Tea Time

A couple of hundred years ago, the Brits figured out the utility of tea. In China where the tea plant is native, tea had been an important human companion for thousands of years. Aside from its refreshing properties, tea offers the opportunity for a satisfying ritual.

Americans need tea time.

It was with that in mind, as well as the beverage’s healthy attributes, that I included 50 loose leaf teas in fulfilling a personal dream of opening a café.

Yes, this blog post has nothing to do with current events, politics, or social disorder.

Trailside Café & Tea Room gained success almost immediately upon opening in March 2009. The old Quonset hut building where it was housed transformed from an out-of-the-way eyesore on the outside to another place in time on the inside. Peaceful pale apricot walls, crisp white tablecloths, and framed images of people taking tea in Arabia, China, Paris, and other parts of the world helped shape an atmosphere of world community centered on tea.

Since the café closed in December 2011, I have on occasion tried to continue my gospel of tea. There’s a terrible hurdle in this effort, however. Everyone thinks they know about tea.

They don’t.

What Americans know about tea – Camellia sinensis – is a tea bag-stained glass of water heavily flavored with lemon and sugar. Friends, that’s not tea.

Well, it’s tea, but not really what tea has to offer.

Consider, for example, the many types of tea. When tea leaves are plucked from their bushes, they are spread out to dry. With no further ‘curing’ process, this become white, yellow, or green tea.

Currently there is no generally accepted definition of white tea and very little international agreement; some sources use the term to refer to tea that is merely dried with no additional processing, some to tea made from the buds and immature tea leaves picked shortly before the buds have fully opened and allowed to wither and dry in natural sun, while others include tea buds and very young leaves which have been steamed or fired before drying. Most definitions agree, however, that white tea is not rolled or oxidized, resulting in a flavor characterized as “lighter” than most green or traditional black teas.

In spite of its name, brewed white tea is pale yellow. Its name derives from the fine silvery-white hairs on the unopened buds of the tea plant, which give the plant a whitish appearance. The unopened buds are used for some types of white tea.

Oolong comes in many styles, my current favorite cup every morning being the Iron Goddess of Mercy oolong. In general, oolong is

… a traditional semi-oxidized Chinese tea produced through a process including withering the leaves under strong sun and oxidation before curling and twisting. Most oolong teas, especially those of fine quality, involve unique tea plant cultivars that are exclusively used for particular varieties. The degree of oxidation, which varies according to the chosen duration of time before firing, can range from 8–85%, depending on the variety and production style.

What most Americans think is ‘tea’ is black tea. Sadly, most teabags sold in stores contain leaf dustings and fragments after the quality leaves have been diverted to more discerning consumers.

Black tea is more oxidized than oolong, green, and white teas. Black tea is generally stronger in flavor than other teas. While green tea usually loses its flavor within a year, black tea retains its flavor for several years. For this reason, it has long been an article of trade, and compressed bricks of black tea even served as a form of de facto currency in Mongolia, Tibet and Siberia into the 19th century. Black tea accounts for over 90% of all tea sold in the West.

After the harvest, the leaves are first withered by blowing air on them. Then the leaves are processed in either of two ways, CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl) or orthodox. The CTC method produces leaves of fannings or dust grades that are commonly used in tea bags but also produces higher (broken leaf) grades. This method is efficient and effective for producing a better quality product from medium and lower quality leaves of consistently dark color. Orthodox processing is done either by machines or by hand. Hand processing is used for high quality teas. While the methods employed in orthodox processing differ by tea type, this style of processing results in the high quality loose tea sought by many connoisseurs. The tea leaves are allowed to completely oxidize.

Jeanne Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir taking tea.

Next, the leaves are oxidized under controlled temperature and humidity. (This process is also called “fermentation”, which is a misnomer since no actual fermentation takes place. Polyphenol oxidase is the enzyme active in the process.) The level of oxidation determines the type (or “color”) of the tea. Since oxidation begins at the rolling stage itself, the time between these stages is also a crucial factor in the quality of the tea; however, fast processing of the tea leaves through continuous methods can effectively make this a separate step. The oxidation has an important effect on the taste of the end product, but the amount of oxidation is not an indication of quality. Tea producers match oxidation levels to the teas they produce to give the desired end characteristics.

Then the leaves are dried to arrest the oxidation process.

Finally, the leaves are sorted into grades according to their sizes (whole leaf, brokens, fannings and dust), usually with the use of sieves. The tea could be further sub-graded according to other criteria.

Ho Chi Minh taking tea

The benefit of black tea processing methods is that by mixing, tea leaf flavors are combined, allowing product standardization. Which takes a lot of the fun out of tea.

Finally, there’s pu-erh (pronounced ‘pooh-er’). I never gained much appreciation for pu-erh. It’s an acquired taste and largely considered medicinal among the Chinese.

