Bordering on the Ludicrous

It is, indeed, a brave new world—one in which information technology ensures that the peccadilloes of one’s past will never cease to revisit themselves. To err may be human. To forgive may be divine. To forget may be impossible.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

Going to Canada? Check your past

There was a time not long ago when a trip across the border from the United States to Canada was accomplished with a wink and a wave of a driver’s license. Those days are over.

Take the case of 55-year-old Lake Tahoe resident Greg Felsch. Stopped at the border in Vancouver this month at the start of a planned five-day ski trip, he was sent back to the United States because of a DUI conviction seven years ago. Not that he had any idea what was going on when he was told at customs: “Your next stop is immigration.”

Felsch was ushered into a room. “There must have been 75 people in line,” he says. “We were there for three hours. One woman was in tears. A guy was sent back for having a medical marijuana card. I felt like a felon with an ankle bracelet.”

Or ask the well-to-do East Bay couple who flew to British Columbia this month for an eight-day ski vacation at the famed Whistler Chateau, where rooms run to $500 a night. They’d made the trip many times, but were surprised at the border to be told that the husband would have to report to “secondary” immigration.

There, in a room he estimates was filled with 60 other concerned travelers, he was told he was “a person who was inadmissible to Canada.” The problem? A conviction for marijuana possession.

In 1975.

Welcome to the new world of border security. Unsuspecting Americans are turning up at the Canadian border expecting clear sailing, only to find that their past — sometimes their distant past — is suddenly an issue.

While Canada officially has barred travelers convicted of criminal offenses for years, attorneys say post-9/11 information-gathering, combined with a sweeping agreement between Canada and the United States to share data, has resulted in a spike in phone calls from concerned travelers.

They are shocked to hear that the sins of their youth might keep them out of Canada. But what they don’t know is that this is just the beginning. Soon other nations will be able to look into your past when you want to travel there. [full text]

Taking Task with Multitasking

As you’re sitting in front of your computer reading these words, are you engaged in other activities or receiving stimuli from other sources? Are you watching television? Listening to music? Chatting on the telephone? Instant Messaging with a friend? Can you imagine doing all these things at once and still being able to devote due attention to these words? For the current generation of young people who have never known a time when information technologies were not omnipresent, such multitasking is all too often part of their daily existence. But what are the implications and consequences of this behavior? Is it healthy, particularly for those whose brains are still developing? In today’s Washington Post, Lori Aratani explores these very questions:

Teens Can Multitask, But What Are Costs?

It’s homework time and 17-year-old Megan Casady of Silver Spring is ready to study.

She heads down to the basement, turns on MTV and boots up her computer. Over the next half hour, Megan will send about a dozen instant messages discussing the potential for a midweek snow day. She’ll take at least one cellphone call, fire off a couple of text messages, scan, volunteer to help with a campus cleanup day at James Hubert Blake High School where she is a senior, post some comments on a friend’s Facebook page and check out the new pom squad pictures another friend has posted on hers.

In between, she’ll define “descent with modification” and explain how “the tree analogy represents the evolutionary relationship of creatures” on a worksheet for her AP biology class.

Call it multitasking homework, Generation ‘Net style.

The students who do it say multitasking makes them feel more productive and less stressed. Researchers aren’t sure what the long-term impact will be because no studies have probed its effect on teenage development. But some fear that the penchant for flitting from task to task could have serious consequences on young people’s ability to focus and develop analytical skills.

There is special concern for teenagers because parts of their brain are still developing, said Jordan Grafman, chief of cognitive neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

“Introducing multitasking in younger kids in my opinion can be detrimental,” he said. “One of the biggest problems about multitasking is that it’s almost impossible to gain a depth of knowledge of any of the tasks you do while you’re multitasking. And if it becomes normal to do, you’ll likely be satisfied with very surface-level investigation and knowledge.” [full text]

