Do Something

Nobody can do everything, but everybody should do something. Here’s what I’ve been doing:

  • I’ve written to my congressman asking him to support HR 7085, a bill that would end qualified immunity for police.
  • I’ve written to my senators asking them to end the war on drugs, which disproportionately affects black Americans (34 percent of our prisoners, for example, are black even though black Americans constitute about 13 percent of the general population). I specifically cited the murder of Breonna Taylor and asked them to legalize schedule I and II substances, defund and eliminate the Drug Enforcement Agency, invest funds into treatment and healthcare, and introduce legislation matching HR 7085 to end qualified immunity for police.
  • I’ve donated to the NAACP. I’ve also seen a lot of people donating to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is a separate organization. Mrs. Kuhl has given to the Black Visions Collective based in Minneapolis.
  • I’ve been volunteering four days a week at our local food pantry, which has transitioned to a drive-thru service due to covid-19. Forty percent of homeless people are black.

It’s not much but it’s something. Maybe you’ve already done something too. If you haven’t, maybe you should.

Tales From the Coronapocalypse

The pandemic has sharply increased demand at food pantries:

The San Francisco-Marin Food Bank in California has built “pop-up” pantries after some of its previous 275 or so sites had to stop operating during the pandemic, spokeswoman Keely Hopkins said. The new sites, many of which are serving hundreds of people per day, stay open for longer hours and use open spaces such as parking lots to facilitate social distancing, she added.

Paid staffers are diving in at many food banks to stock, sort and bag food for either delivery or drive-thru pickups, a measure they realized was necessary to protect volunteers, many of whom are older and particularly at risk for complications from the virus. Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee limits volunteers to 10 per room to fill boxes.

The board of the East Nashville Cooperative Ministry has proposed closing because so many of its volunteers are elderly, including Judy Wahlstrom, who runs the program.

[Associated Press]

For the past two weeks I’ve been volunteering via CERT at our local food pantry, which has switched to drive-thru service to maintain social distancing. I can testify to many of this story’s main points. The first few days we had plenty of fresh produce and frozen meat to give away, donated by restaurants who had more than they could use and a local country club cleaning out its freezer. Now most of that stuff is gone, with little promise of future donations. The only thing we have in abundance? Easter candy — boxes upon boxes of donated Easter candy. Meanwhile, one long-time pantry volunteer told me that several pantries in neighboring Bridgeport have shut down because they were staffed by elderly volunteers who didn’t want to risk going to work.

Pork and beef will likely become scarcer at grocery stores too:

Smithfield Foods Inc., the world’s biggest pork producer, indefinitely shut down a slaughter plant in South Dakota this week after hundreds of workers tested positive for Covid-19. The plant typically accounted for 4% to 5% of total hog processing in the U.S.

Two people who worked at a Tyson Foods Inc. pork plant in Iowa died and two dozen are ill, with operations down. Three people died who worked at a Tyson poultry plant in Georgia. A worker at a Cargill Inc. plant in Colorado also died. JBS USA delayed the reopening of a Pennsylvania beef plant from Thursday to Monday.

[Bloomberg]

One of the survivalist lessons I took away from Sandy was to learn to cook vegetarian. Without power for a week, the meat in our fridge went fast. A few times I bought meat in the late afternoon, then took it home and immediately grilled it (we had our Weber charcoal grill plus a little propane stove), but as I boiled my umpteenth pot of ramen noodles I realized I needed to round out my menu options with ingredients that didn’t need refrigeration. While my vegetarian repertoire is still small — my two mainstays are eggplant curry and tarka dhal — it sounds like it may be expanding soon.

In Europe and Canada, farmers are flying in foreign workers to pick their crops. Here in the States, the problem is lack of demand:

At C&E, restaurant and business closures have led to an estimated 40% decline in demand for the farm’s green beans, Colson said. With the drop in business in Florida, Colson says the farm has had to leave beans out in the field — meaning they will die off.

