Monthly Archives: August 2013

A Magna Carta in Houston

A copy of the original “Magna Carta.”

A copy of the original “Magna Carta.”

For the first time in its known history, the legendary “Magna Cartawill leave its birth place of England and arrive in the United States.  Originally issued on June 15, 1215, in a field at Runnymeade by King John, the revered document is a considered a hallmark of democracy with its multiple declarations of various freedoms; including an acknowledgement that taxes cannot be arbitrary, free men cannot be imprisoned without first being judged by their peers, and that justice cannot be delayed or denied.  King John was just trying to avert a civil war, when confronted by scores of rebellious land barons; a clash that erupted anyway, when Pope Innocent III nullified it 10 weeks later.  Somehow, though, the item itself survived.  Copies of the original made in 1217 are kept at the Hereford Cathedral Perpetual Trust.

Now, one of those versions will go on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

“These are truly rare and ancient documents,” said Catherine F. Patterson, a British historian at the University of Houston.  “They are national treasures that have been guarded for centuries and don’t typically leave England’s shores.”

The “Magna Carta” later formed the basis for English common law and is often cited as a cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution.  It’s ironic, though, since the medieval treatise applied only to wealthy landowners.  Nonetheless, it remains a historic item.

The exhibit is scheduled to open in February and last for 6 months.  Hopefully, it’ll make people focus on the realities of democracy’s foundations and the struggles for true freedoms.

“People in their minds have the Disney version where the king wakes up one day and says, ‘I have a great idea,’” said Joel Bartsch, the museum’s president and CEO.  “When they come to the museum, they get the real version.”

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The above photo is from fellow blogger Penny Howe who sat on a bench overlooking the Columbia River, near her home, during this past spring’s winter snow melt.  I shared it with several friends who expressed concern for Penny’s mental health.  I assured them she’s a writer like me, so they immediately understood.

But, the picture made me think of the real threat soil erosion poses to major urban areas located near large bodies of water.  It’s a genuine concern with climate change and rising sea levels.  Half of the world’s population – roughly 3 billion people – lives in urban areas; a sharp rise from 13% in 1900.  At the start of the 20th century, only 12 cities across the globe had populations of 1 million or more; now there are 336.  More alarmingly has been the rise of “mega-cities,” urban areas with populations of at least 10 million.  In 1950, New York was the only city in the world with that distinction; now, there are a total of 17 such metropolitan areas.  Those people have to live and work somewhere, and that has increasingly come to mean larger edifices – gargantuan structures of concrete, steel and glass.  All of those individuals and all of those buildings weigh several tons, which – along with food and water consumption – has an impact on the overall environment.

People will probably be debating the pros and cons of global warming until…well, until they drown.  But, here in alphabetical order, is an informal list of some of the world’s fastest sinking cities.

Amsterdam – The Dutch capital is also the Netherlands’ largest city with about 820,654 people crammed into 84.56 square miles (219 km²); the greater metropolitan area has over 2.3 million residents.  More importantly, Amsterdam is at constant threat from the water that surrounds it on 3 sides.  In February of 1953, a series of calamitous floods from the North Sea killed over 1,800 people in the Netherlands alone and prompted Dutch engineers to rethink defenses for all of the nation’s cities.  A large series of dikes and canals mostly keep the waters under control, but Amsterdam – built on sand and clay – is still sinking at roughly .078 inches (2 mm) per year.

Winter floods in 1953 forced the Dutch to re-think their urban defenses.

Winter floods in 1953 forced the Dutch to re-think their urban defenses.

Bangkok – The capital of Thailand boasts a population of some 8.281 million people, crowded into 606 square miles (1,569 km²), with over 14 million living in the general metropolitan area.  Located on the Chao Phraya River delta, Bangkok has experienced a major economic boom in recent years.  Like Amsterdam, Bangkok residents used intricate waterways to navigate the city for centuries.  But, constructed on soft marine material known as Bangkok clay, the growing metropolis is sinking some 4.7 inches (120 mm) annually.  Some engineers have warned about the dilemma for decades; mainly due, of course, to soil erosion and groundwater removal.  Only recently, however, has Thailand undertaken measures  to protect Bangkok by building dykes and retrofitting flood gates.  But, for a city considered a “climate change hot spot,” that may not be enough.

