Romanian American orphan aspires to film a documentary about orphanages

The Washington Post recently published a story about Izidor Ruckel, a 32-year-old man who lived in an orphanage in Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania.  Izidor was adopted from the Hospital for Irrecoverable Children in the 1990s.  He now lives in Denver and advocates for orphans that continue to suffer in horrid conditions in Romanian orphanages.

The article, which tells Izidor’s story, begins by describing the conditions within Romania that led to the abandonment of many children:

“The footage is not easy to watch, even for those who remember seeing it on television more than two decades ago. The Berlin Wall had just fallen, and Eastern Europe’s communist dictatorships were rapidly collapsing. A few months after the execution of Romania’s leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, in 1989, Western journalists discovered a desperate underworld of abandoned children warehoused in unheated orphanages.”

The footage mentioned above was recorded by ABC’s 20/20, which filmed at Izidor’s insitution in 1991.  The media coverage spurred hundreds of adoptions.  More on the sociopolitical conditions that led to the widespread abandonment of children:

“Under Ceausescu, birth control and abortion had been banned, and women were pressured to bear at least five children to provide workers and fighters for the nation. Countless children were institutionalized, sometimes because of disabilities but often simply because their parents couldn’t afford them.”

The story goes on to describe Izidor’s goal of filming a documentary about the orphans that still live in Romanian orphanages today:

“He is the rare one from that original cohort who can live on his own, and certainly the most activist. From personal experience, he knows what a powerful tool a video camera can be. And so, along with another Romanian American adoptee, Izidor plans to make a documentary about Romania’s current “orphans.” […] They figure they need $30,000.”

To read the full story, click here.

I’m incredibly lucky that my father left Romania, which was still under the Ceausescu regime at the time, and built a life for me here in the United States.  I hope Izidor’s efforts are successful and that people continue to listen to his story and his call for aid to those children who still suffer in Romania’s orphanages.

2/17/14 (update): Izidor has launched a fundraising campaign to fund his documentary about the orphans who remained in the orphanage he left when he was adopted.  Click here to donate.

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Young boy dies after saving six relatives from trailer fire

Sometimes, examples of profound heroism emerge from the most unexpected of places.  From a CBS News report:

“Local firefighters have adopted as one of their own a 9-year-old boy who died saving six relatives from a fire that destroyed his grandfather’s upstate New York home.”

The story goes on to describe the incident that sparked this young boy’s heroism:

“Tyler [Doohan] died early on the morning of Jan. 20 as fire consumed a single-wide trailer in Penfield. Fire officials say Tyler awoke six other relatives – four adults and children ages 4 and 6 – sleeping in the trailer but was killed when he tried to help his disabled grandfather.”

In an especially poignant gesture, firefighters everywhere have adopted Tyler as one of their own.  The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reports:

“Tyler’s actions were immediately recognized by local firefighters, and eventually by firehouses around the world. This week, firehouses across the country added Tyler’s name to their riding assignments, according to posts on a Facebook tribute page.

At the church, firefighters from around western New York lined the lobby walls wearing dress blues and white gloves. Outside, fire engines lined the streets and firefighters braved frigid temperatures to direct the traffic of the more than 200 people who attended the funeral.

“We consider him an honorary firefighter,” said Penfield Fire Chief Chris Ebmeyer, who presented Vrooman with a red and white helmet with a shield bearing her son’s name.

Word of Tyler’s heroics quickly spread on social media websites and prompted tens of thousands of dollars in donations to his family to pay for his funeral.”

Add me to the list of those who admire and praise Tyler’s efforts.  Someone should nominate Tyler for the Rick Rescorla National Award for Resilience.

(Note: I’ve seen news reports stating that Tyler was eight, while others state that he was nine years old.  Either way, he was a young kid.)

Let’s dump the war metaphor

Our language is replete with references to wars.  The War on Women.  The War on Cancer.  The War on Poverty.  The War on Christmas.  However, using the metaphor to frame every debate has perilous consequences for civility and constructive debate.  I propose a new rule: Unless your “war” actually has combatants, a significant portion of which are severely injured or killed in combat, let’s avoid describing your commitment to your ideology or cause as a war.

