Prisoners and the Art of Winemaking

There are many things wrong with the U.S. justice system, but perhaps the chiefest problem is high recidivism: as of 2011 (the most recent reliable data I could find) an average of 43.3 percent of prisoners fall back into crime. Clearly, the rehabilitation system isn’t living up to its name.

One of the key causes of this is the lack of skills and opportunities among the largely poor and marginalized groups that make up the prison population. Easing up on the restrictions imposed on the formerly incarcerated, while imparting them with marketable skills, would go a long way in improving their lives and those of their families and communities (which in turn would help the U.S. economy as a whole, given the size and proportion of this population).

Italy is another country struggling with this problem — in fact, the rate of re-offense is as high as 80 percent, and Italian prisons meet similar criticisms regarding the poor and counterproductive treatment of prisoners. So some enterprising reformers decided to address the matter in a uniquely Italian way: teaching prisoners the art of winemaking, which is being spearheaded in the penal colony of Gorgona in Tuscany. As the New York Times reported:

For the past two years, Frescobaldi enologists and agronomists have imparted their know-how to a group of the island’s inmates as part of a rehabilitation program that aims to provide skills for life after their release.

Recidivism is high, around 80 percent, for the inmates of Italian prisons, “but instead, if you give people education, training, or access to a job, recidivism drops to 20 percent,” said Lamberto Frescobaldi, president of Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi, and the driving force behind the project.

Giuseppe Fedele, an educator at Gorgona, where training programs have been going on for years, said that “the best thanks a prisoner can show when he is released from here is not to be sent back to prison.”

As you would imagine, the details of this program are both interesting and inspiring:

First opened in 1869, the prison operates like a working farm. Some inmates carry out agricultural chores — growing fruit and vegetables, raising livestock, and making cheeses and bread — while others work in maintenance or in the kitchen and commissary.

“It’s still a prison, but the day flies because you’re working. It’s one thing to be in a cell for 12 hours, another to be outside, busy doing something,” said Santo Scianguetta, who has six years to go on a 16-year sentence, adding that the experience of working in the vineyard was building his confidence. “I think a lot about getting out. And now I see hope in the future.”

Most of the inmates here are serving the final years of long sentences for serious crimes, including murder. Prison officials asked that for reasons of privacy, reporters refrain from specifying their individual crimes.

Projects like the Frescobaldi initiative make inmates feel like “the protagonists of their incarceration, and not passive recipients where the state is the enemy,” said Mr. Mazzerbo, the prison director, who has lobbied to extend similar programs to other Italian prisons.

“It costs nothing to change the mentality” of an inmate, Mr. Mazzerbo said. “You can do that anywhere. You don’t need an island.”

Several penitentiaries are already involved in economic activities, and at least two others produce wine. Some penitentiaries are involved in food or fashion initiatives, and products can be ordered from the Justice Ministry website.

Prisoners here receive a monthly wage, about two thirds of what they would get on the outside, based on the provincial agricultural labor contract. “It’s good not to depend on our families for money,” said Ciro Amato, who is serving a 30-year sentence. “At least here you get an opportunity. In many cases people leave prison angrier than before.”

It’s a small start, and not without its challenges, but it is definitely worth trying. While there are similar initiatives in the U.S. (albeit many of which are accused of being exploitative and underpaying), we should definitely take steps to make such programs the norm, along with minimizing such an unusually high rate of incarceration to begin with (although that is a different story for another post).

Hats From Around The World

Since I am busy and not in the mood to write, today’s post will be light but fun — here are eighty hats from around the world courtesy of DesignTaxi.com, which in turn pulled them from travel website Venere.

In addition to the iconic hats we all know and love — the French beret, Mexican sombrero, and so on – there are some pretty interesting and little-known varieties (especially from Africa and South Africa). Fellow artists and writers might benefit from these as a point of reference.

Hats Around The World I Hats Around The World II Hats Around The World III Hats Around The World IV

I think you can learn quite a bit from a culture by looking at its attire — what sort of inferences can you make from these samples?

Street Life Through Puddles

One of the great things about art is its ability to unlock new perspectives and angles that can change our own everyday perceptions and thoughts. Such has been the effect on me of Un Regard,” a photographic series by Congolese painter-turned-photographer Kiripi Katembo Siku.

His artwork captures daily life in the bustling city of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, as reflected in puddles. As you would imagine, this adds a pretty interesting effect to each photo.

Here are some photos courtesy of HuffPo, where I first stumbled upon this unique series.

2014-07-11-Rester.jpg

2014-07-11-Subir.jpg

2014-07-11-Survivre.jpg

2014-07-11-Avancer.jpg

2014-07-11-Devenir.jpg

2014-07-11-Errer.jpg

2014-07-11-Evolution.jpg

A pretty neat way to capture the everyday world around us. It kind of makes me want to get a closer look at puddles from now on! What do you think?