Houston – The fourth largest city in the United States has some 3 million residents in its 627 square miles (1,625 km²) and practically sits right on the Gulf of México.  In June of 2001, Tropical Storm Allison devastated parts of the Texas Gulf Coast, but Houston experienced the worst flooding.  Allison dropped 6 – 10 inches (152 – 254 mm) of rain in less than 5 hours.  That made Houstonians realize how vulnerable they are to nature’s elements.  But, in 2010, University of Houston geologist Shuhab Khan announced that much of Houston (and overall Harris County) is sinking at approximately 2 inches per year.  Like so many other coastal cities, Houston continues to build and drain groundwater to accommodate the expansion.

Jakarta – Located on the northwest corner of the island of Java, Indonesia’s capital has nearly 11 million people residing in 285.8 square miles (740.3 km²) and over 28 million inhabitants in the greater area known as Jabodetabek.  About 40% of Jakarta’s land area sits at or below sea level.  A 2010 report by the Bandung Institute of Technology noted that Jakarta is sinking at a rate of 3 – 4 inches (10 – 12 cm) per year; most of it due to the usual culprits: groundwater extraction and rapid infrastructure development.  But, they act in concert with soil compaction and plate tectonics.  A massive 9.1 earthquake off the coast of nearby Sumatra in December 2004 proved that seismic activity makes the entire Indian Ocean region vulnerable.  Analyses done from 1974 to 2010 show that large portions of Jakarta sank anywhere from 9 – 27 inches (25 and 70 cm).  A massive seawall built to prevent the Java Sea from inundating the city is also sinking.  The Indonesian Forum for Environment has gone so far to claim that Jakarta will sink completely into the Indian Ocean by 2030, if construction and groundwater extraction aren’t limited.

Flooding earlier this year almost paralyzed Jakarta.

Flooding earlier this year almost paralyzed Jakarta.

London – As the provincial capital of the United Kingdom and the official capital of England, London is unique its dual role.  And, contrary to popular American mythology, not everyone in England lives here – even with 8.174 million residents in its 607 square miles (1,572 km²).  People have lived in the area for millennia, but the Roman Empire began building the former Londinium at the mouth of the Thames River in the first century A.D.; thus, making it one of the oldest continuously-occupied cities in Europe.  In 2002, however, satellite photos showed that London had sunk about 2 cm between 1996 and 2001.  Recent observations have noted that the legendary “Big Ben” at Britain’s Palace of Westminster is tilting at a somewhat precarious angle and that the entire parliamentary structure is gradually sliding towards the Thames.  The growing subsidence may be due partly to development of the “Jubilee Line Extension” and the new “London Power Tunnels;” all constructed to meet the demands of a growing population.  But, much of London’s descent could be traced to Britain’s overall recovery from the last Great Ice Age, when a massive ice sheet blanketed most of the island and depressed the entire land area downward.  With the retreat of the ice, Britain is showing signs of a colossal rebound: Scotland is actually rising, while Wales and eastern England are technically sinking.  Still, with a series of walls, dykes and the “Thames Barrier” – the world’s second-largest movable flood barrier – London hopes at least to delay any pending deluge.