In an interview last week from his farm in Florida, Colson said they’d had 3 million pounds of green beans that weren’t able to go to fresh market. Most of that was sold at a reduced price to canneries.

The rest, roughly a quarter million pounds, was left in the field.

[Daily Press]

My solution: ask volunteers to pick a portion of the crops on behalf of local food banks and pantries, then allow farmers to take the full market value of the donation as a tax deduction.

And people would volunteer to pick green beans because, in general, they’re helpful:

In the wake of a catastrophic earthquake in Turkey in 1999, the emergency relief expert Claude de Ville de Goyet berated media organisations for propagating what he called “disaster myths.” “While isolated cases of antisocial behavior exist,” he wrote, “the majority of people respond spontaneously and generously.”

[Financial Times]

I’ve run into the disaster myth too. After Sandy, the National Guard was deployed in our neighborhood, patrolling the beaches in full tactical gear — like something from Smedley’s era, there were rumors of boats coming across the Sound full of thieves targeting the abandoned houses along the shore. Even today I’ll still hear someone talk about the alleged looting that took place during Sandy. Yet there wasn’t a single documented incident of local looting or vandalism during Sandy or its aftermath.

Not only are people generally decent and courteous in bad times, they often look for ways to help. Our local firefighters have been turning away people who show up at the station asking to volunteer: they’re untrained and unvetted, so they direct them toward private charities instead (which is a good point — if you’re looking to volunteer, then recognize it helps to be something more than a summer soldier or sunshine patriot). But the fact that our first responders have to decline offers for assistance rather than patrol against window-smashing pillagers speaks volumes about human behavior during crises.

The Case of Blackbeard’s Anchor

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Allen v. Cooper, a case centered around the issues of copyright and Blackbeard. My worlds are colliding!

The Allen in the case title is Rick Allen, who owns an underwater video and photography company called Nautilus Productions LLC. In 1996, Blackbeard’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, was discovered in North Carolina waters, and afterward Nautilus contracted with Intersal Inc, the company that located and identified the wreck, for the exclusive image rights to the recovery operation. This meant that no one else was allowed to take photos of the shipwreck in situ (which is beyond the ability of most photographers anyway as the wreck lies 28 feet down about a mile offshore) or of pieces and artifacts of the wreck as they were brought to the surface. I’m not sure what the status was of photographing the artifacts once they reached dry land.

The state’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources lacked the funds to recover the Queen Anne’s Revenge themselves, so they hired Intersal to salvage it instead. In return for foregoing any claim to the artifacts, including coins or precious metals, Intersal was granted exclusive media and replica rights to the wreck. This allowed Intersal to profit on their salvage work by creating educational media and other promotional materials. Bear in mind that because the wreck belongs to the state of North Carolina, Intersal never had a claim to the artifacts in the first place.

Turns out your humble blogger Jackson once had a run-in with Allen and Nautilus over this very issue. Way back in 2009, I posted an update when the Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Project (the aegis of the state, Intersal, Nautilus, and who knows who else) raised a grapnel anchor from the seabed. I illustrated the post with a photo of the anchor taken from North Carolina’s own project media page, which is to say, my source ended in .gov.

Now, generally speaking, using images or photos from government sites for newsworthy purposes is considered fair use. When quoting text from a source, public or otherwise, it’s fair use if you quote less than 10 percent of the whole body. Photos can be dicier because no one uses 10 percent of a photo — they show the whole thing. Furthermore, not all government entities have a grasp of fair use or even basic copyright: when I was writing Smedley, the Connecticut State Archives demanded that I request permission to quote any sources in their possession by filling out a separate form for each citation, claiming that they owned the copyrights to all of their materials. This is complete and total bullshit, of course, because nobody owns the copyright to letters or documents written 230+ years ago, so I never complied. But again, complications notwithstanding, generally it’s OK to use stuff from government sites for journalistic purposes, particularly when the page is designed as a digital press release, as was the case here.

