Slovakia could get its first woman president in ballot
Friday, March 15
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (AP) — Slovakia could get its first woman president as voters elect a new head of state on Saturday.
The leading contenders are Zuzana Caputova, an environmental activist who is in favor of gay rights and opposes a ban on abortion in this conservative Roman Catholic country, and Maros Sefcovic, an establishment figure who is the European Commission Vice-President.
In all, 13 candidates are vying to become the country’s fifth head of state since Slovakia gained independence in 1993 after Czechoslovakia split in two.
Andrej Kiska, a successful businessman-turned-philanthropist, is not standing for a second five-year term in the largely ceremonial post.
His term in office was marked by clashes with former prime minister Robert Fico, considered a populist leader.
Kiska supported the huge street protests that led to the fall of Fico’s coalition government amid a political crisis triggered by the slayings last year of an investigative reporter and his fiancee. The reporter, Jan Kuciak, was investigating possible widespread government corruption and Italian mob influence.
If no single candidate wins a majority on Saturday, a runoff will be held on March 30 in this central European nation of 5.4 million people.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
The president has the power to pick the prime minister, appoint Constitutional Court judges and veto laws. Parliament can override the veto with a simple majority, however. The government, led by the prime minister, possesses most executive powers.
Caputova, a 45-year-old lawyer, is a rising star of Slovak politics. She became known for leading a successful fight against a toxic waste dump in her home town of Pezinok near the capital of Bratislava, for which she received an international environmental prize in 2016. She was also part of a campaign in 2017 that led to the annulment of pardons granted by former authoritarian prime minister Vladimir Meciar. She is deputy chairman of “Progressive Slovakia,” a non-parliamentary party that supported the massive street protests after Kuciak’s death.
A career diplomat, 52-year-old Sefcovic was a member of the Communist Party before the anti-Communist 1989 Velvet Revolution. Sefcovic accepted an offer to stand from Fico’s left-wing Smer-Social Democracy party, a dominant political group in Slovakia in recent years whose reputation has been tarnished by corruption scandals.
OTHER NOTABLE CANDIDATES
A former justice minister and chief judge of the Supreme Court, 61-year-old Harabin was a close ally of Meciar, whose rule in the 1990s was marred by repeated flouting of the law. A populist, Harabin exploits the fear of migration and presents himself as a guardian of traditional conservative values. As a vocal opponent of the sanctions against Russia for its actions against Ukraine, Harabin is a favorite candidate of pro-Russian media.
Marian Kotleba, 42
The 42-year-old heads the neo-Nazi People’s Party Our Slovakia, which has 14 lawmakers in the 150-seat Slovak Parliament. Kotleba and his party speak admiringly of Slovakia’s time as a Nazi puppet state during World War II. Party members use Nazi salutes and consider NATO a terror group. They want Slovakia to leave the military alliance and the European Union.
Caputova and Sefcovic are predicted by polls to be the two candidates to advance to a runoff. But the last polls allowed were published two weeks before Saturday’s ballot. Analysts say there’s a room for a surprise result, particularly for Harabin who was running third in the polls.
Europeans urge Russia to return to arms-control treaty
Friday, March 15
BERLIN (AP) — A group of European nations is urging Russia not to abandon a nuclear weapons treaty with the United States.
Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands are also calling for new arms control agreements to address the rising power of China and other nations.
The U.S. gave notice of its intention to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty a month ago, citing Russian violations.
The European countries opened an arms control conference in Berlin on Friday urging Moscow “to return to complete and verifiable compliance” to save the treaty.
But German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas says it’s also time for broader treaties, as nuclear weapons proliferate to countries such as China, North Korea, India and Pakistan.
He says treaties also need to address new technologies, such as drones and cyberattacks.
OPINION: ARTIFICIAL MORALITY
By Robert C. Koehler
Artificial Intelligence is one thing. Artificial morality is another. It may sound something like this:
“First, we believe in the strong defense of the United States and we want the people who defend it to have access to the nation’s best technology, including from Microsoft.”
