Opinion

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By Daniel Dunaief

In the course of a month, two events have occurred that, perhaps some time in the next several decades, may help people make that incredibly long journey to Mars.

First, Scott Kelly went up in space. OK, so, that’s not such a shocker. Kelly is an astronaut and that’s what astronauts do. What makes Kelly’s trip different, however, is that he plans to spend an entire year at the International Space Station, setting an American record for the longest time away from Earth.

Kelly’s identical twin Mark, a retired astronaut and husband of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, will of course spend that same year on Earth. Having identical twins in two places for the same period of time presents an incredible opportunity. Mark is in reality the “control” in the experiment, giving NASA, doctors and anyone else interested in the effects of prolonged periods of time in space an opportunity to see how the two brothers react differently to different environments. Identical twins present that rare opportunity to rule out the nature part of the nature-nurture dynamic.

Some day, the information NASA records from the Kelly twins will help us understand the kinds of preparations necessary to safeguard any would-be space traveler from the harmful effects of higher radiation and no gravity for a journey to Mars that by current technology would take some 250 days. After all, our genes have evolved over thousands of years to life on Earth. Just because we’ve figured out to send ourselves deep into space doesn’t mean we can suddenly fine-tune the gift of our biological systems the way we might raise a heat shield on a space module.

A month after Scott Kelly returned to the ISS, where he’d spent considerable time on previous missions, a team of scientists, led by Javier Martin-Torres, a Spanish researcher who is a professor in Sweden and used to work in the United States at NASA, published a study based on a year’s worth of meteorological data from the Red Planet.

As it turns out, Martin-Torres and his team have determined it is highly likely Mars has liquid water — today. It’s not enough water to open a super-exclusive pool club or to plant a couple of dozen grape trees to cultivate a deep-space vineyard for the elite and refined palates of the world’s wealthiest wine lovers.

The scientists recorded readings through the Mars rover Curiosity of water that likely evaporates during the Martian day and forms again during the cold night as perchlorate salts melt any frozen water vapor.

This study, Martin-Torres suggested, may have implications for planetary protection policies. The Committee on Space Research may look carefully at places where spacecraft couldn’t land on Mars out of concern that any vehicle might contaminate the planet by introducing new organisms.

The presence of water speaks to us because it makes up more than 60 percent of our own bodies. Water also is a key element to life on our blue planet, raising the question about whether life, even in the form of small microbes, could use it to survive.

This Martian water, however, isn’t exactly a refreshing stream. It’s probably up to three-and-a-half times as salty as the water in the Dead Sea, Martin-Torres said.

The saltiness, radiation and numerous other factors make that water inhospitable to life, even on a microbial scale.

“The conditions are terrible,” admitted Martin-Torres. Still, “it’s better to have water than not to have it.” Besides, while it’s likely that any life on Mars would struggle to survive in that water, “nature always surprises us.”

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You know you’re from Long Island when …

1. You drive your car everywhere, including just up the road to the drug store or 7-Eleven. There is a car in your driveway or garage for every person in your house.
2. You water your lawn and plants even when it has recently rained because it’s on a timer and you just left it.
3. You pass at least one dead animal lying on the side of the road every day.
4. You have access to delicious foods imported from all over the country and the world.
5. You live in a terribly wasteful society.

Earth Day gives us time to reflect on what we do every day that affects the environment, both here on Long Island and the nation as a whole.

We burn up gas for every small trip we make, when we could walk or bike if we weren’t so rushed or lazy. We waste water by taking long showers or leaving the faucet on as we brush our teeth. We flush pills down the toilet or use a paper cup for coffee every morning or unnecessarily go through a ton of plastic shopping bags.
Almost all of us are guilty of at least one of these things, which all put strain on Mother Earth. But this is the only home we have — for now — so we should get our heads in the game.

Please join us in thinking about the impact of our everyday actions on the environment and make a commitment to cut out or reduce just one of those negative actions year-round — not just on a day like Earth Day.

