December 10th, 2017
For your Bits this weekend we get started by taking a look at how Zanzibar is using drones to track the erosion of its coast and allow the government to better protect the island from climate change. Islands will be the first victims of rising sea levels and already face receding coastlines that change every year. For developing nations, simply tracking these changes can be a challenge with some islands relying on antiquated methods like “surveying land by hand with a measuring tape.” The Zanzibar Mapping Initiative is increasing the efficiency and accuracy of these mapping efforts by using drones to create high-resolution images of coastal erosion, providing the government with essential information for city planning. On top of the informational benefits, the drone pilots are predominantly female, an anomaly in a place where women are often marginalized and require permission from the men in their lives to participate in public life; a dual opportunity for technical upgrades and societal change.
~ 21 Minute Read
“”In Zanzibar, the drone become famous,” Kassim said in imperfect English as he waited for Ali to identify the best position to launch the drone. We had traveled to a fenced-off clearing of land in the middle of the village of Nungwi one afternoon in early August to take the winged robot for a test drive.
Kassim pulled out a laptop computer, placed it on the hood of our SUV and began to program the flight path of the drone. With the tiny aircraft in hand, Ali stood still in the center of the pitch, and cocked her head to the sky to test the wind against her face. Soon prepared for launch, she broke into a quick sprint, her orange-bedazzled hijab billowing behind her. She released the drone into flight, cutting the figure of a modern Zanzibari superwoman – cape and all, flapping against the overcast horizon.
The drone, buzzing overhead at an altitude of around 600 feet, would be able to capture aerial photos with such precision that you’d be able to witness the near-naked kite surfers gleefully skimming past the hijab-wearing seaweed farmers who labor on Nungwi’s shallow crystalline shore.
Nungwi is a pricey tourist destination on the northernmost tip of the island, where rooms at hotels go for $400 a night and tourists can enjoy beachside couples massages.
But the lavish accommodations here are surrounded on all sides by impoverished villages that share a single spout of fresh water. At the turn onto a rutted dirt road into Nungwi, a large sign displays hand-drawn renderings of a man and a woman in skimpy swimsuits, with two big red crosses etched over their bodies. “Please respect local & traditional culture,” the sign reads, a timeworn request that is often ignored by vacationers.
Much like the lucrative tourism business in Nungwi, the drones buzzing overhead have also become a source of suspicion among locals. As two of the island’s drone evangelists working to demystify the flying object and their mission, Kassim and Ali had collected a trove of war stories.
“In some areas, they fear the drone,” Ali said. “They think it’s a bomb when it crashes. Or they say, we don’t want you to fly drone because you will know our secrets. So you can’t.”
She recalled a particularly frightening day in the field when her drone crashed, and confused villagers rushed to collect the scattered pieces. They refused to hand over the machine over unless paid the money they demanded. Ali went back to the area the next day with government security guards to finish mapping the area.
But she treasured most of her experiences explaining the power and purpose of the drone to fellow Zanzibaris. It reinforced the new kind of professional autonomy the program and drone certification had granted her, freeing her from the seaweed farms.
“Most of the men feel like I’m a man, because I’m strong and smart and in our culture, most women are not,” Ali said, fidgeting with her hands, still covered in henna from her wedding. She married at the end of July in a traditional Islamic wedding. “In our culture, men have to give you permission to do things. But I choose someone who gives me permission to do everything. Someone who listens and makes you proud of what you do. Women automatically think we can’t. But for me, everything is a possibility.”
The marginalization of women on Zanzibar — which is culturally conservative but also embraces Western modernity — is subtle at first glance. But Ali’s gentle fearlessness and prominence around the island is a paradox in a place where a women’s rights activist was quietly murdered with a machete.
“Khadija is one of those very few women in Zanzibar who are really up for a change – for an evolution, of the way people perceive things and I think we need to help her, support her,” said Aboud Jumbe.