Tipping the Scales of Governance

It is in the nature of government—at least as it presently exists—that political interests sometimes conflict with and even hold sway over public interests. By and large, as long as the scales of governance remain weighted toward the common good, the impingement of politics is tolerable. In the last 6+ years, however, the scales have increasingly shifted away from what is in the best interests of the majority of Americans to what serves the narrow interests of the Bush political machine and its acquisitive allies. The recent firing of several highly-regarded U.S. attorneys highlights this troubling trend, as noted in the following New York Times editorial:

Why Have So Many U.S. Attorneys Been Fired? It Looks a Lot Like Politics

Carol Lam, the former United States attorney for San Diego, is smart and tireless and was very good at her job. Her investigation of Representative Randy Cunningham resulted in a guilty plea for taking more than $2 million in bribes from defense contractors and a sentence of more than eight years. Two weeks ago, she indicted Kyle Dustin Foggo, the former No. 3 official in the C.I.A. The defense-contracting scandal she pursued so vigorously could yet drag in other politicians.

In many Justice Departments, her record would have won her awards, and perhaps a promotion to a top post in Washington. In the Bush Justice Department, it got her fired.

Ms. Lam is one of at least seven United States attorneys fired recently under questionable circumstances. The Justice Department is claiming that Ms. Lam and other well-regarded prosecutors like John McKay of Seattle, David Iglesias of New Mexico, Daniel Bogden of Nevada and Paul Charlton of Arizona — who all received strong job evaluations — performed inadequately.

It is hard to call what’s happening anything other than a political purge. And it’s another shameful example of how in the Bush administration, everything — from rebuilding a hurricane-ravaged city to allocating homeland security dollars to invading Iraq — is sacrificed to partisan politics and winning elections. [full text]

Are You Depressed? Depends Where You Live

People are about as depressed as their culture lets them be — or so seems to be the indication from a recent study about rates of depression in various countries around the world. This article in Forbes explains:

…The U.S. tops the list, with 9.6% of the population experiencing bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder or chronic minor depression over the course of a year. That’s compared with a .8% rate documented in Nigeria. The findings are part of a 2004 study of 14 countries by researchers from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Harvard Medical School.

Ronald C. Kessler, professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School and principal investigator for the study, says the findings are likely related in part to Americans’ willingness to talk about their depression.

“In Nepal, for instance, it’s against the law to be mentally ill,” he says. “No surprise, nobody there admits to being mentally ill. It’s all about what people are willing to tell us.”

Wow — can you imagine a culture in which it is illegal to be mentally ill? Guess it helps keep the disability rolls down, if they even have disability rolls.

Keeping Things Under Wraps

In strikingly undeveloped countries, Kessler says, people don’t talk about being fulfilled. They’re often just focused on making it through the day.

Americans, on the other hand, tend to be forthcoming and have had much more public education about mental illness than most other countries combined, says Mary Guardino, founder of the New York-based national nonprofit mental illness advocacy group Freedom From Fear. Direct-to-consumer ads promoting prescription drugs, which aren’t legal in many countries, also encourage American consumers to seek treatment for depression. [full text]

One reason I am aware of this issue is because there are several people from other countries who work in the residential program where I work. You can tell when you talk with them that they are not culturally trained to be aware of mental illness in the same way that American-born people are.

In this way, I think other cultures may have important things to teach America about its tendency to overdiagnosis and overpathologize normal life experiences such as grief, fear, sadness, anger, and mood variability, particularly in children.

Another important aspect of this study is how it delineates the many different subjective factors that influence the diagnosing of mental illness. The article notes that the way the questions were translated to subjects had an impact on lowering the numbers of those diagnosed, as did the clinicians’ decisions about when to treat patients.

“Who Killed the Electric Car?”

I just watched a fine documentary entitled Who Killed the Electric Car? (thanks for the tip, Guy) that I would recommend to anyone interested in alternative technologies, the environment, and the ways in which corporate America and the government conspire to maintain a status quo that profits the few at the expense of the majority. The movie is currently available on DVD, and you may view its trailer below:

[direct link]

I also recommend checking out the website of the organization, Plug In America, for additional information on the topic of plug-in vehicles.