A small change blazes the trail for larger ones, so it’s a good place to start.

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By Joan Nickeson

I read with interest the recent opinion article by Comsewogue school board trustee Ali Gordon (Team up to starve New York’s testing machine, March 12). I applaud her efforts. She explains how the governor tied his latest education policy to our state budget, a game where no one wins.

As an occasional contributor to this paper, I share thoughts on the organics of life: water conservation and wildlife, civic engagement, writing love letters, and about my daughter preparing for college — all untidy ventures. But being a student is untidy. Educating children is an organic experience; a hands-on, creative occupation. Our teachers tend to our children all day long. Not unlike rangers, they patrol for danger. Like gardeners, they employ means by which to rid the soil of invasive species. Ms. Gordon has shed light on the parasites.

Education’s root word, “educe,” means bring forth or draw out. It is untidy business. As adults, we know children grow at their own pace. A few bloom early, boldly. Some reach for help; others need coaxing. Some never extend themselves. Having tools and space helps to “bring forth” the students, and adequate funding is necessary for this organic endeavor. Forcing children to take poorly-worded standardized tests doesn’t help. Linking teachers’ employment and the health of school district to the results of any test should be actionable.

Whatever nutritive or non-nutritive fuel contributes to children’s abilities during the day, it is the work of the educators to draw out. They know children have learning challenges that are unrelated to curriculum or tests. I think we all know some come to school on empty stomachs. We know some have family trauma. Many lack confidence. Some are angry and conflicted. Some are bullied and, during math, plan how to get on the bus without being confronted. Some at school are ill and unfocused. Some are dreamers engaged in internal dialogs instead of listening. Others are preoccupied about professional sports teams, because that’s the focus of a parent. We know some whose first languages are not English, who risk their lives to cross the U.S. border to connect with a parent living in our districts. Education is fraught with immeasurable obstacles.

But let me see — in the words of Joe Pesci in “My Cousin Vinny” — what else can we pile on? The tax cap! Which could lead to budget cuts to academics, requiring placement of more and more of our budding children into a single classroom. Do it five periods a day. Do it 180 days a year. Force educators and administrators to douse children with tests created by businessmen who have an eye on their ledgers and the charter school lobby, who are literally banking on our students failing the test. It is unconscionable.

Yet our teachers were predominately evaluated effective or highly effective last year in a New York State Education Department-approved evaluation process.

We need to demand participation in state policy through open legislative debate. We need to opt out of the Common Core-linked standardized tests so our teachers can get back to the organic pursuit of education.

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By Leah Dunaief

Who would have believed it? After the grueling winter we have all lived through, it is spring — finally, certainly, surely, unarguably spring. The relief, the excitement, the miracle of this annual rebirth is here. So I am suggesting that we live in the moment, at least for a few moments, and plan to enjoy our surroundings.

How do we celebrate the season? Here are some of my suggestions.

For starters, go outside and breathe deep breaths that won’t freeze your windpipes. Unless you are in the middle of traffic, you can smell the fresh earth.

Look up at the limbs of the trees. There are beautiful, symmetrical buds readying themselves to burst into bloom. Look under tucked away places, like the eves of your house. You might see birds building a nest to receive and shelter their young. Listen to those birds singing. They are bustling with activity as they serenade those who listen. Note the forsythia contributing bright yellow to the edges of driveways and roads, bolstered by smiling daffodils at ground level. The usual cast of characters is also pushing its way into our field of vision: crocus, hyacinths and any number of weeds that aren’t paid to blossom but do so to join the riot of color.

The weather this weekend sounds pretty nice, so get out those garden tools, but leave time to wander over to a beach and enjoy the views of calm water and the early distant sailboats. Bring The New York Times or your laptop and have breakfast on the sand Sunday morning. Get on your bike, take a long walk through the ’hood and chat with neighbors you haven’t seen in months. No, they weren’t away for the winter, they were just hibernating in their homes.