For one thing, using the term “war” so loosely trivializes the term for those who have sustained loss from actual wars.  Second, war should be a last resort.  Implied in the notion of war is the idea that you are fighting in a conflict for which you are willing to die.  But, I propose that you should not be so willing to die for a majority of the ideas you hold so strongly.

Let’s use the “War on Women” as an example.  We can endlessly debate the extent to which women suffer, as a group, from the privileges afforded to men.  That’s not a bad thing.  Similarly, people will often become passionately engaged in these debates and in debates about issues that are somehow related to gender, such as contraception, abortion, etc.  But, passionate debate and disagreement does not, by itself, lead to the death of women.  Now, it’s true that a debate may feature commentary about topics that involve the theme of harm to women (ex. rape), but debating such issues is not equivalent to the actual harm suffered in a war.

When we use war metaphors, we encourage people to plant their feet on one side of an ideological battleground.  In doing so, we discourage people from trying to understand their opponent’s point of view.  In real wars, encouraging such behavior may have tangible benefits to actually winning the conflict.  But, when the “war” you are fighting is merely one of intense, ideological disagreement, the goal should not be to harden your position.  You may have good reasons for your position and you may wish to convince your opponent of those reasons, but that convincing part becomes elusive when you view the other side as your opponent in battle.

Political discussions are divisive enough without warring with the other side.  Can we put an end to this damaging characterization and engage in constructive dialogue?

MPAA uses ICE agents to bully Google Glass wearer at Columbus movie theater

A man, armed with nothing more than a prescription pair of glasses equipped with Google Glass, was recently questioned by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents for several hours at an AMC movie theater at Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio.  Here’s an excerpt from The Gadgeteer:

“What followed was over an hour of the “feds” telling me I am not under arrest, and that this is a “voluntary interview”, but if I choose not to cooperate bad things may happen to me. […] I kept telling them that Glass has a USB port and not only did I allow them, I actually insist [sic] they connect to it and see that there was nothing but personal photos with my wife and my dog on it. I also insisted they look at my phone too and clear things out, but they wanted to talk first. They wanted to know who I am, where I live, where I work, how much I’m making, how many computers I have at home, why am I recording the movie, who am I going to give the recording to, why don’t I just give up the guy up the chain, ’cause they are not interested in me. Over and over and over again.”

According to The Washington Post, an ICE spokesman made the following statement:

“On Jan. 18, special agents with ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations and local authorities briefly interviewed a man suspected of using an electronic recording device to record a film at an AMC theater in Columbus.  The man, who voluntarily answered questions, confirmed to authorities that the suspected recording device was also a pair of prescription eye glasses in which the recording function had been inactive. No further action was taken.”

It doesn’t take a genius to conceive of a different way this incident could have been handled.  For starters, officials from the Movie Picture Association of America (MPAA)  simply could’ve asked the guy to remove his glasses or, perhaps, to leave the theater.  By using ICE agents to do their bidding, the MPAA was able to leverage the power of the federal government in a highly inappropriate manner.  While the involvement of even one ICE agent in this instance was ethically dubious, the show of force that occurred that day seems to have been spectacular.  Again, from The Gadgeteer account:

“It was quite embarrassing and outside of the theater there were about 5-10 cops and mall cops.”

I can’t think of a tactical reason why one would need a group of 5-10 ICE agents and mall security to detain and question a suspected movie pirate.  There is no indication from the Glass wearer’s account or from the ICE spokesman’s statement that violence was ever an issue in this incident.  However, enlisting the assistance of so many agents serves to intimidate a non-violent person without just cause.

I’m not particularly pleased with the ICE agents’ reported behavior either.  If The Gadgeteer’s account is true, the suspect seems to have practically begged the agents to simply search his device for the alleged offending video.  Despite such an opportunity, the above-linked account states that the agents proceeded to question him for several hours before searching the device.  In the end, it was all for nothing.