México City – The Mexican capital is the largest city in the Western Hemisphere – in both population and land area – with some 8.851 million residents in 573 square miles (1,485km²) and roughly 21.2 million people in the overall metropolitan area of 761,601 square miles.  It’s the only city on this list not located by an ocean or a sea, but its continuing subsidence is very real.  Both can be attributed to the ancient Aztecs who began building Tenochtitlan, the center of their vast empire, nearly 1,000 years ago on a marshy island amidst 5 lakes that formed the base of the Valley of México.  They dredged water to create an extensive series of canals and bridges, as the city grew.  Spanish explorers were awed by the sight of it upon their arrival in 1519; at the time, Tenochtitlan had about 200,000 residents, larger than any city in Europe.  After gaining control of the region, the Spaniards merely continued the expansion.  Today, a small portion of one of those bodies of water, Lake Texcoco, remains.  But, this giant metropolis, which was plunging at an astonishing 19 inches annually in the middle of the 20th century, is still sinking 2 inches per year into the soft bedrock.  Many streets have sharp drop-offs from their sidewalks, while water and electricity lines are in constant danger of snapping or bursting.

An artist’s conception of what Tenochtitlan may have looked like when Spanish explorers arrived.

An artist’s conception of what Tenochtitlan may have looked like when Spanish explorers arrived.

New Orleans – Like Amsterdam, New Orleans is surrounded by water on 3 sides: Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the Mississippi River to the west and south.  With about 343,800 people in 350.2 square miles (907 km²), it also has the dubious distinction of being the fastest-sinking city in the U.S. – roughly 1 inch (2.5 cm) per year.  In fact, after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, scientists took a closer look at New Orleans’ geological state and realized it was sinking into the Gulf of México much faster than previously thought.  That may explain why the city’s complex levee system failed during Katrina and allowed some 80% of it to be flooded.  As of 2006, scientists estimate, some of those levees had sunk up to 3 feet in the previous 40 years.

New York City – Composed of 5 individual, self-governing boroughs, New York City has about 8.245 million people in a total land area of 468 square miles (1,213 km²); altogether, about 19.3 million people reside in the New York metropolitan area.  Last year’s Hurricane Sandy made all New Englanders realize the extent of their vulnerability to nature’s wrath; even toughened New Yorkers trembled.  Sandy flooded parts of 4 of the city’s boroughs, but scientists have noted for years that densely-packed Manhattan Island, in particular, is slowly sinking into the Atlantic.

Shanghai – Founded around A.D. 1291, the most-populous city in the world boasts some 23.47 million residents.  Located on the Yangtze River, Shanghai (which means “Above the Sea”) is sinking as much as 4 inches (101 mm) per year.  Groundwater extraction has added to the problem, but so has the city’s rapid infrastructure growth.  One report by the Shanghai Geological Research Institute claims that the physical weight of the city’s skyscrapers account for as much as 30% of Shanghai’s subsidence.  In response, city officials have begun pumping roughly 60,000 tons of water per year back into wells; built hundreds of levees along the Yangtze; and are planning an emergency floodgate on the river’s estuary.

Venice – One of the oldest and most ornate cities in the world, Venice long ago ceded its fate to the sea; they’re just partying in advance of the grand finale.  Some 264,000 people live in its 160.1 square miles (414.6 km²), which scientists believe is dropping between .04 and .08 inches (1 – 2 mm) annually – more than previously thought.  Built against the Adriatic Sea, Venice is actually a cluster of islands that has always had a classic love / hate relationship with the water.  Moreover, it’s tilting to the south at .12 – .16 inches (3 – 4 mm) per year.  In just under the past 300 years, scientists believe Venice has dropped 2 feet (60 cm).  That may not seem like much, but Venetians are experiencing more floods – about 4 or 5 times a year.  Canals and bridges are part of the city’s landscapes, along with floodgates designed to close when high tides reach a level of 43.30 inches (110 cm).  Street lamps linked to flood gauges automatically shine brighter as the water begins to rise; thus warning pedestrians to seek higher ground – or at least jump into a boat.

While sunken cities feel like the products of wild imaginations, recent advances in submarine archeology have proven the existence of submerged metropolises across the globe.  Take Helike, for example, an ancient Greek port city that once thrived on the southwestern shores of the Gulf of Corinth.  For centuries, its existence and demise were dismissed as purely mythical.  But, in 2001, scientists found remnants of Helike buried further inland and have since confirmed that a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated the region in 373 B.C.; subsequently leading to the city’s destruction.  It’s possible the catastrophe spawned the legend of Atlantis.  Karen Mutton’s “Sunken Realms” provides an extensive and fascinating list of many other submerged cities, along with theories of what may have happened to them.