Fermented tea (also known as post-fermented tea or dark tea) is a class of tea that has undergone microbial fermentation, from several months to many years. The exposure of the tea leaves to humidity and oxygen during the process also causes endo-oxidation (derived from the tea-leaf enzymes themselves) and exo-oxidation (which is microbially catalyzed). The tea leaves and the liquor made from them become darker with oxidation. The most famous fermented tea is pu-erh.

Experimenting with tea to find one or more favorites doesn’t just require finding a source. (My go-to place for quality teas is Upton Tea.) One must appreciate and meticulously follow proper preparation techniques in order to gain the full flavor of the tea. This involves heating good quality water in a tea kettle (not microwave), the appropriate amount of tea leaves placed in a strainer large enough to permit full expansion of the leaves, careful timing of steep time, and avoidance of adding flavor killers like sugar, milk, or lemon.

PLEASE! Give the tea a chance!

For example, boiling water (212°) is required to steep a black tea, but absolutely ruins green or oolong tea. For those more delicate leaves, the tea kettle should be pulled from the stove when it first starts to steam, around 190°. Steep time for a Darjeeling black tea is only 2-3 minutes whereas an oolong is best at 4-5 minutes. And so forth.

Tea not only offers the stimulation of caffeine, but also of theobromine (also found in chocolate) and theophylline (also found in chocolate and when isolated, serves multiple pharmacological purposes).[1] Additionally, tea contains useful flavonoids[2], EGCG (believed useful in reducing LDL-cholesterol)[3], and other flavins (with complex health benefits)[4].

The preparation and serving of tea to oneself or a small gathering of friends can be a soothing ritual of human-scale attention to detail. The process invokes a sense of timelessness and caring. No wonder early Americans continued this tradition of their British brethren. And no wonder that King George’s 1773 outrageously high taxation of tea became the rallying point of our revolution. After that, it became unpatriotic for Americans to drink tea, instead diverting the need for a social drink to coffee.

I’ve found tea far preferable to coffee, which makes me jittery and upsets my stomach. I enjoy the variety of teas beyond my current Iron Goddess phase. I keep some good quality Darjeeling on hand as well as some Jasmine pearls (green tea scented with jasmine flowers). And my first love in tea is never far from my mind, unsweetened black tea on ice of which I once could drink gallons until I figured out why I couldn’t go to sleep at night…

At my age, tea drinking must take place before noon in order to not lie awake at midnight, which explains why the Brits can have tea time at 4 p.m. and then attend late night parties without suffering. I’ll probably never adopt the British/Irish/Scottish habit of super-strong blends like Irish Breakfast or the practice of steeping a full pot of tea with the leaves left in. As one wag noted, such preparation made tea strong enough ‘to trot a mouse over the surface.’

I haven’t even mentioned flavored teas – smoked, blended with bergamot (Earl Gray), or combined with citrus, spices, or fruits for a wide variety of flavors. Or you might one of a few Westerners who enjoy tea Tibetan style mixed with Yak butter and salt.

Consider experimenting with tea for your new year!