 

Global Spotlight: The Nihang Sikhs

Members of the Nihang, a military order in the Sikh religion also known as the Akali (The Eternal) and the Akal Sena (The Army of the Eternal). Renowned for their strict discipline, courage, and martial skill, the Nihang are named after a Persian mythical sea creature to which their fighting prowess was compared (historians of the Mughal Empire likened their ferocity to that of crocodiles).

The Nihang are accorded considerable respect and affection among Sikhs worldwide, for although their role is primarily ceremonial, they are bound to defend their community in times of war. During the festival of Hola Mohalla (which usually occurs in March), thousands of Nihang gather at Anandpur, a holy city of the Sikhs, where they display their famous martial skills (known collectively as gatka).

As you may have noticed, the Nihang are best recognized by their large and often elaborate turbans. They are often reinforced with steel and fitted with various weapons, including a trident (for stabbing in close-quarters), bagh naka (claw-like weapons) and one or more chakram (steel throwing weapons).

I love the character, color, and personality in these photos (the first of which was taken by Mark Hartman but the others whose . Many thanks to my friend and colleague Richard for first sharing the first photo with me, and thus piquing my interest to learn more about this fascinating group and faith.

A Persian Gulf Nation On Mars

If the United Arab Emirates has its way, it may very well beat its better-known contenders (such as the U.S., Russia, and China) in landing on Mars, which has increasingly become the accepted next step in human space exploration.

UAE Flags

Will this be the first flag planted on the moon?

Now I know what many of you are thinking: does the UAE even have a space program, much less the infrastructural and scientific capacity to do something as costly and as technically challenging as a Mars landing?  Of course, this is the country responsible for such audacious achievements as the world’s tallest structure, several immense artificial islands, an indoor skiing mall, and more — so clearly, there is no shortage of pluck and cash to make it happen.

As Jenna Kagel of Mic explains:

The country’s vice president and ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, said in a statement on Wednesday, “We chose the epic challenge of reaching Mars because epic challenges inspire us and motivate us.”

The UAE has invested $5.4 billion into space technologies, but has yet to send someone into orbit. They have been “expanding activities of Al Yah Satellite Communications satellite data and TV broadcast company, mobile satellite communication company Thuraya Satellite Telecommunications and Earth mapping and observation system Dubai Sat,” reports RT.

The Gulf state has long intended to get involved in the space race, aspiring to replicate successful space agencies like Europe’s ESA or the United States’ NASA programs. The unmanned mission to the Red Planet will concur with the country’s 50th anniversary of their independence from Britain.

To make clear the seriousness of its intentions, the UAE marked the statement with a simulation of what the Mars mission would look like (sorry, translation not available).

I for one welcome this development. In an increasingly globalized world, space exploration is to the inherent benefit of humanity, regardless of who takes the reigns. This is especially true with something as expensive and technically-challenging as a Mars mission. The more countries we have involved, the more resources we can muster and the faster our progress (geopolitical challenges and rivalries notwithstanding).

It is worth pointing out that while the UAE may be the first small nation to express such a bold aim, it is hardly the only one with an interest in space. As the following map shows, plenty of nations maintain active space programs (albeit with varying degrees of funding and ambition):

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The map legend is as follows:

  • Yellow: Manned Extraterrestrial Exploration + Operates Space Station + Manned Space Flight + Operates Extraterrestrial Probes + Launch Capability + Operates Satellite
  • Orange: Operates Space Station + Manned Space Flight + Operates Extraterrestrial Probes + Launch Capability + Operates Satellites
  • Red: Manned Space Flight + Operates Extraterrestrial Probes + Launch Capability + Operates Satellites
  • Dark Green: Operates Extraterrestrial Probes + Launch Capability + Operates Satellites
  • Light Green: Launch Capability + Operates Satellites
  • Beige: Operates Satellites

Note that this map doesn’t include the national space agencies that are either in the proposal stage or active only in research — these would include such an eclectic mix of countries as Belarus, Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru, Morocco, South Africa, Bangladesh, and many more. Of course, the growing number of private space exploration companies open up a whole other world of potential (no pun intended).

In any case, it would be interesting to see if the UAE’s ambitious plans come to fruition, and if so, whether that will spur other countries (and institutions) of all sizes to take a crack at space travel. Interesting times await, that’s for sure.

Hero of the Week — Maria Bashir

Maria Bashir II Maria Bashir

 

Maria Bashir is the Chief Prosecutor General of Herat Province Afghanistan (the second largest jurisdiction in the country), the only woman to hold such a position thus far. Her fifteen years of experience as a civil servant has brought her into conflict with criminals, the Taliban, and corrupt policemen. When the Taliban took power in 1996, she was barred from working and instead spent her time illegally educating girls at her home. 

