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Staff Editorials

Make America Happy Again

We Americans are an unhappy people – at least in relation to the greatness, affluence and freedom of this country.

Based on the recently released World Happiness Report for 2018, America ranks 18th in our citizen contentment, out of 159 countries. Not  horrible; we broke the top 20 in the rankings compiled for United Nations using Gallup poll data and other factors developed by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. But at least one compiler of the report remarked how surprising it is that a free democracy like America with such a high standard of living isn’t in the top 10. In fact, we’ve not been in the top 10 since the Happiness scale was first published in 2012.

There is disappointment that U.S. citizens aren’t happier. It would be like finding out  Alabama Crimson Tide fans are only fake cheering during football season.

If the results are to be believed, the Nordic countries must be doing something right as the number one happiest place this year was Finland. In the past few years it was Denmark, Switzerland and Norway at the top spot. Who’d have thought countries that are so cold are so happy? 

The happiest nations, a virtual list of Nordic nations plus a few friends (Netherlands, New Zealand, Canada and Australia), may change positions but no country has joined or been knocked out of the top 10 in the past three years.

In the rankings, the U.S. comes right behind Luxembourg and ahead of the UK. We barely beat the United Arab Emirates, France and Mexico.

We significantly beat Russia at their 59th spot and we creamed Bhutan, a country that strives for happiness, but only ranks 97th. China was 86th, but as their economy surges, they have found that money does lead to improvement in happiness rankings over previous years.

No surprise that the poverty and violence filled nations in Africa (Burundi, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Tanzania) are at the bottom. 

Income levels, social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and corruption levels are cited as the keys to a happy nation by compilers of the report.

In the polls, respondents around the globe are asked to imagine a ladder and out of 10 steps are you fist-pumping the sweet life at the top or scared, hungry and crying in the cellar?

The U.S. respondents for the past several years have been somewhere between the 6th and 7th step. In the latest rankings (2015-2017) we were on step 6.88 with Finland on step 7.63 at the top and Burundi only climbing up 2.9 steps.

Impediments to American happiness include obesity/health issues, the opioid crisis and widespread depression, according to Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of The Center for Sustainable Development at The Earth Institute, Columbia University, who supplied supplemental information.

In an interview, Sachs told the New York Times that even though incomes as a whole are rising, the results indicate the average American is under more stress than people in the happier nations.

One observation we’d add: Perhaps Americans don’t consider themselves happy because we are jaded by all that we do have. Look around, there is relative safety, the opportunity to succeed in many different fields and a very comfortable way of life for most. You can imagine if some poor fellow from Burundi were to be relocated here with any average job, they might tell pollsters they were on step 11 of the 10 step criteria. A Jasper resident from a poorer nation once told us in an interview he considers his convenience store “paradise.”

Our dissatisfaction may also come from the celebrity-worshiping cult in America. Even the most grounded middle-class life looks dull compared to the constant images of beautiful people doing exciting things filling television and social media.

As the aforementioned Ms. Sachs noted, America’s problems are not economic ones, they are social ones.

Kudos to commissioners for bold move

The Pickens County Board of Commissioners, and especially commissioner Becky Denney who led the charge, deserves a pat on the back for making a definitive move to clear up the public debacle that has been the “termination” of Gerry Nechvatal as Pickens County Economic Development Director. 

We put termination in quotation marks because it has been unclear as to whether or not his dismissal was legal - and what ensued after he was “dismissed” was an embarrassing public spectacle that went on for nearly two months. 

If you haven’t been following along we’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version: Nechvatal was dismissed by the Pickens County and Jasper Economic Development Council (EDC) in late January, but Nechvatal, members of the Pickens County Chamber of Commerce (Nechvatal was appointed by the same council to serve as Pickens County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director in 2016 and has served in both positions since) as well as members of the public say the EDC’s bylaws did not grant them that authority. It was argued that the EDC only had authority to make a recommendation for termination to the entities that fund the economic director position - the city of Jasper and Pickens County government. 

EDC representatives have maintained that they were within their rights to dismiss Nechvatal, who one EDC member said had a “pitiful” review and who Jasper Mayor John Weaver said was “impossible to fire.” Nechvatal maintained that he was not hired by the EDC, but that a citizens’ group hired him before EDC bylaws were created. There are also issues with the changes made to the EDC bylaws in 2016 which Nechvatal and others say invalidate the termination.  

And so it has gone, back and forth for well over a month with no resolution in sight. At the most recent Jasper City Council meeting council member Tony Fountain motioned to stop funding the position completely, which was not backed by the rest of council. 

We think the county cleared the issue up in the best and most common-sense way possible – Denney asked that the county continue funding the position, but requested it be put in escrow until a new person can be hired as economic development director. She said she felt the position was needed, but that it is full-time and should not be held by the same person employed as the Chamber’s executive director, also a full-time job. Several members of the EDC who initially supported the joint developer/chamber director role, said with the termination, they no longer had that view, believing the positions should be separate.

We agree wholeheartedly. We also agree with Nechvatal supporters who say his dismissal has been politicized and handled distastefully.   