 

~~~

Related blog post on Tea and China here.

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theophylline

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flavonoid

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epigallocatechin_gallate

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flavan-3-ol

We Need An Internet Court

Picture this. You’ve voiced your opinion on a bill before your state senate on a public forum. The forum is the internet site of a statewide newspaper and comments are flying hot and heavy. A particular interest group takes issue with your stated opinion but instead of continuing to argue the salient points of the proposed legislation, this group begins to attack you personally.

Back in the day, ad hominem attacks were considered tacky if not downright stupid, and always discredited the attacker.[1] Any issue worth debating would naturally draw fire from all sides, but the beauty of a free society is that such debate serves the important purpose of refining the issue down to its merits and drawbacks, and the stronger side wins the day. Anyone veering off to attack the person voicing those points was swiftly dismissed as unfair and unreasonable.

Reasoned debate is the foundation of any free society wherein public policy becomes the law of the land. Without reasoned debate, policy is achieved by mob rule or dictatorial fiat. We’ve crept dangerously close to both in recent years when personal attacks have become the norm. Not satisfied to excoriate you for stating an opinion that disagreed with their own, the interest group mounts a campaign of personal destruction. Hundreds of hateful posts to your Facebook page filled with profanity and threats result in hours spent deleting and blocking such posts. Not satisfied with doxing you personally, the rabid mob also directs its attention to your professional or business Facebook page where again they curse and threaten. Again, you must delete, block, and reconfigure the page to keep future haters from adding more comments.

Clever insightful remarks from the mob aren’t their forte:

  • You are a disgrace to humanity. Glad we have your address. I have shared your comments with literally thousands of people.
  • you’re a PIG Karen!
  • Hateful cunt!!!!

But wait, there’s more. It’s a fine thing that Facebook allows account holders to regulate their pages in this way, but there are many more ways you can be harmed on the internet. For an author (or artist, musician, restaurant, club … the possibilities are endless), the ratings system gives haters a perfect avenue to close in for the kill. One star reviews or ratings for books or products listed on Amazon.com or a café or sports shop can be a fatal wound because people make decisions based on ratings.

Same for the reader/author site Goodreads.com.

On Amazon, if a review violates their guidelines, the victim can report the review. Unfortunately, this is not a one-time effort. In my case where over 50 1-star reviews were posted to my twelve books in a space of five days, it took months of repeated requests before the monitors paid any attention to my request that these reviews be removed. When the review clearly had nothing to do with the book and used hate speech against the author, Amazon removed it. But in cases where the review was more generic, it was not removed.

For example, this review was given the green light: “The author’s incoherent ramblings made watching my dog look for a place to take a dump more entertaining than this read.” Or this: “Mediocre at best. Quite a boring book actually….”[2]

At Goodreads, the staff were even less interested in enforcing their guidelines which include the obvious expectation that the reviewer has read the book. And after six months of repeated requests, they did remove the more egregious 1-star reviews. But like Amazon, there’s a catch in their guidelines. While the wording of a review is undeniable and therefore vulnerable to analysis, a 1-star rating (without a review) has no such qualities. And sadly, like Amazon, if the employee doesn’t have pertinent instruction in the guidelines about how to analyze 1-star ratings, they are powerless to think beyond that box.

In the Goodreads case, a total of 62 1-star reviews/ratings were posted to my books. Ultimately, after no small amount of effort and sleepless nights on my part, the explicitly unrelated reviews were removed. But 21 1-star ratings remain, a result of a platform operating on guidelines and no common sense. One reviewer, for example, posted fifteen 1-star ratings all on one day. That alone should be a clear sign that these reviews/ratings have nothing to do with the books AND that the reviewers never read the books. (My book sales figures also are good evidence that none of these reviewers read the books, but that’s evidence for a court case, not pleas to employees bound to follow inadequate guidelines.)

That’s not all. Special interest groups determined to attack the messenger of any information they don’t want to hear can also mount a petition at Change.org. I have signed plenty of Change.org petitions in these last several years since it came into existence. Social justice is one of my passions and what got me into this situation in the first place. Imagine my surprise to learn that Change.org does not require any evidence of the veracity of the petitioner’s cause. Like the recently publicized flap over Mark Zuckerberg’s refusal to remove patently false advertising from Facebook pages, Change.org also refuses to remove petitions even when they are libelous or slanderous.

The interest group in my case worded their petition with false claims about what I said and what I believe. No one from Change.org contacted me to determine if these claims were true before allowing the petition to move forward. The petition went out, misinformed recipients signed it, and the petition resulted in my loss of a statewide award for an article I had written the previous year. (The article had nothing to do with the subject of this particular debate. The purpose of the petition was to harm me personally.) Despite their claim that they take legal issues like libel seriously, repeated requests to Change.org were met with silence.

If these same accusations had been published in my local newspaper, I could have filed suit. But local courts have no jurisdiction in other states, much less a multitude of other states and even internationally, as the internet exists. After visiting with several attorneys and taking my complaints to the local prosecuting attorney, nothing happened. One attorney admitted that this is a black hole in law. Pressing charges against a faceless entity like Change.org or Amazon requires enough money to hire legal representation in each state where a perpetrator of the libel can be identified. That is beyond virtually every person who would ever need this kind of help.

That’s why we need an internet court, a panel of legal professionals who would hear any and all petitions from persons like me who have a case to plead. Globally, such a panel would be needed for each nation with its specific language and laws to be enforced. Instead of relying on generic ‘guidelines’ that can never fully apply to countless unique and compelling situations, the internet court would assess each case on its evidence and render thoughtful decisions based on law.

Payment for internet court attorneys would be assessed to each platform whose members are subject to harm by special interests, hate groups, and other potential attackers. The assessment would be based on the number of members/followers those platforms embrace. The controlling entity would be ICANN, a nonprofit organization composed of stakeholders from government organizations, members of private companies, and internet users from all over the world. As of 2016, ICANN has direct control over the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), the body that manages the web’s domain name system (DNS).

If you’re in my house and someone causes you harm, the onus falls to me to control the situation. If I allow people to occupy my house without me being present to provide such policing, I’m still responsible. I might leave a set of generic instructions to be followed by anyone who enters my house in my absence, but the responsibility to enforce those instructions remains on me. It’s my house.

Likewise, setting up a platform whether Change.org or Amazon.com and abandoning all direct supervision to a set of generic guidelines is a situation ripe for abuse. Enforcement of the guidelines by employees who have neither the training nor the authority to think beyond the guidelines is a joke. There will always be unique situations that require fact finding and direct analysis by a person with the appropriate skills to make a judgement call.

Internet court. It can’t come soon enough.