If you wish, write and tell us what your particular rituals are for welcoming the season. In the meantime, let’s celebrate: Oh, Happy Spring!

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By Daniel Dunaief

What Hillary Clinton needs is a slogan. Now that she’s declared that she is, indeed, running for president, she needs to let the world know what she’s all about.

The problem is she’s spent the last quarter of a century in the public eye. How can someone who lost the presidential primary in 2008, whose husband’s peccadilloes provided endless fodder for the late-night TV hosts and whose every move, comment or speech let us know who she is and what she’s all about?

I have a few suggestions:

• “Campaign Clinton IV”: The first two were about Bill, the third one was a dress rehearsal and the fourth time is the real thing.
• “She’s nicer than you think”: That’s not hard to imagine. She doesn’t exactly come across as warm, fuzzy and relatable. She has the opposite public persona of her husband, whose charm and hospitality play so well on TV.
• “25 years in the making”: A woman who has written two autobiographies and who was the first lady for eight years may finally make it out of the primaries.
• “Long day’s journey into the White House”: Borrowing from Eugene O’Neill, Clinton has gone through many dramas, subplots and struggles on her way to running for the most important job in the land.
• “About Time”: Did you see that charming movie with this title with Rachel McAdams? This slogan could suggest it’s about time a woman became president. Then again, maybe if, like the movie, she could travel back in time, she’d change a few things.
• “Let the first family back in”: The Democrats seem to love her these days. Why not suggest that she and her biggest fan, largest supporter and No. 1 asset and liability, return to the White House together?
• “We’ll be back”: I know Arnold Schwarzenegger is a Republican, but wouldn’t it be cool if he introduced her campaign in his Austrian Terminator accent? (Or, perhaps, borrowing from “Jaws II”: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the White House again.”)
• “Interns need not apply”: OK, that’s a cheap shot.
• “The ultimate battle of the sexes”: Let’s see who runs the country better, a wife or her husband? We’ve had fathers and sons — the Adamses and the Bushes — and the Roosevelt cousins. How about we try a married couple?
• “Time for new revelations”: Every so often, it seems as if there’s a new revelation about the Clintons. Think about how many more revelations from staff members, former cooks and the U.S. Secret Service we might have if the Clintons once again occupy the White House?
• “The publishing business needs this”: Book publishing and publishing in general don’t seem to be as profitable as in the past. Bookstores are closing and small publishers are struggling to keep up with the endless space in the Internet. Surely a Clinton campaign and, possibly, a presidency would give new life to an industry that desperately needs a few more blockbuster political books before it finds the next Charles Dickens?
• “It’s time to watch late-night TV again”: “Saturday Night Live” and late-night talk show hosts must be cheering the possibility. They don’t even need to create new characters or find people who can look and act like the Clintons.
• “Grandma knows best”: Forget about her role as first lady, senator or secretary of state, who would dare argue with a grandma?

Let battle commence but it’s going to be a long, drawn-out affair. There are still 572 days to go, whatever the slogan.

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From unfunded mandates to grounds maintenance, school districts are burdened with many costs, but high energy bills don’t have to be one of them.

State Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset) recently introduced legislation that would strengthen the state’s support of alternative energy systems in school districts. All types of alternative energy systems — whether solar, wind and/or geothermal  — would be eligible for state building aid. The legislation would also remove a requirement that has the systems meet an 18-year payback window in order to receive aid. These changes make sense, as they’ll empower school districts to go green while also saving taxpayers money.

A few school districts on the North Shore have discussed installing solar panels on their building roofs, while two — Miller Place and Three Village — are moving forward with plans to install the panels. In Miller Place, the panels are expected to save the district more than half its utility budget. In Three Village, by the time the project is paid off, the district could be saving hundreds of thousands of dollars.

While we encourage other school districts to investigate how alternative energy systems could help their districts reduce costs, we also hope they’ll continue searching for ways to reduce their energy consumption. Replacing an energy source with a clean alternative is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t do anything to address a greater energy consumption problem that pervades our communities, including in our schools.