Incidents like this diminish the public trust in law enforcement, which compromises our national security in the long run.  If people perceive that agencies such as ICE are busy pursuing the interests of organizations like the MPAA, they are less likely to work with these agencies in situations where legitimate and valuable law enforcement work is done.  In addition to being unethical, the involvement of ICE agents in this incident is also incredibly wasteful.  There are likely a myriad of other, more important things that ICE officials could be investigating.  Some dude who forgot to take his Google Glass off of his face hardly tops my list of high priority safety concerns.

Such an incident clearly demonstrates the need for the judicious use of law enforcement resources.  In this case, nearly everyone involved failed to take a more prudent approach.

Researchers are studying attitudes of nonbelievers toward secular groups

Researchers from The University of Tampa and Iowa State University are seeking nonbelievers of all stripes for a quick survey.  In short, the survey seeks to assess attitudes of nonbelievers toward secular organizations.  Click here to participate.

From the first page of the survey:

“You are being asked to participate in the following survey, the goal of which is to assess the various different perspectives and attitudes that nonbelieving individuals have about secular organizations and their ideas, goals, actions, and involvements. In this survey “nonbelief” or “nonbeliever” refer to those who self-identify as (secular) humanists, freethinkers, agnostics, atheists, skeptics, irreligionists, and non-theists in general.”

It only takes 10 minutes to complete.  You probably spend more than that amount of time on the toilet, scrolling through your Facebook feed.  At least, that’s what I do.  (I’m not ashamed.)  Do it.

Robert Gates: Even the greatest nation on the Earth has limits

Buried deep within an essay written by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was this little gem:

“Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of. Those who ask about exit strategies or question what will happen if assumptions prove wrong are rarely welcome at the conference table when the fire-breathers are demanding that we strike—as they did when advocating invading Iraq, intervening in Libya and Syria, or bombing Iran’s nuclear sites. But in recent decades, presidents confronted with tough problems abroad have too often been too quick to reach for a gun. Our foreign and national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents.

Today, too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort. On the left, we hear about the “responsibility to protect” civilians to justify military intervention in Libya, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to strike Syria or Iran is deemed an abdication of U.S. leadership. And so the rest of the world sees the U.S. as a militaristic country quick to launch planes, cruise missiles and drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned spaces. There are limits to what even the strongest and greatest nation on Earth can do—and not every outrage, act of aggression, oppression or crisis should elicit a U.S. military response.”

The essay, posted recently in the Wall Street Journal, was adapted from Gates’ new book, which is titled Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.  It is that last line that is particularly incisive.  As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  In recent decades, it seems, we’ve been more than willing to pave our way to the metaphorical lake of fire in our effort to intervene in the foreign affairs of other nations.  I can think of no better testament to the importance of limited government than an admonition like the one quoted above.

Pseudoscience found a platform in a podcast for counseling professionals

Recently, I listened to an episode of the American Counseling Association’s (ACA) podcast series, which features prerecorded interviews with counselors on issues related to the profession.  Thus far, I’ve only listened to one episode (#36) of the podcast, but it was an alarming one with which to start.  Episode 36, titled Integrating Energy Modalities into Traditional Counseling, featured a licensed professional counselor (LPC) named Paige Valdiserri who discussed integrating pseudoscientific approaches (ex. reiki, energetic body dialogue, biodynamic craniosacral trauma therapy, etc) into practice along with legitimate counseling theories.  This is especially troubling because the podcast is an official production of the ACA, which bills itself as “the world’s largest association exclusively representing professional counselors in various practice settings.”  Another disappointing feature of this episode was the manner in which Rebecca Daniel-Burke, the podcast’s host, questioned the interviewee.

Although Daniel-Burke did ask some important questions, she failed to get the interviewee to provide meaningful answers.  Daniel-Burke could have used this opportunity to critically examine the proposed mechanisms of the “energy work” Valdiserri advocates by asking follow-up questions that sought to reveal what evidence exists for “energy work.”  Instead, we merely hear Daniel-Burke provide verbal affirmations, describing Valdiserri’s points as “interesting” and saying things like, “Yeah, that totally makes sense!”  As an interviewer, Daniel-Burke was highly ineffective for this reason.