~~~

[1] Ad hominem (Latin for “to the person”), short for argumentum ad hominem, typically refers to a fallacious argumentative strategy whereby genuine discussion of the topic at hand is avoided by instead attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself

[2] Yes, you can sue. Maybe. https://www.howtogeek.com/352302/can-you-get-sued-for-leaving-a-bad-review/

Our Job as Citizens

As a nation operating under the concept of self-rule, we the people have to talk coherently about the issues. Mass shootings doesn’t solve our problems, but rather exemplifies our current failures as citizens. How did we get to this point?

Does the 2nd Amendment really grant the right to assault rifles and 100-round ammo clips? No, it does not. Nor do gun hoarders constitute a “well regulated militia.”

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

How did we not understand that waging a drug war against our own people would embed domestic violence in our society? Did we learn nothing from alcohol prohibition when, for fifteen years, underworld gangs selling illegal alcohol used their wealth to purchase weapons and political protection? How could Reagan and Congress think it was a good idea for “surplus” military weapons and equipment to be sold to our city police forces and used in commando tactics within our neighborhoods? How could we not see the horrible outcome of spending more money on prisons than education?

We have to talk about immigration—what will stop the mass migration of people to our borders? For over a century, our corporations have been aided and abetted by our military to plunder Latin America for its natural resources and cheap labor. We have blood on our hands in the same tradition as Spain for its 300-year devastating occupation of the same lands. Doesn’t it make more sense to invest more heavily in helping solve problems in these countries so the people don’t have to leave home in order to have an economic future free from violence? What kind of future are we creating for ourselves by destroying Latino families and traumatizing innocent children?

We have to talk about climate change. How can anyone still believe this is fake news? Are there truly so many people who don’t grasp the science of this issue that our entire nation’s public policy can get away with denying climate change exists? What happens when water supplies dry up, crops die on the ground, and there isn’t enough food?

The impacts of climate change will increasingly affect the daily lives of people everywhere in terms of employment and livelihoods, health, housing, water, food security and nutrition, and the realization of gender equality and other human rights. Impacts are expected to hit those living in poverty the hardest, partly due to their more prevalent dependency on the very natural resources affected by climate change and also because they have less capacity to protect themselves, adapt or recuperate losses.

New York Times: A Quarter of Humanity Faces Looming Water Crises By Somini Sengupta and Weiyi Cai Aug. 6, 2019

We have to talk about population—we can’t continue blindly producing more people who need food, jobs, and a place to live when all of those resources are simultaneously shrinking.

In 1950 there were 2.5 billion people on the planet. Now in 2019, there are 7.7 billion. By the end of the century the UN expects a global population of 11.2 billion.

In 2015, there were approximately 141 million births. In the same year, around 57 million people died. It’s clear why the global population is increasing: there are many more births each year than there are deaths. Around 2.5 times as many.

If we think we have an immigration problem now, just wait.

Each of us bears a responsibility to learn the facts on these and any other issues facing us as individuals, communities, and as a nation, engage in discussion with others with the goal of finding common ground, and then participate in the implementation of solutions through community action and voting.

No Surprises

German citizens saluting Adolf Hitler at the opening of the 1936 Olympic Games. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Before the sun rose on Wednesday July 24, 2019, before the widely heralded appearance of Robert Mueller before committees of the U. S. House of Representatives, Donald Trump and his cohort had long since established their response. The game plan had been distributed to their colleagues in the Senate and to their buddies at FOX News. Most importantly, the plan had been well-rehearsed by Republican House committee members who would have a front row position from which to attempt to undermine the hearings.

There would be no outrage, no cry over the evidence presented. Republican committee members would discreetly and not so discreetly question Mueller’s competence and motivation. They would grandstand their outrage at the ongoing travesty against ‘their’ president. There would be no acknowledgement of any facts presented either about the collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian efforts to sway the vote or Trump’s various attempts to obstruct the investigation.

Afterwards, the tactic was to shrug off the hearings, ho hum, the Democrats beating a dead horse. Oh dear, how upset they must be after all this hoorah and still Mueller didn’t hand them a smoking gun. A big fat nothing.

In truth, the Democrats never expected a smoking gun from Mueller. Their strategy for Mueller’s testimony was to create a televised iteration of the Mueller report for all the Trump supporters out here in the countryside who never had and never would read the actual report. They wouldn’t even read news summaries of the report, instead willing—even eager—to take Trump’s word for it, whatever it said.

Trump had it right when he said he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and no one would care. He took that to the bank. Get cozy with Russians endeavoring to subvert the election? No problem. Pretend it didn’t happen—they’ll believe it. Do everything possible to sidetrack the subsequent investigation? Whatever works. Nobody can prove it if Trump doesn’t talk and the testimony of key players like Don McGahn never sees the light of day.

