35 million people worldwide have viewed these "webinars." In July, he launched Tolle TV, an Internet channel featuring his videotaped teachings and meditations. Subscriptions to Tolle TV, at $14.95 to $19.95 a month, cost less than a movie and popcorn, and a growing amount of the content — his lectures, teachings and meditations — is free. Most of the proceeds of his books and teaching tours are plowed back into Tolle TV's elaborate professional productions, or the overhead for lecture halls.
Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again
2010-04-11, New York Times
Scientists are taking a new look at hallucinogens, which became taboo among regulators after enthusiasts like Timothy Leary promoted them in the 1960s with the slogan ï¿½Turn on, tune in, drop out.ï¿½ Now, using rigorous protocols and safeguards, scientists have won permission to study once again the drugsï¿½ potential for treating mental problems and illuminating the nature of consciousness. Researchers from around the world are gathering this week in San Jose, Calif., for the largest conference on psychedelic science held in the United States in four decades. They plan to discuss studies of psilocybin and other psychedelics for treating depression in cancer patients, obsessive-compulsive disorder, end-of-life anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction to drugs or alcohol. Scientists are especially intrigued by the similarities between hallucinogenic experiences and the life-changing revelations reported throughout history by religious mystics and those who meditate. These similarities have been identified in neural imaging studies conducted by Swiss researchers and in experiments led by Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins. In one of Dr. Griffithsï¿½s first studies, involving 36 people with no serious physical or emotional problems, he and colleagues found that psilocybin could induce what the experimental subjects described as a profound spiritual experience with lasting positive effects for most of them.
Note: For key reports on health issues from reliable sources, click here.