‘They’re Watching Us: So What?’

Screen shot 2013-10-28 at 3.01.01 PMAs Bill Keller wrote in The New York Times on Oct. 27, “Glenn Greenwald broke what is probably the year’s biggest news story, Edward Snowden’s revelations of the vast surveillance apparatus constructed by the National Security Agency (NSA). He has also been an … an advocate of a more activist, more partisan kind of journalism.”

Well, on Nov. 14, Greenwald will join a powerhouse of panelists at Fordham Law School to discuss the new revealed surveillance powers of the NSA.

Panelists, including author and NSA expert, James Bamford; playwright and professor, Ariel Dorfman; and computer security and privacy specialist, Bruce Schneier; and other distinguished guests, will discuss: 

  • What effect is the expansive American surveillance state having on us?
  • Are the programs Edward Snowden revealed inhibiting the way we think, speak, and create, distorting social interactions, or damaging individuals or communities?

Join luminaries from the fields of literature, technology, media, and policy for a discussion of what we know—and don’t yet know—about how surveillance is reshaping our public and private lives.

This event, which is sponsored by the Center on National Security at Fordham Law, will take place at Fordham Law‘s McNally Amphitheatre, on Thursday, Nov. 14, from 7 – 8:30 p.m. RSVP here.

Working out? Do you love it? Hate it?

Screen shot 2013-10-23 at 11.17.25 AMI grew up in the city of Paterson, NJ, and aside from riding my bike almost every day in the summer, playing in the house, and gym class during the school year, I didn’t get a ton of exercise. There weren’t any organized sports in the tiny Catholic School I attended and the city I lived in didn’t have any recreational leagues.

Not surprisingly, I gained (and lost, and sometimes gained again) the freshmen 10 in high school and the freshmen 15 in college.

I started working out (aerobics classes and the like) my senior year of college and have been pretty hooked ever since. There was a two-year period in my life where it was obsessive (two hours or more a day) and when I got help for that, I cut back. Eventually, I found a happy balance (I go anywhere from 3-5 days a week for cardio and strength training) that includes walking my dog for about 40-60 minutes per day. And I live in a place where a ton of walking is commonplace — New York City!

The reality is I’ve always had to work out and watch what I eat. Luckily, I enjoy the working out part the best. But there are some people who have never had to work out (like my brothers!) who, later in life, are finding they have to. And they don’t always like it. Here’s a piece about the fitness as an adult by my older brother, Richard Vergel, in Vida Vibrante.

A Latino Dad Reflects on Fitness

Screen shot 2013-10-23 at 11.16.08 AM

I hate working out.  Always have.  It’s a chore. It hurts.  It’s not even free. Think about it: Gym memberships, brand name sneakers, well-built bicycles, boxing gloves, track suits, tennis racquets, etc. Whatever you’re into, money will be spent. My point is growing up, I wasn’t the most active kid in the world. But I was lucky, because I looked decent considering I didn’t work out; I wasn’t el gordito or el flaco.  I was height-weight proportionate since puberty, so I got away with not working out.

We won’t get into why I didn’t play school sports right now (I’ll save that for another article) but I wish I did. Playing sports as a kid usually leads to a healthier lifestyle, and improved social and leadership skills. Still, I shied away from physical activity. Yet, ironically, I always had friends who were into fitness, ever since high school. They always tried to get me to lift weights with them, and I would try it, see zero results, and go back to my favorite sport – couch surfing.  But that was then, this is now.

Now I’m a 42-year-old dad, who likes to eat his rice and beans and chorizo from time to time. I still look pretty good, thank you very much, but now my metabolism has slowed down and I have no choice: I’ve got to work out to stay in shape – no – to GET into shape.

Read the rest here

Depressing documentary Saturdays

Image via NYTimes article, "The Unstudied Art of Interrogation."
Image via NYTimes article, “The Unstudied Art of Interrogation.”

Sometimes (many times) I have these days to myself in my apartment so I can just watch mindless amounts of television and rest. Yesterday, I decided to watch (and listen to) nothing by depressing documentaries about false accusations and wrongful convictions.

First up, I watched “The Central Park Five.” (Give me a few seconds here to curse out the justice system and court of public opinion in my head. Thanks.) Talk about injustice.