Democrats should be credited for their effort to pull back the curtain on this shameful and arrogant corruption of American democracy. Their mistake, once again, is assuming that Trump supporters care about our nation more than they care about their boy. Trump legitimizes their ignorance with three-word sentences and double-speak. He shares their terror of “Other” whether other religion, other skin color, or other ethnicity, and they can’t chortle enough over their sense of ascendancy in a nation where religion, skin color, or ethnic background are not supposed to make a difference. A nation FOUNDED on the concept that all of us are created equal.

Democrats forgot that ignorance doesn’t recognize its own ignorance and isn’t eager to discover it.

The thread of idealism progressives have shared throughout our nation’s history has changed faces many times. It ran through the revolution even though many colonists clung to King George. It suffused the push to end slavery, to grant women the right to vote, and to form labor unions whose members sacrificed lives and livelihood to end child labor, gain a 40-hour work week, and ensure safe work environments. The same thread has continued through liberal ideas behind school integration, rights for the disabled, and a woman’s right to reproductive choice.

The same thread colors political discourse today, resisting the onslaught of racism and hate freed from its restraints by Donald Trump. It rises in the election of women, of people of color, to public office. It thrives in the hearts and minds of those who say “Vote Blue No Matter Who” as progressives seek to reclaim the dignity and honor of the presidency.

Trump and his horde of pitiful followers would rather risk the future of the nation than love their neighbors. They would rather spout hate speech than address the problems we face. There are solutions, and we can find them. Let’s keep our eye on the ball.

 

Our Ideals: At What Cost?

It’s a noble idea to do whatever it takes to bring out the best in every child. Even nobler is the determination to go the extra mile for children with disabilities. But while those ideals successfully pushed through legislation requiring schools to provide testing and special education for youngsters with such needs, they were less successful in funding those requirements.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), passed in 1975, is still waiting for full funding.

A January 8, 2019 article in Education Week outlines this failure in stark detail:

Congress never funded the IDEA for the full amount that was authorized when the law was first signed. At that time, Congress estimated that it cost states twice as much to educate a student with disabilities as it does to educate a general education student, and the law authorizes the federal government to give up to 40 percent of that excess cost to states.

Congress has never come close to that mark; its $12.3 billion contribution in fiscal 2018 is more like 15 percent of the excess cost.

An additional $85 billion would be required — per year — for the taxpayers to provide full funding for its 40% of the cost. And that says nothing about the 60% of the cost required from the states. When facing a total cost of over a quarter trillion dollars per year for special education, it’s no wonder legislators have shied away from mandating adequate funding.

In poorer states like Arkansas, there’s no doubt that this is an unachievable goal. As noted in my January 2019 blog post, The Undiscovered Cost of Inclusion, in many cases, special needs students are placed into regular classrooms without the support they need, leaving teachers and general education students to bear the sometimes outrageous burden posed by special needs students.

For example, schools simply do not have the money to hire a caretaker for every profoundly intellectually disabled (ID) child or tutors who might be able to make some small improvement in the life of an ID child. The end result is that, under force of law, schools must accept these children or risk being sued by distraught parents.

Few dare draw back the curtain on the real story resulting from the ADA and IDEA. It’s not just the finances, which haven’t even been calculated in over twenty years. Assessment is performed unevenly often with minority students on the losing end. Not only is funding inadequate, but distributed as unevenly as the assessments.

A 2014 report by New America, a Washington-based think tank, asserted that the out-of-date, complicated formula that the federal government uses to distribute money to states has resulted in small districts getting more federal money per student than larger districts, and shrinking school systems receiving more federal dollars than school districts that are growing.

No one has calculated present-day costs to teach an ID student, or assessed the impact of increasing numbers of autistic children. No one has figured out how to prepare classroom teachers for the increasingly common occurrence of disabled children in their classes without the caretakers they need.

Should all teachers be required to be trained in special education? Who changes the diapers? What happens to the rest of the students when teachers are forced to spend class time with special needs students?

How much is such well-intentioned legislation misleading parents into holding unreasonable expectations for their child with serious disabilities, that he or she can lead a “normal” life?

This Education Week article should be required reading for every American. We’ve placed the burden of educating special needs children on our school systems without providing adequate funding. All our children are paying the price. Not only the children, but the teachers who are underpaid in normal circumstances, and highly underpaid as well as undertrained for the task of providing proper services to disabled children.

At the very least, it is past time for studies and legislation — with adequate funding — that will reflect the current reality of special education—how many students and how impaired, the actual costs of educating them to the greatest extent possible, and which address the collateral necessity of educating general education students in a manner that advances our society.

 

Why am I furious?