The words are those of Microsoft president Brad Smith, writing on a corporate blogsite last fall in defense of the company’s new contract with the U.S. Army, worth $479 million, to make augmented reality headsets for use in combat. The headsets, known as the Integrated Visual Augmentation System, or IVAS, are a way to “increase lethality” when the military engages the enemy, according to a Defense Department official. Microsoft’s involvement in this program set off a wave of outrage among the company’s employees, with more than a hundred of them signing a letter to the company’s top executives demanding that the contract be canceled.
“We are a global coalition of Microsoft workers, and we refuse to create technology for warfare and oppression. We are alarmed that Microsoft is working to provide weapons technology to the U.S. Military, helping one country’s government ‘increase lethality’ using tools we built. We did not sign up to develop weapons, and we demand a say in how our work is used.”
Wow, words of conscience and hope. The deeper story in all this is ordinary people exercising their power to shape the future and refusing to increase its lethality.
With this contract, the letter goes on, Microsoft has “crossed the line into weapons development… . The application of HoloLens within the IVAS system is designed to help people kill. It will be deployed on the battlefield, and works by turning warfare into a simulated ‘video game,’ further distancing soldiers from the grim stakes of war and the reality of bloodshed.”
This revolt was what Smith was responding to when he said he believed in a “strong defense,” implying that moral clichés rather than money are what drive the decisions of large corporations, or at least this particular large corporation. Somehow his words, which he attempted to convey as reflective and deeply considered, are not convincing — not when juxtaposed with a defense contract worth nearly half a billion dollars.
Smith goes on, acknowledging that no institution, including the military, is perfect, but pointing out that “one thing is clear. Millions of Americans have served and fought in important and just wars,” cherry-picking such lauded oldies as the Civil War and World War II, where America’s enhanced lethality freed slaves and liberated Europe.
Fascinatingly, the tone of his blog post is not arrogant toward the employees — do what you’re told or you’re fired — but, rather, softly placating, seeming to indicate that the power here isn’t concentrated at the upper levels of management. Microsoft is flexible: “As is always the case, if our employees want to work on a different project or team — for whatever reason — we want them to know we support talent mobility.”
The employees who signed the letter demanded cancellation of the Defense contract. Smith offered their personal consciences an out: Come on, join another team if you don’t want to cross the line and work on weapons development. Microsoft honors employees of multiple moral persuasions!
Artificial Intelligence is a high-tech phenomenon that requires highly complex thinking. Artificial morality hides behind the nearest cliché in servitude to money.
What I see here is moral awakening scrambling for sociopolitical traction: Employees are standing for something larger than sheer personal interests, in the process pushing the Big Tech brass to think beyond their need for an endless flow of capital, consequences be damned.
This is happening across the country. A movement is percolating: Tech won’t build it!
“Across the technology industry,” the New York Times reported in October, “rank-and-file employees are demanding greater insight into how their companies are deploying the technology that they built. At Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Salesforce, as well as at tech start-ups, engineers and technologists are increasingly asking whether the products they are working on are being used for surveillance in places like China or for military projects in the United States or elsewhere.
“That’s a change from the past, when Silicon Valley workers typically developed products with little questioning about the social costs.”
What if moral thinking — not in books and philosophical tracts, but in the real world, both corporate and political — were as large and complex as technical thinking? It could no longer hide behind the cliché of the just war (and surely the next one we’re preparing for will be just), but would have to evaluate war itself — all wars, including the ones of the past 70 years or so, in the fullness of their costs and consequences — as well as look ahead to the kind of future we could create, depending on what decisions we make today. Complex moral thinking doesn’t ignore the need to survive, financially and otherwise, in the present moment, but it stays calm in the face of that need and sees survival as a collective, not a competitive, enterprise.
Moral complexity is called peace. There is no such thing as simplistic peace.
Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at commonwonders.com.