Nothing lasts forever – certainly nothing made by humans.  Quakes and tsunamis may have once posed the greatest threat to archaic urban areas.  But, in our infinite arrogance and bloated self-assurance, modern people don’t realize how little control we often have over our own fates.

Proven true – Helike really did exist.

Proven true – Helike really did exist.


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Vote Like It Counts


One of the many elements that came out of the 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” was a loud call for the United States to honor its commitment to voting.  People here often don’t think much about it, but voting is a critical factor in any democracy.  If you look at what’s happening in Syria right now, I’m certain a number of that country’s citizens wish they had the luxury of just voting, or impeaching, Bashar al-Assad right out of office.

A positive effect of the March on Washington was the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed that the U.S. would uphold that right for every proper citizen to cast one vote for the candidate of their choice.  It struck down poll taxes and literacy tests; measures often used, particularly in the Southeast, against non-Whites and poor people.  Why don’t people take this seriously?

I’m especially concerned after a report showing my beloved home state of Texas ranks 51st, after the District of Columbia, in voter turnout.  On average, declares the Texas Civic Health Index, only about a third of eligible voters in the nation’s second-most populous state make a concerted effort to vote.  I think that explains why Texas looks to be a blood-red bastion of far-right lunatics.  It’s why Rick Perry has been able to hold onto the governorship like the Pope and why Ted Cruz easily won a Senate seat last year, despite his extremist views.

The state’s Democratic Party hopes to turn its political establishment a striking royal blue.  I personally don’t want to see Texas metamorphose into another California or Illinois where extreme taxation and heavy regulations drive away businesses.  But, I definitely don’t want it to remain mired in crimson red.  A nice fuchsia would be more palatable, but I’m not a color maven.

The study noted – not surprisingly – that people with higher levels of education are more likely to vote.  Thus, it recommended improving civic literacy through education, starting at the grade school level.  But, recent cuts by the Texas legislature in education funding may make that challenging.  Conservative state officials moved Heaven and Earth to ban abortion, but don’t have too much concern for those children once they reach school.  Hence, the need for voting.

It’s actually an embarrassment.  I’ve made a concerted effort to vote in every major state and national election since 1992.  Obviously, I haven’t always seen the results I’d like – but, at least I tried to make a difference.

Low voter turnouts appears to be a national trend.  Last year only some 57.5% of eligible voters made it to the polls; lower than in the 2 previous elections, but surpassing the dismal rate of 54.2% set in 2000.  Critics at the time liked to point out that more people voted in “American Idol” than in the 2000 presidential elections.  When you realize that, in 2012, Mexican voters turned out at a rate of 62.45% – despite the omnipresent threats of violence and endemic corruption – it certainly speaks poorly of Americans.

Voting is like budgeting: you just can’t let things go and hope for the best.  It requires work and patience.  It’s what any civilized society – not just the United States – is all about.  It’s the foundation of democracy.  It really does count.

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“March on Washington” at 50


Today marks the 50th anniversary of the “March on Washington,” a seminal event in modern civil rights history – one that changed the cultural direction of this nation.  Officially titled the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” its initial impact surprised even its organizers.  In a time before cell phones and personal computers, word of the event spread quickly and attracted more than 200,000 people to the U.S. capital as a steamy summer neared its end.  Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was the highlight of the march and remains its signature hallmark.  But, it was more than a showcase for King; it was about a movement and a people – the American people.  It was a call for the U.S. to uphold its constitutional values that all citizens are created equal.  People will forever debate its merits.  But, there’s no doubt it became a critical force in moving this nation forward; a real catalyst for positive change and opportunity.