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the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will create a task force to combat the ongoing issue of homelessness in New York City subway system with similar plans underway for the Long Island Rail Road. File photo

By Dave Kapell

One of the strategies being widely discussed as a means of revitalizing the Long Island economy is the creation of transit-oriented developments, especially in downtowns served by the Long Island Rail Road. These developments are much needed and would serve multiple purposes — increasing housing options, enhancing downtown areas and providing places to live and work with easy access to and from New York City. But they are not new to Long Island. Greenport on the North Fork was a transit-oriented development in the mid-19th century and thus underscores the potential that this long-standing tradition still offers Long Island, if we can focus on mobility.

Ironically, when the LIRR’s track to Greenport was laid in 1844, it was not to provide transit access to New York City but to connect New York with Boston, because the technology did not yet exist to bridge Connecticut’s rivers. Greenport was, and still is, the terminus for the LIRR Main Line —aka the Ronkonkoma Branch — but its fundamental role at the time was to provide a transit connection to Boston by ferry. It was a two-way street for people and for commerce.

In the mid-19th century the only way to travel by train from New York City to Boston was by taking the LIRR from Brooklyn to Greenport, transferring there to a ferry to cross the Long Island Sound to Connecticut and then resuming train travel to Boston. Greenport, therefore, evolved naturally as a transit-oriented development with a thriving downtown that was created during this period with housing as well as jobs, commerce and robust population growth. That’s still a central appeal for the concept today, and it’s especially timely.

New York City is both the financial capital of the world and a powerful magnet for youth and talent. That makes it all the more important that Long Island build upon its proximity to the city by expanding transit access to its dynamic economy and the jobs it offers to Long Island residents and, as importantly, the talent pool it offers to support Long Island businesses. It’s also important to recognize that young people are much less inclined to drive cars than previous generations.

But there are two keys to maximizing that access. First, we need to make it easier to live and work near LIRR stations. The good news there is that the Long Island Index and the Regional Plan Association determined in 2010 that a total of 8,300 acres are available for infill development within a half-mile of LIRR stations and downtowns. That means that transit-oriented developments can enhance downtown areas while reducing pressure for development on Long Island’s iconic and treasured rural landscape.

Second, we must enhance the LIRR infrastructure to make reverse commuting — from New York City to Long Island — more available. On the 9.8-mile stretch of the LIRR Main Line between Floral Park and Hicksville, we’re still using the same system of two tracks that were laid in 1844 when the Island population was 50,000. Today, 171 years later, we have the same two tracks and a population of 3 million. Six LIRR branches now converge on this bottleneck, turning it into a one-way street during the peak morning rush, making reverse commuting impossible.

At present, we cannot compete successfully with other suburban areas in the metropolitan region where reverse commuting by transit is readily available. The jobs and young people that we want are, therefore, going elsewhere. It defies common sense to think that Long Island can thrive in the 21st century with this critical defect in our transit system left in place.

The solution is to expand the current LIRR system of tracks to support Long Island’s economy, just as we did in 1844 when the track to Greenport was laid. Only now, we need to add a third track — or, as some call it, a Fast Track — to relieve the bottleneck between Floral Park and Hicksville. It is strangling the Long Island economy and, according to a recent report by the Long Island Index, building the Fast Track would relieve the problem and generate 14,000 new jobs, $5.6 billion in additional gross regional product, and $3 billion in additional personal income by 2035, 10 years after its completion.

The Long Island Rail Road remains an extraordinary resource, but it needs to be thought of again as a two-way street. We also need to think beyond the auto-dependent suburban model to a future where young people, who are the workforce of that future, have the option to live on Long Island or in the city and have easy transit access to jobs in either place.

Greenport knows the value of transit-oriented development arguably as well as any community on Long Island, because ferry, bus and rail facilities continue to power its reputation as a walkable village where people can live, shop, be entertained and get to work without driving. If Long Island now seizes on this time-honored track to success, the concept may well become fundamental to the revitalization of the region’s economy as well.