Like Denney and other commissioners, we hope that by separating those two roles, an economic development director will be found to move the county forward in a way residents and leaders want to see.    

 

Spring potpourri

• It was disheartening to see the Save-A-Lot shutter its doors in Jasper over the weekend. Any way you slice it, the closure bodes poorly for the south end of town. While businesses come and go, there has been a sour trend for smaller grocers here with the Blue Star, followed by the Piggly Wiggly and now the Save-A-Lot closing. Perhaps they just couldn’t compete with the more modern, larger chain rivals like Ingles, Kroger and Walmart grocery stores?

It does seem south Jasper has been bypassed ever since a fire forced the relocation of the Dairy Queen -- could have been a bad omen that no one saw.

A huge spark for the business atmosphere there may be on the horizon as reporting indicates that the VA clinic is truly coming – albeit slowly. Here’s hoping the VA not only serves a great number of veterans by providing solid  healthcare close to home, but it also gives a boost the businesses surrounding its location.

• On the gun debate the first question that everyone needs to ask: Is the status quo acceptable? Not only with the highly-publicized, though still relatively rare school shootings - but for routine gun violence: robberies, domestic assaults, suicides -  are we satisfied with where the nation is now? If the public believes something must be done, then let’s look at it from every angle – mental health, gun laws, privacy laws and civil liberties. If we can put a man on the moon and fight terrorists around the globe, our nation can come up with something to keep kids safe in school and people of all ages safe at concerts and in the streets.

 

• The first sign of spring are blooming March flowers; the second sign are events popping up almost as fast. Lots of events, all kinds of events – eating events, exercising events, fundraisers, school events, church events, events to promote this and support that all vying for a small population. The main rush of events don’t really hit until April and May.

We would ask two things for the planners and public. First, don’t swamp the small portion of the people that actually get out and do things by loading up several events on the same weekend. If you know a Kids Fishing Day is already announced, your group doesn’t need to have a petting zoo, bounce house day at the same time. Please keep your eyes out on what the other groups here are doing.

Second, to the fickle public, go support some of these groups. It is tough to tear yourself away from finishing that hedge-trimming or heading to the lake, but keep in mind that these groups are holding fundraisers for a reason. Attending these events is the very essence of community and what it means to live in a small town. We don’t expect people to give up all their weekends, but surely we can get to some of the events.

• The Georgia counties of Sumter, Oconee, Candler, Crisp, County, and Jeff Davis along with Athens-Clarke combined and the Candler County Hospital Authority have all filed suit against the companies that make and distribute opioids.

The Cherokee Nation has filed a similar suit on the tribal level, along with more than 400 plaintiffs at the federal level, seeking to make drug companies and distributors pay for the costs of the opioid crisis.

The lead attorney in the Georgia counties’ suits, Patrick Garrard, said the counties are trying to recoup expenses that were caused by unethical selling of opioids by more than 20 companies.

The suit alleges the companies misrepresented the addictive nature of opioids, encouraged over-prescription while ignoring the growing number of pills given to some patients when any reasonable person would have known something was not right. 

We  encourage Pickens County to join that list. These companies made millions on the sale of opioids. It’s fair to expect these medical robber-barons to pay for the some of the financial costs they inflicted on society – though there will be no recovery of the thousands of destroyed and derailed lives. 

 

  • Finally to end on a high note, in case you didn’t notice the weather last weekend was textbook perfect. Cool enough to work outside in shorts but not get sweaty. We don’t get many weekends like that so enjoy them when you can. 

 

A woman’s place is in the research lab

The Oscar-nominated documentary Jane on the revolutionary work of primatologist Jane Goodall was shown on the National Geographic channel Monday night. The piece, directed by Brett Morgen, took more than 100 hours of previously lost footage and put together an amazing work showing us Goodall’s early years studying chimpanzees in the Gombe National Park in Tanzania. Not only did Goodall, now 83, change the world’s thinking about chimpanzees, she also led the way for women researchers in all fields.

While the documentary is filled with footage from her work with the chimpanzees, it also features scores of newspaper headlines from the 1960s when she first went to Tanzania. And for those of us looking at them from a 2018 perspective, it was rather shocking. Shocking, but not surprising. “Comely Miss Studying Chimps” was just one of the seemingly exhaustive list of typical newspaper headlines that ran at the time about Goodall’s work. They were often peppered with subtle, other times not-so-subtle, quips at her work because she was a  young woman.

At the time, in the 1960s, it was almost unthinkable for a young female to do that job, but Goodall never considered that an obstacle. “I wasn’t brought up that way. Everybody else laughed at me, but Mom didn’t. Women weren’t scientists. When I was growing up, you could be a nurse, a missionary’s wife, a secretary, and then, oh how exciting, you could be an air hostess. A lot of people said to me, don’t you want to be an air hostess?”

Goodall said in the documentary that as a child she dreamed as a man because “in her world women didn’t do the things she wanted to do, like go on adventures in Africa and live among the animals.” The documentary, while showing the wonderfully complex and tight-knit community of apes, also shows us how important strong parental bonds are, especially those of a mother. It was Goodall’s mother, Vanne, who is credited  as giving her the confidence to ignore the rampant sexism of the time. Unlike practically everyone else, her mother didn’t  discourage her from going into science.