A couple of years after I wrote that post, I received a very aggressive email from Nautilus Productions threatening to sue me. They claimed they had exclusive permission to all images of the wreck, and they demanded that I pay them three times the cost of the image’s price as compensation for this alleged crime of reprinting their photo on my site.

I responded that I was happy to take the photo down — again, the post was already a couple of years old at this point — but I added that I’d taken it from North Carolina’s own project page, so fair use. A few days later, I received a much more conciliatory email suggesting that I could keep the photo as long as I added a credit to Allen and Nautilus Productions in the caption. I had the impression they hadn’t known about the photo on the state page beforehand and they realized their accusation of infringement against me was weak.

I added a strikethroughed credit to the post but removed the photo — like I give a fig about a bunch of chuckleheads who can’t even figure out who has permission to use a photo of an 18th-century anchor. In journalism, when you write something bad about someone you’re not surprised when they resent it, but nothing is as frustrating as writing good or at least neutral news, only for the person to whip around and bite your hand like a snake. The whole incident annoyed me so much that I stopped reporting about the project on the blog altogether.

Apparently, that photo wasn’t the only image used by the state against Nautilus’s wishes, and in 2013, all of the parties — North Carolina, Intersal, and Nautilus — clarified their positions regarding photos and videos. They started quarreling again soon afterward, and Nautilus sued the state for copyright infringement, to which the state argued the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act gave them sovereign immunity from lawsuits. The North Carolina legislature also passed a law making all photos and videos of state shipwrecks public domain (dubbed “Blackbeard’s Law”), which further pissed off Nautilus and added to their litigation. Intersal also separately sued the state.

No excavation of Queen Anne’s Revenge has occurred since 2015 due to all of the lawsuits.

The case as it stands now before SCOTUS is less about pirates and photographs than it is about sovereign immunity. You can read a full summary of the case’s history here, and even take a headlong dive into the weeds with the transcript of the oral arguments here (pdf).

While I don’t begrudge Intersal or Nautilus some means of compensation for their salvage efforts, I’m also dubious of private companies claiming exclusivity of resources or research when tax dollars are involved (I’m looking straight at you, Elsevier). What I don’t understand is why North Carolina didn’t specify that Nautilus must provide them with a certain amount of open content for public relations; or if they did, why the state then violated the agreement. Governments are as fickle and arbitrary as diseased raccoons, so I can imagine North Carolina’s state attorneys changing their minds while the ink was still wet on the 2013 settlement.

On the other hand, if no such agreement existed, then Nautilus’s naivete of the political environment is astounding. The politicians who write and pass the budgets, not to mention the public who pays for them, will want to see pictures of the shipwreck they’re partially funding, so Nautilus should’ve thrown them some freebies. If that’s what happened, then Nautilus has nothing but their own greed to blame for their current legal hell.

We’ll find out what SCOTUS decides next summer.

Story Terrace

Late last year, I scored a gig writing for Story Terrace, a UK-based company that’s expanded into the US.

Story Terrace publishes memoirs and autobiographies ghostwritten by a stable of authors, who interview the subject at her home and then compose a finished book complete with photos and a professional layout. The company has gone through several rounds of investment, including a crowdfunding effort this past summer that raised more than £617,000.

So far I’ve written three books of varying lengths for Story Terrace: the first was a memoir of a successful lawyer about his years growing up in Queens in the 1930s and 40s, while the other two were biographies of an Italian-American couple and an Irish-American woman, all of them immigrants who left the poverty of their homelands and achieved the American dream. It’s fun and rewarding work — much more rewarding, in fact, than I had anticipated.

Initially I was reluctant to write about the gig publicly because the position was originally advertised as “ghostwriter.” Years ago, in addition to the bylined articles I wrote for them, I did some ghostwriting for Dig and Calliope, the children’s magazines about archaeology and history, which I was actively discouraged from talking about.