Dave Kapell, a resident of Greenport, served as mayor from 1994 to 2007. He is now a consultant to the Rauch Foundation, which publishes the Long Island Index.

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By Leah Dunaief

“Woman in Gold” is based on a true story. It is also eerily similar to another true story to which I am privy.
The movie, currently playing in limited release and shortly to move into local theaters, is about an octogenarian Jewish woman who struggles to reclaim paintings looted from her family by the Nazis a half-century earlier.

Dame Helen Mirren plays Maria Altmann, an Austrian who barely escaped with her new husband before the jaws of Nazi death clamped down on Jews and dissidents following Austria’s annexation by Germany in 1938. Ultimately, they lived out their lives in Los Angeles, but much of their extended family stayed and perished in the Holocaust. Their possessions were confiscated, including five paintings by Gustav Klimt. Those paintings, including “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” became Austrian icons; but for Maria Altmann, the portrait was simply of her Aunt Adele. The loss of those paintings came to symbolize the terrible loss of her immediate family, her home and her world.

As the years went by, claims of looted property began to surface. In the 1990s, Maria Altmann tried to reclaim her family’s art through the early channels for such action in Austria. She encouraged the son of a friend, a young and struggling lawyer, to represent her. He is the grandson of one of Austria’s most famous musicians, Arnold Schoenberg. He is also an American with little emotional connection to his grandfather’s country, nor Altmann’s cause, but he was initially attracted to the fight for the potential monetary windfall. Their battles with the Austrian government continued for a decade, during which they were aided by an Austrian journalist.

In a similar story, my friend Alice was also born in Austria and lived with her parents and brother in Vienna until the Nazi annexation. Her father was a lawyer, and when warned by one of his clients that he was on the round-up list for the next morning, he managed to escape with his immediate family to the west. They, too, eventually arrived in America, having left all their possessions behind in their hasty flight. One of their pieces of art was an original drawing by Picasso. Alice and her brother, now the rightful heirs, determined to enter claim for their stolen art, especially the most valuable piece by Picasso.

Their claim dragged on through the courts for the better part of a decade, roughly at the same time as that of Maria Altmann although much less in the news. Remarkably, they too were joined in their struggle by an Austrian journalist, whose efforts ultimately helped make the claim successful.

Like Altmann and E. Randol Schoenberg, Alice and her brother, against their will, returned to Vienna for hearings. It was an emotional journey back to the streets of their childhood for them. The film does justice to Altmann’s terrible memories with repeated cuts back in time to the growing atrocities of the late 1930s.
There is another interesting parallel when the claims succeeded. In the movie, the primary Austrian antagonist asks for some sort of shared ownership from Maria Altmann. His suggestion is curtly dismissed by Mirren. As my friend Alice was handed the framed Picasso by an Austrian official, she was told sarcastically that she’d “probably just sell it for the money!” to which she replied, “And that is now none of your business.”

She did not sell it, but rather gave it a position of honor in her Washington Heights apartment. It was, for her, the tiniest satisfaction from a bitterly lost world.

Maria Altmann did sell the painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer to Ronald Lauder, Estée Lauder-heir and owner of the Neue Gallery of Austrian Art on 86th St. and Fifth Ave. in New York. She used the money to help Schoenberg establish his law practice and to help both family members and charities close to her heart.

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By Daniel Dunaief

Every defeat, rejection, or failure can be like a drop of ice water on the back of our necks. We often can’t brush those droplets away and they seep into us, weighing us down, causing our feet to shuffle and shoulders to slump.

The self-esteem bashing moments in a week, month, or year can build up, turning us into a balled-up, wet rag in the corner of a dark room.

Certainly, the sunlight and warmth of spring can dry some of that out, as the chirping of newly hatched birds, the sight of children chasing after a ball on a playground and the scent of fresh flowers can evaporate the dreaded droplets.