The film “explores the story of the miscarriage of justice that engulfed Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise, the black and Latino teenagers from Harlem who were wrongly convicted of the horrific 1989 crime. The brutal beating and rape of a white woman in New York City’s Central Park provoked public outrage and sensational headlines during the prosecution and conviction of the five defendants. Less known is the story of the eventual exoneration of the men, who served full prison sentences.”

I remember that crime. Not vividly; I was very young. But I remember some news coverage and the front page of the New York tabloid newspapers. I remember my parents watching the news and having this opinion of New York as this super dangerous place.

Ken Burns did a masterful job on this documentary. The archival news coverage was something to see. It was an epically awful crime. Beat so bad that one of her eyes popped out of its socket. It was no surprise that the entire city wanted the rapist(s) caught.

What transpires (coerced confessions from five teens!) is disgusting. And it’s so easy to say “I would never confess to a crime I didn’t commit,” this documentary shows how easily it could happen.

Next was “The Thin Blue Line,” a film by Errol Morris, “depicting the story of Randall Dale Adams, a man convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a murder he did not commit. Adams’ case was reviewed and he was released from prison approximately a year after the film’s release.” This occurred in 1976.

This one didn’t include a false confession, but a pair of eye witnesses who were known liars. Oddly enough, after he was released, Adams sued Morris. You can read about that drama in Wikipedia.

After watching these two documentaries I thought (hoped), ‘there’s no way this could ever happen again, right? RIGHT?”


As a special bonus to my “depressing documentary Saturday,” I listened to a podcast of “This American Life,” where a segment featured a former police detective in Washington, D.C. who screwed up one of his first big homicide investigations by getting a 19-year-old homeless woman to admit to helping beat a man to death back in 1994 even though she was completely innocent.

Retired detective Jim Trainum basically admits that during 17 hours of questioning, he basically provided details of the crime, which she ended up using to “confess” after she simply couldn’t take the questioning anymore. She also had children she had been told she could get home to.

She was eventually charged with felony murder, failed a polygraph test, and spent months in jail. Months later, Trainum got ahold of the log at the homeless shelter where she’d been staying. He saw she was actually in the shelter during the murder and the charges were dropped.

In that same episode, “This American Life” examines the case of Jeffrey Womack, who spent most of his adult life as a suspect in one of Nashville’s most notorious crimes. And for all that time — until another man was convicted of the crime — Jeffrey refused to be questioned about it. He also spent much of that time being suspected of the crime by friends and neighbors.

You can listen to the episode, “Confessions, here.

These days, when we think of interrogations, it’s easy to conjure up images of suspected terrorists being questioned for hours on end in Guantanamo Bay. That’s our reality now. But do those interrogations work?

According to this article in the New York Times, there hasn’t been much research into the practice of interrogation at all.

“We don’t have any idea — other than anecdote or moral philosophy — what really works,” said Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution, author of “Law and the Long War: The Future of Justice in the Age of Terror.”

Pearl Jam visits with former NFL player who is fighting ALS

Via ESPN.com
Via ESPN.com

My very first news reporting job at The Ridgewood News in northern New Jersey was a good one, as I had to cover anything that came my way.

One such story was about then Ridgewood High School gym teacher, Jack Elwood, who had then (2003) been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a fatal disorder that causes degeneration of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. ALS is commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

I met him at outside on the school grounds one day, as he was leading a freshmen gym class through a ropes course, where the lesson included a great deal on trust. Here was this guy, totally dressed like a gym teacher, with a whistle around his neck, calmly telling me that the ALS would first take his hands, and that within four to five years, he’d be wheelchair bound. And then he’d die.

It was a tough interview for a new reporter. I remember having this awkward half smile as I took notes and continued to ask questions. He was a genuinely nice man and it showed. His students loved him, and it was their first year with Jack as their teacher.

Mr. Elwood passed away in 2010 and any time ALS comes up, I think of his brave outlook on a disease that affects so many.

ESPN recently aired a touching segment involving a former NFL player, Steve Gleason, who is fighting ALS, the band, Pearl Jam, who Gleason is a big fan of.