This is about the institutions and businesses we have to deal with on a daily basis. This is about the failure of corporations to serve the people who depend on them for necessities. This is about the breakdown of human civilization.

Today my daughter left home at 8 a.m. to pick up a rental car which would take her on a 200-mile journey to where she would stand for her oral exams to become licensed. When she arrived at the place where she was to pick up the rental car, she found an empty lot. Apparently the corporate representative she spoke with (on more than one occasion) has no idea what’s going on in the real world. The computer told the corporate representative there was a Fayetteville office. The computer told the corporate representative that my daughter could pick up the car at 8:30 a.m. The corporate representative believed what the computer told him. He lives in India.

This is one tiny example of the customer abuse increasingly rampant across the U.S.

Go into a Walmart store. Look for something you bought three months ago. Not only is it not where you last found it, no one in the store knows if it’s been discontinued or if it’s out of stock or where else in the store it might now be located. And since Walmart has been almost universally successful in under-pricing any local competition out of business, there is no place to find that item you want.

Consider my 95-year-old mother who a few years ago agreed to a switch of her phone from Southwestern Bell to Cox since she already had Cox cable. Touted as a money saving move, the switch has meant that when Cox service is down, she has no phone. For the last two days, this woman who will be 96 in August had to walk to a neighbor’s house to use a telephone, and that worked only because the neighbor had a cell phone. Because Cox is out all over town.

Who is responsible? Who cares that this fragile woman can’t use her phone? Will she or any of the Cox customers without phone or cable service be refunded for the days Cox didn’t provide its contracted services? Ha!

Consider my nine-month old refrigerator. As if anticipating the problem, installers set the refrigerator and freezer at their lowest temperature settings. Despite that, the refrigerator has never cooled below 45° even though the FDA says 40° is the highest safe temperature for storing food. Or my new range, also nine months old. The manufacturer saved money by downgrading the controls. The oven light doesn’t come on automatically. Oven temperature is set by ten degree increments instead of five like my former range. Heat pours up from the bottom of the oven door which gaps enough that I see the flames reflected on the floor.

A couple of months ago, I came into the cross hairs of an organized hate group because I said something they didn’t like in a public policy discussion on the Arkansas Times Facebook page. Not content with rationally arguing their views on that forum, they attacked me personally and professionally. One of the places they could harm me was on Amazon.com where my books are for sale. They proceeded to go to each of my books and post 1-star reviews.

In order to report a ‘problem’ with book reviews, you must use certain links. Then the workers (in the Philippines) check the review guidelines and if the reported review violates the guidelines, they are able to remove it. If it doesn’t violate the guidelines, they can’t remove it.

Of the 39 one-star reviews posted to my books on Amazon, fourteen now remain. It took two months and over thirty online requests and repeated phone calls to Amazon service representatives to achieve even this partial success. Amazon service representatives aren’t allowed to remove reviews. That’s only accomplished through a special department which has no phone access.

One service representative kindly explained that if the review change requests aren’t formatted in a specific way, the requests can’t be processed. He took my information and submitted the change requests in the required format and as a result, eight of the 39 reviews were removed. But I never could reach him again because there are thousands of customer service representatives (in Seattle) and the service requests go to whoever is next available and none of the other seven service representatives I spoke with offered any assistance, instead referring me back to the online review report system.

Now I have fourteen 1-star reviews written between March 24 and March 30, 2019, by people whose sole intent is to harm me and there is nothing I can do about it. You would think that any platform presenting itself to the public as a service to authors would carry some responsibility to protect said authors from attacks like this. So far I haven’t found an attorney who knows enough about online entities like Amazon to advise me on whether I can sue Amazon for failing to protect me from this harm.

But I haven’t stopped trying.

The problem, in part, lies with men like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg who believe they can set up an enterprise and replace thinking human workers with lists of guidelines and/or algorithms. Anyone who’s ever had a problem on Facebook knows only too well that THERE IS NO PHONE NUMBER to call if you have a problem.

Zuckerberg has refused to delete a purposefully distorted Facebook video of Nancy Pelosi. His response? “We don’t have a policy that stipulates that the information you post on Facebook must be true.” So if it’s not their policy, it must be OK. No responsibility. No morals or ethical standards. Since Facebook is “free,” users have no rights.

I want to sit down with Bezos and explain why a list of review guidelines can never anticipate the myriad problems which might occur. I want him to invest in employees who have the authority to think on their feet. I want to punch him in the face if he doesn’t accept responsibility for the protection of authors whose books are sold on his website.

Companies routinely profit off your crisis whether it’s no rental car, no phone service, or intractable one-star reviews. By refusing to ensure employees are available for customer needs and capable of fully comprehending English and U.S. social norms, corporate moguls like Zuckerberg and Bezos zoom to the top echelons of the world’s wealthiest people along with bankers who can pull off mortgage fraud and the ultra-rich Walton heirs who insist they can’t possibly pay their employees a living wage.