Valdiserri and Daniel-Burke frame the discussion inappropriately.  The interview portrays such pseudoscientific practices as useful adjuncts to traditional counseling approaches.  To clients, framing the discussion this way not only confers legitimacy to these dubious practices, but it elevates them as superior to traditional approaches.  Subtly, Valdiserri implies that practitioners who do not use such methods are inferior because they do not consider such things as energy pathways and other, ambiguous phenomena.  However, upon critical examination, it is easy to see that Valdiserri’s methods lack sufficient evidence; she only provides anecdotal evidence posted on her website.  Her “case studies” are merely testimonials from her own clients and they do not actually provide evidentiary support for her claims.  Also, her mixture of pseudoscientific practices with traditional theories confounds her ability to determine whether “energy work” actually works in the way she proposes.

Valdiserri makes statements that suggest specific mechanisms are at work in her “energy work.”  For example, she frequently repeats the refrain that “trauma lodges itself in the body” (ex. listen at the 07:10 mark) and claims that “trauma and stress reside in the fluids, the autonomic nervous system, [and] the body’s musculoskeletal system.”  While it isn’t necessarily incorrect to say that people with mental illnesses often have complaints involving pain, stiffness, soreness, sleep problems, etc, Valdiserri’s proposal is far more specific.  She treats the construct of trauma as a discrete, tangible object that needs to be physically “released” (whatever that means) from the body.  She even claims that trauma is “in the fluid, but not of the fluid.”  When asked to explain what that means, Valdiserri gets even more specific.  She claims that “trauma isn’t actually made up of the fluid, it’s in the fluid, so it can be released, so when that’s released, fluids go back to its normal pattern of how the body needs to restore and feel.”  (At 9:54 in the audio.)  Then, she says, “It lodges in the autonomic nervous system.”

By mixing medical jargon with her quack theories about trauma, she makes the theory sound like a legitimate, well-researched explanation.  This is a common tactic of people who peddle pseudoscience.  Creationists often engage in similar tactics in order to portray intelligent design as a legitimate theory of cosmology.  Clients come to counselors when they are particularly vulnerable, such as when they are extremely depressed, anxious, or even suicidal.  Since clients often view counselors as experts, practitioners who use pseudoscientific methods with their clients put their clients at risk of real harm.  Many clients may simply accept that the counselor’s views are based on sound theories and on evidence.  Those who do not accept such views may leave one practitioner and never pursue counseling again, perhaps believing that all counselors subscribe to such theories.  Either way, nobody wins.

The fact that one practitioner subscribes to these theories is unsurprising.  The fact that the ACA provided Valdiserri with a platform to spread her views is unconscionable.  The ACA Code of Ethics requires that practitioners “use techniques/procedures/modalities that are grounded in theory and/or have an empirical or scientific foundation.”  Unfortunately, the “and/or” part of the code may provide practitioners like Valdiserri a way to comply with the code while simultaneously adhering to pseudoscientific “energy” theories.  However, the spirit of the code still clearly implies that counseling methods should have a scientific foundation.  When practitioners like Valdiserri make specific, unsupported claims, such theories should be repudiated by organizations such as the ACA.

There is, of course, room for disagreement among counselors on what theories to use with clients.  It is both unrealistic to expect and undesirable to pursue uniform agreement among practitioners on what theories to use in the absence of substantial, convergent evidence that a particular theory works especially well.  Despite this, there needs to be a benchmark that professionals can use to dismiss theories that are obviously untenable.  In the meantime, a small step toward encouraging critical thinking in counseling practitioners begins with asking tough questions and persistently asking for evidence of claims.  An even better step would be for online media, such as the ACA podcast, to be selective about who is interviewed.  Valdiserri’s energy theories can be summarily dismissed after a simple glance at her website.  Next time, why not use some discretion in deciding who gets the ACA’s bullhorn?