The fight actually continues in relentless calls for economic and social justice.  Battles like this are never won so easily.


Official program.

Photos from the event.

Top image courtesy of United Liberty.


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The Mysterious Case of the Incredibly Vanishing Trees

Assumption Parish, Louisiana

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One Quiet Voice


The story is disturbingly familiar: a White male with anger and / or mental health issues storms into a crowded venue with a bevy of firearms intent on doing unmitigated damage.  It occurred twice last year: in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut.  In this uniquely American phenomenon – a relentless nightmare – another such drama unfolded at a Georgia elementary school on Tuesday, the 20th.  Michael Brandon Hill, a 20-year-old, entered the school with a cache of weapons – and was stopped with an ‘I love you’ from an unimposing office clerk.

As school administrators and teachers frantically ushered the young students out of the building and police descended upon the area, Antoinette Tuff dialed 911 and began talking calmly to the troubled young man.  Her reassuring voice has been playing out on the national media these past couple of days; leaving people amazed and thankful that she managed to diffuse a hostile situation with mere words.  This is not the end people have grown accustomed to seeing.  All of the other hallmarks were present: people running for their lives; scores of police officials in riot gear; and media hawks jockeying for the best camera position.  Antoinette Tuff provided a surprising, yet pleasantly different conclusion.  No one expected that.  Even veteran hostage negotiators are expressing awe.

I have to admit I was surprised as well.  But, only for a moment.  As a life-long pacifist who suffers bouts of anxiety from not trying to hurt people who piss me off, I know that words can soothe the angst of almost any situation.  It’s a sign of intellectual prowess and emotional maturity when people make an attempt to be quiet and interact on a verbal level.  Dialogue solves more problems than a hail of bullets.

After last year’s massacre in Newtown, the ubiquitous National Rifle Association was compelled to speak publicly about the issue of guns and America’s brutal gun culture.  “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun,” Wayne LaPierre, the group’s executive vice president, proclaimed, “is a good guy with a gun.”

Listening to Antoinette Tuff tell Michael Hill that she identified with his emotional distress and insist that he’s worth something, I feel almost vindicated.  It’s better to talk than to fight.  It’s better to discuss matters and find common ground than to inflict bodily harm and relish in the bloody aftermath.  In the end, over 800 children went home and returned to school the next day.  Police took Michael Hill into custody and spirited him away for psychological evaluation.  Now, for the first time that I can recall, a would-be mass murderer was stopped.  Hopefully, doctors can learn what happened inside Hill’s mind; what traumatized him so badly that he went to that school with so many weapons.  And, we won’t have to rely upon Facebook rants or indecipherable drawings to ferret out the truth and try to make sense of the insensible.

Here’s something that’s not surprising – Antoinette Tuff doesn’t consider herself a heroic figure.  She merely views herself as an unimposing school district employee who became enmeshed in a frightening situation and utilized both her spiritual faith and her unconditional love to thwart a tragedy.  She didn’t need a gun and she didn’t need a bomb; she just needed some gentle words.

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Egyptian Museum Ransacked

Here we go again.  Amidst political upheaval and social disorder, a nation’s priceless cultural treasures bear the brunt of the angst.  We saw this happen in Afghanistan in 2001, when the Taliban ordered the destruction of all Buddhist statues in the region; including one that – at 2,000 years of age and 165 feet tall – was the oldest and biggest replica of the prophet in the world.  We saw it occur just this past spring in Mali where rebels torched two buildings holding ancient manuscripts; some dating to the 13th century A.D.

Now Egypt’s famous Malawi National Museum has fallen victim to the “Arab Spring.”  Last week looters stormed into the internationally-renowned museum and damaged or destroyed scores of artifacts.  In an official statement, the government has blamed supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood for causing the damage.  Museum authorities are still surveying the mess and compiling a list in an attempt to prevent other artifacts from being smuggled out of the country and possibly sold in the underground antiquities market.