News alert to the Waltons: It’s the employees who earn your fortunes.

Feeling so smug with their “success,” what these greedy MFs don’t realize (or care about) is the steady toll on our society, their contribution to the destruction of the marketplace, the rising level of anger and frustration, or the inevitable outcome when all that bottled up rage manifests itself in violence.

I like to think of a time when vacant big box stores have been converted into housing or indoor farmers markets, when I can wander into a mom and pop store and ask where to find that thing I bought three months ago and they lead me to the shelf where it’s now found. Or they tell me how long it will take for them to get the next order. You know, human interaction, smiles and apologies and gestures of good will.

I like to think of Zuckerberg spending his days sitting face to face with people subject to his data gathering and advertising, to hear real world crises with his genius setup so that he can actually understand the problem. I like to imagine Bezos being subjected to one-star reviews for his books – but then he’s never written a book, so…

I don’t have anything against the people of India or the Philippines or anywhere else where people need jobs. But I don’t think for one minute that the employment of foreign workers is about helping them. It’s about paying the cheapest possible labor in order to generate higher profits for the fat cats at the top.

It’s about pushing customers in need of those goods and services as far as possible toward the brink, of Bezos calculating that authors like me need to market on his website and will continue to use those services even if he doesn’t protect me from hate campaigns. It’s about Walmart knowing they’ve destroyed all the local stores and entire companies and product lines in order to create a monopoly on the majority of consumer goods.

None of this is new. It’s a creeping illness in our society—and the world—that has yet to hit bottom. We’re hooked on what they offer and can’t get off the hook.

How long before we revolt? The guillotine comes to mind.

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Michael Douglas in Falling Down: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkwQ6EjLdMQ

Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdIXrF34Bz0

Where Trump voters come from

Arkansas continues its dereliction of duty in educating its young people with the May 22 announcement by Gov. Asa Hutchinson that he will promote current Education Commissioner Johnny Key to the governor’s new cabinet position of Education Secretary. With this promotion, Key will add another $3,450 per year to his already ridiculous salary of $239,540 and gain ever greater leverage over the hapless citizenry of our state.

Readers may remember the insidious maneuvering required to cram Key into the commissioner position in the first place. Back in 2015, Key’s work history and educational achievements did not qualify him for the job. The law required a master’s degree and ten years teaching experience. When Gov. Hutchinson seized on the idea of putting Key in the post, a bill rushed through the legislature allowed the commissioner to evade these requirements if the deputy commission held those credentials.  Not that the commissioner would be required to obtain the advice or consent of the deputy in any given matter.

Key graduated from Gurdon (Arkansas) High School then received a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering in 1991 from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He never taught a day in his life. That is, unless you count his and his wife’s operation of two pre-schools in Mountain Home, Noah’s Ark Preschool and Open Arms Living Center, operations that for years applied for and received tax-funded grants while flagrantly teaching religion. Another state legislator, Justin Harris (West Fork) also operated illegally with such dollars for his Growing God’s Kingdom preschool. All three schools received funding from the state under the Arkansas Better Choice (ABC) program administered by the Department of Human Service (DHS). After complaints were filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the state had no choice but to amend its grant guidelines.

AU Staff Attorney Ian Smith told Church & State. “The administrators of the Arkansas Better Choice (ABC) program violated the Constitution by funding [these] religious activities.”

According to a 2011 Arkansas Times report, “Sen. Johnny Key gets almost $200,000 in public money a year in support of his Noah’s Ark Preschool in Mountain Home, which also provides Bible lessons and daily prayers. Nearly 300 agencies — many of them with religious roots — receive $100 million a year in public Arkansas Better Chance funding to provide preschool for poor children.”[1]

The stated mission of the Harris preschool was to “share the love of Jesus” with students, and the school operated with a Christian curriculum that included a “Bible time” for verses, stories and prayer. The school’s handbook also assured parents that staff members will “strive to ensure that your child feels the love of Jesus Christ while preparing them for Kindergarten.” The preschoolers, it continues, would be taught “the word of God” so that they can “spread the word of God to others.” They also prayed over students with disciplinary problems and laid on hands to “cast out demons.”

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Key began his career in public service in 1997 when he was elected to serve as a justice of the peace on the Baxter County Quorum Court. He was elected to three two-year terms in the House of Representatives, followed by a tenure in the Senate that began in 2008. Term limited out of the legislature, Key served as associate vice president for university relations at the University of Arkansas system, a position he began in August 2014, a half-year before his friend the governor found him a cozy role at the helm of the state’s education system.