That, I now realize, was ghostwriting of a very different stripe. The editor loathed having to deal with PhDs with their jargonized writing styles, outsized egos, and complete lack of respect for any form of deadline, so in a few cases she found it easier to assign the writing to me and then, after a cursory review by the academic in question, slap Professor Snootynose’s name on it. I didn’t particularly care about the byline — as long as the check clears, I’m good — but I was also sworn to super-duper secrecy with cherries on top, lest the professor be unmasked as a fraud by his peers, ridiculed, and driven like a mangy dog from the ivy-covered halls. The editor took pains to stress how seriously I needed to keep my lips shut — because we all know how tolerant our colleges and universities are.

The work I do for Story Terrace is ghostwriting of a less stringent sort. It’s work-for-hire, meaning the copyright goes to the customer, but I get a small credit inside the front of the book so there’s no top-secret surreptitiousness involved.

Further, Your Most Obedient Servant actually receives a commission for referrals that lead to projects, so if anything, the company wants me blabbing about it nonstop (not to mention that they have my headshot on their front page). I’m happy to recommend them.

So — if you or someone you know has always said, “I should write a book,” but never has, Story Terrace may be able to help make it a reality. The company has three different standard packages you can buy or you can tailor a project specific to your needs. All of the projects I’ve worked on were commissioned by adult children for their parents to capture their memories and experiences before they were lost forever. If you’re interested, just drop Story Terrace a line and mention my name. If you’re local, we can even arrange for me to write the project.

Makes a great stocking stuffer!

Blue Roofs

Baptist church, San Juan.

Last month, my oldest son and I spent a week in Puerto Rico volunteering with Mennonite Disaster Service.

I first heard about MDS in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I subsequently learned they have a strong reputation within the disaster-relief world, largely due to the fact that they draw upon the Mennonite community for volunteers, many of whom have hard construction skills. At the time we had a newborn so running off for a week without my family was unfeasible, but I bookmarked MDS in the back of my mind.

Fast forward to 2018, where a combination of headlines, my son turning 16 (the minimum age for MDS work), and my dad’s passing inspired me to sign up. There was something else too. Looking at the world around me I notice the two commodities in scarcest supply are health and wealth, and it’s dawned on me that maybe I need to do more to help those who don’t possess what I take for granted. A common game to play with kids is, If you could have any superpower what would it be? The usual answer is the ability to fly or turn invisible. But lately I’ve wondered if maybe some of us wake up with powers every morning but don’t even realize it.

Somewhere between Cayey and Aibonito.

MDS has ongoing projects in Aibonito and Utuado, both in the central mountains of Puerto Rico, and Ponce, on the southern coast. I had been very concerned about the heat — real-feel temperatures in Ponce can break 100 — but as luck would have it we were assigned to Aibonito, which is nicknamed “the Fridge of Puerto Rico” for its cool climate. We arrived on a Saturday and, after waiting a few hours in San Juan for the rest of our party to arrive, drove into the mountains to Aibonito, 2,400 feet above sea level.

I soon learned Aibonito is home to a substantial Mennonite community, which includes a parochial school and a hospital. Our hosts, Harry and Linda, had restored what was once the hacienda on an old sugar plantation. Linda’s father had been a leading figure in town and she had grown up in the casa. Years later, she returned to the island to learn the house had fallen into bad disrepair; one thing led to another, and the couple stayed to renovate it. I didn’t know what to expect before arriving — I guessed we might be sleeping on bunk beds in a trailer — so to me staying in a historic early 20th-century plantation house was five-star accommodations.

A closed special-education school in Aibonito.

Last year, as a result of its ongoing financial crisis, Puerto Rico closed 167 schools and another 265 are scheduled to be shut down soon. According to the PR education secretary, enrollment is declining by 20,000 students every year and more than half of the island’s schools have less than a 60-percent occupancy rate. We saw three different shuttered schools in the seven days we were on the island.

Only happy when it rains.