The truth about St. Patrick’s Day
March 13, 2019
Author: James Farrelly, Professor of English, University of Dayton
Disclosure statement: James Farrelly does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: University Of Dayton provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
In 1997, my students and I traveled to Croagh Patrick, a mountain in County Mayo, as part of a study abroad program course on Irish literature I was teaching for the University of Dayton. I wanted my students to visit the place where, each July, thousands of pilgrims pay homage to St. Patrick, who, according to lore, fasted and prayed on the summit for 40 days.
While there, our tour guide relayed the story of how St. Patrick, as he lay on his death bed on March 17 in A.D. 461, supposedly asked those gathered around him to toast his heavenly journey with a “wee drop of whiskey” to ease their pain.
The mention of whiskey left me wondering if St. Patrick may have unintentionally influenced the way most of the world celebrates the holiday today: by drinking.
It wasn’t always this way. The Festival of St. Patrick began in the 17th century as a religious and cultural commemoration of the bishop who brought Christianity to Ireland. In Ireland, there’s still an important religious and cultural component to the holiday, even as it has simply become an excuse to wear green and heavily drink in the rest of the world.
The legend of St. Patrick
Because historical details about St. Patrick’s life remain shrouded in speculation, scholars are often stymied in their attempts to separate fact from legend.
In his spiritual memoir, “Confessio,” St. Patrick describes how he was brought to Ireland as a slave. He eventually escaped, rejoining his family in Britain, probably Scotland. But while there, he had a recurring dream, in which the “Voice of the Irish” called to him to return to Ireland in order to baptize and minister to them. So he did.
The Irish revere the account of this dream described in the “Confessio”; they accept the simplicity and fervor of his words and feel a debt of gratitude for his unselfish commitment to their spiritual well-being.
St. Patrick’s efforts to convert the Irish to Catholicism were never easy. Viewing him as a challenge to their power and authority, the high kings of Ireland and the pagan high priests, called Druids, resisted his efforts to make inroads with the population.
But through his missionary zeal, he was able to fuse Irish culture into Christianity, whether it was through the introduction of the Celtic Cross or the use of bonfires to celebrate feasts like Easter.
Again, many of these stories could amount to no more than myth. Nonetheless, centuries after his death, the Irish continue to show their gratitude for their patron saint by wearing a spray of shamrocks on March 17. They start the day with mass, followed by a daylong feast, and prayer and reflection at night.
St. Paddy’s Day goes global
From 1820 to 1860, almost 2 million people left Ireland, many due to the potato famine in the 1840s and 1850s. More followed in the 20th century to reunite with relatives and escape poverty and joblessness back home.
Once settled, they found new ways to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and their Irish identity in their new homes.
Irish-Americans, especially, were quick to transform March 17 into a commercial enterprise. The mandatory “wearin’ of the green” in all its garishness is a far cry from the original tradition of wearing a spray of shamrocks to honor St. Patrick’s death and celebrate Irish solidarity. Parades famously sprung up – especially in New York and Boston – revelry ensued and, sure enough, even the beer became green.
Children of Irish-Americans in the United States have absorbed Irish culture at a distance. Many probably know that St. Patrick is Ireland’s patron saint. But they might not fully appreciate his mythic stature for kids growing up on the emerald isle.
Ask children of any age in Ireland what they know about St. Patrick, and they will regale you with stories of his magical abilities, from his power to drive the snakes out of Ireland to his use of the three leaves and one stem of the shamrock to demystify the Trinity doctrine of the Catholic Church.
They see St. Patrick as a miracle worker, and as adults, they keep the legends alive in their own ways. Some follow St. Patrick’s footsteps all around Ireland – from well to hill to alter to chapel – seeking his blessing and bounty wherever their journeys take them.
Raising a glass
Of course, in America, the holy day is really a party, above all else.
This year, Americans are expected to spend US$5.61 billion celebrating, with 13 million pints of Guinness consumed. Some parts of the country plan a pre-celebration on Sept. 17 – or, as they call it, “Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day.”