At this point in the debacle, does it really matter who’s responsible?  What does the government intend to do if it – and this is just a wild-ass guess – if it actually manages to bring someone to trial?  In the bitter world of politics and ethnic clashes, a nation’s artistic and cultural legacies somehow always get caught in the crossfire.  Looking at these photos, it’s tough to understand what can be done to rectify the calamity.







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1904 Standard Oil Octopus


At the beginning of the 20th century, Standard Oil was the world’s largest corporation; it was also the first multinational corporation – until the U.S. Supreme Court dismantled it in 1911, as part of anti-monopoly wave that had commenced with the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890.  Today’s Exxon-Mobil Corporation is a direct descendant.  In 1904, “Puck Magazine” published a cartoon by Udo J. Keppler (son of founder Joseph Keppler) showing a Standard Oil tanker as an octopus with a wicked gaze; its tentacles wrapped around various political establishments, such as the White House.  The message was clear: big oil had its grip on the halls of power.

Flash forward a century later and we have to ask – have things changed much?


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Tiny Pages

A miniature book once owned by Anne Boleyn.

A miniature book once owned by Anne Boleyn.

People are amazed at how small cell phones, personal computers and other electronic devices are becoming.  But, good old-fashioned books have a jump start on that trend.  It seems impractical, but there are such things as miniature books; tomes that measure no more than three square inches in size, with print too small to be read without a magnifying glass or a telescope.  And, they’re not the tools of “Cold War” spy games.  They’ve been around for centuries.

“They were created for reasons of practicality, curiosity and aesthetics,” says Julian Edison, whose collection of 15,000 little books includes two-inch clay tablets onto which ancient Babylonians inscribed cuneiform lettering around 2200 B.C.

Some twenty years after Johann Gutenberg developed his printing press, miniature books were being produced.  Most were religious texts.  Book-makers utilized magnifying glasses and a myriad of small tools to create books that were mirror images of their life-size counterparts, complete with leather binding and gold threading.

The Miniature Book Society, a non-profit established in Delaware, Ohio in 1983, is dedicated to the art of the littlest publications.  This past spring MBS even hosted a traveling exhibition that showcased both historic and contemporary small-scale literary works.

Don’t be fooled though.  Small books don’t necessarily mean small prices.  London-based book dealer Sam Fogg recently sold a 16th century miniature prayer book for GBP 3 million.  For GBP 15,000, Edison himself just acquired a miniature diary kept by a 13-year-old girl who survived the Titanic.  I’m sure some people will look at these Lilliputian books in the same way as they do my model cars – nice, but what purpose do they serve?  Well, that’s something only true book lovers can understand.

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Golden Books – Still Golden!

The “Little Golden Books” ‘Book Nook’ at National Museum of American History.

The “Little Golden Books” ‘Book Nook’ at National Museum of American History.

Wanting me to have opportunities they never had, my parents began reading to me before I turned one.  By the time I turned three, I was reading mostly by myself.  And, among the vast number of books they bought were the classic “Little Golden Books” – those child-centered texts with sturdy pages and gold-colored binding.  They first appeared in October 1942; the brainchild of New York publishing firm Simon & Schuster, the Artists and Writers Guild and the Western Printing and Lithographic Company of Racine, Wisconsin.  They were geared towards children ages 3 to 8 and revolutionized literature for the average American.  Before then, children generally could find books only in schools and libraries.  But, the “Little Golden Books” series changed that.  Their brightly-colored pages and bold text captured and held a child’s attention and their 25-cent price made them affordable.

Now, the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., is paying homage to the series with an exhibit through January 2014.  It features a sampling of artists’ proofs from several of the first books in the series, such as “Two Little Miners,” “The Poky Little Puppy” and “The Little Red Caboose.”  At a time when education funding in the U.S. is being compromised due to partisan politics, it’s imperative to realize how crucial literacy is to a child’s welfare.

Oh, and I still have all the “Little Golden Books” my parents bought for me.  Some things are just too valuable to throw away!

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