Yet even while in the legislature, Key demonstrated his dedication to the extremist religious agenda in education:

He was active in education issues, including responsibility for exploding the number of seats that receive state dollars to essentially finance home-schooling, by qualifying millions in spending on “virtual charter schools” that provide assistance to students who don’t attend conventional brick-and-mortar schools. His special language, never debated on the floor, lifted the cap on such payments from 500 to 5,000 students.[2]

Simultaneously, the state excused itself from any oversight of home-schooled students. There are no tests, no monitoring, no method by which to ensure thousands of Arkansas home-schooled kids are actually learning anything,

Key has also been a champion of public charter schools in the model promoted by the Walton heirs. While first lauded as a path for parents dissatisfied with their children’s education, charter schools have come under increasing scrutiny for siphoning money away from public schools with less than excellent results. Even worse, soon after taking over as education commissioner, Key became the default school board for Little Rock’s troubled schools. The district struggles with low-income, high minority populations where schools routinely earn “D” and “F” ratings in student outcomes. Key’s answer? Charters.

Much ink has been spilled over the Little Rock situation including Key’s desire to terminate the state’s Teacher Fair Dismissal Act and the Public School Employee Fair Hearing Act in the 22 traditional schools in Little Rock. As noted by one observer, “In the absence of democratic governance and oversight, Arkansas schools are hiring unqualified teachers without a public disclosure requirement, undermining labor standards for teachers, contributing to school re-segregation, and defrauding the public.”[3]

Tracking the details of the Little Rock fiasco, the Arkansas Times reported that the previous superintendent, Baker Kurrus, who was fired by Key before his takeover, thought charter schools “probably unconstitutional when operated as parallel, inefficient and not particularly innovative or successful ventures in Little Rock. He mentioned then that the loss of 120 students for this latest expansion potentially meant a loss of approaching another $1 million in annual state support to the Little Rock District for lost students.”[4]

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No effort was made by the state to require Key or Harris to refund the millions in tax dollars they had appropriated over a period of years to operate their religious schools. And of course they didn’t honorably offer to do so. The ABC program only marginally amended its procedures for granting funding. The guidelines now require that no religious instruction occur during the “ABC day,” a set number of hours of purely secular instruction. Whether religious instruction occurs before the ABC day commences or after it ends is not the state’s concern. Since children are often picked up by school vans or dropped off by parents before the parents’ work hours and held until the end of the work day, anywhere from two to four hours of religious instruction is usually possible.

And who would know if these schools violate the ABC day with a little prayer at lunch or a few minutes of casting out demons?

The ABC program, as it stands, does not require any kind of viability test where a school would have to prove that its religious instruction could stand on its own two feet without the use of tax dollars. In fact, if tax dollars didn’t support the rent, utilities, insurance, and salaries for general operations, these schools would cease to exist. Repeated questioning of DHS / ABC money managers has yielded zero interest in developing or implementing such a test.

Neither Harris nor Key were censured for their illegal use of public funds for their religious schools. And while Harris quietly served out his remaining term in office before retreating to private life, Key has been awarded one of the highest paid positions in state government. If Key didn’t know he was breaking the law in accepting ABC grants, he’s incredibly stupid. Surely somewhere in his years of college he must have brushed up against the idea of separation of church and state and the hard line between tax dollars and religion. If he did know, he deliberately violated the U. S. Constitution, aided and abetted by the state’s willfully ignorant wink and nod.

Now Key reigns supreme over the state’s educational systems, welcomed with open arms by a governor whose own dedication to religion is no secret. After all, Asa Hutchinson is a proud graduate of none other than Bob Jones University, a private, non-denominational evangelical university in Greenville, South Carolina, known for its conservative cultural and religious stance. Refusing to admit African-American students until 1975, the school lost federal funding and ended up in court for not allowing interracial dating or marriage within its student body. BJU hit the news again in 2014 after a report revealed that administrators had discouraged students from reporting sexual abuse. [See the New York Times report.]

Apparently Johnny Key’s religious beliefs and willingness to breach the Constitution’s bright line between church and state are the primary criterion by which he has been judged the perfect man to be in charge of Arkansas education. It’s past time to assume ignorance as the underlying problem in Key’s malfeasance. The fact is that Hutchinson, Key, and every other complicit authority over our state’s educational systems knowingly evade the Constitutional separation of church and state in order to pursue their “higher calling” to religion.

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See also this recent Forbes article on the failure of charter schools.

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[1] https://arktimes.com/columns/max-brantley/2011/11/09/state-paid-bible-school

[2] https://arktimes.com/arkansas-blog/2015/02/10/whats-afoot-on-bill-to-change-qualifications-for-state-education-commissioner

[3] https://medium.com/orchestrating-change/272-broken-promises-the-lawless-aftermath-of-arkansas-act-1240-a8e26ce751e8

[4] https://arktimes.com/arkansas-blog/2016/05/07/johnny-key-fast-tracks-lr-charter-school-expansion-in-walton-helped-enterprise