And yet, that’s often not enough. We sometimes need more to turn ourselves into ice-water-resistant creatures who can tackle any assignment, avoid obstacles, or remain undeterred in the face of significant opposition.

Where do we find this relief? Some get it from exercise, where they perspire out those metaphorical drops of ice water. As they push themselves along the pavement or across glistening fields, they generate momentum, release endorphins, and become like the Little Engine That Could, remembering that a healthy dose of believing in themselves works.

Others get it from talking on the phone, writing in a diary or a blog, escaping to the movies, diving into books, or sharing a laugh with friends they’ve known for years.

What we sometimes need in our lives is a catharsis. You remember that Greek word for that moment when someone releases strong emotions, obtaining relief at the same time? We learned about this some time when we were in middle or high school.

Recently, my middle school daughter received an assignment that seemed like a confusing and challenging juggling act. She finished George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” Her language arts teacher asked his students to find a song in which they saw an overlap with a theme from the book. They also had to relate that theme to their lives.

When my daughter came home from her first day of these presentations, she described in detail, how two of the four presenters broke down in tears as they shared their stories. In other classes, several students, including one of the untouchable “popular kids,” cried in front of his class as well. One of the students described his frustration with his frequent movement from one school to another as his parents’ jobs required starting over again every year or so. He looked out at the classroom, his teary eyes revealing his deep discomfort, and said he was sure no one in the room would be his friend for longer than the short time he’d be in town. He was resigned to the fact that he’d be a sad ghost someone might remember at graduation.

Another student shared the challenge of dealing with an impossible relative. This person pushed away any connection to a family she used to have, slamming the door, literally and physically, on anyone from her past who dared approach her. The disillusionment her father felt was magnified in her.

As my daughter thought of her assignment, her eyes welled up as well when she thought of the moment when something promising turned tragic. She had a spectacularly close connection with a young, vibrant first grade teacher whose life ended all too soon after a cancer diagnosis.

Even as my daughter described her feelings, I could see the small ice droplets that landed so hard on the back of her neck in elementary school, as they found an exit through her eyes. She will always remember that loss, but the catharsis more than five years later provided some relief.

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An anti-Common Core rally in Smithtown. File photo

Opting students out of state standardized tests has become a hot topic, and it’s a decision that should rest in the hands of parents, not school leaders.

Recently, Comsewogue School District officials had threatened to consider not administering the tests altogether if Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and the state education department did not acquiesce on a list of demands, one of which was to stop weighing student test scores so heavily in teacher and administrator evaluations. But the district clammed up on the measure after its attorney intervened. In addition, the NYSUT union, which represents teachers across the state, has called for a mass opt-out.

State law comes down hard on actions like this: Any school-board members or other officials like superintendents who willfully violate state education regulations — such as by refusing to administer a required assessment — risk being removed from office by the education commissioner, and state aid could be withheld from the district.

At the heart of the matter is a battle over local control of our school districts. While local officials should be consulted when it comes to shaping state education regulations and standards, there must be some degree of state standardization in education to ensure that our programs sufficiently educate kids. It’s wrong for administrators and school officials to politicize a high-emotion situation — the opt-out movement — in a way that could be detrimental to students.

In a school-sponsored, massive opt-out, the ones who face the greatest risk are the students — officials may put their jobs at stake, but the kids’ entire futures could hang in the balance if the state pulls education aid from a district that heavily relies upon it, or if otherwise competent school board members and administrators are kicked out of office.

Let us also pause to think about how adult behavior affects our kids. This paper has previously editorialized about how the commotion over the Common Core and state testing has negatively affected children — students see and hear their parents’ and teachers’ reactions, and many mimic that fear and anxiety when they otherwise would not have had such emotional reactions to tests and classes. At some point, we have to ask ourselves if this is the kind of behavior we want to teach our kids.

Calling for change is one thing, but screaming for it is another. Let’s not play politics. Above all, let’s keep cool.

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