Valentine's Day skeptics are as prevalent as the holiday's loyalists: For every rose-toting lover, there's a cupid defector who most definitely does not want anything red, pink, or pastel-colored. After digging into the background behind the Valentine's Day industry, I'm pretty convinced that my own wry holiday spirit is merited—if not for thisday's sky-high levels of consumption (expected to reach $17.6 billion this year) then, at the very least, for its environmental damage and poor labor practices. Below, a breakdown of the Valentine's Day trifecta: flowers, chocolate, and greeting cards. The results aren't pretty. So you can curse us for tainting your holiday—or thank us for enabling your cynicism.
Cut flowers: That bouquet you may be planning to gift today was most likely not grown in the United States. The floriculture industry taps out at $32.8 billion, and about $14 billion of that comes from the sale of fresh flowers. Around 63 percent of those blooms are imports from Colombia, and another 23 percent from Ecuador. *
The labor rights facts of this industry are truly depressing. In 2005, the International Labor Rights Forum found that 55 percent of women working in the Ecuadorian flower production trade (they constitute half the flower workforce) had been victim to sexual harassment in the workplace. Nineteen percent were forced to have sex with a supervisor or coworker. Compulsory pregnancy testing is also a serious industry issue. In Colombia, where women make up about 65 percent of flower workers, a survey conducted by the nation's flower industry union, Untraflores, found that about 80 percent of companies required women to take a pregnancy test as part of their job application process—presumably because they'd like to avoid providing paid maternity leave (required in Colombia). Another problem: In 2000, upwards of 48,000 children were found working in Ecuador's flower industry. Colombia wasn't much better. There have since been a number of hefty efforts at reform, and while Colombia's been improving, the US Department of Labor still confirms extensive child labor use in Ecuador.
What compels people to resist, even when confronted with the risks of bucking authority? Eyal Press examines the cases of four dissenters—an Israeli soldier who refused to serve in occupied territories, a Swiss deputy who aided World War II Jews, a bigotry-defying Serb who saved Croats, and a corporate whistleblower who outed the second-largest Ponzi scheme in US history—and invokes the work of psychologists and neuroscientists to help us ponder the ways we respond to ethical challenges.Proving time and again that the boldest renegades are just regular people with independent minds—rather than dyed-in-the-wool radicals—Beautiful Souls underscores dissent's populist potential. Acts of conscience, as Press puts it, "have a way of reverberating."
Protesters rally on Sakharov Ave. in Moscow on December 24, 2011.
Putin's grip on Russia: Over the two-plus decades since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Vladimir Putin has been in charge for more than half the time. Currently prime minister, he is running for president—again—in the March 4, 2012 elections. The ex-KGB officer served as the nation's president from 2000 until 2008. After two four-year terms, Putin then stepped into the role of prime minister, while his former chief of staff, Dmitri Medvedev, took over the presidential gig. Is it totalitarianism redux? Current Russian law mandates that no president may serve more than two terms consecutively; by leaving the presidency without really leaving the top of the Kremlin, it looked like Putin was smoothing his eventual path back to his old seat. He and Medvedev confirmed as much last September, admitting that they'd agreed years ago that Medvedev was to function merely as a "seat-warmer" president.
Meanwhile, former KGB officers—including some of Putin's former pals in the notorious intelligence agency—have been assigned top Kremlin posts. And Putin has encouraged a number of policies that hearken back to Soviet days: He's overlooked a culture of corruption and extortion, cracked down on free speech, and has persistently degraded social benefits, especially for the elderly and veterans. Interestingly, Putin's popularity, and that of his party, United Russia, has since declined dramatically.
What's happening now? The latest large-scale demonstration is set for Moscow on Saturday, February 4. In anticipation, some pointed anti-government art has been zipping around Russia's interwebs and beyond. A few examples: a Putin speech dubbed over a Lego video, a Titanic parody, and a lewder version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movie poster. Protesters have also put together a resolution listing their movement's demands, which include annulment of the December 4, 2011 parliamentary election results, new elections that are free and fair, and the release of imprisoned activists. Some have predicted that protest turnout on February 4 will be lower than it was during December's massive rally, due to even colder temperatures. According to the protest movement's Facebook invite, however, more than 27,000 people have pledged to attend. Russian publications are also predicting disunity at Saturday's rally. With presidential candidates from each of the four other political parties scheduled to speak, the protests are likely to be a sum of divergent groups—nationalists, liberals, and leftists who can agree on being anti-Putin…but not much else.
For years, Maria Popova's septuagenarian grandmother in Bulgaria wished her granddaughter would just do the sensible thing and get an MBA.Instead, the 27-year-old Brooklynite has spent the past six years developing BrainPickings.org—her wildly popular culture blog where one might find cheeky maps of European stereotypes, a visual history of bicycle design, even a Finnish choir that sets people's complaints to song.Sometimes, she ties her morsels of "interestingness" to the current of the times—as with a recent series of Occupy-themed posts or her posthumous tribute to Steve Jobs. But often her pickings aim to transcend the times, rather than harping on them, pushing us beyond the thought parameters of our daily routines.
A transplant from Bulgaria, Popova moved to the states to study at the University of Pennsylvania. She graduated with a communications degree, but her current reading proclivities—she consumes 12 to 15 books a week—and her prolific Twitter word-smithing—she tweets, without fail, every 15 minutes—are a dead giveaway to the one-time English major that lies within. (Never one to make curiosity compromises, Popova ditched the major. Read on to learn why.) Since Brain Pickings' launch in 2006, the site has earned millions of page views, as well as side gigs for Popova as a culture writer for The Atlantic, Wired UK, GOOD, and Nieman Lab. So while there's no MBA in sight, grandma is jiving with Popova's unconventional brand of business savvy. I caught up with the one-woman discovery engine to learn about the internet's hidden treasures, curation as authorship, and her occasional run-ins withimmigration services.
Before we talk about how many people may be behind bars for crimes they did not commit, we must acknowledge that it's nearly impossible to know—only broad estimates are possible. There are several key reasons, experts say, why a number is so hard to ascertain. Because the sprawling criminal justice system is a patchwork of federal, state, county, and municipal courts, prisons, and jails—each with its own system (or lack thereof) of record-keeping and data-reporting—we don't even know how many people are convicted, let alone wrongfully convicted, of crimes in the United States. "We don’t even have a denominator," says University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett. "But the wrongful convictions we do know about suggest that there's a big problem."
Extrapolating from the 281 known DNA exonerations in the US since the late 1980s, a conservative estimate is that 1 percent of the US prison population, approximately 20,000 people, are falsely convicted.
In fact, since the late 1980s there have been as many as 850 exonerations nationwide, according to University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross, a leading researcher in the field. Many of them float under the radar, Gross says, unlike the highly publicized DNA exonerations.
The following map shows the 825 known exonerations in the United States since 1989, using data gathered by Mother Jones with assistance from the Center on Wrongful Convictions, The Innocence Project, and Samuel Gross. Click on each state for further details, including whether it has a compensation law for people who are wrongfully imprisoned:
These cases are the tip of an iceberg. "One difficulty in making generalizations about false convictions is that the ones we know about, exonerations, are clearly a small and unrepresentative sample of all false convictions," wrote Gross in his 2008 paper, "Frequency and Predictors of False Conviction." There are several reasons why the known exoneration cases are unrepresentative: