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April 2010

Calle Carmelita. photos by George Johnson

Calle Carmelita. photos by George Johnson

April 6, 2010


Walking downtown on Easter Sunday as the bells chimed in St. Francis Basilica was almost enough to bring back the magic of a Holy Week years ago when I was writing Fire in the Mind. I had taken a year off from my job at the New York Times to gather material for the book, which uses northern New Mexico as a stage to explore how the human mind finds — or imposes — order in the world. A scientist at the Santa Fe Institute had introduced me to a staff member whose father was the mayordomo of the Penitentes in the high mountain village of Truchas. And so on a chilly March evening I found myself standing outside the old tin-roofed morada, listening to the chanting of the brothers muffled by thick adobe walls.

Once I worked up the courage to crack open the door and go inside, the hospitality was as gracious as it was subdued. Near the end of the service, the other guests and I were invited to the table for a simple meal of red chile, beans, corn, and chicken patties while the Penitentes stood behind us and sang their mournful alabados.

I returned to Truchas on Good Friday, driving past the processions of pilgrims headed for Chimayo, to watch a reenactment of the Encuentro, when Christ meets Mary on the way to the crucifixion. That evening was Tinieblas, a long, solemn celebration that ends with the church plunging into darkness. I described the scene in a chapter called “Truchas Interlude”:

	Suddenly, pandemonium breaks out: the rasping of the matraca, the
	shrill cry of flutes, the stamping of feet, the rattling of a box of
	glass -- too many sounds to sort out. In the past, it is said, the
	Penitentes would whip themselves during the confusion and cry out in
	pain. This is the hour of darkness after Christ’s death when, Matthew
	wrote, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom;
	and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were
	opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were
	raised . . . .”

	For these few minutes, the world seems devoid of order -- be it that
	of man or God. But faith ultimately triumphs. Chaos is vanquished. The
	lights inside the church go on again.

The symbolism of Easter and its deep connection to the rites of spring, the return of the sun and the Son, light emerging from darkness, seeds from beneath the earth — the mystery seemed real.

This Easter had a different flavor. After leaving downtown I drove out West Alameda Street, past a yard decorated with a giant inflatable rabbit and baby chicks, to the ranch where my wife keeps her horses. Alone in the silence, I spent most of the day burning off newly sprouted weeds with a propane torch, imposing my own order.

The next morning I read about the Easter homicide, in which a teenager was shot to death at a party during “an argument over a girl.” In today’s New Mexican we learn that the suspected assailant has been in trouble with the law since he was 14, piling up charges including aggravated battery with a rock (twice), assault with intent to commit robbery, and battery on a police officer. In the comments section of the newspaper, a reader noted that the suspect’s My Space page (what a world we live in) ties him to that of “lil mizz sad gurl,” the 14-year-old who led police on a highspeed chase last week in a stolen car with two girlfriends.

This afternoon I drove by the house near Frenchy’s Field where the slaying occurred. A makeshift shrine of flowers and devotional candles sat on the sidewalk where someone had spray-painted “RIP Edward” along with what appeared to be a symbol for a Mexican-American gang. In the driveway a woman in pink pants was standing in the bed of a red pickup truck painting a similar message on the rear window. The lilacs and forsythia were in bloom.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review

April 9, 2010

Electromania 4

Three years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asked the National Academy of Sciences to recommend what research might be needed to deepen our understanding of the biological effects and “adverse health outcomes,” if any, caused by wireless communication devices. The Academy was not asked to evaluate whether these weak emanations actually cause harm. Independent reviews of the existing literature by scientific organizations in Canada, France, Sweden, the UK, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United States, and elsewhere have concurred that there is no cause for alarm. But they also agreed that there are gaps in our knowledge waiting to be filled.

Radio Plaza on Marcy Street

Radio Plaza on Marcy Street

After conducting an expert workshop, the Academy called for further investigation on five fronts: exposure and dosimetry, epidemiology, human laboratory studies, physiological mechanisms, and animal and cell biology. Overlooked, however, was a category that might shed the most light of all: psychology and sociology. It would be fascinating to know how much overlap there is between “electrosensitives” — like those still trying to block wireless technology from Santa Fe — and people who believe they suffer from multiple chemical sensitivity, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, sick house syndrome, and other symptoms in search of an explanation. To what extent do these, alone or together, constitute a psychiatric illness?

District Court Judge Sarah Singleton touched on that point this week when she denied anti-wireless activist Arthur Firstenberg’s request for a preliminary injuction barring his neighbor, Raphaela Monribot, from using her iPhone, cordless phone, iPhone charger, wifi modem, laptop computer, desktop computer, scanner, dimmer switches, and compact fluorescent lights — all of which the plaintiff believes are making him ill. (Ms. Monribot does not have a television, but Mr. Firstenberg has indicated that he would sue over that too.)

Judge Singleton’s order makes for interesting reading. In contending that Mr. Firstenberg’s problems are caused by electromagnetism — and specifically by Ms. Monribot’s — his lawyer is relying on a legal concept called differential diagnosis: “identifying the cause of a medical problem by eliminating the likely causes until the most probable one is isolated.” But that, the judge noted, requires proving “that the allegedly harmful agent is capable of causing harm” and “ruling out other possible causative factors.”

Mr. Firstenberg has failed on both counts, she ruled, and then went on to confront the elephant that has been sitting ignored in the room: “One of the alternative potential causes for Plaintiff’s problems is a psychiatric condition.”

There is no shame in that. But given this legal setback, it seems likely that the case will be quietly settled with Ms. Monribot the one receiving compensation. If not we can look forward to what has the makings of a Scopes-like monkey trial.

While Santa Fe struggles to join the 21st century, San Ildefonso pueblo is charging ahead with plans to expand cellular telephone coverage. In this case, the environmental threat is real: not imaginary electrosmog but the visual pollution that will result from four large cellular towers — one will be 500 feet high — junking up one of the most beautiful regions of northern New Mexico. An 80-foot tower will be perched “on top of a mesa overlooking Santa Clara and Española.” Presumably not San Ildefonso’s sacred Black Mesa, but who knows? Because it is a sovereign nation, the pueblo does not have to obey county height restrictions or any other zoning laws.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review

April 11, 2010

Towering Babel

Imagine if the safety and effectiveness of prescription medicines were decided not by the federal Food and Drug Administration but by each individual town or village. If a new drug was ruled harmful by the Santa Fe City Council it might be marketed instead in Española or Taos. Or suppose that any city could trump the Environmental Protection Agency. Albuquerque and Las Cruces could compete to attract more industry by steadily racheting down their air and water quality standards.


Except to the most rabid Tea Partier, some matters are best decided on the federal level. In that spirit (and to avoid unconstitutional impediments to interstate commerce), the Telecommunications Act, passed by Congress in 1996, bars municipalities from using health fears as a justification to deny applications for wireless installations that meet or exceed safety standards set by the Federal Communications Commission in consultation with the F.D.A. Yet Santa Fe’s wi-phobes continue to speak as though the restriction were part of some nefarious plot.

The New Mexican didn’t help matters with the weird lead on its story last week about a recent public hearing on the city’s proposed new telecommunications ordinance:

	The federal government does not want cities to talk about possible
	health or environmental consequences from the growing number of
	wireless antennas.

Um, what? Maybe it was simply the imprecision that can arise from writing on deadline, but a clumsy opening like that can only feed the paranoia of those convinced that Santa Feans are under a gag order imposed by F.C.C. agents secretly in the employ of the Verizon Corporation.

The story had other shortcomings. By choosing not to mention that Arthur Firstenberg and Bill Bruno were, as an observer, Steve Stockdale, put it, “the primary front-row speakers for the event,” the reporter may have misled readers into thinking that anti-wireless sentiment has spread beyond the small self-reinforcing fringe group (the “Santa Fe Alliance for Public Health and Safety”) that shows up at every meeting.

Even worse, the story lent false legitimacy to one of the activists, John McPhee, by describing him, without qualification, as an employee of the state health department. According to his Linked-In profile, Mr. McPhee, whose title is childhood safety prevention coordinator, has a bachelor’s degree in sociology and anthropology from Lake Forest College. He is no more of an expert on the health effects of electromagnetic fields than the befuddled citizen who proclaimed at the hearing:

	I've read a lot of [cell phone] studies on the Internet. They
	range from 'Oh, everything is fine' to 'Children should stay away
	from them.' I don't know what to think. ... I don't know about
	you, but I felt a lot better before cell phones and cell towers
	and Wi-Fi.