She was called back into service in 2006, focusing on rooting out corruption and eradicating the oppression of women. She has handled hundreds of cases amid death threats and assassination attempts, one of which nearly killed her children; subsequently, she has a retinue of around 20 or so bodyguards while her children are in virtual hiding.

For her courage and tenacity, Bashir has received the 2011 International Women of Courage Award and been recognized among The 2011 Time 100. I recommend reading her interview with the United Nations here; unfortunately, most of the information about her is three or four years old, so I am unaware of her current efforts and predicaments. Thankfully, she seems to still be alive and working as a prosecutor, doing everything she can to better her country and its future .

Needless to say, Maria Bashir is an incredible hero and role model, to say the least. 

Reflections Upon Mild Sadness

I fell asleep sorrowful, filled with a vague foreboding of coming trouble…That precaution of love against death, even in the presence of abounding life, caused my thoughts to wander all night about those scenes where I had passed, without knowing it, the happiest hours of my life.

– Jorge Isaacs, Maria

It has been a while since I have written a personal post, so I know it must be strange to see these sad musings amid sociopolitical topics. But as the tagline says, this blog is about wherever my mind takes me, and right now it is a sad place.

I have been feeling quite a bit of melancholy lately, a sort of mild, back-of-the-mind type of sadness that keep resurfacing throughout the day and especially at night. I have no idea what has triggered — there is almost never a clear reason for it — but I know that a lot of nostalgia is emerging as well; I miss the simpler and more naive times; old hangouts, friends, first-experiences. 

And while I indulgently reflect upon the past, I start to dwell on the “what ifs” and “what could have beens” — a futile endeavor, I know, but I cannot help myself. I know I was younger and stupider back then (as we all our), I know that I am looking back with the benefit of hindsight, with information I could not have possible known at the time of my dumb, regrettable decisions. But I nonetheless still go down all these hypothetical paths that I will never truly know.

Ultimately (and graciously), these feelings pass quickly; as I said, it is all very mild and subdued. But it still lingers to some degree, and I worry if this is simply the way I am. For as long as I can remember, I have always been nagged by some sort of worry or melancholy even when I am otherwise happy. Maybe it can be attributed to the intrusive thoughts characteristic of OCD, or maybe it is the clinical depression or dysthymia that I suspect I have. I do not know, but I suspect I am going to have to get used to it.

Thankfully, I find myself handling these things better than I once did. Life goes on, and I continue to find little ways to cheer up and move forward — from the simple joys of green tea, good music, and a walk through the park, to deeper focus on goals, fitness regimens, and planned trips. I am mercifully surrounded by potential and opportunity. I just need to find the courage to take action and overcome the fear of what if; I just need to embrace the adventure of the unknown rather than dwell on ephemeral and pointless nostalgia. 

Writing these like this certainly helps bring clarity and organization to my disjointed and intangible thoughts. Thanks for reading my friends. I hope you are all well.

National Pride Around The World

With the rise of the nation state — whose conceptual origin is disputed but typically traced back to the Treaty of Westphalia in the 17th century – has emerged the idea of patriotism and pride in one’s civic and national identity — equally contentious and amorphous concepts.

As a life-long American, I am intimately aware of the impact, prevalence, and subsequent controversy of patriotism — indeed, national pride is seen as one of the definitive elements of American identity, coinciding with and emerging from notions such as American exceptionalism and the American dream.

But how deeply is patriotism ingrained in the  U.S. collective consciousness, especially nowadays, amid so much declinism and cynicism about our future? What of the effects of globalization on our and other nations’ sense of national belonging: in an increasingly globalized world — with so many people traveling and living abroad, exchanging one another’s cultures, and forging deep emotional and social ties across borders — how influential is the nation state on our psyches?

Well, data from the 2010-2014 World Values Survey (which is still being completed) offer some interesting insight on how citizens of select countries feel about living there. Citizens in 52 participating countries were asked the following: “How proud are you to be [insert nationality]” to which they could select “Very Proud”, “Quite Proud”, “Not Very Proud”, “Not at All Proud”, or “Unsure”.

Here are the maps courtesy of Vox.com.

Note that this only signifies people who selected the highest option of “very proud”. The total percentage of citizens who are proud of their country is much higher when you add the follow data showing those who are “quite proud” (the second highest option, although it does not sound that much lower than “very”).

Moreover, a redditor named DMan9797 put together the following custom chart based on the total responses, which I feel does a better job of giving us the bigger picture globally and for each individual country (click the image to see it bigger).