The sports network arranged for the Seattle-based band to visit with Gleason, an ex-New Orleans Saints player, who has loved Pearl Jam’s music since he was a teenager.

Watch on ESPN.com.


Are TV shows better than movies these days? I think so.

Malik Yoba plays the death row inmate / Still shot via CBS video on CBS.com

Much has been said about today’s television shows and whether they are better than movies. 

Slate’s David Haglund says “the TV-is-better argument is a way of saying, “I don’t have to keep up with the movies anymore, and neither do you.” Yeap. Not going to lie: Watching a movie in my underwear while on my couch beats paying $25 for popcorn. (mild exaggeration on pricing there. Sorry about that.)

Meanwhile, Vulture writer Gavin Polone says “some of the reason for there being more good TV shows than movies is arithmetic: There are more networks producing series than ever, and also it is much more convenient to access those shows on your DVR or streaming service. But there’s more to it than just volume and convenience. The most significant reason TV is favored has to be the overall malaise that has taken hold of the movie audience, which is illustrated by the oft-heard phrase, ‘There is nothing out worth seeing.’” 

I tend to agree. 

I feel like the last few movies I’ve seen in the theaters (and I’m talking major Hollywood films) were just OK. 

I argue that television is superior these days because it’s bringing social issues to the small screen (read: more accessible to your average Joe) with much less controversy (and the bias that comes with it: i.e. Zero Dark Thirty, Argo). Take, for instance, The Good Wife. 

In the first episode of this season (the show’s fifth), there is a death penalty scene that brought tears to my eyes. In the scene, the capital punishment staff has trouble finding an accessible vein in which to conduct the execution. Two and a half brutal hours later, the attorneys from Lockheart and Gardner intervene. Now, they have 48 hours to, once again, try to prove the death row inmate (and their client’s) innocence. 

Leaving the “my client is innocent” part of the story aside, this isn’t just a made-for-tv scenario. This is an issue that actually happens in real life.

Fordham School of Law professor Deborah Denno, in fact, is a death penalty expert who often weighs in such cases.

A foremost legal scholar on lethal injection, she has conducted much of her scholarship on a botched Louisiana execution in 1946 and its legal legacy. Per DeathPenaltyInfo.org, Denno is calling for a nationwide study of lethal injection protocols conducted by an independent commission consisting of a diverse group of qualified individuals, including medical personnel. This review should consider the extent of physician participation in executions. Second, she recommends that states release information about execution procedures to the public.

And why is she calling for this? Take Ohio, for instance. Did you know the state leads the country in botched executions? As Denno wrote in this Huffington Post opinion piece, the state imposed “a method of execution never before used on anyone, anywhere. [Ken] Biros died from a lethal dose of a single-drug and he could have died from an even riskier back-up plan — procedures prompted by Ohio’s disastrous attempts to execute another inmate this past September.

“Biros’s execution was not problem-free. Executioners required a half-hour, and nine unsuccessful attempts, to finally find a vein in which to put an IV catheter. According to one AP reporter, Ohio officials warned him and other witness-journalists that Biros could end up vomiting and convulsing if in fact the backup plan went into effect.” (Bold emphasis mine.)

That’s just … wrong. To learn why lethal injection has “never met its purported goal of humaneness,” read Denno’s piece in the Huffington Post.

And I’ll add: Yes, death row inmates are there for a reason. And many folks do not pity them. Sometimes I do not. (Mostly when I’ve just read a detailed account of the crime they allegedly committed.) But a botched execution can’t be the answer. Especially when there have been cases of death row inmates acquitted thanks to DNA. 

Now, back to TV. As far as I’m concerned, I prefer television (primetime and cable) shows to movies these days. Convenience + good stories = happy. WATCH the episode of The Good Wife here! It’s a good one.


Japan to launch ‘fasting’ camps for Internet-addicted students

Via Daily News
Via Daily News

By Victoria Taylor
The NY Daily News

Youngsters in Japan who are glued to their smartphones and laptops may be sent to an Internet “fasting” camp to help them disconnect from the online world.

The Ministry of Education estimates that some 518,000 Japanese children between the ages of 12 and 18 are addicted to the Internet, according to The Daily Telegraph.

Read more here