As Mr. Stockdale noted in his blog post, “Dude, you’re 65 years old. Of course you felt better when you were 50!”

The speaker’s confusion is understandable considering the campaign of obfuscation waged by the Santa Fe Alliance with the help of groups like Powerwatch in the UK and in the United States. Powerwatch has been expertly skewered by skeptic Andy Lewis on his Quackometer site, and the self-published Bioinitiave Report has been condemned for its bias by several international scientific organizations. A European Commission study group called attention to the “alarmist and emotive language” and to conclusions that “have no scientific support from well-conducted EMF research.”

	No mention is made, in fact, of reports that do not concur with
	the authors’ statements and conclusions, [which] are very
	different from those of recent national and international reviews
	on this topic.

The Bioinitiative Report, in other words, is a joke. That doesn’t keep the Santa Fe Alliance from promoting it as gospel.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review

April 12, 2010


Dr. Leah Morton of Isis Medicine Family Practice is a specialist on “wellness” and holistic medicine, and her name shows up in Internet directories of physicians offering bioidentical hormone therapy, natural anti-aging remedies, and treatments for multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome. She is also Arthur Firstenberg’s doctor.

In Sunday’s New Mexican she pulls out all the stops with a breathtaking misrepresentation of the scientific literature on the biological effects of low-level electromagnetic radiation. It’s the usual schtick: isolated and widely disputed findings are elevated as fact while the vast body of research undermining her thesis — that cell phones and wifi are bad for you — is ignored. She urges her fellow doctors to read the August 2009 edition of Pathophysiology, which turns out to be a warmed-over version of the disreputable Bioinitiative Report (please see my previous post). Once again, I refer readers seeking a balanced view of this issue to the overview of the science at the University of Ottawa’s excellent and readable RFcom site.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review

April 21, 2010

“On Top of Microwave Mountain”

The Steel Forest on Sandia Crest

The Steel Forest on Sandia Crest

I should have known better. Earlier this month, after District Court Judge Sarah Singleton denied Arthur Firstenberg’s request for a preliminary injunction to keep his neighbor from using her cellphone and other electronic equipment (please see Electromania 4), I predicted that the case would be quietly settled with the defendant, Raphaela Monribot, receiving compensation as the victim of a frivolous lawsuit. But Mr. Firstenberg is not giving up. Yesterday, in a motion asking the court to reconsider the denial, his lawyer, Lindsay Lovejoy, submitted an affidavit from Olle Johansson, an associate professor at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and one of the few scientists on earth who believe that electrosensitivity is not psychological.

Coincidentally I mention Mr. Johansson in a piece published today in Slate, On Top of Microwave Mountain:

Those who believe they are somehow allergic to electromagnetism point to a supportive paper, Electrohypersensitivity: State-of-the-Art of a Functional Impairment, by Olle Johansson . . . But you probably won’t see them citing studies in the journals Psychosomatic Medicine and Bioelectromagnetics concluding that no robust evidence for electrosensitivity exists.

Mr. Johansson is a lone voice in the woods, which Ms. Monribot’s defense can easily establish. Meanwhile the legal costs for both sides must be skyrocketing.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review

April 23, 2010

An Update on San Ildefonso

I was relieved to learn from Pilar Cannizzaro at the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division that San Ildefonso Pueblo will not be able to act completely without constraint when it erects four big cell phone towers on its picturesque reservation. (Please see the last paragraph of my entry of April 9.) Whenever a federal agency is involved in a project on tribal lands, it becomes a “Section 106 undertaking,” meaning that historical protection laws must be obeyed. That is why the demolition of the old Santa Fe Indian School was illegal, even though the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Interior continue to cover up the matter.

Like the old campus, San Ildefonso is a federally recognized historic site, and Black Mesa is considered a significant cultural resource. The cell tower project is receiving federal stimulus money though the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service Recovery Act Broadband Program. In addition the Federal Communications Agency will presumably be involved.

Since San Ildefonso has not appointed a Tribal Historic Protection Officer, Ms. Cannizarro explained, it will have to consult with her office.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review