And the world should be thankful.

The secretary turned nationally-renowned scientist has gone on to make tremendous contributions to our world, including founding Roots and Shoots, a youth service program that empowers and encourages youth of all ages to pursue their passion, mobilize their peers, and become the leaders our world needs to ensure a better future for people, animals and the environment. Not the least of her contributions is being a female leader in science.

Women now comprise more than 40 percent of researchers in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, the EU, France, Portugal, the UK, and the US. According to the Pew Research Center, the share of women varies widely across STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) job types. Women are underrepresented in some STEM job clusters, but in others they match or exceed their share in the U.S. workforce overall. In fact, women comprise three-quarters of health care practitioners and technicians, the largest occupational cluster classified as STEM in this analysis, with 9 million workers – 6.7 million of whom are women, according to Pew. And women’s gains since 1990 in the life sciences (up from 34% to 47%) have brought them roughly on par with their share in the total workforce (47%), a milestone reached in math occupations (46%) as well. Women remain underrepresented in engineering (14%), computer (25%) and physical science (39%) occupations, according to Pew statistics.

Along with other female scientists like Virginia Apgar (a pioneering anesthesiologist) and Dr. Barbara McClintock (Nobel Prize winner for her genetics research), Goodall helped pave the way for women in the sciences. 

This is one trend that needs continuing. At last week’s STAR banquet, this year’s valedictorian and STAR student (the PHS senior who scored the highest SAT score), Hannah Ballard, said she plans to become a biomedical engineer. 

Time to turn up our online BS meters

What do you believe when you can’t believe anything? That question was recently posed by Aviv Ovadya, the chief technologist from the University of Michigan’s Center for Social Media Responsibility.

What the MIT graduate was referencing in an interview on BuzzFeed and a column he wrote for the Washington Post is the staggering amount of misinformation on the internet spread quickly and intentionally with ads on social media.

Fortune magazine reported that Facebook’s testimony to Congress indicated 80,000 pieces of content from Russia’s Internet Research Agency reached more than 100 million people during the past election.  The old-fashioned propaganda campaign also included 131,000 Twitter messages and 1,100 Youtube videos.

The extent is so widespread that Ovadya found a significant number of “top trending” news stories were inaccurate. The problem is that popularity, not quality or accuracy, rules the digital world. What gets the most clicks and likes goes to the top of everyone’s feed, but the algorithms that drive both Google and Facebook can be gamed with ads and “bots” to generate fraudulent likes and move news items up the list. Who cares if it’s right as long as you agree with it and it’s popular? That’s the sentiment behind this hijacking of information.

And it didn’t end with the election, when the school shooting in Florida happened, immediately a “bot” army controlled by Russia sprang into action making thousands of inflammatory posts, both for and against gun control. The purpose of these outrageous and insensitive posts, according to a New York Times story, was just to stir up the political fighting in this country.

Ovadya characterized the threat to widely disseminate false information as being like a car careening towards a cliff - and not only is no one trying to stop it, no one even sees the car.

This is the tip of the iceberg of the damage that can be unleashed by malicious and ingenious technology now rolling out.

Some of the new technology that the Center for Social Media Responsibility says is either already available or not far away:

• There are sites and software that initially could be used to create porn by putting the faces of celebrities into realistic sex scenes. Trashy in itself, but the same software could be used to settle a score with that annoying person at the office, “Hey y’all look at the video someone sent me.”

• With similar software you could find yourself shown shoplifting on one of the convenience store security videos that we all see shared online.

• A new software is described as “Photoshop for audio” could be used very well in phone scams such as “Hi grandma. I need to get your Social Security number again for that form.”

• We’ve all seen someone on Facebook apologizing about a message sent by their account that wasn’t really them. The next step: using what’s already on social media, advanced programs can scan your real posts and likes and then send a completely false message to you, made more believable as it would appear it came from a friend and include a topic you had discussed before. Imagine thinking your aunt sent you a Facebook message welcoming you back from a genuine vacation but then mainly telling how much weight she has lost, and here is a link to buy pills.

As described in the BuzzFeed story, we’ve already reached a point where any person could make it “appear as if anything has happened, regardless of whether or not it did.”

You want a video of Trump kicking a kitten, well here it is. Need a video of Schumer punching a baby? Give us a minute. Hey, let’s have someone for local office caught on cell phone video saying they love Nazis. No problem with the software that is out there.Technology to distort reality is moving faster than gullible humans are able to adapt.

One of the first steps is to demand accountability from the likes of Google, Twitter and Facebook. They are dominating the economy and it’s not too much to expect them to clean up their acts. Rather than running purely by programs and algorithms, asking them to hire more human monitors wouldn’t cut much into their hefty bank accounts.

Second, we all need to raise our fraud, fake scrutiny-threshold. Quit falling for, sharing, or liking every ridiculous story that comes along. We may never tame the technology, but we can all think for ourselves.