The drone project has enabled women like Ali and her female counterparts to challenge prevailing stereotypes of the role of women on the majority Muslim island, a small stride towards closing a gender gap in economic opportunity. Women account for almost three quarters of the agricultural workforce.
“There are so many factors, including low level of education compared with men, and it is embedded with early marriage, school drop out, the mismatch of education they have with labor market needs — those are the challenges that make the disparities,”said Mwanaidi M. Ali, the female director of the Zanzibar’s Youth Development Department of high female unemployment numbers.”
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Our next article takes a look the process for impeaching the U.S. President. The Constitution was intentionally vague in defining impeachable offenses including “high crimes and misdemeanors” so as to allow the political leaders of any era to decide when an elected official was no longer serving the public interest. Despite this precaution, there is a reluctance to impeach the president for poor decisions or general incompetence and the prevailing opinion is that a president should only be removed for blatant criminality. While this protects the president from excessive partisanship and allows for a more predictable government, it comes with the potential for four years of terrible governance. Does it really make sense that President of the United States, the most powerful person in the world, is unable to be fired for gross incompetence?
~ 21 Minute Read
“On May 16, Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist at the New York Times, wrote a searing column arguing for President Trump’s removal from office. “From the perspective of the Republican leadership’s duty to their country, and indeed to the world that our imperium bestrides, leaving a man this witless and unmastered in an office with these powers and responsibilities is an act of gross negligence, which no objective on the near-term political horizon seems remotely significant enough to justify,” he wrote.
Douthat’s preference was to bypass impeachment entirely and invoke the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment, which permits the president’s removal if the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet certify him “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,” was ratified in 1967 as a response to President Dwight Eisenhower’s health problems and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It is designed for a president who has fallen comatose or been shot — a president who has become physically incapable of carrying out his duties.
When I spoke to Rep. Lofgren, she argued that the language was open to interpretation. “The 25th Amendment doesn’t mention medical,” she said. “It mentions ‘unable to discharge one’s duties,’ so it’s a judgment call.” But the text of her resolution shows how deeply we associate the power with physical deterioration. It calls on “the vice president and the cabinet to quickly secure the services of medical and psychiatric professionals to examine the president … to determine whether the president suffers from a mental disorder or other injury that impairs his abilities and prevents him from discharging his Constitutional duties.”
It is worth playing out that scenario. Imagine that Vice President Mike Pence and the Cabinet did compel Trump to undergo psychiatric evaluation. And imagine the psychiatrist did return a diagnosis of some kind, be it early-stage dementia or narcissistic personality disorder (plenty of psychiatrists stand ready to diagnose Trump with all manner of mental ailments, so this is not far-fetched). The vote is taken, and Trump is removed from office.
To many of Trump’s supporters — and perhaps many of his opponents — this would look like nothing less than a coup; the swamp swallowing the man who sought to drain it. Imagine the Breitbart headlines, the Fox News chyrons. And would they truly be wrong? Whatever Trump is today, he was that man when he was elected too. The same speech patterns were in evidence; the same distractibility was present. The tweets, the conspiracy theories, the chaos: It was all there. The American people, mediated by the Electoral College, delivered their verdict; mustn’t it now be respected?
Here is the counterargument: Our political system was designed by men who believed the mass public could make mistakes, and so they set up failsafes, emergency processes by which political elites could act. The Electoral College, which was ironically the key to Trump’s victory, was one of those failsafes — a collection of political actors who would be informed by the popular vote, but not bound by it. Today, however, the ideology of democracy has taken fiercer hold, elites are held in low regard, and those failsafes are themselves failing.
Perhaps political elites have forgotten the work they are actually here to do — which is not simply to win elections or give blind quotes to Politico. “The case for the 25th Amendment or any other solution is that if a situation is dangerous, elites have a responsibility to risk popular backlash and even appear to be overturning the results of the election,” Douthat told me. In this telling, it is the job of elites to be a bulwark precisely when that job is hardest to carry out.
The question is whether this cure is worse than the disease. For all the dangers Trump poses, his removal poses dangers too. In August, the New Yorker posted a viral piece questioning whether America was barreling toward a new civil war. In it, Yale historian David Blight warned, “We know we are at risk of civil war, or something like it, when an election, an enactment, an event, an action by government or people in high places, becomes utterly unacceptable to a party, a large group, a significant constituency.” Invoking the 25th Amendment seems, to me, like the precise sort of event Blight describes. The bitter political polarization that marks Trump’s America would look gentle compared to America if Trump were removed from office.
But this analysis leaves us in a place that seems absurd when stated clearly: Though we have mechanisms for removing a dangerous president, those mechanisms are too politically explosive to actually invoke. President Trump could order a nuclear holocaust before breakfast, but unless society can agree that he is either criminal or comatose, both America and the world are stuck with him and all the damage he can cause.
Can this really be our system?”
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Your last Bit of the weekend takes a look at one of the most isolated places in the United States, the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), and the Trump administration’s efforts to undo environmental protectections by opening more the reserve to oil drilling. At 23 million acres, or 10 times the size of Yellowstone National Park, NPR-A is one of the most environmentally important parts of the arctic ecosystem with millions of migratory birds, caribou, belugas and polar bears relying on the land’s protection to safely continue their lives. Through a carefully crafted management plan, the Obama administration earmarked 52% of the reserve for potential energy development while protecting the portions most important to the native wildlife and the Inupiaq whose ancestors have lived off the land for the past 13,000 years. This plan is now being scraped, with little to no consideration for the environmental impact, by Trump administration which is planning to lease the land faster than it can be developed in a manner that will ruin the it forever.
~ 15 Minute Read
“The Utukok River Uplands are about four times bigger than the largest grassland in the continental United States, according to Debbie S. Miller, who spent four summers in the reserve for her book “On Arctic Ground.” She calls it our Serengeti, pulsing with the migration of the 200,000-strong western Arctic caribou herd, and the bears and wolves that follow them.
Peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons, golden eagles and rough-legged hawks perch like hood ornaments on the bluffs of the Colville River, which scientists say is one of the most important raptor nesting areas in the world.
As co-owner of the guiding outfit Arctic Wild, Michael Wald has paddled the Colville and many other rivers in NPR-A. He adores the reserve. “It’s the last place you can go and hide from the 21st century,” Mr. Wald said.
The Kasegaluk Lagoon is home to thousands of beluga whales, spotted seals and polar bears. Walruses gather in huge rookeries on Kasegaluk’s beaches as ice floes, their preferred resting and feeding places, melt away, making these shores a key substitute as climate change upends their world.
In the far north lies one of the largest complex of wetlands in all of the Arctic — an expanse of ponds, streams and marshes larger than Delaware. The centerpiece is the shallow Teshekpuk Lake, larger in area than Lake Tahoe.
Teshekpuk and the area surrounding it is vital to a rich array of birds that journey there from around the world — from ducks and geese to shorebirds, gulls and jaegers, according to a 2013 study in the journal Conservation Biology. Every spring at least 29 species of shorebirds — perhaps six million of them — land there from other continents to breed, nest and raise their young. It’s an international nursery, at the edge of the continent.
Exotic returnees include the Arctic tern that can shuttle to and from Antarctica, and another visitor, the bar-tailed godwit, which after pausing to fatten up still more on the Yukon Delta, will fly without pause to New Zealand, a journey of more than 7,000 miles, the longest-known nonstop over-water migration.
Teshekpuk also nourishes the winged flashes of color that brighten our daily lives in the Lower 48: The swan seen on a Maryland lake. The duck pursued by a hunter in Texas. The Lapland longspur that spends the harsh winter picking through the cutover wheat fields of Kansas. Birds from all four major American flyways converge here, and the central Pacific and East Asian-Australasian flyways, too.
While the Arctic refuge is deservedly famous, researchers in that 2013 study found that when it came to all the species of aquatic birds they were looking for, they found more of them, packed more densely, along the coast of the petroleum reserve, the place that almost no one knows.”
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