Where all of this leads is anyone’s guess. But beginning in the 1990s, Ireland seemed to grasp the earning potential of the Americanized version. Today, March 17 remains a holy day for the natives and a holiday for tourists from around the world, with pubs raking in the euros on St. Patrick’s Day.
But I’ve always wondered: What if St. Patrick had requested a silent prayer instead of “a wee drop of whiskey” to toast his passing? Would his celebration have stayed more sacred than profane?
Opinion: How a New Cancer Therapy Saved My Life
By Brian Koffman
As a doctor, there will be times when you have to deliver difficult news to patients. You know that it is part of the job going into it, but it’s not easy. With time you eventually find the best way to comfort a patient and their family when giving tough news.
Something you don’t learn in medical school, however, is how to be on the other side of a diagnosis. But that’s exactly what happened to me 13 years ago when I was diagnosed with a form of blood cancer known as Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, or CLL.
At the time, I was family physician who had practiced medicine in southern California for several decades. One day I noticed a swollen lymph node on the back of my neck. As a precaution, I ordered a round of blood tests. And while I remember being pleased with my cholesterol level and other parts of the test, my white blood cell count gave me pause. After further tests, I was diagnosed with CLL — and the prospects were grim.
The CLL treatment landscape was very different back then. I was hospitalized several times for complications of my disease. I attempted a bone marrow transplant from an unrelated donor that didn’t work. I then entered a clinical trial for a phase one drug that gave me a glimmer of hope. That drug bought me about six years until I relapsed, and the cancer came back.
As a physician, I knew that once patients like me relapse, the prognosis is rarely good. When you relapse, old therapies are no longer effective because the cancerous cells have developed resistance.
Put simply, my options were more limited than before. I decided to enter a new trial for a treatment known as CAR-T (Chimeric Antigen Receptor-T cell) therapy. CAR-T is a relatively new cellular immunotherapy that involves removing and modifying a patient’s own white blood cells, then returning them to the patient’s body to fight their specific cancer.
My cancer was quite aggressive, and I needed an equally aggressive treatment that would give me a durable remission. At the end of the day, I had few viable choices and clearly CAR-T was, by far, my very best hope.
My wife and I temporarily moved closer to the hospital where I would receive the treatment in February 2018. Although I realize I was fortunate to have the ability to pick up and move, it was financially and emotionally straining. The treatment itself was physically challenging. I was hospitalized with severe inflammation, mind numbing pain, and the inability to move my legs, eventually having to learn how to walk again.
But I recovered quickly. One month after beginning the CAR-T therapy, I received my “restaging” results, which showed that my cancer had become undetectable. I had gone into treatment with most of my bone marrow having cancer and “innumerable” enlarged lymph nodes. One year later, I am pleased to say that I’m still in complete remission with no cancer to be found.
But many patients across the nation may not be as lucky as me, since some may soon face hurdles accessing this innovative new treatment. Recently, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released a proposal regarding coverage of CAR-T. While the proposal was encouraging, it’s my hope that the final language doesn’t lock in coverage that would limit patient access or fail to consider the future of CAR-T innovation.
CAR-T science is evolving at a rapid rate. It is being explored for multiple indications, in multiple lines of care, and in a number of settings. We should make sure the decisions the government makes this year consider these important points so patients will have access to CAR-Ts in the present and future for years to come.
For a physician-turned-patient like myself, these decisions should be easy. The bottom line is this: We should ensure that all cancer patients have full access and coverage for these therapies.
There is perhaps nothing more difficult for a cancer patient than knowing you are near the end of your treatment options. When I was out of options, CAR-T therapy gave me back my life.
Thanks to CAR-T, I was able to go back to work and have fully enjoyed every day of life since. This year, I retired after 38 years of practicing medicine. At my retirement party, I was surrounded by my family, friends, colleagues and patients.
My hope for patients is that if they ever receive difficult news like I did, they will have access to the best treatments available so that they, too, can have a chance at continuing to lead full lives.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Dr. Brian Koffman is a retired medical doctor and the founder of the nonprofit CLL Society Inc. (CLLSociety.org). He wrote this for InsideSources.com.