So in total, there are 48 out of 52 participating countries in which 70 percent of respondents are proud or very proud to be a part of; the four notable exceptions are Japan, Germany, Ukraine, and Taiwan (although Russia, Estonia, and Belarus were not that far off). The Vox articles offers some interesting  explanations as to why these countries stand out:

For Germany and Japan, it suggests that the post-World War II hangups about nationalism may have not quite gone away. Since their defeats, both countries have developed a much more complicated relationship with national pride — in some ways, German and Japanese nationalism run amok were responsible for the whole thing. This sense of national guilt, or at least a wariness of too much national pride, might be making it harder for German and Japanese folk to feel immense amounts of national pride.

In Ukraine, the issue may be the country’s ethno-linguistic divides. As many know by now, eastern Ukrainians and Crimeans tend to be more sympathetic to Russia than the rest of Ukraine. That divide was one of the underlying causes of the current crisis between Ukraine and Russia. So it’s likely that eastern Ukrainians and Crimeans, many of whom were less than thrilled about being Ukrainian even when the survey began in 2010, reported abnormally low levels of Ukrainian pride. Estonia’s results may support that theory as well: the Baltic country just barely dodged the sub-70 percent prideful club, and it has a significant ethnic Russian minority.

Then there’s Taiwan, whose results are almost certainly about tension with mainland China. 20 percent of Taiwanese outright favor reunification with China, and 43.5 percent of Taiwanese also identify as Chinese (“Zhongguo ren,” which could mean Taiwanese, mainland Chinese, or both). This complicated relationship with the People’s Republic probably explains why Taiwanese people aren’t quite as proud of their country as other peoples are.

Personally, I think these explanations make sense, although it is interesting to note that Germany’s national pride has presumably been growing in light of the country’s renowned economic performance and subsequent international clout. It may be that Germans are simply sheepish about being more explicit in their patriotism.

In any case, it is interesting to see such a mixed bag of countries at the top: Qatar, Ghana, Ecuador, Uzbekistan, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Philippines could not be any more different from each other. Whether a country is authoritarian or democratic, rich or poor, or developed or underdeveloped doesn’t seem to impact peoples’ sense of national pride; nor are certain linguistic, ethnic, or religious compositions more or less likely to feel strong national pride.

All this probably speaks to the complex factors that go into one’s sense of belonging to a nation and feeling proud of it. Plenty of poorly governed and impoverished nations are nonetheless rich in culture, history, or national achievement (Qatar is an outsized player in the Middle-East affairs, Ghana paved the way for African independence movements, etc).

Conversely, having a high quality of life and an enviable socioeconomic system, even in combination with a rich culture and much accomplishment, doesn’t mean everyone will feel a strong sense of national identity or pride — Germany and Japan can speak to that, albeit for reasons unique to themselves.

Of course, every country — like every individual — has its own unique characteristics, history, social dynamics, and other factors that explain its standing among its own citizens and the world at large. It goes to show just how complicated the concepts of nation and state are, let alone the political and psychological relationship with these entities and ideas.

What are your thoughts?

 

Where the world’s biggest tea drinkers are

Eupraxsophy:

As a tea junkie, it seems Turkey, Ireland, and the U.K. will be paradise.

Originally posted on Quartz:

China is far and away the largest consumer of tea, at 1.6 billion pounds a year. But per person, as illustrated in the map above, the picture is a lot different: Turkey, Ireland, and the United Kingdom are home to the world’s biggest tea drinkers.

The Turkish, for one, don’t merely enjoy drinking tea; they downright adore the stuff. Turkey’s nearly 7 pounds per person per year is easily the largest in the world. Here’s the full list:

The-world-s-biggest-tea-drinkers-Average-annual-tea-consumption_chartbuilder (1)

Read:Where the world’s biggest coffee drinkers live

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The Treasure Voyages

Today marks the anniversary of the start of the Treasure Voyages, an incredible series of diplomatic and commercial expeditions undertaken by the Ming Dynasty during the 15th century that reached Southeast Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, the Middle-East, and East Africa. The scale, scope, and technical sophistication of this fleet — which involved over 27,000 personnel — was unprecedented in known history, and remained so for centuries.

The outward route of the fleet during the seventh and final voyage. Source: Wikipedia

The ships involved were marvels of engineering, reflecting the sheer technological might of what was then the world’s most advanced and powerful civilizations. See how the Treasure Voyages’ flagship compares to that of Columbus’ ship, St. Maria, used just decades later:

Unfortunately, I do not have the time to devote myself to writing more about this fascinating event or time period. Instead, I invite you to check out this detailed but succinct blog post about it, or listen to this great 45-minute BBC Radio post. The hyperlink to Wikipedia in the first sentence offers an extensive guide as well (it seems to be one of the better written and cited articles on the website).