Severe Poverty Rises to 32-Year High

This article from McClatchy Newspapers provides some new statistics on rising poverty levels in the US, particularly poverty at the most severe levels — individuals earning $5080 or less a year, and families earning $9903 or less. The article also provides commentary on these statistics from think tanks of the libertarian, liberal, and conservative persuasions. From the article:

WASHINGTON – The percentage of poor Americans who are living in severe poverty has reached a 32-year high, millions of working Americans are falling closer to the poverty line and the gulf between the nation’s “haves” and “have-nots” continues to widen.

A McClatchy Newspapers analysis of 2005 census figures, the latest available, found that nearly 16 million Americans are living in deep or severe poverty. A family of four with two children and an annual income of less than $9,903 – half the federal poverty line – was considered severely poor in 2005. So were individuals who made less than $5,080 a year.

The McClatchy analysis found that the number of severely poor Americans grew by 26 percent from 2000 to 2005. That’s 56 percent faster than the overall poverty population grew in the same period. McClatchy’s review also found statistically significant increases in the percentage of the population in severe poverty in 65 of 215 large U.S. counties, and similar increases in 28 states. The review also suggested that the rise in severely poor residents isn’t confined to large urban counties but extends to suburban and rural areas.

The plight of the severely poor is a distressing sidebar to an unusual economic expansion. Worker productivity has increased dramatically since the brief recession of 2001, but wages and job growth have lagged behind. At the same time, the share of national income going to corporate profits has dwarfed the amount going to wages and salaries. That helps explain why the median household income of working-age families, adjusted for inflation, has fallen for five straight years.

These and other factors have helped push 43 percent of the nation’s 37 million poor people into deep poverty – the highest rate since at least 1975.

The share of poor Americans in deep poverty has climbed slowly but steadily over the last three decades. But since 2000, the number of severely poor has grown “more than any other segment of the population,” according to a recent study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

“That was the exact opposite of what we anticipated when we began,” said Dr. Steven Woolf of Virginia Commonwealth University, who co-authored the study. “We’re not seeing as much moderate poverty as a proportion of the population. What we’re seeing is a dramatic growth of severe poverty.”

The growth spurt, which leveled off in 2005, in part reflects how hard it is for low-skilled workers to earn their way out of poverty in an unstable job market that favors skilled and educated workers. It also suggests that social programs aren’t as effective as they once were at catching those who fall into economic despair.

About one in three severely poor people are under age 17, and nearly two out of three are female. Female-headed families with children account for a large share of the severely poor. [full text]

Real ID is Real Nightmare

Today’s Washington Post reports on the growing and diverse opposition to the federal government’s plan to create a national identification card:

As Bush’s ID Plan Was Delayed, Coalition Formed Against It

Inspired by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a sweeping federal law to tighten security requirements for driver’s licenses is in jeopardy of unraveling after missteps by Congress and the Homeland Security Department, analysts and lawmakers said.

While Washington has delayed implementing it, a rebellion against the program has grown. Privacy advocates say the effort could create a de facto national ID card. Meanwhile, state officials charge that complying with federal requirements will cost $11 billion and potentially double fees and waiting times for 245 million Americans whose licenses would have to be reissued starting next year.

The issue threatens to turn into a partisan fight. The White House expects to release its driver’s license plan, Real ID, this week and has warned congressional critics not to thwart or further delay a program that was recommended by the Sept. 11 commission.

“If we don’t get it done now, someone’s going to be sitting around in three or four years explaining to the next 9/11 commission why we didn’t do it,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee on Feb. 13.

Critics in both parties will try to delay the launch of the program by offering an amendment to legislation that Senate Democrats are pushing to implement remaining changes suggested by the Sept. 11 commission.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the homeland security panel, said in a statement that Real ID may not provide real security and that it is opposed by states “because it is overly burdensome, possibly unworkable, and may actually increase a terrorist’s ability to commit identity theft.” [full text]

For more detailed analysis of the myriad ways in which the Real ID plan is real problematic, real burdensome, and real unnecessary, visit, a companion site of the American Civil Liberties Union. The Electronic Privacy Information Center also provides extensive information and history on the Real ID Act here.