Because my son and I were the only ones to bring rain gear, we volunteered to work outside on Monday, which is when “hurricane remnant” Beryl hit the island. Hurricane Maria had torn the roof off the largest building at the Academia Menonita Betania, the local parochial school. Getting the Academia into functioning condition before the fall was a priority, and our project leader John was staring at a hard Tuesday deadline for a pump truck and cement mixer to arrive and pour concrete for the footing of the new roof. Unfortunately, the forms — the molds for the concrete — hadn’t been completed, so the three of us worked in Beryl’s downpour, climbing and hammering on second-floor scaffolds. We finished the following sunny morning and the concrete was poured successfully. Steel trusses will arrive in August with the roof following afterward.

Once the mad scramble to finish the forms was done, we didn’t have much to do beyond stand around and watch the concrete crew work.

The rest of the week we worked with the others in our group (there were five of us, along with John) to complete work at one house — paneling with T1-11, doing finish trim, hanging doors — and install the metal roofing on another. This second house, located in the bush far west of town, was the highlight for me as I’d always wanted to install a steel roof.

Blue roofs are an ubiquitous sight on the island; FEMA has distributed 126,000 blue tarps and the US Army Corps of Engineers has installed temporary roofing on almost 60,000 homes, though neither FEMA nor anyone else can give specific numbers on how many roofs need replacement. Bear in mind that neither FEMA nor the Corps has actually replaced any roofs — that’s been left to either homeowners or volunteers.

We installed the fascias and gutters too.

Because building codes aren’t well enforced on the island, MDS has its own engineer-designed protocols for rebuilding, many of which echo Fortified techniques. Studs are anchored to the foundation and beams are strapped to the studs; plywood is screwed (not nailed) to the beams and joists, and a weatherproof sheeting is laid over the plywood before the steel roof is screwed down with more than a thousand screws. Overkill for sure, but meant to survive any future Cat 5 storm that blows off the sea.

The homeowner was living temporarily in his parents’ house across the street, taking care of both his elderly father and his brother, who is wheelchair bound with multiple sclerosis. He and his wife cooked lunch for us everyday — following it with some of the best café con leche I’ve ever tasted — and they couldn’t have been more gracious. They struck me as good, honest people who’d been dealt some bad cards, and all of us were grateful that providence — or maybe Providence — had aligned the teeth of our cosmic gears.

The beach in San Juan. Actual color.

Strange as it might sound, by the end of the week I felt energized and refreshed, almost as if I had been on vacation and not making forms or screwing down roofing. And, in fact, one of the best ways to help Puerto Rico is for tourists simply to return. While damage from Maria is prevalent, PR is far from any sort of post-apocalyptic setting — one night, my son and I ate at the McDonalds in Aibonito — and unemployment on the island is 9.3 percent, still staggeringly high by US standards but the lowest rate for PR since 2000. MDS isn’t the only relief group active on the island; at the airport we saw Mormon volunteers as well as gaggles of teenagers belonging to various groups, and there are many opportunities for voluntourism as well.

For once I’m too humbled to have any grand takeaways about the experience, though it warmed this shaggy steppenwolf’s heart to be surrounded by folks acting upon their faith to help others in very tangible ways. I truly believe you make the world you live in — if thoughts become actions, then our shared reality is an expression of our individual minds. The implications of this can be both disturbing and hopeful, and while I’m by nature inclined to dwell upon the former, I make it a point to focus on the good.

The Privateers of Black Rock Harbor

On Wednesday, May 30 I’ll be giving a presentation at the Fairfield Museum and History Center on the privateers that sailed in and out of Black Rock Harbor.

There’s a fine line between a pirate and a privateer — and it’s as thin as a piece of paper issued by the government. Come hear how such Fairfield luminaries as Thaddeus Burr, Samuel Smedley, and Caleb Brewster as well as many other “gentlemen of fortune” banded together to attack the British on the high seas during the Revolutionary War.

I’ll talk about the differences between privateers, pirates, and traditional navies; how the booty from captured ships was divided not only between the owners and the crew but between the officers and sailors themselves (a scheme that relates back to the Golden Age of Piracy); and how many of the privateers in Black Rock didn’t sail aboard large ships but rather hunted in wolf packs of armed whaleboats.

The lunchtime presentation starts at 12:30pm. Full details here.